Critical ice shelf in Antarctica could be destroyed in the next five years

As the rapidly heating planet alters the landscape of the Arctic region up north, scientists have discovered disturbing and alarming signs at the southern end of the planet, particularly in one of the ice shelves safeguarding the Antarctic’s so-called “Doomsday glacier”, CNN reports.

Satellite images taken as recently as last month, which researchers presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union Monday, suggest the critical ice shelf keeping together the Thwaites glacier in western Antarctica — an important defense against global sea level rise — could shatter within the next three to five years. 

Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier is known as the “Doomsday glacier,” due to the serious risk it poses during its melting process. It has dumped billions of tons of ice into the sea, and its demise could lead to irreversible changes throughout the planet. 

The glacier, which equals the size of Florida or Great Britain, already accounts for about 4% of annual global sea level rise, loses roughly 50 billion tons of ice each year, and is becoming highly vulnerable to the climate crisis. The fall of the ice shelf could bring the impending collapse of Antarctica’s critical glacier.

If the Thwaites collapsed, the event could raise sea levels by several feet, researchers say, putting coastal communities as well as low-lying island nations further at risk. 

But Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, and a leader of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, said it will still be decades before the world will see real acceleration and an additional uptick in sea level rise.

“What is attention-getting about Thwaites is that the change will proceed with fairly dramatic, measurable results within the next few decades,” Scambos told CNN. 

For now, the glacier is being held back by a critical floating ice shelf.

“What’s most concerning about the recent results is that it’s pointing to a collapse of this ice shelf, this kind of safety band that holds the ice on the land,” Peter Davis, an oceanographer with the British Antarctic Survey, told CNN. “If we lose this ice shelf, then the glacier will flow into the ocean more quickly, contributing towards sea level rise.”

Warming ocean waters play a key role in driving the rapid deterioration. A 2020 study by the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, which is currently leading ongoing research in the Antarctic, found the ocean floor is deeper than scientists previously thought, with deep passages allowing warm ocean water to melt the underside of the ice. 

The observations show the critical ice shelf keeping the Thwaites together is loosening its grip on the underwater mountain, or the seamount, which acts as a reinforcement against the ice river from flowing into the warm ocean. Researchers also found the so-called “ice tongue” of the Thwaites Glacier is simply now a “loose cluster of icebergs,” which no longer influences the stable part of the eastern ice shelf.

Peter Washam, a research associate at Cornell University, who is also involved with the research, said the physical features of the grounding zone shows signs of chaos, such as warm water, rugged ice, and a steep, sloping bottom that allows the water to rapidly melt the ice sheet from below. 

Sea ice floats as seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft in the Antarctic Peninsula region, on November 4, 2017, above Antarctica.

“In the coming years, we expect the Thwaites grounding line in the region to slowly retreat up the seabed slope that it currently rests on as the warm ocean eats away at its underside,” Washam told CNN. His team used an underwater vehicle called Icefin that makes it easier to study ice and water around and beneath ice shelves.

The bottom line, according to Davis, is Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier is rapidly deteriorating. The warm ocean water is slowly erasing the ice underneath, causing water to flow faster, fracturing more of the ice, and bringing the looming threat of a collapse even closer. 

“From the satellite data, we’re seeing these big fractures spreading across the ice shelf surface, essentially weakening the fabric of the ice; kind of a bit like a windscreen crack,” he said. “It’s slowly spreading across the ice shelf and eventually it’s going to fracture into lots of different pieces.”

Scambos said while the process is extremely slow-moving and real impacts won’t be felt until several decades later, it is nearly impossible to stop it. 

“This is a geologic process, but happening at almost a human-lifetime scale,” he said. “As a disaster for people alive today, it is extremely slow-moving. The best path is to try to slow the forces that are pushing the ice in this direction.”

“We can’t really do anything to stop this from happening,” besides slowing it down, Davis said. “The way that we’ve gone with our carbon emissions so far has caused these changes to occur — and essentially, we’re taking the consequences of what we’ve been emitting over the last couple of decades, if not longer.”

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What role climate change has played in the weekend tornadoes in US

The series of weekend tornadoes that ripped through the parts of the US this weekend adds to another stretch of deadly and potentially unprecedented weather disasters that plagued the planet this year. Meteorologists and climate scientists say the latest outbreak is historic, CNN reports.

And as these extreme weather events intensify, occur more often and exacerbate the country’s growing economic toll, science is running to keep up to answer emerging questions of whether climate change is intensifying every single disaster. With this weekend’s tornadoes, climate researchers say it’s too early to determine the link, but the uncertainty doesn’t mean it is unlikely. 

In Kentucky, the series of tornadoes uprooted trees, tore down homes and infrastructure, and killed at least 74 people. Gov. Andy Beshear said at a news conference that the tornado event reached a “level of devastation unlike anything I have ever seen,” he said. 

Global scientists made clear that weather events, no matter how severe, are occurring against the backdrop of human-caused climate change; nevertheless, it all comes down to discerning how a warming planet is altering weather patterns, including geographical location and frequency, as well as severity.

Scientists say the short-lived scale of tornadoes, coupled with an extremely inconsistent and unreliable historical record, makes connecting outbreaks to long-term, human-caused climate change extremely challenging. 

Unlike large-scale and slow-trending weather events such as droughts, floods and hurricanes, scientific research about the link between climate change and tornadoes has not been as robust. 

Victor Gensini, a professor at Northern Illinois University and one of the top tornado experts, said the weekend’s outbreak is one of the most remarkable tornado events in US history — and while climate change may have played a part in its violent behavior, it’s not yet clear what that role was.

Think of a pair of dice, he said. On one of the die, you altered the value of five to six, which means it now has two sixes — raising the chances of you rolling the pair of dice and getting the value 12. Although you can’t immediately attribute that value of 12 to the change you made, you just altered the probability of that event occurring.

Gensini said that’s similar to how the climate system now works — the more humans pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and change the system, the chances of extreme weather events occurring will amplify. 

He points to different ingredients that primed the landscape for the outbreak to happen, such as late spring, early summer air mass and strong wind shear.

“When you start putting a lot of these events together, and you start looking at them in the aggregate sense, the statistics are pretty clear that not only has there sort of been a change — a shift, if you will — of where the greatest tornado frequency is happening,” Gensini told CNN. “But these events are becoming perhaps stronger, more frequent and also more variable.”

Research by Gensini found that over the past four decades, tornado frequency has increased in vast swaths of the Midwest and Southeast while decreasing in parts of the central and southern Great Plains, a region traditionally known as Tornado Alley.

Some studies also indicate climate change could be contributing to an eastward shift in tornado alley, for instance, resulting in more tornadoes occurring in the more heavily populated states east of the Mississippi River, such as this tornado outbreak.

“It’s also very common when you have La Niña in place to see this eastward shift in highest tornado frequency,” Gensini said. “But if you look at the past 40 years, the research I’ve done … has shown that places like Nashville, Tennessee, for example — or Mayfield, Kentucky, that we saw got hit — their frequency of tornadoes, their risk of having a tornado has increased over the last 40 years.”

Tornadoes take shape under particularly specific atmospheric conditions but are primarily fueled by warm, moist air from strong winds that shift direction with altitude.

Scientists have warned that the rise in greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere is drastically changing the climate system, even causing the jet stream — fast-flowing air currents in the upper atmosphere that influence day-to-day weather that could trigger a tornado event — to behave oddly. 

Jennifer Marlon, a climate scientist at the Yale School of Environment, told CNN it’s too early to say what caused the outbreak — whether natural variability or climate change — but there are “some really important signatures that suggest that this very well may be linked to climate change,” and that scientists are “observing changes in the outbreaks, not just the severity of individual outbreaks and tornadoes, but also quiet periods.”

For example, if any of the tornadoes are rated EF-5 (estimated winds of 260 mph or greater), it would end a streak of 3,126 days since the last EF-5, which is the longest stretch without since records began in 1950. The last EF-5 tornado was the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado on May 20, 2013.

It’s likely that it was simply natural forces at play, against the background of climate change. 

The World Weather Attribution, a group of the world’s leading scientists that establishes the link between climate and weather, for instance, has recently unveiled findings that the warming climate neither intensified the flooding in Vietnam that killed 138 people this summer nor the Madagascar drought that led to the country’s food scarcity. 

Still, a recent report by the World Meteorological Organization found that an extreme weather event or climate disaster has occurred every day, on average, somewhere in the world over the last 50 years, marking a five-fold increase over that period and exacting an economic toll that has climbed seven-fold since the 1970s.

As such climate disasters worsen and expand in scope, Marlon points to significant factors that increase disaster risks across society during these times including worsening weather disasters, increasing exposure due to growing populations, and more vulnerable infrastructure assets. 

That’s already taking shape in Mayfield, Kentucky, where officials say the city’s main fire station and some of its police assets have become inoperable as a result of the devastating tornado system. Now, authorities are looking for alternative ways to address emergency calls. 

“All these things are feeding into increase disaster risk, with many more consequences, including the fatalities, of course, but also enormous economic damages,” she said. 

As the climate crisis accelerates, more people will be vulnerable to the most severe consequences of extreme weather events. Experts say cities shouldn’t put off adaptation plans any longer, and instead treat them as a larger emergency response system.

But Gensini said one thing is certain: regardless of climate change, these types of tornado disasters will continue to worsen as humans alter the landscape and build larger, more sprawling cities.

“We have more assets and more targets for the severe storms to hit,” he said. “So even if you take climate change out of the equation, which is very likely to make the problem worse, we still have this issue of human and societal vulnerability.”

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What impact is golf providing on climate change?

The 30 or so golf courses in the Salt Lake County of Utah drink up around nine million gallons of water a day to stay pristine green – that’s more than 13 Olympic-sized swimming pools, CNN reports.

Managing the turf on golf courses also means using carbon-intensive fertilizers, plenty of mowing and, in many cases, clearing forests or trees that were soaking up carbon-dioxide to make way for long tracts of the fairway. In other words, golf is a dirty sport that’s wrecking the planet. But it doesn’t have to be.

The impact of golf on the climate and environment has led to growing calls to make the sport more sustainable – even to play on bone-dry courses, as golfing legend Tiger Woods has enjoyed. And it’s not just to save the planet, but to save the sport itself, as the climate crisis threatens to transform many courses into muddy swamps. 

The president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), Jason Straka, told how the climate crisis has been affecting golf in flood-threatened Florida, and in Ohio and Utah, which have been hit by warmer-than-usual weather and even drought. 

“Clubs never used to have to close after two-inch rain, now they do. They also experience sunny day flooding,” said Straka. In Miami, authorities are raising public drains to a minimum of 3.4 feet, but more than 50% of courses in the city are under this minimum, which rings alarm bells for Straka. 

“If they don’t go out and literally lift their footprint up in the air, they’re going to be in a perpetually deeper and deeper bathtub,” he said. “If they think they have problems now, in 10 years, they’re going to be a swamp.”

But change will equate to cost, which is where golf’s critics find their voice once more: courses are just not sustainable anymore. 

While courses in the eastern US are being threatened by changing rainfall patterns, deadly wildfires that ripped through the west, including in California, have led to poor air quality and course closures in recent years. Less stark, but by no means less worrying, are rising temperatures in Ohio, which are being infested with Bermuda grass, a warmer-season grass that can be difficult to control. 

Rain, fire, floods and ice

The situation in Australia is similar: Lynwood Country Club, northwest of Sydney, was flooded in 2020 and again earlier this year. At one stage, parts of the course were over 26 feet under water, while up the New South Wales coastline, Nambucca Heads received 42.5 inches of rainfall in just eight days.

On the same eastern coast, some 350 miles south of Sydney in the state of Victoria, Mallacoota Golf Club very nearly perished during the bushfires of 2019 and 2020, the fairways providing a sanctuary for townsfolk. Club Catalina, further up the NSW coast, broke the firewall that threatened to wipe out the town.

But in a country accustomed to regular wildfires, courses are adapting by trying to capture water when rain is heavy for use in course irrigation, or even to put out fires. 

“Golf courses in Australia, by and large, all have some sort of irrigation storage which are very useful for fighting fires,” Society of Australian Golf Course Architects (SAGCA) President Harley Kruse told CNN Sport, echoing Straka’s comments on future forecasts.

“Last year in Sydney, there was a 1-in-100-years flood event. We’re going to get an increase of various storm events which could be wind, rain, cyclone or we get a greater increase in drought events. Golf courses need to be flexible and more understanding.”

Fellow Australian Tim Lobb, President of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects (EIGCA), is promoting naturalization and grass reduction in Turkey to decrease water usage – 15-20% of the area that was fine turf will use a lower-maintenance grass species. 

In cooler regions, coastal courses around the British Isles face a very uncertain future – none more so than the world’s fifth-oldest layout in Montrose, a few miles up the coast from major championship venue Carnoustie, where in the last 30 years, the sea has encroached by almost 230 feet (70 meters) in places, according to research released in 2016.

With sea levels projected to rise by one meter in the next 50 years, the home of golf at St. Andrews in Scotland could be a swamp like Miami as early as 2050.

Over in Iceland, Edwin Roald, renowned Icelandic architect and founder of Eureka Golf – a company “committed to mitigating climate change through golf” – told CNN how greater frequency of water freezing and thawing cycles in colder Northern Hemisphere climates is becoming a real danger to courses.

“We have a lot of issues with frozen water […] and a lot of flash flooding, repeatedly throughout the winter. It’s allowing that to happen without the water eroding the land.

“Winter kill, through the turf’s suffocation under ice cover, is a greater threat and increasing. This causes financial damage to courses that are opening in spring with dead turf.”

Solar panels and robotic mowers

At the COP26 summit in the Scottish city of Glasgow, the North Berwick-based environmentalist GEO Foundation for Sustainable Golf showed a virtual audience how golf is learning to be a champion among sporting bodies for a greener planet.

Woburn, the host course for the 2019 Women’s British Open, constructed its own reservoir in 2013 to capture rainwater to irrigate its turf and more recently drilled a borehole to tap water from underground. The company managing the course says the new infrastructure should make Woburn fully self-sufficient, so it isn’t using water that could be otherwise used for drinking and in homes.

While at Remuera Golf Club in Auckland, carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions were reduced by nearly 25 tons from 2018-19, through the cutting of all electricity use at the club. 

Finland’s Hirsala Golf aims to have 40 robotic mowers running on electricity that can be sourced from renewable sources by 2022, cutting the usage of 1,000 liters of diesel fuel, while solar panels at Golf de Payerne in Switzerland have saved 1,080 tons of CO2.

Back in Iceland, the country is measuring the carbon status of all of its 65 golf courses through the Carbon Par project – the first golfing nation to produce such an account. 

“The method that is being used to produce this estimate, hopefully, others can use that going forward. To improve, you first have to know where you stand,” said Roald.

“Golf courses are sequestering a considerable amount of carbon, which I think few people actually associate with golf. On the flipside, golf is a large land user and is bound to be using wetlands in places. Emissions, when you drain wetlands, are so great.”

Forests, peatlands, deserts and tundra can all absorb and hold stocks of CO2. Of all the carbon held in land-based ecosystems, around 34% can be found in grasslands, data from the World Resources Institute shows. That’s not much less than the 39% held in forests. So whether a golf course might actually soak up a good amount of carbon-dioxide depends on how it’s managed and whether it destroys more valuable land to begin with. 

Roald added: “It’s only a matter of time before the golf industry will be asked questions about what we can do with those wetlands – that’s where we can have the most impact.”

Climate change clamor has caught the eye of one of golf’s most recognizable voices in Rory McIlroy, just one of many high-profile athletes who travel enormous distances by plane.

“I wouldn’t self-profess to be an eco-warrior, but I’m someone that doesn’t want to damage the environment,” the Florida-based Northern Irishman told the media at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. 

“I live in a part of the world where hurricanes are very prevalent and becoming more and more prevalent as the years go on. I think we can all play our part in some way or another.

“We play on big pieces of land that take up a lot of water and a lot of other things that could maybe be put to better use.”

‘The way golf should be played’

Ahead of a trip to the world-renowned Royal Melbourne in Australia, Kruse referenced comments in 2019 by Tiger Woods and Ernie Els at the Presidents Cup.

Cutting to the chase, both players spoke highly of the course’s natural setup — in essence, much like many past Open Championships, the course was dry and vast areas of the rough and even fairways had gone without water, “letting Mother Nature dish up the elements to play the game,” said Kruse.

Well-watered and manicured golf courses can often provide softer conditions that produce better scoring and prettier TV images, but Els and Woods took the chance to laud another approach that will become the norm as courses seek sustainable practices.

Els and Woods both talked up the advantages of playing on a dried-out course, like in Australia.

Kruse said he could barely believe his eyes when he saw a team of maintenance staff on TV earlier this year using petrol-driven leaf blowers to dry the rough, adding American courses probably have more sprinkler heads per golf course and water more area of turf compared to courses in, for example, Australia or the British Isles.

“Taking the drought in California a few years ago, I would hope that they haven’t gone back to their old ways and they’re having a rethink,” Kruse said.

“You don’t need 2,000 irrigation heads right from fence line to fence line to keep the course alive. You can let things dry out.” 

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Gasoline and natural gas prices are going down

Americans grappling with historic levels of inflation are finally getting some relief where they need it most: Previously-booming energy prices, CNN reports.

After a relentless rise, prices at the pump are heading south. The national average price for a gallon of regular gas fell to a seven-week low of $3.35 a gallon on Tuesday, according to AAA

The outlook for home heating costs this winter is also improving significantly. Natural gas futures have been nearly cut in half over the past two months. Natural gas plunged by more than 11% on Monday, its worst day in nearly three years.

Energy sticker shock has been one of the biggest drivers behind the 31-year high in inflation. Cooling energy prices, if they last, could take significant inflationary pressure off the US economy and inspire confidence among bummed out consumers.

“This is going to help consumers considerably,” Robert Yawger, director of energy futures at Mizuho Securities, said referring to the plunge in natural gas futures. 

Prices at the pump started leveling out as rumors swirled that the Biden administration would intervene in energy markets. 

By the time President Joe Biden announced on November 23 the biggest-ever release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as part of a coordinated release with other countries, oil prices were about 10% below their peak. That’s even though Biden’s decision to tap the SPR is viewed as more of a Band-Aid than a long-term solution. 

Gas prices, which move with a lag, started to drift lower soon after. Yes, prices at the pump are still at high levels. Regular gas is now fetching $3.35 a gallon, up from $2.16 a year ago. But they have finally stopped going straight up.

White House applauds lower prices

After months of criticism for high inflation, and high energy prices in particular, the White House is cheering the shift in direction. 

“We see price decreases at the pump as good news. This is at least in part due to the President’s actions – as we have taken bold action to increase supply and bring down prices,” a person familiar with the White House’s thinking told CNN on Tuesday. 

Biden expressed hope last week that gas prices would head lower. 

“These savings are beginning to reach Americans, and should pick up in the weeks ahead. And it can’t happen fast enough,” Biden said on Friday.

Of course, the US-led intervention in energy markets is only one part of this. 

The other part is more ominous: Oil prices took a big hit after the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant set off fears of weaker demand for gasoline, jet fuel and diesel. Crude collapsed on Black Friday by the most since April 2020. 

In recent days, oil prices have rebounded, along with the stock market, as Wall Street reacts to anecdotal evidence that suggests Omicron symptoms have been mild. 

Natural gas collapses

Meanwhile, natural gas remains sharply higher on the year — but has cooled off considerably in recent weeks. 

In early October, as fears of a European-style shortage swirled, natural gas hit $6.47 per million British thermal units. That was the highest level since February 2014.

But that rally has completely reversed. Natural gas fell 11.5% on Monday, its worst day since January 2019, to $3.66 per million BTU. That’s the lowest level since July 15.

Natural gas has been driven lower in part by the fact that temperatures across the United States have been warmer than usual. That has eased demand for natural gas, the most common way to heat homes. 

“The warmer-than-normal start to winter has alleviated concerns,” said Christopher Louney, vice president of global commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets. 

Overdone shortage fears

The warmer temperatures have also helped boost inventories of natural gas, reducing fears that storage levels could drop to alarmingly low levels. 

“The US isn’t going to run out of natural gas. There is ample supply,” said Rob Thummel, senior portfolio manager at energy investment firm TortoiseEcofin. “We could weather quite an extreme cold snap and still have adequate supplies.”

Shortage fears on the natural gas front were overdone, especially considering the United States is the largest producer of gas on the planet. And natural gas production has ticked higher, helping to lower prices further. 

“We are seeing the response of an efficient natural gas market to prices that were perceived as inordinately high,” the American Gas Association, an industry trade group, told CNN in a statement. 

Unlike Europe, the United States produces enough natural gas at home that it is able to export significant amounts everyday overseas in the form of LNG, or liquefied natural gas. 

If anything, the natural gas market has gone from worry about a shortage to fretting about too much supply. 

Futures market spreads are “warning that we are spiraling towards a glut. It’s a big problem,” said Mizuho’s Yawger.

Of course, it’s too early for the all-clear signal on the home heating front. Winter hasn’t even officially begun yet and very cold temperatures in the coming weeks and months could spark a rebound in natural gas futures. 

But for the moment, the energy market is offering glimmers of hope for inflation-weary American families. 

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Photographers are protecting environment with their wors

The final moments before the death of the last male northern white rhino, a 66-year-old elephant swimming in the ocean, and renowned primatologist Jane Goodall searching for chimpanzees in Tanzania in the early 1960s; these are all moments captured in a collection of powerful photographs that have been donated to raise funds for conservation projects, CNN reports.

Works by 100 photographers from around the world will be sold until the end of the year by Vital Impacts, a non-profit that provides financial support to community-orientated conservation organizations and amplifies the work of photographers who are raising awareness of their efforts. Contributing is a who’s who of nature photography, including Paul Nicklen, Ami Vitale, Jimmy Chin, Chris Burkard, Nick Brandt, Beth Moon, Stephen Wilkes and Goodall herself. 

“Each image has a really profound story behind it,” said Vitale, an award-winning photographer and co-founder of Vital Impacts. “I worked really hard when I was curating this to make sure that these photographers are diverse, but the one thing they all share is this commitment to the planet. They’re using their art to help conservation.”

An inspiration to the world’

Goodall’s photograph of herself, sitting with a telescope on a high peak in Gombe, Tanzania, was taken around 1962 using a camera that she fastened to a tree branch. “I was pretty proud of myself. I love that picture,” said Goodall in a video message for Vital Impacts. All the proceeds from her self-portrait will go to supporting her Roots & Shoots program, which educates young people and empowers them to care for the world.

Jane Goodall's "Self Portrait," from the early 1960s, in Tanzania.
Jane Goodall`s “Self Portrait”, from the early 1960s, in Tanzania.

“It’s breathtaking work,” said Vitale, who only found out that Goodall was a photographer after reaching out to her about supporting the program. “She’s been such an inspiration to the world. This one woman has had such an impact for the betterment of the planet.”

Vital Impacts has tried to make the print sale carbon neutral by planting trees for every print that is made. Sixty percent of profits from the sale will be divided between four groups involved in wildlife or habitat protection: Big Life Foundation, Great Plains Foundation’s Project Ranger, Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots program, and SeaLegacy. The remaining 40% will go to the photographers to help them continue their work.

‘Our shared life raft’

Vitale was a conflict photographer for a decade before becoming a wildlife photographer. She hopes that people will be “inspired by all of this work” and that the photographs make people “fall in love” with our “magnificent planet.”

“The planet is our shared life raft and we’ve poked some holes in it, but it’s not too late,” added Vitale. “We can all do little acts that can have profound impacts. That’s kind of why I named it ‘Vital Impacts,’ because I think very often we are all so disconnected and don’t realize how we are interconnected. Everything we do impact one another and shapes this world.”

One of her photographs in the print sale, “Goodbye Sudan,” shows Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, being comforted by one of his keepers, Joseph Wachira, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in northern Kenya moments before the rhino’s death in March 2018. Now, two females are all that remains of this species.

"Goodbye Sudan" by Ami Vitale shows the moments before the death of the last male northern white rhino in 2018.
“Goodbye Sudan” by Ami Vitale shows the moments before the death of the last male northern white rhino in 2018.

“It’s such an important story to me because it made me realize that watching these animals go extinct is actually like watching our own demise in slow motion, knowing that it’s going to impact humanity,” said Vitale.

“It’s so deeply interwoven. That’s what led me down this path and now I really try to find these stories which show us a way forward, where people are learning how to coexist and protect wildlife and the habitats that we all share.”

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Which Christmas tree should you choose to save the climate?

It’s the time of the year when most Americans finish Thanksgiving leftovers and venture out in search for the best holiday sales. More importantly, they plan their household centerpiece of the season: the Christmas tree, CNN reports.

While some revel in the scent of a real tree and the joy of picking one out at a local farm, others prefer the simplicity of artificial trees they can reuse for Christmases to come.

But consumers are becoming more climate-conscious, and considering which tree has the lowest impact on our rapidly warming planet has become a vital part of the holiday decision. Plus, choosing a planet-friendly tree will likely get you on Santa’s good list.

So, which kind of tree has the lowest carbon footprint — a natural tree or a store-bought plastic tree? It’s complicated, experts say. 

“It’s definitely a lot more nuanced and complex than you think,” Andy Finton, the landscape conservation director and forest ecologist for the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts.

We’ve made a list — and checked it twice — of the things to know before you choose between real and artificial. 

The case for artificial trees

It’s easy to imagine that reusing an artificial tree year after year is the more sustainable option. But Finton says if an artificial tree is used for fewer than six years, the carbon cost is greater than investing in a natural tree.

“If the artificial trees are used for a longer lifespan, that balance changes,” Finton. “And I’ve read that it would take 20 years for the carbon balance to be about equivalent.”

That’s because artificial trees are typically made of polyvinyl chloride plastic, or PVC. Plastic is petroleum-based and created at pollution-belching petrochemical facilities. Studies have also linked PVC plastic to cancer and other public health and environmental risks. 

Then there’s the transportation aspect. According to the US Department of Commerce, most artificial Christmas trees are imported into the US from China, meaning the products are carried by fossil fuel-powered ships across the Pacific Ocean, then moved by heavy freight trucks before it ultimately lands on the distributor’s shelves or the consumer’s doorstep. 

The American Christmas Tree Association, a nonprofit that represents artificial tree manufacturers, commissioned WAP Sustainability Consulting for a study in 2018 that found the environmental impact of an artificial tree is better than a real tree if you use the fake tree for at least five years. 

“Artificial trees were looked at [in the study] for factors such as manufacturing and overseas transportation,” Jami Warner, executive director of ACTA. “Planting, fertilizing and watering were taken into account for real trees, which have an approximate field cultivation period of seven to eight years.”

What are the benefits of real trees?

On average, it takes seven years to fully grow a Christmas tree, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. And as it grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. Protecting forests and planting trees can help stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis by removing the planet-warming gas from the atmosphere. 

If trees are cut down or burned, they can release the carbon they’ve been storing back into the atmosphere. But Doug Hundley, spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association, which advocates for real trees, says the act of cutting down Christmas trees from a farm is balanced out when farmers immediately plant more seedlings to replace them. 

“When we harvest the trees or cut them, we plant back very quickly,” Hundley said. 

If the idea of trekking through a forest to find the perfect tree is intriguing, you can buy a permit from the US Forest Service, which encourages people to cut their own tree rather than buy an artificial one. According to Recreation.gov, cutting down thin trees in dense areas can improve forest health.

But Finton doesn’t recommend pulling a Clark Griswold and chopping down a massive tree to haul home — especially if it’s in an area you’re not permitted for. He recommends getting a tree from a local farm, instead.

“To me, the benefit of going to a Christmas tree farm, which is different than cutting a tree in the forest, is that it concentrates the impact of removing trees into one location,” he said. “And it puts the responsibility on the farmers to regenerate those trees.”

There’s also an economic benefit to going natural, since most of the trees people end up getting are grown at nearby farms. About 15,000 farms grow Christmas trees in the US alone, employing over 100,000 people either full or part-time in the industry, according to the National Christmas Tree Association

“What we’re doing by purchasing a natural Christmas tree is supporting local economies, local communities, local farmers and to me, that’s a key part of the conservation equation,” Finton said. “When a tree grower can reap economic benefits from their land, they’re less likely to sell it for development and less likely to convert it to other uses.”

Disposal matters

Trees pile up on the curbs after the holidays are over, and the final destination in many locations is landfills, where they contribute to emissions of methane — a powerful greenhouse gas roughly 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. 

“Real Christmas trees ending up in landfills is very much discouraged,” Hundley said, adding that there needs to be “separate areas for yard waste where Christmas trees can go.”

But some towns and cities repurpose the trees to benefit the climate and the environment. In New York City, trees left on curbs during a certain timeframe are picked up to be recycled or composted. The city sanitation department also hosts an initiative called MulchFest, where residents can bring their trees to be chipped for mulch and used to nourish other trees throughout the city. 

“When the tree is finished being used by the homeowner, it’s very easy and common in America to have the tree chopped up into mulch — and that’s stored carbon is put back in the ground,” Hundley added. 

Finton also says former Christmas trees can be reused for habitat restoration; they can help control erosion if placed along stream and river banks, and can even help underwater habitats thrive if they are placed in rivers and lakes.

The end of life for an artificial tree is much different. They end up in landfills — where they could take hundreds of years to decompose — or incinerators, where they release hazardous chemicals.

The bottom line

Weighing the complicated climate pros and cons, real Christmas trees have the edge. But if you choose to deck your halls artificially, get a tree you’re going to love and reuse for many years.

Either way, Finton said, people should feel good about their decision and find other ways to tackle the climate crisis. 

“It’s a debate, but once you’ve made a decision, you should feel good about your decision, because there’s so many other things we can do in our lives that have an even greater climate impact — such as driving less or advocating for policies that expand renewable energy,” Finton said. “Enjoy the holidays and focus on other aspects of your life to reduce the impacts of climate change.”

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Google promise to develop Africa ‘s digital ecosystem

Africa has the lowest rate of internet connectivity of any region in the world. But that also means it has the highest potential for new growth, CNN reports.

During the pandemic in 2020, nearly 20 million more Africans subscribed to a mobile service than in the previous year, according to industry trade group Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA), with 4G connections set to double over the next four years.

Tech giants such as Google – which expects hundreds of millions more people to come online across the continent for the first time in the next few years – are moving quickly in the race for Africa’s digital inclusion.

Last year, Google’s joint report with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation forecasted Africa’s “e-conomy” value would reach $180 billion by 2025.

This has arguably fueled the company’s commitment of a $1 billion investment in Africa, announced last month – focusing on grants for businesses, supporting entrepreneurship and a significant infrastructure plan to broaden internet access across the continent.

After the announcement, CNN’s Larry Madowo spoke to Nitin Gajria, Google’s managing director for sub-Saharan Africa, about the company’s plan to improve internet connectivity in Africa and support the continent’s digital transformation.

Larry Madowo: Google has made a big deal of investing in the digital landscape in Africa. What regions or specific sectors are you most excited about investing in?

Nitin Gajria: We were thrilled to have announced our $1 billion commitment over the next five years on the continent. These are really mainly in three areas: first, our initiatives related to connectivity, and how do we bring the power of the internet into more hands. The second part of it is how do we help entrepreneurs and small businesses succeed with the internet. And the third part of this commitment is a renewal of our non-profit partnerships on the continent.

We’ve just announced a $50 million Africa investment fund aimed at the growth state startups. That’s one of the things I’m really excited about, our initiatives related to the startup ecosystem on the continent.

LM: How is Google approaching some of the infrastructure challenges that are famous on the continent and the opportunities to build from the ground up?

NG: A few years ago, we would’ve been sitting here talking about how network coverage is a massive challenge. And I think that some of those challenges are being solved. The thing that I think about is the number of internet users that we’re going to have on the continent in the next three to five years. And how do we have the capacity to serve those users in an effective fashion with the right kind of speeds, with the right kind of bandwidth and so on.

And one of the things is “Equiano,” a subsea cable that we are building along the west coast of Africa which links Europe to Africa. We’ve already announced landing points in Nigeria, in Namibia and in South Africa. This type of capacity that Equiano is going to bring in will have a profound effect on internet speeds, on data costs and just the overall internet experience in the places that impacts.

LM: Can you talk about the role of smartphones in making sure that this is a mobile-first continent and how Google approaches that?

NG: When you look at the profile of new internet users, they tend to use the internet for very different purposes than the first billion people that got onto the internet. As an example, one really profound and interesting shift is somebody that’s never used a keyboard on a laptop or a computer ever before, and for them to encounter a QWERTY keyboard that you normally have in your phone is a really strange experience; which then sort of raises really interesting questions about how do we create an internet that one can interact with through voice or products that can work in local languages. These are the kinds of challenges that I think we need to be very aware of as the next billion people get online.

LM: We like to say in Africa that we’re not a monolith. Talk about what talent you see coming out of the continent versus the rest of the world.

NG: We know that there are going to be more young people in Africa for the foreseeable future than anywhere else in the world. And that just means that you have a base of talent that can go on to build amazing things in Africa. We also see a small but growing and thriving developer population. I do believe that developers are an essential ingredient in any vibrant internet ecosystem. We do see an opportunity and some headroom in terms of growth for developer talent.

LM: As the guy running Google in sub-Saharan Africa, what keeps you up at night?

NG: One is connectivity. Some of the most profound challenges yet the most exciting opportunities on the continent is we have 1.1 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa, (but) only about 300 million people are using the internet in any way, shape or form. So, there’s about 800 million people that have never experienced the power of the internet — how do we bridge that gap? We expect 300 million people to come online over the next five years and after that we expect a lot more. 

I’m really excited about the work that various players in the ecosystem are doing. And that’s just talking about the subsea cables that are being built to serve Africa. But there’s also a ton of work being done inland from an infrastructure perspective, whether it’s by the Telco’s or other infrastructure providers and all of this collectively will hopefully go on to solve some of the connectivity challenges that we have on the continent.

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Venomous sharks were found in Thames river

London’s famous river is more exciting than we thought. Seahorses, eels, seals, and venomous sharks have all been discovered in the Thames, the results of a “health check” have shown, CNN reports.

A survey by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) revealed “positive news” for wildlife, and ecosystem recovery, the society said Wednesday. 

Back in 1957, the capital city’s river was declared “biologically dead.” 

But now, surprising creatures, like sharks including tope, starry smooth-hound, and spurdog – a slender fish measuring some 23 inches and covered in venomous spines — have been found.

Spurdogs can be found in deep water, and the spines in front of the shark’s two dorsal fins secrete a venom that can cause pain and swell in humans.

Tope shark, which feeds on fish and crustaceans and can reach 6 feet and up to 106 pounds, has never launched an unprovoked attack on humans, according to the UK’s Wildlife Trusts. 

Meanwhile, the starry smooth-hound, which can reach up to 4 feet and 25 pounds, mostly eats crustaceans, shellfish, and mollusks.

However, the number of fish species found in the tidal areas of the river has shown a slight decline, and conservation scientists have warned that further research is needed to understand why. 

The 215-mile river, home to more than 115 species of fish and 92 species of bird, faces pollution and climate change threats, ZSL warned.

The river also provides drinking water, food, livelihoods, and protection from coastal flooding to surrounding communities.

The river also provides drinking water, food, livelihoods, and protection from coastal flooding to surrounding communities.

Water levels have been increasing since monitoring began in 1911 in the tidal section of the Thames, rising at some points by 0.17 inch a year on average since 1990. 

“As water temperature and sea levels continue to rise above historic baselines, the estuary’s wildlife will be particularly impacted, through changes to species’ lifecycles and ranges,” ZSL warned in a statement. 

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How to control climate change?

The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow has been billed as a last chance to limit global warming to 1.5C. But beyond the deals and photo opportunities, what are the key things countries need to do in order to tackle climate change? BBC reports.

1. Keep fossil fuels in the ground

Burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and especially coal, releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, trapping heat and raising global temperatures. 

It’s an issue that has to be tackled at the government level if temperature rises are to be limited to 1.5C – the level considered the gateway to dangerous climate change. 

However, many major coal-dependent countries – such as Australia, the US, China and India – have declined to sign a deal at the summit aimed at phasing out the energy source in the coming decades. 

2. Curb methane emissions

A recent UN report has suggested that reducing emissions of methane could make an important contribution to tackling the planetary emergency.

A substantial amount of methane is released from “flaring” – the burning of natural gas during oil extraction – and could be stopped with technical fixes. Finding better ways of disposing of rubbish is also important because landfill sites are another big methane source.

At COP26, nearly 100 countries agreed to cut methane emissions, in a deal spearheaded by the US and the EU. The Global Methane Pledge aims to limit methane emissions by 30% compared with 2020 levels.

3. Switch to renewable energy

Many wind turbines and a large solar panel array in a desert valley, mountains in the distance and blue sky above. Palm Springs, California, USA

Electricity and heat generation make a greater contribution to global emissions than any economic sector. 

Transforming the global energy system from one reliant on fossil fuels to one dominated by clean technology – known as decarbonization – is critical for meeting current climate goals.

Wind and solar power will need to dominate the energy mix by 2050 if countries are to deliver on their net zero targets.

There are challenges, however.

Less wind means less electricity generated, but better battery technology could help us store surplus energy from renewables, ready to be released when needed.

4. Abandon petrol and diesel

We’ll also need to change the way we power the vehicles we use to get around on land, sea and in the air. 

Ditching petrol and diesel cars and switching to electric vehicles will be critical. 

Lorries and buses could be powered by hydrogen fuel, ideally produced using renewable energy. 

And scientists are working on new, cleaner fuels for aircraft, although campaigners are also urging people to reduce the number of flights they take.

5. Plant more trees

A UN report in 2018 said that, to have a realistic chance of keeping the global temperature rise under 1.5C, we’ll have to remove CO2 from the air. 

Forests are excellent at soaking it up from the atmosphere – one reason why campaigners and scientists emphasize the need to protect the natural world by reducing deforestation. 

Programs of mass tree planting are seen as a way of offsetting CO2 emissions. 

Trees are likely to be important as countries wrestle with their net-zero targets because once emissions have been reduced as much as possible, remaining emissions could be “canceled out” by carbon sinks such as forests. 

6. Remove greenhouse gases from the air

Emerging technologies that artificially remove CO2 from the atmosphere, or stop it being released in the first place, could play a role. 

A number of direct-air capture facilities are being developed, including plants built by Carbon Engineering in Texas and Climeworks in Switzerland. They work by using huge fans to push air through a chemical filter that absorbs CO2. 

Another method is carbon capture and storage, which captures emissions at “point sources” where they are produced, such as at coal-fired power plants. The CO2 is then buried deep underground. 

However, the technology is expensive – and controversial, because it is seen by critics as helping perpetuate a reliance on fossil fuels.

7. Give financial aid to help poorer countries

New Delhi, India – July 25, 2018: A poor boy collecting garbage waste from a landfill site in the outskirts of Delhi. Hundreds of children work at these sites to earn their livelihood.

At the Copenhagen COP summit in 2009, rich countries pledged to provide $100bn (£74.6bn) in financing by 2020, designed to help developing countries fight and adapt to climate change. 

That target date has not been met, although the UK government, as holders of the COP presidency, recently outlined a plan for putting the funding in place by 2023.

Many coal-dependent countries are facing severe energy shortages that jeopardize their recovery from Covid and disproportionately affect the poor. These factors stop them from moving away from polluting industries. 

Some experts believe poorer nations will need continuing financial support to help them move towards greener energy. For instance, the US, EU and UK recently provided $8.5bn to help South Africa phase out coal use.

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If global warming will be over 1.5 degrees Australia’s Great Barrier Reef will die

A study released on Friday by an Australian university looking at multiple catastrophes hitting the Great Barrier Reef has found for the first time that only 2% of its area has escaped bleaching since 1998, then the world’s hottest year on record, Reuters reports.

If global warming is kept to 1.5 degrees, the maximum rise in average global temperature that was the focus of the COP26 United Nations climate conference, the mix of corals on the Barrier Reef will change but it could still thrive, said the study’s lead author Professor Terry Hughes, of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

“If we can hold global warming to 1.5 degrees global average warming then I think we’ll still have a vibrant Great Barrier Reef,” he said.

Bleaching is a stress response by overheated corals during heat waves, where they lose their colour and many struggles to survive. Eighty percent of the World Heritage-listed wonder has been bleached severely at least once since 2016, the study by James Cook University in Australia’s Queensland state found.

“Even the most remote, most pristine parts of the Great Barrier Reef have now bleached severely at least once,” Hughes said.

The study found the corals adapted to have a higher heat threshold if they had survived a previous bleaching event, but the gap between bleaching events has shrunk, giving the reefs less time to recover between each episode.

Australia, which last week said it would not back a pledge led by the United States and the European Union to cut methane emissions, needs to do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Hughes said. 

“The government is still issuing permits for new coal mines and for new methane gas deals and it’s simply irresponsible in terms of Australia’s responsibilities to the Great Barrier Reef,” he said.

The Great Barrier Reef is comprised of more than 3,000 individual reefs stretching for 2,300km (1,429 miles). The ecosystem supports 65,000 jobs in reef tourism. Globally, hundreds of millions of people depend on the survival of coral reefs for their livelihoods and food security.

“If we go to 3, 4 degrees of global average warming which is tragically the trajectory we are currently on, then there won’t be much left of the Great Barrier Reef or any other coral reefs throughout the tropics,” Hughes told.

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