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Earth’s Hottest Month Lights a Fire for Progress

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Earth’s Hottest Month Lights a Fire for Progress
Pixabay

By John R. Platt

Well folks, we did it. July 2019 was the hottest month in recorded human history, with record-breaking temperatures in many parts of Europe, wildfires raging over tens of thousands of square miles of Arctic Alaska and Russia, and a staggering ice melt in Greenland that dumped 197 billion gallons of water into the ocean — 12.5 billion tons of which melted over a single day.


Europe's July 2019 heatwave.

European Space Agency (CC BY-SA 2.0)

All the while, the Trump administration has been actively suppressing climate science while pushing scientists and other officials out of their jobs. It also proposed weakening coal-burning power plant emissions rules, relaxed sage-grouse protection in land coveted by energy developers, continued to weaken protections for Bears Ears National Monument, and greenlit a controversial plan to allow drilling in Alaska's Cook Inlet that could harm beluga whales and other marine mammals.

The administration also appointed William Perry Pendley, a staunch foe of America's public lands, as acting head of the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 250 million acres. The appointment could set the stage for the liquidation of public lands and unfettered fossil-fuel development around the country, further driving greenhouse gas emissions fueling the climate crisis.

Oh yeah, and Trump's reelection campaign also started selling plastic straws to "own the libs."

And internationally, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro — often referred to as the "Trump of the South" — fired the head of the agency responsible for tracking deforestation in the Amazon, which has increased sharply under that administration. Again, this will have a devastating effect on the climate, not to mention the wildlife and Indigenous peoples who live in these forests.

All of these threats and regressive actions are terrifying and all too real.

But at the same time, there are growing cracks in the anti-environmental shell game.

The number of lawsuits against the Trump administration is on the rise, as are ethical complaints against its appointees and potential investigations into their anti-environmental agenda. Meanwhile some states are also standing up to the administration and pushing back against regulatory rollbacks, and certain judges continue to stand up for environmental issues, most recently and most notably by halting the long-planned Rosemont mega-mine in Arizona.

The climate denial machine, although still quite active and dangerous, has begun to weaken. The Heartland Institute's annual climate-denial conference was sparsely attended, full of tired retreads of old arguments, and suffered from a dramatic drop in corporate sponsors. Meanwhile, desperate climate deniers are resorting to mocking 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg's autism, earning them well-deserved derision.

On the other side of the equation, Extinction Rebellion and other activist groups continued to pick up steam.

Extinction Rebellion protestors in Brisbane on Aug. 6, 2019.

Larissa Waters (Public domain)

Even businesses are taking note. Utilities are closing coal plants, investment banks are pulling out of fossil-fuel projects, and a major credit ratings agency has started to pay attention to climate risks.

And with the 2020 election looming, more Democratic presidential candidates have rolled out climate change platforms, putting themselves in stark contrast to the Denier-in-Chief. Most of the plans so far don't go nearly far enough, but they exist, and candidates actually talked about climate issues at the last presidential debate, so that's a start.

These Democratic platforms, or what comes out of these initial discussions, are not just necessary for the planet — they're also wanted by a wide range of people. Republican political strategists recently warned that the party of denial could lose voters over issues related to climate change. That's a huge shift.

All of these positive changes and trends add up, although there's still so much further to go. And of course, the power of the Trump administration and other regressive officials around the world still have us all on track to possibly irreversible devastation, so we're kind of on a tight deadline here.

But every victory, no matter how small or personal, is a chance to save — and preserve — our planet's future. Those victories matter. They create momentum. They create change. They may seem too few and too far between in the face of the coming storm, but sometimes it pays to do just what I did in this editorial — list them, add them up, and then see the shape of a more positive future starting to emerge from the flames.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

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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