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The ability to anticipate floods and mobilize a timely response — increasingly a life-and-death matter as extreme weather events become more common — depends to a sobering extent on 10 satellites that measure precipitation and beam data to Earth, where governments and emergency response teams use them to guide efforts to protect people and property.

Even more sobering: Four of the 10 satellites have already exceeded their anticipated functional lifespan, with no plans in place to deploy replacements, according to a research article published earlier this year in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The article reports on research by Cornell University engineering professor Patrick Reed and colleagues from Princeton University and the Aerospace Corporation. The researchers used information on the distribution and movement of water around the planet along with modeling to calculate the extent to which the current satellites are able to provide data needed for flood forecasting. They also calculated the coverage that would remain should all four aging satellites stop functioning, and explored what arrangement of satellites would be needed to optimally do the job. They found that even the current set of 10 satellites fails to provide sufficient coverage — with the biggest gaps, ironically, in South America, central and eastern Africa, and Asia, where populations are particularly vulnerable to floods. Not surprisingly, loss of the four antiquated satellites would make things even worse, with far less of the globe covered adequately over space and time.

The good news? Addition of just two new satellites with sufficient international collaboration would boost flood forecasting capability even beyond that of the current fleet.

Noting that their results demonstrate that improvements in this rain-monitoring system could have huge benefits for humanity, the authors call for an international conversation aimed at resolving the current and anticipated satellite rainfall data deficit “to ensure that the global portfolio of space-based Earth rainfall observations are sufficient to manage the potential increased flood risks posed by climate change.” View Ensia homepage

Thanks to Science for Environment Policy for alerting us to this study. Photo © iStockphoto.com/kasto80

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More and more people are starting to get the message that the massive amount of food we waste in the U.S. is a social issue, not just an environmental one. Even HBO comedian John Oliver took nearly 20 minutes recently on his satire news show, “Last Week Tonight,” to tackle the issue.

It seems an easy fix: Instead of throwing food out, set up a new supply chain to move it from businesses that aren’t going to use it to people who need it. But that process involves additional costs businesses have little financial incentive to take on as well as fear of lawsuits over someone getting sick from spoiled food (something that the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act actually protects against).

This week, ClimateWire has a story about how Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut are trying to deal with these problems: by regulating the amount of food businesses can toss in the trash and encouraging them to donate it instead. The article examines progress to date (the regulations have been in place for some time) as well as the marketplace that is emerging as a result, such as the emergence of companies working to make sure more of the food goes to people in need and less to the compost heap. Composting is an easier option for compliance because not as much infrastructure such as cold storage is needed, but, as the article mentions, businesses such as Food for Free collect unwanted food and deliver it to more than 100 programs in and around Boston working to get food to hungry people.

There’s an interesting and important lesson here, as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy points out in the piece. Reducing food waste by using it to feed people who really need it is “a great reminder that solutions to environmental challenges can double as solutions to social challenges.” View Ensia homepage

Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Think organic farming is climate friendly? You might want to think again. A study published recently in the journal Agriculture and Human Values suggests that as organic agriculture emulates conventional industrial agriculture, the environmental benefits may not be the slam-dunk that Earth-loving proponents might like them to be.

It’s well known that organic practices offer climate benefits in terms of management practices that help sequester carbon in soils and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions associated with fertilizer production. What’s less clear is the extent to which other variables, such as lower per-acre productivity and more intensive use of machinery in fields, counteract these savings.

Analyzing preexisting data on agriculture greenhouse gas emissions and amount of certified organic farmland across 49 states and eight years, sociology doctoral student Julius McGee from the University of Oregon discovered that the amount of farmland in organic production and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture were positively correlated, even when adjusted for population, GDP and total amount of agricultural land.

“What these findings ultimately suggest is that organic farming is not working as a counterforce to greenhouse gas emissions stimulated by agricultural production, and is currently positively correlated with the problem,” he concluded.

Noting recent trends toward “conventionalization” of organic agriculture, McGee called for the organic food system to be more deliberate in its efforts to adopt sustainable practices and for additional oversight to make sure that production of certified organic foods is as environmentally friendly as consumers hope — and often assume — it is. View Ensia homepage


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In case you somehow missed it, Shark Week has once again descended upon us. The annual summer tradition created by the Discovery Channel in 1988 to raise awareness of sharks through its programming has in recent years seen its hashtag, #SharkWeek, explode across social media. Although some of the fictional content on Discovery has led to backlash from the scientific community, it’s hard to point to another publicity scheme that has garnered so much attention for one species and for conservation, with organizations like Oceana, WildAid and Conservation International deploying the hashtag on Twitter to shine a light on their causes and other media outlets coopting it to promote their own content.

Amid all the noise it’s important to remember why everyone’s looking at sharks anyway. Besides being magnificent physical specimens around for hundreds of millions of years, sharks are often the apex predators in oceans, and top predators maintain balance in their ecosystems. Despite their importance, sharks have moved from predator to prey as humans catch them for their fins and their numbers have decreased due to other factors, such as degrading habitat and falling victim to bycatch. They have also been vilified through media and, as a result, their attacks on humans send ripples of fear through us, especially those living in coastal areas, despite the relatively few attacks that actually take place.

That’s the point of a recent study from researchers at Stanford University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which shows that although the overall number of shark bites has increased in the last 60 years, individual risk of being bitten or attacked by a shark along the California coast has actually decreased significantly due to the fact that the population of coastal cities in California and the numbers of people partaking in ocean activities in the state has exploded over the same time. The authors of the study, which will be published later this month in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, conclude that conservation efforts for sharks and safety for humans don’t have to be at odds. By gaining more information about shark activity and behavior, the two can coexist. “Doing this kind of analyses can inform us on hot spots and cold spots for shark activity in time and space that we can use to make informed decisions and give people a way to stay safe while they are enjoying the ocean,” said Francesco Ferretti of Stanford, first author of the study, in a press release. Knowing that sharks migrate to Hawaii in the spring, for example, means that California waters will have fewer sharks and therefore may be more appealing to people for recreational activities. In fact, surfers who choose to surf the waters off Mendocino County in March are 24 times safer than surfing in October and November.

Although culling sharks is not a practice in California, it has taken place in other parts of the world and the study’s authors say that increased knowledge and data of both shark and human activity is a better way to minimize shark attacks on humans. “Our results indicate that the seemingly conflicting goals of protecting large predators and people can be reconciled,” study co-author Fiorenza Micheli told Stanford News. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Elias Levy (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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You’ve probably noticed how being around trees, grass and flowers can make you feel better. Now, evidence is mounting that the presence of green and growing things is associated with being healthier, too.

Reporting at Journalist’s Resource, Justin Feldman summarized the findings of a number of recent scientific studies exploring the relationship between urban green space and human health. One study of schoolchildren in Barcelona, Spain, showed a positive association between cognitive development and “greenness index” (amount of vegetation the students encountered at home and school and over the course of  their commute). A survey of adult twins in a U.S. data base, adjusted for income, activity and neighborhood traits, revealed that individuals with more access to green space tended to exhibit less stress, depression and anxiety than other study participants. And an assessment of birth outcomes in Vancouver, Canada, found that the more green cover pregnant women had in the vicinity of their homes, the higher the birth weight of full-term babies and the lower the likelihood of preterm births, even after taking other environmental factors such as air pollution, noise and proximity to parks into account.

Read more results and check out links to the original reports here. View Ensia homepage

Photo © iStockphoto.com/Antagain


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Think environmental protection hurts business? You just might want to think again. In a study published last week at PLOS ONE, University of North Carolina land use and environmental planning faculty member Todd BenDor and colleagues calculated the dollars-and-cents impact of environmental restoration projects initiated to comply with laws such as the U.S. Clean Water Act or to meet other public, corporate or nonprofit goals. Their take: What’s good for Mother Nature can also be good for the economy.

The researchers surveyed 250 businesses that provide services aimed at improving ecosystem health and functioning such as project planning, engineering, construction, landscaping and legal counsel. Using a computer model to extrapolate from responses related to employment and sales, they concluded that the U.S. environmental restoration industry can take credit for an estimated 126,111 jobs representing $6.27 billion in wages and benefits and US$9.47 billion in sales annually. If you count indirect effects such as business-to-business economic activity and increased household spending, you can add another 95,287 jobs and US$15.37 billion in economic impact to that tally.


Employment due to ecological restoration is comparable to that of other major U.S. industries. Credit: PLOS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0128339.g002

Although they acknowledged that the study does not provide a full cost-benefit analysis of restoration legislation, the researchers noted that ecological restoration has a far more positive impact on the nation’s economy than most people realize.

“A growing number of studies have identified ‘green’ growth and job creation in renewable energy production, energy efficient construction, and green goods and services industries,” they wrote. “This study represents a first step towards quantifying the restoration industry as a piece of the broader green economy.” View Ensia homepage

Photo © iStockphoto.com/RiverNorthPhotography


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This morning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held an “ivory crush” event in Times Square in New York City, highlighting the huge problem that is elephant poaching and wildlife crime more generally. In addition to raising awareness of the problem, the point of pulverizing 1 ton of seized elephant tusks is to diminish demand and disrupt the marketplace for the product. Researchers from the University of Washington believe that slowing demand doesn’t move the needle on this crisis fast enough, though, so they want to use DNA from dead elephants to predict where other elephants may be hunted in the future — and beat the poachers to the spot. 

Writing in The Conversation, Samuel Wasser, a research professor of biology at the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, describes a method his lab has developed to map where past hotspots of elephant poaching have occurred in order to guess where future crime might take place. In a somewhat encouraging conclusion, the researchers found that most of the poaching has come from just two areas in Africa. What this means, Wasser concludes, is that law enforcement efforts focused on just those two hotspots could go a long way in stopping the killing. And if poachers and traffickers just decide to switch their hunting area, Wasser believes his methods, which involve comparing DNA samples from elephant dung in various areas to that of seized ivory to create a reference map, can be applied quickly enough to track the new activity. “Unlike transit countries, source hotspots can’t change very quickly,” he writes. “They require large numbers of elephants and considerable infrastructure to move the ivory out of the country without detection. This infrastructure must also be developed in the next source country before it can become a major hotspot on the scale we have identified. Thus, our methods should be able to detect this.” 

Protecting elephants from slaughter would obviously be good news for the species, but, as Wasser explains in the video above, the benefits go beyond, having an impact on everything from the elephants’ ecosystems to international terrorism.  View Ensia homepage

Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Climate science tells us future weather is going to be dramatically different than it is today. Exactly how different, and in what ways, is unknown, however, particularly at regional and local scales. What’s an engineer who’s designing power plants, bridges and other infrastructure meant to last for a half-century or more to do?

Adopt a whole new way of working, suggests the American Society of Civil Engineers.

When designing infrastructure, engineers currently take extreme weather into consideration — but also assume that tomorrow’s extremes will look like those of today, a premise that is becoming increasingly untenable as we learn more about climate change. Unfortunately, the actual size and rate of change likely to take place over the lifespans of things we’re building now is unsettlingly uncertain. Not only that, but preparing for extremes can be expensive, so overpreparation carries costs that must be balanced against the risk of being underprepared.

In response, the society last week released a 103-page report calling for engineers, policy makers and others involved in making decisions about infrastructure investments to change the way they envision, design and build bridges, water systems and other such structures. After providing engineering-oriented background on climate science, the report, Adapting Infrastructure and Civil Engineering Practice to a Changing Climate, offers four key recommendations:

  • Work more closely with scientists to generate and apply knowledge aimed at predicting future conditions.
  • Seek to better understand uncertainty in predicting future climate, and use that understanding to improve decisions about how to weigh the cost of preparing for bigger extremes with the cost of failure if infrastructure can’t meet them.
  • Develop a new framework for making decisions in a climate-uncertain world — specifically, adopt “low-regret” strategies that are amenable to mid-course correction as conditions change and trajectories become more clear.
  • Identify and alert the public to existing infrastructure that’s most at threat from climate change, and provide cost-benefit information needed to make good decisions regarding what to do about them.

Photo by Vtrans (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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In 2007, the investigative news site POLITICO launched and quickly became a go-to source for news about policy decisions coming from the nation’s capital. Now, the folks behind POLITICO are turning their lens to the U.S. energy sector with Future of Power, the inaugural special report of the Agenda, an online magazine launched this week that will be looking to “connect the dots between the robust debates in the war of ideas — and the policy proposals actually on the table here in Washington.” 

Future of Power looks at the Sierra Club’s “incredible under-the-radar campaign” that has pushed almost 200 coal plants offline in recent years, how Republicans and Democrats talk about energy, the future of coal in its supporters’ own words, what really worries energy experts and more. 

Future of Power offers a comprehensive picture of where energy policy in Washington stands now and where the various players want to take it — and us. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Walter (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Think environmental change happens too slowly to matter to your lifetime? “Your Life on Earth,” an intriguing  interactive developed by the BBC, just might get you thinking otherwise. Enter your birth date, gender and height, and up pops a personalized infographic showing how much you and the world around you have changed and are expected to continue to change in your lifetime, from how much sea level has risen since you were born to how old you’ll be when oil, coal and natural gas supplies are projected to dry up. Give it a try and gain a whole new respect for how quickly conditions can become worse — or, if we so choose, improve. View Ensia homepage

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And now for some good news: It looks like some market-driven agreements around beef production in Brazil may be slowing deforestation in the country’s rainforests. That’s the finding reported by Holly Gibbs, an assistant professor of geography and environmental studies at University of Wisconsin–Madison, and a team of researchers in a paper published recently in Conservation Letters. 

The researchers focused on the world’s biggest meatpacking company, JBS, which is located in the region. In 2009, under pressure from Greenpeace and the country’s government, JBS and other large meatpacking companies committed to “zero-deforestation agreements,” meaning they wouldn’t buy cattle raised on recently deforested land. This study shows that these agreements led ranchers that supply to JBS to register their land in an environmental registry and deforest less because JBS became more likely to refuse to purchase cattle from ranches with recent deforestation. In 2013, the study found, only 4 of 100 direct suppliers to JBS had recent deforestation on their land, whereas before 2009 that number was 4 in 10. 

That “direct suppliers” is important, though. Slaughterhouses only keep track of suppliers selling directly to them, which means that cattle can be raised and fattened on other ranches only to be transferred to a zero-deforestation ranch as their penultimate stop. The ranches in the earlier stages could still be cutting down trees for cattle pastures. 

Still, Gibbs sees these developments as a sign that the market can play a much-needed role in reducing deforestation across supply chains. “Public enforcement of environmental laws is a formidable task in the Brazilian Amazon, which covers an area six times the size of Texas,” Gibbs says in a press release about the study. “But these market-based interventions are leading to rapid changes in the beef industry within a period of months, even in very remote areas.” View Ensia homepage

Photo by Public.Resource.Org (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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Is it possible to reduce pesticide use without compromising crop yields? Yes — and then some, according to a new study published in the journal Insects.

Researchers at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom measured pesticide use and crop yield at 85 project sites in 24 Asian and African countries practicing integrated pest management — an agronomic approach that taps nature’s strategies, such as competition, diversification and predation, to reduce the toll of insects, weeds and other yield-reducing pests on crops, supplementing with conventional pesticides as needed. They found that crop yield on the study sites increased an average of 41 percent while pesticide use dropped more than two-thirds after IPM was adopted. Crops involved in the study included rice, maize, wheat, sorghum, soybean and potato.

“Through these farming strategies crop yields can be increased while reducing pesticide application and costs,” the researchers wrote in a related article at The Conversation. “Farmers get more, and the environment wins, too.”

The researchers noted that even though we use 7.7 billion pounds (3.5 billion kg) of pesticides worldwide each year, pests still destroy enough food to feed 1 billion people. IPM, they suggest, can play a key role in sustainable intensification of agriculture — efforts to increase productivity while reducing negative environmental impacts and supporting ecosystem services — as we work to feed an increasing (and increasingly affluent) global population. Reviewing four kinds of IPM projects, the researchers estimated that adoption of IPM has the potential cut pesticide use in half in Asia and Africa.

The researchers also underscored the importance of the human dimension in advancing the adoption of IPM, since it involves making customized, strategic decisions about the proper mix of a number of strategies, each with its own costs and benefits. They noted the importance of educational systems such as farmer field schools if initiatives to advance IPM are to succeed. View Ensia homepage

Photo by IFPRI -IMAGES (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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You might not think of eastern Australia as one of the hot spots of global deforestation. But it ranks right up there with the Amazon and Sumatra in a new report by WWF highlighting key areas of focus for efforts to protect forestlands around the world.

Forests are of particular importance to global efforts to maintain a healthy environment because they contain much of the world’s plant and animal diversity, and trees are particularly adept at sucking carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming, from the air. The analysis, Saving Forests at Risk (Chapter 5 in WWF’s ongoing Living Forests Report), delineates 11 sites on four continents totaling some 420 million acres (170 million hectares) that together comprise more than 80 percent of the forest area most at risk of destruction or severe degradation in the next 15 years. Threats range from increased demand for agricultural land to unsustainable logging and mining to use of trees for charcoal and firewood.

Noting that identifying such hot spots is an important first step in protecting them, the report suggests five strategies for stopping “the march of deforestation”:

  • expand and strengthen protected areas
  • recognize the value of ecosystem services
  • expand REDD+
  • encourage corporations to eliminate deforestation from supply chains
  • incorporate forest protection into infrastructure development plans.

“It’s possible to meet human demands for food, energy and raw materials in the coming decades without sacrificing precious forests,” the report concludes. “With better planning, management and collaboration at a landscape scale, we can sustainably increase production and meet local development needs while conserving critical ecosystems.”

Read more and view a map of the threatened forests here. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Jeannie Fletcher (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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There may be no more important documents being produced today for governments, policy makers and the general public to understand than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments. Yet these reports have to go through a series of filters — government aides, the media, non-governmental organizations, etc. — before their messages reach the final audience. While the IPCC assessments have sections called “Summary for Policymakers” to address this, Richard Black, a former science and environment correspondent for the BBC, argues in the April issue of Nature Climate Change that these SPMs don’t effectively reach the audience their title implies because they are actually nothing more than “Summaries for Wonks.” 

Black contends there’s no reason the SPMs can’t and shouldn’t be two-page briefs summarizing the findings that resemble more closely the documents busy leaders are used to seeing come across their desks. Creating documents that are actually digestible for the nonexpert is hugely important, according to Black, because “[i]f the SPMs are to allow science to speak directly to power, they must be appropriately constructed for time-poor generalists who spend virtually all of their working lives outside the climate ‘bubble.’” 

“If the IPCC does not provide summaries of this simplicity and clarity, others will,” Black continues. “Many government delegations produce their own two-page briefings for ministers and senior bureaucrats. NGOs and think tanks produce summaries for the public and for reporters. Some are well written; but all contain a degree of adjustment, depending on the priorities of the particular organization, and none carries the gold standard imprimatur of the IPCC itself. By this early stage in the chain of communication, the IPCC has already lost control of its conclusions.” 

If the IPCC wants to retain control of its findings, it needs to rethink its mode of communication, Black contends, and take a page from journalism, in particular radio broadcasts where the reporter only has one shot at getting the information across to the listener — once the words are spoken, there’s no going back or rereading for clarity. 

Black gives a number of specific ways the IPCC and each Working Group can retool their methods and procedures to produce documents that actually live up to the name Summary for Policymakers.

Beyond the IPCC, this is an important piece for anyone thinking about better ways to communicate science.  View Ensia homepage

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When we think of e-waste, we tend to think of phones, computers, printers and the like. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to a first-ever global look at the production, impacts and management of electrical and electronic waste released this week by the United Nations University, of the 46.1 million tons (41.8 million metric tons) of e-waste produced in 2014, nearly two-thirds was made up of far more mundane objects such as vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, toasters, washing machines and other home and business equipment.

According to the report, “Global E-Waste Monitor 2014,” the e-waste problem is growing fast, thanks to increasing demand for, and shortening useful lives of, electrical and electronic products. At the same time, relatively little is recycled or reused, so huge amounts of valuable materials end up landfilled or in developing countries, where lax standards create huge environmental and health hazards. By illustrating how much e-waste is produced worldwide, where it’s generated and its fate, the report seeks to showcase the tremendous opportunities for recyclers, reusers and take-back programs to turn trash to treasure.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Just two countries — the U.S. and China — produced nearly one-third of all e-waste in 2014.
  • Per capita leaders were Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark and the United Kingdom.
  • Less than one-sixth of end-of-life electrical and electronic products are estimated to have been recycled or reused in 2014.
  • The 2014 e-waste burden included an estimated 18.2 million tons (16.5 million metric tons) of iron, 2.1 million tons (1.9 million metric tons) of copper and 330 tons (300 metric tons) of gold, as well as silver, aluminum and other valuable materials.
  • The “intrinsic material value” of global e-waste in 2014 was an estimated US$52 billion.
  • The amount of e-waste is predicted to increase to 54.9 million tons (49.8 million metric tons) by 2018.

“Worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable ‘urban mine’ — a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials. At the same time, the hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a ‘toxic mine’ that must be managed with extreme care,” U.N. under-secretary-general David Malone said in a news release announcing the report’s release. “[This] provides a baseline for national policymakers, producers and the recycling industry to plan take-back systems. It can also facilitate cooperation around controlling illegal trade, supporting necessary technology development and transfer, and assisting international organizations, governments and research institutes in their efforts as they develop appropriate countermeasures.”

Download the 80-page report here. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Remko Tanis (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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There’s no question that plants are better than most other life forms at converting carbon dioxide and sunlight into the sugars that form the basis of our global food web — and eventually, humans’ entire food supply. But fact of the matter is, with conversion rates hovering around 2 percent for our best crop fields, they’re by no means great. Even a slight increase in the efficiency with which they turn solar energy to biomass could dramatically boost crop productivity and so reduce the need to clear more land as demand for food skyrockets and the yield gains garnered by the Green Revolution level out in the years ahead.

As reported at SciDevNet, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently published a paper in the journal Cell that proposes using supercomputing and genetic engineering to do nature one better.

The paper, “Meeting the Global Food Demand of the Future by Engineering Crop Photosynthesis and Yield Potential,” calls for exploring and, if possible, exploiting, a number of modifications to photosynthesis that could improve its efficiency, from better balancing the light-capturing and sugar-making parts of the process to making the most of the sun energy captured and optimizing the system for current atmospheric CO2 levels. One approach, for example, would be to take genes from plants such as maize and sorghum that use the efficient “C4” photosynthesis process and insert them into wheat, rice and others that use the less efficient but more common “C3” process. Another would be to use genetic modification to expand the spectrum of light waves crop plants can use to photosynthesize.

The authors assert that the time is right to take on the task of improving photosynthesis, thanks to recent advances in knowledge of how photosynthesis works at the molecular level, high-performance computing that lets us model and optimize biochemical processes, and genome editing and synthetic biology capabilities. What’s needed yet: an even better understanding of photosynthesis, enhanced capability to strategically modify plant genomes, and greater societal acceptance of the concept of using genetic engineering to improve agriculture.

“Photosynthesis, which has been improved little in crops and falls far short of its biological limit, emerges as the key remaining route to increase the genetic yield potential of our major crops,” they conclude. View Ensia homepage

Photo © iStockphoto.com/Elenathewise

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In some places “fighting for the environment” means writing letters to elected officials or marching in protest against a polluter. In others, it means quite literally risking life and limb. Now media, governments, justice organizations and others have better access than ever to the stories of environmental heroes who put their lives on the line with the release last month of an upgrade of the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice, an interactive online map showcasing the faces and places of local resistance to assaults on the environment.

Like its predecessor, the updated atlas offers concrete descriptions of instances of environmental injustice around the world, including location, type and source of conflict, players, impacts, status and possible alternatives. Improvements over the previous atlas, which has received more than a quarter of a million visits since it launched a year ago, include expanded coverage in countries such as China and Western Sahara; easier sharing via social media; and a more customizable search function that allows users to sort by types of activity, tactics, country, company and other parameters.

According to coordinator Leah Temple, the atlas is used by academics, students, activists, affected communities, policy makers and the general public for a variety of purposes, from satisfying their own curiosity to informing advocacy campaigns to uncovering case studies for educational purposes. The atlas is supported by the European Union and is coordinated by Joan Martinez Alier, member of the Autonomous University of Barcelona faculty. View Ensia homepage


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It will come as no surprise to Ensia readers that nature has a lot of answers we could use to solve our most dire problems related to the environment. We’ve touched on the topic a number of times, from short notables to op-eds to feature stories. But figuring out how exactly nature pulls off its tricks isn’t always an easy job, much less translating that into human technology to make our systems more circular and efficient and less wasteful. 

In an effort to “pave the way to new bioinspired technology for alleviating global water shortages,” researchers in Japan took an extremely close look at plants with hairs on their leaves that collect water from the air, for example through mist. Plants included tomato, balsam pear, Berkheya purpurea and Lychnis sieboldii, the last of which led to this video, which shows the change in the plant’s morphology that occurs when it’s capturing water during wet periods for use in drier times. Essentially, the hairs on these plants’ leaves create a cone shape when collecting water and then twist perpendicularly to release the stored water onto leaves when it’s needed. Fibrous materials within the hairs, the researchers speculate, are part of the water collection and release process. In the article, which appeared in this week’s issue of Applied Physical Letters, the researchers show through simulations what’s happening on the leaves in an effort to show how the process could be translated into biomimetic water storage systems in areas facing water shortages.  View Ensia homepage

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A study published today in JAMA Psychology outlines the negative impacts of prenatal exposure to air pollutants on childhood brain development. Researchers at the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health followed the development of 40 children from before birth through ages 7 to 9.

The study’s authors specifically looked at polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — chemicals formed during the “incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas, garbage or other organic substances” — and discovered pre- and postnatal exposure led to slower processing speed, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms and overall disruption of brain development.

This research builds on earlier studies showing the impacts of environmental pollutants and chemicals on childhood brain development as previously reported by Elizabeth Grossman for Ensia.

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Businesses can barely use the word “water” today without also adding “risk,” “crisis,” “shortage” or another similarly miserable modifier. With a 40 percent shortfall predicted by 2030, it’s no wonder the World Economic Forum has pegged increasing water stress as a top global trend.

What’s up? And what can we do about it?

With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, sustainable business promoter SustainAbility recently took a stab at answering both questions, exploring what’s behind growing global demand for water as well as innovative approaches to meeting it.

In its subsequent report, “Evaporating Asset: Water Scarcity and Innovative Solutions,” the company begins by characterizing current and projected global demand for water by sector (agriculture, industry, municipal); identifying regions at particular risk; and delineating key factors — including system failures — contributing to growing water scarcity.

After describing water challenges, the report describes and applauds signs that businesses are starting to take water supply and demand issues seriously and gives a shout-out to innovative approaches to reducing water risk. In particular, it describes four promising tools that are drawing increasing attention: watershed payments; natural capital valuation; markets for water benefits, rights and quality; and water-resource-protecting bonds.

Finally, the report calls on the private sector to take the lead in implementing novel solutions, noting that it “is in a unique position to leverage its financial capacity and unique ability to test and scale new solutions.”

“By more accurately evaluating the economic costs and benefits of water use and taking a systems-level approach to water management,” the report concludes,”countries and companies have the ability to successfully navigate the water scarcity challenge.” View Ensia homepage

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Over the past year one of the hottest tech trends has been the race to develop autonomous — or driverless — cars. The journal Nature even featured these vehicles on the cover in early February and quoted experts saying they could hit the road in less than a decade. But this rapid evolution in transportation isn’t limited to passenger vehicles.

Lead by companies such as Peloton, “linked” semi trucks are already being tested on America’s interstate highway system. The technology works by essentially connecting two trucks traveling in tandem via a high-powered, wireless signal and radar-based active braking systems. This connection allows the two trucks to travel closer than usual following distance and at the same speed without sacrificing safety, as seen below in the video from Peloton.

The upside? The lead semi reaps up to 5 percent in fuel savings due to reduced drag, while the back truck garners a 10 percent or greater reduction in fuel use by drafting, which as we’ve previously written about can be a huge expense. For an industry that accounts for 10 percent of U.S. oil use annually, this new technology could be a huge boon for the bottom line while helping reduce harmful emissions.


Looking for inspiration for your innovation? The AskNature collection of National Geographic’s Great Nature Project could be a good place to start. The AskNature photo gallery showcases eight of more than 1,800 sources of ideas for achieving desired outcomes described in detail at AskNature, which bills itself as “the world’s most comprehensive catalog of nature’s solutions to human design challenges.” Examples highlighted at the Great Nature Project range from tapping into leaf-cutter ants’ expertise in optimizing efficiency in resource accession and transportation to analyzing earthworms’ ability to move through tight spaces. When you’ve exhausted those, you can turn to AskNature itself, where a handy interactive allows you to enter your customized question — say, “How does nature create strong yet flexible structures?” — and see what the collection has to offer in terms of potential solutions previously invented by plants, animals and other living things. View Ensia homepage

Photo © iStockphoto.com/Antagain

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When it comes to shade-grown coffee, “there is shade and there is shade,” says University of Utah biologist Çağan Şekercioğlu. At least for birds, anyway. In research published at Biological Conservation Feb. 11, Şekercioğlu, doctoral student Evan Buechley and colleagues found that at study sites in southwestern Ethiopia, all bird species found in intact forests were also found in shade-grown coffee farms, suggesting that “Ethiopian shade coffee is perhaps the most ‘bird-friendly’ coffee in the world.”

The researchers found that certain specialized birds, such as insect-eaters, appeared more frequently in nearby forests than in the coffee farms. That could be an important finding for coffee farmers, because those birds could minimize the need to use costly pesticides. But birds that aren’t specialists and can live in different environments were found in greater numbers in the shade coffee farms than in the forests, pointing to the farms’ significance for migratory birds. Overall, bird species diversity (a measure of both number of birds and number of species) was similar for the coffee farms and forest sites, but species richness — the number of species — was higher on the farms.

Şekercioğlu attributes the finding to the fact that coffee is native to Ethiopia — the only one of the world’s top 10 coffee-exporting countries for which this is the case. “It is grown where it belongs in its native habitat with native tree cover and without chemicals,” he said in a press release. That setting, he says, creates a far friendlier habitat for birds than nonnative coffee grown under nonnative trees.

Most importantly, the study underscores the value of shade coffee farms broadly for bird conservation and the importance of preserving intact forest alongside coffee farms. “Conserving all types of forested habitat is increasingly important for biodiversity conservation in the tropics,” the researchers concluded. View Ensia homepage

Photo of a Tacazze sunbird — which was caught and released during the study — by Evan Buechley.

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What do termites have to do with climate change? Potentially a lot, according to research recently published in Science (subscription required to read the full text of the study). Through their excavations, termites actually change the composition of soil in the African savanna. The tunnels the termites create hold water better and the insects will add clay or sand to soil depending on whether its too loose or stiff, turning their mounds into “nutrient islands” where both vegetation and other animals thrive better than in the surrounding land. Even in times of low rainfall the researchers show that termite mounds keep vegetation while vegetation around the mounds decreases. And when rains return, the termite homes help bring vegetation back to the entire area. This means “that the termite mounds are an insurance policy against climate change, protecting the vegetation on them from water scarcity,” writes Science senior correspondent Elizabeth Pennisi about the research. The research suggests that if land with termite mounds is turned into farmland the resiliency the mounds offer could be lost as well, making it much easier for the landscape to become degraded for good. View Ensia homepage

Photo by Cliff (Flickr | Creative Commons)

Milk, eggs and wheat  

The concept of resource use peaking and then declining first gained ground in the 1950s when M. King Hubbert projected the arrival of peak oil use around 2000. That failed to materialize, but according to researchers from Germany and the U.S. writing in the journal Ecology and Society, peak use rate (defined as year of maximum resource appropriation rate) already has been achieved for a lot of other resources — and, because most of them are renewable resources, we would do well to pay attention to the fact.

Wondering how resource use has changed over time and what important messages might lie in the patterns perceived, mathematician and landscape ecologist Ralf Seppelt and colleagues decided to calculate whether and when 27 of the most important resources humanity depends on have reached peak rate of use. They found that three of seven nonrenewable resources examined — cropland, irrigated area and peat — have already reached peak rate of use, along with 18 of 20 renewable resources, including wheat, rice, meat, dairy, cotton, wood and milk. Strikingly, the vast majority of resources found to have hit their peak did so between 1989 and 2008.

Discovery of that rapid-fire timing offers an important perspective on potential solutions, the researchers noted.

“The synchronization of peak-rate years for global resource appropriation can be far more disruptive than a peak-rate year for one resource,” they wrote in their conclusion. “Peak-rate year synchrony suggests that the relationship among resource appropriation paths needs to be considered when assessing the likelihood of successful adaptation of the global society to physical scarcity.” View Ensia homepage

Photo © iStockphoto.com/eAlisa


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