Ghana, Scaling New Solutions For Plastic Re-Use

An engineer inspects paving blocks made from recycled plastics in a suburb of Accra, Ghana. CRISTINA ALDEHUELA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In our Authentica shops we offer some artisanal approaches to plastic re-use, and have been fans of the concept since a visit to Ghana in 2013. But the plastic problem will not be solved this way because the level of re-use it is not at scale with the amount of plastic needing re-use. Thanks to Ann Parson fo showing a new potential demonstrated in Ghana more recently:

How Paving with Plastic Could Make a Dent in the Global Waste Problem

Roads in which waste plastic is melted down and mixed with paving materials are becoming more common around the world. Although for now they remain a niche technology, experts say the roads could become one of a diverse array of uses for discarded plastic.

A road running through Accra, Ghana’s capital, looks like any other blacktop. Continue reading

New Questions For Old Hills

Scenic beauty spot or potential hydropower storage facility? The Dovedale national nature reserve in the Peak District. Photograph: dianajarvisphotography.co.uk/Alamy

Thanks to the Guardian for giving us a different view on one possible part of a solution to the problem posed in yesterday’s post:

Powering up: UK hills could be used as energy ‘batteries’

Engineers explore using gentle slopes rather than steep dams or mountains to store electricity

Hundreds of hills across the UK could be transformed into renewable energy “batteries” through a pioneering hydropower system embedded underground.

Guardian graphic. Source: RheEnergise

A team of engineers have developed a system that adapts one of the oldest forms of energy storage, hydropower, to store and release electricity from gentle slopes rather than requiring steep dam walls and mountains. Continue reading

The Puzzling Fate Of Aging Dams

Engineers have found cracks in the 420-foot-high Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River in Southern Africa. DMITRIY KANDINSKIY/SHUTTERSTOCK

When we lived through the cross-border tensions that were dam-driven we thought cooler heads would eventually prevail. But, it has proven not so easy. And who knew there were 10,000 such puzzles out there? Thanks to Fred Pearce, as always for raising our awareness:

Water Warning: The Looming Threat of the World’s Aging Dams

Tens of thousands of large dams across the globe are reaching the end of their expected lifespans, leading to a dramatic rise in failures and collapses, a new UN study finds. These deteriorating structures pose a serious threat to hundreds of millions of people living downstream.

Who would want to live downstream of the 125-year-old Mullaperiyar Dam, nestled in a seismic zone of the Western Ghats mountains in India? Continue reading

Making A Better Carbon Chain

Animation by Megan McGrew/PBS Newshour

Thanks to Isabella Isaacs-Thomas and PBS Newshour for a look at our carbon chain through the lens of a scientist determined to making that chain more sustainable:

How this chemical engineer is hacking plastic production to promote sustainability

The products many of us purchase on a regular basis — the water bottles, clothes and, perhaps especially in the era of COVID, take-out containers from our local restaurants — are often plastic, disposable and bound to outlive us for generations. But the enormous amount of plastic waste that humans leave behind is a logistical and ecological nightmare, and experts say potential solutions must be approached from multiple angles, both for the planet’s sake and for our own. Continue reading

Charismatic Mega-Batteries

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When we started this platform, from a base in south India, we were surrounded by charismatic mega-fauna. Even the squirrels were unusually beautiful and large. The purpose of the platform being to highlight stories of creative, entrepreneurial approaches to conservation as much as to raise awareness of environmental issues more broadly, there is a new form of mega charisma worth noting today. It may make a difference to the issues we have been pointing to since the first post nine years ago:

Climate emission killer: construction begins on world’s biggest liquid air battery

Exclusive: project will store renewable energy and reduce climate-heating emissions

Construction is beginning on the world’s largest liquid air battery, which will store renewable electricity and reduce carbon emissions from fossil-fuel power plants.

The project near Manchester, UK, will use spare green energy to compress air into a liquid and store it. When demand is higher, the liquid air is released back into a gas, powering a turbine that puts the green energy back into the grid.

A big expansion of wind and solar energy is vital to tackle the climate emergency but they are not always available. Storage is therefore key and the new project will be the largest in the world outside of pumped hydro schemes, which require a mountain reservoir to store water. Continue reading

Tech for Trees

[Photo: courtesy Flash Forest] One of Flash Forest’s prototype drones

And speaking of trees, here’s an example of small tech stepping in when political leadership wavers. The good news is there is ample room for both, and we hope that both systems receive the support they need.

Here’s to a billion trees!

These drones will plant 40,000 trees in a month. By 2028, they’ll have planted 1 billion

We need to massively reforest the planet, in a very short period of time. Flash Forest’s drones can plant trees a lot faster than humans.

This week, on land north of Toronto that previously burned in a wildfire, drones are hovering over fields and firing seed pods into the ground, planting native pine and spruce trees to help restore habitat for birds. Flash Forest, the Canadian startup behind the project, plans to use its technology to plant 40,000 trees in the area this month. By the end of the year, as it expands to other regions, it will plant hundreds of thousands of trees. By 2028, the startup aims to have planted a full 1 billion trees.

[Photo: courtesy Flash Forest]

The company, like a handful of other startups that are also using tree-planting drones, believes that technology can help the world reach ambitious goals to restore forests to stem biodiversity loss and fight climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that it’s necessary to plant 1 billion hectares of trees—a forest roughly the size of the entire United States—to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Existing forests need to be protected while new trees are planted; right now, that isn’t working well. “There are a lot of different attempts to tackle reforestation,” says Flash Forest cofounder and chief strategy officer Angelique Ahlstrom. “But despite all of them, they’re still failing, with a net loss of 7 billion trees every year.”

Drones don’t address deforestation, which is arguably an even more critical issue than planting trees, since older trees can store much more carbon. But to restore forests that have already been lost, the drones can work more quickly and cheaply than humans planting with shovels. Flash Forest’s tech can currently plant 10,000 to 20,000 seed pods a day; as the technology advances, a pair of pilots will be able to plant 100,000 trees in a day (by hand, someone might typically be able to plant around 1,500 trees in a day, Ahlstrom says.) The company aims to bring the cost down to 50 cents per tree, or around a fourth of the cost of some other tree restoration efforts.

When it begins work at a site, the startup first sends mapping drones to survey the area, using software to identify the best places to plant based on the soil and existing plants. Next, a swarm of drones begins precisely dropping seed pods, packed in a proprietary mix that the company says encourages the seeds to germinate weeks before they otherwise would have. The seed pods are also designed to store moisture, so the seedlings can survive even with months of drought. In some areas, such as hilly terrain or in mangrove forests, the drones use a pneumatic firing device that shoots seed pods deeper into the soil. “It allows you to get into trickier areas that human planters can’t,” Ahlstrom says. Continue reading

Mutation as a Positive

Green plastic bottles ready for recycling

In addition to all the creative ways that people recycle and upcycle plastics, we appreciate when scientific collaboration is brought to the forefront, as in the example here. We thank Science Magazine for highlighting the story.

‘A huge step forward.’ Mutant enzyme could vastly improve recycling of plastic bottles

Recycling isn’t as guilt-free as it seems. Only about 30% of the plastic that goes into soda bottles gets turned into new plastic, and it often ends up as a lower strength version. Now, researchers report they’ve engineered an enzyme that can convert 90% of that same plastic back to its pristine starting materials. Work is underway to scale up the technology and open a demonstration plant next year.

“This is a huge step forward,” says John McGeehan, who directs the center for enzyme innovation at the University of Portsmouth and who was not involved with the work.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is one of the world’s most commonly used plastics, with some 70 million tons produced annually. PET bottles are already recycled in many places. But the current approach has problems. For starters, recycling companies typically end up with a broad mix of different colors of the plastic. They then use high temperatures to melt those down, producing a gray or black plastic starting material that few companies want to use to package their products.

Instead, the material is typically turned into carpets or other low-grade plastic fibers that eventually end up in a landfill or get incinerated. “It’s not really recycling at all,” McGeehan says.

To get around this concern, scientists have searched for enzymes in microbes that break down PET and other plastics. In 2012, researchers at Osaka University found one such enzyme in a compost heap. Continue reading

Putting the Reuse back into Recycle

Thanks once again to YaleEnvironment360 for sharing valuable information.

Scientists Find Way to Fully Recycle Plastics Without Losing Quality

A team of Swedish scientists have found a new way to break down plastic so that it can be recycled into material the same quality as the original — a process they say could help shift the focus of the plastics industry to recycling and drastically reduce the amount of pollution that ends up in the world’s oceans.

The technique involves heating discarded plastic to around 850 degrees Celsius until it turns into a gas mixture. That mixture “can then be recycled at the molecular level to become new plastic material of virgin quality,” Henrik Thunman, an environmental scientist at Chalmers University of Technology who led the new research, said in a statement. “Circular use would help give used plastics a true value, and thus an economic impetus for collecting it anywhere on earth.” Continue reading

Gleaning Garbage From The Great Patch

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The floating boom skims up waste ranging in size from a discarded net and a car wheel complete with tire to chips of plastic with diameters as small as 1 millimetre. Photograph: AP

Some encouraging news from the big mess out in the middle of the Pacific:

Ocean cleanup device successfully collects plastic for first time

Huge floating boom finally retains debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, creator says

A huge floating device designed by Dutch scientists to clean up an island of rubbish in the Pacific ocean that is three times the size of France has successfully picked up plastic from the high-seas for the first time.

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Crew members sort through plastic on board a support vessel on the Pacific Ocean. Photograph: AP

Boyan Slat, the creator of the Ocean Cleanup project, announced on Twitter that the 600-metre (2,000ft) long floating boom had captured and retained debris from what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Alongside a picture of the collected rubbish, which includes a car wheel, Slat tweeted: “Our ocean cleanup system is now finally catching plastic, from one-ton ghost nets to tiny microplastics! Also, anyone missing a wheel?” Continue reading

Mayors Mitigating Climate Change Impacts

(Credit: CarbonCure )

Interesting technology innovation for addressing climate change. We’re glad to hear that local level leaders have this on their radar.

How ‘green’ concrete can help cities fight climate change

The built environment produces over 40% of global CO2 emissions. U.S. mayors are taking the lead to cut emissions with CO2 mineralized concrete.

As cities look to cut carbon emissions in their construction sector, the use of low-carbon concrete over other alternatives could help them do just that.

“Green” or carbon dioxide (CO2) mineralized concrete has received support from the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) and private companies for its use in public projects as part of the national response to climate change. A resolution passed at this year’s USCM annual meeting in Honolulu urged its members to use the concrete over less environmentally-friendly alternatives.

Low-carbon concrete involves injecting recycled CO2 from industrial emitters like fertilizer and power plants into concrete. The CO2 then chemically converts into a mineral and gets embedded in the concrete, making it stronger and helping concrete producers use less cement for roads and buildings.

The built environment is responsible for over 40% of the world’s CO2 emissions and global building stock is expected to double by 2060. Concrete is the most widely used construction material in the world due to its affordable and durable nature. And its key ingredient, cement, contributes to up to 7% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Companies like CarbonCure are helping lead that charge with CO2 mineralized concrete.

“The cliche really stands that cities are the laboratory of innovation,” CarbonCure CEO Robert Niven told Smart Cities Dive. “And cities are really committed to taking a leap on solving this climate change issue.”

Continue reading

The Logic of the Weave

The bamboo dome “had even more useful structural properties than I had envisaged,” Ms. Martin said. “Deployability, nice structural stability and highly portable.”Credit Gabriela Portilho for The New York Times

Limits often lead to creative solutions. That’s exactly what is happening in Brazil. Alison Martin is pushing the limits of what can be built from weaving bamboo and is helping to create more natural cityscapes. She is surprising even the computer engineers with the strength and shapes of her material, all without the use of nuts and bolts. This is a new way of combining nature and architecture. Her work is also helping to solve some of the problems created by elevated highways. These highways block out the sun and create “a fracture in the urban environment”.

With designer and artist Alison Grace Martin, architects and engineers are embracing “the logic of the weave.”

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — On a Tuesday afternoon in early July, Alison Grace Martin, the British artist and weaver, joined a steady stream of Paulistanos along the elevated freeway that curves through downtown São Paulo. The two-mile “Minhocão” (named after a mythic “gigantic earthworm”) was closed to cars that day. The only traffic was on foot and bikes, skateboards and scooters. Picnickers lounged on the median sipping wine. Children ran after soccer balls. A retriever chased a coconut; a pit bull peed on a pile of bamboo.

The bamboo — freshly cut and split into strips about 20 feet long — had arrived with Ms. Martin and engineer James Solly, who were leading an urban design workshop, “High Line Paulista,” inspired loosely by Manhattan’s elevated greenway. Their students for the week had carried the strips, which would be put to use in an experimental dome construction, like a barn-raising, but with bamboo.

Plans have long been in the works to turn the Minhocão into a park. Since its opening in 1971, the freeway has been the subject of controversy: a concrete scar that bifurcated neighborhoods, smothering residents with noise and pollution.

“It ripped apart the urban fabric,” said Franklin Lee, from São Paulo, and director of the workshop with his partner Anne Save de Beaurecueil. (The workshop is part of the Architectural Association international visiting school program.) In January, after years of discourse and debate, the mayor, Bruno Covas, announced that the freeway would eventually be deactivated, finally making way for “Parque Minhocão.”

Continue reading

Floating Solar

When we think of Holland, we think of its engineering contributions to the world’s lower elevation places that have water management issues. Such as Kerala historically, and soon to be many more places due to climate change-related water levels rising. Here is a novel twist on using their expertise with water, for which we give thanks to the Guardian:

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 The islands will contain 73,500 panels. Photograph: Floating Solar

Dutch engineers build world’s biggest sun-seeking solar farm

The 15 floating solar islands will possess sunflower-like ability to turn to face the sun

Dutch engineers are building what will be the world’s largest archipelago of islands made up of sun-tracking solar panels.

Growing resistance to the construction of wind turbines or fields of solar panels on land has led the renewable energy industry to look for alternative options. Large islands of solar panels are under construction or already in place in reservoirs and lakes across the Netherlands, China, the UK and Japan. Continue reading

Closer To An Alternative For Plastic Packaging

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Yale e360, with news like this, titles it carefully:

Scientists Say They Have Found a Viable Replacement for Petroleum-Based Plastic

Scientists at Ohio State University say they have developed a viable alternative to petroleum-based plastic food packaging by using natural tree-based rubber. According to the researchers, the new biodegradable material holds promise for fighting the world’s growing plastic pollution problem, as well as for helping curb our reliance on fossil fuels.

The original source, with slightly more flowery language, titles it as if packaging can be friendly to the environment. The way we use packaging, not so. But we will take what we can get at this point:

Study shows potential for Earth-friendly plastic replacement

New biodegradable ‘plastic’ is tough, flexible

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The new bioplastic and rubber blend devised by Ohio State researchers proved much more durable than the bioplastic on its own

The quest to keep plastic out of landfills and simultaneously satisfy the needs of the food industry is filled with obstacles.

A biodegradable replacement for petroleum-based products has to meet all sorts of standards and, so far, attempts at viable replacements from renewable sources have faced limited success due to processing and economic constraints. Among the obstacles, products to date have been too brittle for food packaging. Continue reading

Impossible Made Possible By Pat Brown

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“Our whole focus is on making products that deliver everything that meat lovers care about,” said Pat Brown, the chief executive.  Matt Edge for The New York Times

We were waiting patiently for this day to come. Impossible has had our attention for a couple years now, but who knew when it would go really big? The time is now:

Behold the Beefless ‘Impossible Whopper’

Burger King is introducing a Whopper made with a vegetarian patty from the start-up Impossible Foods. The deal is a big step toward the mainstream for start-ups trying to mimic and replace meat.

OAKLAND, Calif. — Would you like that Whopper with or without beef?

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An Impossible Foods burger on the grill at the company’s headquarters in Redwood City, Calif.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

This week, Burger King is introducing a version of its iconic Whopper sandwich filled with a vegetarian patty from the start-up Impossible Foods.

The Impossible Whopper, as it will be known, is the biggest validation — and expansion opportunity — for a young industry that is looking to mimic and replace meat with plant-based alternatives.

Impossible Foods and its competitors in Silicon Valley have already had some mainstream success. The vegetarian burger made by Beyond Meat has been available at over a thousand Carl’s Jr. restaurants since January and the company is now moving toward an initial public offering.

White Castle has sold a slider version of the Impossible burger in its 380 or so stores since late last year. Continue reading

Green Building Techniques Inspired By Insects

The air conditioning system of the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, was inspired by termites’ nests. Credit David Brazier, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been quite some time since we posted about biomimicry. Thanks as always to JoAnna Klein for this illuminating story:

What Termites Can Teach Us About Cooling Our Buildings

“We think humans are the best designers, but this is not really true,” a researcher said.

In the capital of Zimbabwe, a building called Eastgate Centre holds nearly 350,000 square-feet of office space and shops. It uses 90 percent less energy than a similar sized building next door.

What’s Eastgate Centre’s secret? Termites.

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Three views of a termites’ nest, including from left, a photo of the nest, a tomography of the the nest’s interior and the networks of galleries and paths in it. Credit G. Theraulaz, CRCA, CBI, CNRS, Toulouse

In the 1990s, Mick Pearce, the building’s architect, took his inspiration from mounds built by fungus-farming termites he saw on a nature show. The insects created their own air conditioning systems that circulated hot and cool air between the mound and the outside.

As architects and builders seek new and improved ways to cool buildings without using more energy in a warming world, a study of another type of termite mound suggests that Mr. Pearce won’t be the last human to take design tips from these cockroach cousins. Continue reading

Great Rivers Are Worthy Of Great Restoration Projects

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The Colorado River delta in Baja California is now a mosaic of largely dried-up river channels and tidal salt flats. TED WOOD

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Downstream from the Morelos Dam, the Colorado River delta now runs dry before reaching the Gulf of California. MAP BY DAVID LINDROTH

When the first couple of stories about the Colorado River ran in Yale e360, it was difficult to imagine how much more there might be to say about it. But now the last article in the series, Restoring the Colorado: Bringing New Life to a Stressed River, provides an example of saving the best for last:

The Colorado River has been dammed, diverted, and slowed by reservoirs, strangling the life out of a once-thriving ecosystem. But in the U.S. and Mexico, efforts are underway to revive sections of the river and restore vital riparian habitat for native plants, fish, and wildlife. Last in a series.

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The Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border, where the Colorado’s remaining water is diverted to cities and farms in Mexico. SUPPORT FOR AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHS PROVIDED BY LIGHTHAWK

From the air, the last gasp of the Colorado River is sudden and dramatic. The pale green river flows smack into the Morelos Dam on the U.S.-Mexico border, and virtually all of it is immediately diverted into a large irrigation canal that waters a mosaic of hundreds of fields — alfalfa, asparagus, lettuce, and other vegetables, their vivid green color clashing against the sere desert. The slender thread of water that remains in the Colorado’s channel continues to flow south, but is soon swallowed up by a sea of sand, far short of its delta, which lies 100 miles farther on.

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A fisherman on the upper Colorado River in northern Colorado. Low water flows have endangered fish populations and led last year to the closing of parts of the river to fishing.

The Colorado River once surged through the delta during high flows, carrying so much water at times that shallow draft steamboats chugged hundreds of miles up the river into the U.S. with loads of freight. The water in the delta nourished a vast fertile landscape, a fitting end to a river known as the Nile of North America.

“The river was everywhere and nowhere,” the naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote during a 1922 canoe trip to the delta, describing the waterway as it ebbed, flowed, braided, and stalled into pools, nourishing a rich and diverse ecosystem of “a hundred green lagoons,” a “milk and honey wilderness” with thick stands of cottonwoods and willows that provided habitat for hundreds of species of birds. The delta’s marshes, mudflats, and white sand beaches were home to clapper rails, bitterns, mallards, teal, and clouds of egrets.

Bobcats, puma, deer, and wild boar wandered the delta’s forests. Leopold was searching for the jaguar that roamed there, but didn’t see any. Continue reading

Epic Waste, Cowboys & Spaceships

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Slat cares deeply about the environment, but, for him, the appeal of cleaning the oceans is also about puzzle solving. Illustration by Cristiana Couceiro

In the pantheon of writers we have linked out to since 2011, of those who focus on science and/or environmental issues Carolyn Kormann is a relatively recent arrival. Since I started noticing her work three years ago she has started 2019 with an especially strong duo of stories. One is a longform profile and a must-read if you have been even just glancing at the headlines about giant garbage patches swirling in the ocean. How to deal with epic waste after the fact, after the out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach that has been building this mess for decades, is no simple matter. Nor is the man she introduces us to.

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Last year, the U.S.’s carbon-dioxide emissions increased by an estimated 3.4 per cent, the second-largest gain in the past two decades.Photograph by Fernando Moleres / Panos Pictures / Redux

The profile of Slat is compelling, disturbing and inconclusive–hallmarks of the type of profile I most appreciate when the subject involves seemingly intractable environmental challenges. The other item is shorter, with a pair of metaphors for economic periods that I wish I had known earlier. If you only have time for one, read about William Nordhaus’s many contributions to the otherwise dismal science, especially his description of the economic transformation from my lifetime to that of the next generation:

The False Choice Between Economic Growth and Combatting Climate Change 

In 1974, the economist William Nordhaus described the transition from a “cowboy economy” to a “spaceship economy.” In the former, he wrote, “we could afford to use our resources profligately,” and “the environment could be used as a sink without becoming fouled.” But, in the spaceship economy, “great attention must be paid to the sources of life and to the dumps where our refuse is piled.” He added, “Things which have traditionally been treated as free goods—air, water, quiet, natural beauty—must now be treated with the same care as other scarce goods.” Toward the end of his landmark paper, “Resources as a Constraint on Growth,” Nordhaus discussed the possible adverse effects of energy consumption, most notably the “greenhouse effect.” Continue reading

Colorado River’s Future

Thanks to Jim Robbins and Yale e360:

CRISIS ON THE COLORADO: PART I

The West’s Great River Hits Its Limits: Will the Colorado Run Dry?

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The headwaters of the Colorado River are in a marshy meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park.

As the Southwest faces rapid growth and unrelenting drought, the Colorado River is in crisis, with too many demands on its diminishing flow. Now those who depend on the river must confront the hard reality that their supply of Colorado water may be cut off. First in a series.

The beginnings of the mighty Colorado River on the west slope of Rocky Mountain National Park are humble. A large marsh creates a small trickle of a stream at La Poudre Pass, and thus begins the long, labyrinthine 1,450-mile journey of one of America’s great waterways.

Several miles later, in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Kawuneeche Valley, the Colorado River Trail allows hikers to walk along its course and, during low water, even jump across it. This valley is where the nascent river falls prey to its first diversion — 30 percent of its water is taken before it reaches the stream to irrigate distant fields.

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The Colorado flows 1,450 from its source in Colorado to the southwest, ending just short of the Gulf of California. MAP BY DAVID LINDROTH

The Never Summer Mountains tower over the the valley to the west. Cut across the face of these glacier-etched peaks is the Grand Ditch, an incision visible just above the timber line. The ditch collects water as the snow melts and, because it is higher in elevation than La Poudre Pass, funnels it 14 miles back across the Continental Divide, where it empties it into the headwaters of the Cache La Poudre River, which flows on to alfalfa and row crop farmers in eastern Colorado. Hand dug in the late 19th century with shovels and picks by Japanese crews, it was the first trans-basin diversion of the Colorado. Continue reading

Fortune & Misfortune On Kerala’s Backwaters

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Partially submerged houses in Kerala, India last August. REUTERS / SIVARAM V

Any picture of a houseboat reminds me of our good fortune to live among the people of Kerala’s backwaters from 2010-2017. The photo below is no exception and I thank Fred Pearce, writing for Yale e360, for bringing to my attention the scale of misfortune facing our old neighbors from the most recent flooding. I knew about the disaster, but had not read in any detail until now what this implies for the future. Maybe this fortune could be applied to address those challenges:

In India, Nature’s Power Overwhelms Engineered Wetlands

The picturesque Kerala backwaters in southern India, increasingly popular with tourists, form a network of engineered canals, lagoons, lakes, and rice paddies. But a fatal monsoon deluge has highlighted the global problem of how developed wetlands often lose their capacity to absorb major floods.

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Floodwaters inundated much of Kerala’s low-lying coastal plain, including the village of Pandanad, pictured here. MANJUNATH KIRAN / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

In India, they call the state of Kerala in the country’s far south “God’s own country.” That wasn’t how it felt last August, when monsoon floods devastated its densely populated low-lying coastal plain. Around 500 people drowned, in an area best known to outsiders for its placid backwatersa network of brackish lakes, lagoons, and canals where growing numbers of Western tourists cruise the picturesque waterways aboard luxury houseboats.

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A luxury houseboat moored along Lake Vembanad near the tourist town of Kumarakom in Kerala. FRED PEARCE / YALE E360

Now that the floodwaters have abated, questions are being raised about whether the disaster was made worse by water engineering projects in the backwaters designed to feed the state’s population and attract tourists. Increasingly, Kerala residents are wondering if “God’s own country” is damned as well as dammed.

The floods came out of the Western Ghats. This chain of mountains down the west side of India is one of the country’s wettest places, drenched from June to September in monsoon. In early August, the rains there were exceptionally intense and unremitting. The rivers flowing from the mountains west toward the Arabian Sea dumped their water into the backwaters on a coastal plain that is largely below sea level.

Sixty-mile-long Lake Vembanad, at the heart of the backwaters, rose up and flooded surrounding wetlands and rice paddies, cities, and farming villages. A quarter-million people took refuge in 1,500 relief camps; 6,200 miles of roads and 115 square miles of farmland were damaged. Cochin International Airport was awash. Continue reading

The Technology Of Negative Emissions

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A direct air capture facility in Zurich, created by the Swiss-based technology company ClimeWorks. JULIA DUNLOP / CLIMEWORKS

I was not aware that Elizabeth Kolbert has been writing for Yale e360 for the entire time we have been linking to her New Yorker work on this platform. And then some, because she started publishing there ten years ago. This is her 17th publication for Yale e360 and it can help a layperson understand in a relatively short read whether technology has any chance of accelerating our progress on climate change mitigation:

Climate Solutions: Is It Feasible to Remove Enough CO2 from the Air?

A U.S. scientific panel reports that technologies that take CO2 out of the atmosphere could be a significant part of a strategy to mitigate global warming. In an e360 interview, Stephen Pacala, the panel’s chairman, discusses how these fast-developing technologies are becoming increasingly viable.

Is there still time to avoid runaway climate change? To a large degree, the answer depends on the feasibility of “negative emissions” — techniques or technologies that suck CO2 out of the air. In the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), all scenarios for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius depend on negative emissions technologies, or NETs. Most 2-degree scenarios also rely on negative emissions; many call for removing billions of tons of CO2 per year by mid-century.

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Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) range from low-tech, such as planting more trees, to more high-tech options, such as developing machines to scrub CO2 from the air. NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, 2018

Yet most NETs remain either untested or unproved. To help bridge this gap, the National Academies convened a panel of scientists and asked it to propose a research agenda. The panel considered several possible techniques, ranging from the low-tech — planting more trees — to the high-tech — developing machines to scrub CO2 from the sky. It also looked at a hybrid technology that has become known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS. The panel recommended several billion dollars be directed to research on NETs. Such technologies, it suggested, ought to be viewed as a “component of the mitigation portfolio,” rather than as a futuristic, last-ditch effort to reduce atmospheric CO2.

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Stephen Pacala. CREDIT: ISOMETRIC STUDIOS

Stephen Pacala, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, chaired the panel. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about why NETs are needed, what should be done to advance them, and why he believes that “direct air capture” technologies could come into widespread use within the next decade. Continue reading