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2020 Starts With the Plain Prospect of Rising Heat

Climate
2020 Starts With the Plain Prospect of Rising Heat
chuchart duangdaw / Moment / Getty Images

By Tim Radford

The year is less than four weeks old, but scientists already know that carbon dioxide emissions will continue to head upwards — as they have every year since measurements began leading to a continuation of the Earth's rising heat.


And they warn that the rise will be steeper than usual, partly because of the devastating bush fires in Australia.

The warning is a reminder that global heating and climate change create their own positive feedbacks: more numerous and calamitous forest fires surrender more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which helps raise temperatures, accentuate droughts and heat extremes, and create conditions for even more catastrophic forest fires.

The news is that the proportion of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere will peak at 417 parts per million (ppm) in the next 11 months, but settle to an average of just over 414 ppm. This represents a predicted 10 percent increase on the previous year's rise, and a fifth of that can be pinned on blazing eucalypts in New South Wales.

Atmospheric scientists began keeping meticulous records of CO2 levels in the atmosphere in 1958. The average for most of human history — until the Industrial Revolution and the mass exploitation of coal, oil and gas — was no higher than 285 ppm.

The warning, from the British Met Office, comes hard on the heels of an address by America's President Trump — who has previously claimed that climate change is a hoax — at Davos in Switzerland. He told the World Economic Forum (WEF) to disregard those he dismissed as "prophets of doom."

In fact he was addressing an organization that had only recently issued its own warning that "severe threats to our climate" accounted for all the identified top long-term risks that face the modern world.

The WEF Global Risks Report warned of extreme weather events with major damage to property, infrastructure and loss of human life. It also pointed to other hazards: among them the failure of attempts to mitigate or adapt to climate change by governments and industry; human-induced environmental damage; and to biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, all of which are inseparable from the climate crisis.

Even the fifth set of global risks was environmental: these included earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and geomagnetic storms.

And, the WEF said, time to address these threats was running out. "The political landscape is polarised, sea levels are rising and climate fires are burning. This is the year when world leaders must work with all sectors of society to repair and invigorate our systems of co-operation, not just for short-term benefit, but for tackling our deep-rooted risks," said Borge Brende, president of the WEF.

And as the WEF issued its own doom-laden warnings, scientists at two great U.S. research agencies confirmed those fears. The space agency NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration examined their separate datasets to pronounce 2019 the second warmest year since global records began, and to confirm that the decade just ended was also the warmest since records began.

Relentless Increase

"Every decade since the 1960s has been warmer than the one before," said Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The British Met Office — working from yet another set of data — agreed that 2019 had been 1.05°C above the average for most of human history, and that the last five years were the warmest since records began in 1850.

And only days beforehand, Chinese scientists had taken the temperature of the world's oceans to find them warmer than at any time in recorded history. The past 10 years had been the warmest decade for ocean temperatures worldwide.

In 2019, they write in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, a partnership of 14 researchers from 11 institutes around the world had measured from the surface to a depth of 2000 meters to find that the global ocean — and 70 percent of the planet is covered in blue water — is now 0.075°C warmer on average than it was between 1981 and 2010.

Measured in the basic units of heat-energy, this means that the seas have soaked up 228,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules of heat.

100 Seconds to Midnight

"That's a lot of zeros indeed. To make it easier to understand, I did a calculation," said Lijing Cheng, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who led the study.

"The amount of heat we have put into the world's oceans in the last 25 years equals to 3.6 billion Hiroshima atomic bomb explosions. This measured ocean warming is irrefutable and is further proof of global warming. There are no reasonable alternatives aside from the human emissions of heat-trapping gases to explain this heating."

On Jan. 23 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that it had moved the hands of its symbolic Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds from midnight the closest they have ever been to the time chosen to represent apocalypse.

The reason? "Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers nuclear war and climate change that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society's ability to respond," said the scientists.

"World leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode."

Reposted with permission from Climate News Network.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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