Arctic Sea Ice Reaches a Low, Just Missing Record

Arctic Sea Ice Reaches a Low, Just Missing Record

SOURCE: New York Times
DATE: September 21, 2020
SNIP: A “crazy year” in the Arctic has resulted in the second-lowest extent of sea ice in the region, scientists said Monday.

Researchers with the National Snow and Ice Data Center said the minimum was most likely reached on Sept. 15, with 1.44 million square miles of ocean covered in ice.

Since satellite measurements of sea ice began four decades ago, only 2012 has had a lower minimum, when 1.32 million square miles were measured. The 2020 minimum was nearly a million square miles less than the average annual minimum between 1981 and 2010.

This year also continues an alarming streak: The 14 lowest ice years have occurred in the past 14 years. Many scientists expect that the Arctic could be devoid of ice in summers well before midcentury.

“It’s been a crazy year up north, with sea ice at a near-record low, 100-degree heat waves in Siberia, and massive forest fires,” Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, said in a statement. “We are headed towards a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean, and this year is another nail in the coffin.”

Sea ice has been shrinking by more than 13 percent per decade, relative to the 1981-2010 average, as global warming affects the Arctic more than any other part of the world. The region is warming more than twice as fast as any other.

Sea ice loss plays a role in this rapid warming. Ice reflects most of the sunlight that strikes it. But when it melts, more ocean is exposed. The ocean surface is darker and absorbs more of the sun’s rays, re-emitting the energy as heat. That leads to more warming and more ice loss, with the process continuing in what scientists call a feedback loop.

Gas Companies Are Abandoning Their Wells, Leaving Them to Leak Methane Forever

Gas Companies Are Abandoning Their Wells, Leaving Them to Leak Methane Forever

SOURCE: Bloomberg

DATE: September 17, 2020

SNIP: The story of gas well No. 095-20708 begins on Nov. 10, 1984, when a drill bit broke the Earth’s surface 4 miles north of Rio Vista, Calif. Wells don’t have birthdays, so this was its “spud date.”

The drill chewed through the dirt at a rate of 80 ½ feet per hour, reaching 846 feet below ground that first day. By Thanksgiving it had gotten a mile down, finally stopping 49 days later, having laid 2.2 miles of steel pipe and cement on its way to the “pay zone,” an underground field containing millions of dollars’ worth of natural gas.

It was ready to start pumping two months later, in early January. While 1985 started out as a good year for gas, by its close, more than half the nation’s oil and gas wells had shut down. How much money the Amerada Hess Corp., which bankrolled the dig, managed to pump out of gas well No. 095-20708 before that bust isn’t known. By 1990 the company, now called simply Hess Corp., gave up and sold it. Over the next decade or so, four more companies would seek the riches promised at the bottom of the well, seemingly with little success. In 2001 a state inspector visited the site. “Looks like it’s dying,” he wrote.

Gas wells never really die, though. Over the years, the miles of steel piping and cement corrode, creating pathways for noxious gases to reach the surface. The most worrisome of these is methane, the main component of natural gas. If carbon dioxide is a bullet, methane is a bomb. Odorless and invisible, it captures 86 times more heat than CO₂ over two decades and at least 25 times more over a century. Drilling has released this potent greenhouse gas, once sequestered in the deep pockets and grooves of the Earth, into the atmosphere, where it’s wreaking more havoc than humans can keep up with.

Well No. 095-20708 is one of more than 3.2 million deserted oil and gas wells in the U.S. and one of an estimated 29 million globally, according to Reuters. There’s no regulatory requirement to monitor methane emissions from inactive wells, and until recently, scientists didn’t even consider wells in their estimates of greenhouse gas emissions. With the pandemic depressing demand for fossil fuels and renewable energy development booming, why should owners idle or plug their wells when they can simply walk away?

In the past five years, 207 oil and gas businesses have failed. As natural gas prices crater, the fiscal burden on states forced to plug wells could skyrocket; according to Rystad Energy AS, an industry analytics company, 190 more companies could file for bankruptcy by the end of 2022. Many oil and gas companies are idling their wells by capping them in the hope prices will rise again. But capping lasts only about two decades, and it does nothing to prevent tens of thousands of low-producing wells from becoming orphaned, meaning “there is no associated person or company with any financial connection to and responsibility for the well,” according to California’s Geologic Energy Management Division.

The life cycle of the Church well exemplifies this systemic indifference. Hess’s liability ended when it sold more than 30 years ago; the last company to acquire the lease, Pacific Petroleum Technology, which took over in 2003, managed to evade financial responsibility entirely as the well’s cement and steel piping began to corrode. Letters from state regulators demanding that the company declare its plans for the well went unanswered. In November 2007 the state issued a civil penalty of $500 over Pacific’s failures to file monthly production reports on the well. Instead of paying, Pacific requested a hearing, at which a representative testified that there was still $10 million worth of natural gas waiting to be pumped and promised the company would secure funds, make necessary repairs, and start producing again. The state was unconvinced and demanded Pacific plug the well. Another decade passed. The company never pumped a single cubic foot of gas and made no effort to plug the well.

If Church were the only neglected well, it would be inconsequential. But these artifacts of the fossil fuel age are ubiquitous, obscured in backyards and beneath office buildings, under parking lots and shopping malls, even near day-care centers and schools in populous cities such as Los Angeles, where at least 1,000 deserted wells lie unplugged. In Colorado an entire neighborhood was built on top of a former oil and gas field that had been left off of construction maps. In 2017 two people died in a fiery explosion while replacing a basement water heater.

The Earth’s interior has been unfathomably scarred by hydrocarbon infrastructure. For almost two centuries, since the drilling of the first gas well in 1821, the fossil fuel industry has treated the planet like a giant pincushion. The first U.S. gas well in Fredonia, N.Y., extended only 27 feet underground, but drilling since has gone ever deeper. Ten-thousand-foot wells like Church are common today.

Now imagine each of those pins in the global pincushion is a straw inside a straw. In Church’s case, the outer straw is 7.625 inches in diameter and made of steel, encased in cement; inside is a 2.375-inch-wide steel tube. The deeper the well, the more the heat and pressure rise. At Church’s deepest point, 10,968 feet, the temperature likely exceeds 200F. The weight of the Earth exerts more and more pressure as the well goes deeper—reaching about 5 tons per square inch at the bottom. That’s the equivalent of four 2,500-pound cars on your thumb. All of this puts a huge amount of stress on that underground infrastructure. As it breaks down, eventually it begins to leak.

Astonishingly, no one had even bothered to ask how much until the past decade. In 2011, Mary Kang was a Ph.D. student at Princeton modeling how CO₂ might escape from underground storage vessels after being captured and buried.

Kang went to Pennsylvania, where boom and bust cycles over the years have left a half-million gas wells deserted. Of the 19 she measured, three turned out to be high emitters, meaning they released three times more methane into the atmosphere than other wells in the sample. “There were no measurements of emissions coming out of these wells,” she says. “People knew these wells existed, they just thought what was coming out was negligible or zero.” By scaling up her findings, Kang was able to estimate that in 2011, deserted wells were responsible for somewhere from 4% to 7% of all man-made methane emissions from Pennsylvania.

Those findings inspired Lebel and other researchers in the U.S. and worldwide to start taking direct methane measurements. The industry responded by ignoring them and fought fiercely against the Obama administration’s efforts to start regulating methane emissions.

Meanwhile, scientists trudged on. So far researchers have measured emissions at almost 1,000 of the 3.2 million deserted wells in the U.S. In 2016, Kang published another study of 88 abandoned well sites in Pennsylvania, 90% of which leaked methane.

Internationally, researchers tracked increasingly bad news. German scientists discovered methane bubbles in the seabed around orphaned wells in the North Sea. Taking direct measurements of 43 wells, they found significant leaks in 28. In Alberta, researchers estimated methane leaks in almost 5% of the province’s 315,000 oil and gas wells. In the U.K., researchers found “fugitive emissions of methane” in 30% of 102 wells studied.

Despite the flurry of recent research, the full scale of the emissions problem remains unknown. “We really don’t have a handle on it yet,” says Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell who’s studied methane leaks from active oil and gas wells for decades. “We’ve poked millions of holes thousands of feet into Mother Earth to get her goods, and now we are expecting her to forgive us?”

There’s no easy way to bring up the thousands of feet of steel and cement required to carry gas out of a well as deep as A.H.C. Church 11. That means the only way to keep the well from leaking is to fill it up. Plugging a well costs $20,000 to $145,000, according to estimates by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. For modern shale wells, the cost can run as high as $300,000.

The cost to plug just California’s deserted wells—an estimated 5,500—could reach $550 million, according to a report released earlier this year. While not an insignificant price tag, the real shock would come if the industry collapses and walks away for good. In that doomsday scenario, the costs to plug and decommission 107,000 active and idled wells could run to $9 billion. And yet so far in 2020, California has approved 1,679 new drilling permits.

“We make the same mistake over and over again,” says Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford who oversees Lebel’s work. “Companies go bankrupt, and taxpayers pay the bills.”

Even spending all the billions of dollars required to plug the world’s millions of deserted wells won’t stave off environmental catastrophe. The vast heat and pressure of the Earth’s subsurface—the same forces that crushed dinosaur bones into hydrocarbons in the first place—mean that no plugging job lasts forever. Scientists and engineers debate how long cement can survive in the harsh environment of the Earth’s interior. Estimates typically fall from 50 to 100 years, a long enough time horizon that even some of today’s biggest oil and gas companies may no longer exist, but short enough to be uncomfortably within the realm of human comprehension. No regulations require states or federal agencies to measure emissions after wells are plugged.

Jasper National Park says one caribou herd gone, two others on the brink of local extinction

Jasper National Park says one caribou herd gone, two others on the brink of local extinction

SOURCE: CBC
DATE: September 16
SNIP: Caribou populations in Jasper National Park are in deep trouble.

Of three southern mountain woodland caribou herds managed by Parks Canada, one — the Maligne herd — is now considered extirpated, or locally extinct, while the other two are dangerously small, according to the Jasper National Park’s Species at Risk report.

Worse, neither of those herds has enough breeding females to be able to grow the herds, a situation that has an Alberta wilderness society calling for swift action.

“The Tonquin is estimated to have about 45 caribou left only, the Brazeau less than 15. And a key thing for caribou is the number of breeding females,” said Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist for the Calgary-based Alberta Wilderness Association.

“In each case, unfortunately, these two populations have 10 or less breeding females. That means they cannot grow any bigger and they’re very vulnerable to sudden disasters or setbacks.”

Caribou have one calf per season.

Three aerial surveys of the Maligne Valley conducted in 2018 and 2019 failed to locate caribou tracks or animals, the annual report stated. It says the Tonquin and Brazeau herds are “too small to recover on their own.”DATE: September 16
SNIP: Caribou populations in Jasper National Park are in deep trouble.

Of three southern mountain woodland caribou herds managed by Parks Canada, one — the Maligne herd — is now considered extirpated, or locally extinct, while the other two are dangerously small, according to the Jasper National Park’s Species at Risk report.

Worse, neither of those herds has enough breeding females to be able to grow the herds, a situation that has an Alberta wilderness society calling for swift action.

“The Tonquin is estimated to have about 45 caribou left only, the Brazeau less than 15. And a key thing for caribou is the number of breeding females,” said Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist for the Calgary-based Alberta Wilderness Association.

“In each case, unfortunately, these two populations have 10 or less breeding females. That means they cannot grow any bigger and they’re very vulnerable to sudden disasters or setbacks.”

Caribou have one calf per season.

Three aerial surveys of the Maligne Valley conducted in 2018 and 2019 failed to locate caribou tracks or animals, the annual report stated. It says the Tonquin and Brazeau herds are “too small to recover on their own.”

Hundreds of thousands of migratory birds have been found dead in New Mexico

Hundreds of thousands of migratory birds have been found dead in New Mexico

SOURCE: CNN

DATE: September 14, 2020

SNIP: Biologists at New Mexico State University are trying to find out why hundreds of thousands of migratory birds have been found dead across the state.

The mystery started August 20 with the discovery of a large number of dead birds at the US Army White Sands Missile Range and White Sands National Monument, according to Martha Desmond, a professor at the university’s department of fish, wildlife and conservation ecology.

What was first believed to be an isolated incident turned out to be a much more serious problem when hundreds more dead birds were found in regions across the state. including Doña Ana County, Jemez Pueblo, Roswell and Socorro.

“It’s just terrible,” Desmond told CNN. “The number is in the six figures. Just by looking at the scope of what we’re seeing, we know this is a very large event, hundreds of thousands and maybe even millions of dead birds, and we’re looking at the higher end of that.”

Dead migratory birds — which include species such as warblers, bluebirds, sparrows, blackbirds, the western wood pewee and flycatchers — are also being found in Colorado, Texas and Mexico.

Alongside biologists from White Sands Missile Range, Desmond and her team began identifying, cataloging and examining about 300 dead birds on Saturday to learn more about the condition they were in when they died.

Residents and biologists reported seeing birds acting strangely before they died. For example, birds that are normally seen in shrubs and trees have been spotted on the ground looking for food and chasing bugs.

Many were lethargic and unresponsive so they were getting hit by cars, Desmond said, in numbers “larger than ever seen before.”

On the missile range golf course, swallows, which are aerial insectivores that don’t even walk, were sitting on the ground and letting people approach them, she added.

One of the factors biologists believe may have contributed to the deaths of the birds is the wildfires burning in California and other Western states, which may have forced the birds into early migration before they were ready.

“Birds who migrated before they were ready because of the weather might have not had enough fat to survive,” Desmond said. “Some birds might have not even had the reserves to start migrating so they died in place.”

Some birds might have had to change their migratory pathways, while others could have inhaled smoke and sustained lung damage.

While the fires and dry weather in New Mexico may have amplified the number of migratory bird deaths, that still leaves many questions.

“We began seeing isolated mortalities in August, so something else has been going on aside the weather events and we don’t know what it is. So that in itself is really troubling,” she added.

The birds will be sent to the US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Oregon for necropsies and to determine their cause of death, but it could take weeks to get results.

“This is devastating. Climate charge is playing a role in this.” Desmond said. “We lost 3 billion birds in the US since 1970 and we’ve also seen a tremendous decline in insects, so an event like this is terrifying to these populations and it’s devastating to see.”

The Fight to Save the Joshua Tree Has a Surprising Foe—the Solar Industry

The Fight to Save the Joshua Tree Has a Surprising Foe—the Solar Industry

SOURCE: The Daily Beast

DATE: September 13, 2020

SNIP: It’s difficult to describe how beautiful Joshua trees are, but when you drive into Joshua Tree National Park and see vast canyons filled with gangly arms, raised in haphazard directions, it hits you: this tree is different, this tree is special.

What you might not know is this: the Joshua tree is also an endangered, threatened species.

Well, at least, it should be.

The science put forth by the Center of Biological Diversity (CBD) is difficult to argue with. However, the effort to save the Joshua tree ran into an unlikely foe. It wasn’t oil or mining companies undercutting conservation. At the recent hearings to determine whether or not the Joshua tree was to be listed as a protected species, one adversary stood out—solar companies. 

California is on the forefront of fighting climate change, however. The state’s renewable energy goals include a requirement for 100 percent clean electricity by the year 2045 and a goal of reducing planet-warming emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050. But, in order to achieve these goals, there needs to be a lot of solar energy—“more than has ever been built before,” says Shannon Eddy, the executive director of the Large-Scale Solar Association (LSSA), which represents utility-scale solar developers and owners. Solar companies in the Mojave, like EDF, which is in the process of developing a massive solar farm called Big Beau, believe fighting climate change through the production of renewables is more urgent than desert ecology sustainability efforts.

The Daily Beast obtained EDF’s permits for California Native Desert Plant Harvesting scheduled in July on the Big Beau project site. These were obtained a month before the CDFW hearing and the possibility that after the hearing removal of the trees would be exorbitantly expensive or impossible loomed large. Regardless, in July, EDF permitted the harvesting of over 200 Joshua trees. While this won’t necessarily lead to their direct endangerment, it’s an interesting paradigm for a solar energy company that markets itself as striving towards “providing future generations with the means to power their lives in the most economic, environmental, and socially responsible ways possible.”

A paper recently published in Nature, written by Dr. Steven Grodsky, an Assistant Research Ecologist and Dr. Rebecca Hernandez, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Air and Water Resources at UC Davis demonstrated that the way some solar companies have been removing native plants has had negative effects on perennial plant structure and covering plants, inhibiting regrowth of plants bladed, and stunting that of plants mowed, and thereby, the stability of the surrounding ecology in the Mojave desert

Grodsky and Hernandez also pointed out that while their study focused on Mojave Yucca, the tree is in the same genus as the Joshua tree, making it easy to extrapolate their findings to the Joshua trees.

Joshua trees remain an unlisted species, and likely, even when they are listed (if they are), there will be a workaround for developers to mow them down in order to make room for large scale solar projects.

How Big Oil misled the public into believing plastic would be recycled

How Big Oil misled the public into believing plastic would be recycled

SOURCE: OPB

DATE: September 11, 2020

SNIP: Laura Leebrick, a manager at Rogue Disposal & Recycling in southern Oregon, is standing on the end of its landfill watching an avalanche of plastic trash pour out of a semitrailer: containers, bags, packaging, strawberry containers, yogurt cups.

None of this plastic will be turned into new plastic things. All of it is buried.

“To me that felt like it was a betrayal of the public trust,” she said. “I had been lying to people … unwittingly.”

Rogue, like most recycling companies, had been sending plastic trash to China, but when China shut its doors two years ago, Leebrick scoured the U.S. for buyers. She could find only someone who wanted white milk jugs. She sends the soda bottles to the state.

But when Leebrick tried to tell people the truth about burying all the other plastic, she says people didn’t want to hear it.

“I remember the first meeting where I actually told a city council that it was costing more to recycle than it was to dispose of the same material as garbage,” she says, “and it was like heresy had been spoken in the room: You’re lying. This is gold. We take the time to clean it, take the labels off, separate it and put it here. It’s gold. This is valuable.”

But it’s not valuable, and it never has been. And what’s more, the makers of plastic — the nation’s largest oil and gas companies — have known this all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the American public the opposite.

NPR and PBS “Frontline” spent months digging into internal industry documents and interviewing top former officials. We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn’t work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.

The industry’s awareness that recycling wouldn’t keep plastic out of landfills and the environment dates to the program’s earliest days, we found. “There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis,” one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech.

Yet the industry spent millions telling people to recycle, because, as one former top industry insider told NPR, selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn’t true.

Here’s the basic problem: All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it out and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can’t be reused more than once or twice.

On the other hand, new plastic is cheap. It’s made from oil and gas, and it’s almost always less expensive and of better quality to just start fresh.

All of these problems have existed for decades, no matter what new recycling technology or expensive machinery has been developed. In all that time, less than 10 percent of plastic has ever been recycled. But the public has known little about these difficulties.

It could be because that’s not what they were told.

Starting in the 1990s, the public saw an increasing number of commercials and messaging about recycling plastic.

These commercials carried a distinct message: Plastic is special, and the consumer should recycle it.

It may have sounded like an environmentalist’s message, but the ads were paid for by the plastics industry, made up of companies like Exxon, Chevron, Dow, DuPont and their lobbying and trade organizations in Washington.

Industry companies spent tens of millions of dollars on these ads and ran them for years, promoting the benefits of a product that, for the most part, was buried, was burned or, in some cases, wound up in the ocean.

Documents show industry officials knew this reality about recycling plastic as far back as the 1970s.

At Syracuse University, there are boxes of files from a former industry consultant. And inside one of them is a report written in April 1973 by scientists tasked with forecasting possible issues for top industry executives.

Recycling plastic, it told the executives, was unlikely to happen on a broad scale.

“There is no recovery from obsolete products,” it says.

It says pointedly: Plastic degrades with each turnover.

“A degradation of resin properties and performance occurs during the initial fabrication, through aging, and in any reclamation process,” the report told executives.

Recycling plastic is “costly,” it says, and sorting it, the report concludes, is “infeasible.”

And there are more documents, echoing decades of this knowledge, including one analysis from a top official at the industry’s most powerful trade group. “The costs of separating plastics … are high,” he tells colleagues, before noting that the cost of using oil to make plastic is so low that recycling plastic waste “can’t yet be justified economically.”

Industry documents from this time show that just a couple of years earlier, starting in 1989, oil and plastics executives began a quiet campaign to lobby almost 40 states to mandate that the international recycling symbol appear on all plastic — even if there was no way to economically recycle it. Some environmentalists also supported the symbol, thinking it would help separate plastic.

Smith said what it did was make all plastic look recyclable.

But the lobbying group in D.C. knew the truth. A report given to top officials at the Society of the Plastics Industry in 1993 told them about the problems.

“The code is being misused,” it says bluntly. “Companies are using it as a ‘green’ marketing tool.”

The code is creating “unrealistic expectations” about how much plastic can actually be recycled, it told them.

“It’s pure manipulation of the consumer.”

Analysts now expect plastic production to triple by 2050.

After the blazes: Poisoned water and ‘a flood on steroids’

After the blazes: Poisoned water and ‘a flood on steroids’

SOURCE: E&E News

DATE: September 11, 2020

SNIP: Historic wildfires raging from California to Colorado are weakening watersheds and setting the stage for deadly mudslides and flooding and, in some places, threatening to poison critical water supplies.

Fueled by record-setting temperatures and strong winds, blazes are wreaking havoc in the West, decimating entire towns like Malden in eastern Washington state, where 80% of the homes and structures — from the fire station to city hall — were burned to the ground.

But the fires don’t just pose a threat to things that burn. More intense and larger fires are also shifting the very ground in Western states. Severe wildfires can change the hydrologic response of a watershed so quickly that even a relatively modest rainstorm can trigger flash floods and steep terrain debris flows, said Jason Kean, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Landslide Hazards Program in Golden, Colo.

“A debris flow is kind of like a flood on steroids,” said Kean. “It’s all bulked up with rocks, mud, boulders, and then it becomes a different animal that can be even more destructive than a flood.”

Burned and denuded land no longer has the vegetative root structure to help stabilize the soil and is easily eroded by rain.

Another lesser-known threat to the region’s water is gaining attention in urban areas affected by wildfires: chemical contamination.

In cities that have experienced devastating fires, water officials are finding cancer-causing benzene and other volatile organic compounds in contaminated and fire-damaged water infrastructure.

Such was the case in the Northern California town of Santa Rosa after the Tubbs Fire in the fall of 2017 and again in the town of Paradise after the deadly 2018 Camp Fire. Earlier this week, the carcinogen was detected in the Riverside Grove neighborhood near Boulder Creek, Calif., a community devastated by the CZU August Lightning Complex fires.

As the severity and size of wildfires grow, so do a series of complex threats to the nation’s water systems — from debris to dangerous pollution, depending on the location and type of fire.

Wildfires that only affect wildlands with no urban fill or homes generate sediment and debris that will be washed into nearby bodies of water, all of which can affect smell or taste of drinking water depending on what nearby communities rely upon, said Newsha Ajami, director of Urban Water Policy with Stanford University’s Water in the West program.

If a wildfire destroys homes, cars or other facilities, more concerning debris will need to be managed before the next storm or rain event to control for metals, chemicals and oils. Lastly, there’s no way to control for ash and smoke from wildfires that travel far distances and eventually precipitate on soil and water far from the site of the fire.

The Arctic is burning like never before — and that’s bad news for climate change

The Arctic is burning like never before — and that’s bad news for climate change

SOURCE: Nature

DATE: September 10, 2020

SNIP: Wildfires blazed along the Arctic Circle this summer, incinerating tundra, blanketing Siberian cities in smoke and capping the second extraordinary fire season in a row. By the time the fire season waned at the end of last month, the blazes had emitted a record 244 megatonnes of carbon dioxide — that’s 35% more than last year, which also set records. One culprit, scientists say, could be peatlands that are burning as the top of the world melts.

Peatlands are carbon-rich soils that accumulate as waterlogged plants slowly decay, sometimes over thousands of years. They are the most carbon-dense ecosystems on Earth; a typical northern peatland packs in roughly ten times as much carbon as a boreal forest. When peat burns, it releases its ancient carbon to the atmosphere, adding to the heat-trapping gases that cause climate change.

Nearly half the world’s peatland-stored carbon lies between 60 and 70 degrees north, along the Arctic Circle. The problem with this is that historically frozen carbon-rich soils are expected to thaw as the planet warms, making them even more vulnerable to wildfires and more likely to release large amounts of carbon. It’s a feedback loop: as peatlands release more carbon, global warming increases, which thaws more peat and causes more wildfires. A study published last month1 shows that northern peatlands could eventually shift from being a net sink for carbon to a net source of carbon, further accelerating climate change.

The unprecedented Arctic wildfires of 2019 and 2020 show that transformational shifts are already under way, says Thomas Smith, an environmental geographer at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “Alarming is the right term.”

The fire season in the Arctic kicked off unusually early this year: as early as May, there were fires blazing north of the tree line in Siberia, which normally wouldn’t happen until around July. One reason is that temperatures in winter and spring were warmer than usual, priming the landscape to burn. It’s also possible that peat fires had been smouldering beneath the ice and snow all winter and then emerged, zombie-like, in the spring as the snow melted. Scientists have shown that this kind of low-temperature, flameless combustion can burn in peat and other organic matter, such as coal, for months or even years.

Because of the early start, individual Arctic wildfires have been burning for longer than usual, and “they’re starting much farther north than they used to — in landscapes that we thought were fire-resistant rather than fire-prone”, says Jessica McCarty, a geographer at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Researchers are now assessing just how bad this Arctic fire season was. The Russian Wildfires Remote Monitoring System catalogued 18,591 separate fires in Russia’s two easternmost districts, with a total of nearly 14 million hectares burnt, says Evgeny Shvetsov, a fire specialist at the Sukachev Institute of Forest, which is part of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Krasnoyarsk. Most of the burning happened in permafrost zones, where the ground is normally frozen year-round.

How much this year’s Arctic fires will affect global climate over the long term depends on what they burnt. That’s because peatlands, unlike boreal forest, do not regrow quickly after a fire, so the carbon released is permanently lost to the atmosphere.

Smith has calculated that about half of the Arctic wildfires in May and June were on peatlands — and that in many cases, the fires went on for days, suggesting that they were fuelled by thick layers of peat or other soil rich in organic matter.

And the August study1 found that there are nearly four million square kilometres of peatlands in northern latitudes. More of that than previously thought is frozen and shallow — and therefore vulnerable to thawing and drying out, says Gustaf Hugelius, a permafrost scientist at Stockholm University who led the investigation. He and his colleagues also found that although peatlands have been helping to cool the climate for thousands of years, by storing carbon as they accumulate, they will probably become a net source of carbon being released into the atmosphere — which could happen by the end of the century.

Wildlife in ‘catastrophic decline’ due to human destruction, scientists warn

Wildlife in ‘catastrophic decline’ due to human destruction, scientists warn

SOURCE: BBC and The Guardian

DATE: September 10, 2020

SNIP: Wildlife populations have fallen by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years, according to a major report by the conservation group WWF.

The report says this “catastrophic decline” shows no sign of slowing.

And it warns that nature is being destroyed by humans at a rate never seen before.

Wildlife is “in freefall” as we burn forests, over-fish our seas and destroy wild areas, says Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF.

“We are wrecking our world – the one place we call home – risking our health, security and survival here on Earth. Now nature is sending us a desperate SOS and time is running out.”

The report looked at thousands of different wildlife species monitored by conservation scientists in habitats across the world.

They recorded an average 68% fall in more than 20,000 populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish since 1970.

The decline was clear evidence of the damage human activity is doing to the natural world, said Dr Andrew Terry, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), which provides the data.

“If nothing changes, populations will undoubtedly continue to fall, driving wildlife to extinction and threatening the integrity of the ecosystems on which we depend,” he added.

Taken together, they provide evidence that biodiversity is being destroyed at a rate unprecedented in human history.

This particular report uses an index of whether populations of wildlife are going up or down. It does not tell us the number of species lost, or extinctions.

The largest declines are in tropical areas. The drop of 94% for Latin America and the Caribbean is the largest anywhere in the world, driven by a cocktail of threats to reptiles, amphibians and birds.

Research published in the journal Nature suggests that to turn the tide we must transform the way we produce and consume food, including reducing food waste and eating food with a lower environmental impact.

In 2019, an intergovernmental panel of scientists concluded that one million species (500,000 animals and plants, and 500,000 insects) are threatened with extinction, some within decades.

Earth barreling toward ‘Hothouse’ state not seen in 50 million years, epic new climate record shows

Earth barreling toward ‘Hothouse’ state not seen in 50 million years, epic new climate record shows

SOURCE: Live Science and Science

DATE: September 10, 2020

SNIP: Sixty-six million years ago, after a massive asteroid hit Earth with the explosive energy of roughly 1 billion nuclear bombs, a shroud of ash, dust and vaporized rock covered the sky and slowly rained down on the planet. As plant and animal species died en masse, tiny undersea amoebas called forams continued to reproduce, building sturdy shells out of calcium and other deep-sea minerals, just as they had for hundreds of millions of years. When each foram inevitably died — pulverized into seabed sediment — they kept a little piece of Earth’s ancient history alive in their fossilized shells.

For decades, scientists have studied those shells, finding clues about the ancient Earth’s ocean temperatures, its carbon budget and the composition of minerals spilling through the air and seas. Now, in a new study published today (Sept. 10) in the journal Science, researchers have analyzed the chemical elements in thousands of foram samples to build the most detailed climate record of Earth ever — and it reveals just how dire our current climate situation is.

The new paper, which comprises decades of deep-ocean drilling missions into a single record, details Earth’s climate swings across the entire Cenozoic era — the 66 million-year period that began with the death of the dinosaurs and extends to the present epoch of human-induced climate change. The results show how Earth transitioned through four distinct climate states — dubbed the Warmhouse, Hothouse, Coolhouse and Icehouse states — in response to changes in the planet’s orbit, greenhouse gas levels and the extent of polar ice sheets.

The zig-zagging chart (shown above) ends with a sobering peak. According to the researchers, the current pace of anthropogenic global warming far exceeds the natural climate fluctuations seen at any other point in the Cenozoic era, and has the potential to hyper-drive our planet out of a long icehouse phase into a searing hothouse state.

“Now that we have succeeded in capturing the natural climate variability, we can see that the projected anthropogenic warming will be much greater than that,” study co-author James Zachos, professor of Earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a statement. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections for 2300 in the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario will potentially bring global temperature to a level the planet has not seen in 50 million years.”

Because the team’s climate record covers such an incredibly long time period, the researchers also had to consider astronomic impacts on the planet’s climate — that is, how Earth’s slowly changing orbit and tilt toward the sun impact the amount of sunlight reaching different parts of the planet at different times, also known as Milankovitch cycles. When the team overlaid orbital data with their isotopic climate data, they saw that orbital variations created distinct but relatively small-scale changes to the global climate. Crucially, each big jump between climate states was tied to a massive shift in greenhouse gas levels, the researchers said.

About 3 million years ago, Earth entered an icehouse phase, driven by waxing and waning ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere. Now, human greenhouse gas emissions are causing temperatures to rise to an extent not seen in tens of millions of years. This rise is well beyond the natural variations triggered by Earth’s changing orbit, the researchers concluded. And if current greenhouse emissions hold steady, the climate could skyrocket back to levels not seen since the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. The transition from icehouse to hothouse won’t take millions of years, Zachos said — it will take hundreds.