Category: Environmental Science

Tech Industry Plays Growing Role in Fight Against Climate Change

by Anshul Dash

The tech industry has played a significant role in the fight against climate change through many actions, such as following zero-carbon footprints and pushing for use of data to encourage efficiency of energy.

The tech industry has a huge influence on most people. It currently dominates areas in politics, the economy, and culture. Because of this, the industry’s role in climate change could have huge, positive impacts. Big tech giants such as Amazon and Shopify have recently invested $2 billion and 5$ billion, respectively, into environmental companies such as CarbonCure Technologies, which stores CO2 in concrete, and Pachama, which uses artificial intelligence to save and preserve forests. Through these investments, tech giants are earning credibility for contributing to the fight against climate change.

However, big tech companies are receiving criticism from the public regarding their own carbon footprints, which are very high numbers. Tech giants are also receiving backlash for partnering with major oil and gas companies, which contributes to the overall carbon footprint through the extraction of fossil fuels. Based on the criticism, many of these companies are reforming their policies. For example, Microsoft partnered up with oil company BP to reduce its oil/gas emission. Google proclaimed that it aims to run all of its data centers on carbon-free power by 2030. 

Out of the fight against climate change, an association called the Digital Climate Alliance was formed. The Alliance aims to include digital solutions as a part of climate policy. The Alliance, led by Johnson Controls and Intel, will try to negotiate with Congress to add a digital title into their developing climate policy. According to the organizers of the group, at least one oil company is likely to join. 

One way that the tech industry is planning to become environmentally friendly is to shift web searches and data centers to places where electricity is wasted. It also plans to further assess emissions up close by studying specific fossil fuels and buildings. Digitizing data can have a hugely positive effect on cutting carbon emissions.

California Wildfires Claim the Lives of Hundreds of Thousands of Migrating Birds

by Kaushal Kumar

Last week park rangers in Albuquerque, New Mexico were startled to find hundreds of dead swallows scattered around their forests and parks. These birds were meant to be migrating from the Western United States to the tropics as a part of their biannual migration to remain in warm weather. This year, however, they didn’t make it. John Hayes explained how unusual the large amounts of deaths were when he said, ““Birds that are migrating are often stressed and exhausted. But that results in a few birds here and there dying; you don’t see thousands of them dropping dead.”

Ornithologists, scientists who focus on the study of birds, consider this mass die-off as a byproduct of the ongoing wildfires in California. They suspect that the birds were forced to divert their path to avoid the fires and thick smoke that is impacting much of Central and Southern California and pass through New Mexico. However, due to ongoing weather conditions in New Mexico, including an extreme cold front and an ongoing drought, the birds may have starved due to a lack of insects. 

The birds found in New Mexico are just the tip of the iceberg, with many other locations, including California, Colorado, and numerous Mexican States also reporting similar cases of large numbers of dead birds.  Scientists expect that the total number of deaths may be in the hundreds of thousands and that the bird population will only continue to suffer as the smoke from the wildfires begins to reach the East Coast. The effect that smoke has on birds has been closely studied and the exposure to smoke can impact a bird’s ability to reproduce and makes them more susceptible to developing respiratory illnesses.

The unsettling deaths of hundreds of thousands of birds are just another reminder of our constant battle against climate change. As the weather becomes more extreme and natural disasters like the historic wildfires in California and droughts in New Mexico become more common it is inevitable that the wildlife that depends on the climate to survive will suffer. Continued human action that speeds up climate change will continue to have an impact on not the future of people, but also the future of all living things on the planet.

The Climate Crisis You Haven’t Heard Of— The Melting of Himalayan Ice Sheets

by Saarang Kashyap

Everyone knows what’s happening in the North and South pole: the ice caps are melting. Ask a little more and they might tell you that this phenomenon is due to runaway climate change. They may also mention that at some point in the following decades, sea levels will rise and low-lying places like Florida and Venice will disappear. However, not many know about the Hindu Kush Himalayan Ice Sheet, better known as the Third Pole, and how this third of the huge ice fields in Asia’s towering mountain chain is diminishing rapidly.  

According to a landmark report, the melting of this ice sheet will have serious consequences for almost 2 billion people. Even if carbon emissions are dramatically and rapidly cut and succeed in limiting global warming to 1.5C, 36% of the glaciers along in the Hindu Kush and Himalaya range will have been gone by 2100. If emissions are not cut, the loss soars to two-thirds, the report found. As stated in the TheGuardian, The glaciers are a critical water store for the 250 million people who live in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region, and 1.65 billion people rely on the great rivers that flow from the peaks into India, Pakistan, China, and other nations.

Since the 1970s, about 15% of the ice in the HKH region has disappeared as temperatures have risen. But the HKH range is 3,500km long and the impact of warming is variable. Some glaciers in Afghanistan and Pakistan are stable and a few are even gaining ice, most probably due to increased cloud cover that shields the sun in addition to changing winds that bring more snow. But even these glaciers will start crumbling with future warming.

Political tensions between neighboring nations such as India and Pakistan could add to the difficulties. “There are rocky times ahead for the region. Because many of the disasters and sudden changes will play out across country borders, conflict among the region’s countries could easily flare up,” said Eklabya Sharma, the deputy director general of Icimod.

The report also highlights how vulnerable many mountain people are, with one-third living on less than $1.90 a day and far away from help if a climate disaster strikes. We can support the native people who rely on the Himalayan Ice Sheet by educating ourselves on how we, in our own communities, can mitigate climate change.

University of Utah Researchers Discover that Evergreens –Yes, Evergreen Trees– Can Monitor Air Pollution

by Arun

This past week, two researchers on the campus of the University of Utah (Peter Lippert and Grant Rea-Downing) who were conducting a project involving measuring magnetism of particulate matter on the needles of evergreen trees discovered that the magnetism they measured had a distinct correlation to the air quality in the area. The discovery reveals a new wave of thought processes for scientists and government officials in determining air quality and uncovers the possibility of a shift from standard air quality monitors dispersed through cities.

The findings come in wake of what has been some of the most deadly forest fires spread across the nation, concentrated on the west coast. The forest fires that mainly originated in California have now spread to 11 U.S. states, with no end in view. Air quality has severely deteriorated in the surrounding regions, with homes and loved ones being lost. With the increased focus on air quality given the recent events, these researching scientists offer a unique way of determining air quality in local regions that do not have air quality monitors.

How does it work?

As demonstrated by the scientists, the actual science behind their findings is actually less complicated than initially seems. Particulate matter, which is generally dispersed through the air (which comes as a result of natural dust, burning of fossil fuels), eventually settles on surrounding objects, namely trees. Some of these particles contain iron, which can be detected by magnetometers. From reading the magnetometer, the researchers were able to determine the amount of particulate matter present on the trees, which can offer air quality readings.

Their process works for any given tree, actually, though they chose to work with evergreens because of their abundant presence in the university’s campus, as well as for the large surface area on the needles and leaves of the evergreen tree.

The scientists are the first to admit that although they are not the first to “explore the magnetism of pine needles to monitor air quality,” they are the first to “study winter inversions in the basins of the American West.”

With their findings, the scientist carried out further research in hopes of making air quality monitors accessible to a broader audience. Trees are everywhere in the world’s landscape, and with their further research that aims to perfect and offer more insights through their measures, they aim to achieve their goal of “democratiz[ing] [their] ability to monitor air pollution across the valley… it allows us to do more with less.” Their findings are promising, and as they carry out follow-up segments of their research, the potential advancements of measuring air quality and offering it to all is an exciting thought.

Trump Blames Forest Management, Not Climate Change, for California Forest Fires

by Daanyal Raja

Within the past month, West Coast states have been dealing with one of the most dangerous wildfire seasons ever. An overwhelming majority of climate and environmental scientists attribute these fires to rising temperatures and warmer weather across the West Coast, making wildfires more common and damaging. However, President Trump, a fervent denier of man-made climate change and global warming, blames the issue on forest management.

President Trump recently visited California, one of the states that were greatly impacted by the fires, toured some of the wildfire damage, and sat down with local and state officials to discuss the matter. During one meeting, California National Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot told Trump, “We want to work with you to really recognize the changing climate, and what it means to our forests” before warning “If we ignore that science, and sort of put our head in the sand, and think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed protecting Californians.” Trump responded to this by claiming that the climate “would start getting cooler,” to which Crowfoot replied, “I wish science agreed with you.” 

Trump has been more than vocal about his beliefs regarding forest management and the wildfires in the past. At one of his rallies in Pennsylvania, he said “I see again the forest fires are starting […] They’re starting again in California. I said, you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests — there are many, many years of leaves and broken trees and they’re like, like, so flammable, you touch them and it goes up,” claiming that some trees and leaves can instantaneously combust. He also said, “Maybe we’re just going to have to make [California] pay for it because they don’t listen to us,” he added. This hasn’t been the first time Trump has blamed the predominantly Democratic state and threatened to withhold money from them; he did the same in 2018 and 2019 as wildfires ravaged the state. 

However, Trump’s threats have yet to be implemented in any way. In fact, last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a new “shared stewardship” that combines forces from the U.S. Forest Service and California to work towards managing forests to reduce fire risk. Newsom also said “Wildfires don’t stop at jurisdictional boundaries. As we respond to wildfires in real-time this summer, improving coordination between the major stewards of California’s forested land will help us protect communities and restore forest health across California.”

EU Claims 13% of deaths are due to climate change the same day POTUS claims he is the “No. 1 Environmental President”

by Kaushal Kumar

Earlier this week, the UN reported that 13% of all deaths in the European Union (EU), including England, are due to climate change and the rapid warming of the globe. This data was gathered from the 627,000 deaths that were reported in 2012 due to climate change, the latest year which this data is available for. The EEA claimed that many of these deaths were preventable and action to fight against climate change would have saved many and will continue to save others in the future.

The largest killer is air pollution, responsible for over 400,000 deaths a year in the EU. These deaths also leave citizens more susceptible to illness, especially those that affect the lungs or breathing of the patient. The current global pandemic is an example. Those with weaker bodies due to prolonged exposure to air pollution are more likely to have serious symptoms and are more likely to die if infected with COVID-19.

This news comes the same day as the United States President, Donald Trump, claims that he is the “#1 environmental president” at a campaign rally in Florida. He claimed that Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden would leave the environment “permanently injured” and that the Trump Administration has done an incredible job protecting America’s environment. Trump has claimed that “the left’s agenda isn’t about protecting the environment. It is about punishing America.”

These claims come with some backlash from opposers who were quick to highlight Trump’s past comments about the environment where he claimed climate change was a hoax. His administration has also repealed over 100 environmental protections to help benefit oil and gas companies.

Any way one puts it, it is clear that climate change is having a larger impact on society than ever before. We are seeing hundreds of thousands of people die a year due to climate change, and with the data being almost 10 years old it is almost sure to be larger now. Climate change will continue to be a battle that this world will continue to fight, it is just a matter of how long it takes to either win or lose.

Global Response to COVID-19 Not Enough to Delay Climate Change

by Saarang Kashyap

While emissions of CO2 have plummeted during the lockdown, concentrations of the long-lasting gas have continued to rise in the atmosphere. The period from 2016 to 2020 will likely be the warmest five years on record, a new study reports.

The United in Science report, as mentioned in BBC News, brings together experts from a large number of international organizations, including the UN and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), to give an updated snapshot of the state of the global climate. The study shows that global lockdowns had a significant and immediate impact on emissions of greenhouse gases, with daily levels in April 2020 falling by 17% compared with 2019.

Similar upward trends in CO2 have been observed from other parts of the world. At the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, the amount of CO2 measured in air samples has increased from 411 parts per million (ppm) in July 2019 to 414ppm in July this year. Similarly, at Cape Grim monitoring station in Tasmania, concentrations were also up from 407 to 410ppm in the year to July.

Additionally, global sea levels are rising much faster than previously recorded. Between 2016 and 2020, the rate of increase was 4.8mm per year, an increase over the 4.1mm recorded between 2011 and 2015. The extent of sea-ice in the Arctic has continued to decline, at a rate of 13% per decade.Why might the rise of climate change be a much bigger problem than COVID-19? As stated in GatesNotes, “Within the next 40 years, increases in global temperatures are projected to raise global mortality rates by the same amount—14 deaths per 100,000. By the end of the century, if emissions growth stays high, climate change could be responsible for 73 extra deaths per 100,000 people. In a lower emissions scenario, the death rate drops to 10 per 100,000.” These numbers prove that climate change, although initially illusive, is a dangerous threat when you consider it on a long term scale.

Trump EPA Eases Regulations on Toxic Metal Dumped in Water Bodies

by Sudhit Rao

The Oak Creek power plant by Lake Michigan is one of the largest sources of toxic metal pollution in the lake. It is in the top seven of toxic metal pollutants nationwide but is the major pollutant in Lake Michigan by a large margin. 

The heart of the problem lies with metals within the ash produced by coal burning and leftovers from scrubbers, which are meant to lower air pollution. This metal waste is mixed with water into a sloshy mess and is slowly let out into water bodies such as lakes and rivers, lowering water quality. These metals, when consumed by humans can cause cancer, damage organs, or even cause reproductive issues. 

During Obama’s administration, Obama’s EPA strengthened regulations that limited the amount of toxic metal that could be released into the lake which would still be in effect today. That is until Trump’s EPA loosened the regulation once taking office in 2017. Last week, they finally eliminated the standard completely, which excuses coal power plants such as Oak Creek from any sort of regulation. 

These changes would come at the expense of the 20 million Americans who rely on these water bodies to drink water and eat fish. Betsy Southerland, who led the development of the Obama rule back in 2015 said “There is just no way anyone can justify that trade-off.” Since Trump took office in 2017, the EPA has rollbacked on several environmental acts and this is just one of many. 

Lobbyists from the ever-declining coal industry, which is said to have a share of just 18% of electricity production down from 50% from 10 years ago, have had to lay off many since Obama introduced his acts. They claim that the Obama Administration failed “to consider accurately the cumulative costs of EPA’s major rules affecting the utility industry, the coal industry, and the communities depending on them.”

Trump’s EPA has setback the fight against climate change by making coal power plants such as Oak Creek exempt from most requirements for another decade. These changes will be put in front of a court while coal companies have put any projects on hold until then. The future of the coal industry remains unknown but what we do know is according to Southerland, “They had an opportunity here to protect people at a fraction of the costs we estimated. They just choose not to do so.”

Climate Change’s Hand in the Cause of Hurricane Laura and the California Wildfires

by Kaushal Kumar

In August of 2020, the United States has faced some of the most powerful weather systems that it has ever run into. Hurricane Laura struck the Southern Coast with storm surges over 20 feet tall, with reports claiming that in hotspots the storm would be “unsurvivable.” On the other side of the United States, we see roaring wildfires displacing thousands and covering the Silicon Valley with a thick layer of smoke. All of this while the world faces the Coronavirus pandemic, which has taken the lives of more than 180,000 Americans in less than a year. Climate scientists believe these patterns are here to say and the growing impact of climate change is partially to blame for the unprecedented wildfires and hurricanes.

When Hurricane Laura touched ground in the US it was classified as a Category 4 hurricane, with the potential of storm surges of over 20 feet and winds over 150 mph. It is expected to be one of the 10 greatest hurricanes to ever reach American land according to CNN. Hurricane Laura forced the evacuation of thousands of residents living on the southern coast and left another 400,000 Americans in the Southern Louisiana-Texas region without power.

With the increasing temperature of our globe scientists expect record-setting storms like Laura to become more common. The warmer weather and water are like “recharging batteries” for hurricanes and will cause future storms to be stronger than the ones in the past. Scientists also believe that the change in climate will cause more rain during the storms, which could lead to increased flooding and damages.

But climate change is not only affecting hurricanes, it also may be partially to blame for the extent of the wildfires scorching Northern California, which have burned close to a million acres of forest and still are not close to being fully contained.

Wildfires have always been a part of the Californian ecosystem, but recently fires have been becoming stronger and creeping into areas where fires rarely go. This is due to the heat and reduced moisture that we are seeing in the air and the forests in the state, greatly due to global warming. Becky Bolinger, Colorado’s assistant state climatologist explained, “When you have warmer temperatures and you’re lengthening the warm season, you’re also lengthening the time when wildfires have a chance to start and grow.”

These unusual and dangerous weather patterns seem to be just the tip of the iceberg on what may become the new normal if the world does not begin to take serious action against climate change.

Hurricane Laura Causing Extra Pollution in Affected Areas

by Arun

Hurricane Laura is now the talk of the country as it has become the latest worry in a year that has seen global pandemics, foreign tensions, and wildfires, among other concerns that seemed to be the topic of daily conversations. At its peak, Hurricane Laura was designated a Category 5 Hurricane, putting it on pace with devastating storms like Hurricane Katrina. As of the time of writing, the losses mounted by Hurricane Laura include 10 lives and the damages caused are in excess of $12 billion. Yet the environment seems to also be suffering as a result of the Hurricane. One would assume that factories shutting down and cars off roads would improve air quality in the surrounding region, but in reality, it seems to be doing the opposite.

Louisiana and Texas, which are the two main states experiencing the devastation of Hurricane Laura, are industrial powerhouses, meaning their state economy consists mainly of industrial processes including factories. Foreseeing upcoming declines in production as a result of imminent closures by the Hurricane, factories have been ramping up their production 2 days ahead of the Hurricane, causing an estimated 4 million pounds of additional pollution added to the surrounding environment.

State and local leaders state that it is standard procedure in the face of a hurricane as factories are forced to go into mandatory shutdown mode. To make up for the lost time, they increase the production in the days leading up to the hurricane.

What’s concerning though, is that there is no way to monitor what this increased pollution in a short duration has on the surrounding environment. As a result of the hurricane, state-wide air quality monitors, much like the factories, will be shut down. So, scientists and experts will not know what steps to take until the hurricane passes. Like past hurricanes, Hurricane Laura has caused fires at surrounding power plants leading to another level of greater pollution.

History tells us that the majority of the time, the air quality does not jump to incredible unsafe levels, though still, residents should take caution. However, in some cases, toxic waste and chemicals have been spread as a result of a hurricane passing through a city that makes the air quality unsafe for breathing. With evacuations in the surrounding area, the concern now only lies with how long it will take for the pollution to dissipate.

As Hurricane Laura continues on, the prior pollution and the pollution caused by the storm will be important to consider for citizens as they get back on their fight. With a great degree of uncertainty with the hurricane and the effects of the pollution levels, only time will tell what the effects will be in relation to the climate.