Can Nature Help Curb Climate Change?
By Amanda Paulson
Just off Highway 880 at the edge of Hayward, the cityscape changes abruptly. Businesses and parking lots give way to large swaths of pickle grass and pools of water stretching out to the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay.
On a recent sunny, windy March day – just before COVID-19 sent the Bay Area into lockdown – Dave Halsing stood on the trails at Eden Landing Ecological Reserve and pointed out what used to be old industrial salt ponds. He noted how they're gradually being restored into a rich mosaic of tidal wetlands and other ecosystems in the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project.
Little by little, he explains, over 15,000 acres of salt ponds – largely ecological dead zones that had been transferred from industrial companies to the state – are being brought back to functional ecosystems. They provide important habitat for species like the Western snowy plover and California least tern, add recreational trails for Bay Area residents, and provide flood protection for the San Francisco Bay – a needed adaptation in an era of rising seas. "It's inspiring but challenging," says Mr. Halsing, the executive project manager.
The work to restore the Bay Area's tidal marshes is just one example of a strategy that has been gaining attention in the past few years from climate change experts. Often described as "nature-based climate solutions," this strategy encompasses a wide range of conservation and restoration approaches involving trees, mangroves, soil, and marshlands.
Many current projects – like the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project – have locally targeted goals: improved habitat for species or resilience to climate change-related events like hurricanes, floods, or fire. But investing in such approaches at a large scale has another potential benefit, too, say experts: harnessing the natural ability of trees, plants, and soil to store carbon.
"Nature figured out how to solve the toxic carbon dioxide problem 3 billion years ago when it invented photosynthesis, and we're trying to invent similar processes now to solve carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So why not use nature," explains Peter Ellis, a forest carbon scientist with The Nature Conservancy, who co-authored a landmark study in 2017 showing that natural climate solutions could accomplish about one-third of the mitigation work required in the next decade to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
Could Planting One Trillion Trees Actually Work?
Those promoting natural climate solutions emphasize that it's just one piece of a puzzle that also requires a major shift away from fossil fuels and carbon-based energy. But many experts are seeing these natural solutions as low-hanging fruit that have yet to be tapped at a large scale.
In January, the World Economic Forum launched the ambitious One Trillion Trees initiative, with the goal of planting and conserving 1 trillion trees around the globe in the coming decade. Even President Donald Trump signed on.
The initiative has received some criticism, even among climate activists, who worry it's overly simplistic, takes emphasis off of the energy shift that needs to happen, and will encourage poorly conceived projects that might perpetuate other environmental issues.
And some climate experts have argued that the claims made by natural-solutions proponents in general are lofty and overly optimistic – that they couldn't come close to reducing carbon dioxide at the magnitude some studies have found.
But those debates, ultimately, are unproductive, says James Mulligan, a senior associate in the World Resources Institute's food, forests, and water program. Climate solutions, he notes, aren't a zero-sum game. Nature-based solutions won't ever be enough on their own, says Mr. Mulligan, but they have some big upsides, particularly that most are relatively low cost, some have more bipartisan appeal, and many are "win-win," with none of the "losers" that can be a byproduct of other strategies.
"The question for me is: would this help? And the answer is yes," says Mr. Mulligan. "Do I think we can restore a trillion trees to the planet? Probably not. ... In the U.S., our analysis shows we could restore 60 billion trees to the American landscape." That, he says, would be a "tall order," but would remove about a half a gigaton of CO2 per year.
"That's a meaningful wedge," he says. "And that's just one nature-based solution."
Protection Before Planting?
All trees – and all nature-based solutions – aren't created equal. And many advocates stress that it makes sense to focus on the ecosystems with the most to offer, or the methods that yield the biggest dividends.
"We need to protect first, to hold the line," says Mr. Ellis of The Nature Conservancy, explaining that he views good management of existing ecosystems as being even more important than restoration.
Certain ecosystems, like mangroves and peatlands, are of vital importance to conserve, says Will Turner, senior vice president of global strategies for Conservation International. In those ecosystems, the soil stores so much carbon that losing much more of it in coming years would be devastating, he says.
But to Dr. Turner, conservation and restoration are two sides of a coin, both necessary. Protecting critical ecosystems like tropical forests and mangroves that are being destroyed at a steady rate is crucial in terms of reducing current emissions, he says. But removing carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere is also necessary, if there is any hope of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
"We have a long way to go before we have any technology that is capable of removing CO2 from the atmosphere at scale except trees," says Dr. Turner. "We'd be foolish not to invest incredibly heavily in regrowing forests."
Despite all the potential of natural climate solutions, most of the examples being tried so far are at a relatively small scale.
WRI's plan for 60 billion trees planted in the U.S. over the next 20 years, Mr. Mulligan notes, would require about $4 billion a year in federal subsidies. But many of these efforts are "happening at the pace and scale of the conservation sector," he says. And that figure, while relatively modest in terms of government spending, is far beyond what the nonprofit community can handle.
Dr. Turner, of Conservation International, agrees. What the conservation community has done well, he says, is shown how these projects can work, how technology can be used to monitor and verify emissions reductions, and how financial mechanisms can allow governments or corporations to invest in these strategies.
Discovering an Ecosystem in Every Backyard
Meanwhile, part of the beauty of nature-based solutions, Dr. Turner says, is that – while some may certainly have more payoff than others in terms of climate mitigation – "there is something that can happen anywhere. Every community has an option to protect a forest or grow a forest or protect a grassland, or to better manage grazing lands so you can get greater carbon stored in the soil."
And many of those solutions – like the marsh restoration taking place in the San Francisco Bay – offer significant local benefits that go far beyond potential emissions reduction: habitat for endangered species, cleaner air and water, recreation opportunities for residents, flood risk mitigation at a time of rising seas.
In the Bay Area, emissions mitigation isn't a real driver of the restoration work, and the carbon market for wetlands isn't as robust as that for forests. But that doesn't mean those benefits don't exist, says Letitia Grenier, co-director of the Resilient Landscapes Program for the San Francisco Estuary Institute.
In her role at the institute, Dr. Grenier looks for creative ways to harness the natural benefits of ecosystems in ways that work for both people and nature – and they are plentiful, she says.
"One of the things climate change has shown us is that we live in ecosystems," says Dr. Grenier. "Not only do we impact ecosystems, but our ecosystem impacts us." In many instances, she says, when she looks at, say, a large watershed, the system is essentially broken. Too many discordant elements have been introduced.
"Suddenly, our system is not working for us," says Dr. Grenier. "Climate change is creating the realization of that, and the opportunity to fix it."
This story originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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If weather is your mood, climate is your personality. That's an analogy some scientists use to help explain the difference between two words people often get mixed up.
Size Matters<p>Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.</p><p><a href="https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/tommaso-jucker" target="_blank">Tommaso Jucker</a> is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."</p><p>We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.</p><p><a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/research/paleoecologylab/publications/Davis_et_al_2019_Ecography.pdf" target="_blank">Forests</a> provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist <a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/personnel/details.php?ID=1110" target="_blank">Solomon Dobrowski</a> in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."</p><p>Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial <a href="https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/bees-stopped-buzzing-during-2017-solar-eclipse.htm" target="_blank">solar eclipse</a> caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to <a href="https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wea.2802" target="_blank">change more dramatically</a> than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.</p><p>All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) <a href="https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/47363-forests-protect-animals-and-plants-against-warming" target="_blank">cooler on average</a> than the areas outside them.</p><p>Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.</p>
A Bug's Life<p>When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?</p><p>Depends on who you ask. "In terms of horizontal scale, some have defined 'microclimate' as anything that is less than 100 meters [328 feet] in range," Jucker says. "I'm personally less prescriptive about this."</p><p>Instead, he says the "scale at which we want to measure [a particular] microclimate" ought to be "dictated" by the questions we're trying to answer.</p><p>"If I want to know how temperature affects the photosynthesis of a leaf, I should be measuring temperature at centimeter scale," Jucker explains. "If I want to know if and how temperature affects the habitat preference of a large, mobile mammal, it's probably more relevant to capture temperature variation across [tens to hundreds] of meters."</p><p>For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask <a href="https://www.colorado.edu/geography/peter-blanken-0" target="_blank">Peter Blanken</a>, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, "<a href="https://amzn.to/2XN6FT8" target="_blank">Microclimate and Local Climate</a>."</p>
The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
Microclimates on a Grand Scale<p>It's no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/" target="_blank">climbing</a>; nine out of the <a href="https://www.noaa.gov/news/2019-was-2nd-hottest-year-on-record-for-earth-say-noaa-nasa" target="_blank">10 hottest years on record</a> have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are <a href="https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf" target="_blank">facing extinction</a> due to human activities.</p><p>"One of the big questions that ecologists and environmental scientists are trying to answer right now is how will individual species and whole ecosystems respond to rapid climate change and habitat loss," says Jucker. "...To me, [microclimates are] a key component of this research — if we don't measure and understand climate at the appropriate scale, then predicting how things will change in the future becomes a lot harder."</p><p>Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/urban-heat-island.htm#pt0" target="_blank">Urban heat islands</a> are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.</p><p>Plants release vapors that can moderate local climates. But in cities, natural greenery is often scarce. To make matters worse, plenty of our roads and buildings have a bad habit of absorbing or re-emitting heat from the sun. <a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Microclimate_and_Local_Climate/LHUZDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=urban%20heat%20island" target="_blank">Vehicle emissions</a> don't exactly help the situation.</p><p>Still, it's not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures <a href="https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-we-turn-down-the-temperature-on-urban-heat-islands" target="_blank">within a single city</a> vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).</p><p>That's where metro parks and city trees come in. They have nice cooling effects on nearby neighborhoods. "Several cities around the world have developed programs to increase urban green spaces," says Blanken. "Tree planting programs and green roof programs, have been shown to lower surface temperatures, decrease air pollution and decrease surface water runoff (urban flash-flooding) in urban areas."</p>
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By Jeff Berardelli
Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020
If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.
<div id="ecf36" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c2dcc9d48a6cd61f247df1544539a783"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290959314132361216" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Naming heatwaves is a good idea—making the abstract concrete, the invisible visible. Why should hurricanes and wild… https://t.co/hDWgYb79Ob</div> — Ed Maibach (@Ed Maibach)<a href="https://twitter.com/MaibachEd/statuses/1290959314132361216">1596623660.0</a></blockquote></div>
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One of the challenges of renewable power is how to store clean energy from the sun, wind and geothermal sources. Now, a new study and advances in nanotechnology have found a method that may relieve the burden on supercapacitor storage. This method turns bricks into batteries, meaning that buildings themselves may one day be used to store and generate power, Science Times reported.
Bricks are a preferred building tool for their durability and resilience against heat and frost since they do not shrink, expand or warp in a way that compromises infrastructure. They are also reusable. What was unknown, until now, is that they can be altered to store electrical energy, according to a new study published in Nature Communications.
The scientists behind the study figured out a way to modify bricks in order to use their iconic red hue, which comes from hematite, an iron oxide, to store enough electricity to power devices, Gizmodo reported. To do that, the researchers filled bricks' pores with a nanofiber made from a conducting plastic that can store an electrical charge.
The first bricks they modified stored enough of a charge to power a small light. They can be charged in just 13 minutes and hold 10,000 charges, but the challenge is getting them to hold a much larger charge, making the technology a distant proposition.
If the capacity can be increased, researchers believe bricks can be used as a cheap alternative to lithium ion batteries — the same batteries used in laptops, phones and tablets.
The first power bricks are only one percent of a lithium-ion battery, but storage capacity can be increased tenfold by adding materials like metal oxides, Julio D'Arcy, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who contributed to the paper and was part of the research team, told The Guardian. But only when the storage capacity is scaled up would bricks become commercially viable.
"A solar cell on the roof of your house has to store electricity somewhere and typically we use batteries," D'Arcy told The Guardian. "What we have done is provide a new 'food-for-thought' option, but we're not there yet.
"If [that can happen], this technology is way cheaper than lithium ion batteries," D'Arcy added. "It would be a different world and you would not hear the words 'lithium ion battery' again."
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