A big part of our mission here at Planet Experts is to connect our readers to scientists and their data in a way that’s useful and interesting. But keeping up with the all the studies, reports and research papers is a tall task for even the most intellectually curious, so we’re going to round up the ten most compelling findings related to the environment every month for your perusing pleasure. Consider it Earth’s status update. Here are the most amazing discoveries in April 2017.
10. Thousands of tree species could vanish forever. Thanks to the efforts of Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), the world’s 60,065 identified tree species have been cataloged in the first-ever global database of trees. Brazil has the most tree species (4,333), and 58 percent of all tree species are found in only one country. The bad news? Of the 20,000 species assessed for conservation status, 9,600 are critically endangered and at risk of extinction. There are 300 species that have fewer than 50 individuals remaining in the wild.
9. Martian soil sits ready to be pressed into bricks. If humans ever attempt to colonize Mars, building materials may already be waiting for us. When scientists from the University of California, San Diego applied enough pressure to an Earth-based substance meant to simulate Martian soil, they were able to mold it into bricks — no additives or extra heat needed. “Oh, but those must be some weak bricks,” you say? Wrong. They’re stronger than steel-reinforced concrete. Researchers pointed to the iron oxide — which gives the Red Planet its namesake hue — as the likely binding agent.
8. In a warming world, sea ice could be a thing of the past sooner rather than later. In addition to noting the disappearance of land ice and the melting of permafrost, a report released by Arctic experts warns that the region could see summers devoid of sea ice as early as the 2030s — even if we keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius. And that’s a big (if not impossible) “if.”
7. Sea levels are projected to rise more than previously thought. An international team of scientists now says that seas could rise more than three meters by the end of the century. That’s a worst-case scenario, though, that assumes carbon-dioxide emissions will continue unabated. “It might be an unlikely scenario, but we can’t exclude the possibility,” said Sybren Drijfhout, a professor in physical oceanography and climate physics at the University of Southampton and co-author of the study. A rise of this magnitude would be catastrophic, forcing millions of people living along shorelines to relocate inland.
6. Circulated by ocean currents, plastic pollution is already showing up in the Arctic. We won’t even have to wait for navigation to become easier when sea ice melts for the great polluting of the Arctic to begin. Plastic is already making its way into the region’s pristine waters via a major ocean current. And most of it, in the form of trillions of tiny fragments similar to those found in subtropical gyres, is coming from the North Atlantic. “We don’t fully understand the consequences the plastic is having or will have in our oceans,” said Andrés Cózar Cabañas, a professor of biology at the University of Cádiz and the study’s lead author. “What we do know is that the consequences will be felt at greater scale in an ecosystem like this.”
5. Three potentially habitable exoplanets have been whittled down to one. Remember the discovery, back in February, of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a cool red dwarf star just 39 light years away? Scientists first surmised that three of the planets orbiting Trappist-1 — planets d, e and f — may harbor liquid water and therefore life. But a new study from Eric Wolf at the University of Colorado has narrowed those three planets down to one: Trappist-1e. By applying climate models to the three planets most likely to host life, Wolf discovered that planet d was too warm due to a runaway greenhouse effect and planet f was too frigid for liquid water to exist. “The main take-home point is that TRAPPIST-e is the real winner here,” Wolf said.
4. Life may be possible miles and miles below the seafloor. Upon examining a material called serpentine that is forced upwards from deep within the Earth by hydrothermal vents, scientists discovered bits of organic matter that hint at the presence of microbes. While the findings don’t prove anything, they open the door to the possibility of life existing a remarkable 10 kilometers below the sea floor.
3. Back-to-back bleaching events leave the Great Barrier Reef a shell of its former self. Mass bleaching has occurred yet again, this time on the Great Barrier Reef’s middle section, after northern areas were devastated so badly in 2016, the damage brought a scientist to tears. The study’s leader, James Kerry of James Cook University, wasted no words in assigning blame. “The bleaching is caused by record-breaking temperatures driven by global warming,” he said. The damage could keep more than a million tourists a year away from Australia, and cost the country $760 million in lost revenue.
2. Another global warming record to haunt your dreams. Researchers at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii made a most dismal recording: Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels surpassed 410 parts per million (ppm), hitting a new record. It gets worse. CO2 levels, which fluctuate with the seasons, haven’t yet hit their annual peak. You’d have to travel back in time millions of years to find this much CO2 in the atmosphere.
1. Alien life, just a few doors down? NASA’s Cassini spacecraft — which will make a suicidal plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere in September — discovered hydrogen in plumes of gas erupting from one of the ringed giant’s icy moons, Enceladus. This would suggest that chemical reactions similar to ones that occur along hydrothermal vents at the bottom of Earth’s deepest seas also appear on Enceladus. On this pale blue dot, those types of environments are teeming with microbial life. Will the same hold true for Enceladus and other ocean worlds? It’s a fascinating mystery that scientists are sure to tackle with gusto.