Tag Archives: technology

Storms wreak havoc on land. We’re only beginning to understand what they do underwater.

You’ve likely heard about broad trends that scientists are certain will occur as a result of climate change: Plants and animals will be pushed out of their native habitats. Ice sheets will melt, and sea level will rise. Extreme weather events, like droughts and storms, will become more common and more severe.

But go a layer deeper and ask about the effects of those changes on the environment — on plants, animals, and ecosystems at large — and the certainty fades. “There’s been research on climate extremes for a number of years — but it’s the impact research, the impacts on the ecology, that is now catching up with that,” said Stephen Thackery.

Thackery is a lake ecologist at the U.K. Center for Ecology and Hydrology who is part of a team that published a new study in the journal Global Change Biology on the effects of extreme weather on freshwater ecosystems.* He and his colleagues combed through the last 50-plus years of peer-reviewed research to find out what is known, specifically, about how storms can alter phytoplankton communities, or algae, in lakes.

Humans rely on freshwater ecosystems in myriad ways: drinking water, fishing, recreation. Entire regional economies depend on lakes enticing tourists to their shores. A murky lake, or one overtaken by the dangerous blue-green algae cyanobacteria, threatens safety and livelihoods. If we can better predict how extreme weather will interact with lakes, local leaders can use that information to inform adaptation measures and potentially prevent ecological and economic disaster.

Unfortunately, the scientists’ search turned up few studies that could answer that question in the first place. And the reports they did find varied too much from one to the next to draw any firm conclusions.

One problem: When scientists have looked at the effects of storms on lakes, they haven’t been looking at the whole picture. Some storms bring strong winds, some bring heavy rains, others bring both. These events have direct impacts on lakes themselves, like churning up the water and altering water temperatures. But storms also have indirect effects on lake ecology by flushing sediment, fertilizer, and other pollutants from the entire watershed into them. “Lakes are like bowls catching everything that happens within the watershed,” said Jason Stockwell, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Vermont who led the project.

In the study, Stockwell and his colleagues propose a framework that takes both the direct and indirect effects into account. They’re hoping that future researchers adopt that approach instead of isolating and studying one interaction, like how wind on the lake’s surface alters phytoplankton communities.

One of the reasons this kind of multivariable approach has been slow to start is that the technology to measure all of the potential effects of storms — physical, biological, and chemical — is still relatively new. Long-term lake monitoring projects tended to collect data on different aspects of the ecosystem weekly or monthly, not nearly often enough to catch what’s happening in the water during and immediately after a storm hits. Without that resolution in the data, it’s hard to separate whether an observation can be attributed to a storm or is due to some other factor, like a seasonal shift.

There’s evidence that researchers are already shifting their methodologies to address this gap. Stockwell’s colleagues at the University of Vermont are engaged in a long-term research project called Basin Resilience to Extreme Events, or BREE. They are taking that holistic, watershed-scale approach to study the relationship between extreme weather — including storms, heat waves, cold snaps, and droughts — and harmful algal blooms in Lake Champlain, which runs along Vermont’s western border with New York.

BREE actually takes the framework put forth by Stockwell and team one step further, integrating policy and governance into its assessment model. “I can imagine a future state where we can send out a broadcast to recommend farmers don’t spread fertilizer or manure for the next week because we’re expecting heavy precipitation,” said Chris Koliba, a professor of community development and applied economics at the university who is affiliated with BREE. “That’s what this kind of work is starting to reveal.”

Stockwell said that over the past decade or so research on storms has already picked up in other fields, like land ecology, and that aquatic ecologists are starting to catch up. Now that he’s seen how little has been established, Stockwell’s next project is working on trying to determine what a “normal” seasonal trajectory is for phytoplankton communities so that when a storm passes through, he and other researchers will have a better understanding of whether shifts in the communities are due to the storm or are part of a natural progression.

“In freshwater systems, I think it’s starting to take off in a big way now,” Stockwell said “This paper is synthesizing and integrating a lot of information that I think will be a go-to resource.”

Correction: We originally wrote that the study was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. Grist regrets this error.

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Storms wreak havoc on land. We’re only beginning to understand what they do underwater.

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What if air conditioners could help save the planet instead of destroying it?

This story was originally published by Wired and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Earth’s climate is full of terrifying feedback loops: Decreased rainfall raises the risk of wildfires, which release yet more carbon dioxide. A warming Arctic could trigger the release of long-frozen methane, which would heat the planet even faster than carbon. A lesser-known climate feedback loop, though, is likely mere feet from where you’re sitting: the air conditioner. Use of the energy-intensive appliance causes emissions that contribute to higher global temperatures, which means we’re all using AC more, producing more emissions and more warming.

But what if we could weaponize air conditioning units to help pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere instead? According to a new paper in Nature, it’s feasible. Using technology currently in development, AC units in skyscrapers and even your home could get turned into machines that not only capture CO2, but transform the stuff into a fuel for powering vehicles that are difficult to electrify, like cargo ships. The concept, called crowd oil, is still theoretical and faces many challenges. But in these desperate times, crowd oil might have a place in the fight to curb climate change.

The problem with air conditioners isn’t just that they suck up lots of energy but that they also emit heat. “When you run an air conditioning system, you don’t get anything for nothing,” says materials chemist Geoffrey Ozin of the University of Toronto, coauthor on the new paper. “If you cool something, you heat something, and that heat goes into the cities.” Their use exacerbates the heat island effect of cities — lots of concrete soaks up lots of heat, which a city releases well after the sun sets.

To retrofit an air conditioner to capture CO2 and turn it into fuel, you’d need a rather extensive overhaul of the components. Meaning, you wouldn’t just be able to ship a universal device for folks to bolt onto their units. First of all, you’d need to incorporate a filter that would absorb CO2 and water from the air. You’d also need to include an electrolyzer to strip the oxygen molecule from H2O to get H2, which you’d then combine with CO2 to get hydrocarbon fuels. “Everyone can have their own oil well, basically,” Ozin says.

The researchers’ analysis found that the Frankfurt Fair Tower in Germany (chosen by lead author Roland Dittmeyer of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, by the way, because of its landmark status in the city’s skyline), with a total volume of about 200,000 cubic meters, could capture 1.5 metric tons of CO2 per hour and produce up to 4,000 metric tons of fuel a year. By comparison, the first commercial “direct air capture” plant, built by Climeworks in Switzerland, captures 900 metric tons of CO2 per year, about 10 times less, Dittmeyer says. An apartment building with five or six units could capture 0.5 kg of CO2 an hour with this proposed system.

Theoretically, anywhere you have an air conditioner, you have a way to make synthetic fuel. “The important point is that you can convert the CO2 into a liquid product onsite, and there are pilot-scale plants that can do that,” says Dittmeyer, who is working on one with colleagues that is able to produce 10 liters (2.6 gallons) a day. They hope to multiply that output by a factor of 20 in the next two years.

For this process to be carbon neutral, though, all those souped-up air conditioners would need to be powered with renewables, because burning the synthetic fuel would also produce emissions. To address that problem, Dittmeyer proposes turning whole buildings into solar panels — placing them not just on rooftops but potentially coating facades and windows with ultrathin, largely transparent panels. “It’s like a tree — the skyscraper or house you live in produces a chemical reaction,” Dittmeyer says. “It’s like the glucose that a tree is producing.” That kind of building transformation won’t happen overnight, of course, a reminder that installing carbon scrubbers is only ever one piece of the solution.

Scaling up the technology to many buildings and cities poses yet more challenges. Among them, how to store and then collect all that accumulated fuel. The idea is for trucks to gather and transport the stuff to a facility, or in some cases when the output is greater, pipelines would be built. That means both retrofitting a whole lot of AC units (the cost of which isn’t yet clear, since the technology isn’t finalized yet), and building out an infrastructure to ferry that fuel around for use in industry.

“Carbon-neutral hydrocarbon fuels from electricity can help solve two of our biggest energy challenges: managing intermittent renewables and decarbonizing the hard-to-electrify parts of transportation and industry,” says David Keith, acting chief scientist of Carbon Engineering, which is developing much larger stand-alone devices for sucking CO2 out of the air and storing it, known as carbon capture and storage, or CCS. “While I may be biased by my work with Carbon Engineering, I am deeply skeptical about a distributed solution. Economies of scale can’t be wished away. There’s a reason we have huge wind turbines, a reason we don’t feed yard waste into all-in-one nano-scale pulp-and-paper mills.”

Any carbon capture technology also faces the sticky problem of the moral hazard. The concern is that negative emissions technologies, like what Carbon Engineering is working on, and neutral emissions approaches, like this new framework, distract from the most critical objective for fighting climate change: reducing emissions, and fast. Some would argue that all money and time must go toward developing technologies that will allow any industry or vehicle to become carbon neutral or even carbon negative.

This new framework isn’t meant to be a cure-all for climate change. After all, for it to be truly carbon neutral it’d need to run entirely on renewable energy. To that end, it would presumably encourage the development of those energy technologies. (The building-swaddling photovoltaics that Dittmeyer envisions are just becoming commercially available.) “I don’t think it would be ethically wrong to pursue this,” says environmental social scientist Selma L’Orange Seigo of ETH Zurich, who wasn’t involved in this research but has studied public perception of CCS. “It would be ethically wrong to only pursue this.”

One potential charm of this AC carbon-capture scenario, though, is that it attempts to address a common problem faced by CCS systems, which is that someone has to pay for it. That is, a business that captures and locks away its CO2 has nothing to sell. AC units that turn CO2 into fuel, though, would theoretically come with a revenue stream. “There’s definitely a market,” Seigo says. “That’s one of the big issues with CCS.”

Meanwhile, people will continue running their energy-hungry air conditioners. For sensitive populations like the elderly, access to AC during heat waves is a life or death matter: Consider that the crippling heat wave that struck Europe in August 2003 killed 35,000 people, and these sorts of events are growing more frequent and intense as the planet warms as a whole. A desert nation like Saudi Arabia, by the way, devotes a stunning 70 percent of its energy to powering AC units; in the near future, a whole lot of other places on Earth are going to feel a lot more like Saudi Arabia.

So no, carbon-capturing AC units won’t save the world on their own. But they could act as a valuable intermittent renewable as researchers figure out how to get certain industries and vehicles to go green.

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What if air conditioners could help save the planet instead of destroying it?

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Design in Nature – Adrian Bejan & J. Peder Zane


Design in Nature

How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization

Adrian Bejan & J. Peder Zane

Genre: Life Sciences

Price: $6.99

Publish Date: January 24, 2012

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC

In this groundbreaking book, Adrian Bejan takes the recurring patterns in nature—trees, tributaries, air passages, neural networks, and lightning bolts—and reveals how a single principle of physics, the Constructal Law, accounts for the evolution of these and all other designs in our world.   Everything—from biological life to inanimate systems—generates shape and structure and evolves in a sequence of ever-improving designs in order to facilitate flow. River basins, cardiovascular systems, and bolts of lightning are very efficient flow systems to move a current—of water, blood, or electricity. Likewise, the more complex architecture of animals evolve to cover greater distance per unit of useful energy, or increase their flow across the land. Such designs also appear in human organizations, like the hierarchical "flowcharts" or reporting structures in corporations and political bodies. All are governed by the same principle, known as the Constructal Law, and configure and reconfigure themselves over time to flow more efficiently. Written in an easy style that achieves clarity without sacrificing complexity, Design in Nature is a paradigm-shifting book that will fundamentally transform our understanding of the world around us.

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Design in Nature – Adrian Bejan & J. Peder Zane

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Is Organic Food Worse for the Environment?

Most of us know there are many health benefits to eating organic food. But is the farming practice all that healthy for the environment? A new study suggests organic food might have some serious consequences for the environment when compared to conventionally produced food. Here?s what it found.

Study: Organic farming comes with a ?carbon opportunity cost?

Credit: Rasica/Getty Images

Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have found organic food has a greater impact than conventionally farmed food on the environment because it requires more land use. And this results in higher carbon dioxide emissions. In organic farming, yields are typically lower for the same area of land, primarily because the farmers don?t use potent synthetic chemicals to promote growth, according to a news release on the study.

?The greater land-use in organic farming leads indirectly to higher carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to deforestation,? researcher Stefan Wirsenius says in the news release. “The world’s food production is governed by international trade, so how we farm in Sweden influences deforestation in the tropics. If we use more land for the same amount of food, we contribute indirectly to bigger deforestation elsewhere in the world.?

For instance, the researchers cite organic peas farmed in Sweden as having a 50 percent higher impact on the climate than conventionally farmed peas because of lower yields per hectare. Organic meat and dairy products also contribute to higher emissions, as they use organic feed.

The study applied a new metric ? the ?carbon opportunity cost? ? to evaluate the impact of land use on carbon dioxide emissions. ?This metric takes into account the amount of carbon that is stored in forests, and thus released as carbon dioxide as an effect of deforestation,? according to the news release. The researchers note that previous comparisons between organic and conventionally farmed food didn?t often take this impact into account, likely because scientists didn?t have an appropriate measurement like the carbon opportunity cost.

But what about the environmental benefits?

Credit: amenic181/Getty Images

While organic farming does typically take more land to produce the same yields as conventional farming, there?s much more to the story of how it influences the environment. And it?s certainly not all bad news.

Organic farming practices have the potential to improve the environment over the long term. ?It aims to produce food while establishing an ecological balance to prevent soil fertility or pest problems,? according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. ?Organic agriculture takes a proactive approach as opposed to treating problems after they emerge.?

For example, organic farming involves practices ? ?such as crop rotations, inter-cropping, symbiotic associations, cover crops, organic fertilizers and minimum tillage? ? that help to improve soil and support flora and fauna, the FAO says. These practices enhance nutrients in the soil, subsequently boosting crop yields, as well as improving biodiversity in the environment. Plus, organic agriculture works to decrease water pollution by avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. And, of course, this leads to many beneficial health effects for humans, as well.

Furthermore, many organic agricultural practices actually work to return carbon to the soil, which helps to combat climate change, according to the FAO. Plus, it reduces nonrenewable energy use by avoiding chemicals produced with high levels of fossil fuels. Still, even with its environmental benefits, more research and innovations must occur before organic farming can efficiently feed the global population without causing substantial damage through deforestation.

So what?s a consumer to do?

Credit: Rawpixel/Getty Images

The question becomes: Which type of agriculture should we support as consumers? And the answer might have more to do with which foods you eat.

One study created 500 hypothetical scenarios for feeding the world population in 2050 with the farmland we already have now (i.e., no further deforestation). It found that lower-yield organic farming could work for the world if more people adopted plant-based diets. If everyone went vegan, the study found our existing farmland would be adequate 100 percent of the time. And 94 percent of the vegetarian scenarios were a success, as well. But only 39 percent of the scenarios were successful when everyone adopted a completely organic diet (including people who consumed meat and dairy), and just 15 percent worked when everyone ate a Western-style, meat-based diet.

The researchers from the carbon opportunity cost study also alluded to food choices as being more important than weighing the climate impact of organic versus conventional. ?Replacing beef and lamb, as well as hard cheeses, with vegetable proteins such as beans, has the biggest effect,? according to the news release. Moreover, if you?re a meat- or dairy-eater, organic farming often has higher animal welfare standards (though not always), which is a concern for many people.

Still, it?s not realistic to expect the entire world to go vegan. But what we can do now is aim to purchase our food from producers that are working to better the environment. And for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, that still means buying organic. ?By opting for organic products, the consumer through his/her purchasing power promotes a less polluting agricultural system,? the FAO says. Organic farming might need to adapt some of its practices to improve yields, but its benefits for the environment are too great to ignore.

Related Stories:

Why Regenerative Agriculture is the Future of Food
7 Easy Eco-Friendly Lifestyle Changes You Can Make Today
Are Indoor Fireplaces Safe For Your Health?

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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Global warming should be called global heating, says key scientist

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This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

“Global heating” is a more accurate term than “global warming” to describe the changes taking place to the world’s climate, according to a key scientist at the U.K. Met Office.

Richard Betts, who leads the climate research arm of Britain’s meteorological monitoring organization, made the comments amid growing evidence that rising temperatures have passed the comfort zone and are now bringing increased threats to humanity.

“Global heating is technically more correct because we are talking about changes in the energy balance of the planet,” the scientist said at the U.N. climate summit in Katowice, Poland. “We should be talking about risk rather than uncertainty.”

Earlier this month, the Met Office produced a new report that showed the searing heatwave that hit the U.K. this summer — along with other parts of the northern hemisphere — was made 30 times more likely by human-caused climate change.

Betts said the shifting climate was pushing some natural processes — such as the blossoming of trees and laying of eggs — out of sync: “That’s already happening. We are also seeing higher temperatures of heatwaves. The kind of thing we saw this year will happen more often.”

“The risks are compounding all the time,” he said. “It stands to reason that the sooner we can take action, the quicker we can rein them in.”

His views were echoed by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a professor of theoretical physics and founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. He said his recent Hothouse Earth report, which was one of the most widely quoted and downloaded studies of this year, had helped to change the language used to describe the climate crisis.

“Global warming doesn’t capture the scale of destruction. Speaking of hothouse Earth is legitimate,” he said.

The scientists expressed frustration at the slow pace of action by political leaders. In signing the 2015 Paris agreement, governments around the world aimed to keep global warming to within 1.5 to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. But current commitments are far off track.

The Met Office upgraded its forecasts this week to show the planet is on track to warm by between 2.5 degrees C and 4.5 degrees C. “We have broadened out the range of possibilities,” said Betts, who is conducting a risk assessment based on the new projections. In the U.K., he said the trend was toward wetter winters with more floods, hotter summers with more droughts interspersed with increasingly intense rain.

At 3 degrees C of change, Schellnhuber said southern Spain would become part of the Sahara. Even 2 degrees C, he said, could not be guaranteed as safe.

The Paris pact was a firewall, he said: “It’s not helping us to keep the world as it is now. We’ve lost this opportunity already. It’s a firewall against climate chaos.”

Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, said “cracks” were starting to appear in the climate system that were pushing nature from being a friend that absorbs carbon dioxide to an enemy that releases carbon dioxide. These concerns are fueled by the growing intensity of forest fires, the effect of melting ice-sheets on the jet stream, and the rising risk of permafrost thaw, which would release trapped methane.

Although he stressed it might not yet have passed a tipping point, he said the warnings were getting louder. “This shift from friend to foe is no doubt a scientific nightmare. That is the biggest worry that we have,” he said. “It does terrify me. The only reason we sit here without being completely depressed is that we see we have policy measures and technology to move in the right direction.

“We need to have a diagnosis just like a patient who comes to a doctor and gets a really bad diagnosis. But if the science is right, the technology is right, and the policy is right, you can cure that very dire situation. There is no scientific suggestion that the door is shut.”

This week’s climate talks have crept forward with only small progress toward a new global rulebook, but emissions continue to rise and the planet continues to heat.

“Things are obviously proceeding very slowly,” said Betts. “As a scientist, it’s frustrating to see we’re still at the point when temperatures are going up and emissions are going up. I’ve been in this for 25 years. I hoped we’d be beyond here by now.”

Schellnhuber concurred: “I’ve worked on this for 30 years and I’ve never been as worried as I am today.”

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Global warming should be called global heating, says key scientist

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Americans have planted so much corn that it’s changing the weather

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This story was originally published by Atlas Obscura and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Corn farmers in eastern Nebraska have long claimed weather patterns are changing, but in an unexpected way.

“It’s something I’ve talked about with my dad and granddad many times,” says fifth-generation corn farmer Brandon Hunnicutt. Along with his father and brother, the 45 year old lives in the 400-person village of Giltner and grows about 2,000 acres of corn each year. From above, the area looks like a blip of homes surrounded by an expansive grid of circular fields. Though Brandon’s grandfather is retired, he takes an active interest in the business. “Contrary to what you’d think should be happening, both him and my dad swear up and down [that] droughts used to come more often and be a lot worse,” says Hunnicutt. “Considering it’s been 30 years since we had a really bad one, I’ve started kind of taking them at their word.”

This is not the only noticeable development — University of Nebraska climatologists say the growing season has gotten 10-14 days longer since 1980. Hunnicutt now waits until the first weeks of November to pilot his 40-foot-wide, dump-truck-sized combine through the farm’s widely arching, seemingly endless rows of corn — enough to cover 800 city blocks.

Though subtle, the Hunnicutts have noticed these changes and more.

“To be successful in this business, you’ve got to pay close attention to the weather,” explains Brandon. In the past 20 years, on top of the above, he’s noted a gradual decrease in 100-degree days during the summer. “That missing digit isn’t something you overlook,” he asserts with a laugh. “High temperatures create a lot of anxiety. If they go on long enough, they’ll scorch your corn and put a hurtin’ on your bottom line!”

A 2018 report issued by climate researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claims to have solved the mystery and verified farmers’ suspicions: Namely, that large-scale corn production has changed the weather.

Over the past 70 years, farmers in America’s midwestern Corn Belt have made vast leaps in production. From 1950 to 2010, annual harvests increased by more than 400 percent, jumping from 2 billion to 10 billion bushels. In addition to making the area the world’s most productive agricultural region, climate scientists at MIT say the boom has created its own weather patterns.

“We studied data from the past 30 years and found that the intensification of corn production has increased average summer rainfalls by about 35 percent and decreased [average summer] temperatures by as much as one degree Celsius,” says former MIT researcher Ross E. Alter, now a research meteorologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Alter was the lead author of a 2018 report published in the journal of the American Geophysical Union that demonstrated how land use has impacted the region’s climate more than greenhouse gas emissions. “What makes these findings so fascinating is that, while global temperatures have risen, areas like eastern Nebraska have actually cooled,” continues Alter, referring to yearly averages. “We think it’s likely heavy agriculture counteracted rising summer temperatures that might have otherwise resulted from increasing greenhouse gases.”

In other words, the human-made shift has been helpful. By increasing yields, farmers have unintentionally created weather patterns that seem to be protecting their crops and helping them grow more corn. (Of course, burning fossil fuels to plant, cultivate, harvest, process, and ship farm products has been shown to be a major contributor to rising levels of greenhouse gases.)

Though similar effects have to some degree been observed in the rice-growing regions of eastern China, the report marks the first time the effects of agriculture on regional climate change in the central U.S. have undergone comprehensive analysis. The findings document the most significant human-made regional climate shift in world history.

“On a global level, this research is important because it proves the influence of agricultural intensification is really an independent problem from greenhouse gas emissions,” explains Alter.

By comparing observed historical trends in the Corn Belt’s climate to those predicted by a variety of global simulations used by the World Climate Research Program, which coordinates climate research sponsored by various international organizations, the report showed the models were inaccurate for the region (they predicted summer temperatures would rise and rainfall would increase by just four percent). Though the WCRP models accounted for greenhouse gas emissions and other human and natural factors, they did not consider agricultural intensification.

“Our findings are a bit different from what people thought about the mechanisms of climate change,” says Alter. He believes that accurately simulating and understanding climate change at the local level will require a look at cases of agricultural intensification like Nebraska’s corn boom.

But how, specifically, has growing more corn changed the climate? Associate Nebraska State Climatologist Al Dutcher says it’s complicated.

On one hand, it has to do with what Hunnicutt and other farmers refer to as “corn sweat.” This happens when photosynthesis boosts the amount of water vapor in the air.

“When a plant’s pores, called stomata, open to allow carbon dioxide to enter, they simultaneously allow water to escape,” writes Kimberly Hickok, who covers climate change for Science Magazine and reviewed the report. Known as transpiration, the process cools the plant and surrounding air, and increases the amount of water going into the atmosphere and returning as rainfall. As Hickok notes, “the cycle may continue” as that additional rainwater evaporates back into the atmosphere and causes rainfall on other farms and towns downwind.

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Put another way: More corn means more transpiration. Which, in turn, produces slightly cooler temperatures and increased precipitation. The fact that corn is a non-native species boosts the effect.

“The predominant native vegetation in central and eastern Nebraska is grass,” explains Dutcher. Farmers have replaced the area’s vast seas of grass with more than 9 million acres of corn, which transpires at a rate 20 percent higher than indigenous grasses. “Agriculture is literally funneling moisture into the atmosphere, and all that humidity has created a kind of protective bubble against rising temperatures.”

Dutcher and Hunnicutt say growing more corn — and thus, creating more transpiration — would have been impossible without advances in farming efficiency. The introduction of high-yielding varieties, better irrigation, and soil management techniques, along with the ability to use computer sensors to closely monitor field conditions, have all contributed to soaring yields.

“One of the biggest factors is the widespread use of cover crops, crop residue management, and no-till farming methods,” writes University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources extension engineer Paul Jasa. Together, the practices have erased the need for conventional tillage, dramatically increased organic matter in the soil, reduced evaporation and runoff, and lowered summer surface temperatures. “With time, the [native clay-based] soil has become much healthier and better at retaining water,” Jasa continues. “This has made crops more resilient to traumatic weather events and, in general, much more productive.”

Hunnicutt says automated irrigation has helped boost overall production and allowed him to grow corn in pivot corners where his grandfather could not. Upward of 340 acres that formerly yielded nothing now contribute as much as 180 bushels per acre. In his tenure as a farmer, full-field yields have grown by more than 50 bushels an acre.

“I can get minute-to-minute weather predictions and tell you moisture levels anywhere in our fields just by glancing at my phone,” says Hunnicutt. “In the 1950s, my grandad was using a Farmers’ Almanac. Back then, if they thought the soil was too dry, they just dumped water on it. Now, I know exactly what my plants need and when to apply it.”

As might be expected, Alter’s report has a dark side. And that dark side has global implications.

“In terms of the Corn Belt, the degree of agricultural intensification we’ve seen in the last 30 years isn’t sustainable,” he says. “It’s projected to soon come to an end and may even decline.” And if that happens, the mitigating effect of agriculture will disappear, and global temperatures will rise even faster.

Though studies have yet to be conducted around the world, Alter says that areas that have experienced substantial agricultural intensification have likely experienced similar benefits: more rainfall and cooler average temperatures during the summers. Like Nebraska, the effects have probably masked negative changes and will eventually be overwhelmed.

“I know some of the anti-climate change folks will probably poo-poo this, but it’s something my family takes very seriously,” says Hunnicutt. “We’ve been in this business for five generations, and I hope to see my children and grandchildren carry on that tradition. We’re doing everything we can to reduce fuel consumption and increase efficiency. Our hope is these [mitigatory effects] will give us enough of a window to make adjustments and prepare for what’s coming.”

In the meantime, he hopes the world gets its act together and curbs emissions before it’s too late.

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Americans have planted so much corn that it’s changing the weather

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Trump administration’s climate report raises new questions about nuclear energy’s future

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This story was originally published by the HuffPost and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Call it the nuclear power industry’s thirst trap.

The United States’ aging fleet of nuclear reactors ― responsible for one-fifth of the country’s electricity and most of its low-carbon power ― has never been more necessary as policymakers scramble to shrink planet-warming emissions. Yet the plants are struggling to stay afloat, with six stations shut down in the last five years and an additional 16 reactors scheduled to close over the next decade. So far, new coal- and gas-burning facilities are replacing them.

The nuclear industry blames high maintenance costs, competition from cheaper alternatives and hostile regulators concerned about radiation disasters like the 2012 Fukushima meltdown in Japan. But the country’s most water-intensive source of electricity faces what could be an even bigger problem as climate change increases the risk of drought and taxes already crumbling water infrastructure.

That finding, highlighted in the landmark climate change report that the Trump administration released with apparent reluctance last Friday, illustrates the complex and at times paradoxical realities of anthropogenic, or human-caused, warming. It also stokes an already hot debate over the role nuclear energy should play in fighting global warming, a month after United Nations scientists warned that carbon dioxide emissions must be halved in the next 12 years to avoid cataclysmic climate change leading to at least $54 trillion in damage.

The report ― the second installment of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated update on the causes and effects of anthropogenic warming from 13 federal agencies ― devoted its entire third chapter to water contamination and depletion. Aging, deteriorating infrastructure means “water systems face considerable risk even without anticipated future climate changes,” the report states. But warming-linked droughts and drastic changes in seasonal precipitation “will add to the stress on water supplies and adversely impact water supply.”

Nearly every sector of the economy is susceptible to water system changes. And utilities are particularly at risk. In the fourth chapter, the report’s roughly 300 authors conclude, “Most U.S. power plants … rely on a steady supply of water for cooling, and operations are expected to be affected by changes in water availability and temperature increases.”

For nuclear plants, that warning is particularly grave. Reactors require 720 gallons of water per megawatt-hour of electricity they produce, according to data from the National Energy Technology Laboratory in West Virginia cited in 2012 by the magazine New Scientist. That compares with the roughly 500 gallons coal requires and 190 gallons natural gas needs to produce the same amount of electricity. Solar plants, by contrast, use approximately 20 gallons per megawatt-hour, mostly for cleaning equipment, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.

Nuclear plants are already vulnerable to drought. Federal regulations require plants to shut down if water in the river or lake that feeds its cooling drops below a certain level. By the end of the 2012 North American heat wave, nuclear generation fell to its lowest point in a decade, with plants operating at only 93 percent of capacity.

The availability of water is one problem, particularly for the majority of U.S. nuclear plants located far from the coasts and dependent on freshwater. Another is the temperature of the water that’s available.

Nearly half the nuclear plants in the U.S. use once-through cooling systems, meaning they draw water from a local source, cool their reactors, then discharge the warmed water into another part of the river, lake, aquifer, or ocean. Environmental regulations bar plants from releasing used water back into nature above certain temperatures. In recent years, regulators in states like New York and California rejected plant operators’ requests to pull more water from local rivers, essentially mandating the installation of costly closed-loop systems that cool and reuse cooling water.

In 2012, Connecticut’s lone nuclear power plant shut down one of its two units because the seawater used to cool the plant was too warm. The heat wave that struck Europe this summer forced utilities to scale back electricity production at nuclear plants in Finland, Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland. In France, the utility EDF shut down four reactors in one day.

“Already they’re having trouble competing against natural gas and renewable energy,” said John Rogers, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Add onto that high water temperatures, high air temperatures and drought. It’s just another challenge.”

But water has yet to pose an existential crisis. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that it considers climate change when reviewing applications for nuclear plants’ construction or operation permits and that it has never rejected one over concerns about dwindling cooling water resources.

“For plants on lakes and rivers, the basic consideration will continue to be whether or not the water level in that body is high enough to meet the conditions of the license,” said Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “To this point, there have been no indications in the NRC’s analyses to suggest that plants would have to deal with the potential for the water bodies to no longer be able to fulfill their function.”

If or when that situation arises, a plant would have to propose a plan to maintain the requirements of the license, likely by reducing water intake and cutting electricity production, he said.

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There are ways to make nuclear plants more efficient with water. Closed-loop systems already cool 40 percent of the country’s reactors. For more than a decade, regulators and industry players have been discussing the feasibility of air-cooled condensers, which use electricity generated by the plant to power air conditioners that cool reactors without water. But the technology siphons roughly 7 percent of the power produced by the plant and has yet to be installed at any U.S. nuclear station, according to the industry-funded Nuclear Energy Institute.

Another approach is to use recycled water. To cool its three reactors, the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona sources most of the 20,000 gallons it uses per minute from reclaimed sewage from a treatment plant near Phoenix — a technique hailed in 2016 as “a feat of engineering” amid a drought.

Breakthroughs like that could make nuclear an attractive option for powering solutions to water scarcity in the years to come, such as desalinating brackish or saltwater and moving it to drought-parched regions.

“That’s energy intensive,” said Matt Wald, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute. “If you want to do that without adding carbon emissions, you’re likely to look at nuclear power as a way to do that.”

That, however, gets to the heart of the biggest question looming over the nuclear industry: Is it, given the radioactive waste it produces, clean energy?

For the growing number of states and municipalities pledging to use 100 percent renewable energy by the middle of the century, the answer is maybe.

Hawaii became the first state to adopt a 100 percent renewable electricity rule in 2015, pledging to quit gas and coal by 2045. The law makes no mention of nuclear, probably because the archipelago state has no reactors and requires a minimum two-thirds vote from both houses of the legislature to approve the construction of a nuclear plant or radioactive waste site.

The 100 percent clean electricity bill that California passed in August mandates that the state generate 60 percent of its electricity from renewables like wind and solar by 2030. But it gives regulators another 15 years after that to complete the overhaul with energy sources considered nonrenewable, including nuclear power, large hydropower dams, and gas-fired power plants that capture and store emissions.

statute that Atlanta passed in June to get the city to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 is vague, listing nuclear as a source of clean energy but vowing to get all its power from renewables.

For the Sierra Club, the environmental giant making a huge push to get cities and states to go all renewable, nuclear power is “a uniquely dangerous energy technology for humanity” and “no solution to climate change.”

“There’s no reason to keep throwing good money after bad on nuclear energy,” Lauren Lantry, a Sierra Club spokeswoman, said by email. “It’s clear that every dollar spent on nuclear is one less dollar spent on truly safe, affordable, and renewable energy sources like wind, solar, energy efficiency, battery storage, and smart grid technology.”


Trump administration’s climate report raises new questions about nuclear energy’s future

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This is the Cheapest Way to Make Filtered Water

Generally speaking, in the United States we can consume water from the tap without risking our immediate health. However, as more and more hormones, chemicals and microplastics make it?into our water systems?(note: bottled water is no better), it can be wise to look at the long-term health effects and start filtering water at home.

Enter: activated charcoal. Brita pitchers, fridge filters…most all water filters use activated charcoal as the technology of choice. Why? Well, at a base level, activated charcoal has properties that make it extremely absorbent, allowing it to bind to tiny molecules and remove them from the dissolved substance. As a water filter, activated charcoal can absorb a range of drug particles, mercury, bacteria, viruses, fungus and chemicals found in the water.

Here’s how to make your own for cheap!

There are lots of ways to make a homemade activated charcoal filter, of which this is the simplest. Simply place an entire activated charcoal stick in a glass carafe full of tap water and let it sit for 4-6 hours. Don’t use a plastic jug. If you don’t have a glass container, stainless steel will work just as well.

Charcoal sticks like these will last around 4 months or so. To maintain them, simply boil the stick in water for 10-15 minutes once a month and continue your filtering process as before. After its 4 months is up, simply compost it with your kitchen scraps or use it in the bottom of your closet as a deodorizer.

Easy peasy, lemon squeezy!

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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This is the Cheapest Way to Make Filtered Water

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Can Teddy Bears Help Fight Air Pollution in London?

When air pollution levels spike in London, new coughing teddy bears tweet at local politicians with a message about the dangers of dirty air.

Air pollution is becoming a massive global issue. Just take a look at this interactive map, and you’ll notice that a?worrisome amount of the world is in the yellow and red. The World Health Organization actually estimated that?unsafe levels of air pollution caused?seven million deaths globally?in 2012 alone. That is an astounding one out of every eight deaths for that year caused by dirty air.

The majority of the world’s most polluted cities lie in?growing?industrial nations, like India and China, but cities like London are starting to feel the devastating effects of air pollution. In fact, a lot of Londoners are gravely concerned.

“This is now a matter of life and death, and the government has one last chance to put it right,” said London’s mayor,?Sadiq Khan, last year.

Around 9,500 people die annually due to London’s poor air quality. That’s significantly more than the number of Londoners who?die?in car accidents.?What’s more,?there are?800+ schools in London that are regularly exposed to high levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air (from road traffic) that surpass the E.U.’s legal limits. Air pollution is a silent killer, and it has?grown into a health emergency.

And yet, London’s government has been slow to act. So?one company decided to start?making a blatant statement?with an animatronic teddy bear.

The bear is named Toxic Toby, and it is the brainchild of creatives at the advertising agency,?McCann London.?Toby gets strapped on the side of the road surrounded by flowers, reminiscent of?a memorial, but it’s not just a lifeless teddy bear?tied?to a post.

“The 3D-printed bear is fed real-time air quality data from a company called BreezoMeter,” Zoya Teirstein?writes?at Grist, “When pollution hits dangerous levels, Toby lifts his little paw and coughs.”

Yep, the bear coughs when the air quality is bad?very realistically (and heart-wrenchingly). It’s pretty hard to ignore as a passerby. And every time he coughs, he sends a nagging little tweet to local politicians with a message about the dangers of air pollution.

Raising awareness on the streets while pushing politicians to make change?it’s an ingenious way to make a difference. And who can ignore a sick teddy bear?

While the US has significantly better air quality than many other parts of the world, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned. Los Angeles ?is barely behind London?when it comes to terrible air. And if you live elsewhere, bad news?air pollution travels, thanks to wind. Air pollution is?everyone’s problem, no matter where you live.

Take action?by contacting your local government and demanding stronger anti-pollution action. Clean air is a human right. Maybe we need a few Toxic Tobys on our side of the Atlantic to get the message across.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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Can Teddy Bears Help Fight Air Pollution in London?

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The U.N.’s climate report has something to piss everyone off

If bikes are your thing, great. If you’re a vegan crusader, bully for you. If you’re a solar-power enthusiast, way to go.

The greenest among are often evangelists for our favorite causes. But according to the blockbuster report out this week from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it’s not enough to stick to your thing, or even to take up all of the causes environmentalists love. If we want to prevent the likely consequences of climate change — food shortages, forest fires, and mass extinctions — we’ll need to deploy the popular solutions as well as the some of the unpopular ones, the report concludes.

That means turning off coal plants and building lots of renewables, but also devoting more acres to growing biofuels. It means reducing consumption (fly less, drive less, and eat less meat) but also increasing our use of nuclear power.

The danger is so great, in other words, that the IPCC’s team of 91 scientists and policy experts suggest we consider all of the above. Whatever works. They came up with 90 different mixes of solutions that would keep warming limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but none of them work without biofuels, atomic energy, and reigning in consumerism.

Here are three unpopular ideas that the report says we’ll need to embrace, and two that are still up for debate.

The must-do list:

Less stuff: Every scenario for keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius requires reducing per capita consumption. The scenarios range from shrinking world energy demand 15 percent by 2030 to constraining it to a 17 percent increase. Either way would mean less power for anyone rich enough to read this on a computer (if poorer people get more stuff under constrained growth, it means the richer people are going to have to make some lifestyle changes).

Some of this would come from efficiency, but it would also require “behavioural changes.”

The report does offer some “high overshoot” scenarios that don’t require giving up creature comforts. But in those scenarios the world zips past the 1.5 degree mark, then reels it back in with “negative emissions.” That would rely on growing huge tracts of forest that suck up carbon before the trees are logged; then burning the wood for energy and capturing the carbon. But it might not work.

Biofuel: Every scenario laid out by the IPCC relies on ethanol, biodiesel and other biofuels to some extent, and projects an increase in farmland devoted to growing fuel. We could really use biofuels to replace jet fuel and gasoline, but it’s controversial. There are good scientists who say corn ethanol has a bigger carbon footprint than gasoline. Others say burning ethanol is already carbon negative and getting better all the time. It seems impossible to tell who is right. If you are cutting down rainforests for palm oil, that’s definitely a climate catastrophe. If you can get algae in a tank to turn sunlight to fuel, well, that’s awesome.

Nuclear power: All scenarios have nuclear providing a greater share of our electricity through 2050. Right now, nuclear power provides 11 percent of the world’s electricity. In one 1.5 degree scenario, the IPCC report has the world doubling the percentage of electricity it gets from nuclear by 2030, and quintupling it by 2050. The most “degrowthy” scenario, with dramatically decreasing energy demand, doesn’t require building new atomic plants but does require keeping the ones we have open.

Up for debate:

Carbon capture: Most scenarios to limit warming rely on fossil-fuel power plants capturing their carbon as long as they’re still running, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. There’s a bunch of plants already doing this around the world, but it’s pretty expensive. The businesses that capture carbon affordably are usually injecting the carbon into the ground in a way that squeezes out more oil for them to sell. Many environmentalists dislike carbon capture because it opens up a way for the fossil fuel industry to survive and thrive.

There’s no carbon capture required if global energy demand declines 15 percent between 2010 and 2030, but that’s looking more and more unlikely: Since 2010, energy demand has gone up, up, up.

Geoengineering: Imagine high-altitude airplanes constantly spraying reflective dust into the air to bounce sunlight back into space. Or fertilizing the ocean to allow a million carbon-sucking algal blooms. Technology to the rescue!

Except it’s all in your imagination. None of this whizbangery has been modelled enough to tell how it would affect the scenarios in this report. There’s just not enough science on geoengineering to say something substantive about it, according to the IPCC.

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The U.N.’s climate report has something to piss everyone off

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