Category: Environmental Science

The Impacts of Climate Change on the Healthcare Sector

by Anna Subbanna

Older generations have always thought of the effects of climate change as an abstract idea that will occur far in the future. Apologies for the wake-up call, but the future is now. Many different sectors have already seen the negative consequences of climate change and are calling for immediate action. 

The Immediate Effects of Climate Change

As global temperatures continue to rise, emergency medicine sees an increase in cases, especially among the older generations. Cases of heat strokes have been spiking in areas that experience unusually high temperatures. In many cooler areas, patients do not consider heat strokes a possibility and consequently do not make it to the hospital in time. Moreover, the increased pollutants and pollen in the air lead to increased respiratory illnesses, such as asthma or severe allergies. The WHO approximated 250,000 annual deaths from 2030 to 2050 that could be attributed to “climate change-related increases in heat exposure in elderly people, as well as increases in diarrheal disease, malaria, dengue, coastal flooding, and childhood stunting” (Haines, Andy, and Kristie, “The Imperative for Climate Action to Protect Health”).

How Rising Temperatures Affect Medical Care

One of the most prominent sectors affected by climate change is healthcare. As global temperatures rise, natural disasters, such as forest fires and hurricanes (Climate Change and Law Collection), see a significant increase. Many states, like California, shut off electricity in high-risk areas to prevent wildfires. However, around 250 Californian hospitals have had their power shut off due to this practice (Salas, “The Climate Crisis and Clinical Practice). Vital medical equipment such as ventilators, MRIs, and electrical oxygen tanks have to rely on backup generators to operate properly. Thus, a blackout puts all patients that are dependent on these kinds of technology at risk. It is especially harmful to limited-resource hospice patients that get medical treatment in their houses, as most of them do not have access to a backup generator and must find other ways to ensure their survival. Additionally, the increased hurricanes can lead to destructions of hospitals and more power shortages across the impacted area. Although it may not be discernible to the naked eye, if one looks further, climate change is very harmful to physicians ability to care for at-risk patients 

The effects of climate change are far-reaching and have already begun to metastasize into different parts of the medical sector. The noticeable consequences are only the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully, policies will change before the medical community experiences the rest.

EPA Weakens Obama Administration Methane Pollution Regulations

by Kaushal Kumar

Over the past year, the Trump Administration’s EPA has been working on a rule to weaken the current laws that place heavy regulations on the amount of methane that energy companies can release into the atmosphere while forcing them to make sure they repair faulty infrastructure and maintain low levels of pollution. These old regulations were put into place by the Obama Administration and were meant to combat climate change through regulation of the fossil fuel industry. However, the EPA claims that these rules are greatly “harmful to small and medium businesses”, as it is very expensive to maintain pipes, storage facilities, and wells to ensure that they are not leaking gas into the air. The newest ruling eliminates that federal requirement, allowing businesses to not have to monitor methane pollution that may be coming from their pipes or other buildings.

This is just one of the many rulings that the EPA has made in favor of the American fossil fuel industry. Earlier this summer, the EPA passed a ruling that is meant to speed up the process of building energy infrastructure by shortening the time needed to get all required permits to build. This choice was highly controversial and was opposed by many who claim, “the decision curtail the public’s right to have a say in the development of pipelines and other projects in their neighborhoods.”

Methane gas pollution is a major cause of global warming and its impact on the atmosphere is estimated to be around 84 times stronger than carbon dioxide. Methane is also the driving factor for approximately 25% of total global warming over the last few decades, with at least a third of that coming from the US energy industry. With the newest regulations brought in by the EPA, experts only expect this number to rise, drawing serious concerns about the world’s future battle against climate change.

Even though the rulings seem favorable to the fossil fuel industry, many large companies have spoken out against the rulings citing their own pledges to fight against climate change and reduce their methane pollution. Smaller companies are happier with the decision, claiming that the old regulations were too restrictive and are especially happy to see something go their way with the recent drop in oil and gas prices during the pandemic.

The Ocean Is Warming Faster Than Ever and There Is No Denying It

by Sudhit Rao

Water is an integral part of life on Earth and as global warming becomes more prominent, the Earth’s oceans are taking a huge hit. Studies conducted at the end of 2019 concluded that the oceans are now warmer than ever before. This could prove deadly to marine life which in turn would affect the marine ecosystem. 

Scientists estimate that the ocean is about 0.075 degrees Celsius(~0.135 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the average ocean temperature from 1981 to 2010. Many might think that a 0.075-degree increase is negligible, especially over a couple of decades, but scientists conclude that this increase in temperature is similar to the heat of 5 atomic bombs expelled into the ocean every second. This can be accredited to the immense volume of the ocean, as the oceans combined have a volume of 1.35 billion cubic kilometers (~320 million cubic miles). To increase the temperature by a figure smaller than a tenth of a degree, it would take 228 sextillion Joules of heat. That is 228 followed by 21 zeros! The total number of Hiroshima explosions it would take to reach that number is 3.6 billion. To put that number in perspective, it would take 28,000 years for 7.1 billion people (the world’s population) to utter one sextillion words. 

Ocean warming threatens the life of marine animals and has enormous impacts on the marine ecosystem. For example, coral reefs experience coral bleaching, where the corals expel the surrounding algae, causing the corals to turn white. This adds a lot of stress to the corals, which in turn increases the mortality rate. Other marine life such as fish, seabirds, and marine mammals experience mass migration due to the warm waters and their search for more favorable breeding areas. 

The recent increase in the ocean’s temperature has been proven deadly to the environment and the lives of marine animals. The true scale to which the ocean has warmed up is immense and reversing this effect is key in saving marine life and the underwater ecosystem. 

Agriculture Is New Primary Source of Sulfur In USA Environment, Passing Fossil Fuels

by Arun

New studies are showing that agriculture – specifically pesticide applications to croplands – have the highest output of sulfur to the environment, beating fossil fuels. The study now shows farmers, who have long been protected in the fight against climate change, may actually be contributing negatively to the cause.

How does Sulfur affect the environment?

Surprisingly, much is not known regarding the effects that sulfur has on the environment. The study of these topics is often overlooked in favor of carbon dioxide, methane, or mercury, though increasing sulfur pollution at agricultural mainlands is warranting a continuation regarding the understanding of the effects of sulfur pollution. However, scientists hypothesize that an increase in sulfur levels can correlate with increased levels of mercury in wetlands, soil degradation, and higher risks of asthma for residents in these areas. In addition, the sulfur in the air can react with the native oxygen and form sulfur dioxide, an often studied substance, which has proven to have negative impacts on the respiratory system, including lung function (asthma, pulmonary edema, and chest tightness).

Regardless of the negative implications, it is important to still consider the necessity of sulfur in the environment. In moderation, sulfur is an important plant nutrient that helps with the uptake of nitrogen and assists with the creation of fertilizer and pesticides. Sulfur also plays a key role in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, both in developing and maintaining the health of the ecosystem. The key is moderation– with excess levels, however, the consequences are currently unforeseen.

For the past hundred years, coal-fired plants have been the primary source of sulfur emissions, leading to acid rain and the degradation of forests and the aquatic ecosystem in the late 1900s. After scientific research into the topic, the Clean Air Act was passed to mitigate the emissions to the pre-industrial levels. However, this new uptick in sulfur emissions from agriculture is puzzling scientists as they scramble to study the long-term risks for this increase in pollution.

With the implications currently unknown, it is imperative that research on the effects of excess sulfur in the environment is continued and synthesized to a measurable conclusion. As the necessity of agriculture increases and farmers are stretched, it is inevitable that the use of pesticides will continue, ultimately increasing agriculture’s sulfur footprint. With a lot currently up in the air, only time – and research – will tell what the potential short-term and long-term consequences of this pollution will be.

Climate Change Increases Thawing of Frozen Peatlands

by Saarang Kashyap

Right now, huge amounts of carbon are stored in boggy, often frozen regions stretching across the northern parts of the world. Over many millennia, these regions, commonly referred to as peatlands, have played a key role in cooling the global climate. As the world progressively warms up however, thawing of permafrost and the peat inside it is expected to release huge amounts of CO2, leading to devastating consequences on the climate.

As stated in UnEnvironment, “peatlands are characterized by a thick layer of dead plant remains, or peat. The water-saturated, oxygen-free, and permafrost conditions prevent peat from full decay and allow it to accumulate over thousands of years. The intricate relationships between peat, vegetation, water, and ice maintain the delicate balance of permafrost peatlands.” It’s estimated that the northern hemisphere’s frozen soils and peatlands hold about 1,700 billion tons of carbon, four times more than humans have emitted since the industrial revolution, and twice as much currently present in the atmosphere.

Using data compiled from more than 7,000 field observations, the authors of a new study were able to generate the most accurate maps to date of the peatlands, their depth, and the amount of warming gas they contain. They show that the boggy terrain covers 3.7 million sq kilometers (1.42 million sq miles). The researchers say the northern peatlands store around 415 gigatonnes of carbon. That’s roughly equivalent to 46 years of current global CO2 emissions.

What has contributed to the breakdown of peatlands? Climate Breakdown is not the only factor directly influencing the changes in permafrost peatlands. Any disturbance to the surface soil can lead to permafrost degradation, including natural processes such as forest or tundra fires, and human activity, such as industrial and urban infrastructure development as well as mining, tourism, and agriculture. The removal of trees and shrubs leads to more solar heat input, permafrost collapse, and wetter conditions. Open water accumulates summer heat and acts as a heat source in winter, affecting the distribution of permafrost.

Even though the situation looks grim, scientists believe in the restoration of the bogs through investment efforts. Experts also mention that as frozen peat thaws out,  it starts to become capable of growing plants and storing warming gases.

Irish Citizens Triumph as Supreme Court Orders Stronger National Climate Plan

by Nakul

This past week marked a notable period in Ireland’s fight against climate change. The citizen-run NGO, Friends of the Irish Government (FIE), called for more accountability by the federal government regarding its plan to reduce natural gas emissions. 

For context, in 2015, the nation passed the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act, which stated that by 2050, Ireland would reduce its greenhouse emissions by 80% in comparison to 1990 levels. In 2017, the Irish government followed this up with a more robust plan, the National Mitigation Plan, which explained in detail how the government planned to drastically reduce emissions in a viable, safe manner. However, the FIE exclaimed that the government simply failed to clearly and specifically address how they would implement such change in the energy industry in their previous plans, and in October of 2017, they launched an “application for judicial review” on the National Mitigation Plan, in the court case now dubbed Climate Case Ireland. The FIE also contended “developed countries like Ireland should be cutting emissions 25-40% from 1990 levels by 2020”. The group received significant support around the nation, with one of their online petitions garnering over 20,000 signatures. The government’s Climate Change Advisory Council itself admitted the issue in the current climate plan, explaining that the nation is “completely off course” of achieving its 2020 and 2030 emission reduction goals. 

Initially, in September of 2019, the Supreme Court actually ruled against the FIE, claiming the the “[National Mitigation] Act does not require particular intermediate targets”. The FIE immediately appealed this court ruling, and in a landmark decision near the end of July, all 7 Supreme Court judges ruled in favor of the FIE, stating that “a compliant plan must be sufficiently specific as to policy over the whole period to 2050.” Understandably, the citizen members of FIE were “overwhelmed”, with spokesperson Clodagh Daly stating that the FIE is “grateful to the lawyers who dedicated their time to the case and are thankful to supporters across Ireland who backed them”. The government revealed that it now plans to reduce annual emissions by 7% from 2021 to 2030, totaling a 51% reduction by the end of that period. 

Extreme Central Europe Droughts Could Occur Seven Times More Often

by Daanyal Raja

New research suggests that it is probable that extreme droughts will become very frequent across much of central Europe, and if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, they could occur nearly seven times more often. 

Two of the warmest summer periods ever recorded in Central Europe were during 2018 and 2019. Compared to previous summers, both 2018 and 2019 were significantly warmer, drier, and caused more damage to surrounding environments on a much larger scale. Crops were ruined, wildfires became a prevalent issue, and rivers and other bodies of water dried up. Only other drought on record that is comparable to both of these occurred in 1949 and 1950, which impacted a much smaller area of land.

Researchers from UFZ-Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany utilized historical records dating back to 1766 as well as computer models of climate change in order to predict that a slight decline in greenhouse gas levels would significantly reduce the probability of these extreme droughts from occurring. Furthermore, a slight decline could also reduce the impacted area of land by approximately 40%.

One of the study’s authors, Rohini Kumar, told the Guardian, “The findings indicate that introducing measures to reduce future carbon emissions may lower the risk of more frequent consecutive drought events across Europe. On the one hand, we need to step up our efforts to reduce greenhouse gases worldwide, and at the same time deal with strategies to adapt to climate change.”

Kumar also added that by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the frequency of these droughts could drop to “a very negligible number.”

Constantin Zohner from the Crowther Lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, a scientist who was not involved in the research, stated that the study emphasizes some of the possible consequences that could occur if we keep downplaying climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. Zohner told the Guardian “[These] findings are an important warning to the world that continued emissions will strongly exacerbate future drought events, threatening ecosystems, agriculture and human wellbeing […] The study, once more, highlights the urgent need for climate action in order to maintain the functionality of ecosystems and ensure water supply to future generations.”

Forests Can Migrate — But Can’t Outrun Climate Change

by Anshul Dash

Many animals are known for their migration patterns, from birds to butterflies and wildebeest. However, most people don’t know that trees migrate as well. Science writer Zach St. George has studied the movement of whole forests and published his work in his new book The Journey of Trees. He has stated that forests move as “old trees die and new ones sprout up.”

According to St. George, forests migrate when multiple trees sprout in the same direction. He says that scientists can track the movement of trees through ancient fossils left behind by old forests. There is also evidence that forests follow the same route back and forth, like most whales and birds that migrate. Although forests send out seeds in all the directions, it is the seeds in the north that thrive the most. This causes forests to move northward over time.

The migration of forests has been happening for millions of years. Scientists have deduced that climate change is the reason behind these migrations. However, the rate of climate change is increasing by the minute, and the forests can’t seem to keep up the pace. For example, the climate in California is becoming hotter and drier. Because of this, Joshua Tree National Park may not be able to sustain Joshua trees in the long run. A similar threat is being posed in Sequoia National Park due to the recent California drought. 

In order to combat this problem, scientists have come up with “assisted migration” — people planting trees in areas where they’re likely to thrive. However, it isn’t the best solution since people can accidentally introduce insects, new plants, and other diseases that can potentially wipe out these tree populations. Because of this, there’s a huge debate between scientists and conservationists as to whether or not humans should assist in forest migration. 

St. George has new hopes for the migration of forests after publishing his new book. He said that climate change will cause dramatic changes to forests, stating that some of them could be lost because of climate change. Through publishing his book, St. George hopes to raise awareness regarding the current condition of forests worldwide, and he hopes that people will take action to combat climate change.

Polar Bears Could Go Extinct By the End of the Century

by Anshul Dash

According to a study, polar bears could be wiped out by the end of the century if action isn’t taken to combat climate change. As arctic ice continues to shrink, scientists claim that polar bears in that region have reached their survival limit. Polar bears rely on the ice to hunt for their main prey, seals. However, as the ice sheets continue to melt and give in, polar bears are forced to go long distances and stay on the shore, thus struggling to catch prey and feed their cubs.

Polar bears are now currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), with climate change listed as a key factor in their decline. Nature Climate Change published a study that describes a timeline of how climate change will cause the polar bear population to shrink. The researchers were able to determine the current endurance level of polar bears based on the relationship between climate change rates and mortality rates. According to Polar Bears International lead scientist Steven Armstrup, “What we’ve shown is that, first, we’ll lose the survival of cubs, so cubs will be born but the females won’t have enough body fat to produce milk to bring them along through the ice-free season. Any of us know that we can only go without food for so long. That’s a biological reality for all species.”

In addition to calculating endurance level, the researchers also calculated when certain thresholds would be met in different regions of the Arctic. It is highly likely that almost all of the polar bear population will be wiped out by the end of the century due to high greenhouse gas emissions. The findings, however, show that few polar bear populations in the north could survive past 2100 since the effects of climate change there are less. Sea ice in the Arctic has been decreasing at a rate of 13% since the 1970s. That means that by 2100, there will be very little sea ice for polar bears to roam on. It is important to contribute to the fight against climate change to make sure that these magnificent animals do not go extinct.

Due to Rising Temperatures, Summer Could Cause Heat Stress

by Anshul Dash

Global warming is having a huge effect on how the 4 climate seasons behave. Due to rising temperatures, summer can cause temperatures to reach a record high. Because of this, people outside may suffer from heat stress — a serious condition that causes body organs to shut down. 

People who are vulnerable to heat stress tend to be those whose jobs involve a lot of work outdoors. Such jobs include farming and construction. Overheating is especially bad for doctors working during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Dr. Jimmy Lee, “overheating can slow down our ability to do something that’s vital for medical staff – make quick decisions.” Doctors may also ignore ongoing symptoms of heat stress, causing them to collapse while working.

Heat stress occurs when the body is unable to cool down properly. Body temperatures rise to dangerous levels and damage organs, causing them to shut down. Heat stress typically happens in hot, humid places because evaporation of sweat cannot take place in humid environments. COVID-19 doctors wear special suits that protect them from the virus but prevent sweat from evaporating. As a result, many COVID-19 doctors are vulnerable to heat stress. 

The effects of climate change make heat stress more likely to happen. Increasing global temperatures cause more intense humidity, which is detrimental because more people are exposed to deadly combinations of heat and moisture for a longer amount of time, thus making them vulnerable to heat stress. According to UK Met Office Professor Richard Betts, “millions of people already work in the challenging combination of extreme heat and high humidity.” According to another published study, heat stress could affect 1.2 billion people worldwide by 2100, which is four times the amount of people affected now.

Fortunately, heat stress is avoidable. Hydration is the key to avoiding heat stress. Workers need to drink plenty of fluids before starting their work, and they should take regular breaks where they drink water and take rest. However, Dr. Lee has stated that he and his fellow COVID-19 doctors have a hard time taking breaks in between because “going for rests involves the laborious process of changing out of PPE and then back into a new set of equipment.” Another key to avoiding heat stress is being fit. Through being fit, heat tolerance is high, which serves as a sort of immunity to heat stress. Through proper aerobic exercises and staying hydrated, most people won’t suffer from heat stress.