Saturday, April 21, 2018

1887. Damage to Great Barrier Reef From Global Warming Is Irreversible, Scientists Say

By Jacqueline Williams, The New York Times, April 19, 2018
A diver surveying damaged coral in the Great Barrier Reef after a mass bleaching in 2016. Photo:
XL Catlin Seaview Survey, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
SYDNEY, Australia — An underwater heat wave that damaged huge sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef two years ago spurred a die-off of coral so severe that scientists say the natural wonder will never look the same again.

Scientists said nearly one-third of the reef’s coral were killed when ocean temperatures spiked in 2016, a result of global warming, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The damage to the reef, one of the world’s largest living structures, has also radically altered the mix of its coral species, scientists said.

“The reef is changing faster than anyone thought it would,” said Terry P. Hughes, the lead author of the study and the director of a government-funded center for coral reef studies at James Cook University in Queensland.

“One thing we can be sure about is the reef isn’t going to look the same again,” Professor Hughes said.

The reef is home to thousands of species, including sharks, turtles and whales. Australia relies on it for about 70,000 jobs and billions of dollars annually in tourism revenue, all now threatened by years of accumulated damage.

The study’s authors estimated how much coral had died in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 heat wave, and then returned nine months later to discern how many corals had regained their color — a sign of restored health — and how many had died. Their report describes a catastrophic die-off on the northern part of the reef, impacting the mix of coral species.

Professor Hughes said scientists had predicted a mass die-off resulting from global warming, but “what the paper shows is that it’s well underway.” He added, “That transition is happening here and now.”

Corals require warm water to thrive, but they are extremely sensitive to heat, and an increase of two or three degrees Fahrenheit above normal can kill them.

Scientists said that if nations honored global commitments in the Paris climate accord aimed at preventing temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, Australia would still have the Great Barrier Reef in 50 years. It would still look very different from today.

But if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trajectory, the reef will be unrecognizable, they said.

“We’re in unchartered territory,” Professor Hughes said, adding, “Where we end up depends completely on how well or how badly we deal with climate change.”

The Great Barrier Reef has bleached four times since 1998, according to scientists. 

Record high temperatures in 2016 were followed by another bleaching event last year.

“We’re now at a point where we’ve lost close to half of the corals in shallow-water habitats across the northern two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef due to back-to-back bleaching over two consecutive years,” said Sean Connolly, also with the center for coral reef studies at James Cook University.

2886. Poety: Love This Miraculous World

By Wendell Berry
Photo: Kamran Nayeri

Our understandable wish
to preserve the planet
must somehow be
to the scale of our
Love is never abstract.
It does not adhere
to the universe
or the planet
or the nation
or the institution
or the profession,
but to the singular
sparrows of the street,
the lilies of the field,
"the least of these
my brethren".
Love this miraculous world
that we did not make,
that is a gift to us.

Friday, April 20, 2018

2885. Environmental 'Memories' Passed on for 14 Generations

By, April 20, 2017
C. elegans worm. Credit: Adam Klosin, CRG
Scientists at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona and the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute and The Institute for Health Science Research Germans Trias i Pujol (IGTP) in Badalona, Spain, have discovered that the impact of environmental change can be passed on in the genes of tiny nematode worms for at least 14 generations—the most that has ever been seen in animals. The findings will be published on Friday, April 21, in the journal Science.
Led by Dr Ben Lehner, group leader at the EMBL-CRG Systems Biology Unit and ICREA and AXA Professor, together with Dr Tanya Vavouri from the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute and the Institute for Health Science Research Germans Trias i Pujol (IGTP), the researchers noticed that the impact of  can be passed on in the genes for many generations while studying C. elegans worms carrying a  array - a long string of repeated copies of a gene for a  that had been added into the worm genome using genetic engineering techniques.
If the worms were kept at 20 degrees Celsius, the array of transgenes was less active, creating only a small amount of fluorescent protein. But shifting the  to a warmer climate of 25 degrees significantly increased the activity of the transgenes, making the animals glow brightly under ultraviolet light when viewed down a microscope.
When these worms were moved back to the cooler temperature, their transgenes were still highly active, suggesting they were somehow retaining the 'memory' of their exposure to warmth. Intriguingly, this high activity level was passed on to their offspring and onwards for 7 subsequent generations kept solely at 20 degrees, even though the original animals only experienced the higher temperature for a brief time. Keeping worms at 25 degrees for five generations led to the increased transgene activity being maintained for at least 14 generations once the animals were returned to cooler conditions.
Although this phenomenon has been seen in a range of animal species - including fruit flies,  and mammals including humans - it tends to fade after a few generations. These findings, which will be published on Friday 21st April in the journal Science, represent the longest maintenance of transgenerational environmental 'memory' ever observed in animals to date.
"We discovered this phenomenon by chance, but it shows that it's certainly possible to transmit information about the environment down the generations," says Lehner. "We don't know exactly why this happens, but it might be a form of biological forward-planning," adds the first author of the study and CRG Alumnus, Adam Klosin. "Worms are very short-lived, so perhaps they are transmitting memories of past conditions to help their descendants predict what their environment might be like in the future," adds Vavouri.
Comparing the transgenes that were less active with those that had become activated by the higher temperature, Lehner and his team discovered crucial differences in a type of molecular 'tag' attached to the proteins packaging up the genes, known as histone methylation.
Transgenes in animals that had only ever been kept at 20 degrees had high levels of histone methylation, which is associated with silenced genes, while those that had been moved to 25 degrees had largely lost the methylation tags. Importantly, they still maintained this reduced histone methylation when moved back to the cooler temperature, suggesting that it is playing an important role in locking the memory into the transgenes.
The researchers also found that repetitive parts of the normal worm genome that look similar to transgene arrays also behave in the same way, suggesting that this is a widespread memory mechanism and not just restricted to artificially engineered genes.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

2886. Shipping Industry to Cut Emissions by Half of the 2008 Level by 2050

By Chris Mooney, The Washington Post, April 13, 2018

Member nations of the United Nations body charged with regulating shipping on the high seas adopted a first-ever strategy Friday to blunt the sector’s large contribution to climate change — bringing another major constituency on board in the international quest to cap the planet’s warming well below an increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
The strategy embraced by a committee of the International Maritime Organization would lower emissions from container ships, oil tankers, bulk carriers and other vessels by at least 50 percent by the year 2050 vs. where they stood in 2008. The group also said that emissions from shipping should reach a peak, and begin to decline, as soon as possible.
“IMO remains committed to reducing GHG emissions from international shipping and, as a matter of urgency, aims to phase them out as soon as possible in this century,” the group said.
But the United States “reserve[d]” its position on the strategy, with Coast Guard official Jeffrey Lantz, who headed the delegation to the London deliberations, saying that the country views “the establishment of an absolute reduction target as premature.”
The United States also objected to how responsibilities would be divided between developed and developing countries, and expressed “serious concern about how this document was developed and finalized.”
Shipping in recent years has been responsible for about 800 million tons annually of carbon dioxide emissions, according to Dan Rutherford, the marine and aviation program director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, who was in attendance for the deliberations in London this week. That means shipping’s emissions are 2.3 percent of the global total.
“If you counted it as a country, it would be the sixth-largest source of CO2 emissions,” said Rutherford, noting that 800 million tons of annual emissions is comparable to emissions from Germany.
And ships, by burning heavy fuel oil, create not only carbon dioxide emissions but also significant emissions of black carbon, or soot. Black carbon is a short-lived but powerful climate-change driver.
Moreover, if nothing is done to halt emissions growth in the industry, emissions are projected to continue to grow, and shipping would burn up a significant share of the remaining global carbon emissions allowable under the Paris climate agreement — releasing as much as 101 billion tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions between now and 2075, according to an analysis by Rutherford’s organization.

(International Council on Clean Transportation)
“The world’s shipping industry has now, for the first time, defined its commitment to tackle climate change, bringing it closer in-line with the Paris Agreement,” Tristan Smith, an expert on shipping and energy at the University College London energy institute, said in a statement.
Shipping and aviation are two major greenhouse-gas-producing sectors that have sat rather uncomfortably in the context of the global push to cut emissions under the Paris climate agreement.
Both sectors are very difficult to decarbonize, since they rely on energy-dense fuels to allow ships or planes to travel great distances without stopping.
Meanwhile, since the sectors have major international components, they are not the responsibility of any single country to regulate as part of a domestic climate-change strategy. Instead, addressing their role in climate change has fallen to United Nations bodies such as the IMO and the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Yet despite the ambition of the current strategy for shipping, Rutherford’s group’s analysis shows that it may not be strong enough. The group says that to be consistent with the Paris agreement, shipping should emit no more than 17 billion tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions from 2015 onward but that the current agreement implies emissions between 28 billion and 43 billion tons. (No action at all, meanwhile, could have meant 101 billion tons.)
Groups that were pushing for something stronger included small island nations, which have the most to lose if warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, since sea-level rise for these countries could be devastating.
The Baltic and International Maritime Council, the world’s biggest shipping consortium, celebrated the agreement.
“IMO has done something no one has done before: set an absolute target for emission reductions for an entire industry. It is a landmark achievement in the effort to reduce emissions, and something that every other industry should look to for inspiration,” Lars Robert Pedersen, the group’s deputy secretary general, said in a statement.
For shipping to decarbonize, current fuel oils would have to be replaced by biofuels or, perhaps  ultimately, hydrogen or batteries. But such innovations so far are being tested only in smaller ships, rather than the largest vessels, Rutherford said.
“The largest container ships use a tremendous amount of energy. They’re going to be harder to electrify or put hydrogen in,” he said.
A large emphasis will also certainly be placed on more energy-efficient designs to maximize the work performed by current fuels.
The current document is referred to as an “initial strategy.” But from here, IMO is expected to move ahead with regulations for global shipping that will gradually require these carbon-saving changes to the industry. Those could include mandatory energy-efficiency requirements, speed limits or other measures.

2885. Trillions Upon Trillions of Viruses Fall From the Sky Each Day

By Jim Robbins, The New York Times, April 13, 2018

High in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain, an international team of researchers set out four buckets to gather a shower of viruses falling from the sky.

Scientists have surmised there is a stream of viruses circling the planet, above the planet’s weather systems but below the level of airline travel. Very little is known about this realm, and that’s why the number of deposited viruses stunned the team in Spain. Each day, they calculated, some 800 million viruses cascade onto every square meter of the planet.
Most of the globe-trotting viruses are swept into the air by sea spray, and lesser numbers arrive in dust storms.

“Unimpeded by friction with the surface of the Earth, you can travel great distances, and so intercontinental travel is quite easy” for viruses, said Curtis Suttle, a marine virologist at the University of British Columbia. “It wouldn’t be unusual to find things swept up in Africa being deposited in North America.”

The study by Dr. Suttle and his colleagues, published earlier this year in the International Society of Microbial Ecology Journal, was the first to count the number of viruses falling onto the planet. The research, though, is not designed to study influenza or other illnesses, but to get a better sense of the “virosphere,” the world of viruses on the planet.

Generally, it’s assumed these viruses originate on the planet and are swept upward, but some researchers theorize that viruses actually may originate in the atmosphere. (There is a small group of researchers who believe viruses may even have come here from outer space, an idea known as panspermia.)

Whatever the case, viruses are the most abundant entities on the planet by far. While Dr. Suttle’s team found hundreds of millions of viruses in a square meter, they counted tens of millions of bacteria in the same space.

Mostly thought of as infectious agents, viruses are much more than that. It’s hard to overstate the central role that viruses play in the world: They’re essential to everything from our immune system to our gut microbiome, to the ecosystems on land and sea, to climate regulation and the evolution of all species. Viruses contain a vastly diverse array of unknown genes — and spread them to other species.

Last year, three experts called for a new initiative to better understand viral ecology, especially as the planet changes. “Viruses modulate the function and evolution of all living things,” wrote Matthew B. Sullivan of Ohio State, Joshua Weitz of Georgia Tech, and Steven W. Wilhelm of the University of Tennessee. “But to what extent remains a mystery.”

Do viruses even fit the definition of something alive? While they are top predators of the microbial world, they lack the ability to reproduce and so must take over the cell of a host — called an infection — and use its machinery to replicate. The virus injects its own DNA into the host; sometimes those new genes are useful to the host and become part of its genome.

Researchers recently identified an ancient virus that inserted its DNA into the genomes of four-limbed animals that were human ancestors. That snippet of genetic code, called ARC, is part of the nervous system of modern humans and plays a role in human consciousness — nerve communication, memory formation and higher-order thinking. Between 40 percent and 80 percent of the human genome may be linked to ancient viral invasions.

Viruses and their prey are also big players in the world’s ecosystems. Much research now is aimed at factoring their processes into our understanding of how the planet works.
“If you could weigh all the living material in the oceans, 95 percent of it is stuff is you can’t see, and they are responsible for supplying half the oxygen on the planet,” Dr. Suttle said.
In laboratory experiments, he has filtered viruses out of seawater but left their prey, bacteria. When that happens, plankton in the water stop growing. That’s because when preying viruses infect and take out one species of microbe — they are very specific predators — they liberate nutrients in them, such as nitrogen, that feed other species of bacteria. In the same way, an elk killed by a wolf becomes food for ravens, coyotes and other species. As plankton grow, they take in carbon dioxide and create oxygen.

One study estimated that viruses in the ocean cause a trillion trillion infections every second, destroying some 20 percent of all bacterial cells in the sea daily.

Viruses help keep ecosystems in balance by changing the composition of microbial communities. As toxic algae bloom spread in the ocean, for example, they are brought to heel by a virus that attacks the algae and causes it to explode and die, ending the outbreak in as little as a day.

While some viruses and other organisms have evolved together and have achieved a kind of balance, an invasive virus can cause rapid, widespread changes and even lead to extinction.

West Nile virus has changed the composition of bird communities in much of the United States, killing crows and favoring ravens, some researchers say. Multiple extinctions of birds in Hawaii are predicted as the mosquito-borne avipoxvirus spreads into mountain forests where it was once too cold for mosquitoes to live.

When species disappear, the changes can ripple through an ecosystem. A textbook example is a viral disease called rinderpest.

The Italian army brought a few cattle into North Africa, and in 1887 the virus took off across the continent, killing a broad range of cloven-hoofed animals from Eritrea to South Africa — in some cases wiping out 95 percent of the herds.
“It infected antelope, it infected wildebeest and other large grazers across the whole ecosystem,” said Peter Daszak, the president of Ecohealth Alliance, which is working on a global project to catalog viruses likely to pass from animals to humans.

“The impact was not just on the animals. But because they are primary grazers and they died off in huge numbers, vegetation was impacted, and it allowed trees to grow where they would have been grazed away,” he said.

“The large acacia trees on the plains of Africa are all the same age and were seedlings when rinderpest first came in and the wildlife died,” Dr. Daszak said. In other places, far less grazing created a hospitable habitat for the tsetse fly, which carries the parasites that cause sleeping sickness.

“These kinds of ecological changes can last for centuries or even millennia,” Dr. Daszak said.

Combined with drought, large numbers of people died from starvation as rinderpest spread. An explorer in 1891 estimated two-thirds of the Masai people, who depended on cattle, were killed.

“Almost instantaneously, rinderpest swept away the wealth of tropical Africa,” wrote John Reader in his book “Africa: A Biography of a Continent.”

With intensive vaccinations, rinderpest was completely wiped out, not only in Africa but globally in 2011.

The beneficial effects of viruses are much less known, especially among plants. “There are huge questions in wild systems about what viruses are doing there,” said Marilyn Roossinck, who studies viral ecology in plants at Pennsylvania State University. “We have never found deleterious effects from a virus in the wild.”

A grass found in the high-temperature soils of Yellowstone’s geothermal areas, for example, needs a fungus to grow in the extreme environment. In turn, the fungus needs a virus.
Tiny spots of virus on the plant that yields quinoa is also important for the plant’s survival. “Little spots of virus confer drought tolerance but don’t cause disease,” she said. “It changes the whole plant physiology.”

“Viruses aren’t our enemies,” Dr. Suttle said. “Certain nasty viruses can make you sick, but it’s important to recognize that viruses and other microbes out there are absolutely integral for the ecosystem.”

Monday, April 16, 2018

2884. Prominent Lawyer in Fight for Gay Rights Immolates Himself to Protest Inaction in Fighting Climate Change

By NYC-Democratic Socialists of America Climate Justice Working Group, April 16, 2018
The lawyer David S. Buckel in New Jersey Supreme Court during a 2006 case about same-sex marriage. Mr. Buckel died on Saturday after setting himself on fire in a Brooklyn park, the police said. Photo: Jose F. Moreno/Associated Press.

On Saturday morning David Buckel woke up, walked to Prospect Park and lit himself on fire leaving behind a note that said, “I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide.”
On December 17th, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the despotic Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. When pressed for comment, his mother said, "Mohammed did what he did for the sake of his dignity." At the time, Bouazizi could not have imagined his act would serve as the spark for the Arab Spring and people’s revolution that emerged over the following months.
David set himself on fire Saturday using fossil fuels to reflect what we are doing to the planet. This was a terrible tragedy and horrific death that we don’t want to be in vain.
As David said, “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
David was a tireless advocate and a true community composting giant. After a storied career as a gay rights attorney, he shifted his activism towards environmental work. It was at the Red Hook Community Farm where he helped build a stronger and more resilient local community. Despite his lifelong commitment to justice, David became overwhelmed by the general malaise and apathy to the climate crisis. David wrote: “Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death.” Just as Bouazizi did, David committed this act for the sake of his dignity.
We cannot let David’s final act go unnoticed. He wrote “Many who drive their own lives to help others often realize that they do not change what causes the need for their help,” David wrote, adding that donating to organizations was not enough. David’s call for mass action must serve as the wakeup call he desired. He gave his life to try to ignite a people’s movement against extraction and fossil fuels. We must now heed David’s call. We must come together to put people and planet over profit. We can no longer live under the yoke of fossil fuel companies. We must honor David and fight together in solidarity for an ecologically just world.

2883. Gulf Stream Disruptions Can Set Off Deeper Ecological Crisis

By Damian Carrington, The Guardian, April 13, 2018
Serious disruption to the Gulf Stream ocean currents that are crucial in controlling global climate must be avoided “at all costs”, senior scientists have warned. The alert follows the revelation this week that the system is at its weakest ever recorded.
Past collapses of the giant network have seen some of the most extreme impacts in climate history, with western Europe particularly vulnerable to a descent into freezing winters. A significantly weakened system is also likely to cause more severe storms in Europe, faster sea level rise on the east coast of the US and increasing drought in the Sahel in Africa.
The new research worries scientists because of the huge impact global warming has already had on the currents and the unpredictability of a future “tipping point”.
The currents that bring warm Atlantic water northwards towards the pole, where they cool, sink and return southwards, is the most significant control on northern hemisphere climate outside the atmosphere. But the system, formally called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (Amoc), has weakened by 15% since 1950, thanks to melting Greenland ice and ocean warming making seawater less dense and more buoyant.
This represents a massive slowdown – equivalent to halting all the world’s rivers three times over, or stopping the greatest river, the Amazon, 15 times. Such weakening has not been seen in at least the last 1,600 years, which is as far back as researchers have analysed so far. Furthermore, the new analyses show the weakening is accelerating.

“From the study of past climate, we know changes in the Amoc have been some of the most abrupt and impactful events in the history of climate,” said Prof Stefan Rahmstorf, at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and one of the world’s leading oceanographers, who led some of the new research. During the last Ice Age, winter temperatures changed by up to 10C within three years in some places.
“We are dealing with a system that in some aspects is highly non-linear, so fiddling with it is very dangerous, because you may well trigger some surprises,” he said. “I wish I knew where this critical tipping point is, but that is unfortunately just what we don’t know. We should avoid disrupting the Amoc at all costs. It is one more reason why we should stop global warming as soon as possible.”
Oceanographer Peter Spooner, at University College London, shares the concern: “The extent of the changes we have discovered comes as a surprise to many, including myself, and points to significant changes in the future.”
A collapse in the Amoc would mean far less heat reaching western Europe and plunge the region into very severe winters, the kind of scenario depicted in an extreme fashion in the movie The Day After Tomorrow. A widespread collapse of deep-sea ecosystems has also been seen in the past.
But as the Amoc weakens, it might actually increase summer heatwaves. That is because it takes time for the cooling of the northern waters to also cause cooling over the adjacent lands. However, the cooler waters affect the atmosphere in a way that helps warm air to flood into Europe from the south, a situation already seen in 2015.

Other new research this week showed that Greenland’s massive ice cap is melting at the fastest rate for at least 450 years. This influx will continue to weaken the Amoc into the future until human-caused climate change is halted, but scientists do not not know how fast the weakening will be or when it reaches the point of collapse.
“Many people have tried to check that with computer models,” said Rahmstorf. “But they differ a lot because it depends on a very subtle balance of density – that is temperature and salinity distribution in the ocean. We are not able to model this with any confidence right now.”
“We are hoping to somehow make some headway, but I have been in this area for more than 20 years now and we still don’t understand why the models differ so much in the sensitivity of the Amoc,” he said.
However, Rahmstorf said the international climate deal agreed in 2015 offers some hope if its ambition is increased and achieved: “If we can keep the temperature rise to well below 2C as agreed in the Paris agreement, I think we run a small risk of crossing this collapse tipping point.”