Sunday, August 30, 2020

New research finds - global heating is melting vast northern fields of permafrost so fast that - within decades - they'll likely stop cooling the planet as they have for millennia - and start doing just the opposite.

by Larry Powell
Permafrost Slide at Big Fox Lake, Ontario, Canada - 2015.
A Creative Commons photo by MIKOFOX. 

For thousands of years, so-called "permafrost peatlands" in Earth's Northern Hemisphere have been cooling the global climate. They’ve done it by trapping large amounts of carbon and nitrogen which would otherwise escape into the air as harmful greenhouse gases. 

More recently however, scientists have observed, they've been melting due to manmade global heating. As they melt, they're releasing large amounts of substances like methane - a potent greenhouse gas - into the air. 

But, without proper maps, it's been hard for scientists to get a handle on the degree to which this might be happening - until now. New ones drawn up using thousands of field observations, show; Permafrost peatlands cover a vast area of almost four million square kilometres.

And, to quote from the study, "Under future global warming scenarios, half to nearly all of peatland permafrost could be lost this century.” 

This means their age-old role, mostly as net “sinks,” keeping harmful greenhouse gases in the ground, would transform to a net source of atmospheric carbon, primarily methane.

A permafrost "slump" in Alaska. A USGS photo.

The research concludes that, “Although northern peatlands are currently a source of global cooling, permafrost thaw attributable to anthropogenic climate warming may convert peatlands into a net source of warming."

The findings were published recently in PNAS, the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US). 

But the impact of the nitrogen trapped in these fields cannot be underestimated, either. A separate study, also published in PNAS about three years ago, reveals, "Some 67 billion tons of it, accumulated thousands of years ago, could now become available for decomposition, leading to the release of nitrous oxide (N2O) to the atmosphere. N2O is a strong greenhouse gas, almost 300 times more powerful than CO2 for warming the climate. Although carbon dynamics in the Arctic are well studied, the fact that Arctic soils store enormous amounts of nitrogen has received little attention so far. We report that the Arctic may become a substantial source of N2O when the permafrost thaws, and that N2O emissions could occur from surfaces covering almost one-fourth of the entire Arctic."


Thursday, August 27, 2020

Damage from whopper hurricanes rising for many reasons

Hurricane Laura in Lake Charles, Louisiana - Tornado Trackers
          A destructive storm is rising from warm waters. Again. Story here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

There is at least 10 times more plastic in the Atlantic than previously thought

Science News 

"Seal trapped in plastic pollution" by tedxgp2 

Scientists measured 12-21 million tons of three of the most common types of plastic in the top 200 meters of the Atlantic. By assuming the concentration of plastic in the whole Atlantic is the same as that measured at 200 meters deep, the scientists estimated there is around 200 million tons of three of the most common types of plastic alone. Compare this to the previously estimated figure of 17 million. 

Details here.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Why deforestation and extinctions make pandemics more likely

A public domain image.

As humans diminish biodiversity by cutting down forests and building more infrastructure, they’re increasing the risk of disease pandemics such as COVID-19. Many ecologists have long suspected this, but a new study helps to reveal why: while some species are going extinct, those that tend to survive and thrive — rats and bats, for instance — are more likely to host potentially dangerous pathogens that can then jump to humans. Details here.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Agriculture replaces fossil fuels as largest human source of sulfur to the environment

A PinP photo.
Historically, coal-fired power plants were the largest source of reactive sulfur, a component of acid rain, to the biosphere. A new study shows that fertilizer and pesticide applications to croplands are now the most important source of sulfur to the environment. Details here.

Is Manitoba's Brokenhead River about to become a dumping ground for an Alberta-based sand-mining company?

by Don Sullivan
Kayakers on the Brokenhead River. A Wikimedia photo.

The Brokenhead River begins in the wetlands of Sandilands Provincial Forest, located in Southeastern Manitoba. It ultimately drains 200 kilometres later into Lake Winnipeg. Most of the river is navigable by canoe or kayak.

This meandering river is now under threat.

It might very well become a toxic dumping ground for CanWhite Sands Corp (CWS) of Alberta. Last month, CWS  filed a proposal under Manitoba's Environment Act, for approval to construct a silica sand processing facility near Vivian in Southeastern Manitoba. The closing date for commenting on this proposal is August 25th, 2020.  If you have concerns, you have between now and then to express them, here. 

Once the processing facility receives government approval, CWS intends to submit a second application. This would be for both the mine, where the sand will be obtained and for the methods the company will use to extract it. The splitting of a single proposed project into two separate ones in this way, probably makes approval a foregone conclusion.

CWS indicates that 15 percent of what it will extract (from 200 feet below the surface in the Winnipeg Formation aquifer), will be sand and shale. That means that 85 percent, will be water (a fact conveniently ignored in the company application). Simple math shows, in order to produce its intended target of 1.36 million tonnes of sand per year, CWS will also need to extract 7.7.million cubic meters of water annually.

This will surely pose a serious problem for the people of Southeastern Manitoba who rely on this aquifer for their drinking water. Why? Because this much water coming out of the aquifer annually will certainly inhibit the ability of this aquifer to recharge itself.

Since the average Canadian uses 329 litres of water a day, again math shows the amount required by the company would serve a city much larger than Brandon each year.

The sand and water will be sucked up to the surface through hundreds of boreholes a  year. Only a fraction of it will be needed to process the sand in the wet plant. The bulk of it, likely more than six million cubic meters, will likely be dumped into the Brokenhead. It will contain high levels of heavy metals, chromium, arsenic, neurotoxins. It will also be acidic, as pyrite in the shale will cause acids to drain into the river. Of course CWS never mentions any of this in its application. That would apparently be too transparent for them and even raise a number of alarm bells.

The release of deleterious substances into the river would be a clear violation of the Federal Fisheries Act and threaten aquatic life there - life such as the rare Chestnut Lamprey eel. It's a species at risk, still surviving in the Brokenhead. It would almost certainly be impacted.

The river runs through the Brokenhead First Nation, which, to my knowledge, has never been consulted on the impacts of this project on their Treaty Rights.

"What The Frack Manitoba" is therefore calling on the appropriate authorities to do the following;

Request that the Province of Manitoba suspend its approval process until such a time that the appropriate federal authorities have the required information from CWS to determine the extent of the adverse impacts of the proposed development project will have with respect to federal jurisdiction. And that the proponent (CWS) submit information not only for its proposed silica sand processing facility but also its silica sand mine and mining method, to be reviewed as one project via a panel review process, to determine the extent of the adverse impacts with respect to federal jurisdiction.

Determine if the federal Impact Assessment Act (IAA) is applicable, and if not, that the appropriate federal Minister and or federal authority use the discretionary powers under the IAA to designate this proposed development an IAA Project for the purpose of applying the provisions contained in IAA.

Request that the Crown (Federal/Provincial as they are not divisible) undertake a Section 35 consultation process with Brokenhead First Nation to determine what if any adverse impacts of this proposed project will have with respect to Brokenhead First Nation Section 35 Rights prior to any environmental approval of said propose development project occurs.

Don Sullivan is the spokesperson for What The Frack Manitoba, is the former director of the Boreal Forest Network and served as special adviser to the government of Manitoba on the Pimachiowin Aki UNESCO World Heritage site portfolio. He is a research affiliate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and a Queen Golden Jubilee medal recipient.

Don Sullivan (above) is the spokesperson for What The Frack Manitoba, the former director of the Boreal Forest Network and special adviser to the government of Manitoba on the Pimachiowin Aki UNESCO World Heritage site. He's a research affiliate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and a Queen Golden Jubilee medal recipient.


Silica dust produces a distinctive reaction in the lung that eventually leads to the development of masses of fibrous tissue and distinctive nodules of dense fibrosis, which, by contracting, distort and damage the lung. Silicosis is a hazard in any occupation in which workers are exposed to silica dust, particularly rock drilling above or below ground, quarrying, or grinding with a wheel containing silica. Cases have also been reported in dental technicians, who use the material ground into a fine powder.

‘This is sacred’: the fight against a massive frac sand mine in Manitoba.

Popular insecticides harm birds in the United States

Nature Sustainability

The increased use of neonicotinoid pesticides in the continental United States may have impacted bird populations and reduced bird diversity, according to a paper published this week in Nature Sustainability. 
Overall tree swallow populations declined by 49% between 1966 and 2014, according 
to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. A PinP photo.

Bird biodiversity is declining at a marked rate. Bird populations in the United States have decreased by 29% since 1970, which has been attributed to various factors including the increased use of pesticides in agricultural production. Nicotine-based pesticides — known as neonicotinoids — have been used increasingly in the United States over recent decades.  Previous research has shown that neonicotinoids are potentially toxic to birds and other non-target species. However, the impact of these pesticides on bird diversity in the United States is unclear. 

Madhu Khanna and colleagues studied the effects of neonicotinoids on birds in the United States from 2008–2014. They analysed data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey to identify county-level changes for four different bird species groups — grassland birds, non-grassland birds, insectivorous birds and non-insectivorous birds — and combined this with county-level data on pesticide use. 

The authors found that an increase of 100 kg in neonicotinoid usage per county, a 12% increase on average, contributes to a 2.2% decline in populations of grassland birds and 1.6% in insectivorous birds.  By comparison, the use of 100 kg of non-neonicotinoid pesticides was associated with a 0.05% decrease in grassland birds and a 0.03% decline in non-grassland birds, insectivorous birds and non-insectivorous birds. Since impacts accumulate, the authors also estimate that, for example, 100 kg neonicotinoid use per county in 2008 reduced cumulative grassland-bird populations by 9.7% by 2014. These findings suggest that neonicotinoid use has a relatively large effect on population declines of important birds and that these impacts grow over time. The authors also found that the adverse impacts on bird populations were concentrated in the Midwest, Southern California and Northern Great Plains.


Sunday, August 9, 2020

Agrochemicals speed the spread of deadly parasites

The schistosoma parasite worm. Image credit -
David Williams, Illinois State University.

Even low concentrations of pesticides can increase transmission and weaken efforts to control the second most common parasitic disease. Details here.

Global death rate from rising temperatures projected to surpass the current death rate of all infectious diseases combined

The Climate Impact Lab
A PinP photo.

This summer, the world is experiencing record hot temperatures: A weather station in Death Valley, California, clocked one of the hottest temperatures ever observed on Earth. Simultaneously, the coronavirus pandemic’s devastating mortality impact and economic fallout are demanding society prioritize public health like never before. Details here.

Theoretical physicists say 90% chance of societal collapse within several decades

This photo shows a logging train on the CP Rail mainline in British Columbia, Canada. It depicts man's assault on Earth's forests as it was happening one hundred years ago, in 1920. Photo credit - UBC Library Digitization Centre.

Deforestation and rampant resource use is likely to trigger the 'irreversible collapse' of human civilization unless we rapidly change course. Details here.

Friday, August 7, 2020

‘Negligible’ long-term impacts on climate from COVID-19 restrictions

Nature Climate Change
Empty streets during the Covid shutdown in Zaragoza City, Spain, Mar. 2020.
A Wikimedia photo.

The decline in greenhouse-gas emissions and air pollutants, as a result of policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19, will have a negligible impact on long-term warming and may lead to cooling of just 0.005–0.01 °C by 2030, suggests a paper in Nature Climate Change. However, the findings also suggest that if a ‘green recovery’ is pursued, warming could possibly be kept within the 1.5 °C limit above pre-industrial levels by 2050.

The enforcement of policies to limit the spread of COVID-19 has had a significant impact on travel and work. This lack of mobility has led to substantial declines in greenhouse-gas emissions and air pollutants. Previous research has examined the immediate impacts of COVID-19 policies on emissions; however, the long-term impacts of these policies are not well understood.

Piers Forster and colleagues analysed mobility data from 123 countries to estimate emission changes due to the COVID-19 restrictions from February to June 2020. Their analysis suggests that the reductions in emissions are likely to have peaked in April 2020. The authors suggest that nitrogen oxides (NOx) declined by 30% in April, which contributed to short-term cooling. However, this was offset by a 20% decline in sulfur dioxide (SO2), which weakened the aerosol cooling affect and contributed to short-term warming. They use these estimates to project future changes and compare them to a baseline scenario of current national policies. They found that these short-term effects end by 2025, leaving a longer term slight cooling of 0.01 °C from reduced atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide compared to concentrations under baseline policies.

To assess the longer-term impacts, the authors modelled four recovery scenarios, including a fossil fuel-based recovery and green stimulus packages. They suggest that the different scenarios have a minimal impact on the 2020–2030 climate response, but that differences emerge after 2030. They find that the two-year ‘blip pathway’, where the economic recovery maintains current investment levels, and a recovery with fossil fuel stimulus are likely to result in warming of over 1.5 °C [NOT: 2 °C] by 2050. Conversely, choosing a strong green recovery that includes low-carbon energy supply as well as energy efficiency and does not support bailouts for fossil firms could limit warming by 0.3 °C and keep warming within 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.

The authors highlight that economic recovery choices will affect the warming trajectory by the mid-century and argue that a green recovery is important for ensuring the goals of the Paris Agreement are met.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Climate change: Frequency of extreme droughts across Europe predicted to rise

Nature Research
Photo "drought" by bartoszjanusz is licensed under CC0 1.0

The frequency of record-breaking two-year droughts, such as the 2018–2019 Central European drought, is expected to rise by the end of the century if projected greenhouse gas emissions aren't reduced, according to a study published in Scientific Reports.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Measuring ecosystem disruption caused by marine heatwaves


Above, healthy bull kelp.
Below, bull kelp degraded by
a marine heatwave. DeWikiMan
Marine heatwaves can displace thermal habitats by tens to thousands of kilometres, reports a study in Nature this week. This displacement represents the distance that an organism would have to travel to escape potentially stressful temperatures. The findings open new avenues of research to understand the potential impacts of anomalously warm ocean temperatures on marine species.

Marine heatwaves are distinct periods of unusually warm ocean temperatures that can cause dramatic changes to ocean ecosystems, as inhabitants find themselves in waters that are warmer than they are accustomed to. Much of the research into these events focuses on the local impact to species such as corals, but does not take into account mobile organisms (fish, for example) that can travel to find their preferred conditions.

To understand how species may have to redistribute under marine heatwave conditions, Michael Jacox and colleagues analyse thermal displacements associated with marine heat waves using data from 1982 to 2019. They calculate the minimum distance that a species would have to travel away from a marine heatwave to reach a habitat at their preferred temperature. This displacement varied substantially: in the tropics, where temperature gradients are small, the thermal displacement could exceed 2,000 km; in regions with sharp gradients, such as western boundary currents, displacement might be only a few tens of kilometres.

The authors note that the short-term displacement of thermal habitats is comparable to shifts associated with long-term warming trends, and may have the potential to drive rapid redistributions of marine species.

Zoonotic disease risk linked to human land use management

Cattle in the Amazon. An Adobe photo.
Human-managed ecosystems harbour more hosts of zoonotic disease than undisturbed habitats, a Nature study reveals. The research highlights the need for enhanced surveillance of agricultural, pastoral and urbanizing ecosystems, and to consider the disease-related health costs associated with land use and conservation planning.

Zoonotic diseases, such as Ebola, Lassa fever and Lyme disease, are caused by pathogens that spread from animals to people. It is widely accepted that land use change — for example, the conversion of natural habitats to agricultural land or cities — influences the risk and emergence of zoonotic diseases in humans, but whether this is underpinned by predictable ecological changes has been unclear.

Kate Jones and colleagues analysed 6,801 ecological systems and 376 host species worldwide to show that land use has global and systematic effects on local zoonotic host communities. There are more species and greater numbers of known zoonotic hosts in human-managed ecosystems than in nearby undisturbed habitats.

The effect is strongest for rodent, bat and passerine bird species, which may help to explain their prevalence as zoonotic disease hosts. As the world continues to deal with the current zoonotic COVID-19 pandemic, the authors caution that global land use change is creating increasing opportunities for contact between people and potential hosts of human disease.

Diesel vehicles in oil sands operations contribute to regional pollution

EurekAlert Wildfires, cigarette smoking and vehicles all emit a potentially harmful compound called isocyanic acid. The substance has been l...