Glacial rivers absorb carbon faster than rainforests, scientists find

‘Total surprise’ discovery overturns conventional understanding of rivers


 Ellesmere Island in Canada, where researchers collected meltwater samples. Photograph: Luke Copland

In the turbid, frigid waters roaring from the glaciers of Canada’s high Arctic, researchers have made a surprising discovery: for decades, the northern rivers secretly pulled carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a rate faster than the Amazon rainforest.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, flip the conventional understanding of rivers, which are largely viewed as sources of carbon emissions.

“It was a total surprise,” said Dr Kyra St Pierre, a biologist at the University of British Columbia and lead researcher on the project. “Given what we know about the rivers though … the findings are intuitive when you think about it. But we were initially very surprised to see what we did.”

The discovery came from time spent collecting meltwater samples on Ellesmere Island, in Canada’s Nunavut territory, where several glaciers flow into Lake Hazen. The team of researchers also gathered samples in the Rocky Mountains and Greenland.

“We have a pretty good understanding of the state of glaciers globally,” said St Pierre. “One thing we don’t know much about is the meltwaters and what happens when it … flows into rivers and downstream lakes.”

In temperate rivers, a bounty of organic material – plant life and fish – results in higher levels of decomposition, meaning the bodies of water emit a far greater amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than they absorb.

But glacial rivers, with their milky appearance and silt-laden composition, are not very hospitable to aquatic life, leading to far less organic decay – and little carbon output.

At the same time, the fine sediment scraped from glaciers, including silicate and carbonate, when tossed along in the rushing waters, begins the geological process known as chemical weathering.

“As the rivers take up the particles, they start to mix within the water and within that water there are also gases, including carbon dioxide,” said St Pierre. “The mixing together creates these reactions and puts all these different particles together. That’s where we see that the net result is the sink of carbon dioxide.”

The research team discovered the effect of chemical weathering in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere extended as far away as 26 miles (42km) from the headwaters of the river.

This means that during high melt periods, glacial river water will absorb 40 times as much carbon as the Amazon rainforest.

“On a per-metre-squared basis, these rivers can consume a phenomenal amount of carbon dioxide,” said St Pierre. But their limited size means on a gross scale, they pull in far less than the sprawling Amazon. The team plan on sampling meltwaters in the Canadian Rockies, and expect to find similar results.

In a rapidly changing climate, the findings provide a surprisingly optimistic message: there are often unseen or underappreciated ways in which the planet regulates carbon emissions. “It shows just how little we know about these systems,” said St Pierre. MORE

Offshore windfarms ‘can provide more electricity than the world needs’

Supplies from turbines will prove to be the next great energy revolution, IEA predicts


A sailing boat passes the Kentish Flats offshore windfarm. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Erecting wind turbines on the world’s best offshore sites could provide more than enough clean energy to meet global electricity demand, according to a report.

A detailed study of the world’s coastlines has found that offshore windfarms alone could provide more electricity than the world needs – even if they are only built in windy regions in shallow waters near the shore.

Analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA) revealed that if windfarms were built across all useable sites which are no further than 60km (37 miles) off the coast, and where coastal waters are no deeper than 60 metres, they could generate 36,000 terawatt hours of renewable electricity a year. This would easily meeting the current global demand for electricity of 23,000 terawatt hours.

“Offshore wind currently provides just 0.3% of global power generation, but its potential is vast,” the IEA’s executive director, Fatih Birol, said.

The study predicts offshore wind generation will grow 15-fold to emerge as a $1tn (£780bn) industry in the next 20 years and will prove to be the next great energy revolution.

The IEA said earlier this week that global supplies of renewable electricity were growing faster than expected and could expand by 50% in the next five years, driven by a resurgence in solar energy. Offshore wind power would drive the world’s growth in clean power due to plummeting costs and new technological breakthroughs, including turbines close to the height of the Eiffel Tower and floating installations that can harness wind speeds further from the coast.

The next generation of floating turbines capable of operating further from the shore could generate enough energy to meet the world’s total electricity demand 11 times over in 2040, according to IEA estimates.

In European First, Proposed Constitutional Amendment in Sweden Would Enshrine Rights of Nature

“When we’re in the beginning of an ecological and climate collapse,” said the lawmaker who introduced the measure, “I hope we can re-think our relationship with Nature.

Pine forest in Sweden. The proposed amendment to Sweden’s Instrument of Government would secure the Rights of Nature to “existera, blomstra, regenerera och utvecklas”—which translates as “exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve”—in order to provide the people and government of Sweden the ability to defend and enforce these rights on behalf of Nature. (Photo: Peter Lesseur / EyeEm/ iStock)

Heralded as the first of its kind in Europe, a proposed constitutional amendment in Sweden seeks to enshrine the rights of Nature to ensure that the creatures, fona, and features of the natural world are protected from exploitation and abuse by endowing them with legal status previously reserved only for humans and select animals.

“Economic growth has been the real goal, not a healthy environment. I’m tired of this era, where our arrogant worldview has driven us far beyond the planetary boundaries.”

The proposed amendment to Sweden’s Instrument of Government, the nation’s constitutional document, would secure the Rights of Nature to “existera, blomstra, regenerera och utvecklas“—which translates as “exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve”—in order to provide the people and government of Sweden the ability to defend and enforce these rights on behalf of Nature.

Introduced by Swedish MP Rebecka Le Moine with the backing of a coalition of national and international groups—including Rights of Nature Sweden, Lodyn, and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund’s International Center for the Rights of Nature—the change to Swedish law mirrors that of others in the world but, if passed, would set a new precedent in Europe.

“For twenty years, we have been working with the national environmental goals in Sweden. After all this time, we are barely reaching two of them,” Le Moine said in a statement on Tuesday.

“The underlying value in our society is that we are the dominators of this world, and Nature is just a resource for us to use,” she continued. “Economic growth has been the real goal, not a healthy environment. I’m tired of this era, where our arrogant worldview has driven us far beyond the planetary boundaries. Now, when we’re in the beginning of an ecological and climate collapse, I hope we can re-think our relationship with Nature. And for me, it starts with admitting that Nature has rights.”

On its website, the group Rights of Nature Sweden explained the process for having the amendment adopted this way:

A proposed rights of nature amendment to the Constitution could be introduced directly into the Riksdag by Members of Parliament. Members of Parliament may introduce private motions for consideration by the Riksdag. This occurs in the autumn, when the Riksdag opens, during which time Members may propose private motions. Each motion is referred to a parliamentary committee for its review and consideration (a rights of nature amendment possibly would be referred to the Committee on the Constitution, or the Committee on the Environment and Agriculture). The committee then examines the motion and presents a proposal for how the Riksdag should decide before it adopts a position in the Chamber.

As the group also noted, this approach to defending the natural world is hardly new, with legal rights of nature having already been “recognized in laws and court decisions in the United States, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, India, New Zealand, and Colombia.”

MORE

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The Answer to Climate-Killing Cow Farts May Come From the Sea

Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas. A modest feed additive could provide a big leverage effect.


Cristina Byvik

One day in January 2014, police rushed to a farm in Rasdorf, Germany, after flames burst from a barn. They soon discovered that static electricity had caused entrapped methane from the flatulence and manure of 90 dairy cows to explode.

Headline writers had a field day. But the incident pointed to a serious problem: Ruminant livestock, mostly cattle, account for 30 percent of all global methane emissions, pumping out 3 gigatons of the gas every year in their burps, farts, and manure. Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas: During its 12-year lifespan after being released, it traps 84 times as much heat as carbon dioxide, and its effect on global warming over a century is 34 times that of CO2. According to the United Nations, reducing methane emissions from cows could be one of the quickest ways to slow climate change.

Methane traps 84 times as much heat as carbon dioxide.

The United States government has done little to curb this potent pollution, which makes up 36 percent of the country’s methane emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency’s AgStar program trains farmers to turn animal waste into biofuel using anaerobic digesters, but it is optional—8,000 farms could implement it, but only about 250 have done so.

Ermias Kebreab, an animal science professor at the University of California–Davis, has spent 15 years studying alternative ways to reduce livestock effusions. Three years ago, he heard that researchers at Australia’s James Cook University had mixed bacteria from cows’ digestive systems with red seaweed and discovered a drastic decrease in methane production. Their lab experiment suggested that reformulating a cow’s diet to contain 2 percent seaweed could reduce its methane emissions by 99 percent.

Kebreab tried to replicate those results with actual animals. His team mixed varying levels of Asparagopsis armata, a type of red seaweed, into the feed of 12 dairy cows over a two-month period. The results were shocking: When the cattle’s chow consisted of just 1 percent seaweed, their methane emissions went down 60 percent. “In all the years that I’ve worked in this area, I’ve never seen anything that reduced it that much,” Kebreab says. MORE

A lightbulb moment for nuclear fusion?

Boris Johnson’s gung-ho claims may be wide of the mark, but scientists pursuing the holy grail of energy generation are taking giant steps


An artist’s rendering of the reaction vessel at Iter in the south of France. Photograph: David Parker/Science Photo Library

“They are on the verge of creating commercially viable miniature fusion reactors for sale around the world,” Boris Johnson told the Conservative party conference earlier this month – “they” apparently being UK scientists. It was, at best, a rash promise for how nuclear fusion might make the UK carbon-neutral by the middle of the century – the target recommended by the Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government. “I know they have been on the verge for some time,” Johnson hedged. “It is a pretty spacious kind of verge.” But now, he assured his audience, “we are on the verge of the verge”.

It’s a familiar and bitter joke about nuclear fusion as an energy source that, ever since it was first mooted in the 1950s, it has been 30 years away. Johnson’s comments had the extra irony that Brexit could merely add to that distance.

It’s not clear what “commercially viable miniature fusion reactors” the prime minister had in mind. There are no such things either existing or planned at the main British centre for fusion research, the Joint European Torus (Jet) at Culham in Oxfordshire, which Johnson visited in August. Experiments at Jet, conducted by all partners within the 28-state Eurofusion consortium, aim to make the nuclear fusion of hydrogen – the process that powers the sun and other stars – viable for energy generation by collecting the heat released to drive turbines for electricity. When Jet is running, the temperature inside is more than 100m C, making it “the hottest place in the solar system” according to Jet’s director, Ian Chapman.

Nuclear fusion is the merging of atoms. Every atom contains a very dense central blob called the nucleus, made up of particles called protons and neutrons. Atoms of different chemical elements have nuclei with different numbers of protons. If two nuclei collide at high enough energy, they can amalgamate to form a different, heavier element. It requires very high temperatures and densities: inside the sun, temperatures of 10m C or so enable hydrogen atoms to fuse into helium. This process releases energy, which makes the sun shine.

Today’s nuclear power plants use not fusion but nuclear fission: the splitting apart of heavy nuclei. This happens spontaneously for radioactive elements such as uranium, and it too releases energy. But both the fuel and the products may remain highly radioactive for very long times – hundreds of thousands of years – creating health hazards and waste-disposal problems. What’s more, the fission process, which involves chain reactions that induce fission, can be hard to control and shut down, as the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, in Ukraine and Japan, showed. Fusion is “nuclear power done right” – potentially much cleaner, safer and more efficient. “It seems too good to be true – high power density, low and manageable waste production, and no possibility of uncontrolled energy release,” says Tim Luce, chief scientist on the large international fusion project Iter, in the south of France. “But it is true!” MORE

A gel that makes trees fire-resistant could help prevent wildfires

A wildfire burns near Murrieta, California

The news: A gel developed by Stanford researchers could be sprayed on forests and vegetation to make them fire-resistant, helping to stop wildfires from spreading. It’s made from cellulose polymers (extracted from plants) and particles of silica, which are chemically identical to sand, mixed with a flame-retardant fluid.

How to use it: Fire-fighting sprays are currently used on wildfires only in emergencies: this new approach would deploy them protectively before any fires can break out. In a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers say the gel is nontoxic and biodegradable.

Rain-resistant: The team tested the gel on plants in the laboratory and then on patches of grass by a road in California, supervised by local firefighters. They found it can withstand wind and up to half an inch of rain, so it only needs to be applied once per fire season (if it rains more than that, the risk of wildfires plummets anyway).

The bigger picture: Wildfires caused by humans are a huge and growing problem, destroying millions of acres of forest every year. It’s an issue that will only worsen as the Earth gets hotter. Many wildfires start in the same areas, like roadsides, campgrounds, and near remote electrical lines, which means local agencies could take a targeted approach, spraying the most “at risk” zones with the gel. SOURCE

Comment period opens for $20.6-billion Frontier oilsands mine project in Alberta

If it’s true that the era of mega oilsands projects is coming to an end, one proposed project stands as an outlier.

Image result for Teck Frontier oilsands project
A mining shovel fills a haul vehicle at the Shell Albian Sands oilsands mine near Fort McMurray, Alta. (The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh)

The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada is inviting public comment on the proposed Frontier oilsands mine project in northern Alberta.

The agency, which was until recently called the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, says the public and Indigenous groups can comment on potential environmental assessment conditions for the project until Nov. 24.

The $20.6-billion mine proposed by Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd. for a site 110 kilometres north of Fort McMurray would be built in two phases with ultimate production capacity of about 260,000 barrels per day of bitumen.

In July, a federal-provincial panel ruled that the project near Wood Buffalo National Park was in the public interest, even though it could significantly harm the environment and Indigenous people.

The panel’s report included recommended conditions for Teck and the federal and provincial governments including mitigating harm to wildlife, monitoring pollutants and taking feedback from nearby First Nations into account.

Following the public comment period, the minister of Environment and Climate Change is to consider comments received as well as the panel report in order to make an environmental assessment decision for the project.

The federal cabinet has until the end of February to make its decision on the project itself.  SOURCE