Know Your Planet is a weekly roundup of studies, research and reports.
Putting together this roundup is a real treat because it gives me an opportunity to follow the awesome scientific progress researchers make every day. The collection of new insights, data and forecasts collected in this space is always significant, but this week feels especially profound. We all knew 2016 would be the hottest year on record, but the possibility of society collapsing within a decade? I know Donald Trump is about to be inaugurated, but that’s still a bit startling, to say the least. Thankfully, there’s always good news to go with the bad (and vice versa), like folding fossil-fuel companies, right-handed tarantulas and some interesting linkage between mega earthquakes and moon phases.
According to a New Study…
Last year was the hottest on record — and it wasn’t even close. Global surface temperatures in 2016 are already 1.3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and .2 degrees warmer than last year’s record. The Paris Agreement had intended to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, a once reasonable goal that has quickly become a pipe dream. In fact, the oil and gas we’ve already sucked out of the Earth will take us past 1.5 degrees, and we could hit 3.4 degrees by the end of the century. The release and buildup of greenhouses are, of course, to blame for the record, as is the El Nino weather event in the Pacific Ocean.
The leading math historian predicts society could collapse in a decade. It’s not all Trump’s fault, either, though his disturbing disregard for social and political norms is evidence of a troubling progression toward instability and turmoil. Peter Turchin, the University of Connecticut professor who made the claim, studied 40 societal factors in coming up with the model. Don’t shed your daily responsibilities and sprint to and fro with nihilistic abandon just yet. Turchin says the impending doom isn’t inevitable as long as we take notice and clean up our act.
The timing of the most deadly and devastating earthquakes may have something to do with the moon. Researchers looked at 12 mega-quakes with magnitude 8.2 or more and found that nine occurred in the days near a new or full moon. The sun, moon and Earth are aligned during these phases, which increases the gravitational tug on the Earth’s crust and leads to more powerful tides. Scientists think the added stresses from these events may help trigger big earthquakes, though the sample size is still too tiny to know for sure.
There may be many oceans’ worth of water deep in the Earth’s mantle. In fact, H20 resides in abundance as many as 1000 kilometers down, or a third of the way to the edge of the Earth’s core. Researchers at Northwestern University studied imperfections in a once-deep diamond ejected from a volcano to arrive at their conclusion.
The U.S. is on pace to become a net energy exporter by 2026, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook. The causation is pretty simple: America is producing more and more gigawatts of energy despite flat demand. Perhaps even more importantly, the report said the U.S. is unlikely to meet its Paris Agreement obligations — and that doesn’t even factor in the fossil-fuelicious policies likely under the Trump administration.
There are, on average, 44 years between volcanic eruptions that spew the type of mega-annoying ash clouds that disrupt flights the world over. In any given decade, there’s about a 20 percent chance that one of these eruptions will occur in northern Europe. Researchers analyzed records of ash fallout over the past 1,000 years to arrive at their conclusion, which should help airlines and insurance companies plan for the economics of these pain-in-the-ash situations.
The UK’s biodiversity is vanishing. There’s no sugarcoating it: More than half of the UK’s species have declined in recent years, with 15% at risk of extinction. Farming alone affected nearly half the species studied. Climate change also takes some of the blame.
Long ago, the Great Barrier Reef almost drowned. Scientists at the University of Sydney studied ancient reef layers and discovered that the Great Barrier Reef nearly died when sea levels skyrocketed during the Last Interglacial period, more than 125,000 years ago. Temperatures and sea levels during that period were higher than they are now, but that’s the direction we’re heading if CO2 emissions remain unchecked. When sea levels receded, however, corals once on the brink of death were quick to recover.
Add bird migrations to the latest list of things climate change is screwing up. Birds select their migration routes — which include several stopovers — based on an innate understanding of where food and other resources will be available. But thanks to global warming, areas lush with vegetation and insects aren’t always where they once were, which is why we now have birds making pitstops in places with diminishing resources. And when there isn’t enough food, birds die, which is what scientists think may happen as a result, unless, you know, we maybe make a serious effort at curbing CO2 emissions.
California’s snowpack is low… for now. The first manual snow measurement of the winter near lake Tahoe ended with “gloomy” results indicating the snowpack is holding half as much water as expected in a normal year. The measurement, however, was taken on Tuesday as winter storms loomed just beyond the mountains. Several feet of snow fell over the last few days, and a mind-boggling 10 to 15 feet more is on the way thanks to a series of atmospheric rivers flowing through the sky over California.
A record number of fossil-fuel companies are going belly up. Even better, it’s all because renewables are becoming so cheap, which is driving down the price of oil and gas. A ridiculous 16 fossil-fuel companies went bankrupt in 2016 in the UK alone. Renewables have reached a tipping point. The future is undoubtedly in wind and solar.
Thirsty plants can still thrive. Researchers in Texas studied the way 97 ornamental plant species common to the region fared when given different amounts of water. Surprisingly, most of the plants remained lush even after drastic reductions in watering. Nearly a quarter of the plants could survive 12 weeks with nary a drop of H2O. The big takeaway here is that in most instances, we can use much less water while still keeping our yards and gardens looking luscious.