The Iconic Joshua Tree Is in Trouble
By Marlene Cimons
Botanist Lynn Sweet regularly treks through California's Joshua Tree National Park, nearly 800,000 acres that lie at the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado deserts. She likes to photograph the gnarly, spikey-limbed trees, which look — as some have observed — like a picture from a Dr. Seuss children's book.
Much as many of the park's million or more yearly tourists do, she marvels at their strange beauty. "They have an amazing shape," she said. She said they don't bloom every year, but when they do it's very special. "This year, the plants flowered earlier than most people had ever seen. Some plants started flowering in November, and then the number of trees in flower increased until springtime, when nearly every tree was in flower. It was incredible," she said.
The trees, legend has it, were named after the Biblical figure Joshua by 19th century Mormons who thought their upwardly outstretched limbs resembled arms raised in prayer. The trees have been around since the Pleistocene, which began more than 2 million years ago and concluded at the end of the last ice age. Woolly mammoths, mastodons, giant cave bears and saber-toothed tigers roamed among them. The animals are long gone, but these iconic trees still exist.
But scientists like Sweet fear they might not be here much longer if climate change continues unabated. For many Joshua trees, this century could be their last. They've managed to tolerate the assaults of prehistoric times, only to fall prey to industrial advances that are now heating up the planet.
Joshua tree flowers in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada.
"Whereas shifts in the past may have been major — such as during the Pleistocene — the current shifts are very rapid," Sweet said. The temperatures are rising so fast, that Joshua trees are little able to migrate to cooler areas. Additionally the species, "now has barriers, such as roads and development to move across," she said.
Sweet, a plant ecologist at the University of California Riverside's Center for Conservation Biology, partnering with the Earthwatch Institute, enlisted volunteers to help collect data on about 4,000 trees in the park to determine whether climate change already has had an impact. She mapped out where Joshua trees live in the park to determine which conditions they do best in, and then compared that with projections of what Joshua Tree National Park will like look later this century.
"I chose climate change projections for end-of-century," she explained. She looked at how much the climate will change if humans tackle the problem, and how much it will change if humans do nothing. "In the upper end, where we do nothing to address climate change, we may see almost no more habitat for the Joshua tree in the Park," she said.
Lynn Sweet, center, measures a dead Joshua Tree with two volunteers.
Her calculations suggest that addressing climate change could save 19 percent of the trees after 2070. If nothing is done, however, the park likely only would keep a scant 0.02 percent. The study appears in the journal Ecosphere.
The work builds upon an earlier study in 2012, also by UC Riverside researchers, which found the trees would begin to vanish if temperatures rose 3 degrees C. The newest study considered additional factors, such as soil moisture estimates and precipitation, among others.
The trees already have begun drifting to higher areas in the park, where they might escape the heat and have a better chance at producing younger plants, she said. In hot areas, however, tress reproduce less — and those that do are dying, the study said. Older trees, which can live as long as 300 years, can store large amounts of water, which helps them cope with drought. But younger trees lack this capacity, and are less likely to survive.
A Joshua tree.
Prolonged droughts make things difficult for animals and plants that need water, prompting many species to relocate to areas that are more hospitable, often cooler, wetter and higher. "For the Joshua tree, on broad, flat areas, this is like outrunning a very wide flash flood," Sweet said. "Over flat ground, great distances are involved to escape the threat of hotter, drier temperatures. Moving upslope to where it's cooler is another way to escape the heat, but these areas may or may not be suitable to the root system or growth of the Joshua tree."
The tree is also missing a key ally that previously helped it migrate to new areas. "The Joshua tree is pretty tough," she said. "It is built to survive and persist through droughts. In the past, the species as a whole was able to migrate distances using its likely primary disperser, the Shasta ground sloth. Since this species is [now] extinct, the tree can no longer migrate great distances. This is a problem with this new, more rapid shift in climate."
Also, the trees in the western Mojave differ from those further to the east in Utah and Nevada, facing special challenges, Sweet said. "Joshua trees have a particular pollinator and only this insect, a yucca moth, can pollinate them," she said. "The relationship is thus really special — there is benefit for both the insect and the moth in the relationship. The moth gets food for its larvae, and the Joshua tree is able to get pollen moved from tree to tree. No other insect can do this. Thus, though common, it's really a fragile existence. If climate change affects the moth in a different way than the tree, we may be in trouble."
Pink clouds over the Mjoave desert.
The study also found that wildfires pose an additional hazard, as invasive plants and shrubs — fueled by smog and car exhaust — serve as kindling for the blazes. The scientists said that the U.S. Park Service — also a partner in the work — has been trying to reduce the danger by eliminating many of the plants.
As a park visitor, Sweet continues to find the trees inspiring. "I really enjoy watching wildlife use the trees," she said. "I've spent time watching Orioles move in and out of nests on the trees. I've seen spiny lizards darting up and down the trunks. It's just such an important structure in the habitat. It's not a shy tree. It's the most noticeable component of the [park] and the Mojave."
But as a scientist, she believes that only aggressive climate mitigation can save them. "Changes are already occurring on the landscape in terms of where the new trees are occurring, and this supports the predictions about future changes," she said. "We know things may get worse. The degree to which this happens depends on human action."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
Climate change could make it harder to find a good cup of coffee, new research finds. A changing climate might shrink suitable areas for specialty coffee production without adaptation, making coffee taste blander and impacting the livelihoods of small farms in the Global South.
Published in Scientific Reports on Wednesday, the study focused on regions in Ethiopia, Africa's largest coffee-producing nation. Although studies have previously documented the impact of climate change on coffee production, what's less understood is how varying climates could change the flavors of specialty coffee, the researchers wrote.
The team aimed to fill this gap. Their results provide a glimpse into how future climate change could impact local regions and economies that rely on coffee cultivation, underscoring the value of local adaptation measures.
Researchers analyzed how 19 different climate factors, such as mean temperatures and rainfall levels, would affect the cultivation of five distinct specialty coffee types in the future, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) reported. Although researchers found that areas suitable for growing "average quality coffee" may actually increase over time with climate change, regions where specialty coffee is grown will shrink — a pending problem in light of the global demand for high-quality coffee.
"This is an issue not just for coffee lovers, but for local agricultural value creation," Abel Chemura, the study's lead author, told the PIK.
Coffee profiles rely on specific climate patterns for their unique flavors, levels of acidity and fragrances. But in a warmer climate, the coffee cherry — the fruit picked from a coffee plant — matures faster than the bean inside, making for a lower quality cup of coffee, the PIK reported.
For example, the sought-after Yirgacheffe variety of coffee, which is cultivated in southwestern Ethiopia, could lose more than 40 percent of its suitable growth area by the end of the century, PIK reported. This could impact small farms and threaten Ethiopia's economy, the researchers noted.
"If one or more coffee regions lose their specialty status due to climate change this has potentially grave ramifications for the smallholder farmers in the region," Christoph Gornott, co-author of the study, told the PIK. "If they were forced to switch to growing conventional, less palatable and bitter coffee types, they would all of the sudden compete with industrial production systems elsewhere that are more efficient." In a country where coffee exports account for nearly a third of all agricultural exports, "this could prove fatal," Gornott added.
Climate change impacts on coffee production are not unique to Ethiopia. In Columbia's mountainous coffee-growing regions, temperatures are warming by 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit every decade, according to Yale Environment 360. Extreme levels of precipitation, which are becoming more common, also impact production, as they spread insect and fungal diseases.
"In earlier times, the climate was perfect for coffee," one small farmer in Columbia told Yale Environment 360. "In the period of flowering, there was summer. During harvest, there was winter. But from 2008 onward, this changed and we now don't know when it will be summer, when the coffee will blossom."
But researchers say there are glimmers of hope, emphasizing the importance of local adaptation measures that are designed for particular climates and communities. For example, in regions where temperature is an important factor for specialty coffee cultivation, the researchers suggest improved agroforestry systems that could maintain canopy temperatures, a promising step toward sustaining the "availability and taste of one of the world's most beloved beverages and, more importantly, on economic opportunities in local communities of the Global South," Gornott concluded.
By Suzanne Cords
One day Lizzie, the first-person narrator of the novel, receives an old book as a gift, with a dedication wishing the reader to be among the survivors. Like the preppers who build bunkers and stockpile supplies in remote areas to be ready for the end of the world, Lizzie is convinced that the end of the world is definitely near in times of a threatening climate disaster.
Lizzie, who lives in New York with her husband and son, is a university campus librarian. She worries about almost everything: her brother, an ex-junkie, or her dental insurance and the future in the face of the apocalypse. She is obsessed with reading reference books and articles about climate change.
She also devours words of wisdom, including about Buddhist spirituality: "A visitor once asked the old monks on Mount Athos what they did all day, and was told: We have died and we are in love with everything." But nothing can lift her spirits.
'Lizzie Is Just Like Us'
Lizzie observes rich New Yorkers plan their move to regions that are less threatened by climate change, something she simply cannot afford. Sometimes she watches disaster movies, which lead her to worry even more.
Above all, she is a gifted observer of her fellow human beings. "Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters? Old person worry: What if everything I do, does?"
Lizzie, the U.S. author told DW, is a bit like the rest of us — well aware of the climate crisis, but because she cares and worries about so many other things, that awareness falls by the wayside. That's how she felt herself, Jenny Offill said, but the more she looked into the issue, the more she saw a need for action on her part, too.
"I also was trying to see if there was a way to make it funny, because, you know, so much of the world of prepping and imagining disaster is actually sort of strangely funny."
The novel was shortlisted for the 2020 UK's Women's Prize for Fiction and has now been released in German translation.
Climate Activist With a Vision
But then, there is also this serious, scientifically based concern about what climate change means. In the past, says Offill, artists were the ones who would predict disasters; today it's the experts, as well as the students she teaches. In the end, their fears and their justified anger motivated her to take a closer look at the issue. Today, she is a climate activist herself, and is involved in initiatives along with many other artists.
Lizzie, the heroine of Weather, hasn't gotten that far. But she voices her fears, and that's a start. "Of course, the world continues to end," says Sylvia, a mentor of Lizzie's, at one point — and commences to water her garden. There is hope after all.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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By Jake Johnson
A federal appeals court on Tuesday dealt the final blow to former President Donald Trump's attempt to open nearly 130 million acres of territory in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans to oil and gas drilling.
Though the Trump administration appealed the ruling, President Joe Biden revoked his predecessor's 2017 order shortly after taking office, rendering the court case moot. On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to dismiss the Trump administration's appeal.
"Because the terms of the challenged Executive Order are no longer in effect, the relevant areas of the [Outer Continental Shelf] in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, and Atlantic Ocean will be withdrawn from exploration and development activities," the court said in its order.
Erik Grafe of Earthjustice, which represented a coalition of advocacy groups that challenged Trump's order, said in a statement that "we welcome today's decision and its confirmation of President Obama's legacy of ocean and climate protection."
"As the Biden administration considers its next steps, it should build on these foundations, end fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters, and embrace a clean energy future that does not come at the expense of wildlife and our natural heritage," Grafe continued. "One obvious place for immediate action is America's Arctic, including the Arctic Refuge and the Western Arctic, which the previous administration sought to relegate to oil development in a series of last-minute decisions that violate bedrock environmental laws."
VICTORY: 9th Circuit ends fight over President Trump's illegal attempt to open up 128 million acres of Atlantic & A… https://t.co/TvYVt2F1jO— Earthjustice (@Earthjustice)1618347073.0
In January, Biden ordered a temporary pause on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters, a decision environmentalists hailed as a positive step that should be made permanent.
"We call on President Biden to keep his promise: a full and complete ban on fracking and fossil fuel extraction on public lands. Full stop," Food & Water Watch policy director Mitch Jones said at the time. "The climate crisis requires it and he promised it."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By 2035, every new car and truck sold in the U.S. could be an EV, a new report says.
Accelerations in technology and especially battery affordability, paired with new policy, mean the dramatic transition would save American drivers $2.7 trillion by 2050, an average savings of $1,000 per household per year.
The ramp up in EV production would also create 2 million new jobs by 2035. Battery prices have fallen 74% since 2014, and their unexpectedly rapid fall is a key driver of the cost savings.
EVs are far simpler mechanically, and more efficient, than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, which translates to reduced climate pollution and lower costs for consumers.
Strengthened vehicle efficiency standards and investment in fast charging infrastructure are needed to accelerate the transition, which would prevent 150,000 premature deaths and save $1.3 trillion in health environmental costs by 2050.
For a deeper dive:
Thousands of Superfund sites exist around the U.S., with toxic substances left open, mismanaged and dumped. Despite the high levels of toxicity at these sites, nearly 21 million people live within a mile of one of them, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Currently, more than 1,300 Superfund sites pose a serious health risk to nearby communities. Based on a new study, residents living close to these sites could also have a shorter life expectancy.
Published in Nature Communications, the study, led by Hanadi S. Rifai, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Houston, and a team of researchers, found that living in nearby zip codes to Superfund sites resulted in a decreased life expectancy of more than two months, the University of Houston reported.
"We have ample evidence that contaminant releases from anthropogenic sources (e.g., petrochemicals or hazardous waste sites) could increase the mortality rate in fence-line communities," Rifai told the University of Houston. "Results showed a significant difference in life expectancy among census tracts with at least one Superfund site and their neighboring tracts with no sites."
The study pulled data from 65,000 census tracts – defined geographical regions – within the contiguous U.S., The Guardian reported. With this data, researchers found that for communities that are socioeconomically challenged, this life expectancy could decrease by up to a year.
"It was a bit surprising and concerning," Rifai told The Guardian. "We weren't sure [when we started] if the fact that you are socioeconomically challenged would make [the Superfund's effects] worse."
The research team, for example, found that the presence of a Superfund site in a census tract with a median income of less than $52,580 could reduce life expectancy by seven months, the University of Houston reported.
Many of these toxic sites were once used as manufacturing sites during the Second World War. Common toxic substances that are released from the sites into the air and surface water include lead, trichlorethylene, chromium, benzene and arsenic – all of which can lead to health impacts, such as neurological damage among children, The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in a blog.
"The EPA has claimed substantial recent progress in Superfund site cleanups, but, contrary to EPA leadership's grandiose declarations, the backlog of unfunded Superfund cleanups is the largest it has been in the last 15 years," the Union wrote.
Delayed cleanup could become increasingly dangerous as climate change welcomes more natural hazards, like wildfires and flooding. According to a Government Accountability Office report, for example, climate change could threaten at least 60 percent of Superfund sites in the U.S., AP News reported.
During the summer of 2018, a major wildfire took over the Iron Mountain Superfund site near Redding, CA, ruining wastewater treatment infrastructure that is responsible for capturing 168 million gallons of acid mine drainage every month, NBC News reported.
"There was this feeling of 'My God. We ought to have better tracking of wildfires at Superfund locations,'" Stephen Hoffman, a former senior environmental scientist at the EPA, told NBC News. "Before that, there wasn't a lot of thought about climate change and fire. That has changed."
In the study, researchers also looked at the impacts of floodings on Superfund sites, which could send toxins flowing into communities and waterways.
"When you add in flooding, there will be ancillary or secondary impacts that can potentially be exacerbated by a changing future climate," Rifai told the University of Houston. "The long-term effect of the flooding and repetitive exposure has an effect that can transcend generations."
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