By Gloria Oladipo
In the face of dangerous heat waves this summer, Americans have taken shelter in air conditioned cooling centers. Normally, that would be a wise choice, but during a pandemic, indoor shelters present new risks. The same air conditioning systems that keep us cool recirculate air around us, potentially spreading the coronavirus.
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By Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
José "Josh" Catzim Castillo, a 25-year-old lobster fisher, circles a hollow concrete box resting on the seafloor, just off the coast of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. He slips a snare into the box and shakes it. Three spiny lobsters, or langostas, shoot out and try to flee, but Castillo is too quick.
Castillo is left behind in the ocean, as his father, Pech, steers the boat away from the rain to keep the lobsters alive. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
Fishers of Maria Elena prepare to go to sea. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
Pablo Catzim Pech measures the tail of a smaller lobster with a 5-inch ruler. If the tail is shorter than the ruler, he will throw the lobster back into the ocean. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
Lobster tails, cut from the animals that died during capture, are collected in a bucket to be sold separately from the live exports. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
Art by Matteo Farinella, written by Jeremy Deaton
Algal blooms are killing wildlife and making people sick. Here's how we aided their reign of terror.
By Jeremy Deaton
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are in a dead heat in Texas, a state that has swung Republican in every presidential election since 1976. If Biden pulls off the unthinkable and defeats Trump in Texas, it will be by mobilizing Latino voters.
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By Jeremy Deaton
Experts disagree about how fast the United States can replace coal and gas-fired power plants with zero-carbon electricity. Some say we can shift to 100 percent clean power by 2050 with little friction and minimal cost. Others say that's unrealistically optimistic. Scientists on both sides of the argument agree that it's possible to get to 80 or 90 percent clean power. The debate centers on that last 10 or 20 percent.
Every year, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Annual Technology Baseline (ATB) projects the future cost of wind and solar energy. The graphs above show the projected cost of wind and solar in the best-case scenario. Every year since 2015 the projections have grown more optimistic. Source: UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy
The graphs above show the power mix in two different scenarios — one, where the lawmakers enact policies, such as a national clean power standard, to push utilities to shift to wind and solar (left), and one where utilities continue to operate as normal (right). Source: UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy
By Jeremy Deaton
Pipeline giant Kinder Morgan is cutting a 400-mile line across the middle of Texas, digging up vast swaths of private land for its planned Permian Highway Pipeline. The project is ceaseless, continuing through the coronavirus pandemic. Landowner Heath Frantzen said that dozens of workers have showed up to his ranch in Fredericksburg, even as public health officials urged people to stay at home.
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By Jeremy Deaton
You may have heard about the hole in the ozone layer, which hovers over Antarctica. It has shrunk over time thanks to policies that curbed the use of ozone-depleting chemicals. In the nearly 40 years that NASA has kept track, it has never been smaller. That's the good news.
Polar stratospheric clouds activate the chemicals that deplete the ozone layer. NASA
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By Jeremy Deaton
The coronavirus is a case study in the limits of federalism. Where the federal government has declined to gather and distribute masks, gloves and ventilators, states and cities have been forced to compete for medical supplies, paying exorbitant prices to secure needed equipment. Where the federal government has been slow to ramp up testing, states and cities are struggling to conduct tests at the scale required to reopen business.
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By Jeremy Deaton, video by Bart Vandever
The 2010 BP oil spill dumped more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, where it killed billions of fish. Had things gone as planned, that oil would have fueled cars and trucks, worsening climate change, which is going to kill billions of fish — and that was the best-case scenario. In short, oil is bad for sea life.
A diver explores sea life on the Eureka oil rig off the coast of Long Beach, California. Blue Latitudes<p>Hazelwood and her business partner Amber Sparks, co-founded consulting firm <a href="http://www.rig2reefexploration.org/team" target="_blank">Blue Latitudes</a>. Together, they work with oil companies to preserve the reefs that form on decommissioned oil platforms, lopping off the top while letting the rest of the structure stay in place. This process can save oil firms millions by sparing them the cost of tearing down an old rig.</p><p>Naturally, not everyone is wild about leaving the skeletons of oil platforms to rust in the ocean. In 2010, California <a href="https://www.ioes.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/RC-Rigs-to-Reef-Law-Fall2010.pdf" target="_blank">passed a controversial law</a> that would allow oil firms to convert old rigs into artificial reefs. Critics say it lets companies off the hook for cleanup by making the state liable for the remains of decommissioned oil platforms.</p><p>"The oil companies walk away. The state has to deal with this structure in the ocean forever, dealing with any safety issues, any pollution issues, any maintenance issues," said Linda Krop, chief counsel with the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara, California.</p>
Divers explore sea life on the Eureka oil rig off the coast of Long Beach, California. Blue Latitudes<p>She said it's also unclear if the rigs-to-reef program has much value for sea creatures. If old oil platforms become hot spots for recreational fishing, that could leave reefs mostly barren of marine life.</p><p>"We don't know what benefit will arise from leaving a platform at sea. We want that studied. That's what the current law requires. But the proponents are trying to weaken that part of the law," she said.</p><p>Hazelwood and Sparks, for instance, have called for streamlining the rigs-to-reef program to make it easier for oil companies to convert old platforms into ocean habitats. They say that tearing down viable reefs just doesn't make sense.</p><p>"Most environmental groups, they want to go back to the way the world was 10,000 years ago. And who wouldn't? I mean, that would just be an unbelievable planet to live on," Hazelwood said. "But that's not necessarily the reality of our situation right now, so we advocate for finding that silver lining."</p>
By Lauren Wolahan
For the first time ever, the UN is building out a roadmap for curbing carbon pollution from agriculture. To take part in that process, a coalition of U.S. farmers traveled to the UN climate conference in Madrid, Spain this month to make the case for the role that large-scale farming operations, long criticized for their outsized emissions, can play in addressing climate change.
Pexels<p>Growers said they can mitigate the impact of large-scale farming by embracing practices such as no-till farming, which uses machines that don't tear up the earth, and so doesn't release the carbon stored in the soil. They have also called for planting cover crops — like oats, radishes and cereal rye — in between rows of corn or hay to cover any bare earth, keeping carbon trapped in the ground.</p><p>In addition to stemming pollution, these practices also help the soil hold more moisture, meaning it can absorb extra water during a heavy rainstorm, keeping farms healthy. In an industry increasingly threatened by extreme weather, this is good business, said Fred Yoder, an Ohio farmer and former head of the National Corn Growers Association. He said he thinks of his soil as a 401k, a long-term investment that will help him weather future difficulties.</p><p>Yoder and other growers want the UN to encourage member countries to incentivize climate-friendly farming practices. Cover crops, for example, are currently used on just <a href="https://www.thegazette.com/IowaIdeas/stories/agriculture/cover-crops-in-iowa-illinois-indiana-profitability-20190503" target="_blank">4 percent</a> of Iowa farmland. Widespread adoption of cover crops could be key to curbing farming-related emissions.</p><p>Critics, however, say that even with smarter practices, large-scale farms will continue to be a significant source of pollution.</p><p>"Farming is more than just a collection of practices. It is a system within the local ecology," said Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. He said that carbon-smart farming can help curb pollution, but he believes that, ultimately, growers need to build farms that are more integrated with nature.</p>
By Marlene Cimons
Last summer, scientist Maria Rodriguez traveled to the Peruvian region of Madre de Dios, once the home of lush rainforests, meandering rivers and thriving wildlife. But her destination was anything but picturesque. She'd come to study several sites ravaged by illegal gold mining that had left a legacy of destruction and mercury poisoning. One area, in fact, resembled a lunar landscape, rather than a rainforest.
A mining site in the Amazon.
Maria Rodriguez<p>Rodriguez, a University of Maryland environmental engineering doctoral candidate in the <a href="https://eng.umd.edu/" target="_blank">A. James Clark School of Engineering</a>, went to Peru with faculty mentors <a href="https://cee.umd.edu/clark/faculty/240/Natasha-Andrade" target="_blank">Natasha Andrade</a> and <a href="https://user.eng.umd.edu/~alba/TorrentsLab/Alba_Torrents.html" target="_blank">Alba Torrents</a> to assess the mercury damage there. The field trip was the start of a long-term project sponsored by the school and by <a href="http://cincia.wfu.edu/en/who-we-are/" target="_blank">CINCIA</a>, the Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation, which is working on the ground in Peru to reforest degraded areas in Peru. Rodriguez hopes the partnership will help restore the Peruvian region which, she says, already has lost nearly 250,000 acres to artisanal gold-mining in the last two decades.</p><p>While most recent attention has focused on <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Amazon_rainforest_wildfires" target="_blank">wildfires</a> that have been raging in the Amazon rainforest, which soak up carbon pollution and are often described as the "lungs" of our planet, other serious threats exist in the region, illegal gold mining and its use of mercury chief among them.</p><p>In Peru, the illegal mining is performed by individuals and small companies, many of the workers poor people from Andean regions, Rodriguez said. "But their activity is controlled by criminal organizations," she said. "The artisanal activity has been performed in the Peruvian Amazon from the 1980's but has <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/the-devastating-costs-of-the-amazon-gold-rush-19365506/" target="_blank">increased</a> in recent decades due to the high price of gold in the international markets."</p>
A former mining site in the Amazon rainforest.
Natasha Andrade<p>Because mercury is destroying soils and foliage in the area, the scientists' goal is to rejuvenate the forest by planting new species of vegetation that can withstand exposure to the poisonous element. Rodriguez hopes to determine the toxic threshold of mercury for the new-growth plants, species that include achiote, cocona and yucca, so that they can be planted safely and not pose a danger to people who later consume them.</p><p>Through tests and analyses, the researchers hope to figure out whether the new plants will grow in the contaminated soil, and how much soil needs to be cleared to eliminate the hazard. The findings also will help them predict whether new trees will grow there.</p><p>Latin America illegally extracts the world's highest percentage of gold, according to the <a href="https://globalinitiative.net/organized-crime-and-illegally-mined-gold-in-latin-america/" target="_blank">Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime</a>, with Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru topping the list.</p><p>"All the Amazonian countries in South America are suffering the impacts," she said. "This is gold mining conducted by individual miners or small enterprises with limited capital investment and production. They don't use safety protection or procedures to prevent environmental pollution." A 2018 <a href="https://saqueada.amazoniasocioambiental.org/story" target="_blank">report</a> cited more than 2,000 Amazon locations with unregulated mining, she said.</p>
Dredge in Madre de Dios river.
Natasha Andrade<p>The definition of "illegal" differs by country, she added. "For example, in Peru, mining in national parks and their surrounding area is forbidden," she said. "It's also forbidden in rivers. In Brazil, artisanal mining in rivers is allowed. Some miners perform the activity in non-forbidden areas, with a permit from the government, but they use procedures that increase deforestation and contaminate soil, air and water with mercury."</p><p>The Peruvian government has tried fighting it with its military, the most recent operation in February, she said. "They expelled the miners from the mining sites in the national parks and installed military bases there," she explained. "But the maintenance of these bases is expensive. In similar operations in the past years, once the military left, the miners went back to the sites."</p><p>Moreover, ending these activities is made more difficult because gold is bought and sold by a network of middlemen who provide false receipts, allowing export companies to buy the gold, which is refined abroad, she added.</p>
A former mining site in an indigenous territory in the Amazon.
Natasha Andrade<p>The <a href="https://www.gold.org/" target="_blank">World Gold Council</a>, the global trade organization for the pure gold mining industry, won't comment on illegal mining. "However, we do work closely with our mining members on [environmental, social and governance] initiatives," said Iya Davidson, a spokeswoman for the organization. The organization recently released <a href="https://www.gold.org/about-gold/gold-supply/responsible-gold/responsible-gold-mining-principles" target="_blank">Responsible Gold Mining Principles</a>, a framework for consumers, investors and the supply chain, which, among other things, urges "respect for the environment."</p><p>Miles Silman, a Wake Forest University biologist and CINCIA's associate director of science, stressed the importance of good governance. "The profit from mining can be very large, so if a society decides to do it, they should make sure it is governed in a way where the benefits of the activity are worth the environmental destruction," he said.</p><p>Rodriguez pointed out that the public likely knows little about controversial gold mining practices. "I think consumers are not aware of this problem because they are not even aware that they are consuming gold," Rodriguez said. "Gold is not only use for jewelry or gold bars, but also for electronic devices, like cellphones. I'm sure that campaigns like the ones about blood diamonds could help to reduce the extent of illegal gold mining."</p><p>While in Peru, Rodriguez visited the indigenous communities of San Jacinte and Kotsimba — home to the Shipibo and Harakbut people, respectively — where mining had left dead soil behind where nothing can grow. "The indigenous don't want the miners to work in their territory but can't do anything about it," she said. "This is a common issue in this region."</p><p>Many of the indigenous people asked about the possibility of soil treatments and other efforts that could help regenerate the forest, hoping to encourage ecotourism, she said.</p><p>"They wondered whether anyone will come to visit this ugly landscape," she said. "They want their forest back. We felt very sad knowing that the forest will take hundreds of years to recover."</p>
By Marlene Cimons
Scientist Tim Gordon studies how rising temperatures are damaging corals in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, where intense cyclones and warm waters have caused extensive damage in recent years. What he sees brings him to tears.
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By Marlene Cimons
Scientist Aaswath Raman long has been keen on discovering new sources of clean energy by creating novel materials that can make use of heat and light.