Action Is The Thing

ILLUSTRATION: WIRED; GETTY IMAGES

Climate inaction is a theme bookending the first decade of our chronicling news stories and analytical essays. Why, we have stopped bothering to wonder, is inaction so persistent? Whether activism or other forms of action, there is not enough of it relative to the scale of the crisis. We thank Eleanor Cummins, a freelance science journalist and adjunct professor at New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program for these ideas as published in Wired:

‘Thinkwashing’ Keeps People From Taking Action in Times of Crisis

When it comes to issues like climate change, too many let the perfect become the enemy of the good, while the world burns.

LESS THAN A decade ago, “wait and see” arguments about climate change still circulated. “We often hear that there is a ‘scientific consensus’ about climate change,” physicist Steven E. Koonin wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2014. “But as far as the computer models go, there isn’t a useful consensus at the level of detail relevant to assessing human influences.” The idea was that the world needed more data before it could respond to the threat posed by global warming—assuming such research indicated a response was even necessary. Continue reading

Science Communication Celebrated

Illustration by Michael Dunbabin; Source photograph by Kevin Winter / Getty

Alan Alda was not likely to appear in our pages before, even though we knew about this work that he has been doing starting some years ago. Not likely because celebrity is more often than not a distraction. But this conversation is worth sharing, because we care about science, and effective communication about science:

Alan Alda Is Still Awesome

The actor and director talks about his podcast, the comedic chops of Volodymyr Zelensky, and being called an “honorary woman.”

Few actors inspire the warm fuzzies like Alan Alda. At eighty-six, he’s still the platonic ideal of “nice dad”: the type of guy you’d find in a cardigan, reading a copy of the Sunday Times in an armchair. But the popular image of Alda doesn’t cover the remarkable breadth of his career. Continue reading

Questions About Forests As Carbon Sinks

PEXELS

We have featured articles about forests so many times for multiple reasons. Even when we hint that we do so just out of pure love, it is almost always about the value of forests to our future on the planet. As always, when a Yale e360 article can help illuminate further on a topic, here goes:

This map shows the height of forests worldwide. Taller forests typically store more carbon. NASA

Climate Change Will Limit How Much Carbon Forests Take Up, New Research Shows

Governments are increasingly looking to forests to draw down carbon pollution, but worsening droughts threaten to stunt tree growth, while larger wildfires and insect infestations risk decimating woodlands, two new studies show. Continue reading

Mosquito GMO News

Biotechnology firm Oxitec ran the first open-air test of genetically modified mosquitoes in the United States by placing boxes of its eggs in selected spots in the Florida Keys. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty

Genetically modified this and that have been concerns of ours for most of the time we have been posting on environmental issues and nature news. This news below may be the best test of how tolerant one might become about a technology that is inherently full of danger–of the unintended consequences variety more than the known in advance variety–and yet could tame some of the greatest natural pests that mankind suffers from:

Biotech firm announces results from first US trial of genetically modified mosquitoes

Oxitec reports that its insects behaved as planned — but a larger trial is needed to learn whether they can reduce wild mosquito populations.

Researchers have completed the first open-air study of genetically engineered mosquitoes in the United States. The results, according to the biotechnology firm running the experiment, are positive. But larger tests are still needed to determine whether the insects can achieve the ultimate goal of suppressing a wild population of potentially virus-carrying mosquitoes. Continue reading

Innovative Illustration & Atmospheric Pressure

Source: Geophysical Research Letters.

Whenever we see advances in innovative illustration to better our understanding of phenomena, natural or otherwise, we note it here. Atmospheric pressure is something most of us have heard countless times, but not necessarily stopped to think what it is. Among other things, it is important. Also, it is understandable. If you have a couple minutes, watch this accessible animation of a natural phenomenon that does not get enough attention, and read the accompanying text:

‘It’s Super Spectacular.’ See How the Tonga Volcano Unleashed a Once-in-a-Century Shockwave.

By Aatish Bhatia and Henry Fountain

Produced by Aatish Bhatia and Sean Catangui

As shown in this visualization, based on a simulation created by Ángel Amores, a physical oceanographer at the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies in Majorca, Spain, the shockwave took about 36 hours to circumnavigate the globe, spreading out in concentric rings from the volcano known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai and traveling at the speed of sound. The simulation was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in March. Continue reading

Octopus As White Whale

Bret Grasse, a manager of cephalopod operations at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., with his charge, a lesser Pacific striped octopus.

Yesterday, a story about a small and late victory for whales. Today, a small victory for our other favorite sea creature, in the form of a search for the white whale equivalent among octopus:

A lab in Massachusetts may have finally found an eight-armed cephalopod that can serve as a model organism and assist scientific research.

From a first batch of seven wild Octopus chierchiae, Mr. Grasse and his colleagues have raised over 700 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The tank looked empty, but turning over a shell revealed a hidden octopus no bigger than a Ping-Pong ball. She didn’t move. Then all at once, she stretched her ruffled arms as her skin changed from pearly beige to a pattern of vivid bronze stripes.

“She’s trying to talk with us,” said Bret Grasse, manager of cephalopod operations at the Marine Biological Laboratory, an international research center in Woods Hole, Mass., in the southwestern corner of Cape Cod. Continue reading

How Do We Love Thee, Forests, Let Us Count The Ways

Forests, such as this one in Indonesia, do lmore than just store carbon. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

It may sound obvious, but until now it was not quantified: The world’s forests do more than just store carbon, new research finds

New data suggests forests help keep the Earth at least half of a degree cooler, protecting us from the effects of climate crisis

The world’s forests play a far greater and more complex role in tackling climate crisis than previously thought, due to their physical effects on global and local temperatures, according to new research. Continue reading

Close The Hose Of Fossil Fuel Cash

Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said fossil-fuel funding ‘has been used to compromise leading academic institutions’. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Hats off to Michael Mann and colleagues for this determination:

Universities must reject fossil fuel cash for climate research, say academics

Open letter from 500 academics likens fossil-energy funding of climate solutions to tobacco industry disinformation

Universities must stop accepting funding from fossil fuel companies to conduct climate research, even if the research is aimed at developing green and low-carbon technology, an influential group of distinguished academics has said. Continue reading

Octopus Intelligence Illustrated

Octopuses were seen carrying plastic items around while ‘stilt-walking’. Photograph: Serge Abourjeily

It is not how we would prefer to understand them, or for these animals to demonstrate intelligence, but here are some examples of how they adapt to our discarded stuff:

Bottles, cans, batteries: octopuses found using litter on seabed

The most common interaction recorded was using rubbish as shelter. Photograph: Edmar Bastos

Creatures seen using discarded items for shelter or to lay eggs, highlighting ‘extreme ability to adapt’

Whether it’s mimicking venomous creatures, or shooting jets of water at aquarium light switches to turn them off, octopuses are nothing if not resourceful. Continue reading

Understanding That Recent Bird Crash

When news reports about this unusual event reached us, time was short. We did not have time to read any details, and now it is clear that waiting for science to comment was a useful delay.

Thanks to Juan Siliezar for the explanation:

iStock

Those birds that crashed and died? It wasn’t fumes

After internet theorists react to viral video, Harvard researchers answer with science

You’ve probably seen the video — or at least heard some chirpings about it.

Footage from a security camera in Cuauhtémoc, a city in Chihuahua, Mexico, shows a massive flock of migratory birds swooping down like a cloud of black smoke and crashing onto pavement and the roof of a house. Continue reading

Postscript On Leaky

Over the decades, Leakey inspired countless scientists and activists through his books and talks. Photograph by William Campbell / Getty

We do not normally link to obituaries, but since I felt compelled to recently, this one seems a must also. Nearly two years ago we linked to a profile of Richard Leakey and the author of that profile has written a moving postscript:

On the night of January 2nd, I got a text from Paula Kahumbu, the Kenyan conservationist. “Dear friends, sad news,” she wrote. “Richard Leakey just passed away at his home in Kona Baridi.” Leakey, the renowned paleoanthropologist and wildlife conservationist, had been her mentor—a mercurial, controversial advocate for African wildlife, whose tumultuous career was central to Kenya’s history in the past half century. Continue reading

Species Discoveries Of 2021

Eurythenes atacamensis, a giant new crustacean endemic to the Peru-Chile ocean trench, identified by scientists in 2021. Photograph: Weston et al 2021

The work of species discovery continues, even as extinction continues unabated:

‘Hell herons’, metallic beetles, tiny shrimp – scientists have been busy describing unusual creatures despite Covid restrictions

Two newly described species of spinosaur dinosaurs discovered on the Isle of Wight, named ‘hell heron’ and ‘riverbank hunter’. Photograph: Anthony Hutchings

Six new dinosaurs, an Indian beetle named after Larry the cat, and dozens of crustaceans critical to the planet’s carbon cycle were among 552 new species identified by scientists at the Natural History Museum this year.

In 2021, researchers described previously unknown species across the tree of life, from a pair of giant carnivorous dinosaurs known as spinosaurs – nicknamed the “riverbank hunter” and “hell heron” – to five new snakes that include the Joseph’s racer, which was identified with the help of a 185-year-old painting. Continue reading

Bottled Green Revolution?

Not  sure whether this changes anything we read about yesterday, but at least for some it could be interesting to read about how this 80-Year-Old Man Hasn’t Watered This Sealed Bottle Garden Since 1972 And It’s Still Alive:

In a beautiful example of a closed but functional ecosystem, David Latimer has grown a garden sealed inside a giant glass bottle that he has only opened once since he started it almost 60 years ago.
Latimer planted the terrarium garden on Easter Sunday in 1960. He placed some compost and a quarter pint of water into a 10-gallon glass carboy and inserted a spiderwort sprout, which is not typically an indoor plant, using wires. Continue reading

A Second Green Revolution?

It is often said that the world now needs a Second Green Revolution. Illustration by Derrick Schultz

Elizabeth Kolbert continues exploring the potential costs and benefits of mankind’s attempted mastery over nature:

Creating a Better Leaf

Could tinkering with photosynthesis prevent a global food crisis?

This story begins about two billion years ago, when the world, if not young, exactly, was a lot more impressionable. The planet spun faster, so the sun rose every twenty-one hours. The earliest continents were forming—Arctica, for instance, which persists as bits and pieces of Siberia. Most of the globe was given over to oceans, and the oceans teemed with microbes. Continue reading

Global North, Global South & Responsibilities

Photo: Hannah Whitaker; Prop Styling: Marina Bevilacqua.

David Wallace-Wells has done it again. Devastated me with considerations I should have had on my own, but had not. And he makes it so vivid that once you see his point you cannot stop seeing it. Having lived in the Global South for a majority of my adult years, but having been born into and lived in the Global North for the first half of my life, this story resonates with me in ways I cannot quite describe. But the quote from Proverbs in yesterday’s post seems even more intensely relevant:

Climate Reparations

A trillion tons of carbon hangs in the air, put there by the world’s rich, an existential threat to its poor. Can we remove it?

I. What Is Owed

Brazil, 2019. Photo: Cristina de Middel/Magnum Photos

The math is as simple as the moral claim. We know how much carbon has been emitted and by which countries, which means we know who is most responsible and who will suffer most and that they are not the same. We know that the burden imposed on the world’s poorest by its richest is gruesome, that it is growing, and that it represents a climate apartheid demanding reparation — or should know it. We know we can remove some of that carbon from the atmosphere and undo at least some of the damage. We know the cost of doing so using tools we have today. And we know that unless we use them, the problem will never go away. Continue reading

ICARDA, CGIAR & Future Food

Thanks to Helen Sullivan, as usual, for excellent reporting and clear implications:

A Syrian Seed Bank’s Fight to Survive

Scientists have raced to safeguard a newly precious resource: plants that can thrive in a changing climate.

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, known as icarda, is housed in a cluster of small buildings on a dusty property in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, halfway between Beirut and Damascus. Its facilities, surrounded by fields of experimental grain, include a laboratory, nurseries, and a gene bank—a storage facility in which tens of thousands of seeds have been carefully saved and catalogued.

When I first visited, on an autumn afternoon in 2019, staff members in the main building were counting, weighing, and sliding seeds into small packets. Continue reading

50 Years Of Climate Science

(Zeb Andrews / Getty)

Robinson Meyer’s newsletter this week offers The Key Insight That Defined 50 Years of Climate Science:

Look out the nearest window and imagine, if you can, an invisible column of air. It sits directly on the tufts of grass, penetrates clear through any clouds or birds above, and ends only at the black pitch of space. Now envision a puff of heat rising through this column, passing through all the layers of the atmosphere on its journey. What happens as it rises? Where does it go? The answer to that simple question is surprisingly, even ominously important for the climate. But for nearly a century, the world’s best scientists struggled to resolve it. Continue reading

Sometimes, The Sky Really Is Falling

The meteorite that crashed into Ruth Hamilton’s bedroom in Golden, British Columbia. Ruth Hamilton

Natural wonders have been a mainstay of our work on this platform since we started. We have tried diligently to mix those wonders with appropriate warnings about how nature’s wonders can also be transformed into danger, without being too Henny Penny about it. But when we read stories like this one, we can mix our wonder at the universe with our concern about what the sky might do next:

Meteorite Crashes Through Ceiling and Lands on Woman’s Bed

After a fireball streaked through the Canadian sky, Ruth Hamilton, of British Columbia, found a 2.8-pound rock the size of a large man’s fist near her pillow.

The meteorite in Ms. Hamilton’s bed and the hole in the ceiling caused by it. Ruth Hamilton

Ruth Hamilton was fast asleep in her home in British Columbia when she awoke to the sound of her dog barking, followed by “an explosion.” She jumped up and turned on the light, only to see a hole in the ceiling. Her clock said 11:35 p.m.

At first, Ms. Hamilton, 66, thought that a tree had fallen on her house. But, no, all the trees were there. She called 911 and, while on the phone with an operator, noticed a large charcoal gray object between her two floral pillows.

“Oh, my gosh,” she recalled telling the operator, “there’s a rock in my bed.”

A meteorite, she later learned. Continue reading

Barefoot In The Park A Long, Long Time Ago

The Economist brought this to our attention with a brief mention that An old lake bed reveals evidence of America’s first inhabitants – They walked there at least 23,000 years ago. We followed that up with a search on the topic that led to this further detail in the Cornell Chronicle:

David Bustos/Provided. Thomas Urban conducts magnetometer survey of mammoth footprints at White Sands.

Earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas found

Provided. Footprints found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, providing the earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas.

Footprints found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico provide the earliest unequivocal evidence of human activity in the Americas and offer insight into life over 23,000 years ago.

The footprints were formed in soft mud on the margins of a shallow lake that now forms part of Alkali Flat, a large playa at White Sands. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey dated these tracks using radiocarbon dating of seed layers above and below the footprint horizons. The dates range in age and confirm human presence over at least two millennia with the oldest tracks dating from around 23,000 years ago, Continue reading

How To Define Species

During the most recent ice age, glaciers divided an ancestral population of crows; one group became all-black carrion crows, the other hooded crows with gray breasts and bodies. Illustrations by François-Nicolas Martinet / Alamy

Protecting species from extinction has been a running theme in our pages over the years. Underlying these many stories was an assumption, at least on our part, that defining boundaries between species is settled science. We will no longer take that for granted:

Where Do Species Come From?

By studying crows, a German biologist has helped to solve a centuries-old mystery.

The evolutionary biologist Jochen Wolf was working from home when we first spoke, in April, 2020. Germany was under lockdown, and his lab, at Ludwig Maximilian University, in Munich, had been closed for weeks. Still, a reminder of his research had followed him from the office. “I have a crow nest right in front of me,” Wolf said, from his rooftop terrace. The nest was well hidden at the top of a tall spruce tree. Through the branches, Wolf could see a female crow sitting on her eggs. Continue reading