The yellow and brown on this map of the western Canadian coast represent high concentrations of chlorophyll.
A California businessman lobbed 110 tons of iron into the ocean off the western coast of Canada this July, The Guardian revealed on Monday, and he did it in violation of two international moratoria on such activity. Russ George wanted to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton to sell carbon credits for the carbon dioxide that the tiny photosynthesizing organisms would take out of the atmosphere. Satellite images from August (above) showed that about 10,000 square kilometers of ocean greenery had already grown.
Even ignoring the wildfires and drought this season, the sweltering heat itself is proclaiming this an intense summer. And unusually hot summers are becoming not so unusual, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers averaged the summer and winter temperatures for multiple locations across the globe during the years from 1951 to 1980, establishing a baseline for each season. Then they measured how much the temperature varied from this average over the years. They found an increasing number of anomalies in the past 30 years. We no longer have equal odds of the summer temperatures being unusually hot, or unusually cool. Instead, as the researchers phrase it, we are dealing with loaded dice: we are now much more likely to have a hot summer than an average or cool one. And hot temperatures have become both more frequent and more intense. In the time period from which the researchers drew their average, less than one percent of land on Earth suffered from extreme hotter-than-usual temperatures (more than three standard deviations above the average) at any one time. Now, these temperature hotspots cover 10 percent of the land.
Have you noticed that it’s been hotter than usual lately? Your answer might reveal your ideology.
Now, it’s old news that American acceptance of global climate change is closely linked to political affiliation: As of 2011, 77 percent of Democrats thought the Earth was getting warmer, but only 43 percent of Republicans agreed. We also already knew that when it gets hotter, more people of both affiliations say the Earth is warming.
But it isn’t necessarily a one-way street. A new study flips it around: Researchers have found that ideology can skew how people perceive local temperature trends. In other words, your answer to “Has it been hotter lately?” can reveal whether you’re an individualist or more community oriented.
As the summer heats up, air conditioners are being cranked to full blast. Once upon a time—that is, until the 1980s—the coolant gasses in these machines, which leaked into the atmosphere after units were junked, were a major threat to the ozone layer. Now manufacturers have replaced them with ozone-friendly versions. But the new coolants are still potent greenhouse gasses.
The manmade changes pushing the planet toward a critical transition
Nature changes gradually—until it doesn’t. As the changes in an ecosystem pile up, they can push the system past a “critical threshold,” and then the change can become extremely fast (in relation to geological timescales) and unstoppable. And in a review in the journal Nature, researchers suggest that the same thing is happening to the whole world: Humans could be driving Earth’s biosphere towards a tipping point beyond which the planet’s ecosystems will collapse abruptly and irreversibly.
This global ecosystem collapse has occurred before, most recently about 12,000 years ago with the last transition from a glacial period to the current interglacial (i.e., warm) period, say the review authors. Over the relatively short period of 1,000 years, fluctuations in the Earth’s climate largely killed off about half the large mammal species, along with birds, reptiles, and a few smaller mammal species. The millennium-long shift was triggered by rapid global warming, and once this warming pushed the planet past its tipping point, the end of the 100,000-year-old ice age became inevitable, giving way to the current 11,000-year-old interglacial era.
Melting polar ice has a worrisome list of consequences—methane gas release, rising sea levels, and the liberation of long frozen 750,000-year-old microbes. While melting glaciers probably aren’t going to turn into Jurassic Park, scientists are understandably concerned how they might affect the environment. Scientific American has a new feature on the impact of these liberated microbes on ocean life:
More likely is [the] prospect that thawing ice sheets will allow ancient microbial genes to mix with modern ones, flooding the oceans with never-before-seen types of organisms. Rogers [an evolutionary biology] believes this is already taking place. “What we think is happening is that things are melting out all the time and you’re getting mixing of these old and new genotypes,” he said.
A news report from the first week of the leak.
Since March 25, the Elgin gas platform off the coast of Scotland has been leaking 7 million cubic feet of gas a day. The natural gas, mostly methane, doesn’t have the dark stain of oil and it hasn’t inspired the news coverage of Deepwater Horizon. But that doesn’t mean it can be ignored.
Like carbon dioxide, methane is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. But methane is much worse: the same amount of methane will have 25 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. In the six months that it will take to stop the leak, enough methane would have escaped into the atmosphere to equal the annual global warning impact as 300,000 new cars, according to a recent TIME article.
The Elgin gas leakage is an extreme example of how natural gas exploration and processing is always beset by leaks. After all, the stuff is gas that wants to float away. The TIME piece dissects a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences evaluating whether natural gas really is more environmentally friendly than coal. Their answer? It depends, and it partially depends on leaks. Read More
There’s a lot going on in Arctic permafrost as it melts and soil bacteria become more active. A new study explores how these bacteria may help or hinder our efforts to control the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
What’s the News: Melting permafrost in a warming world could mean lots of greenhouses gasses, especially methane, released into the atmosphere. But it also means an unusual community of soil bacteria coming out of hibernation, so to speak. A new study looks at what those permafrost microbes do, exactly, as their environment warms up.
A new study published in the Journal of Climate claims that painting rooftops white—a method championed by energy secretary Steven Chu and others to combat climate change—only minimally reduces local cooling, and actually causes a slight increase in overall global warming.
What’s the News: Two hundred million years ago, half of the Earth’s species vanished in the blink of a geological eye, clearing the way for rise of the dinosaurs in the Jurassic. The cause of that mass extinction, a new study suggests, may have been gigatons of methane released from the sea floor after a slight rise in the earth’s temperature, triggering much greater warming. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because scientists are worried the same thing will happen today.