By Shreya Dasgupta
Discovering a new species is always exciting—it shows that much of our world remains to be explored and described. This year, too, scientists discovered and described several new species of animals and plants, including 13 new dancing peacock spiders, a new crab that was found in a pet market, a new species of whale, a tarantula that shoots balls of barbed hair at enemies and one bird that is now 13 distinct species.
Below are Mongabay's picks for top new species discovered in 2016 (in no particular order). Note: for each entry, the publication and author are listed in parentheses.
1. New species of Beaked Whale (Mongabay, by Jeremy Hance)
When a dead whale washed up in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands in 2014, people believed that it was a Baird's beaked whale (Berardius bairdii). But subsequent DNA tests showed that the whale is very likely a new species of beaked whale, smaller and darker than its cousin, the Baird's, with a larger dorsal fin and a distinctly shaped skull. The whale appears to be rare, although Japanese whalers—who refer to the whale as karasu, or raven, due to its dark color—claim to have seen it in life. However, very little is known about the new beaked whale's behavior, and scientists are yet to give it a new name.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Baird's beaked whales are capable of diving to depths of 9,840 feet (3,000 meters).
2. Thirteen New Dancing Peacock Spiders (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta, Mike Gaworecki)
In two separate studies, researchers announced the discovery of several new species of brilliantly colored peacock spiders—miniscule spiders with elaborate dance moves, known only from Australia. In one paper, biologist Jürgen C. Otto, and spider expert David Knowles described seven new species of peacock spiders, including Maratus vespa, a spider with a distinct pattern of wasp on its tail flap, and M. bubo, which seems to have the face of a horned owl inscribed on its back. In a second paper, researchers Barbara Baehr and Robert Whyte described six new species of peacock spiders, including Maratus lincunxin, named after Chinese-trained dancer and Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin.
The pattern on M. bubo's back resembles an owl.
Photo credit: Jürgen C. Otto
3. Rare Devil’s Orchid (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Discovered in the forests of southern Colombia, the new species of reddish-violet orchid Telipogon diabolicus has a wine-red or maroon reproductive structure that resembles a devil's head. The new orchid is known only from a single population of 30 orchids found, and is already on the verge of extinction. The lone population is found in a vulnerable habitat close to the main road Pasto-Mocoa.
Close-up of the new orchid species Telipogon diabolicus showing its flower resembling a devil's head.
Photo credit: Marta Kolanowska
4. Three New Species of Mouse Lemurs (Mongabay, by Mike Gaworecki)
This year, scientists used genetic analysis to describe three new species of mouse lemurs that live in the South and East Madagascar: Microcebus boraha, Microcebus ganzhorni, and Microcebus manitatra. This brings the number of known mouse lemurs—the world's tiniest primates—to 24. All three mouse lemurs are small, nocturnal animals with brown fur and large eyes.
Microcebus ganzhorni is named in honor of the Hamburg ecologist Prof. Jörg Ganzhorn who has worked on ecology and conservation in Madagascar for more than thirty years.
Photo credit: G. Donati
5. Deepest Fish Species Discovered by Deep-Diving (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
At a depth of 150 meters in the West Pacific, off the coast of Batangas, Luzon, Philippine Islands, scientists have discovered a new species of strikingly colored fish that belongs to a group of fish called groppos. The fish was discovered without the use of submarines or other indirect methods, making it the deepest new fish discovery done by diving to date. The scientists have named the pink-and-yellow-hued fish Brianne's Groppo or Grammatonotus brianne.
Brianne's Groppo (Grammatonotus brianne).
Photo credit: Luiz Rocha
6. Silver Boa That Is “On Its Way to Extinction” (Mongabay, by Mike Gaworecki)
This new silver boa (Chilabothrus argentum) was found in a remote corner of the Bahamian Archipelago called the Conception Island Bank. It is a nonvenomous, constricting snake, and one of the most endangered boid snakes globally, a group that includes boa constrictors and anacondas. Scientists believe that it should be listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
The Bahamian silver boa or Conception Bank silver boa (Chilabothrus argentum).
Photo credit: Graham Reynolds / UNC-Ashville
7. Rabbit-Like Pika (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Discovered in the remote upper reaches of the Eastern Himalayas in Sikkim, India, the cuddly new rabbit-like animal, Sikkim pika (Ochotona sikimeria), was previously classified as a sub-species of the Moupin pika (Ochotona thibetana). But the two species are not even closely related, scientists say. The new species was identified by analyzing genetic data sampled from its poop, and comparing it with the DNA of other related pikas. The new species seems to be abundant in Sikkim and may not be immediately threatened by extinction.
The new species—named Sikkim pika or Ochotona sikimeria—was previously classified as a sub-species of the Moupin pika or Ochotona thibetana.
Photo credit: Prasenjeet Yadav
8. Caribbean Plants Named After James Bond (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Biologists discovered an entire new sub-group of plants in Central America and the Caribbean Islands that they have named Jamesbondia. The name does not honor the popular spy character James Bond. Instead, the group gets its name from notable American ornithologist James Bond (1900-1989), who was an expert in Caribbean birds and author of the book Birds of the West Indies. Ian Fleming—also a keen birdwatcher—is believed to have used the ornithologist's name for his fictional spy series.
A new subgenus of plants has officially been called Jamesbondia.
Photo credit: Taylor & Francis
9. Giant Air-Breathing Fish (National Geographic, by Brian Clark Howard)
A new species of a giant arapaima—massive fish that breathe through primitive lungs—may be lurking in the backwaters of the Amazon. National Geographic explorer Donald J. Stewart and his colleagues claim to have found genetic evidence of at least one new species of arapaima in southwestern Guyana. Stewart believes there may be more distinct species of arapaimas currently unknown to science. Arapaimas, which can grow up to 10 feet long and weight 440 pounds, are little-studied and highly endangered.
Scientists have found genetic evidence of at least one new species of arapaima in southwestern Guyana.
Photo credit: Jeff Kubina / Flickr
10. Tarantula That Shoots Balls of Barbed Hairs at Enemies (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
The new species of tarantula, Kankuamo marquezi, is a badass. Discovered in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria mountain range in Colombia, the tarantula subdues its enemies by shooting a ball of barbed hairs into the air that it releases by rubbing its hind legs against its belly vigorously. The hairs have sharp tips that can then penetrate into the enemy's skin or mucous membrane, causing irritation. The scientists have named the sspider, K. marquezi, after famous Colombian writer, Gabriel García Márquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature for "One hundred years of solitude."
The new tarantula stabs its butt's bristled hairs into its enemy directly instead of releasing a flying cloud of sharp hairs into the air as many other tarantulas do.
Photo credit: Dirk Weinmann
11. Two Species of Magnolia Discovered Online (BBC)
Thanks to photographs on Arkive, a website that hosts thousands of pictures of flora and fauna, two naturalists could identify two previously unrecorded species of Magnolia, one of Earth's oldest flowering plants. Roberto Pedraza Ruiz had photographed several plants within eastern Mexico's Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve in 2010 and uploaded it to Arkive. After seeing the photos, biologist José Antonio Vázquez, living 200 miles away, identified two of the plants as new species of Magnolia. One of the species, Magnolia rzedowskiana, was named after Jerzy Rzedoswski, a Mexican botanist, while the second species will be named Magnolia pedrazae, in honor of its photographer.It was this image that first raised questions. It is now identified as a Magnolia rzedowskiana flower.
Photo credit: Roberto Pedraza Ruiz
12. New Scops Owl (Mongabay, by Mike Gaworecki)
Scientists have discovered a new species of Scops owl on Príncipe, one of the two major islands that make up the country of São Tomé and Príncipe in the Gulf of Guinea off the western coast of Central Africa. The owl had been long rumored to exist by researchers. But Belgian ornithologist Philippe Verbelen confirmed the presence of the owl during an expedition in the forests of Príncipe, during which he photographed at least two different individuals. The owl is yet to be formally described.
A photo of the previously undiscovered Scops owl (Otus) discovered in the forests of Príncipe Island (Gulf of Guinea).
Photo credit: Philippe Verbelen
13. Parasitic Orchid That Never Blooms (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
The new plant—named Gastrodia kuroshimensis—was discovered on the Japanese island of Kuroshima. It occurs in the dark understory of forests where little light penetrates. So instead of using sunlight or photosynthesis to generate nutrients, the plant parasitizes the fungi in the forest soil for its daily dose of nutrition. The new plant also produces dark greenish-brown flowers that remain closed throughout the entire flowering period, relying completely on self-pollination within closed buds.
Photo credit: Kenji Suetsugu
14. Spider That Looks like the ‘Sorting Hat’ from Harry Potter (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Gryffindor! The biologists who discovered this new spider in a forest in central Western Ghats, India, are big fans of the Harry Potter franchise. Surprised by how closely the spider resembles the magical sorting hat, they chose to name it Eriovixia gryffindori after the hat's owner Godric Gryffindor, one of the four founders of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The tiny spider is an excellent mimic, and is adept at resembling dried foliage.
Eriovixia gryffindor, a new species of spider was discovered in Karnataka. India.
Photo credit: Sumukha J. N.
15. Six New Deep-Sea Animals Discovered in Undersea Hot Springs (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Around hydrothermal vents in Longqi ('Dragon's Breath'), 1,242 miles southeast of Madagascar, a research team has discovered six new species of deep-sea animals that are nourished by hot fluids gushing out of the vent chimneys. The new species include a hairy-chested 'Hoff' crab, closely related to 'Hoff' crabs at Antarctic vents; two species of snail and a species of limpet, and two species of deep-sea worms.
A group of hairy-chested 'Hoff crabs'.
Photo credit: University of Southampton
16. Three New Miniature Salamanders Are Already Headed for Extinction (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Scientists have described three new species of miniature salamanders, occurring in the remote mountains of Oaxaca in Mexico, that are smaller than a matchstick. These tiny creatures belong to the elusive genus Thorius, members of which are the smallest four-legged animals on Earth. The group is also one of the most endangered genus of amphibians in the world, and the three newly discovered species are already on the verge of extinction, researchers say. The new salamanders have been named the pine-dwelling minute salamander (Thorius pinicola), the long-tailed minute salamander (Thorius longicaudus) and the heroic minute salamander (Thorius tlaxiacus).
A pine-dwelling minute salamander (Thorius pinicola)—one of the newly described species of minute salamander.
Photo credit: Mario García-París
17. Crab Discovered in Chinese Fish Market (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Colorful freshwater crabs are being increasingly traded in South China's pet markets. At one such ornamental fish market in northern Guandong, China, researchers collected a new species of maroon-brown crab with reddish-purple claws and legs, which belongs to both a new species and a new genus. The scientists have named the newly described crab Yuebeipotamon calciatile, its species name "calciatile" referring to the pools of limestone hill streams where the crabs are found.
Close-up of a male individual of the new crab species and genus Yuebeipotamon calciatile.
Photo credit: Hsi-Te Shih
18. New Millipede Has 414 legs, 4 Penises (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
Scientists have discovered a new species of a very "leggy" millipede inside a dark, marble cavern in Sequoia National Park, California. The tiny thread-like millipede has 414 legs, and is cousin to the 750-legged Illacme plenipes, the leggiest known millipede on earth, researchers say. It has some other odd features: its 20 millimeters-long body is covered in spines, tubercles, and silk-secreting hairs, and four of its legs are modified into penises or gonopods that it uses to transfer sperm into the female. Researchers have named the new species Illacme tobini after Ben Tobin, a cave specialist and hydrologist at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
The new species (Illacme tobini) of extremely leggy millipede from a Sequoia National Park cave.
Photo credit: Paul Marek / Virginia Tech
19. Smallest of Giant Flowers (Mongabay, by Shreya Dasgupta)
The parasitic plant, Rafflesia or corpse flower, produces the world's largest flowers. Now, on Luzon Island in the Phillipines, a team of scientists have discovered the smallest of these giant flowers. Some Rafflesia flowers can grow up to a meter and a half in diameter. But the newly discovered flower has an average diameter of 9.73 cm when fully expanded, making it a "dwarf" among all known Rafflesia species. The discovery was serendipitous — researchers tripped on the flower while walking in a forest on Luzon Island. Only two populations of R. consueloae are known from two mountain sites, Mt Balukbok and Mt Pantaburon, and the species may be Critically Endangered.
The newly described Rafflesia consueloae.
Photo credit: Edwino S. Fernando
20. One Bird That Became 13 (Motherboard, by Kaleigh Rogers)
For a long time, scientists believed that a single bird, the red bellied pitta (Pitta erythrogaster) that lives in the Philippines, was also found on a small island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, on Indonesia's Banggai and Sula Islands, and in Buru, Ambon and Seram in the south Moluccas. But a detailed genetic analysis and taxonomic review of the species revealed that the birds lumped under red-bellied pitta are actually 13 distinct species found around southeast Asia. This splitting of the species has important conservation implications, researchers say. The original red bellied pitta was classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. But a review of the population status of the new species shows that at least three are threatened and at risk of extinction.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
Offshore oil and gas drillers have discarded and abandoned more than 18,000 miles of pipelines on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico since the 1960s, a report from the Government Accountability Office says.
The industry has essentially recovered none of the pipelines laid in the Gulf in the last six decades; the abandoned infrastructure accounts for more than 97% of all of the decommissioned pipelines in the Gulf.
The pipelines pose a threat to the habitat around them, as maritime commerce and hurricanes and erosion can move sections of pipeline.
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement does not conduct undersea inspections even though surface monitoring is "not always reliable for detecting ruptures," according to the GAO.
For a deeper dive:
The survey compared six environmental concerns: drinking water pollution; pollution in rivers, lakes and reservoirs; tropical rainforest loss; climate change; air pollution; and plant and animal species extinction. While most Americans showed concern for all of these threats, the majority were most worried about polluted drinking water (56 percent), followed by polluted rivers, lakes and reservoirs (53 percent), Gallup reported.
"When it comes to environmental problems, Americans remain most concerned about two that have immediate and personal potential effects," Gallup noted. "For the past 20 years, worries about water pollution – both drinking water and bodies of water — have ranked at the top of the list. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, laid bare the dangers of contaminated drinking water and no doubt sticks in the public's minds."
According to a new study, 61.4 million people in the U.S. did not drink their tap water as of 2018, Asher Rosinger, an assistant professor of biobehavioral health, anthropology and demography at Penn State, wrote in The Conversation.
"It's important not to blame people for distrusting what comes out of their tap, because those fears are rooted in history," Rosinger explained.
Meanwhile, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency surveys found that almost 50 percent of rivers and streams and more than one-third of lakes are polluted and unfit for swimming, fishing and drinking, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported. Without action, concerns over water quality will become increasingly relevant as the demand for fresh water is expected to be one-third greater by 2050 than it is today.
Gallup researchers have tracked environmental concerns among Americans since 2000, and water quality worries have consistently ranked high, Gallup noted.
The survey also revealed an environmental partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. For example, 68 percent of Democrats were highly concerned about global warming compared to 14 percent of Republicans.
Another recent Gallup survey found that 82 percent of Democrats believed that global warming effects had already started compared to 29 percent of Republicans. "That's a gap of 53 points; for comparison, in 2001, the gap was a mere 13 points," Grist reported.
Similarly, a 2020 Pew Research Center report revealed the widest partisan gap to date concerning whether or not climate change should be a top policy priority. Protecting air and water quality ranked as the second most divisive issue among Republicans and Democrats, The New York Times reported.
"Intense partisan polarization over these two issues in particular" has been growing for decades, Riley Dunlap, a professor emeritus at Oklahoma State University, told The New York Times last February. "Voters take cues on their policy preferences and overall positions," he added. "President Trump has, in the past, called climate change a hoax and all that. You get a similar message from many members of Congress on the Republican side. And most importantly, it's the message you get from the conservative media."
Gallup's latest figures also showed that concern about environmental threats either increased or remained the same between 2019 and 2020.
"The fluctuations in worry levels since 2019 are largely driven by Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, who became more worried, on average, about the six environmental problems in 2020 during the presidential campaign and are now less worried with Joe Biden as president," Gallup reported.
While surveys like these are "not a full-blown diagnostic rundown of the nation's psyche," they are informative tools for understanding how and what Americans are feeling and thinking, Grist reported.
Climate Change Threatens Coffee – But We’ve Found a Wild Species That Could Help Save Your Morning Brew
By Aaron P Davis
The world loves coffee. More precisely, it loves arabica coffee. From the smell of its freshly ground beans through to the very last sip, arabica is a sensory delight.
Robusta, the other mainstream coffee crop species, is almost as widely traded as arabica, but it falls short on flavor. Robusta is mainly used for instant coffee and blends, while arabica is the preserve of discerning baristas and expensive espressos.
Consumers may be happy, but climate change is making coffee farmers bitter. Diseases and pests are becoming more common and severe as temperatures rise. The fungal infection known as coffee leaf rust has devastated plantations in Central and South America. And while robusta crops tend to be more resistant, they need plenty of rain – a tall order as droughts proliferate.
The future for coffee farming looks difficult, if not bleak. But one of the more promising solutions involves developing new, more resilient coffee crops. Not only will these new coffees have to tolerate higher temperatures and less predictable rainfall, they'll also have to continue satisfying consumer expectations for taste and smell.
Finding this perfect combination of traits in a new species seemed remote. But in newly published research, my colleagues and I have revealed a little-known wild coffee species that could be the best candidate yet.
Coffee Farming in a Warming World
Coffea stenophylla was first described as a new species from Sierra Leone in 1834. It was farmed across the wetter parts of upper west Africa until the early 20th century, when it was replaced by the newly discovered and more productive robusta, and largely forgotten by the coffee industry. It continued to grow wild in the humid forests of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, where it became threatened by deforestation.
At the end of 2018, we found stenophylla in Sierra Leone after searching for several years, but failed to find any trees in fruit until mid-2020, when a 10g sample was recovered for tasting.
Field botanists of the 19th century had long proclaimed the superior taste of stenophylla coffee, and also recorded its resistance to coffee leaf rust and drought. Those early tasters were often inexperienced though, and our expectations were low before the first tasting in the summer of 2020. That all changed once I'd sampled the first cup on a panel with five other coffee experts. Those first sips were revelatory: it was like expecting vinegar and getting champagne.
This initial tasting in London was followed by a thorough evaluation of the coffee's flavour in southern France, led by my research colleague Delpine Mieulet. Mieulet assembled 18 coffee connoisseurs for a blind taste test and they reported a complex profile for stenophylla coffee, with natural sweetness, medium-high acidity, fruitiness, and good body, as one would expect from high-quality arabica.
C. stenophylla growing in the wild, Ivory Coast. E. Couturon / IRD, Author provided
In fact, the coffee seemed very similar to arabica. At the London tasting, the Sierra Leone sample was compared to arabica from Rwanda. In the blind French tasting, most of the judges (81%) said stenophylla tasted like arabica, compared to 98% and 44% for the two arabica control samples, and 7% for a robusta sample.
The coffee tasting experts picked up on notes of peach, blackcurrant, mandarin, honey, light black tea, jasmine, chocolate, caramel and elderflower syrup. In essence, stenophylla coffee is delicious. And despite scoring highly for its similarity to arabica, the stenophylla coffee sample was identified as something entirely unique by 47% of the judges. That means there may be a new market niche for this rediscovered coffee to fill.
The taste testers approved of stenophylla's sweet and fruity flavour. CIRAD, Author provided
Breaking New Grounds
Until now, no other wild coffee species has come close to arabica for its superior taste. Scientifically, the results are compelling because we would simply not expect stenophylla to taste like arabica. These two species are not closely related, they originated on opposite sides of the African continent and the climates in which they grow are very different. They also look nothing alike: stenophylla has black fruit and more complex flowers while arabica cherries are red.
It was always assumed that high-quality coffee was the preserve of arabica – originally from the forests of Ethiopia and South Sudan – and particularly when grown at elevations above 1,500 metres, where the climate is cooler and the light is better.
Stenophylla coffee breaks these rules. Endemic to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, stenophylla grows in hot conditions at low elevations. Specifically it grows at a mean annual temperature of 24.9°C – 1.9°C higher than robusta, and up to 6.8°C higher than arabica. Stenophylla also appears more tolerant of droughts, potentially capable of growing with less rainfall than arabica.
Robusta coffee can grow in similar conditions to stenophylla, but the price paid to farmers is roughly half that of arabica. Stenophylla coffee makes it possible to grow a superior tasting coffee in much warmer climates. And while stenophylla trees tend to produce less fruit than arabica, they still yield enough to be commercially viable.
The stenophylla harvest on Reunion Island. IRD / CIRAD, Author provided
To breed the coffee crop plants of the future, we need species with great flavour and high heat tolerance. Crossbreeding stenophylla with arabica or robusta could make both more resilient to climate change, and even improve their taste, particularly in the latter.
With stenophylla's rediscovery, the future of coffee just got a little brighter.
Aaron P Davis: Senior Research Leader, Plant Resources, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Disclosure statement: Aaron P Davis receives funding from Darwin Initiative (UK).
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
On Thursday, April 22, the world will celebrate Earth Day, the largest non-religious holiday on the globe.
This Earth Day falls at a critical turning point. It is the second Earth Day since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and follows a year of devastating climate disasters, such as the wildfires that scorched California and the hurricanes that battered Central America. But the day's organizers still have hope, and they have chosen a theme to match.
"At the heart of Earth Day's 2021 theme, Restore Our Earth, is optimism, a critically needed sentiment in a world ravaged by both climate change and the pandemic," EarthDay.org president Kathleen Rogers told USA TODAY.
Last Earth Day marked the first time that the holiday was celebrated digitally to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This will largely be the case this year as well.
"Most of our Earth Day events will be virtual with the exception of individual and small group cleanups through our 'Great Global Cleanup' program," EarthDay.org's Olivia Altman told USA TODAY.
Tuesday, April 20: A Global Youth Summit begins at 2:30 p.m. ET featuring young climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Villaseñor. This will be followed at 7 p.m. ET by "We Shall Breathe," a virtual summit organized by the Hip Hop Caucus to look at issues like the climate crisis, pollution and the pandemic through an environmental justice lens.
Wednesday, April 22: Beginning at 7 a.m. ET, Education International will lead the "Teach for the Planet: Global Education Summit." Talks will be offered in multiple languages and across multiple time zones to emphasize the importance of education in fighting the climate crisis.
Thursday, April 22: On the day itself, EarthDay.org will host its second ever Earth Day Live digital event beginning at 12 p.m. ET. This event will feature discussions, performances and workshops focusing on the day's theme of restoring our Earth through natural solutions, technological innovations and new ideas.
"EARTHDAY.ORG looks forward to contributing to the success of this historic climate summit and making active progress to Restore Our Earth," Rogers said in a press release. "We must see every country rapidly raise their ambition across all climate issues — and that must include climate education which would lead to a green jobs-ready workforce, a green consumer movement, and an educated and civically engaged citizenry around the world."
EarthDay.org grew out of the first Earth Day in 1970, which drew 20 million U.S. residents to call for greater environmental protections. The movement has been credited with helping to establish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to pass landmark environmental legislation like the Clean Air and Water Acts. It has since gone on to be a banner day for environmental action, such as the signing of the Paris agreement in 2016. More than one billion people in more than 192 countries celebrate Earth Day each year.
This legacy continues. The organization called the scheduling of Biden's summit a "clear acknowledgement of the power of Earth Day."
"This is a critical stepping stone for the U.S. to rejoin the world in combating the climate crisis. In concert with several planned parallel EARTHDAY.ORG events worldwide, Earth Day 2021 will accelerate global action on climate change," EarthDay.org wrote.
Super-emitters are individual sources such as leaking pipelines, landfills or dairy farms that produce a disproportionate amount of planet-warming emissions, especially methane and carbon dioxide. Carbon Mapper, the non-profit leading the effort, hopes to provide a more targeted guide to reducing emissions by launching special satellites that hunt for sources of climate pollution.
"What we've learned is that decision support systems that focus just at the level of nation states, or countries, are necessary but not sufficient. We really need to get down to the scale of individual facilities, and even individual pieces of equipment, if we're going to have an impact across civil society," Riley Duren, Carbon Mapper CEO and University of Arizona researcher, told BBC News. "Super-emitters are often intermittent but they are also disproportionately responsible for the total emissions. That suggests low-hanging fruit, because if you can identify and fix them you can get a big bang for your buck."
The new project, announced Thursday, is a partnership between multiple entities, including Carbon Mapper, the state of California, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Planet, a company that designs, builds and launches satellites, according to a press release. The project is being implemented in three stages.
The initial stage, which is already complete, involved the initial engineering development. NASA and Planet will work together in the second stage to build two satellites for a 2023 launch. The third phase will launch an entire constellation of satellites starting in 2025.
The satellites will include an imaging spectrometer built by NASA's JPL, NASA explained in a press release. This is a device that can break down visible light into hundreds of colors, providing a unique signature for chemicals such as methane and carbon dioxide. Most imaging spectrometers currently in orbit have larger pixel sizes, making it difficult to locate emission sources that are not always visible from the ground. However, Carbon Mapper spectrometers will have pixels of around 98 square feet, facilitating more detailed pin-pointing.
"This technology enables researchers to identify, study and quantify the strong gas emission sources," JPL Scientist Charles Miller said in the press release.
Once the data is collected, Carbon Mapper will make it available to industry and government actors via an open data portal to help repair leaks.
"These home-grown satellites are a game-changer," California Governor Gavin Newsom said of the project. "They provide California with a powerful, state-of-the-art tool to help us slash emissions of the super-pollutant methane — within our own borders and around the world. That's exactly the kind of dynamic, forward-thinking solution we need now to address the existential crisis of climate change."