Climate Wars: Cropland Destruction and Improvement

cereals-agriculture-earClimate Change is currently recognized as one of the greatest threats to the stability and well being of the world and its people. But far worse than rising sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns, and an increase in forest fires is the threat that it could have on the global food supply. As our population increases by several billion over the next few decades, these problems will make it even harder to feed everyone.

Up until now, predictions and projections have taken into account rising temperatures, drought, erosion, and longer growing seasons. But a recent study, produced by researchers at MIT and Colorado State University shows that air pollution is also a major factor. In their report, which was published in Nature Climate Change, they claim that ground-level ozone could exacerbate the effects on staple food crops like wheat, soybeans, maize, and rice.

crop_failureUsing two scenarios, researchers mapped out the tandem relationship between pollution and climate change. As a baseline, the MIT and Colorado State researchers estimate that climate change alone will result in a 11% decrease in global crop production. But if countries fail to substantially curb greenhouse gas emissions (the first scenario), the scientists’ model shows that air pollution could trigger an additional 4% of crop failures.

That means that barring significant changes, croplands could see a 15% drop in productivity in the next 40 years. But if countries work to decrease greenhouse gas emissions after 2040, the researchers’ model shows that reduced air pollution could actually offset other negative impacts of warming on crops. They calculate that reduced air pollution in this second scenario could actually increase yields by 3%.

Pollution over Mexico CityThe link between air quality and food production may seem a bit odd, but the logic is actually very straightforward. Basically, the atmosphere forms ozone when sunlight energizes pollutants generated from sources like cars and power plants. Ozone concentrations can also increase at higher temperatures, the kind that already wither temperature-sensitive crops like maize. On top of the heat, increased ozone levels attack pollution-sensitive crops, like wheat.

In the climate scenario where emissions decrease after 2040, the reduction in ozone alone would be enough to increase wheat production in the U.S. and China, the researchers say. Their findings show that reducing air pollution could slow the negative impacts of climate change–even enough to reverse some of them. But some regions will be negatively impacted no matter what.

trafficAs Amos Tai, one of the study’s co-authors, explained:

It appears that South Asia will be the most hard-hit by the combination of warming and ozone trends, where ozone is expected to increase even in the more optimistic scenario. African countries with low domestic production and heavily reliant on food imports are also expected to suffer more in terms of climate-pollution-driven food insecurity.

In short, food production is likely to suffer no matter what, but the effects could be confined to certain areas of the world. With proper management, and the provision of food to these regions from those that are unaffected (say, a pollution-fighting US and China), the worst could be avoided. And there’s some good news coming from another report, which claims we can further increase our food production without taxing the environment.

crop_growthAccording to a new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, by focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops and actions could make it possible to both meet the basic needs of three billion more people while simultaneously decreasing agriculture’s environmental carbon footprint. The report, published in Science back in July, may sound like fantasy, but the argument offered is logical and compelling.

The report focuses on 17 key crops that produce 86 percent of the world’s crop calories and account for most irrigation and fertilizer consumption. It then proposes a set of key actions in three broad areas that have the greatest potential for reducing the environmental impact of agriculture while boosting production. For each, it identifies specific “leverage points” where NGOs, foundations, governments, businesses and citizens can have the greatest impact.

agriculture_indiaThe biggest opportunities cluster in six countries – China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan – along with Europe. As the report’s lead author Paul West, co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative, explains:

This paper represents an important next step beyond previous studies that have broadly outlined strategies for sustainably feeding people. By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good.

Overall, the report identified a number of major areas of opportunity and key leverage points for improving the efficiency and sustainability of global food production. First, there is reducing the “yield gap” – i.e. the difference between potential and actual crop yields – in many parts of the world. Currently, the largest gaps are to be found in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, and reducing it by just 50% could provide enough calories to feed 850 million more people.

china agriculture researchSecond, there is improving growth efficiency. The study identified two key areas where major opportunities exist to reduce climate impacts and improve efficiency of crop growth. These included the reduction of emissions of global greenhouse gas – which agriculture is responsible for 20 t0 35 percent of – in the form of CO2, tropical deforestation and methane, as well as improved efficiency in water usage.

In the case of emissions, the biggest opportunities are in Brazil and Indonesia where deforestation is a major problem, and in China, India and the US, where the production of rice, livestock, and crop fertilization all lead to sizable carbon and methane emissions. With respect to nutrient use, the study found that worldwide, 60 percent of nitrogen and nearly 50 percent of phosphorus applications exceed what crops need to grow.

agribusinessIn the case of water usage, the greatest opportunities are in China, India and the US, where the production of rice, wheat and corn create the most demand for irrigation. India, Pakistan, China and the U.S. also account for the bulk of irrigation water use in water-limited areas. Thus, by boosting crop water use efficiency could also reduce water demand by 8 to 15% without compromising food production.

Third, the report calls for improved efficiency in crop use, which can be done by shifting crops from livestock to humans use and reducing food waste. Currently, the amount of crops fed to animals is sufficient to meet the calorie needs of 4 billion people. The U.S., China and Western Europe account for the bulk of this “diet gap,” with corn being the main crop diverted to animal feed. Shifting these crops could also form a “safety net” in the event of an unforeseen shortfall.

Last, but not least, the report calls for the elimination of food waste, which accounts for some 30 to 50 percent of food production worldwide. Again, the U.S., China and India are the major players, and reducing waste in these three countries alone could yield food for more than 400 million people. All told, these changes could allow for enough food for an additional 3 billion people, which is what the world population is expected to reach by 2050.

world_hungerOverall, West summarizes the report and its recommendations as follows:

Sustainably feeding people today and in the future is one of humanity’s grand challenges. Agriculture is the main source of water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat loss, yet we need to grow more food. Fortunately, the opportunities to have a global impact and move in the right direction are clustered. By focusing on areas, crops and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment. Of course, while calories are a key measure of improving food security, nutrition, access and cultural preferences must also be addressed. But the need to boost food security is high. So let’s do it.

As always, the good news is contained within the bad. Or more precisely, every crisis present us with an opportunity for change and advancement. Though Climate Change and air pollution may threaten current and future levels of food production, there are solutions. And in all cases, they present opportunities for healthier living, more efficient use of land and water, and a more sustainable way of meeting our most basic needs.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, sciencedaily.com

News from Mars: Martian Water and Earth Organisms

curiosity_peakThis August, the Curiosity Rover will be celebrating its second anniversary of roving around the Red Planet. And ever since it made landfall, Curiosity and the Mars Science Laboratory has repeatedly uncovered signs that Mars was once very like Earth. Basically, it has become undeniable that water once flowed freely over the surface of this barren and uninhabitable world. And this finding, much to the delight of futurists and sci-fi enthusiasts everywhere, is likely to pave the way for human settlement.

Liquid water disappeared from Mars’ surface millions of years ago, leaving behind tantalizing clues about the planet’s ancient past—clues that the MSL has been deciphering for the past 22 months. This began last year when Curiosity found rounded pebbles in the Glenelg region, an indication that a stream once flowed at the site. This was followed by the discovery of rocky outcroppings where the remains of an ancient stream bed consisting of water-worn gravel that was washed down from the rim of Gale Crater.

mountsharp_galecraterThe rover has since moved to a location about 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) away from the Gale Crater landing site, where scientists expect to make even more discoveries. The new location is named Kimberly, after a region of northwestern Australia. As Dawn Sumner, a UC Davis geology professor and co-investigator for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory team, explained:

Our findings are showing that Mars is a planet that was once a whole lot like Earth. All the rocks we’ve seen on this mission are sediments that have been deposited by water. We’ve found almost no sandstone deposited by wind.

Sumner is working from Curiosity mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena while on sabbatical from UC Davis, exploring whether the planet ever had an environment capable of supporting microbial life. She is also one of several UC scientists and engineers who have been vital to the success of the Curiosity mission, which is part of NASA’s long-term plan to pave the way for sending astronauts to Mars.

Living-Mars.2In that vein, research continues here on Earth to see exactly what kind of life can survive in the harsh Martian environment. And now,  research suggests that methanogens – among the simplest and oldest organisms on Earth – could survive on Mars. These microorganisms are typically found in swamps and marshes, where they use hydrogen as their energy source and carbon dioxide as their carbon source to produce methane (aka. natural gas).

As an anaerobic bacteria, methanogens don’t require require oxygen or organic nutrients to live, and are non-photosynthetic. Hence, they would be able to exist in sub-surface environments and would therefore be ideal candidates for life on Mars. Rebecca Mickol, a doctoral student in space and planetary sciences at the University of Arkansas, subjected two species of methanogens to Martian conditions to see how they would fair on the Red Planet.

methanogens485These strains included Methanothermobacter wolfeii and Methanobacterium formicicum, both of which survived the Martian freeze-thaw cycles that Mickol replicated in her experiments. This consisted of testing the species for their ability to withstand Martian freeze-thaw cycles that are below the organisms’ ideal growth temperatures. As she explained it:

The surface temperature on Mars varies widely, often ranging between minus 90 degrees Celsius and 27 degrees Celsius over one Martian day. If any life were to exist on Mars right now, it would at least have to survive that temperature range. The survival of these two methanogen species exposed to long-term freeze/thaw cycles suggests methanogens could potentially inhabit the subsurface of Mars.

Mickol conducted the study with Timothy Kral, professor of biological sciences in the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences and lead scientist on the project. She presented her work at the 2014 General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, which was held from May 17th to 20th in Boston.

maven_atmosphereThe two species were selected because one is a hyperthermophile, meaning it thrives under extremely hot temperatures, and the other is a thermophile, which thrives under warm temperatures. Since the 1990s, Kral has been studying methanogens and examining their ability to survive on Mars. In 2004, scientists discovered methane in the Martian atmosphere, and immediately the question of the source became an important one. According to Kral:

When they made that discovery, we were really excited because you ask the question ‘What’s the source of that methane?. One possibility would be methanogens.

Understanding the makeup of Mars atmosphere and ecology is another major step towards ensuring that life can exist there again someday. From Red Planet, to Blue Planet, to Green Planet… it all begins with a fundamental understanding of what is currently able to withstand the Martian environment. And once this foundation is secured, our ecologists and environmental engineers can begin contemplating what it will take to create a viable atmosphere and sustainable sources of water there someday.

terraformingSources: phys.org, (2)

Climate News: World’s Most Potent Greenhouse Gas Found

NASA_global_warming_predFor over a century now, scientists have understood the crucial link that lies between greenhouse gases and the effect known as “Global Warming”. For decades, scientists have been focused on the role played by carbon dioxide and methane gas, the two principle polluters that are tied to human behavior and the consequences of our activities.

But now, a long-lived greenhouse gas, more potent than any other, has been discovered in the upper atmosphere by chemists at the University of Toronto. It’s known as Perfluorotributylamine (PFTBA), a gas that has a radiative efficiency of 0.86 – which is one measure of a chemical’s effectiveness at warming the climate (expressed in parts per million).

upper_atmosphereAt present, the biggest contributor to climate change is carbon dioxide, mainly because its concentrations are so high — 393.1 parts per million in 2012 and growing, thanks to human activity. However, many other gases contribute to this trend – such as nitrogen trifluoride and various chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) – but are less involved in the overall warming effect because their concentrations are lower.

According to the research article, which appeared in a recent issue of Geophysics Research Letters, the concentrations of PFTBA are very small — about 0.18 parts per trillion by volume in the atmosphere (at least in Toronto, where it was detected). But even though the overall contribution of PFTBA is comparatively small, its effect is “on the same scale as some of the gases that the monitoring community is aware of.”

Toronto Skyline With SmogAccording to 3M, a producer of PFTBA, the chemical has been sold for more than 30 years for the purpose of cooling semiconductor processing equipment and specialized military equipment, much in the same way that CFCs have been used. It is effective at transferring heat away from electronic components, and is stable, non-flammable, non-toxic, and doesn’t conduct electricity.

The chemical has an average lifespan of about 500 years in the lower atmosphere, and also like CFC’s, it has long been known to have the potential to cause damage to the ozone layer. But up until now its ability to trap heat in the atmosphere had not been measured, nor had it been detected in the atmosphere. The reason PFTBA is so potent compared to other gases is that it absorbs heat that would normally escape from the atmosphere.

electromagnetic-spectrumHeat, or infrared radiation comes, in different colors, and each greenhouse gas is only able to absorb certain colors of heat. PFTBA is different in that it manages to absorb colors that other greenhouse gases don’t. It was after some was discovered on the university grounds by Professor Scott Mabury that his team began to consider whether any had made it into the atmosphere as well.

Shortly thereafter, they conducted a series of tests to measure the radiative efficiency of the chemical and then began looking for samples of it in the air. This involved deploying air pumps to three locations – including the University of Toronto campus, Mt. Pleasant Cemetery and Woodbine Beach. The samples were then condensed and concentrated, and the PFTBA separated by weight.

airpollution1The end result was that PFTBA was found in all samples, including those upwind from the University of Toronto, suggesting that it wasn’t just coming from the chemistry building. However, the measurements were local and therefore not representative of the global average concentrations of the chemical. Still, its discovery is an indication that dangers might exist.

According to Angela Hong, a PhD student at the UofT department of chemistry and the lead author of the paper, this danger lies in the combined effect PFTBA could have alongside other gases:

If you’re suddenly going to add a greenhouse gas and it absorbs in that region. it’s going to be very potent.

Its effect is far more intense if its effect per molecule is considered, since it is about 15 times heavier than carbon dioxide. What’s more, PFTBA survives hundreds of years in the atmosphere, which means its effects are long-lasting. Fortunately, its use has been regulated under a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program that promotes alternatives to chemicals that deplete the ozone layer.

pftba-toronto-537x402In addition, chemicals that deplete the ozone layer are recognized by the Kyoto Protocols. As such, it should be an easy matter (from a legal standpoint anyway) to legislate against its continued use. As 3M indicated in a recent press statement:

That regulation stipulates that PFCs [the class of chemical that PFTBA belongs to] should be used only where there are no other alternatives on the basis of performance and safety. 3M adheres to that policy globally.

It added that the company “has worked to limit the use of these materials to non-emissive applications” and emphasized that the concentration of PFTBA found in the atmosphere is very low.

????????????????Nevertheless, this represents good news and bad news when it comes to the ongoing issue of Climate Change. On the one hand, early detection like this is a good way of ensuring that gases that contribute to the problem can be identified and brought under control before they become a problem. On the other, it shows us that when it comes to warming, there are more culprits than previously expected to contributing to it.

According to the most recent IPCC report, which was filed in 2012, the likelihood of us reaching a critical tipping point – i.e. the point of no return with warming – this century is highly unlikely. But that still leaves plenty of room for the problem to get worse before it gets better. One can only hope we get our acts together before it’s too late.

Sources: cbc.ca, IO9

News from Space: Titan’s Seas Mapped in Detail

titan_cassiniIt’s been an eventful year for NASA, thanks to the ongoing efforts of its many space probes and landers. In addition to some breathtaking discoveries made on Mars (proof of the existence of water and an atmosphere in the past), the MESSENGER probe discovered ice around the poles of Mercury, captured impressive footage of the surface, and mapped out the planet for the first time.

And while all this was happening in the Inner Solar System, the Cassini space probe was doing some rather impressive things in the Outer Solar System. In addition to taking part in the “Smile at Saturn” event, surveying the Jovian satellite of Europa, and unlocking the strange secrets of Saturn’s moons, Cassini also provided the most detailed map yet of the Saturnalian giant known as Titan.

titan_surfaceAnd now, using the data provided by NASA’s spacecraft, scientists have created this beautiful mosaic mapping the northern hemisphere of Titan, which is full of rivers, lakes, and seas. Ever since Cassini started mapping the world in 2004, it has been known that Titan boasts natural bodies of water that are composed not of water, but liquid hydrocarbons.

However, Cassini’s scans missed the true extent of some seas, including the biggest one of all: Kraken Mare. This new map fills in almost all the area of Titan’s north pole and provides scientists with important answers to some of their questions. These include how the geographic distribution of these natural bodies of water came to be.

titan_surface1For instance, while the northern hemisphere is dotted all over with hundreds of tiny lakes, the large seas seem confined to a specific area (see the lower right side of the image above). As geophysicist Randolph Kirk of the U.S. Geological Survey pointed out during a press conference at the American Geophysical Union conference, geological forces are most likely at work here.

Basically, the team thinks that Titan’s crust has fractured here when active tectonics created almost straight lines of parallel mountain chains. The low-lying areas are what gets filled with liquid, creating Kraken Mare and its smaller neighbor, Ligeia Mare. The scientists think the process may be analogous to the flooding which created large bodies of water in Nevada some 12,000 years ago.

titan_lakesOther tectonic processes are probably behind the smaller dotted lakes too, though scientists don’t yet know precisely what. Some of the lakes could be the infilled calderas of former active volcanoes, which would spew molten water instead of lava. But there isn’t enough volcanic activity on the moon to account for all of them.

Instead, many were probably created when liquid hydrocarbons dissolved the frozen ice, in the same way that water on Earth dissolves limestone to create features like the Bottomless Lakes in New Mexico. According to Kirk, “this creates a kind of exciting prospect that under the northern pole of Titan is a network of caves.” Such caves on Earth are often filled with all manner of life, so these ones could be as well.

Moons_of_Saturn_2007Other radar data has shown the depth and volume of Ligeia Mare, the second largest sea in the northern hemisphere. According to NASA scientists, the sea has a maximum depth of about 170 meters, as deep as Lake Michigan, and about twice its volume. Alas, beyond the comparative size of these bodies of water, Titan’s liquid bodies could not be more different than those on Earth.

As already noted, Titan’s lakes, rivers and seas are composed of liquid hydrocarbons, most likely ethane and methane. Ordinarily, these exist in gaseous form. But given Titan’s surface conditions, where the average temperatures is -180 degrees Celsius (-292 Fahrenheit), these hydrocarbons are able to exist in liquid form.

TitanNevertheless, finding evidence of such chemicals on planets beyond Earth is a rare and impressive find. Combined with the discovery of propelyne in Titan’s atmosphere – an organic compound that is a byproduct of oil refining, fossil fuel extraction, and thought not to exist beyond Earth – this moon is proving to be full of surprises!

And be sure to enjoy this video which simulates a flyover of Titan, as complied by NASA from the data provided by the Cassini space probe:


Source: wired.com

Climate Crisis: Climate Bomb in the Arctic?

icecapThe northern polar regions are considered by many to be the main battle grounds when it comes to Climate Change. The slow melting of the planet’s ice caps are rapidly melting, which in turn leads to increasing sea levels, and an increase in the amount of solar radiation our oceans absorb. However, according to a new theory, the disappearance of the ice sheet might also release a “time bomb” of greenhouse gas.

The theory appeared in recent paper submitted to the journal Nature. which argued that warming temperatures could release 50 billion tons of methane currently frozen in the Arctic seabed. Because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, such a huge release could drastically speed up the rate at which the sea ice retreats, the amount of solar energy that the ocean absorbs, and exacerbate the ongoing melt.

NASA_global_warming_predIt could also mean global temperatures rising more quickly, moving the world’s climate past generally-agreed-upon “tipping point” limits. Using the same methodology as the Stern Review, a landmark study from 2006. the papers authors  – Gail Whiteman, Peter Wadhams, and Chris Hope of Cambridge University – put a price tag on the potential damage:

The release of methane from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea, off northern Russia, alone comes with an average global price tag of $60 trillion in the absence of mitigating action–a figure comparable to the size of the world economy in 2012 (about $70 trillion). The total cost of Arctic change will be much higher.

Using various scenarios, they say the methane could take from 10 to 50 years to emerge. But they’re clear about who’ll be hit hardest:

The economic consequences will be distributed around the globe, but the modeling shows that about 80% of them will occur in the poorer economies of Africa, Asia and South America. The extra methane magnifies flooding of low-lying areas, extreme heat stress, droughts and storms.

This is certainly consistent with existing Climate Change scenarios that predict the presence of severe drought in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South and East Asia – the most populous regions of the Earth accounting for roughly 3 billion people.

Pollution over Mexico CityHowever, there are those who dispute this theory beyond the usual crop of Climate Change deniers. According to these dissenting views, the methane is unlikely to escape to the atmosphere as quickly as the paper predicts, and that some of it could be broken down in the ocean.

But Nafeez Ahmed, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development, says these skeptics are relying on outdated models. The reality on the ground, as captured by scientists with the International Arctic Research Center, is that temperatures are rising faster than elsewhere and that current ice melt is consistent with the methane effect.

Global_Warming_Predictions_MapTo make matters worse, even if the methane emerges slowly, it would still be catastrophic. The research performed by Whiteman, Wadham, and Hope shows that the effects will be the same, regardless of whether or the methane is released over a 50 year period or a 10 year period. The key is mitigating factors, which call for immediate and ongoing intervention to ensure that worst doesn’t happen.

Bad news indeed, and it further demonstrates the dangers of what is referred to as a the “feedback mechanism” of Climate Change. As things get worse, we can expect the rate at which they get worse to increase at every step. And considering the likely social, political and economic impact of these changes, the ramifications of these new predictions are dire indeed.

Source: fastcoexist.com