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Our Favorite Environmental Journalism of 2017
By Joe Sandler Clarke and Unearthed reporters
From the finest American journalism chronicling the worst excesses of the Trump administration to international stories showing the impact of climate change on the developing world, here are the stories we wish we had written this year.
On our changing climate
This striking New York Times piece is one of those rare pieces of journalism that communicates an issue so effectively and with such clarity that the reader is able to immediately grasp the complex science that too often makes environmental journalism impenetrable.
The perfect storm – Reveal
Hurricane Harvey pummelled Houston in August, and Reveal reporter Neena Satija was there to document the city's unpreparedness for the storm. This piece is a follow-up to Hell and High Water, the extraordinary 2016 joint investigation by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and Reveal.
We were crying out for a piece of forensic reporting setting out the links between climate change and this summer's storms in the Caribbean and southern America, and Umair Irfan delivered. This is the kind of explanatory journalism Vox excels at.
Another piece on the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. This cover story from Bloomberg Businessweek gives an insight into what a natural disaster looks like in one of America's most important economic areas. As Sims herself said, this is an article about "what justice looks like in a changing climate."
Stories that connect climate change with real human consequences should be the gold standard of environmental reporting. This piece from the Observer does just that, showing how increased droughts and floods are forcing farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to give away their daughters to stay out of poverty.
'Not a single thing was dry': Mumbai's residents count the cost of floods – The Guardian, Amrit Dhillon and Carlin Carr
Devastating floods in South Asia made for one of the most dramatic environmental stories this year. In this piece, Mumbai residents talk to the Guardian about facing up to the torrential rains.
Rich countries are providing aid to help developing nations adapt to climate change. But how much is being spent? Who is spending it? And where is the money going? Back in October, Carbon Brief set out to answer these questions. A month later, they also mapped how multilateral climate funds spend their money.
Under Trump, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has slowed actions against polluters, and put limits on enforcement officers – New York Times, Eric Lipton @EricLiptonNYT and Danielle Ivory @danielle_ivory
While the president's agenda has largely floundered in Congress, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's efforts to undo Obama-era environmental rules have happened at a rapid pace. This New York Times piece sets out just what the agency has been up to in the first year of the Trump presidency.
Why the scariest nuclear threat may be coming from inside the White House – Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis has done some amazing work chronicling the Trump administration. We could easily have picked his piece on the administration's actions against scientists in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But with the news dominated by fears over North Korea, this look at U.S. nuclear policy at home was timely and fascinating.
With Puerto Rico and the Gulf Coast devastated by hurricanes this year, Kyla Mandel reported on the Trump administration's efforts to cut support for American communities at the forefront of climate change.
Bombs in your backyard – ProPublica
It turns out that the U.S. military spends more than a billion dollars a year cleaning up sites it has contaminated with explosives and toxic chemicals. Some of these areas are near schools and residential neighborhoods. We know this because ProPublica went ahead and mapped them.
On the shifting energy system
This was the year the world got serious about green energy, and this feature from Time magazine tells the story of how China became a leader in renewable energy. We liked this line from Sang Dajie, a former coal miner who now works on the world's largest floating solar farm: "The coal mine was very hot and the air was bad. But here I feel safe. The new energy is safe."
The story behind this days-long traffic jam in Mongolia – Quartz, Johnny Simon
China may be leading the world on renewable energy, but it still loves coal. This photo gallery was a clear illustration of the country's energy conundrum.
Activist and journalist Bill McKibben reported on how American start-ups are competing with Chinese and European firms, and homegrown companies, to provide cheap, reliable power to a continent where fossil fuels have failed to spark development.
The town that disappeared – BBC News, Jenny Norton
Across Russia, hundreds of small towns have been abandoned in the past ten years as coal mining becomes increasingly unviable in the country and the fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union continues.
Russia-backed hackers try to hijack Britain's power supply – The Times, Aaron Rogan and Mark Bridge
Amid the flurry of concern about hacking in the U.S. election, The Times reported in June that Russian hackers attacked networks running the national grid in the UK. A couple of days later, Motherboard, Vice's sister tech publication, reported that GCHQ believed the hackers had already compromised UK energy sector targets.
On the new and persistent threats to the environment
Series: So I can breathe – BBC World Service
There have been plenty of air pollution stories in the media over the last 12 months, but this series of programs broadcast across BBC platforms in March caught our eye for reporting on solutions to the global crisis.
Vladimir's Venezuela: Leveraging loans to Caracas, Moscow snaps up oil assets – Reuters, Marianna Parraga and Alexandra Ulmer
Venezuela's economy is unravelling and, as this special report from Reuters in August shows, the country's socialist government is taking increasingly drastic measures to survive.
2017 saw even more scientific research linking bee deaths with controversial pesticides called neonicotinoids. This piece in Politico methodically and forcefully lays out how chemical giants Bayer and Syngenta have lobbied EU politicians for years to weaken regulations.
With Indian mining company Adani seeking support for a controversial coal project on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef, the company's boss Gautam Adani visited Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in April. As BuzzFeed reported, his visit was wildly cheered on by a bunch of definitely real Indian tweeters who all believed that Adani would bring coal jobs to Queensland.
A fight for Brazil's Amazon forest – Financial Times, Sue Branford
Since Michel Temer became president in August 2016, Brazilian politics has been dominated by rollbacks for key environmental and Indigenous protections. In September, as part of the FT's 'Brazil: the Road Ahead' series, Sue Branford reported on the new scramble for natural resources in the Brazilian Amazon.
Protecting the environment is an increasingly dangerous thing to do. This research by Global Witness found that in 2016, 200 environmental activists and others protecting their land from destructive industries were killed—and the rate only increased in 2017. This story launched The Defenders, an ongoing collaboration between the Guardian and Global Witness tracking such killings.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Unearthed.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Tom Duszynski
The coronavirus is certainly scary, but despite the constant reporting on total cases and a climbing death toll, the reality is that the vast majority of people who come down with COVID-19 survive it. Just as the number of cases grows, so does another number: those who have recovered.
In mid-March, the number of patients in the U.S. who had officially recovered from the virus was close to zero. That number is now in the tens of thousands and is climbing every day. But recovering from COVID-19 is more complicated than simply feeling better. Recovery involves biology, epidemiology and a little bit of bureaucracy too.
How does your body fight off COVID-19?<p>Once a person is exposed the coronavirus, the body starts producing <a href="https://www.mblintl.com/products/what-are-antibodies-mbli/" target="_blank">proteins called antibodies to fight the infection</a>. As these <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/27/serological-tests-reveal-immune-coronavirus/" target="_blank">antibodies start to successfully contain the virus</a> and keep it from replicating in the body, symptoms usually begin to lessen and you start to feel better. Eventually, if all goes well, your immune system will completely destroy all of the virus in your system. A person who was infected with and survived a virus with no long-term health effects or disabilities has "recovered."</p><p>On average, a person who is infected with SARS-CoV-2 will feel ill for about seven days from the onset of symptoms. Even after symptoms disappear, there still may be small amounts of the virus in a patient's system, and they should stay <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/steps-when-sick.html" target="_blank">isolated for an additional three days</a> to ensure they have truly <a href="https://health.usnews.com/conditions/articles/coronavirus-recovery-what-to-know" target="_blank">recovered and are no longer infectious</a>.</p>
What about immunity?<p>In general, once you have recovered from a viral infection, your body will keep cells called lymphocytes in your system. These cells "remember" viruses they've previously seen and can react quickly to fight them off again. If you are exposed to a virus you have already had, your antibodies will likely stop the virus before it starts causing symptoms. <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.5114%2Fceji.2018.77390" target="_blank">You become immune</a>. This is the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK27158/" target="_blank">principle behind many vaccines</a>.</p><p>Unfortunately, immunity isn't perfect. For many viruses, like mumps, immunity can wane over time, leaving you <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160421145747.htm" target="_blank">susceptible to the virus in the future</a>. This is why you need to get revaccinated – those "booster shots" – occasionally: to prompt your immune system to make more antibodies and memory cells.</p><p>Since this coronavirus is so new, scientists still don't know whether people who recover from COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/faq.html" target="_blank">immune to future infections of the virus</a>. Doctors are finding antibodies in ill and recovered patients, and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/clinical-guidance-management-patients.html" target="_blank">that indicates the development of immunity</a>. But the question remains how long that immunity will last. Other coronaviruses like <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/jmv.25685" target="_blank">SARS and MERS produce an immune response</a> that will protect a person at least for a short time. I would suspect the same is true of SARS-CoV-2, but the research simply hasn't been done yet to say so definitively.</p>
Why have so few people officially recovered in the US?<p>This is a dangerous virus, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is being extremely careful when deciding what it means to recover from COVID-19. Both medical and testing criteria must be met before a person is <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/disposition-in-home-patients.html" target="_blank">officially declared recovered</a>.</p><p>Medically, a person must be fever-free without fever-reducing medications for three consecutive days. They must show an improvement in their other symptoms, including reduced coughing and shortness of breath. And it must be at least seven full days <a href="https://health.usnews.com/conditions/articles/coronavirus-recovery-what-to-know" target="_blank">since the symptoms began</a>.</p><p>In addition to those requirements, the CDC guidelines say that a person must test negative for the coronavirus twice, with the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/care-for-someone.html" target="_blank">tests taken at least 24 hours apart</a>.</p><p>Only then, if both the symptom and testing conditions are met, is a person officially considered recovered by the CDC.</p><p>This second testing requirement is likely why there were so few official recovered cases in the U.S. until late March. Initially, there was a <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/health/coronavirus-test-shortages-face-masks-swabs.html" target="_blank">massive shortage of testing in the U.S.</a> So while many people were certainly recovering over the last few weeks, this could not be officially confirmed. As the country enters the height of the pandemic in the coming weeks, focus is still on <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/hcp/clinical-criteria.html" target="_blank">testing those who are infected</a>, not those who have likely recovered.</p><p>Many more people are being tested now that states and private companies have begun <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/testing-in-us.html" target="_blank">producing and distributing tests</a>. As <a href="https://www.dispatch.com/news/20200406/coronavirus-in-ohio-from-its-rocky-start-testing-for-covid-19-slowly-ramping-up" target="_blank">the number of available tests increases</a> and the pandemic eventually slows in the country, more testing will be available for those who have appeared to recover. As people who have already recovered are tested, the appearance of any new infections will help researchers learn <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/24/we-need-smart-coronavirus-testing-not-just-more-testing/" target="_blank">how long immunity can be expected to last</a>.</p>
Once a person has recovered, what can they do?<p>Knowing whether or not people are immune to COVID-19 after they recover is going to determine what individuals, communities and society at large can do going forward. If scientists can show that recovered patients are immune to the coronavirus, then a person who has recovered could in theory <a href="https://www.vox.com/2020/3/30/21186822/immunity-to-covid-19-test-coronavirus-rt-pcr-antibody" target="_blank">help support the health care system</a> by caring for those who are infected.</p><p>Once communities pass the peak of the epidemic, the number of new infections will decline, while the number of <a href="https://www.newsweek.com/china-says-passed-peak-coronavirus-epidemic-covid-19-1491863" target="_blank">recovered people will increase</a>. As these trends continue, the risk of transmission will fall. Once the risk of transmission has fallen enough, community-level isolation and social distancing orders will begin to relax and businesses will start to reopen. Based on what other countries have gone through, it will be <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00154-w" target="_blank">months until the risk of transmission is low</a> in the U.S.</p><p>But before any of this can happen, the U.S. and the world need to make it through the peak of this pandemic. Social distancing works to slow the spread of infectious diseases and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/what-you-can-do.html" target="_blank">is working for COVID-19</a>. Many people will <a href="https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/2019-novel-coronavirus/" target="_blank">need medical help to recover</a>, and social distancing will slow this virus down and give people the best chance to do so.</p>
By Elizabeth Claire Alberts
The future for the world's oceans often looks grim. Fisheries are set to collapse by 2048, according to one study, and 8 million tons of plastic pollute the ocean every year, causing considerable damage to delicate marine ecosystems. Yet a new study in Nature offers an alternative, and more optimistic view on the ocean's future: it asserts that the entire marine environment could be substantially rebuilt by 2050, if humanity is able to step up to the challenge.
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By Zulfikar Abbany
Bread has been a source of basic nutrition for centuries, the holy trinity being wheat, maize and rice. It has also been the reason for a lot of innovation in science and technology, from millstones to microbiological investigations into a family of single-cell fungi called Saccharomyces.
Chemical leavening<p>If you like a little heft in your loaf, you will need a leavening agent.</p><p>For those short on time, you can use baking soda. That's a chemical compound of sodium bicarbonate mixed with potassium bitartrate, or cream of tartar.</p><p>Soda breads have their traditions in parts of eastern and central Europe, and in Ireland and Scotland, with Melrose loaves and "farls."</p><p>They can taste a bit bland, though, and are often considered only as an emergency solution on Sundays. No disrespect intended: They taste just fine fresh from the oven.</p><p>Whether it's chemical or more "natural," leavening relies largely on the production of carbon dioxide.</p><p>When you mix an acid, such as vinegar, buttermilk, yogurt or apple cider, with an alkaline compound like baking soda, you get CO2. That CO2 creates bubbles, which in turn capture steam in the oven and allow a bread to rise.</p><p><span></span>But it's better with yeast. Tastes better, too. It just takes more time. </p>
What is yeast?<p>There are yeasts all around us — on grains, in the air, in biofuels. It even lives inside us, but that's not always a good thing.</p><p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1090575/pdf/1471-2334-5-22.pdf" target="_blank">Candida yeast</a> can cause infections of the skin, feet, mouth, penis or vagina if it builds up too much in the body.</p><p>One of the most common yeasts, however, is <em>Saccharomyces cerevisiae</em>. That's <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/an-early-beer-archaeologists-tap-ground-at-worlds-oldest-brewery/a-45480731" target="_blank">"brewer's"</a> or "baker's" yeast.</p><p>You can get fresh baker's yeast, often in 42-gram (1.48-ounce) cubes, or as dried yeast (quick action or active, which requires rehydration) in a sachet of 7 grams.</p><p>There's little difference: One is compressed and the other is dehydrated and granulated. But they do the same thing, essentially. </p><p>Some commercial yeast producers add molasses and other nutrients. But natural yeast has plenty of useful nutrients in it anyway, including B group vitamins, so who knows whether it's good or necessary to add them. </p>
How does yeast work?<p>When you mix flour, yeast and water, you set off a veritable chain reaction. Enzymes in the wheat convert starch into sugar. And the yeast creates enzymes of its own to convert those sugars into a form it can absorb.</p><p>The yeast "feeds" on the sugars to create carbon dioxide and alcohol. The yeast burps and farts, releasing gases into the mix, and that creates bubbles to trap CO2. </p><p>It's a vital fermentation process that breaks down the gluten in the flour and helps make your bread more digestible.</p><p>The yeast cells split and reproduce, generating lactic and carbonic acid, raising the temperature and ultimately adding flavor to the mix.</p><p>The longer you leave the yeast to do its thing, the better for your bread. Time is more important than the amount of yeast. </p><p>In fact, that's an enduring question — how much yeast? I'll use 20 grams fresh yeast for 500 grams of flour. Others say that's enough yeast for 1 kilo. If you are converting a dry-yeast recipe to fresh yeast, some bakers advise tripling the weight. So, if a sachet of dried yeast is 7 grams, your fresh yeast is 21 grams.</p><p><span></span>But that also depends on the flours you are using, temperatures in the bowl and the room, and a host of other things. You'll just have to experiment and see. No number of books (and I've read a stack on bread) will help as much as trial and error.</p>
Wild yeast: Sourdough<p>So, good bread needs time. If you have a lot of time, why not move it up a notch and grow wild yeast — a sourdough starter — in your own home?</p><p>A sourdough starter is not to be mistaken (as it often is) for the leaven, or "mother," "sponge," or <em>levain</em>. That's more a second stage, a descendant of the starter. You take a scoop from your starter and add it to another flour and water mixture when you prepare the dough for a new loaf. </p><p>The sourdough process utilizes yeasts naturally present in flour and … yet more time. A longer fermentation process allows a richer lactic acid bacteria <em>lactobacilli</em> or LAB to evolve, and that can be healthy for your gut microbiome.</p><p>It's simple enough to start a sourdough starter. All you need is flour, warm water and time.</p><p>Some suggest equal measures of whole-grain flour and water at 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), some say room temperature — just don't let the water exceed 40 C or the yeasts will die. Some suggest two parts flour to three parts water. But it's up to you whether you want a drier or wetter starter. You will know only through experimentation. </p><p>Some say you should filter tap water to remove chemicals like fluoride and avoid using water that's boiled and then cooled. Others say that really doesn't matter.</p><p>The main thing is, keep it clean and give it time. Days, weeks, months and years.</p>
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