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'Hi, I want a job in Antarctica': Meet the first female researchers to blaze the path

May 20, 2019 4:24


In the spring of 1969, 19-year-old Ohio State sophomore Terry Tickhill Terrell saw an article in the school newspaper about a graduate student who had gone to Antarctica with a research group. She immediately thought, “That is the kind of job I want.” 

So, she walked into the Institute of Polar Studies at OSU and told the secretary, “Hi, I want a job in Antarctica.”

“I think the secretary took pity on me, if nothing else,” Terrell recounted. “And she said, ‘We haven't actually ever sent any women to Antarctica, but Dr. Lois Jones is going to have the first group of women traveling to Antarctica this fall.’” 

That same day, Terrell was talking to Jones about what she considered important reasons why she was a good fit for the all-female Antarctica research team: She was a chemistry major, she had camped outdoors, she had taken outdoor cookery classes and she was a big, strong farm kid. The next day, after one of the Antarctica team members dropped out, Terrell got the job as part of an all-female-research team to study rock weathering in Antarctica’s Wright Valley. 

Lois Jones lead the team. She had recently obtained her PhD on chemical ratios in Antarctic rocks. The other team members were biologist Kay Lindsay, Eileen McSaveney, a graduate student of geology and Terrell, a chemistry student. 

Four women pose for a photo in winter gear.

From left to right: Kay Lindsay, Terry Tickhill Terrell, Lois Jones and Eileen McSaveney.


Courtesy of Eileen McSaveney

After arriving in Antarctica, the team camped on the shore of Lake Vanda in the Wright Valley, where they were to conduct research in the 1969-1970 field season.

A landscape covered in snow.

Overview of Wright Valley in 1969. In the lower left are the tents that served as living quarters for Jones’ research team.


Lois M. Jones Papers, SPEC.PA.56.0213, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program/The Ohio State University.

Before 1969, the US Navy did not allow female scientists onto the Antarctic continent. The Navy had established a military outpost — the McMurdo Station, America’s main base in Antarctica in 1959 — but they would not transport women to the continent. Women were not allowed in Navy ships, either.

Two women stand on a frozen lake while holding a metal bar.

Terry Tickhill Terrell, right, and Eileen McSaveney, left, take a water sample at Lake Vanda in 1969.


Lois M. Jones Papers, SPEC.PA.56.0213, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program/The Ohio State University.

Terrell remembers collecting ice from the surface of Lake Vanda to melt and later use for cooking. Team members also used saws, rock hammers and chisels to chop meat and chicken rations provided by the Navy. 

A woman in a red and black shirt cuts a steak with a saw.

Kay Lindsay prepares steak for the night’s meal during the 1969-1970 research season.


Lois M. Jones Papers, SPEC.PA.56.0213, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program/The Ohio State University.

Later, the Navy took a group of women to a place they’d never been before — the South Pole. An LC-130 aircraft equipped with skis flew six women to Antarctica on Nov. 12, 1969, including the four members of Jones’ team, plus Pamela Young, a biologist with the New Zealand Antarctic program, and Jean Pearson, a science writer for the Detroit Free Press.

Six women wearing red parkas and a man in black pose for a photo.

All six women linked arms and stepped off the airplane's cargo ramp onto the ice together, so they would all be the first women at the South Pole.


Couresty of US Navy

Five women with red parkas pose for a photo at the South Pole.

The first six women pose for a photo at the South Pole on Nov. 12, 1969. From left to right: Pamela Young, Jean Pearson, Terry Tickhill Terrell, Lois Jones, Eileen McSaveney and Kay Lindsay. 


Courtesy of US Navy

Terrell remembers the Antarctica research trip clearly. It was also a decisive trip in her professional career. 

“One of the things that I remember is that I immediately realized that what I wanted to do for the rest of my life was research,” Terrell said.

She went on to work for the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a researcher in aquatic ecology and for the National Park Service, setting up a science program for the Rocky Mountain National Park. She has been retired for 24 years. 

Click on the player above to listen to Terrell’s account in her own words. 

This submarine’s historic tour under Thwaites Glacier will help scientists predict sea level rise

May 20, 2019


Oceanographer Anna Wåhlin paced across the bridge of the Nathaniel B. Palmer icebreaker like a nervous parent waiting for a teenager out past curfew.

The fiery orange submarine, which she named Ran after the Norse goddess of the sea, hadn’t yet resurfaced from its first mission in the watery depths around the face of West Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier.

“She’s a very temperamental lady,” Wåhlin said of the $3.6 million, unmanned submarine, while peering through her binoculars on an overcast March day.

Ran was late. Wåhlin wasn’t worried about the submarine disappearing, but this was Ran’s first season in polar waters, and there were a bunch of kinks to work out.

Researcher Anna Wåhlin is shown with a microphone looking out on the ocean.

University of Gothenburg oceanographer Anna Wåhlin, director of the Hugin project, waits on the bridge of the Nathaniel B. Palmer for the Hugin submarine to surface in icy seas near the face of Thwaites Glacier.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Wåhlin, an oceanographer at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, was one of the roughly two dozen scientists on a pioneering scientific expedition to Thwaites Glacier this past winter. The two-month cruise aboard the Palmer was the beginning of a five-year, $50 million international collaboration to better understand the plight of Thwaites. Scientists believe the massive glacier is teetering on the brink of collapse, though just how fast that could happen remains an open question.

Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier holds enough ice to raise global sea levels by 2 feet. If the glacier collapses, it could destabilize a portion of West Antarctica that would, in turn, raise sea levels by about 11 feet.

That would spell disaster for coastal cities from Miami to Mumbai, which would be inundated by floods.

Ground zero for this slow-moving catastrophe is the glacier’s edge, where land-based ice juts out into the Amundsen Sea. Warm water is thought to be melting the underside of this roughly 75-mile ice shelf, but the area is as mysterious as it is consequential.

“We know more about the moon than this particular part of Earth,” Wåhlin said.

Scientists think changing wind patterns are pushing a mass of middepth warm water, called circumpolar deepwater, up from the deep ocean and onto the continental shelf in front of Antarctica and toward Thwaites. But no scientific instrument has ever been underneath the ice shelf to study it.

The Hugin, a long orange metal submarine is shown on the deck of the ship.

The Hugin on deck.



Linda Welzenbach/Rice University

That’s why Wåhlin worked for seven years to get a Hugin submarine, a 25-foot, torpedo-shaped autonomous underwater vehicle packed with oceanographic sensors.

“This was the dream, Thwaites and the West Antarctic Ice Shelf,” Wåhlin said. “We made this case when we applied for the money; we said that it’s the only way to explore under floating ice shelves.”

Advances in satellite imagery over the past few decades mean scientists can estimate how much ice Thwaites is losing — nearly 80 gigatons a year, a six-fold increase from 25 years ago.

A graphic illustration shows the Hugin under Thwaites Glacier Credit:

David Evans/The World

But projecting future melt rates, and predicting whether Thwaites will trigger a runaway collapse, is nearly impossible without on-the-ground data.

“We’re not sure yet what is the ‘black swan,’ the absolute worst thing that could happen at Thwaites,” said Richard Alley, a Penn State University glaciologist.

Two often-cited modeling studies published in recent years (here and here) suggest a full collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could come within 250 years. But Alley cautions that shouldn’t be considered a “worst-case” scenario.

“We’re really hopeful that this five-year research collaboration will give us a lot of insight,” Alley said.

Before now, no ship had ever sailed to the fast-flowing central part of Thwaites. Scientists had never measured the warm layer of water directly in front of it the glacier, so they didn’t know how fast it was flowing, how far it reached under the ice shelf, or even how thick the ice was.

The little orange autonomous submarine, paired with sonar equipment and oceanographic instruments based on the larger 300-foot research vessel, will start to answer those questions.


This submarine known as Ran after the Norse goddess is packed with 19 sensors that will measure ocean temperature, salinity and velocity to reveal how much warm water is reaching Thwaites and how much meltwater is seeping out.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Wåhlin’s ‘wayward child’

The factory name for the Kongsberg-built submarine is Hugin, but Wåhlin, just the third woman in Sweden to earn a PhD in oceanography, christened it Ran after the Norse goddess as “a little bit of a poke to the gender imbalance that we have in physical oceanography.”

Wåhlin said as recently as last summer, she was the only woman at an AUV conference. She’s fought to build the networks in her field that she felt were ready-made for men, and now says she never turns down a request for mentorship from a female student.

“I don't do it because I favor women or anything; it's because I think it's good for science. Historically, we have only used maximum 50% of the pool of good scientists, and I want to make sure that we use 100% in the future; that is good for science,” Wåhlin said.

Wåhlin, who went on her first research cruise to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet more than a decade ago, says she’s driven by a long-standing desire to know how the world around her works.

“I wonder, I really wonder, what is going on?” Wåhlin said. “It’s curiosity, not fear or anything else.”

Even as a little girl, she was enraptured by the crabs she saw underwater when her parents took her and her two sisters sailing off the west coast of Sweden.

“If you sit near the beach and suddenly focus your eyes on what's underneath the water surface, then that is very, very fascinating,” Wåhlin said. “And I never let go of that fascination.”

In some ways, Ran is an extension of that. Throughout the Antarctic voyage, the running joke aboard the Palmer was that Ran was Wåhlin’s wayward child — always running late, hard to communicate with, doing the unexpected.

The Hugin submarine is shown getting tied to a winch cable.

After wrangling the Hugin with a small Zodiac, the sub gets tied to a winch cable and hoisted back on deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

The AUV is packed with 19 sensors that will measure ocean temperature, salinity and velocity to reveal how much warm water is reaching Thwaites and how much meltwater is seeping out.

Sonars pointing both upward and downward will give scientists and geophysicists on the ship a highly detailed view of the underside of the ice shelf and the top of the seafloor.

This winter’s expedition was a first Antarctic test mission for Wåhlin and her submarine, and the goal was simply to master deploying and recovering the AUV in ever-changing Antarctic conditions.

“It is a high-tech instrument, but it has to be handled by low-tech things on the ship,” Wåhlin said.

The hurdles Wåhlin and her five-person team encountered underscore how difficult it is to do anything in Antarctica.

Big waves made it a challenge to wrangle the two-ton submarine with small, inflatable Zodiac boats to lead it back to Palmer. Likewise, lifting the sub back up onto deck — with a winch wire and metal A-frame — was tough with wind and waves rocking the ship.

In early missions the submarine wouldn’t dive, so Wåhlin had to adjust its buoyancy.

And because sea ice can form inches thick overnight in the Amundsen Sea, Wåhlin programmed the sub to stay away from newly formed ice and wait for new instructions on where to resurface to avoid damage. About three weeks into the trip, Ran had to skip a key test mission so it looked like the goal of sending the sub under the ice would be postponed until the next expedition, in two years. Instead, Wåhlin would focus on studying the warm water circulating in front of the glacier.

Aleksandra Mazur is shown opening a metal panel on the Hugin.

Aleksandra Mazur opens a panel on the Hugin to download data from its excursion.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

A ‘little tour underneath Thwaites’

After a month at sea and several test deployments, Wåhlin got her chance to send Ran on a mission in front of the gently sloping face of the Thwaites ice shelf.

She programmed the sub to follow two deep troughs, trenches at just the right depth to funnel the midcolumn layer of warm water thought to be melting the ice shelf toward the glacier’s face.

“The troughs, they are the places where warm water accesses the ice shelf, so we think there will be a current here with warm water that runs underneath Thwaites,” Wåhlin said. “She’s measuring it as we speak.”

After 13 hours in the water, Wåhlin spotted a flash of orange in the distance. Ran was back.

“We actually took a little tour underneath Thwaites,” Wåhlin revealed with a mischievous grin from her perch by the windows at the front of the ship’s bridge. “We didn’t want to tell anyone beforehand, but we have done it now.”

“Historic,” she said, smiling broadly. “I just wish that everyone gets to feel this feeling once in a lifetime.”

Wåhlin rushed to the back deck where the rest of her team was hosing the saltwater off of Ran and downloading the historic data she’d just collected. The words “good luck,” which someone had scrawled on the sub’s surface in mud, were still intact.

The words

A good luck message on the side of the Hugin survived the sub’s 13-hour mission in the Amundsen Sea around Thwaites Glacier.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Wåhlin high-fived Aleksandra Mazur, who was thrilled that her mentor just added another first to her name.

“She was the first woman to send [an AUV] under an ice shelf!” Mazur said later.

Mazur, a University of Gothenburg colleague and former student of Wåhlin’s, had worked on Ran’s earliest test runs in Swedish fjords last summer. The day Ran finally went under Thwaites, Mazur said she felt like a polar explorer.

“It’s not often to be in a place that no one has ever been before, and do things that no one has ever done before. After all these years, you sacrifice for studying and doing research, and it’s like a huge accomplishment. I’m just so happy.”

Scientists are shown tightly gathered around a computer.

Scientists gathered in the ship’s lab to look at early images the Hugin captured of the seafloor near Thwaites.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Eliminating uncertainty is the goal

The next day, half the scientists on this ship crowded in front of a computer to marvel at the  superhigh-resolution images of the seafloor Ran recorded — they could hold hints about the glacier’s past and future.

“It’s like I’ve been blind all my life, and now, I’ve put on glasses and I can see every individual leaf on the tree,” University of Alabama sedimentologist Becky Minzoni said of the black-and-white images showing marks like tank tracks on the seafloor.

They revealed much finer detail than the ship-based sonar that Minzoni and the geophysicists on the ship had been using to map the seafloor and identify the best places to collect sediment samples. “It’s beautiful,” Minzoni said.

A side-by-side comparison of the ship's sonar and that collected by the Hugin's. The Hugin's imagery is crisp. Credit:

David Evans/The World

Wåhlin was happy with the readings on temperature, salinity, oxygen and water velocity that Ran recorded, as well as the water samples she collected under the ice shelf.

“No one has ever seen that kind of data before,” Wåhlin said.

For the first time, scientists on the Palmer found and measured the warm water they’d suspected was melting the fast-flowing, central portion of Thwaites.

Using data from Ran’s two-mile trip under the ice shelf, Wåhlin will be able to estimate how much of that warm water reached the ice and trace exactly where it came from.

This data will eventually help improve sea level rise models, the ultimate goal of the five-year international Thwaites research collaboration.

“I think the big takeaway here is not new alarm, or that we all must panic; it’s that we have more data so we can have more reliable estimates for the future,” Wåhlin said.

Right now, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates sea levels could increase anywhere between 8 inches and 2.7 feet by 2100. That’s a huge range, and the entire gap of uncertainty could be filled in just by Thwaites.

For Wåhlin, eliminating that uncertainty is the ultimate goal.

“We have only this one planet that we are living on,” Wåhlin said. “I think it’s fair to say that we should understand what happens, and what goes on, and what we can expect in the future.”

This is the second in a series of deep dives into the science and people of the Nathaniel B. Palmer’s 2019 voyage to Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. Listen Mondays on The World and check back online through May and June to learn what scientists found as they studied the sea that’s melting this Florida-sized piece of ice. Follow us on Instagram for videos, quizzes and more photos from Thwaites.

Produced by Steven Davy, David Evans, Alex Newman, Anna Pratt and Peter Thomson.

A UN report says Earth faces 'unprecedented' threat to biodiversity

May 18, 2019 8:30


The outlook for biodiversity on Earth is grim, according to a new United Nations report.

UN scientists warn that roughly 1 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction due to human activity. It would be the first mass extinction since humans started walking the earth and has dire implications for the survival of our own species. Already, humans are losing key ecosystem services that nature provides, including crop pollination, storm mitigation, and clean air and water.

“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

Sir Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 

“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said Sir Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

Hundreds of scientists from around the globe came together and compiled information on species extinctions and loss of habitat. They arrived at the figure of one million at-risk species by measuring diversity in different areas, the amount of habitat that has been lost and the amount of habitat projected to be lost in the coming years.

Related: Is 'new economics' the way to save the planet?

“We're already losing so many species because of our footprint, because of altered habitats. ... It makes it even harder for species to adapt to climate change because their ability to move is impacted by habitat loss and fragmentation.”

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity 

“The UN wants to bring this issue to the forefront in the same way that climate change has been brought to the forefront with [the] IPCC reports,” explains Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. For many species, extinction could occur in the next couple of decades if humanity doesn’t take action soon. And our ability to reverse the current trends diminishes as time goes on, he adds.

Species loss and climate change are deeply interrelated. “We're already losing so many species because of our footprint, because of altered habitats,” Greenwald explains. “It makes it even harder for species to adapt to climate change because their ability to move is impacted by habitat loss and fragmentation.”

Habitat that remains may be less suitable for many species if local conditions become too warm, too wet or too dry. Or in other cases, the climate might still be right for plants, but not for their pollinators.

In addition to habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution and direct exploitation are the primary threats to species worldwide, Greenwald says. While oceans and tropical rain forests are particularly vulnerable, species of all kinds in every type of ecosystem require protection from extinction.

The report concluded that a third of all fisheries are unsustainable, and while efforts have been made to slow tropical deforestation, it continues at an alarming rate.

“The conversion to palm plantations in Indonesia has been one of the most striking examples in recent years, but there are others as well,” Greenwald says. “We have to figure out a way to help these countries not destroy their forests and protect their forests,” he maintains. “It's critically important for biodiversity. It's also critically important for climate because these forests help regulate our climate and store massive amounts of carbon.”

Related: Climate change: Obsession with plastic pollution is just a distraction

Coral reefs, which are enormously important to biodiversity in the oceans, also continue to suffer great losses. Fifty percent of the world’s coral reefs have died since 1870. Greenwald has witnessed this loss personally. He spent a month in 1990 at a campground in Maui, where he swam in a coral reef teeming with life. He returned to the same campground this spring and “observed, largely, a dead reef where there had once been this incredibly live, beautiful reef,” he says.

Near-shore habitats, whether tropical or nontropical, contain most of the species in the ocean; human activity has the most impact on these areas, he points out.

Closer to home, in North America, the leading edge of the extinction crisis is our freshwater ecosystems — our rivers and streams, Greenwald says. “That’s where the most species have been lost. We're at risk of losing many fish, mussels, crayfish. We’ve been working to get these species protected under the Endangered Species Act.”

Related: Scientists warn a million species at risk of extinction

Greenwald believes the report did a good job of highlighting the concept of “ecosystem services,” which explain why biodiversity loss affects humanity.

“Most of our medicines come from species and from ecosystems; all of our food; ecosystems clean our water, clean our air, moderate floods, moderate our climate. We need ecosystems for our quality of life and for our very own survival.”

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity 

“Ecosystems do things for us,” Greenwald explains. “Most of our medicines come from species and from ecosystems; all of our food; ecosystems clean our water, clean our air, moderate floods, moderate our climate. We need ecosystems for our quality of life and for our very own survival.”

The component parts of any ecosystem are its species and as more species are lost, the ability of that ecosystem to function and provide these services becomes compromised.

An analogy that's often used is an airplane, Greenwald says. “You can maybe lose a couple bolts here and there and the plane will still fly. But as you lose more and more parts, you're going to eventually drop from the sky. That's the concern — that we're going to lose these ecosystem services, which provide so much benefit to us.”

As distressing as this all may sound, Greenwald believes we must also remember that “there’s a lot of nature left to protect and we still have a beautiful world.”

“We just need to work harder to protect it,” he says. “We have to let those in power know that this is critically important to us and that we need change. We need a fundamental transformation in how we do business, both to address loss of biodiversity and to address climate change.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

America's windiest spot looks to harness the ocean winds with some British help

May 17, 2019


When Joseph Massi enrolled at Bristol Community College, an hour’s drive south of Boston, he chose to major in a brand new field of study — offshore wind power.

“It’s the new future. It’s where everything is going to be, the growth potential, especially in Massachusetts,” Massi says. 

The Massachusetts legislature is considering bills that would commit the state to 100% renewable energy within 25 years. To achieve this, the state will need lots more solar panels and wind turbines, and people like Massi to manage, build or operate offshore turbines.  

Related: Zinke announces offshore wind power on US coasts

"Once it starts booming in the United States, that’s going to be where you’re want to be,” Massi says. 

The federal government estimates that the coastal waters off of New Bedford, Massachusetts, are among the windiest in the nation. But here’s some bad news: Here in the US, we don’t know much about building wind turbines, out in the ocean at least. And here’s some good news: The Brits do, and they’re offering their help. 

Related: Offshore wind in the UK is good for the climate. What about the fish?

Offshore wind is booming in the United Kingdom — it’s approaching 10% of the electricity supply there.  In the US, offshore wind energy remains in its infancy — only one offshore wind farm is operational nationwide, off the coast of Rhode Island. But at least a dozen projects nationwide are in the planning stages. 

Harriet Cross, the British consul general to New England, wants to share her country’s expertise to help kick-start the movement in the US. Yes, that would mean making money for British companies who could sell technology and equipment in the US. But Cross says there are also higher stakes at play.  

Related: What's fueling Britain's offshore wind revolution?

“There’s the bigger picture: We want the world to be more green. ... We genuinely believe that clean energy is the future. So, you find that the UK is really showing global leadership on things like the Paris climate change deal and that sort of thing.”

Harriet Cross, British consul general to New England

“There’s the bigger picture: We want the world to be more green,” says Cross. “We genuinely believe that clean energy is the future. So, you find that the UK is really showing global leadership on things like the Paris climate change deal and that sort of thing.”  

British wind energy companies recently struck a deal to help develop Bristol Community College’s new wind power curriculum.

“We've made mistakes in the last 20 years that we've been doing this so we can share that expertise with places like New Bedford so that they can they can do it more quickly than we have,” says Cross. “They can avoid some of the pitfalls.”

Students in New Bedford will learn the technical ropes to work in offshore wind. New Bedford could use a dose of new industry. The city used to be a hub of textile manufacturing, but those days are long gone. The area has struggled economically in recent years — today, the median household income here is slightly more than half of the rest of Massachusetts.

And while the city may not be wealthy, its fishing industry is doing well — it’s the most valuable commercial fishing port in the United States. So, out on the docks, they’re a bit wary of what the British are selling.

“Trust me, there’s not one commercial fisherman on this dock, or on any other, that wants offshore wind,” says Edward Washburn, the New Bedford port director.

Washburn says for the past decade, they’ve been focused on making sure that offshore wind turbines don’t impact their fishermen here.   

“They’ve been commercial fishing in these areas, in some cases their families have been doing it for centuries,” Washburn says. “Any change to that is not welcomed. Each one of these windfarms impacts different fisheries to different extents.”

Edward Washburn, port director, New Bedford, Massachusetts

“They’ve been commercial fishing in these areas, in some cases their families have been doing it for centuries,” Washburn says. “Any change to that is not welcomed. Each one of these windfarms impacts different fisheries to different extents.”

New Bedford, Massachusetts has held the title as the nation’s most valuable commercial fishing port for nearly two decades.

But there are trade-offs in New Bedford.

“We see the effects of climate change in full view here,” New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell says. “We've noticed that our beaches have eroded, but we also know that warming seas have changed the composition of the fish landings here. And we also know that ocean acidification looms as a major threat to the fishing industry.”

Wind farms — which cut our reliance on polluting fossil fuels — can help reduce those threats. They can also mean jobs. In the UK, about 8,000 people are working directly in offshore wind, helping to revive many older British manufacturing towns.

“New Bedford is very similar to places like Hull and Grimsby in the UK,” says Harriet Cross. “They’ve got a lot in common. And it means that there’s been unemployment in the past. It's places that are not as vibrant as they used to be. But that is all changing now. And it’s very satisfying to see that the UK can be a role model for places like New Bedford.”

Related: New offshore wind projects revive old UK ports

This spring, Massachusetts regulators greenlighted plans for the nation’s largest offshore wind farm, which is set to be constructed by European companies.

The fishermen in New Bedford can see the writing on the wall. Port director Washburn says while they may be wary of new hulking windmills in their waters, they also know that fishermen need to be part of the conversation. 

“To be a successful port, you need to be versatile, you need to go and get opportunities,” Washburn says. “There’s a lot of supporting businesses on this waterfront that can fuel offshore wind vessels, fuel operations and maintenance vessels for the offshore wind industry.  So we think offshore can be an opportunity that aligns with and co-exists with the commercial fishing industry.”

Even with British help, there are still plenty of barriers to offshore wind development in the US — the expense, aesthetic concerns and worries about the impacts on marine life.

But the potential is huge. Some energy experts estimate that there are enough winds blowing offshore to power the entire East Coast.

Sarah Mizes-Tan, with member station WCAI, helped with the reporting for this story. 

Environmental emergency declared in Mexico’s smog-choked capital

May 16, 2019


Mexico’s government ordered schools in and around Mexico City to be closed on Thursday in an extraordinary step taken due to elevated levels of pollution in the smog-wreathed capital.

Smoke from nearby wildfires has pushed pollution to levels deemed potentially harmful to human health.

Satellite imagery over Mexico showing fires.

Smoke and fires in Southern Mexico are observed in this image taken by the NASA Aqua MODIS satellite on May 12, 2019.


Courtesy of NASA/Handout via Reuters

The city’s authorities declared an environmental emergency on Tuesday. They have come under pressure to act due to reduced visibility caused by smoke and ash in the air during an extended dry spell.

According to the World Air Quality Index, Mexico on Thursday was reporting levels superseding China and India. Over the past days, Mexico City air quality has been on par with that of Beijing, posting scores around 170. WAQI categorizes scores between 151 and 200 as “unhealthy,” noting, “Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.”

Blurry people in the foreground take a selfie with smog-covered city in the background.

People take a selfie with the view behind during high levels of pollution in Mexico City, Mexico, May 12, 2019.


Carlos Jasso/Reuters

But in Aguascalientes, about 300 miles northwest of Mexico City, where one of the more than 100 wildfires in the country is burning, the WAQI index tops 800 — far beyond the 300 score cut off denoting hazardous conditions.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador addressed the problem in a news conference on Wednesday, calling the pollution in the capital “highly regrettable.”

An older woman wears a surgical mask as she looks at the camera

A woman wears a surgical mask after the authorities declared an environmental emergency on Tuesday for metropolitan in Mexico City, Mexico, May 15, 2019.


Carlos Jasso/Reuters

Some Mexico City denizens have maintained a sense of humor, even through facemasks.

mi ciudad es chinampa, y todo eso.

— ESTRECHEZ DE CORAZÓN (@MCHedgehog_) May 14, 2019

Stayed outside in the poison air a touch too long and nearly faint-vomited. Bought a bunch of water in plastic bottles to stay hydrated inside. The future’s finally here! #mexicocity #ContingenciaAmbientalExtraordinaria

— Ann des Landes (@Ann_dLandes) May 15, 2019

Mexico's capital has seen a backslide in improvements to air quality in recent years. But two decades ago, locals used to say that living in the city was like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, The World reported in 2016. Memories of the 1980s, when the air was particularly bad, are vivid.

“We saw birds that suddenly fell down. They fell out of the sky and they were dead,” said Gabriela Alarcón, a pollution researcher at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a think-tank in Mexico City.

A plane takes off in smog

A passenger plane takes off at Mexico City's international airport as Mexico authorities declared an environmental emergency on Tuesday for metropolitan Mexico City, as smoke from nearby wildfires pushed pollution to levels deemed potentially harmful to human health, in Mexico City, Mexico, May 14, 2019.


Luis Cortes/Reuters

In response, officials pushed out big refineries, banned leaded gas, and built more public transportation. The Hoy No Circula program also restricts vehicular traffic, alternating bans between days based on license plate numbers and emissions. Such efforts made a difference for a while, but have not maintained staying power.

Since the beginning of the year, Mexico City has had clean air on only nine of a total of 133 days, Mexico News Daily reported.  

An organ grinder wears a surgical mask on a sidewalk as a man walks past.

An organ grinder wears a surgical mask after the authorities declared an environmental emergency on Tuesday for metropolitan in Mexico City, Mexico, May 15, 2019.


Carlos Jasso/Reuters

Indra Ekmanis, Monica Campbell and Reuters contributed to this report. 

Inside the long war to protect plastic

May 14, 2019


This story was published in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity. This is the first in three-part series about the battle over plastic. 

New York’s Suffolk County had a trash problem. Facing brimming landfills and public pressure, legislators took a first-in-the-nation step: They banned plastic bags. But what the county saw as part of the solution, the plastics industry took as a threat.

“We had never seen lobbyists like this before,” said Steven Englebright, the chief sponsor of the bill. “The B.S. came in by the shovel-load.”

That was in 1988. Soon, Suffolk County —  on Long Island — inspired similar initiatives in municipalities across the country. As one lawyer for the industry wrote in an internal memo from the time: “Several years from now we may look back on 1988 as the opening round in a solid waste/packaging war.”

The plastics industry — from the chemical giants making the building blocks of plastic to companies using the packaging to sell their products — has been waging that war for more than 30 years. It has pumped millions of dollars into pro-plastic marketing, high-profile lawsuits and lobbyists who travel the country promising that recycling, not bans, presents the best way forward. All this despite decades of repeated warnings about weak recycling markets and plastic pollution problems.

A woman puts different large garbage and recycling containers on a sidewalk.

Resident wheels recycling containers onto sidewalk in San Francisco.


Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Today, about a dozen states restrict local governments from regulating plastic items, while only two (with a third pending) have passed statewide plastic-bag bans. And manufacturers are profiting from a plastics boom. According to the research firm the Freedonia Group, by 2025, the plastic packaging market will be worth roughly $365 billion.

“The industry has kept us from confronting plastics for decades through corporate lobbying and threats of litigation,” said Jennie Romer, a lawyer, longtime anti-plastics activist and founder of the website “Billions of single-use plastic items have made it into our environment because of this.”

Of the roughly 300 million tons of plastic waste the world creates every year, an estimated 8 million tons makes its way into oceans. In March, scientists examining a dead whale found more than 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Because the material often breaks down into tiny particles, the oceans contain an estimated 5.25 trillion microplastics, which can easily absorb toxic chemicals and emit climate-changing gases.

“We believe uncollected plastics do not belong in the environment,” the Plastics Industry Association, a key trade group, wrote in a statement after declining an interview. “The problem is that waste management practices and infrastructure did not keep pace with the changing economy.”

The group argued that plastics are more environmentally friendly than alternatives — using fewer resources to create, while also making end products lighter — and are crucial for global commerce.

“In many ways, plastics have made the modern economy possible,” the statement reads. “Other materials and processes transformed the world over the course of centuries or millennia. Plastics did so in decades.”

Practically indestructible

Synthetic plastic first appeared in the early 1900s as an alternative to materials such as cork or paper. But World War II catalyzed plastic’s ascent. The material worked its way into every facet of the military — including in the cockpits and gunner noses of fighter planes. When soldiers returned home, plastics came with them and quickly became a fixture of American life.

This wasn’t an accident. In 1937 — after a series of golf getaways  — leading manufacturers formed the Society of the Plastics Industry, now known as the Plastics Industry Association. Its mission was to promote and protect plastics. By the 1960s, the society was encountering early signs of what would become its greatest challenge.

America’s trash had accumulated into a crisis, and disposable plastics, even in much smaller amounts than the country now use, seemed to be making the problem worse. The first national conference on packaging waste convened in 1969, with an attendance list that included key manufacturers.

“This material is practically indestructible,” griped Leonard Stefanelli, president of a California salvage company. “Packaging is a particularly large contributor to the problems of household refuse collection and street litter,” noted a New York City sanitation official.

As concerns about plastic grew louder, the industry knew it had to offer municipal leaders something. It turned to recycling. “No doubt about it, legislation [restricting plastics] is the single most important reason why we are looking at recycling,” said Wayne Pearson, the then-executive director of the Plastics Recycling Foundation, an initiative that 45 companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi formed in the mid-1980s. The industry similarly established the Council for Solid Waste Solutions to promote recycling programs and infrastructure. Around the same time, the society also pushed incineration, which releases air pollution, as “really a form of recycling.”

Related: Why stop at plastic bags and straws? The case for a global treaty banning most single-use plastics.

In 1987, a top official with the trade group, Roger Bernstein, brought the narrative to Suffolk County. Later, in an interview with Susan Freinkel for her 2011 book "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story," Bernstein referred to recycling as a “guilt eraser.”

The recycling argument was often persuasive. A 1989 Council for Solid Waste Solutions account of its efforts in Iowa —  which, like other internal documents in this story, were unearthed through lawsuits and collected by Toxic Docs, a project based at Columbia University and the City University of New York — noted that “outright bans on polystyrene packaging were dropped with a promise of recycling by industry.”

Just this February, the trash-handling firm Waste Management said in a government filing that manufacturers are pressuring its recycling-collection programs to accept more types of plastic “to alleviate public pressures to ban the sale of those materials.”

Industry recycling pledges have kept coming despite decades of warnings — some of them internal — that this solution was limited. “Currently, there is no market for recycled plastics,” read one Society of the Plastics Industry document from 1972. “Recycling currently is not feasible for most multi-material packages,” acknowledged another from 1987. And as the recent Waste Management filing made clear, even now certain plastics have “no viable end markets.”

Large collections of plastic are spread out and sorted inside a warehouse.

Plastic bottles and other items recycled by residents in Berkeley, California, are sorted at an Ecology Center facility.


Jamie Smith Hopkins/Center for Public Integrity

Today, many US cities don’t accept plastic bags in their recycling stream because the thin sacks gum up sorting machinery. Just 9 percent of all plastic waste in the US was recycled in 2015, according to the latest federal estimate. That rate is almost certainly lower now: Cities were relying heavily on China to take the plastic they’d collected and finish the job, but last year the country all but stopped accepting those imports.

Martin Bourque, executive director of a nonprofit providing curbside recycling pickup in Berkeley, California, said that instead of selling his customers’ plastic food containers he must pay a US facility $75 a ton to take them. Only half that material gets turned into recycled content. The rest, he said, ends up in a landfill.

“The brands and the manufacturers and the petrochemical industry all want us to believe it’s recyclable,” said Bourque, with the Ecology Center. “But it’s not a problem that we’re going to be able to recycle our way out of.”

Plastic bags become a flashpoint

When the recycling argument didn’t work, the industry would often sue — as was the case in Suffolk County. Although the ban passed in 1988, it spent years in the courts before its opponents ultimately prevailed and the legislation was repealed.

The industry’s tactics in the 1980s paid off in the 1990s, which — with a few exceptions, such as McDonald’s move away from polystyrene foam (aka Styrofoam) — were a heyday for plastics. “There were no bans, essentially, in all that time,” Bernstein told author Freinkel. “There were no products that were put out of the marketplace.”

But concerns eventually resurfaced. Plastic bags so badly clogged the drains of Mumbai, India, during flooding that, in 2000, the city banned them. Facing similar issues two years later, Bangladesh became the first country to do the same. In 2007, San Francisco implemented America’s first bag ban, prompting a new round of similar ordinances in US cities.

“Legislation and regulation threaten to fundamentally change our business model,” William Carteaux, the Society of the Plastics Industry’s then-president, told a crowd of industry insiders in 2009. “We can’t continue to fight back just at the reactive stage when things are emotionally charged. We have to take the offensive.”

The industry spent millions of dollars opposing bans in California alone. One of their primary lawyers in the state, Stephen Joseph, was dubbed “Patron Saint of Plastic Bags” by Time magazine. He called unwashed reusable bags a “health hazard” and suggested that bans would mean more dog poop on streets. Ban advocates, he wrote in a 2010 court filing, “have disseminated environmental myths, misinformation and exaggerations to promote their goal.”

This time, though, lawsuits didn’t work. California courts repeatedly rebuffed Joseph and the industry. In 2014, lawmakers there passed the country’s first statewide ban on plastic bags.

A seagull picks up a plastic container next to a plastic bag.

A gull picks at plastic trash in a parking lot before sunset at Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, California.


Patrick Fallon/Reuters

“This bill is a step in the right direction,” said former Gov. Jerry Brown. “We’re the first to ban these bags, and we won’t be the last.”

The industry, though, was about to add a new weapon to its arsenal.

Banning bans

Bisbee is a small town of about 5,000, tucked into the Arizona hills just shy of the Mexican border. Like many places, it had a plastic bag problem. Empty grocery sacks would float down the street and into the surrounding landscape. In response, the city council banned them in 2012.

“There was a dramatic change,” said Mayor David Smith. Soon after, he could drive miles without seeing any littered bags.

The industry didn’t sue. It had a new plan.

In early 2013, the society joined the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, which routinely works with companies and conservative lawmakers to write and then promote legislation. One strategy ALEC pursues is “preemption” bills, which, when passed at the state level, prevent cities and other municipalities from regulating certain activities — ranging from wages to pesticides.  

In September 2015, ALEC approved a template for preempting local regulation of disposable containers and bags, complete with an easy-to-fill “[Insert Jurisdiction]” blank. Now, about a dozen states have passed some version of plastic preemption — including Arizona in 2016.

The Plastics Industry Association said it left ALEC in 2017 and was never involved in the model policy process, which ALEC says is legislator-driven. Regardless, both organizations, along with other supporters of plastic preemption legislation, argue that it heads off a patchwork of local laws that could confuse and burden consumers and businesses alike. Environmentalists say the effect has been chilling, stopping new initiatives and reversing earlier wins.

Related: 5 countries spew more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world together

In the fall of 2017, the Arizona attorney general ruled that plastics bans like Bisbee’s violated Arizona’s new preemption regime. Smith said his city faced a choice: Repeal its ban or lose all state funding.

“I called it extortion,” Smith said, but he saw no way around it and the city rescinded its ban. The windswept bags came back.

“We call them desert flags,” he said, “because they hang on all the cactus.”

Plastic ‘everywhere’

In 1971, biological oceanographer Edward J. Carpenter was out in a remote region of the North Atlantic known as the Sargasso Sea, sampling seaweed that was drifting on the ocean surface. To his surprise, he kept pulling up tiny pieces of plastic. The same thing happened on a separate trip along the New England coast.

“The plastic was just everywhere,” he said. “So I tried to quantify it.”

Carpenter published his findings in two 1972 articles in the prestigious journal Science. They were among the first studies of plastic pollution and came with an unmistakable warning. “Increasing production of plastics, combined with present waste-disposal practices,” he wrote, “will undoubtedly lead to increases in the concentration of these particles.”

This was just a few years after the Society of the Plastics Industry commissioned a report that estimated the amount of plastic waste would soon reach almost 11 billion pounds annually but argued the problem was “minor” and that plastics “do not appear to have any potential as land or water pollutants.” Carpenter’s research was an implicit challenge to that notion.

Shortly after each of his articles was published, he said, the society flew an industry scientist out to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts to meet with his bosses and question him. “It was obvious that they were pretty upset about it,” Carpenter said. He found the visits “kind of intimidating.”

The Plastics Industry Association, as the society rebranded itself in 2016, did not address questions about the incident directly. “We can’t speak for anyone who’s no longer a part of our organization, or no longer a part of the industry,” it said in a statement. “But today we know that the plastics industry has nothing to hide.”

For decades, though, the industry cast doubt on marine plastic problems or dodged responsibility. At the 1989 International Conference on Marine Debris (which the industry-funded Council for Solid Waste Solutions co-sponsored), for instance, the society issued an official statement claiming that most plastic pollution was “beyond the ‘control’ of the plastics industry.” In 2008, Joseph, the industry attorney, wrote in a court filing that “there is no evidence that plastic bags are a continuing significant problem for marine animals or seabirds.”

Meanwhile, plastics kept flowing into the oceans.

A submarine shines a light on small pieces of garbage in the dark depths of the ocean.

An object described by a spokesperson for the Five Deeps Mariana expedition as "manmade" — basically, plastic trash — is illuminated by the light of the submarine DSV Limiting Factor on the floor of the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench.



In 1997, oceanographer Charles Moore spotted a tract of marine debris off the West Coast that became known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” His 1999 study reported, “the mass of plastic was approximately six times that of plankton.” A 2014 survey found plastic bags deep on the seafloor, hundreds of miles from land. Scientists estimated in 2015 — more than four decades after the first study about plastic in the stomachs of seabirds — that 90% of these animals have eaten the substance at some point in their lives. Last year, record levels of microplastics were found in the Arctic, with traces of 17 different plastics frozen in seawater.

Even the industry seems unable to deny these plastics issues any longer. In January, a group that includes petrochemical companies, plastics manufacturers and distributors formed the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and pledged $1.5 billion over five years to help “make the dream of a world without plastic waste a reality.”

That funding represents a tiny fraction of the more than $1 trillion that plastic packaging is expected to bring in during that same period. Many of the alliance members are also building new plastic plants — including one that would be the world’s largest in Texas.

In a statement, the alliance said it hopes its pledge will trigger more investments in waste management. “We recognize this amount is not sufficient to achieve the goal of eliminating plastic waste in the environment,” wrote a representative of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. “There is no single solution, and we don’t have all the answers.”

On its website, the alliance adds, “Plastics have helped improve living standards, hygiene and nutrition around the world. ... We must maintain the critical benefits that plastics bring to people and communities around the world.”

Foot soldiers and fashion shows

As the executive director of the industry-backed American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA), Matt Seaholm is like a first responder. When there’s new plastics legislation proposed, he’s there: New Jersey in September, South Carolina in November, Tennessee in January.

“Imagine our surprise when he flew down from Washington,” said Monique Michel, an attorney with the Memphis City Council.

The APBA, which declined an interview request for Seaholm, wrote in a statement, “Bans don’t work; they punish people into using alternatives that are worse for the environment.”

The industry’s current foot soldiering echoes its Suffolk County-era strategy. These days it includes representatives from Novolex — one of the world’s largest plastic-bag manufacturers — as well as local lobbyists that the industry hires for tens of thousands of dollars per month.

When Charleston, South Carolina, was considering a plastic bag ban in 2015 and 2016, the industry countered with materials that ranged from a “myth vs. fact” sheet about recycling to academic research. A slideshow from Clemson University, stating that plastic bags “are not a significant litter problem,” drew from a 2014 study that concluded that bans “may result in negative impact on the environment rather than positive.”

Buried deep in the report: Hilex Poly Co., Novolex’s previous name, paid for the research. The lead author, Robert Kimmel, is the director of Clemson’s Center for Flexible Packaging, which receives industry funding. He has appeared as an expert witness for the industry. One of the main surveys in the study was conducted by Edelman Berland, the research arm of a firm that also lobbies for the APBA.

Two plastic grocery bags being held .

Groceries are carried in plastic bags in San Diego, California.



“[Hilex Poly] did not try to influence us or our conclusions in any way, shape, or form,” said Kimmel. “Paper bags are not a good alternative to [plastic] grocery bags.”

A study by the British government, for instance, found that a paper bag would have to be reused four times to have the same “global warming potential” as a conventional plastic bag. A cotton bag would have to be reused 131 times. And recent research found that when plastic grocery bags were banned in California, people used more plastic sacks of other types, reducing the plastics waste savings from 40 million pounds to 28 million. That study’s author, Rebecca Taylor, recommends fees over bans — and that any fees extend to paper as well. (Many cities are already passing “second generation” bag bills that also include a fee on paper.)

As this fight over plastics has expanded to more places, the industry is also targeting new demographics with its message.

The APBA, for instance, has funded the Black Leadership Action Coalition, whose founder, Bertha Lewis, argues that bag fees and bans will disproportionately burden poor and minority communities. “New Yorkers, YOU BEEN HOODWINKED!” she wrote in response to a proposed bag fee in New York City. She declined multiple requests for interviews.

The industry has also invested hundreds of millions of dollars into its “Plastics Makes it Possible” campaign, which started on TV in the 1990s and is now splashed across social media. The campaign has built a tiny house featuring plastics, gathered endorsements from celebrities such as The Big Bang Theory actress Kaley Cuoco — she hosted a plastic fashion show, saying, “Plastics make you cuter” — and paid for posts on sites like BuzzFeed.

“Environmentally friendly board shorts,” reads No. 12 on an industry-sponsored listicle of items made from recycled or reused plastics. Or there’s No. 2: “Awesome plastic chairs.”

Like mink coats and cigarettes

To a large extent, the industry’s lobbying, promotion and outreach is working — demand for plastics keeps rising. But the perception of plastics is changing.

“The water bottle has, in some way, become the mink coat or the pack of cigarettes,” said John Caturano, senior sustainability manager for Nestlé Waters North America, at a conference this March. (Nestlé has pledged to make all its packaging “recyclable or reusable” by 2025.) “It’s socially not very acceptable to the young folks, and that scares me.”

And, while state preemption laws still far outnumber statewide bans, attempts to impose fees or other limitations are mounting. Legislators in Hawaii and New Jersey, among other places, are trying to expand their targets to include not only bags but also straws and foam containers. Lawmakers in several states are also trying “producer responsibility” bills, which are more broadly aimed at getting companies, instead of consumers, to bear the costs of recycling.

Suffolk County, which never got to impose its 1988 ban, implemented a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags in January 2018. According to the county, businesses distributed 1.1 billion fewer bags during the first year of the policy. In March, New York became the second state in the country to enact a bag ban.

“It’s gratifying, but we still have so much more plastic going into the waste stream,” said Steven Englebright, the original sponsor of the Suffolk County bill and now a New York state assemblyman. Action, he said, could have been taken much earlier. “We really should not have had a 30-year delay.”

Center for Public Integrity reporter Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this story.

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Washington, DC.

Chernobyl has become a refuge for wildlife 33 years after the nuclear accident

May 13, 2019


Reactor number four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered an explosion during a technical test on April 26, 1986. As a result of the accident, in the then Soviet Union, more than 400 times more radiation was emitted than that released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. It remains the largest nuclear accident in history.

Decontamination work began immediately after the accident. An exclusion zone was created around the plant, and more than 350,000 people were evacuated from the area. They never returned. And severe restrictions on permanent human settlement are still in place today.

Related: HBO's 'Chernobyl' revisits nuclear catastrophe

The accident had a major impact on the human population. Although there aren't any clear figures, the physical loss of human lives and physiological consequences were huge. Estimates of the number of human fatalities vary wildly.

Related: Despite the risks, holdouts refuse to abandon Ukraine's radiation hotspots

The initial impact on the environment was also important. One of the areas more heavily affected by the radiation was the pine forest near the plant, known since then as the “Red Forest.” This area received the highest doses of radiation — the pine trees died instantly and all the leaves turned red. Few animals survived the highest radiation levels.

Therefore, after the accident it was assumed that the area would become a desert for life. Considering how long it takes some radioactive compounds to decompose and disappear from the environment, the forecast was that the area would remain devoid of wildlife for centuries.

Chernobyl wildlife today

But today, 33 years after the accident, the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which covers an area now in Ukraine and Belarus, is inhabited by brown bears, bison, wolves, lynx, Przewalski horses and more than 200 bird species, among other animals.

In March 2019, most of the main research groups working with Chernobyl wildlife met in Portsmouth, England. About 30 researchers from the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Belgium, Norway, Spain and Ukraine presented the latest results of our work. These studies included work on big mammals, nesting birds, amphibians, fish, bumblebees, earthworms, bacteria and leaf litter decomposition.

Related: 30 years after Chernobyl, these Ukrainian babushkas are still living on toxic land

These studies showed that at present the area hosts great biodiversity. In addition, they confirmed the general lack of big negative effects of current radiation levels on the animal and plant populations living in Chernobyl. All the studied groups maintain stable and viable populations inside the exclusion zone.

A clear example of the diversity of wildlife in the area is given by the TREE project (TRansfer-Exposure-Effects, led by Nick Beresford of the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology). As part of this project, motion detection cameras were installed for several years in different areas of the exclusion zone. The photos recorded by these cameras reveal the presence of abundant fauna at all levels of radiation. These cameras recorded the first observation of brown bears and European bison inside the Ukrainian side of the zone, as well as the increase in the number of wolves and Przewalski horses.

wildlife at chernobyl

European bison (Bison bonasus), boreal lynx (Lynx lynx), moose (Alces alces) and brown bear (Ursus arctos) photographed inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Ukraine). 


Proyecto TREE/Sergey Gaschack

Our own work with the amphibians of Chernobyl has also detected abundant populations across the exclusion zone, even on the more contaminated areas. Furthermore, we have also found signs that could represent adaptive responses to life with radiation. For instance, frogs within the exclusion zone are darker than frogs living outside it, which is a possible defense against radiation.

tree frog in ukraine

An oriental treefrog (Hyla orientalis), Chernobyl (Ukraine). May 2018. 


Germán Orizaola

Studies have also detected some negative effects of radiation at an individual level. For example, some insects seem to have a shorter lifespan and are more affected by parasites in areas of high radiation. Some birds also have higher levels of albinism, as well as physiological and genetic alterations when living in highly contaminated areas. But these effects don’t seem to affect the maintenance of the wildlife population in the area.

The general absence of negative effects of radiation on Chernobyl wildlife can be a consequence of several factors:

First, wildlife could be much more resistant to radiation than previously thought. Another alternative possibility is that some organisms could be starting to show adaptive responses that would allow them to cope with radiation and live inside the exclusion zone without harm. In addition, the absence of humans inside the exclusion zone could be favoring many species — big mammals in particular.

That final option would suggest that the pressures generated by human activities would be more negative for wildlife in the medium-term than a nuclear accident — a quite revealing vision of the human impact on the natural environment.

The future of Chernobyl

In 2016 the Ukrainian part of the exclusion zone was declared a radiological and environmental biosphere reserve by the national government.

chernobyl forest

Forest and meadows inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Ukraine). May 2016. 


Germán Orizaola

Over the years, Chernobyl has also become an excellent natural laboratory for the study of evolutionary processes in extreme environments, something that could prove valuable given the rapid environmental changes experienced worldwide.

At present, several projects are trying to resume human activities in the area. Tourism has flourished in Chernobyl, with more than 70,000 visitors in 2018. There also plans for developing solar power plants in the area, and for expanding forestry work. Last year, there was even an art installation and techno party inside the abandoned city of Prypiat.

Over the past 33 years, Chernobyl has gone from being considered a potential desert for life to being an area of high interest for biodiversity conservation.

It may sound strange, but now we need to work to maintain the integrity of the exclusion zone as a nature reserve if we want to guarantee that in the future Chernobyl will remain a refuge for wildlife.The Conversation

Germán Orizaola is a researcher at the Programa Ramón y Cajal at the Universidad de Oviedo.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is Thwaites Glacier doomed? Scientists race against time to find out.

May 12, 2019 15:25


Peter Sheehan, an oceanographer on the Nathaniel B. Palmer, was one of the first people on Earth to get this view of Thwaites Glacier — the part that juts out to sea.

He’s pored over plenty of Google images of ice shelves, but there’s nothing like the real thing.

“It looks kind of mystical,” Sheehan whispered as he gazed out from the ship’s bridge before dawn on a quiet, late February morning. “It’s like standing in a cathedral; you feel that hush of reverence.”

Oceanographer Peter Sheehan is shown with his jacket hood over his head while looking out at Thwaites.

Oceanographer Peter Sheehan looks out at Thwaites from the bow of the Nathaniel B. Palmer before sunrise on the day of arrival.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

The craggy face of Thwaites loomed a few hundred feet away, but seemed almost close enough to touch, or at least within shouting distance. Thwaites was nearly seven stories high here, at its eastern edge, and the bluish cliff glowed against the grayscale sky. It was snowing, and foggy, and the glacier appeared like something out of this world.

The expedition to Thwaites is part of the race to discover how fast the massive glacier is melting and what that will mean for global sea level rise over the next century.

Scientists’ ultimate goal is to develop more accurate global sea level rise models so coastal residents and governments have enough time to plan for future changes. In cities like Miami, possibly the American city most vulnerable to rising seas, infrastructure decisions are made as early as 50 years out.

Around daybreak, many of the Palmer’s roughly 60 scientists, staff and crew headed to the upper deck to admire a view that nobody else in the world had ever seen.

“It’s fantastic, this is a critical boundary in the world today,” said Rob Larter, the ship’s chief scientist, upon their arrival at Thwaites. “This is where rapid change is really happening, and we’re actually standing and looking at the bit that’s rapidly changing.”

Normally, most of Thwaites is enshrouded by ice and is totally inaccessible to ships. In fact, some said there was only a 50/50 chance that the Palmer would even get this close to the West Antarctic glacier.

But the timing was right — the winds were good; they blew sea ice and broken bits of glacier out of the way so the research vessel could get through. And when the ship reached Thwaites after a month at sea, the mood on deck was celebratory, with scientists snapping photos and giddily watching penguins swim near the ship’s bow.

From the side of the vessel, the Nathaniel B. Palmer is shown with a smoke stack in the nearground, navigating along the eastern tongue of Thwaites glacier.

The Nathaniel B. Palmer navigates along the eastern tongue of Thwaites glacier.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Some, like Ali Graham, had prepared for a trip like this for years. “I’ve been working on this area and thinking about it for a third of my life so far,” said Graham, a marine geophysicist at the University of Exeter. “To actually come down and see it up close, you can’t really put into adequate words how special it is.”

Inevitable collapse?

The Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier originates in Antarctica and extends into the Amundsen Sea. It’s melting — fast. And by itself, it contains enough ice to raise sea levels by about 2 feet.

But that isn’t the worst of it. Thwaites sits at the center of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and if it breaks off into the sea, it would destabilize nearby glaciers that could, in turn, raise sea levels by roughly 11 feet. Without new infrastructure to protect them, coastal cities around the world would be flooded. Hundreds of millions of people’s homes would be inundated, one study suggests. Lower Manhattan would look something like it did when Hurricane Sandy’s storm surges flooded its streets.

Scientists have known for decades that Thwaites is unstable. The bedrock underneath much of the glacier slopes down toward the continent’s interior, meaning if the ice starts to retreat, there’s little to stop it. And recent modeling incorporating the inherent instability of ice cliffs of a certain height suggest it could collapse much faster than previously thought.

Some scientists argue the glacier’s demise is already inevitable.

“The glacier has already entered the early stages of collapse, and rapid and irreversible collapse is likely in the next 200 to 1,000 years,” wrote University of Washington scientist Ian Joughin and his co-authors in a 2014 paper published in Science.

Larter, the Palmer’s chief scientist and a marine geophysicist at the British Antarctic Survey, says if that’s the case, “the question then becomes, how fast is it going to retreat? How fast are we going to lose that ice?”

Answering those questions is the goal of a five-year, roughly $50 million research collaboration funded by US and UK science agencies that begins with this research cruise to Thwaites. Eight teams of researchers, led by British and American scientists, will study warm water melting the underside of the glacier; how “pinning points,” or ridges in the ocean floor underneath the land-based portion of the glacier will impact its destabilization; and how to forecast or model the glacier’s collapse.

Because as important as Thwaites is to coastal cities from Miami to Mumbai, few people have ever set foot on the glacier, and until now, no one had ever sailed along its face. Thwaites is remote, even by Antarctic standards. With delays, detours and research conducted en route, it took the Nathaniel B. Palmer, the 300-foot icebreaker chartered by the National Science Foundation, a month to get there.

Waves are shown crashing against the side of the ship and spilling water on to the deck.

Huge waves crash up onto the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer as it crosses the Drake Passage.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

'The Drake is getting the best of us'

When the Palmer set out from Punta Arenas, Chile, on Jan. 31, it was already behind schedule. A broken rudder kept the ship docked for two days of repairs.

After navigating through the Strait of Magellan, the ship slowed to dodge a storm in the Drake Passage, a strip of open ocean between the bottom of South America and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula known for its tumultuous weather. When the ship entered the passage, 20-foot swells knocked it from side to side and crashed onto its lower deck.

Inside the ship, chef Julian Isaacs braced himself against the kitchen counter while making meatballs for dinner.

“Right now, the Drake is getting the best of us,” Isaacs said on the second day in the passage, as pots and pans clattered against each other, and an avocado rolled from port to starboard and back again. “We had a lot of things crash to the floor today.”

Down the hall in the ship’s main lab, desk chairs were laid on their sides and lashed to poles to keep them from skittering across the room, while scientists sitting at computers held onto ropes tied to their desks.

Five decks up, Sheehan clung to the metal railing in the stairwell.

Three crew members are shown in a room with a green floor all leaning in order to stay balanced.

Huge swells on the Drake Passage require crew and passengers on the Nathaniel B. Palmer to sway with the ship in order to stay upright. The passage is one of the roughest stretches of ocean anywhere.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

“As a grown adult, you never envisage a situation where you need to cling on with both hands, because walking stairs, I can do stairs,” Sheehan said from the bridge where the ship’s bucking was most pronounced. “But no, you can’t do stairs. You’ve got both hands, and you go really slowly.”

That night, in her cabin down on the main deck, Victoria Fitzgerald had a hard time sleeping.

“We were sliding head to toe in the bed,” said The University of Alabama PhD student. “I clung to my sheets like a baby koala, just hanging on for dear life.”

A round window is shown with very choppy waves off in the distance.

The view from a bedroom porthole looking out on Drake Passage.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

The same ocean that tossed the Palmer around as it traveled, slowly, toward Thwaites, is thought to be responsible for melting the glacier.

Warm ocean water is reaching the part of the glacier that extends out into the sea, and it’s disappearing twice as fast as it did two decades ago. Thwaites currently contributes roughly 4% to global sea level rise, according to NASA, and over the past four decades has spit more than 600 gigatons of ice out into the sea.

Scientists believe the main culprit is a warm, salty mass of deep water that starts in the North Atlantic and rides the ocean currents toward Antarctica. Changing winds are now pushing this warmer water up onto the continental shelf in front of West Antarctica, where it’s eating away at the region’s ice shelves.

Previous expeditions have found this warm water in front of nearby glaciers, but this trip marks the first time scientists will directly measure if, and how much, of it is reaching Thwaites.

“Basically, we [had] no idea what the ocean looks like there,” said Sheehan, who works at the University of East Anglia in the UK and was embarking on his first trip to Antarctica.

“So, that is really exciting. That’s kind of like harking back to the ancient age of Antarctic exploration; we’re going somewhere that no one’s ever been before.”

Changing winds here may be linked to climate change, but a lack of long-term data in the region and a poor understanding of the processes at work means scientists are hesitant to draw a direct connection.

“Essentially, you need 30 years of data before you talk about climate,” said Lars Boehme, an oceanographer and ecologist from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews who attached sensors to seals near Thwaites that will record ocean temperatures and salinity as the animals swim.

Separately, data gathered from sensors on a robotic submarine, deployed by a team led by Anna Wåhlin from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, will begin to reveal the fine-scale processes pushing warm ocean water up toward Thwaites.

To read into the glacier’s past, University of Alabama sedimentologist Becky Minzoni is examining samples from the seafloor in front of Thwaites.

“To understand present changes and [predict] future changes, you really need to have an understanding of the past,” Minzoni said.

Once Minzoni and colleagues look for markers of warm water in the sediment cores they bring home, they’ll begin to unravel the puzzle of how long this warmer water has been reaching Thwaites, and whether it drove past ice retreat.

This data will help modelers improve predictions of sea level rise, and give places like New Orleans, Minzoni’s hometown, an idea of how to plan for the future.

Nothing goes as planned in Antarctica

Before the research in front of Thwaites could begin, the ship had to get there.

As the Palmer sailed through the Southern Ocean and drew nearer to the Amundsen Sea, marine geophysicists Graham and Kelly Hogan, from the British Antarctic Survey, paid close attention to satellite ice images of the area in front of Thwaites. They hoped to sail right up to the glacier’s face and map the seafloor there for the first time, in part to identify the underwater trenches and channels bringing warm, deep water up to the glacier’s face.

In early February, images showed the sea there was still almost entirely covered in ice. But a few days later, the researchers spotted dark splotches of open water in front of Thwaites.

“That’s the very best situation for us to survey and look at the seafloor,” Hogan said while looking at the black-and-white image in the ship’s main lab.

“It’s really good conditions, and it’s just getting better, so it’s really exciting.”


The Nathaniel B. Palmer stopped at Rothera research station near the Antarctic Peninsula. Nearing its destination offshore of Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, the ship had to divert back north to the station for a medical emergency.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

But nothing ever goes according to plan in Antarctica.

Just hours before arriving at the face of Thwaites, the Palmer reversed course for a medical evacuation.

The 10-day round trip to the nearest science base where a plane could take a sick passenger to a hospital reminded oceanographer Sheehan of how foreign Antarctica is to humans.

“This isn’t our part of the world,” Sheehan said. “For me, this [medical evacuation] just underlines that fact, and how difficult it is to get here, and how difficult it is to understand anything about it at all.”

Layers of snow are shown along the edge of Thwaites Glacier

The front face of Thwaites Glacier rises an estimated 60 feet to 75 feet above water in the areas where it is most intact. Roughly 90% of an ice shelf typically sits below the water line.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Is Thwaites doomed?

When the ship finally reached Thwaites at the end of February, it traveled along the roughly 75-mile glacier face to map the previously uncharted seafloor at its edge.

In places like this where glaciers meet the sea, they typically resemble tall cliffs, nearly ruler-straight across the top and uniform in height, like the surface of a butcher-block table. Small parts of the eastern ice shelf where the ship first arrived at Thwaites matched that description.

But as the journey went on, the glacier’s appearance changed and the upbeat mood on the bridge became more somber.

“It doesn’t look like ice shelves I’ve seen before,” said Boehme, the oceanographer and ecologist from the University of St. Andrews.

Irregular shapes and downward slope characteristics are shown at the face of much of Thwaites Glacier.

The irregular shapes and downward slope characteristic at the face of much of Thwaites Glacier are signs of its instability. Crevasses and low points mark sites where future icebergs may calve, or where ice has broken off and frozen back together.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

The top of the ice shelf was wavy and formed an overhang, like a house with snow hanging off its eaves. In some places, instead of ending in a sheer cliff, the ice shelf gently tapered down toward the sea like a sledding hill.

In the late afternoon, jagged peaks stuck out of the ice shelf at weird angles, making the glacier look like a giant pile of rocks covered in snow.

“[It] looks like big icebergs and ice cubes frozen together,” Boehme said. “It looks very chaotic.”

This strange-looking ice face — which the Palmer was sailing across — is vital to the entire glacier’s stability.

It’s where land-based ice flows off the continent of Antarctica and into the sea, forming a floating ice shelf at the edge of the glacier. This ice shelf gets stuck on high points on the seafloor and squeezed from the sides, and acts like a wine cork, slowing the flow of land-based ice from hundreds of miles inland out into the sea. But as this stabilizing ice shelf thins, it lifts off so-called pinning points on the seabed and provides less resistance.

If the shelf thins too much and lifts completely off the seafloor, it’s like the cork is pulled out of the wine bottle, allowing the Florida-sized piece of ice to flow faster and break off into giant icebergs.

This is already happening. Over the last several years, radar imagery shows that warm water eating away at the western part of the ice shelf created a cavity two-thirds the size of Manhattan, big enough to hold 14 billion tons of ice. As the cavity formed, the ice shelf started melting faster, thinning by nearly 700 feet a year between 2014 and 2017.

When scientists saw the ice front in this region up close for the first time, they were surprised by how fractured and fragmented it looked. But they cautioned against drawing any conclusions based solely on appearances.

“It might be that even though the ice shelf looks visually quite different than how I expected it to, that actually it hasn’t changed the way it’s stabilizing the glacier behind,” marine geophysicist Graham said. 

Larter, the Palmer’s chief scientist, said at the beginning of the cruise he wasn’t necessarily convinced the collapse of Thwaites was inevitable.

“There’s still a lot of uncertainties, there’s a lot we don’t know about Thwaites Glacier, and that’s why it’s worth doing this research,” Larter said.

Chief Scientist Rob Larter is shown in the nearground looking out at Thwaites glacier on the morning of arrival.

Chief scientist Rob Larter looks out at the glacier on the morning of arrival.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Indeed, one of the ice sheet models that set off alarm bells about runaway collapse in West Antarctica depicts two widely divergent futures. In a future where we quickly and radically cut greenhouse gas emissions, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet remains relatively stable for centuries. In a future where carbon emissions continue unabated, warming air temperatures force its collapse within 250 years.

Larter hopes that in five years, after the data collected for the Thwaites research collaboration has been analyzed, we’ll have a better sense of what the future holds. But at the end of the cruise, he was a little more frank with his hunch that a slow-moving disaster has already begun.

“If you’re asking me to project hundreds of years into the future, unless there’s some amazing change where we manage to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, then I think, yeah, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is ultimately doomed,” he said.

Still, Larter, who has studied Antarctica longer than many aboard the Palmer have been alive, holds out hope: “I hope it’s not as bad as some of us fear it is, because I’ve got teenage children and I’d like them to live in a world where it’s not a disaster scenario.” 

This is the first in a series of deep dives into the science and people of the Nathaniel B. Palmer’s 2019 voyage to Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. Listen Mondays on The World and check back online through May and June to learn what scientists found as they studied the sea that’s melting this Florida-sized piece of ice. 

Is 'new economics' the way to save the planet?

May 8, 2019


The science is in: The endless pursuit of economic growth is devouring the foundations of life on Earth, and no country — rich or poor — can expect to escape dire consequences if things go on as they are. So, how might the world change course?

Though still confined to the fringes, a globally dispersed but tight-knit coalition of economists, grass-roots organizers, business leaders and politicians, along with some investors, have begun to sketch out an answer. 

The vision: a new relationship between the state, local communities and nature aligned behind a more holistic notion of progress than gross domestic product (GDP), the established yardstick for economies as different as those of the United States and Mozambique.

"No country on Earth is doing what is required to make sure we get toward an economic system capable of confronting the twin challenges of ecological collapse and climate change," said Laurie Laybourn-Langton, an associate fellow at London's Institute for Public Policy Research and lead author of a new report on environmental breakdown titled This Is A Crisis.

"There are, though, a number of ideas and small-scale projects being done that arguably — if scaled up — could deal with the problem," he said. One of those gaining traction was measuring progress in other terms than GDP, which, in essence, measures the market value of a country's goods and services.

climate protestors in london

Demonstrators march along Whitehall during an Extinction Rebellion protest in London, Britain, April 23, 2019.


Toby Melville/Reuters

More broadly, Laybourn-Langton, 30, and other champions of "new economics" argue that it is time to acknowledge that the state must play the central role in marshaling a response to looming systemic environmental shocks.

But rather than harking back to the nationalization and executive wage caps of 1970s left-wing politics, they think governments should support communities to create new, participatory forms of economic activity that can tackle social inequality while also restoring planetary health.

Candidates include locally run clean energy projects, worker-owned cooperatives, many kinds of progressive businesses, and regenerative agriculture or rewilding practices that could grow exponentially in a favorable policy environment.

New economic indicators could also be developed through democratic consultations to measure advances in fairness, health or sustainability, building on examples such as the Genuine Progress Indicator, an early attempt to devise a more rounded alternative to GDP.

Britain has first coal-free week in over a century

— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) May 8, 2019 Challenging the status quo 

While many businesses and local groups are pursuing variants of these initiatives, the philosophy is most visible in the Green New Deal.

Proposed by US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is backed by the youth-led Sunrise Movement, it aims to marry social justice with the renewable energy and climate agenda.

Related: The Green New Deal doesn't include carbon pricing. Some say that's a big mistake.

Orthodox economists from across the US political spectrum have countered that the existing system simply needs a tweak in the form of a carbon tax and rebate system to cut emissions, while Republicans and some investors have subjected the Green New Deal to a barrage of criticism.

"It is a 70-, 80-, 90-trillion dollar ... socialist takeover of energy," Jonathan Hoenig of the Capitalist Pig hedge fund told Fox Business in March. "It really is socialism writ large."

Nevertheless, two monumental, multi-year scientific studies have found that the corporate-led assault on the web of life is accelerating so fast that it is too late for mere tinkering.  

In October, the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that only a profound economic transformation would allow the world to curb carbon emissions quickly enough to limit global warming.

On Monday, a parallel 130-nation scientific study said industrial society has pushed a million species to the brink of extinction. Plants and animals are vanishing tens to hundreds of times faster than during the past 10 million years, the 145 expert authors found.

Eduardo Brondizio, an anthropologist who co-chaired the report said it was time to abandon a growth-at-all-costs mindset: "'Business as usual' has to end."

"Panic in their eyes"

Among the questions dividing the "new economists" is whether the risk of catastrophic climate change is now so acute that economic growth should be suspended altogether in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions fast. Some still see room for sustainable "green growth," but others want governments to oversee sharp reductions in consumption now, to avoid what they fear would be a descent into a 21st-century Dark Age. 

Related: Scientists say 25 years left to fight climate change

While nobody disputes the challenge of rewiring the world economy, an upsurge in climate activism, including a global school strike movement and an international civil disobedience campaign by Extinction Rebellion, is sparking new conversations.

"The confluence of panic in the eyes of young people with hard science is opening up the debate in the mainstream like it hasn't before," said Katherine Trebeck, an Australian political scientist who co-founded the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, a network of academics, businesses and social movements.

Trebeck's new co-authored book, "The Economics of Arrival," cites dozens of innovations in places from Scotland to Costa Rica and Denmark, Portugal and Alaska.

While the investment opportunities in such projects largely remain trivial, some major funds do see the need for change. 

"We face a form of capitalism that has hardened its focus to short-term profit maximization with little or no apparent interest in social good," Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of global investment manager GMO, wrote last August.

"We're racing to protect not just our portfolios, not just our grandchildren, but our species. So get to it."

Matthew Green of Reuters reported from London.

The meatless Whopper’s ‘Impossible’ goal: To save the planet

May 8, 2019 8:15


The Whopper is an icon of American culture. But the Whopper is getting a complete overhaul — and when we say complete, we literally mean complete. It’s also a new Whopper with a bold goal: To save the planet.

The new Impossible Whopper comes from Impossible Foods, a Silicon Valley start-up that produces plant-based alternatives to animal meat. Scientists in California spent years trying to find just the right plant-based formula to recreate the flavor, texture and sizzle of a beef hamburger. It’s part of a global effort to cut down on the environmental impact of meat — especially beef.

Related: How scientists are creating a vegan alternative that cooks like and feels like ground beef

“At a global scale, what we eat, it matters a lot because agriculture as a whole, it accounts for about a quarter of all the [greenhouse gas] emissions on the planet,” said Paul West, co-director of the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment. “And one of the biggest impacts on our climate in terms of food is livestock, especially beef.”


The big environmental concern with beef cattle is all the methane, a potent greenhouse gas, that they produce.

“Now, I know it sounds funny if you think about a cow that is burping and farting, and yet it does actually have a big impact on the planet,” said West.

Impossible Foods’ five-word mission statement is bold: “To save meat. And Earth.” The company says that modern animal agriculture is wreaking havoc on the climate and our ecosystems, and they want to entice burger lovers to keep going to backyard barbeques, just enjoying a satisfying substitute.

The Impossible Burger has been available in select restaurants and grocery stores in the US, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore for a short while, but the company is hoping its appearance in 59 Burger Kings around St. Louis, Missouri, will be a breakout moment.

Video of The Impossible Taste Test | Impossible Whopper

In its commercial, above, Burger King advertises “real people” who are nearly speechless that an alternative Whopper could taste so similar to the traditional beef one. That’s Burger King’s spin, of course, but I wanted to put it to the test myself. I ate a lot of Burger King as a teenager, more than I care to admit, and know the Whopper well. 

I went to a St. Louis Burger King, sat in a corner booth and put the two burgers side by side. I removed the onions, because I don’t like onions, then bit into my two Whoppers.

A tale of two Whoppers.

A tale of two Whoppers.


Jason Margolis/The World

My opinion: The two burgers were close in taste and appearance, but the Impossible Burger was slightly less flavorful than a traditional beef Whopper.

My Impossible Whopper at Burger King in St. Louis.

My Impossible Whopper at Burger King in St. Louis. 


Jason Margolis

Now, not to be too disparaging toward Burger King, but neither Whopper was worth writing home about. That said, I’ve had an Impossible Burger at another restaurant, and it was terrific — juicy, moist, super-flavorful meat crumbles. It’s also similar to beef in terms of calories, protein and fiber.

The Impossible Burger is designed to “bleed” like a traditional beef hamburger.

The Impossible Burger is designed to “bleed” like a traditional beef hamburger.


Impossible Foods

So, how did they do it? Impossible Foods says the key ingredient is a protein, produced from soy, called heme.

To scale up, scientists at Impossible Foods genetically engineer yeast to produce big batches of heme and combine it with other plant-based ingredients. It’s the heme, which is highly abundant in animal muscle tissue, that gives beef that bloody, juicy flavor. Impossible Burger’s lab-grown heme helps replicate that.

Video of Heme - The Magic Ingredient in the Impossible™ Burger

“They’re actually going after meat eaters trying to create a product that actually does imitate meat in a way that you wouldn’t really know the difference,” said Eric Bohl, who has also tried the Impossible Burger. “They’re not trying to go after a niche market of vegetarians and vegans, they’re really looking at the broader public and doing a pretty good job of creating products that taste fairly similar.”

Bohl isn’t some vegan environmentalist — he’s with the Missouri Farm Bureau, which represents the state’s livestock producers. 

Related: Meth is now cheaper than a meal at Burger King in much of Asia

The writing is on the wall: The vegetarian burger movement is growing fast. White Castle is selling an Impossible Slider and Carl’s Jr. is offering a burger produced by the company Beyond Meat. Burger King says its St. Louis experiment has gone so well that it’s rolling out the Impossible Whoppers nationwide. Add it up: Some ranchers are bracing for a fight against meatless burgers.

“I have not tried one, and I do not intend to,” said Bill Bullard, the CEO of R-Calf USA, which represents about 5,000 cattle producers across 44 states. He says consumers are being misled by companies that sell plant-based meat alternatives.

“These companies need to be disciplined or have the responsibility and integrity to clearly denote that the products that they are producing and offering to consumers are not a meat product, is not derived from family farmers and ranchers here in the United States of America and instead is lab-produced,” said Bullard.

Impossible Foods research technician Alexia Yue pours a heme solution, the key ingredient, into a plant-based mixture for burgers at the company's facility in Redwood City, California. March 26, 2019.

Impossible Foods research technician Alexia Yue pours a heme solution, the key ingredient, into a plant-based mixture for burgers at the company's facility in Redwood City, California, March 26, 2019.


Jane Lanhee Lee/Reuters

Several states are considering laws requiring that only products from animal flesh can use the word "meat." Missouri, the nation's third-largest beef-producing state, passed the first such a law last summer. Backers of the new plant-based products are pushing back with a lawsuit, arguing that the labeling laws muzzle free speech and are an attempt by the conventional meat industry to stifle competition. (The Impossible Burger doesn’t actually use the word meat in its labeling, so they’re in compliance with the new Missouri law and thus free to sell their Whoppers in St. Louis.)

Eric Bohl, with the Missouri Farm Bureau, supports his state’s new law but adds that his industry can’t fight new meat alternatives with just labels: “I don’t think that these products are going away anytime soon and the money that is behind them is significant. If we are just going to pretend like it doesn’t exist, we are doing our own industry a disservice.”

Bohl said farmers need to compete by better selling their own story — humans are omnivores who have always eaten meat, and beef remains just as healthy as the new plant-based alternatives.

But nutrition isn’t Impossible Food’s hook. Again, they’re all about allowing you to keep enjoying your burgers while also lowering your impact on the planet. That’s a message that will be harder for the beef industry to combat.

Related: A veggie burger that 'bleeds' might convince some carnivores to eat green

HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ revisits nuclear catastrophe with a nod to climate change

May 7, 2019 4:04


On April 26, 1986, the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, exploded and started a fire during a safety test. By the time the fire was contained, the incident — one of only two level-7 events in history on the International Nuclear Event Scale — had sent deadly radiation into the air and over western Europe, killed dozens and sickened more. 

HBO is releasing a five-part miniseries dramatizing the disaster, which was the worst nuclear power accident in history.

Director Johan Renck ("Breaking Bad") spoke with Carol Hills about the making of this series. 

Johan Renck: Sweden was hit pretty hard because the cloud from Chernobyl went up over Belarus and then over the northern part of Sweden. You weren't allowed to eat berries or meats or any sort of produce from the northern part of Sweden for many years.

Video of Chernobyl (2019) | Official Trailer | HBO Carol Hills: You shot this series in the Ukrainian city of Kyiv. From what I understand, you shot that first scene at a power plant in Ignalina, Lithuania. What was it like to film at an actual power plant?

Well, it's pretty daunting from a lot of levels. This is an RBMK reactor, which is a sister plant to Chernobyl. It's the same type of construction and the same type of power plant. It was built pretty much at the same time. Now, this one is decommissioned, so they've taken out all the fuel from it. Nevertheless, it is such an ominous structure. The building is so big and so quiet and still and retro-futuristic in some weird way. Just the fact that this is a Soviet-era nuclear power plant was humbling and slightly scary.

Related: Wildlife in Chernobyl is thriving 30 years after the nuclear accident

Were you able to talk to people who were at Chernobyl back in 1986?

Oh, yeah. I spent time in Kyiv when we were scouting there meeting with survivors; liquidators and people who worked in the aftermath and the cleanup operation. Chernobyl is only 200 kilometers (125 miles) away from Kyiv. Everybody in Kyiv has a relationship to Chernobyl and Kyiv is a massive city with 7 million people. There were crew members who had parents or family involved in it and then there were people who were actually there. It was tremendous, actually.

Why did you want to make this series about Chernobyl and why did you feel compelled to turn it into a drama?

I'm drawn to desperation, darkness, and the human beauty within those kinds of things. What happened once I read the script was that I understood how important this story was to tell on a lot of levels because of the cost of lives. We're in a climate right now in which there's actually a war on truth and people are preferring their own opinions to those of experts.

Related: Chernobyl and ‘the summer without children’

I want to play the first line that you hear in your series. Let's listen.

"What is the cost of lies? It's not that we'll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all."

Those lines set up that whole series. In doing the series, are you also trying to draw attention to not only issues of truth these days that not everybody agrees on what it is, but also issues like climate change?

To some extent, it's embedded in there. This show undeniably deals with how human actions affect the world around us. The accident in Chernobyl effectively killed a massive part of Ukraine. It's still uninhabitable and there's obviously something interesting that we have an acute urgent situation in which we're killing this planet and we have people who deny that because it goes against their business ideas. So, yes, for sure.

"Chernobyl" premiered Monday, May 6, at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. New episodes air on Mondays. 

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

As the climate changes, migratory birds are losing their way

May 6, 2019 16:05


Every spring and fall, a journey of thousands of miles begins, as migrating birds find their way between breeding and overwintering grounds.

It’s an amazing phenomenon that naturalist Kenn Kaufman brings to life in his new book, "A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration." Kaufman is also the author of the "Kaufman Field Guide" series and is a contributing field editor with the Audubon Society.

Related: Citizen scientists have been taking an annual ‘bird census’ for over a century

Bird migration is largely invisible to most people because it happens primarily at night, Kaufman says. But if you go outside at dawn near a spot where migrating birds congregate — like along the coast of Lake Erie in Northern Ohio, where he lives — you will see something extraordinary.

“It's just a fabulous experience,” Kaufman says. “You hear the night sounds, of course — there are the frogs and insects and there are a few night birds, like screech owls, that are calling. But then you hear the sounds of these birds. A lot of these nocturnal migrants are calling in flight, making these little chip notes, little buzzes and things. And you hear more and more of that as the birds come lower.

“Some of them are coming in from the south and landing in the trees, but then, as it starts to get light, you look out and there are small birds flying along, paralleling the edge of the lake,” he continues. “There are others that are actually coming in from the north because when these birds are migrating if they're out over the open water when it gets light, they'll actually climb somewhat higher and look around. … [I]t’s just an amazing amount of movement. It's like the whole world is alive with this movement of birds.”


In the summer, the eastern kingbird lives in the eastern two-thirds of the US and southern Canada, feeding on insects in open country. In winter, they gather in flocks in the Amazon rainforest, feeding on small fruits in the treetops.


Courtesy of Kenn Kaufman

For Kaufman, spring migration evokes “a sense of resurrection almost, a sense of rebirth. Especially if you're in northern Ohio and things have been frozen solid all winter and then start to thaw out and all these birds come back. It's just such a wonderful feeling that I can't help just wanting to go out and celebrate.”

While migrating birds will tend to congregate in specific locations each year, Kaufman says the notion that birds stick to predetermined flyways is a dated concept.

The idea of bird flyways was first developed by people studying duck migration, he explains. Studying duck migration was easy because scientists could catch a bunch of them at a water area, put bands on their legs and then later ask the hunting community to send in the duck bands from wherever they shot the ducks. This quickly gave them a sense of where these birds had gone.

“If you could look down on North America from outer space on a night at the peak of migration, you wouldn't see rivers of birds flowing toward the north. It would look more like a blanket of birds being pulled northward." 

Kenn Kaufman, contributoring editor, Audobon Society

Ducks do sort of follow specific flyways from one water area to another, but the great majority of birds don’t. “If you could look down on North America from outer space on a night at the peak of migration, you wouldn't see rivers of birds flowing toward the north. It would look more like a blanket of birds being pulled northward,” Kaufman explains.

Related: Beyond borders: Why we need global action to protect migratory birds

For serious birders, fall migration is even more exciting, Kaufman says. For one, there are simply more birds to see. “The total population is higher because the birds have been hatching young all summer. All these young birds are migrating south for the first time. So, the numbers are higher and the young birds are more likely to wander out of range. You'll get more rare birds and more birds in places where they shouldn't be during the fall.”

To a large extent, bird migration remains a puzzle. Some birds, like cranes, swans and geese, learn their migratory routes and pass the information on to their young. But most small migratory birds travel by instinct.

Yellow Warbler

Warblers are the most popular of the migratory songbirds that mark the peak of spring migration. The Blackburnian warbler spends the winter in the Andes in South America, migrates north in spring through Central America, across the Gulf of Mexico, through the eastern US, heading for breeding grounds that are mostly in the spruce forests of Canada.


Courtesy of Kenn Kaufman

“You can just drop a warbler off in the north woods and it will find its way from northern Alberta, say, down to Brazil, without any guidance, without anyone showing it where to go,” Kaufman says. “It's amazing that they've got this instinct.”

A lot of the small birds that migrate at night can navigate by the stars or detect the Earth's magnetic field, Kaufman notes. Others can hear low-pitched sounds, like the sound of waves crashing on the beach from many miles away and use the sound as a navigation aid. “We're still figuring out and still learning some of the things they use, but the navigational abilities of these birds are extraordinary,” Kaufman says.

Climate change and the global collapse of insect populations may have a negative impact on migratory birds in the coming years. Evidence is mounting that in some places birds are on the move five to ten days earlier than in years past, yet still may be missing the peak of insect season when they arrive at their destination. Since the large majority of birds feed primarily on insects, scientists fear the consequences of birds being out of sync with the insect population.

Related: Spring's uncertain arrival poses problems for migrating birds

People who live at or near a stop for birds on their migratory path can do a few simple things to make the local environment more welcoming and helpful to these traveling birds. Keep cats inside. Grow native plants. Eliminate or at least reduce the use of chemical pesticides. Support conservation efforts and protection of native habitats.

“Just by voting on certain issues, people can affect what happens with wildlife habitat in their local area,” Kaufman says. “It's worthwhile for people to educate themselves about the issues and pay attention to what policy changes are going to have an impact on bird life.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Microplastics have turned up in the remote Arctic Ocean, which means they’re everywhere

May 6, 2019 10:33


News stories about plastic pollution tend to focus on the large patches of plastics in the world’s oceans, yet scientists are finding microscopic bits of plastic just about everywhere they look, including in remote, pristine environments and in the human body.

Microplastics pose an increasing risk to people and the environment in large part because they are so small and so difficult to track, says Andrea Thompson, who wrote a three-part series about microplastics for Scientific American.

In addition to the tiny bits of plastic that form when larger plastics like water bottles and bags degrade in the environment, smaller types of plastics called microfibers may pose an equally serious risk.

Related: Microplastics have even been blown into a remote corner of the Pyrenees

Microfibers are exactly what they sound like, Thompson says: fibers that slough off our clothing or from other fabrics that are already micro-sized. These fibers range in size from a few millimeters to things visible only with a microscope, as well as other types of materials called polymers, which are the chemicals that make up plastic. These are things like polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene.

Microplastics have become a global problem, Thompson emphasizes. In addition to oceans, scientists are now finding them in freshwater, as well, including in the Great Lakes, where scientists have measured concentrations of plastics similar to the large garbage patches, or gyres, in the oceans.

Microplastics have also been found in soil, Thompson notes. Wastewater, which is rich in nutrients, often gets applied to agricultural fields as fertilizer. Unfortunately, wastewater also seems to be rich in microfibers that come off of our clothing in the wash. These microfibers get applied to the soil, too.

Microplastics have turned up as far away as the Arctic — on Arctic sea ice and within it. “If it's there, it's pretty much probably almost everywhere on the planet,” Thompson says.

Scientists are also finding an even smaller class of materials they call nano plastics, which can be as small as a virus.

“Scientists are really only beginning to grapple with these because, while we can detect them in laboratory tests, where we kind of know what we're looking for, the technology isn't really there to find them in the environment,” Thompson explains. “Because the existing technology can't find things that small, we really don't have a good sense of how much of that [material] is out in the environment. But given that the smaller the size you look at, the higher number of particles you find, there’s a good chance that there are quite a lot of them out there, that we are only touching the tip of the iceberg with what we’ve found so far.”

“It's a really complex problem, to try and figure out how much of this is out there, where it's coming from, and how it's moving around the environment. ... That's what scientists are grappling with now.”

Andrea Thompson, writer, Scientific American

“It's a really complex problem, to try and figure out how much of this is out there, where it's coming from, and how it's moving around the environment,” Thompson adds. “That's what scientists are grappling with now.”

A growing body of research suggests that microplastics are carried around in the atmosphere, which would explain how they reach remote places with little human habitation. Primarily, these would be microfibers, because their shape and size naturally lend themselves to wafting through the air. You can see them if you look at a shaft of sunlight, Thompson says. The things in the air that look like particles of dust probably include microplastics and microfibers.

Photographs of whales and fish with their guts full of plastic have raised awareness of the damage plastics can do to wildlife, but what about potential damage to humans?

Related: If you're drinking tap water, you're consuming plastic pollutants

A recent study found microplastics in human stool samples — direct evidence that humans are ingesting them, Thompson says. And scientists already know that microfibers are small enough to penetrate deep into our lungs when we inhale them through the air.

While many cities are looking to ban single-use plastics, like grocery bags and straws, scientists who study the problem say these measures “won't come close to addressing the larger issue of the scale of the amount of plastic we produce,” Thompson says.

“[Bans] don't target plastic production directly, so if one city bans bags, the company that makes those bags might just shift their market somewhere else,” Thompson says. “And that market may not have as good a waste system as a city in the US. So is that really the best way to do it?”

The key, Thompson says, is to “just turn off the tap” and stop producing so much plastic.

“Right now, we can't clean it up as fast as it's going into the environment,” she says. “[We’re] playing a constant game of catch up. So, it's better to tackle the introduction and just stop new stuff from getting out there. That's going to take a dedicated look from lawmakers to figure out what [methods] are actually going to give us the most bang for our buck.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Why reducing carbon emissions from cars and trucks will be so hard

May 6, 2019


A growing number of cities, states and countries aim to dramatically reduce or even eliminate carbon emissions to avert catastrophic levels of climate change.

Ideas about how to get this done as soon as possible, including those Democratic lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have sketched out in the Green New Deal framework. But most energy experts see two basic steps as essential.

Related: Scientists say 25 years left to fight climate change

First, stop relying on fossil fuels to generate most electricity. Second, the whole world should — sooner rather than later — use all that cleaner electricity to power transportation, agriculture and the heating and cooling of homes and businesses. The logical goal should be to get as many consumers to buy zero-emission vehicles as quickly as possible, right?

Maybe not. Our research on consumer behavior and the environmental impacts of automotive transportation leads us to expect that the transition to electric cars, trucks and ships will be dramatically harder that it sounds.

Tailpipe emissions

The roughly 250 million cars, SUVs and pickup trucks on US roads today account for 60% of transportation emissions. The 11.5 million big trucks that move freight around generate another 23% and aircraft are responsible for 9% of those greenhouse gas emissions.

One reason why it will be hard if not impossible to convert all US transportation to electric models within a decade or two is simple. Vehicles of all kinds are surprisingly durable.

We’ve determined that the average American car, truck and SUV remains in use for 16.6 years with many logging 200,000 miles or more.

Related: Hear these voices from the front lines of climate change

When we researched how fast the nation’s entire fleet turns over, we found that even if every US vehicle sold were electric starting today, it would take until 2040 for 90% of vehicles in use to be electric.

US sales of electric drive vehicles have grown steadily since the all-electric Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid launched in 2010. In 2018, Americans bought 361,307 battery-powered plug-in electric cars, and 2,300 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which like EVs produce no tailpipe emissions. Yet even following a big spike in sales in 2018 when Tesla’s mass-market Model 3 was launched, EVs still only account for less than 2% of new vehicle sales.

The reality is most Americans buying new passenger vehicles today are shopping for gasoline-fueled SUVs and pickup trucks.

EV improvements

Cheaper batteries, government subsidies and corporate innovation have all made EVs much more affordable and functional.

Owning EVs, however, remains inconvenient. There are too few charging stations to make these vehicles viable for everyone and EV driving range declines significantly in cold weather.

Also, with less than 0.5 percent of the vehicles on the nation’s roads being electric, EVs don’t yet strike most Americans as mainstream. What’s more, vehicles that run gasoline are getting more fuel-efficient, and gas prices are at historically low levels, diminishing the financial appeal of EV ownership.

Government incentives

The federal government has been giving EV buyers a $7,500 tax credit since 2010 that encourages more drivers to plug in. But the policy was designed to be phased out: Once a manufacturer sells 200,000 EVs, this incentive is phased out for their customers over the following 12 months. GM and Tesla, the two companies that have done the most to sell EVs in the US, will lose access to this incentive first unless legislation pending in Congress becomes law.

Smaller tax credits are available for plug-in hybrids. However well-intentioned, this bias may be unhelpful because Americans who buy new vehicles have largely demonstrated they just aren’t ready to make the leap to going fully electric yet.

States are also providing incentives. California, Oregon and eight Northeastern states follow the Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate that requires automakers to sell increasing numbers of EVs. The rest of the country follows the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which instead require automakers to reduce the average emissions from the new vehicles they sell.

Seriously trying to reduce the carbon footprint of American transportation would require much more predictable policies sending a strong signal to American drivers that their next car should be environmentally friendly. A carbon tax, in our view, would work better than complicated fuel-economy regulations. But even if one could be implemented in the US, it might not suffice.

Ultimately, the switch from fossil-fueled to electric vehicles is a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Most drivers won’t let go of their gas tanks until they are confident that finding a place to quickly charge their automotive batteries will be as easy as finding a gas station is today. But no one will spend the money building all that charging infrastructure until there’s a bigger market.

The government can help solve this problem by subsidizing the chickens or the eggs or both. But before that happens, there would need to be more consensus on what the future carbon-free technology will look like. Battery-powered EVs are currently ahead of the pack, but many advocates of vehicles powered by hydrogen still trust that their technology of choice will take off.

Tesla Semi delivering Tesla cars

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2019Pragmatic solutions

One strategy we think could help is actively encouraging drivers to buy plug-in hybrid vehicles. These vehicles can go up to 50 miles or more without burning any gasoline, further than the 31.5 miles average driving Americans travel daily.

Yet they still have a gasoline engine to overcome any range anxiety that drivers may experience brought about by the lack of recharging infrastructure they may encounter on long trips.

Getting drivers to buy more plug-in hybrids would also help to bring about a complete transition to purely electric mobility by continuing to bring down the cost of key components such as batteries, and building demand for charging stations from coast to coast.

Finally, we believe that strong new government incentives would be required to eliminate emissions from freight-hauling trucks. The trucking industry is taking steps in that direction, such as Tesla’s plans to roll out big electric rigs and Toyota’s partnership with the Kenworth Truck Co. to make 18-wheelers powered by hydrogen fuel cells. But progress is slow.The Conversation

David Keith is an assistant professor of system dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Christopher R. Knittel is a professor of applied economics and director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Scientists warn a million species at risk of extinction

May 6, 2019


Scientists said on Monday in a landmark report on the damage done by modern civilization to the natural world that relentless pursuit of economic growth, twinned with the impact of climate change, has put an "unprecedented" one million species at risk of extinction.

Only a wide-ranging transformation of the global economic and financial system could pull ecosystems that are vital to the future of human communities worldwide back from the brink of collapse, concluded the report, which was endorsed by 130 countries, including the United States, Russia and China.

"The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed," said Professor Josef Settele, who co-chaired the study, launched in Paris on Monday by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

"This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world."

Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries, the study is a cornerstone of an emerging body of research that suggests the world may need to embrace a new "post-growth" form of economics if it is to avert the existential risks posed by the mutually-reinforcing consequences of pollution, habitat destruction and carbon emissions.

Related: In Iceland, turning CO2 into rock could be a big breakthrough for carbon capture

Known as the Global Assessment, the report found that up to one million of Earth's estimated eight million plant, insect and animal species is at risk of extinction, many within decades.

The authors identified industrial farming and fishing as major drivers; with the current rate of species extinction tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the last 10 million years.

Climate change caused by burning the coal, oil and gas produced by the fossil fuel industry is exacerbating the losses, the report found.

Change needed at every level

Robert Watson, a British environmental scientist who chairs the IPBES, said it would be possible to start conserving, restoring and using nature sustainably only if societies were prepared to confront "vested interests" committed to preserving the status quo.

"The report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global," Watson said in a statement.

"By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values."

The report's blunt language echoed the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said in October that profound economic and social changes would be needed to curb greenhouse gases quickly enough to avert the most devastating consequences of a warming world.

Related: 'Flight shame' in Sweden prompts rail-only travel movement

The findings will also add to pressure for countries to agree bold action to protect wildlife at a major conference on biodiversity due to take place in China toward the end of next year, a focal point for governments and campaigners.

The Global Assessment contained a litany of estimates made after a three-year review of some 15,000 scientific papers that showed the profound impact of the rise of a globalized industrial society on the planet over the past half century.

Combining wide-ranging disciplines to measure how the loss of the natural world affects human societies, the report identified a range of risks, from the disappearance of insects vital for pollinating food crops, to the destruction of coral reefs that support fish populations that sustain coastal communities, or the loss of medicinal plants.

The report found that the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20 percent, mostly since 1900.

The threatened list includes more than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals. The picture was less clear for insect species, but a tentative estimate suggests 10 percent are at risk of extinction.

"We have been running from one frontier to another frontier trying to find cheap nature (to exploit) in every corner of the planet," Eduardo Brondizio, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University in the United States who co-chaired the Global Assessment, told Reuters.

"The key message: business as usual has to end."

By Gus Trompiz/Reuters

Editing by Frances Kerry and Gareth Jones.

In Iceland, turning CO2 into rock could be a big breakthrough for carbon capture

May 2, 2019 9:38


This report was produced with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Iceland is known for its unique landscape — it can even seem otherworldly. 

Drive about a half hour east of Reykjavik, and the ground seethes with steam — a bizarre, thick fog pouring out of the pebbly earth. This is because Iceland sits on top of a geological hot spot that’s pushing up from the Atlantic floor. Just about everywhere you go in Iceland, there’s hot water and steam right beneath your feet. Some of it breaks right through the surface.

And it’s more than just a curiosity. “More or less, all our electricity comes from geothermal,” said Edda Aradóttir. She works for Reykjavik Energy, which runs the Hellisheiði power plant in this part of Iceland. Geothermal steam spins the plant’s generators. It’s the sort of green energy that most of the world wants these days, but it’s not completely clean. The steam contains small amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Reykjavik Energy wanted to figure out how to keep that carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Related: How Atlanta plans to get to 100% green energy by 2035

“Whatever we can do to make geothermal even greener, we want to work on that.”

Edda Aradóttir, Reykjavik Energy

“Whatever we can do to make geothermal even greener, we want to work on that,” Aradóttir said. What they figured out was how to lock up that carbon dioxide deep underground, not as a gas that might escape again, but as a mineral bound to the basalt rock below Iceland. In other words, Reykjavik turns air into rock. The process starts by capturing the steam after it’s spun the turbines.


Because basalt is a volcanic rock located all over the world, if Reykjavik Energy's CarbFix program catches on, it could make the process attractive way beyond Iceland, in places where electricity comes from burning dirty fossil fuels.


Ari Daniel/The World 

Reykjavik Energy’s Pétur Már Gíslason showed the building where it takes place: “The gas is fed in at the bottom of this tower, and then they put the cold water in at the top,” he said. In other words, the gases get a kind of shower. The result is water filled with dissolved carbon dioxide, like a surging soda stream. Gíslason peered into the building: “You can look through the glass, but I've never been in there because here, you have high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide.”  

Related: The Green New Deal doesn't include carbon pricing. Some say that's a big mistake.

From here, all that soda water gets pumped up to a mile underground where “it reacts with the rock underneath us to produce new types of stones,” Gíslason explained. Reykjavik Energy calls this project CarbFix because the carbon is getting fixed into rock. When it began over a decade ago, the company wasn’t sure how well it would work. But Sandra Snæbjörnsdóttir, the company geologist, says it’s been successful. “We mineralized all of the CO2 that we injected during our pilot phase within two years, or about 95% of it,” she said. 

That could make the process attractive way beyond Iceland, in places where electricity comes from burning dirty fossil fuels. There’s basalt all over the world. “It covers most of the oceanic floor, but also 5% of the continents,” said Snæbjörnsdóttir.

“We have enough basalt to deal with all fossil fuel available on Earth. Theoretically, it can solve the problem.”

Edda Aradóttir, Reykjavik Energy

Aradóttir added, “We have enough basalt to deal with all fossil fuel available on Earth. Theoretically, it can solve the problem.”

Related: Shell oil says it will quit a lobbying group that opposes global climate goals

Of course, theory is different than reality. There are obstacles to widely adopting something like the CarbFix approach. But the people behind it believe it can help tackle the climate crisis. And while work on refining the process continues, Reykjavik Energy has transformed the Hellisheiði power plant into something of a laboratory for other companies working on what’s called carbon capture and storage.


The Hellisheiði geothermal plant is run by Reykjavik Energy, and it powers more than half of Iceland.


Ari Daniel/The World 

The CarbFix process captures carbon dioxide from big, single sources like power plants. But there’s already too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So, another Swiss company called Climeworks is working on the problem from a different angle. Gíslason pointed to a huddle of small buildings he refers to as the "science village."

“They are putting up a system that catches carbon dioxide straight from the air,” Gíslason said. He gestured toward a gray cylinder bolted to the side of the building. “They pull air through this cylinder,” he said. “In here is the filter system.”

Climeworks CEO Jan Wurzbacher explained: “You can imagine the filter as a sponge that captures CO2 from the air. So, in the first step, we flow air through this filter. We heat the filter to around 100 degrees Celsius. And by doing so, the CO2 is released and we extract pure concentrated CO2 from the filter.”


Climeworks, a group based in Austria, is working to filter carbon dioxide out of the air so it can be pumped into greenhouses or carbonated sodas or, in a place like Hellisheiði, into the ground.


Ari Daniel/The World 

Pulling carbon dioxide straight out of the air efficiently is a big challenge. Even with all the carbon dioxide we’ve been emitting, it’s still just a tiny part of the atmosphere. Climeworks thinks its filtration system is an affordable solution. And they see a big market for the technology in the years ahead, both for reusing some of the carbon dioxide and for storing the rest of it underground.

But first, they’ve had to prove that it works for underground storage. That’s why they’re here in Iceland. “We are combining our method of turning CO2 into rock with their method of capturing CO2 directly from ambient air,” Aradóttir said. 

The two companies say they plan to scale up their efforts, but their technologies are still a long way from moving into the mainstream. And some people actually don’t want that to happen. They fear carbon-capture technology could become an excuse for energy companies to keep on burning fossil fuels when we’re already way past the global warming danger point.

But Reykjavik Energy’s Snæbjörnsdóttir says it’s just another tool. “It’s definitely not ‘the solution,’ but it’s one of the solutions that can be used in the fight against climate change. And we will need all the solutions possible for this huge problem to be solved,” she said. 


Roughly a mile below the surface, a fissure serves as an escape hatch for scalding, pressurized water heated by the earth’s interior. A well taps that fluid, bringing it to the surface where the resulting steam drives a set of massive turbines here, flooding the power grid with a surge of electrons that fuel the toasters and televisions for tens of thousands.


Ari Daniel/The World 

'Flight shame' in Sweden prompts rail-only travel movement

Apr 30, 2019 4:31


Planes, trains and automobiles? For Swedish climate activists, only the trains will do.

Swedish activist, and 16-year-old student, Greta Thunberg, just finished a European tour to raise awareness about climate change — a nearly two-week trip completed mostly by train.

And while Thunberg is among the most well-known of Swedish climate activists, she is just one of many Swedes who regularly opt for train travel instead of often quicker plane flights.

Now awaits two days of train travel. Next stop London!

— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) April 20, 2019

The Swedish movement of flygskam, or “flight shame,” has brought awareness to the toll air travel has on the environment. According to a 2013 study, air travel has the “biggest climate impact per distance travelled,” while carpooling, bus rides and train travel are greener alternatives.

In Sweden, flygskam has also given way to tagskryt, or "train bragging."

Related: How Atlanta plans to get to 100% green energy by 2035

But the ability to make eco-conscious travel choices may be a luxury that does not apply easily across countries. For example, the US Federal Railroad Administration only brought train standards closer to those used in Europe last November.

And while Swedes earn at least 25 government-mandated days of paid vacation each year for full-time employment (plus holidays), the US Fair Labor Standards Act requires no paid vacation at all. This means even for Americans with access, many simply do not have time for lengthy train travel.

Related: How European kids are schooling politicians on climate change

Tå, which gives out travel advice and tips for people trying to cut back on plane travel, is behind the movement to promote rail-only travel in Sweden.

“I started this Facebook group because I wanted to make it easier to go by train to other countries,” said Susanna Elfors, who heads up the site. Elfors spoke with The World's Carol Hills about turning to trains to combat climate change.

Elfors says that a no-fly commitment picked up in Sweden after Greta Thunberg's mother, Malena Ernman, a well-known opera singer, announced that she would stop flying.

“And when she said, 'No, I am not flying anymore,' people thought, "Oh, if she can do that, I can also stop flying,"" Elfors said. “Some famous people after her also told her that, 'I am not going to fly.' And then the people started to change the travel habits, and it became shameful to go by plane because it's so devastating for the environment and for the climate.”

Carol Hills: I understand there's another Swedish word that's being used a lot lately tagskryt.

Susanna Elfors: Yeah, that's the opposite of flygskam. Tagskryt is train bragging. 

Do you engage in tagskryt yourself?

Yeah, I think so, and especially people in the group do because they show pictures from their train trips and so on and then they got a lot of likes.

Your Facebook page for Tågsemester is quite active, about 80,000 users. What kinds of rail-only travel advice and tips get shared on that?

Everything. But it's much like: How do I go to Barcelona? How do I go to Greece? And so on. But there are also other kinds of questions. How can I change trains in a certain city? What kind of restaurants do they have at the station? How could I bring a dog on a train? How do I bring my wheeling chair? Vegan food? Etc. So, there are so many different questions.

Are you involved in sort of encouraging more high-speed rail and linking up trains and making long trips more possible?

Yeah, kind of. We have changed the situation. In Sweden, the government has decided to put their foot on the night train lines to Europe, and they say it's because of the Facebook group. It was not our intention, but the politicians are now listening and they're very interested to discuss with us.

There's literally been a spike in rail travel in Sweden since these various efforts, including yours.

Yes. So, it has increased; so, they have been putting in new departures because the interest has increased here in Sweden, and also the domestic flying has decreased. So, it's really changing.

What about the serious issue behind all this, which is climate change and combating climate change? How serious are you about helping in that effort?

Quite serious. I worked with the sustainability and environment issues for all my adult life. But I am mostly working with housing and how to make the residential areas more sustainable. So now changed focus a bit to traveling, and I think it's a good opportunity because it's very easy for a person to really reduce their climate impact by changing their travel habits.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Brandi Fullwood and Indra Ekmanis contributed reporting.

Is an 'insect apocalypse' happening? How would we know?

Apr 30, 2019


Insects scuttle, chew and fly through the world around us. Humans rely on them to pollinate plants, prey on insects that we don’t get along with, and to be movers and shakers for Earth’s ecosystems. It’s hard to imagine a world without insects.

That’s why news reports in recent months warning of an “insect apocalypse” sparked widespread alarm. These articles, which were based on long-term insect collections and a review of past studies, suggested that people alive today will witness the indiscriminate extinction of insect-kind.

I study fungi that can be used to control harmful insects, such as pests that damage crops and mosquitoes that transmit malaria. In my world, reports of mass insect die-offs are big news. But while there clearly is reason to be concerned about certain insects, such as the endangered rusty patched bumble bee or the American burying beetle, in my view it isn’t yet possible to predict a looming insect apocalypse.

Related: The global population of flying insects is crashing dangerously fast

More than 1 million insects have been discovered and named, but many millions have yet to be described. It’s undeniable that Earth is becoming increasingly inhospitable to some insects — but nightmarish conditions for one may be heaven to another.

Put another way, there is no perfect environment for all insects. And human impacts on the environment, like climate change and land development, very well may hurt beneficial insects and help harmful ones.

Insect declines

Around the world, entomologists are looking wistfully into empty nets, and car owners are increasingly unsettled by their pristine windshields. It does not take decades of data collection and a degree to notice that in a human lifetime, our teeming world teems less.

The first study to set off alarms was published in 2017 by entomologists in Germany, who reported that over 27 years the biomass of flying insects in their traps had declined by 75%. Another study from the Luquillo Long Term Ecological Research program site in the Puerto Rican rainforest reproduced an insect survey from the 1970s. It found that the biomass of arthropods — a large group of organisms that includes insects — had declined 10- to 60-fold in that time, and that lizards, frogs and birds that ate arthropods had also declined.

Underscoring this theme, in April 2019 two scholars published a review that synthesized over 70 reports of insect decline from around the world, and predicted mass insect extinctions within a human lifetime. They took an alarmist tone, and have been widely criticized for exaggerating their conclusions and selecting studies to review with the word “decline.”

Nonetheless, these researchers had no trouble finding studies to include in their review. Many scientists are currently analyzing the roles that climate change, land use, chemical pesticides and other factors have played in reported declines in many insect species.

The end is not near

These discussions are important, but they don’t mean an insect apocalypse is underway. Predicting insect decline is hard to do without a lot of effort and data.

To predict an apocalypse, entomologists worldwide will need to conduct careful large-scale studies that involve collecting, identifying and counting many different insects. There are very few insects for which scientists have enough data now to reliably predict how many individuals there will be from year to year, let alone confidently chart a decline in each species. Most of the insects for which this information exists are species that are important for agricultural or human health, such as managed honey bees or mosquitoes.

And human actions are shifting balances between insect species. As an example, the mosquitoes that are best at spreading pathogens that cause disease have evolved to thrive near us. Entomologists call them anthropophilic, which means they love people.

Related: Giant chocolate industry depends on tiny insects for survival

That love extends to human impacts on the land. Insects that flutter from flower to flower won’t be happy when developers bulldoze a meadow and scatter tires around, but human-biting mosquitoes will be buzzing with excitement.

What else is out there?

Entomologists are uniformly concerned about the fate of insects in today’s changing world. But I believe the responsible approach is to push back on fire-and-brimstone rhetoric until detailed, large-scale studies are completed. Until then, these same gaps in our knowledge also make it hard to rule out that significant declines in diverse insects are happening. These gaps must be filled to illuminate challenges that insects face, from the inconvenient to the apocalyptic.

When the majority of insects remain to be described, it’s hard to value them. But here’s one example: Insecticide use in pear groves in China’s Sichuan Province has caused such a decline in native pollinators that beekeepers will not lend their bees to these orchards. These farmers are forced to pollinate their trees by hand — an expensive and time-consuming process if you aren’t an insect.

Similarly, native natural enemies played invisible roles in slowing the spread of the invasive brown marmorated stink bug when it was introduced into Pennsylvania in the 1990s. They included wasps that lay their eggs inside of stink bug eggs, and predatory insects and spiders that eat stink bugs eggs for breakfast.

Pollination and predation are just the start. Some insects could be sources of new drugs or traditional dyes, while others inspire artists or just provide little moments of inimitable beauty.

With so many unanswered questions, it’s clear that there is a need for more funding for biodiversity research. It is no coincidence that recent studies reporting massive insect declines came from a Long-Term Ecological Research center that is publicly funded through the National Science Foundation and from a carefully curated collection made and maintained by entomologists.

This kind of work requires money, bold foresight and dedication to science over long periods of time. But it can produce insights into how our world is changing — and that knowledge will help us prepare for the future.The Conversation

Brian Lovett is a PhD Candidate at the University of Maryland.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Earth Day has come and gone, but the work continues

Apr 28, 2019 15:56


Every April 22 since 1970, we celebrate Earth Day. And since that first Earth Day, the water in the US is cleaner and local air less polluted, but carbon pollution of the planet's entire atmosphere has gotten worse and is changing our climate.

The leadership the US government once showed on the climate crisis has almost vanished, as President Donald Trump vows to pull the country out of the landmark Paris Climate Agreement of 2015.

Related: Earth Day: Species at risk

Jonathan Pershing, who led the US delegation to the UN climate negotiations during the Obama administration and is currently the program director of environment at the Hewlett Foundation, says the cost to the US in terms of moral leadership is immense.

“The world is very clear about its own collective recognition of the severity of the problem. ... The United States actually turns out to have impacts that are significant, but they are dwarfed by the impacts that are faced by others.”

Jonathan Pershing, program director, Hewlett Foundation

“The world is very clear about its own collective recognition of the severity of the problem,” Pershing says. “The United States actually turns out to have impacts that are significant, but they are dwarfed by the impacts that are faced by others.”

In Bangladesh, for example, one foot of sea level rise will likely force 10 million people to flee the coastal regions. In Latin America, climate change is already leading to declines in agricultural productivity, loss of jobs and an increase in migration, often northward to the US.

Related: Climate change is contributing to the migration of Central American refugees

“These countries look at the US and say, ‘You are one of the reasons we are being forced to leave,’” Pershing says. “‘You, with your significant emissions — if you curtailed them, we’d have a much more promising future. Why aren't you leading? We rely on you, as a major partner in the global community, as a leader, to do just that.’ When [we] back away, that has moral consequences, it has diplomatic consequences, it has consequences in terms of how people perceive us, not only in this arena but in much wider arrays of climate and foreign policy.”

Related: In El Salvador, climate change means less coffee and more migrants

Other big emitters, like China and India, face a difficult transition away from dependence on carbon-heavy coal but are making big progress on renewable energy deployment. China is taking climate change quite seriously, Pershing says.

“The government is run by a group of people who see the science as not only credible but as urgent,” he says. “[They] see impacts around their nation as being both immediate and far-reaching, [they] have designs on the future [and they view] technology development and protecting the nation against some of the worst impacts of climate as being consistent with their vision of the future.”

Shenzen China electric bus

The city of Shenzhen, China, has the largest concentration of electric buses in the world. The transition to electric has helped reduce both smog and noise pollution.


 Hans Johnson/Flickr

Unlike the US, China has decided to go all-in on electric vehicles, Pershing notes. Transportation — primarily cars and trucks — is responsible for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and China is leading in trying to reduce them.

The city of Shenzhen, for example, has about 17,000 buses, compared to New York City, which has about 9,000. All 17,000 of Shenzen’s buses have been electrified in the last three years.

China’s policies have also been the single largest reason for global growth in renewable energy, Pershing adds. At the same time, Chinese energy demand has been growing. So, instead of retiring coal and replacing it with solar or wind, they have simply added renewables to the existing mix.

Related: Is China really stepping up as the world's new climate leader?

Where the US has replaced coal, we have done so more with natural gas — which emits carbon — than with renewables, Pershing says. For this reason, our overall emissions have not declined much. In fact, in the last couple of years, they have been inching back up, which Pershing believes is a “daunting prospect,” given the rate of change required to solve the climate problem.

China’s emissions also rose, despite their efforts to rein them in. Since the US and China are the two largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world, both countries must figure out how to change these trends or the world has only a slim chance of meeting its goals, Pershing says.

India is committed to an energy future without coal but also faces increasing demands from millions of people who still live without electricity. “They're seeing the need people have as they try to electrify the economy, so a great deal of what India has done has been additive,” Pershing explains. “We're not really seeing retirements of coal. As a consequence, Indian emissions have not gone down. They're going up.”

On a per capita basis, however, India's emissions are still about one-seventh the size of the United States', Pershing notes.

Land use also contributes to a huge share of global emissions, and changes in land use are urgently required to avoid the damages of climate change, Pershing adds. The Obama administration analyzed ways the world could achieve an 80% global reduction by the year 2050. Almost one-third of that effort would have taken place in the US from changes in land use and forestry.

This means slowing and halting deforestation; using cover crops that are modified to be more CO2 absorbent; tilling the soil in a way that sequesters carbon, instead of releasing it into the atmosphere; and adding forest lands, with trees that “act like giant sponges in the atmosphere.”

Globally, the same applies, Pershing says. We need to stop deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia and we have to manage the increase of agricultural lands and the increase of forest lands.

Related: The Amazon used to be a hedge against climate change. Those days may be over.

Nearly 50 years after the first Earth Day, much has been accomplished, but much more needs to be done, Pershing believes.

“I think we've made some huge progress in some places around local pollutants. ... We've cleaned up a great deal of the US waterways; we have much better air than we had back then, although it's getting worse again. We’re much better on things like mercury.”

Jonathan Pershing, program director, Hewlett Foundation

“I think we've made some huge progress in some places around local pollutants,” he says. “We've cleaned up a great deal of the US waterways; we have much better air than we had back then, although it's getting worse again. We’re much better on things like mercury.”

“But some of the other big problems? Not looking too good,” he emphasizes. “The climate change problem, the biodiversity problem, where we're seeing a loss of species — those problems are very big. … I would like us to recommit ourselves not only to the local things we've begun to tackle but to the big, new, global issues that we must also tackle if we're to have a life we'd like for our children and our grandchildren.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Lawsuit accusing ExxonMobil of ignoring risks from climate change moves forward

Apr 28, 2019 7:27


ExxonMobil has another climate-related lawsuit on its hands.

In 2018, the State of New York sued the company, alleging it misled investors and the public about the impacts of burning fossil fuels on the climate and the threat climate change posed to Exxon’s business. Now, a federal judge in Massachusetts is allowing a suit to go forward over climate risks related to ExxonMobil’s storage tanks near Boston Harbor.

The Conservation Law Foundation, which brought the suit in 2016, alleges that the oil giant has failed to prepare an oil storage facility in Everett, Massachusetts, against the stronger storms predicted to hit the area more frequently due to climate disruption.

Related: Climate change, a driver of Central American migration

The facility is “nestled right in the heart of a densely populated community, on a tributary to Boston Harbor, which the public in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has spent literally billions of dollars to clean up,” explains Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation. If the facility were inundated by a storm, the resulting spill would be catastrophic, Campbell says, endangering public safety, public health, public investment and the environment.

Exxon Everett MA oil storage facility A new lawsuit alleges that ExxonMobil's oil storage terminal in Everett, Massachusetts is at risk of being inundated by storm surge and sea-level rise, putting Boston Harbor and surrounding communities at risk. Credit:

Courtesy of the Conservation Law Foundation

“Every projection of a Category 1 storm puts this facility underwater, fully inundated,” Campbell explains. “We've seen in [hurricanes] Harvey, Irene and Sandy that these are the types of tanks that readily collapse when there is an inundation of that nature.”

What’s more, Campbell adds, ExxonMobil is failing to address a separate set of climate risks — namely, the consequences of increased rainfall. New England has seen a 70% increase in intense rains in recent years. These are defined as rains of two or more inches in less than 24 hours.

“Because [the facility] has been in industrial use for over a century, every drop of water that hits the ground has to be treated to remove very potent toxics, including a number of carcinogens. ... The new rain patterns are overwhelming the treatment plant at the facility and, as a result — day in, day out — when these rains come, this plant is violating its Clean Water Act permit ..."

Brad Campbell, president, Conservation Law Foundation

“Because [the facility] has been in industrial use for over a century, every drop of water that hits the ground has to be treated to remove very potent toxics, including a number of carcinogens,” Campbell explains. “The new rain patterns are overwhelming the treatment plant at the facility and, as a result — day in, day out — when these rains come, this plant is violating its Clean Water Act permit with major exceedances of very potent toxics going into the Mystic River system — in some cases, thousands of times their permitted level.”

Related: How European kids are schooling politicians on climate change

This “toxic stew” includes substances people have heard about before: PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), benzene, toluene and xylene, for example. But a “more exotic set” of potent carcinogens also appears in ExxonMobil's own discharge monitoring reports, which show “very serious and very frequent violations of their Clean Water Act permit,” Campbell says.

Should the lawsuit eventually come to trial, Conservation Law Foundation seeks several remedies.

First, Exxon should pay civil penalties for the hundreds of violations at the facility. Second, they must make improvements and upgrades to the stormwater treatment system in order to stop toxics from flowing directly into the Boston Harbor ecosystem. Third, Campbell says, they must implement the necessary safeguards and protections to ensure either that the facility does not become inundated in the case of extreme weather or if it is inundated, that the tanks, pipes and other infrastructure are protected, or designed in a way that enables them to withstand powerful storms.

Related: Mayor Pete seeks 'generational alliance' to tackle climate change

While it would seem that protecting its own facilities from damage is in Exxon's best interest, the company is actually making a different calculation, Campbell says.

In the short term, by doing nothing, Exxon saves the cost of improving the treatment system and fortifying the tanks against inundation. In the long term, if a catastrophic spill does occur, the public will bear some of the costs.

“The families and businesses that will have oil and toxics flowing through their basements and into their homes will be bearing a cost,” Campbell says. “The taxpayers of the region who paid billions to clean up Boston Harbor, which is now a jewel of economic and urban rebirth in Boston, will suffer a terrible cost. Not all of those costs will fall on Exxon, and that's why it's important that we have statutes like the federal Clean Water Act.”

These statutes require Exxon and other companies to use “best engineering practice,” Campbell explains. Best engineering practice, Campbell says, means looking not just at what's happened in the past, but at what the science says is happening now and what lies ahead. That is, more intense extreme weather events coupled with rising seas.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Microplastics have even been blown into a remote corner of the Pyrenees

Apr 26, 2019


Microplastics have been discovered in a remote area of the French Pyrenees mountains. The particles traveled through the atmosphere and were blown into the once-pristine region by the wind, according to a new study published in Nature Geoscience.

This is just the latest example of the “hidden risks” posed by plastics that humans cannot see with the naked eye. For now, governments and activists are focused on avoiding plastic litter in the environment, driven mainly by concern for wildlife and worries over unsightly drinks bottles or abandoned fishing nets on beaches. Plastic bag usage has been cut in many parts of the world, and various projects are exploring how to gather up the floating plastic waste in oceans. But little has yet been done to deal with polluting plastic particles that are usually invisible.

Related: If you're drinking tap water, you're consuming plastic pollutants

There is, however, growing concern about these micro and nanoplastics, classified as particles smaller than 5mm. These come in part from deliberately manufactured sources, such as scrubbing materials in cleaning and cosmetic products, but also from secondary sources, such as the inevitable breaking up or wearing down of larger items such as tires or fibers shed from tumble driers and washing machines. We are becoming increasingly aware of their presence but know surprisingly little about how much is out there, how it behaves in our environment and what the implications are for human and animal well-being.

As more studies publish their findings we are learning that microplastics are more widespread than we imagined, and that they are found in every environmental system investigated. Plastic particles have been found in record-breaking quantities in river sediments in the UK, for instance, while a study in Paris found plastic fibers in wastewater and the air.

map of pyrenees

The Pyrenees separate Spain and France. 


Eric Gaba/wiki, CC BY-SA

This is perhaps to be expected in built-up and polluted urban environments, but the new findings from the Bernadouze meteorological station in the Pyrenees are a different matter. This part of the mountain range is normally considered clean and pristine, not somewhere scientists would expect to find contamination. But the researchers looked for airborne plastic by collecting samples of atmospheric “fallout” over a five-month period. And they did indeed find microplastics, lots of them, in the form of tiny fragments, fibers and films. While their exact source is a mystery they were shown to have potentially traveled up to 150 miles.

Related: Teen scientist helped discover golf balls polluting ocean

Particles have also been found in deep ocean floor sediments, far from immediate sources of pollution, carried there by ocean currents and settling slowly. Other research has identified some astonishing ways microplastics can move between one environmental sub-system and others. Alongside the obvious route of direct ingestion by animals who become prey for others higher in the food chain, it is now apparent that there are other more innocuous routeways, such as mosquito larvae in water ingesting plastics that are then retained in their bodies as the animals become flying insects. This releases particles into the atmosphere allowing them to float for thousands of miles, or to be inhaled.

Should we be worried?

The amount of plastic in the environment has increased and we are still making lots more. It stands to reason that microplastics are going be with us for a while yet, since plastic itself has many beneficial uses. If these fragments were unreactive and harmless they would not pose a threat, but unfortunately, the risks are not yet fully understood.

Related: Burn it or bury it? Europe ponders future as plastic waste piles up.

Alongside the issues associated with inadvertent ingestion of large volumes of material without any nutritional value, there are some hidden risks. Microplastics have a relatively large surface area and so could potentially provide sites for surface reactions and act as rafts for organic pollution. Given that microplastics are turning up in drinking water and food we need to do more work to understand the risks to health and work out ways to manage this risk. A study that found microplastics in a fish liver raised concerns that plastic can cross the gut if it is ingested.

Related: Update: Why Canada (and now the US) is banning microbeads

The trouble is, these plastics are so small they are not easy to remove from the environment once they get there. The key is preventing their escape into the environment in the first place. Focusing on the bigger plastics we can see may be a distraction from this potentially larger problem in the air we breathe and the food we eat, but tackling the problem at the source could go a long way to helping with damage limitation.The Conversation

Sharon George is a lecturer in environmental science at Keele University and Carolyn Roberts is an entrepreneur in residence at the Mercia Centre for Innovation Leadership at Keele University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Unprecedented floods in Iran have brought people together

Apr 26, 2019 6:54


Since March, Iran has been ravaged by record rainfall and unprecedented flash flooding. At least 26 of 31 provinces have been impacted by the deadly floods. 

One city received 70% of its annual rainfall in a single day. Dozens of people have died.

"This is the largest disaster to hit Iran in more than 15 years," Zahra Falahat, the Iranian Red Crescent’s under secretary general for international affairs and international humanitarian law, said in a statement. "Entire villages [were] washed away in a matter of minutes, countless homes and buildings [were] damaged and completely destroyed.

Related: In El Salvador, climate change means less coffee, and more migrants

Pictures and videos posted on social media show total destruction. A video posted on Twitter shows cars and trucks being tossed around in the water, like toys. One car floats by while a man clings to its roof.

The Iranian government has been accused of mismanaging the response to the disaster, with some residents of afflicted areas complaining that action has been slow and insufficient. 

But Iran's Red Crescent has repeatedly complained that US banking sanctions reimposed last year make it impossible to receive donations from outside the country. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put the blame on Iran's leaders.

Related: Legally, 'climate refugees' don't exist. But in Georgia, they say they're already here.

"These floods once again show the level of Iranian regime mismanagement in urban planning and in emergency preparedness. The regime blames outside entities when, in fact, it is their mismanagement that has led to this disaster," Pompeo said in a statement.

Ali Asaei, resident of Tehran decieded to collect donations for residents in the flooded areas.

Ali Asaei, who lives in Tehran, Iran, collected donations for residents of the flooded areas.


Ali Asaei

While the political finger-pointing continues, Iranian volunteers have been stepping up to help.

One of them is Ali Asaei, a Tehran-based photographer. 

Speaking from his home, Asaei says when he heard about the floods, he knew immediately he had to help.

After all, he’d seen how messy aid distribution can get in Iran in the aftermath of disasters. Last year, after an earthquake hit western Iran, he volunteered to help. He says he saw some survivors receive an abundance of aid while others went without. 

After the recent floods, Asaei posted a story on his Instagram page and asked for donations. In just one day, he collected about $6,000, mostly from his friends and family. Then, he went shopping. He bought tents, blankets and sanitary napkins, something that he says people often forget in times of disasters. 

Through friends and connections, he made sure the roads were safe enough to pass and that his presence wouldn't hurt any other relief effort on the ground. Then, he loaded the supplies to the back of his SUV and headed toward western Iran.

Asaei shared a recording from one arduous trek to deliver aid to a small village that's completely surrounded by water from an overflowing river. There is no road — just water. Eventually, Asaei and a couple of other men find a boat. When they cross to the other side, locals run toward them to collect the aid.

Having volunteered to help after a string of disasters in recent years, Asaei says he's conflicted. On the one hand, he says, he doesn’t want to do what the government should be doing. On the other, he knows if people like him don’t help, maybe nobody will. 

The Iranian government didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Kaveh Madani, who used to be the deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment, said he is disturbed about the response to the floods. "To see the people of your country going through all these troubles which could have been avoided with some planning and foresight," he said.

Madani went to school in the US and Europe. In 2017, he went back to Iran to work at the Ministry of Environment. He was critical of the government’s environmental policies — specifically, how it has mishandled water management for decades. "There was a group of hard-liners and radicals who were operating for years in a certain way. They were not happy with my statements," Madani said.

"They blamed me for my efforts to ratify the Paris Agreement, arguing that I wanted to limit development in the country, you know — the same argument that Donald Trump is making about the Paris Agreement and how destructive it is to the economy."

Kaveh Madani, Yale University, researcher

Among other things, he thought the government was ignoring the effects of climate change on rainfall. And the need to better prepare. The response was fierce: "They called me a 'water terrorist;' they called me a "bioterrorist,"" explained Madani. "They blamed me for my efforts to ratify the Paris Agreement, arguing that I wanted to limit development in the country, you know — the same argument that Donald Trump is making about the Paris Agreement and how destructive it is to the economy."

After roughly six months on the job, Madani resigned. He left Iran and is now a researcher at Yale University.

Today, he shakes his head at the Iranian government’s response to the floods.

"You know, why they’re operating this way. Why they’re not prepared at all for evacuation and rescuing the victims and so on."

Young volunteers give free haircuts to survivors of floods in Khuzestan province in Western Iran.

Young volunteers give free haircuts to flood survivors in western Iran's Khuzestan Province. 


Ali Asaei

Meanwhile, neighboring countries like Afghanistan and Iraq have also been impacted by the floods. 

And the governments in the region weren’t the only ones caught off guard.

Jay Famiglietti directs the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. He’s studied water and climate change for decades.

"For someone like me who is a hydrologist and a climate scientist who’s been watching this region just dry out progressively for about a third of my professional career and then to turn on the news a month ago and start to hear about all these floods, it’s really crazy."

Jay Famiglietti, Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan

"For someone like me who is a hydrologist and a climate scientist who’s been watching this region just dry out progressively for about a third of my professional career and then to turn on the news a month ago and start to hear about all these floods, it’s really crazy," Famiglietti said.

Climate change is leading to more extreme weather around the world, he says. It is causing worse droughts, heat waves and bigger storms.

It can also mean more sudden swings between these extremes.

Famiglietti says climate change probably played a role in the flip between drought and flood in Iran.

"Another way to think of it is, would this have happened with the severity if climate change were not happening? And the answer is probably no," he said. 

Famiglietti believes this is the new reality. And countries like Iran need to get ready.

"With this increasing frequency of these catastrophic floods, we do have to ramp up our emergency response, our preparedness all over the world," he said.

Editor's note: Full disclosure: Ali Asaei is a friend of the reporter's. 

China's Xi says Belt and Road must be green, sustainable

Apr 26, 2019


In a speech opening a summit on China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), President Xi Jinping said the massive infrastructure project must be green and sustainable.

Xi's plan to rebuild the old Silk Road to connect China with Asia, Europe and beyond has become mired in controversy as some partner nations have bemoaned the high cost of infrastructure projects.

China has not said exactly how much the ambitious plan will cost, but some independent estimates suggest it will run into several trillion dollars.

Beijing has repeatedly said it is not seeking to trap countries that sign up to BRI with debt, and will use this week's summit in Beijing to address those concerns and recalibrate the policy.

Listen: China's ‘One Belt, One Road’ showcase

Xi said in a keynote speech on Friday that environmental protection must underpin the initiative "to protect the common home we live in."

"Operate in the sun and fight corruption together with zero tolerance," Xi said.

"Building high-quality, sustainable, risk-resistant, reasonably priced, and inclusive infrastructure will help countries to fully utilize their resource endowments," he added.

Unlike the first summit in 2017, where Xi said Chinese banks will lend 380 billion yuan ($56.4 billion) to support BRI cooperation, he did not give a figure for new financing support.

However, Xi will give another speech on Saturday.

Western governments have tended to view the plan as a means to spread Chinese influence abroad, saddling poor countries with unsustainable debt.

While most of the BRI projects are continuing as planned, some have been caught up by changes in government in countries such as Malaysia and the Maldives.

Those that have been shelved for financial reasons include a power plant in Pakistan and an airport in Sierra Leone, and Beijing has rebuffed critics by saying that not one country has been burdened with so-called "debt traps."

Since 2017, the finance ministries of 28 countries have called on governments, financial institutions and companies from BRI countries to work together to build a long-term, stable and sustainable financing system to manage risks, China's finance ministry said in a report released on Thursday.

Debt sustainability has to be taken into account when mobilizing funds, the ministry said in the report, which outlined a framework for use in analyzing debt sustainability of low-income BRI nations and managing debt risks.  

Xi launched BRI in 2013, and according to data from Refinitiv, the total value of projects in the scheme stands at $3.67 trillion, spanning countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, Oceania and South America.

"The BRI is an extraordinarily ambitious vision. To turn that vision into a sustainable reality, it must work for everyone involved."

Philip Hammond, British finance minister

"The BRI is an extraordinarily ambitious vision. To turn that vision into a sustainable reality, it must work for everyone involved," British finance minister Philip Hammond said at the summit.

The potential benefits are clear, but to deliver them, BRI must operate according to the highest global standards with all parties working together within the rules-based international system to create genuine win-win outcomes for all, he said.

Chinese promises

The BRI will also create development opportunities for China just as the country itself is further opening its markets to the world, Xi said.

He said China will "improve laws and regulations, regulate government behavior at all levels in administrative licensing, market supervision and other areas, and clean up and abolish unreasonable regulations, subsidies and practices that impede fair competition and distort the market."

Xi promised to significantly shorten the negative list for foreign investments, and allow foreign companies to take a majority stake or set up wholly-owned companies in more sectors.

Tariffs will be lower and non-tariff barriers will be eliminated, he added.  

China also aims to import more services and goods, and is willing to import competitive agricultural products and services to achieve trade balance.  

Visiting leaders

Summit attendees include Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, a close China ally and among the biggest recipients of BRI investment, as well as Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy, which recently became the first G7 country to sign on.

Khan told the summit that in a world of uncertainty, the initiative offered "a model of collaboration, partnership, connectivity and shared prosperity."

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen took aim at critics who have described Belt and Road as a debt trap, pointing to the successful example of a Chinese-funded highway between Phnom Penh and the port city of Sihanoukville.  

"Cambodia has not only been able to plan this project for the benefit of the people but also achieve financial engineering that does not increase public debt to the state," he said, in comments translated into English.

European countries have signaled their willingness to participate in the BRI, but key states like France and Germany have said China must in turn improve access and fair competition for foreign firms.

Major European Union countries want to sign a memorandum of understanding on the BRI as a group and not as individual states, German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said.

The United States, which has not joined the Belt and Road, is expected to send only lower-level officials, and nobody from Washington.

"We continue to have serious concerns that China's infrastructure diplomacy activities ignore or weaken international standards and best practices related to development, labor protections, and environmental protection," a spokesman for the US Embassy in Beijing said.  

By Brenda Goh and Cate Cadell/Reuters

Reporting by Brenda Goh and Cate Cadell; Additional reporting by Tony Munroe, Stella Qiu, Ryan Woo, Yilei Sun, and Tom Daly; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Darren Schuettler.

In El Salvador, climate change means less coffee, and more migrants

Apr 24, 2019 5:26


The elderly woman walked through the field of baby coffee plants, watering them one by one. It was another bad year.

She has worked here since she was a kid — she reckons she has done just about every job there is on the farm in Sonsonate, El Salvador — and remembers when every coffee plant would yield three baskets of seeds.

“Now, they’re small,” Yolanda del Carmen Marín said wistfully. “The harvest — it’s disappearing little by little.”

Several people are shown standing and some sitting next to a stone wall.

Locals sit at a bus stop in San Isidro, El Salvador. Coffee was once one of the main agricultural items produced in the area.


Alicia Vera/The World

The decline of El Salvador’s coffee industry goes back decades and is the result of a lot of problems: the low price of coffee on the market, lack of investment in the farms and agricultural pests. But farmers, agricultural experts and environmental academics also point to another factor compounding the challenges: climate change.

Related: Nayib Bukele: El Salvador’s young social media star — and next president

Coffee exports, once the backbone of El Salvador’s economy, have fallen by more than half in the last 10 years, according to the Salvadoran Coffee Council. And as production has plummeted, work has dried up. El Salvador’s coffee industry has lost more than 80,000 jobs over the same period, contributing to the wave of migration north.

Nearly 20% of the population of this tiny Central American country now lives in the US.  

“In past decades, you had hundreds of thousands of people working on coffee farms to harvest coffee and to process it. Because of the low production and low investment in coffee, a lot of those farm workers are choosing to migrate to earn seasonal income rather than to work on coffee farms.”

Paul Hicks, Catholic Relief Services,  a coffee and water specialist

“In past decades, you had hundreds of thousands of people working on coffee farms to harvest coffee and to process it. Because of the low production and low investment in coffee, a lot of those farmworkers are choosing to migrate to earn seasonal income rather than to work on coffee farms,” said Paul Hicks, a coffee and water specialist with Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador.

Two coffee workers are shown unloading small plants from the back of a truck.

Coffee farmers unload a truck filled with coffee plants at Finca San Isidro in San Isidro, El Salvador.


Alicia Vera/The World

The San Isidro coffee farm, where del Carmen works, is a microcosm of what’s happening across El Salvador. Instead of 10 workers dedicated to watering the plants, there are just two. Dozens of women used to sift through the coffee beans, picking out the substandard ones. Now, it’s just a handful.

Related: Commentary: The border wall problem few of us are talking about? Climate change.

“There used to be tons of people who worked here,” said Óscar René Turcios, the overseer who estimates he’s been working on the farm for 45 years. He said in the 1970s, the farm produced around 4,000 tons of coffee. This year, it’s producing only around 300 tons, a decline even from the last couple of years, when production was already low.

“The fall of coffee, we also know it’s because of La Roya more than anything,” he said, referring to a fungus that decimated coffee harvests across Central America in 2012 and 2013. And the effects of La Roya, or coffee leaf rust, are still being felt, Turcios said, because it left the plants debilitated.

A wide shot photograph of several buildings connected to many pipes.

The coffee processing plant at the Finca San Isidro in San Isidro, El Salvador.


Alicia Vera/The World

Climate change has made things worse still. Turcios said in recent years, the normal rainy season — which starts in May — has been dry. Instead, the rains sometimes come early, which makes the coffee plants flower, but then the rains stop and things dry up.

The normal rainy season arrives late, or not all.

“It’s been a big problem,” he said, the deep lines on his face furrowing even more.

Related: UN compact recognizes climate change as driver of migration for first time

This erratic weather is taking a big toll, agricultural experts say, compounding the challenges for coffee farmers at a critical moment.

Mounts of sandy-colored coffee beans are show with a green sign in the middle.

Coffee beans sit on the floor of the warehouse of the Finca San Isidro in San Isidro, El Salvador.


Alicia Vera/The World

“Climate change, rising temperatures, longer dry periods makes trees weaker and therefore more susceptible to coffee leaf rust and other diseases,” said Hicks, the specialist with Catholic Relief Services.

The question of investment is also key. Experts say there are ways to deal with the impacts of climate change and disease on coffee, like better irrigation systems and planting new, more pest-resistant varieties.

“The problem is that it requires money. And many of these farmers are already hurting for money.”

Edwin Castellanos, Universidad del Valle Guatemala, dean of research 

“The problem is that it requires money. And many of these farmers are already hurting for money,” said Edwin Castellanos, dean of research at Universidad del Valle de Guatemala. Guatemala is also facing similar challenges from climate change and disease.

“The central governments are working on this, but they don’t have enough manpower or monetary resources to do this,” Castellanos said. “And even if you have the money to change to a new variety, it means you are going to have to wait four or five years without production because the new plants are going to have to grow. And so that means the farmer will have to be able resist for so many years without having any harvest.”

Castellanos says hundreds of thousands of Central American farmers have lost all or part of their crops due to droughts over the last five years. And the World Bank estimates that climate change could displace somewhere between a million and a half to nearly 4 million people in Mexico and Central America over the next 30 years.

A man wearing a white shirt is shown walking through a large warehouse with large bags of coffee stacked.

José Antonio Mendoza walks through the warehouse where they store their coffee at the Finca San Isidro in San Isidro, El Salvador. Mendoza oversees the nursery on the property.


Alicia Vera/The World

No one knows how much that will add to the flow of migrants toward the US. But it’s clear that climate-related trouble in El Salvador’s coffee industry is already adding to the migrant pressure in the region.

“There’s no work here,” said del Carmen, who counts herself lucky to be among the few with even part-time work on the farm. And the prospects, often, aren’t much better elsewhere. Del Carmen said that after leaving the farm a few years ago to study, her daughter could only find work selling pupusas, or corn pancakes. Last October, her daughter joined the big migrant caravan headed to the US, bringing her family with her.

Del Carmen’s co-worker Reyna de Jesús López wishes she could join one of those caravans. She makes around $30 a week sifting through sacks of coffee for substandard beans — hardly enough to get by. So instead, she sent her 12-year-old-son to the US to live with a relative.

“Sometimes, he tells me he wants to come back,” she said. “I tell him, ‘What are you going to do here? There are no opportunities for young people.’”

Earth Day: Species at risk

Apr 22, 2019


Earth Day Network, the organizing group that leads Earth Day worldwide, is focusing its efforts for the annual event in 2019 by identifying 14 species that are key to their ecosystems and face endangerment from human activity.

"The unprecedented global destruction and rapid reduction of plant and wildlife populations are directly linked to causes driven by human activity: climate change, deforestation, habitat loss, trafficking and poaching, unsustainable agriculture, pollution and pesticides to name a few," Earth Day Network writes on its website. "The impacts are far reaching."

Here are the 14 species:


A bee is covered with pollen as it sits on a blade of grass at a lawn in Klosterneubur, Austria. Credit:

Heinz-Peter Bader /Reuters

The bee shown above sits on a blade of grass on a lawn in Klosterneuburg, Austria. The European Commission said on Monday it would go ahead and impose a temporary ban on three of the world's most widely used pesticides because of fears they harm bees, despite EU governments failing to agree on the issue.

In a vote on Monday, EU officials could not decide whether to impose a two-year ban — with some exceptions — on a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, produced mainly by Germany's Bayer and Switzerland's Syngenta. The Commission proposed the ban in January after EU scientists said the chemicals posed an acute risk to honeybees, which pollinate many of the crops grown commercially in Europe.


Giraffes are seen at the Singita Grumeti Game Reserve in Tanzania. Credit:

Baz Ratner/Reuters

The world's tallest mammals have declined in population, from 155,000 in 1985 to just 80,000 in 2018. The curious creatures drive ecotourism and conservation, which help protect other wildlife in their ecosystem.

The herbivores also play a key role in plant growth, spreading seeds from the fruits and plants they eat. Acacia trees, their main source of food, are under threat from climate change and habitat loss. Giraffes are also poached for their tails and meat, and hunted as trophies.

Coral Reefs

Tourists stand in front of huts that form part of the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort where a turtle digs for food amongst the coral in the island's lagoon, north-east of the town of Bundaberg in Queensland, Australia Credit:

David Gray/Reuters

These tropical and subtropical features, found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, are home to more than a quarter of the planet's marine life — and have a key role for eco-tourism and fisheries. They are threatened by ocean acidification from climate change; pollution from sunscreens, agriculture, sewage and chemicals; coastal development; overfishing; and tourism-related destruction from stepping and anchoring on reefs. Twenty-five percent of reefs around the world are considered damaged beyond repair, and close to 65 percent are under serious threat.


An albino Southern Right whale is photographed from above, swimming in the waters of the Atlantic Sea. Credit:

Maxi Jonas/Reuters

These marine mammals are facing steep population declines worldwide. Their role in ocean ecosystems is complex: They recycle nutrients by feeding at lower depths and releasing them near the surface, and become food for bottom-dwelling species when they die and sink to the ocean floor.

Their dung provides nutrients for photosynthesizing plankton — scientists estimate that nearly half of the oxygen we breathe comes from this process. These creatures are believed to possess intelligence comparable to humans, with social organization, empathy, speech and knowledge-sharing. Whales are threatened by water and noise pollution, becoming entangled in commercial fishing equipment, commercial hunting, collisions with watercraft and climate change.


A whirlwind is seen as elephant and zebras walk through the Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Credit:

Baz Ratner/Reuters

The world's largest land animals are capable of complex feelings and thoughts, and have great memory storage and recall in their five-kilogram brains. They attract eco-tourism, which protects wilderness for many species, and are an important link in ecosystems, creating watering holes and spreading seeds for new growth. Elephants are under threat from poaching — over 20,000 are killed for their tusks and skin every year — as well as habitat loss from expanding human populations and climate change.


A swarm of painted lady butterflies land on a Carolina cherry tree as they migrate north from Mexico through Encinitas, California. Credit:

Mike Blake/Reuters

Insects collectively make up 80 percent of all the world's known species — with 200 million insects for every human on Earth. But overall populations have declined 45 percent over the past four decades, causing risks to plant pollination necessary for food production.

Insects are a key component of global ecosystems: Some insects keep other bugs from destroying crops, while others are a food source for other species. Insects are the most vulnerable to climate change, and are also endangered by habitat loss, pesticide use and invasive species.


The Aurora Borealis is seen over the sky near the village of Pallas of Lapland, Finland. Credit:

Alexander Kuznetsov/Reuters

Forests play a vital role in ecosystems: Regulating and maintaining carbon balance; providing shelter for animals; creating nutrient-rich soil; and contributing to the water cycle. Trees are also a major economic contributor through the forestry industry. They are under threat from deforestation, climate change, invasive insects and fires.


Giant fennel plants are seen on a hillside overlooking Gnejna Bay, outside the village of Mgarr, Malta. Credit:

Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

There are more than 380,000 different plant species on Earth, that provide us with food, herbal and pharmaceutical medicine and oxygen. Climate change degrades the soil they grow in and raises sea levels.

Invasive species create competition for resources to the detriment of native plants, while habitat loss comes in the form of urban or agricultural development and fires. Pesticides and insecticides can harm plants and their pollinators, while crop patents reduce biodiversity.


A murmuration of migrating starlings is seen across the sky near the village of Beit Kama in southern Israel. Credit:

Amir Cohen/Reuters

There are roughly 11,000 species of birds, with nearly 40 percent facing significant decline. Birds are scavengers, eliminating waste and remains and eating unwanted agricultural pests. Migratory birds help move seeds and nutrients during their travels. Bird-watching contribute some $40 billion in revenue annually in the United States alone. Among the threats to these creatures are habitat loss, deforestation, climate change and severe weather, plastic and pesticide pollution, and illegal trafficking.


Sandbar sharks swim around during a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii. Credit:

Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Humans are the greatest threat to these apex predators, which have no known marine predators. Sharks maintain the balance of marine populations below them in the food chain. Without sharks, mid-level species would overconsume creatures at the bottom of the food chain.

It can also affect human food supply: When sharks disappear, fish stocks that humans rely on for industry also collapse. Between 2000 and 2010, some 100 million sharks were killed annually — many hunted for their meat and fins or caught by trawling boats as bycatch. Climate change alters their habitats, affecting their ability to reproduce and find food.


Visitors look at bluefin tunas swimming in a tank at the Tokyo Sea Life Park in Tokyo, Japan. Credit:

Toru Hanai/Reuters

There are an estimated 32,000 different species of fish worldwide, 33 percent of which are being fished at unsustainable levels. Overfishing is a destabilizing force in marine ecosystems that affects the entire aquatic food web.

Fish are also an economic driver, with some 120 million people dependent on these species for their incomes. Climate change disrupts their migration, reduces their sizes and threatens the reefs and other habitats that they shelter in. Pollution is also a major threat, with chemicals, waste, fertilizer and oil spills causing harm to fish populations and affecting the seafood that humans eat.


Crabs coming from the surrounding forests gather near the sea to spawn in Playa Giron, Cuba. Credit:

Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

These creatures with exoskeletons are some of the oldest animals on Earth. More than 50,000 known species can be found in fresh and saltwater habitats, playing an important role as food sources for marine animals, recycling nutrients as filter feeders, and decomposing dead organisms.

Crustaceans are also economically important: Blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay of the US generated an estimated $78 million in 2009 alone. They are threatened by ocean acidification which weakens their shells, loss of habitat on coral reefs, overfishing, and plastic pollution — ingesting microplastics that can travel up through the food chain.

Sea turtles

Tourists snorkel near a sea turtle as it looks for food amongst the coral. Credit:

David Gray/Reuters

These marine reptiles are some of the oldest creatures on Earth, and can be found around the world in tropical and subtropical areas. Though they lay their eggs in sandy coastal areas, they spend their entire lives at sea, feeding on seagrass and foraging in coral reefs.

Demand for their eggs, meat, skin and shells has led to a rapid decline in their populations. Sea turtles are also threatened by coastal development and human disruption of nesting sites, becoming bycatch in fishing nets and lines, mistaking plastic pollution for food, and global warming.

Great apes

A male orangutan waits at a feeding station at Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia. Credit:

Darren Whiteside/Reuters

Gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos are the four species of great apes, which possess DNA that is closest to humans. They have shown great intelligence, displaying altruism by sharing food, using tools and saving them for future tasks.

Great apes are sources of tourism, generating revenue for local communities and funding protection for the creatures and their habitats. They are threatened most by: Habitat loss from agriculture, logging and development; deforestation for palm oil; fires, droughts and rainfall from climate change; and illegal trade and captivity.

A struggling mining town in Ukraine looks to one of their own as leading presidential candidate

Apr 19, 2019


Yury Milobog, a local deputy in the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih in eastern Ukraine, likes to tell the story of how he once helped presidential hopeful Volodmyr Zelenskiy participate in a comedy show in Russia. 

It was 1998, and then 20-year-old Zelenskiy had just created 95 Kvartal, or Quarter 95, a comedy group named after a Kryvyi Rih neighborhood.

Man sits at his desk typing on laptop.

Yury Milobog, a local deputy in the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih in eastern Ukraine, likes to tell the story of how he once helped presidential hopeful Volodmyr Zelenskiy participate in a comedy show in Russia.


Fabrice Deprez/The World 

Milobog had opened a shop near the university where Zelenskiy was a student and one day, Zelenskiy approached him with a request. The young Zelenskiy was raising funds to participate in the next season of KVN, a Russian improv comedy competition dating back to the Soviet Union. 

“He was straightforward, so I decided to help him,” Milobog says.

He gave the group a hundred dollars to pay for the train to Sochi, a seaside resort in southern Russia where the competition took place. It wasn’t for nothing: 95 Kvartal would end up winning multiple seasons of KVN and make its “captain” — Volodymyr Zelenskiy — Kryvyi Rih’s most famous personality.

Now, the possibility of Zelenskiy’s win in Ukraine's presidential elections has catapulted Kryvyi Rih into the spotlight, an unusual situation for this remote, industrial city. 

Polls conducted between Ukraine's two election rounds now see Zelenskiy poised to win the presidency on Sunday, April 21, by a landslide, with several surveys saying the comedian could capture more than 70% of the vote. In the first round on March 31, polling stations across Kryvyi Rih recorded votes of over 50% for the comedian, while incumbent president Petro Poroshenko was unable to gather more than 7% of the vote. 

Related: This Ukrainian presidential candidate is challenging language divisions with a message of unity

Neither Milobog nor anyone in the city expected Zelenskiy to become known as a political figure who, in early 2019, jumped into Ukraine’s presidential race despite a total local of experience, and went on to emerge as the surprise front-runner of the election. 

“We are a bit isolated from the rest of Ukraine, people are focused on themselves here,” says Yuliy Morozov, a local activist.

Kryvyi Rih is one of Ukraine’s largest metallurgical centers and the nation’s biggest city without the status of regional capital. The 62-mile long city is surrounded by quarries, iron mines, steel and coke-processing facilities that expanded by following the region’s rich iron deposits. It is also one of Ukraine’s most polluted areas — the town registers one of the highest rates of lung cancer in Ukraine.

Kryvyi Rih stands almost unanimously behind Zelenskiy, hoping their hometown candidate will make much-needed changes to improve the depressed economy.

Zelenskiy’s victory is all but certain here, but it’s not just because of the comedian’s origins: Alexander Vilkul, another presidential candidate in the first round with established roots in Kryvyi Rih — his father is the mayor — registered returns far below Zelenskiy’s.

“People are disappointed,” explains Elena Krivoruchkina, a professor at Kyiv State Economic University and a volunteer at Zelenskiy’s local campaign office. “They work in mines, in difficult conditions, and they haven’t seen anything change.” 

Like the rest of Ukraine, the main driver of the Zelenskiy vote isn’t necessarily the comedian himself, but rather a rejection of Poroshenko. Speaking just before a conference organized on the post-industrial future of Kryvyi Rih, activist Morozov says “there were huge expectations in 2014 [for Poroshenko] and then an equally huge disappointment.”

In the aftermath of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, which saw the ousting of then-president Viktor Yanukovych, times were tough for Krivhy Rih residents. Ukraine entered a deep economic crisis that swept the city as Russia annexed Crimea and started propping up separatist groups in eastern Ukraine that eventually captured and held sway of territories.

Related: Ukrainian Orthodox Church gains independence from Moscow

“It was difficult,” recalls Serhiy Plichko, the chief financial officer of mining company ArcelorMittal Kryvyi Rih branch. With more than 23,000 employees working in iron mines, ore and coke processing facilities and steel workshops, the company is one of two economic giants in the city — along with rival Metinvest, a steel-making company owned by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov.

Known as Kryvorizhstal until 2005, ArcelorMittal traces its roots back to the Soviet times — its impressive mural praising Lenin and Soviet workers at the company entrance makes this history clear. 

Mosaic of Soviet design in front of mining company entrance.

The entrance of ArcelorMittal Kryvyi Rih branch features a Soviet-era mosaic.


Fabrice Deprez/The World

The company used to import a sizeable portion of the coal needed for its coke production from regions of Ukraine that are now outside government control. This has forced management to find new sources of coal in the US and, Plichko admits after a long pause — Russia. The company’s spokesperson later added Kazakhstan to the list. 

At the same time, tensions over work conditions rose inside the company, and strikes erupted in 2017 and again in 2018, at which time the steel giant agreed to increase its payroll by 30%.

Could the election of homegrown Zelenskiy as president lead to a significant change in the struggling city? 

“I hope,” answers Sergey Barabashuk, the local head of an independent miner trade union.

A miner for 13 years and union leader for two and a half years, Barabashuk is keeping his expectations low. Most mines are refusing to invest in new equipment and working conditions have barely changed since he started working, he says. Some mining specialists can make up to $1,000 a month, but Baranashuk says the average salary remains below $500 a month, too low for such a dangerous job. Back in February, two workers were found dead in an iron mine north of the city.

Related: Ukraine's ultranationalists are at the polls, even without a candidate

Krivoruchkina, the volunteer at Zelenskiy’s office, believes environmental protection is one area where the new president could enact some changes. But she also remains cautious: “Things won’t change in a day,” she says.

Red campaign billboard says

A campaign billboard in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, shows the hidden face of Petro Poroshenko next to the word "The end." Incumbent President Poroshenko's campaign team denounced the billboards as black PR.


Fabrice Deprez/The World

Migobolov says the first round of the presidential election was the “cleanest” the city had seen since Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union and that fraudulent elections like the ones he saw when he ran for mayor in 2014 “would be much harder to do today,” due to overall greater transparency. 

But the local deputy who helped finance Zelenskiy’s trip to Sochi back in the '90s, says he won’t go to the polls on Sunday. Poroshenko failed to reform the country, he believes, but Zelenskiy might prove too weak a figure to govern efficiently. 

Newly confirmed interior secretary suppressed information on pesticide risks, documents show

Apr 18, 2019 10:26


Former oil and agribusiness lobbyist David Bernhardt is the Trump administration’s new secretary of the interior and, like his predecessor Ryan Zinke, he is already dogged by allegations of ethical missteps from his time as deputy secretary, which began in 2017.

Recently, over 84,000 pages of documents surfaced alleging that Bernhardt interfered with a US Fish and Wildlife Service report on the dangers the pesticides chlorpyrifos, malathion and diazinon pose to endangered species and other species alike.

The Center for Biological Diversity and The New York Times obtained the documents using the Freedom of Information Act. Based on what he has seen, Brett Hartl, the center's director of government affairs, questions if the public interest will be the highest priority for Mr. Bernhardt.

“His track record is very much on the side of industry and special interests, and he's worked over the last 20 years or more with a pretty single-minded purpose to weaken conservation laws [and] to weaken protections … on public lands and for wildlife,” Hartl said. 

Bernhardt served as solicitor at the Interior Department during the George W. Bush administration, so “he knows all the ins and outs of how bureaucracies work, how the federal government makes decisions and where the pressure points are and how to make things happen,” Hartl said. 

“In this administration, we've seen a lot of very unqualified nominees — people who do not understand the job they're doing. David Bernhardt knows what he's doing and he knows what he wants, and I think that's actually why he's so dangerous,” Hartl added. 

Bernhardt’s interference with the pesticide report from Fish and Wildlife has raised concern inside and outside the government.

The agency, which is responsible for protecting, conserving and recovering endangered species, worked on an assessment called a biological opinion under the Endangered Species Act. This biological opinion reviewed the impacts of three pesticides: chlorpyrifos, an insecticide that is thought to cause neurological developmental problems in children; and two others, malathion and diazinon.

All three pesticides are organophosphate insecticides. They were discovered during World War II because they have the same chemical properties as nerve agents, meaning they affect the nervous system in all animals of all types, Hartl explains. Scientists have long suspected their harmful effects on endangered species, and career staff at Fish and Wildlife worked for four years to understand exactly where those harms happen and to which species, Hartl says.

The documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that when Bernhardt was briefed by the career staff at Fish and Wildlife on the results of their assessment, he basically put a stop to it, despite, Hartl notes, being told that nearly 1,400 endangered plant and animal species — out of a total of 1,750 across the US — were being jeopardized by these pesticides.

“Jeopardized” is a term used in the Endangered Species Act to mean that a species’ existence is at risk and is potentially closer to extinction, Hartl explains.

The Trump administration is doing its best to keep more documents about these pesticides out of the public's view, Hartl says, so no one yet knows which species Fish and Wildlife concluded are most at risk from their use. After The New York Times story broke, House Democrats requested that more documents be released to the public and Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon asked the inspector general, the watchdog of the Interior Department, to look into the issue.

Hartl says the Center for Biological Diversity has long argued that if we don’t understand the impacts of pesticides on endangered species, we will not have a full understanding of how they affect everything else, including human health.

“Very few pesticides have any meaningful site-based restrictions on their use,” he explained. “You can use most pesticides anywhere in the nation to address any crop. Many of them are used for noncrop activities, as well — tree farms or mosquito control or whatever. But we don't really think about the large-scale impacts on functioning, healthy ecosystems if we’re being doused by insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. All pesticides are basically poisons, and how they affect nontarget organisms is just not considered.”

Pesticide companies are, and have been, large donors to the Trump administration, Hartl points out, which could explain Bernhardt’s reluctance to release information to the public that could affect the industry’s bottom line. Dow Chemical, the maker of chlorpyrifos, gave $1 million to Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017. Very soon after, the company wrote a letter to then-Secretary Ryan Zinke at the Interior Department, as well as to Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency, asking them to stop the pesticide reviews.

The Obama administration was on the verge of banning chlorpyrifos, but ran out of time to do so. Trump’s EPA administrator, Pruitt, reversed the effort ban the pesticide, against the recommendations of EPA’s own scientists. But in 2018, a federal appeals court ruled that Pruitt’s decision endangered public health and gave the EPA 60 days to remove chlorpyrifos from public sale.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood. Mr. Bernhardt declined to respond to repeated requests from Living on Earth to appear on this program.

With eyes on the presidency, Mayor Pete seeks a 'generational alliance' to tackle climate change

Apr 18, 2019 6:16


Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is riding a wave of media attention as he campaigns to be the next United States president. He’s making the future of America a focal point of his campaign — including a commitment to address climate change.

When Mayor Pete spoke at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, on April 5, he highlighted climate change as a key concern for his generation.

“Speaking to you as a mayor who found myself compelled to open the emergency operations center of my city twice in two years for floods that we were told were 500-year to 1,000-year floods — happening back-to-back — don’t tell me climate is not a security issue,” Buttigieg said.

Mayor Buttigieg didn’t mention the Green New Deal in New Hampshire, but at a rally in Boston in early April, he said he supports the plan to decarbonize the US economy and fund clean energy jobs. He compared the ambitious plan to the 1960s effort to land a spacecraft on the moon.

Related: The Green New Deal doesn't include carbon pricing. Some say that's a big mistake.

“In the same way that President Kennedy hadn’t mastered all the rocket trajectories in 1960, when he wanted us to get to the moon by 1970, I still think we commit to [solving climate change] now, precisely because we’re not sure how to get there,” he said. “But we’ve got to tie ourselves to that goal and then do everything we can as a country to get there, because I simply don’t believe we can afford to wait.”

President Kennedy was the nation’s youngest president at 43 years old. Mayor Buttigieg, at just 37, says his age makes him uniquely qualified to take on the issue of climate change as president. “If this generation doesn’t step up, we’re in trouble,” he said. “This is, after all, the generation that’s going to be on the business end of climate change for as long as we live.”

Related: After a half-century, a Rust Belt town looks to restore its 'temples'

In 2017, Buttigieg joined the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, a group of hundreds of mayors who have pledged to work in their cities to meet the greenhouse gas emission reduction goals of the Paris climate agreement. And when President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency scrubbed climate change data from its website in 2017, South Bend joined other cities in archiving the agency’s data on its own website.

Buttigieg has made redevelopment and urban livability key priorities for his city. His Smart Streets program, which widened sidewalks and added new bike lanes and urban trees, has been credited with revitalizing South Bend’s downtown. He says the greening of South Bend helped attract over $90 million in private investment.

Buttigieg likes to say his presidential campaign is not just about the next four years, but the next 40. 

“I see in the audiences that I speak to across the country, the makings of a generational alliance,” he said. “Not generational conflict; not what was experienced in the ‘60s, of young people versus their parents; but an alliance around the idea that we ought to have a better future and that everybody cares about that future, no matter your age.”

This article is based on a report that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

As hurricane season nears in Puerto Rico, a doctor tries to help pregnant women prepare themselves

Apr 17, 2019 6:45


Yahaira Molina Perez was 8 months pregnant when Hurricane Maria hit. In her town of Cidra, downed trees and power lines made roads almost impassable.

Molina wasn't too worried, though — she wasn’t due for weeks.

But just five days after the storm she started having contractions.

The trip to the hospital in San Juan took twice as long as usual because the roads were such a mess. When she arrived, she found the hospital, which is located near the shore, full of sand and broken glass. Elevators and air-conditioning had gone with the power. She had to climb the steps to the maternity ward, where nurses had rolled up their pants and sleeves in the stifling heat.

Related: Photo essay: Puerto Rico’s small farmers rebuild, with help from chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen

Many of the island's hospitals were unprepared for such a disaster and either closed their doors entirely or had to limit the services they offered to patients.

"I was thinking, 'Wow, I did not prepare for this.' I never even considered giving birth at home."

Yahaira Molina Perez, Puerto Rico resident

Molina's hospital was only handling emergencies, and she wasn’t ready to give birth. So, she and her husband, Raúl Malavé Cotto, headed back to Cidra. On the way, they stopped at Molina's mom's house, and Molina's water broke. "I was thinking, 'Wow, I did not prepare for this,'" she said. "I never even considered giving birth at home."


Although his parents were unprepared for a home birth, Raúl Leandro was born healthy.


Irina Zhorov/For WHYY

There were no phones — no communication — but through the grapevine, they heard that an obstetrician lived in the neighborhood and they knocked on his door. He brought his wife, a nurse.

"I didn't have my medical file with me. In other words, if at any point the doctor asked me something about my condition, I didn't know what to tell him," Molina said.

She said she could hear the emergency generator roaring as she labored, another reminder of the chaos outside. She was scared.

"I was yelling out of fear; I wasn't yelling because of pain. I yelled from fear."

Yahaira Molina Perez, Puerto Rico resident

"I was yelling out of fear; I wasn't yelling because of pain. I yelled from fear."

Related: Puerto Rico has not recovered from Hurricane Maria

But this is a happy story. After a brief labor, Raúl Leandro was born healthy.

On a recent, sunny day, the toddler squirmed in his father’s arms, pointing into the jungle just beyond the family’s hilltop house, searching for a Bobcat. The Bobcat in question was the small, front-end loader his father, who owns a landscaping business, used to clear roads after the storm. Molina said it’s her son’s favorite thing in the world.  

Teaching preparedness

In San Juan, Carmen Zorrilla, an obstetrician at the island's main public hospital and the principal investigator at the Maternal-Infant Studies Center, heard of several unplanned home births like Molina's after the storm. It worried her. She started thinking about how her patients could better weather another such storm — if it comes. She found a potential solution in an existing program.

In 2013, in a first for Puerto Rico, Zorrilla introduced a nontraditional approach to care for women with high-risk pregnancies. The model, called Centering Pregnancy, relies on two-hour group prenatal appointments, rather than brief, one-on-one checkups. Funding issues and the hurricane put the program on hiatus, but it's slowly coming back now. And Zorrilla thinks it can be adapted for hurricane preparedness.


Facilitator Dianca Sierra Vega and physician Carmen Zorrilla lead group prenatal sessions in San Juan. Zorrilla introduced the model to care for women with high-risk pregnancies, but plans to add hurricane preparedness to the curriculum.


Irina Zhorov/WHYY

At a recent appointment, nine pregnant women — each with a support person — filed into a small room in the hospital. They weighed themselves, measured their own blood pressure with a monitor and gave their data to a nurse.

"They are taking care of their own health, right then," Zorrilla said. "They are empowered; they are involved in their care."

Each session covers different aspects of pregnancy, and that day, the group discussed common gestational side effects. The facilitator, Dianca Sierra Vega, handed out cards, each with a different issue written on it. She told the women to act them out, charades style. Grunting, growling and clasping at various body parts, the women acted out headaches, swollen feet, aching backs, constipation and mood swings. After the group guessed each ailment, the facilitators explained the science of what's happening to the women's bodies. It was informal, and the women were engaged.

"That's part of what they gain; and being part of a group, there's social support."

Carmen Zorrilla, obstetrician, Puerto Rico 

"That's part of what they gain; and being part of a group, there's social support," Zorrilla said.

Initially, Zorrilla says, she introduced group appointments because the island has a high rate of premature, and underweight, babies. Studies show when pregnant women, particularly some populations like low-income black women, participate in group appointments, babies are likelier to be born closer to their due dates. No one knows precisely how the groups work, but Zorrilla thinks they reduce stress.

When the storm season officially begins in June, she’ll use the model to teach hurricane preparedness in new sessions. These appointments will cover everything from how to cut the cord to what supplies they should keep in the house to how to perform calming breathing exercises. The idea is to give the women practical know-how as well as the confidence to stay calm if a storm barrels toward the island.


"The concept of group prenatal care is that you're in control of your health," Zorrilla said. "And having the information of what to do with an emergency labor and delivery, I think, it gives peace of mind."

Yaisha Roja is one of the women in the new group. This is her second pregnancy, and she's due in October — hurricane season.

"One should always take precautions. Perhaps there's a hurricane, and there aren't many hospitals open, there's traffic. That's why this is important."

Yaisha Roja, Puerto Rico resident

"One should always take precautions," she said. "Perhaps there's a hurricane, and there aren't many hospitals open, there's traffic. That's why this is important."

Zorrilla still thinks women should plan on hospital births. They’re safer, she said. But just in case there’s another disaster, she wants women to be ready.

"I say that we have community PTSD. Now that we lived through not just a hurricane, but the aftermath, the complete disruption of the power grid, everybody is concerned and now we know that we need to be ready for this."

London protesters say climate change is bigger than Brexit

Apr 15, 2019


Thousands of environmental activists paralyzed parts of central London on Monday by blocking Marble Arch, Oxford Circus and Waterloo Bridge in a bid to force the government to do more to tackle climate change.

Under sunny skies, activists sang songs or held signs that read "There is no Planet B" and "Extinction is forever" at some of the capital's most iconic locations. Roadblocks will continue night and day at each site and the demonstrators say the protests could last at least a week.

The protests are being led by the British climate group Extinction Rebellion and will involve demonstrations in 33 countries around the world over the coming days.

"I realized that signing petitions and writing letters was not going to be enough. Real action is needed," said Diana McCann, 66, a retired wine trader from south London, holding a banner in the middle of a traffic-free road. "It's like a world war. We have to go on to a war footing."

Extinction Rebellion, which generated headlines with a semi-nude protest in the House of Commons earlier this month, has warned its members that some of them could be arrested for taking part in non-violent civil disobedience.

A crowd of prosters

Climate change activists demonstrate on Waterloo Bridge during an Extinction Rebellion protest in London, Britain April 15, 2019.


Henry Nicholls/Reuters

The group is demanding the government declare a climate and ecological emergency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 and create a citizen’s assembly of members of the public to lead on decisions to address climate change.

At the Shell building near the River Thames, two protesters scaled up scaffolding writing "Shell Knows!" in red paint on the front of the building and three protesters glued their hands to the revolving doors at the entrance.

Activists said they smashed the glass of a revolving door and caused more than 6,000 pounds ($7,900) worth of damage. At least one person was arrested by police for criminal damage.

'Extinction Rebellion'

At Oxford Circus, protesters unveiled a pink boat that says "TELL THE TRUTH" and on Waterloo Bridge demonstrators brought trees, hanging baskets and skate ramps.

The protest had a festive atmosphere, with many families in attendance, and a low police presence.

Extinction Rebellion wrote to Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday outlining their demands and asking for face-to-face talks, warning that they will escalate their disruptive actions over the coming weeks unless the government acts.

"Make no mistake, people are already dying," the letter states. "In the majority world, indigenous communities are now on the brink of extinction. This crisis is only going to get worse … Prime minister, you cannot ignore this crisis any longer. We must act now."

Organizers of the protests circulated legal advice to anyone planning to attend, requesting they refrain from using drugs and alcohol, and asking them to treat the public with respect.

A man with a mask in a crowd of protesters. Someone holds a sign reading: Climate change is not a myth unlike centaurs.

Climate change activists demonstrate at Oxford Circus during an Extinction Rebellion protest in London, Britain April 15, 2019.


Peter Nicholls/Reuters

London's police have advised people traveling around London in the coming days to allow extra time for their journey in the event of road closures and general disruption.

The disruption follows similar action last November when thousands of protesters occupied five central London bridges. Police arrested 85 people that day.

Rowan McLaughlin, 47, a teacher, said this week's protests were more important that the huge pro- and anti-Brexit protests in London recently.

"In Europe, out of Europe, it makes no difference if we have no liveable habitat," he said. "We're just going to get bigger and more annoying until the government speaks to us."

'Romeo and Juliet' give hope for survival of the Sehuencas water frog

Apr 14, 2019 6:15


Sehuencas water frogs, like other amphibians, have been devastated by the chytrid fungus. A frog that scientists named “Romeo” was the last known of his kind and had stopped singing for a mate. But recently, scientists discovered “Juliet” and four other Sehuencas water frogs hiding in the Bolivian cloud forest — and Romeo’s song is back.

Sofia Barrón Lavayen, the manager of captive breeding at the K'ayra Center at the Museum of Natural History in Cochabamba, Bolivia, says Romeo had been alone in the center since 2009, so she created and led the project to search for a mate.

“That's how we found Juliet, in December 2018, and that's how they are together now,” Lavayen said. 

Related: As Sumatran rhinos face extinction, scientists come to their rescue

With the hope the two frogs won’t be star-crossed lovers, like their namesakes, the researchers are now breeding Romeo and Juliet in an attempt to save the species. But, as with many romantic situations, the conditions for Romeo and Juliet have to be just right for the relationship to succeed.

“First, it's really important for amphibians that the water quality has to be perfect,” she explained. “All the parameters have to be perfect for the species. Why? Because this species, the Sehuencas water frog, is an aquatic frog. They breed and exchange all the ions through the skin. That’s why the water is so important.”

The temperature has to be perfect, too, Lavayen adds. And then, because all amphibians around the world use rain as a signal that breeding season has arrived, the team had to install a rain system in the water. “So ... first, we prepared, and then we put them together,” Lavayen said. 

“When we put Romeo together with Juliet, we recorded the first [courtship] call. Romeo called for the first time for a mate. It was really amazing. It's super loud, and it's the first recorded call for this species.”

Sofia Barrón Lavayen, K'ayra Center at the Museum of Natural History, Cochabamba, Bolivia  

On the frogs’ first “date,” Lavayen and the whole team was “super excited,” she said. “When we put Romeo together with Juliet, we recorded the first [courtship] call. Romeo called for the first time for a mate. It was really amazing. It's super loud, and it's the first recorded call for this species.”

Related: In the Caribbean, queen conches are living on the edge

Lavayen says Romeo looked a little bit nervous in the beginning, but then swam directly to Juliet to perform amplexus, the mating embrace position for frogs.

“He swam really fast to her and he started also doing a really funny dance we call the twinkly toes. ... He was shaking his toes while he was in amplexus. That was also something new for us.”

Sofia Barrón Lavayen, K'ayra Center at the Museum of Natural History, Cochabamba, Bolivia  

“He swam really fast to her and he started also doing a really funny dance we call the twinkly toes,” Lavayen said. “He was shaking his toes while he was in amplexus. That was also something new for us.”

Juliet has proven to be healthy and outgoing. Researchers are hopeful that she and Romeo will be able to reproduce.


Robyn Moore/Global Wildlife Conservation

Since their first date, the two frogs have continued trying amplexus, Lavayen says, much of the time for about 15 minutes, which is fairly typical for amphibians.

“I hope they are going to lay eggs soon,” she said. “I'm really excited to see the eggs because we don't know how many eggs they [make]. We [also] don’t know where they put them, where they lay the eggs — under the rocks or between rocks or just in the surface of the aquarium. We don't know. It’s something new for us.”

If Romeo and Juliet don't get along romantically, Lavayen says the team has other options, now that they’ve found more Sehuencas water frogs.

“Juliet and Romeo are not the only individuals of this species,” she said. “We have four more individuals. That means two more couples. So, our option B is to try with the other couples — mix Romeo with the other two females or the other male with Juliet. I’m really happy for the conservation of this species. I'm pretty sure they are going to reproduce.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

A month after Cyclone Idai, governments struggle to secure crucial recovery funds

Apr 14, 2019 8:42


When Cyclone Idai came ashore March 14 in Beira, Mozambique, as a killer Category 3 storm, it almost completely destroyed the coastal city. Floods and winds wrecked the homes and crops of two million people in a region that also includes Malawi and Zimbabwe.

More than 1,000 people died across the three countries, and the World Bank has estimated more than $2 billion will be needed for them to recover.

Mozambique's $337 million humanitarian response plan, largely made up of an appeal for $281 million after the cyclone hit, remained only 23% funded on Monday.

Now officials say a cholera epidemic is surging, with over a thousand cases reported already. The United Nations calls the storm one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the Southern Hemisphere.

Over the weekend, aid agencies said thousands of people were still completely cut off and warned of the potential for a catastrophic hunger crisis to take hold, especially as aid appeals went largely underfunded.

James Elder, the UNICEF regional chief of communication for eastern and southern Africa who has been in Beira, paints a dire picture of the situation.

“Power lines are still down. Families are still coming to reception centers exhausted and unwell,” he says. “There are still some communities who are trapped. Cattle and livestock are kind of stuck in hard or have already drowned. So, it's a pretty testing scene for people who, let's remember, are pretty used to difficult scenarios, people who are used to adversity and to tackling difficult days.”

Elder says the storm struck a double blow: A “deathly wall of wind” was followed by rain and flooding that “just never stopped" in a region that already had been experiencing poverty and drought.

Related: Death toll in Mozambique cyclone, floods could surpass 1,000

Based on the empirical climatic evidence, Elder notes, the UN is referring to the event as “the worst climate disaster in two decades.” Elder says anecdotal evidence and his conversations with farmers bear out that the changing climate has worsened conditions for people in the region.

“Whether I'm in the north of Nigeria or southernmost tip in Zimbabwe … farmers who lived on the land for three, four, five decades are making it very clear that they just can't predict seasons anymore. ... This is not a generation of people romanticizing a bygone era. These are people who are very clearly reliant on the land and the climate and they know it extremely well. And they just say now that they cannot predict when to plant and how it will go.”

James Elder, regional chief of communication for eastern and southern Africa , UNICEF

“Whether I'm in the north of Nigeria or southernmost tip in Zimbabwe … farmers who lived on the land for three, four, five decades are making it very clear that they just can't predict seasons anymore,” he says. “This is not a generation of people romanticizing a bygone era. These are people who are very clearly reliant on the land and the climate and they know it extremely well. And they just say now that they cannot predict when to plant and how it will go.”

Survivors of Cyclone Idai walk through flooded waters to business center to receive aid.

Survivors of Cyclone Idai arrive at the Coppa business center to receive aid in Chipinge, Zimbabwe, March 26, 2019. 


Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

Related: In Idai's wake, aid groups worry about 'double tragedy' of cholera

These communities are no stranger to hardship and are accustomed to rebuilding their communities after disasters, Elder points out. “The international press will perpetually paint them as victims, and rightly so when you get climatic disasters like this,” he says, “But when I meet these people and hear their stories, I hear that heroic side. I hear their daily struggle — how people, without comment or whining about it, get on with life and find a way to continually take on these great challenges.”

Nevertheless, if the cycle of storms and droughts worsens, as climate science predicts, in a decade or two, people may have to migrate elsewhere in order to survive. Right now, however, the people of the region need help, and the most immediate need is money.

“Sometimes I feel uncomfortable saying that, but it is,” Elder says. “When we're buying another million vaccines for cholera or trying to rebuild schools or even just trying to get people on the ground so we can repatriate kids who have been separated from families, that costs money. [Any] money people can give, be it the government or be it everyday citizens, is hugely, hugely valuable.”

The UN has also requested $294 million for Zimbabwe, an appeal currently 11% funded. The government has separately asked for $613 million to help with the humanitarian crisis.

“The aid arm of the United States government is always a very big supporter of organizations like my own,” he continues. “UNICEF is 100% donor-funded. There's no magic pool of money. So, on one hand, the United States government can be a big supporter in these environments, [along with] the UN World Food Program and their essential airdrops. But also, just moms and dads. Their support to UNICEF USA is absolutely critical. At this point, I can't understate that.”

Over the long term, the US should also offer leadership, Elder says. In eastern and southern Africa, people continue to look to the US for a kind of leadership, which now includes action on mitigating the consequences of climate change.

“We know that climate change isn't emanating from the people in eastern and southern Africa,” he says. “They are not part of it. The leadership that comes from people in US, the leadership telling the rest of the G20 and the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] and the rich world about the need for reduction in emissions, the need for people to change behaviors, is incredibly important and has an incredibly important impact on the moms and dads and kids who I just so recently saw trying to rebuild after this disaster in Mozambique.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Reuters contributed to this report.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been arrested in London

Apr 11, 2019


Following an abrupt withdrawal of his seven-year asylum by Ecuador, British authories arrested WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and carried him out of the Ecuadorean embassy on Thursday. The arrest paves the way for his possible extradition to the United States.

An agitated, frail-looking Assange with white hair and a white beard was carried out of the embassy by at least seven men to a waiting police van.

"Julian Assange, 47, has today, Thursday 11 April, been arrested by officers from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) at the Embassy of Ecuador," British police said.

Police said they arrested Assange after being invited into the embassy following the Ecuadorean government's withdrawal of asylum. Police later added that Assange had been arrested a second time after an extradition request from the United States.

The arrests, after nearly seven years holed up in a few cramped rooms at the embassy, mark one of the most peculiar turns in a tumultuous life that has transformed the Australian programmer into a rebel wanted by the United States.

Assange's supporters said Ecuador had betrayed him at the behest of Washington, that the termination of his asylum was illegal and that they feared he would ultimately end up on trial in the United States.

To some, Assange is a hero for exposing what supporters cast as abuse of power by modern states and for championing free speech. But to others, he is a dangerous rebel who has undermined US security.

WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables that laid bare often highly critical US appraisals of world leaders, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family.

Assange made international headlines in early 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified US military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.

It was not immediately clear what specifically prompted Ecuador to end Assange's stay in the embassy, or the extent of the diplomacy that led to the arrest. The Kremlin said it hoped his rights would not be violated.

Years of solitude

Assange in June 2012 took refuge in Ecuador's London embassy, behind the luxury department store Harrods, to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where authorities wanted to question him as part of a sexual assault investigation.

Sweden dropped that investigation in 2017, but Assange was arrested on Thursday for breaking the rules of his original bail in London.

Friends of Assange said the solitude he had experienced in the embassy had hurt him most.

"It was a miserable existence and I could see it was a strain on him, but a strain he managed rather well," said Vaughan Smith, a friend who visited Assange. "The thing that was most difficult for Julian was the solitude."

"He was very tough, but the last year in particular was very difficult. He was constantly being surveilled and spied upon. There was no privacy for him."

WikiLeaks said Ecuador had illegally terminated his political asylum in violation of international law.

Assange's relationship with his hosts collapsed after Ecuador accused him of leaking information about President Lenin Moreno's personal life.

Moreno said Assange's diplomatic asylum status had been canceled for repeated violation of conventions. He said he had asked Britain to guarantee that Assange would not be extradited to any country where he might face torture or the death penalty.

"The British government has confirmed it in writing," Moreno said. "The asylum of Mr Assange is unsustainable and no longer viable."

United States?

The United States has always been reticent about the legal case against Assange, and there were no immediate details on what charges the US extradition request related to.

Due to a clerical error, a document filed by federal prosecutors in Virginia in an unrelated 2018 investigation revealed that Assange had secretly been indicted by US authorities.

Prosecutors have acknowledged the authenticity of the document but have refused to confirm or deny that Assange has been criminally charged under US federal law.

The US Department of State said it was aware of reports of Assange's arrest but deferred questions on his extradition to the Department of Justice, which did not respond to queries.

Britain said no man was above the law.

"Julian Assange is no hero, he has hidden from the truth for years and years," British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.

"It's not so much Julian Assange being held hostage in the Ecuadorean embassy, it's actually Julian Assange holding the Ecuadorean embassy hostage in a situation that was absolutely intolerable for them."

A Swedish lawyer representing the alleged rape victim said she would push to have prosecutors reopen the investigation.

But Sven-Erik Alhem, a retired senior prosecutor and chairman of NGO Victim Support Sweden, said he thought that may be difficult.

"I'd think it would be fairly uphill to reopen the investigation, mainly because testimonies usually weaken with time and it's now been 10 years. On top of that, the statute of limitation is drawing near," he said.

Assange was taken into custody and later pictured in the back of a van leaving a London police station in handcuffs with his thumb up. He is due to be brought before Westminster Magistrates' Court.

By Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge/Reuters

Additional reporting by Costas Pitas; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton; Editing by Hugh Lawson.

How Atlanta plans to get to 100% green energy by 2035

Apr 10, 2019 5:53


Like any other city, Atlanta is woven with power lines, trams and buses. The electricity that makes Atlanta run comes mostly from coal, natural gas and nuclear energy. Only 6% to 8% comes from renewable sources.

“Obviously, going from that number to 100% by 2035 is a bold goal,” said Amol Naik, Atlanta’s chief resilience officer.

He says the green energy plan, approved by the Atlanta City Council in March — which aims to get to 100% green in 16 years — is “ambitious and achievable.” But, he admits, there’s no easy path to get there.

“There's no five-run home run or four-point shot in basketball. This is something that needs to happen in an incremental way over a number of years,” said Naik. “It’s a lot of folks sitting around a table figuring out the best way forward.”

Related: Legally, 'climate refugees' don't exist. But in Georgia, they say they're already here.

More than 100 cities have recently pledged to run on 100% renewable energy, signing onto the Sierra Club’s “Ready For 100” campaign. But turning commitment into action is where the even harder work begins, and Atlanta might be the ultimate test case: Former US Vice President Al Gore has said that if Atlanta can get to 100% green energy, anybody can.

The skyline of Atlanta’s Downtown in soft focus with a ferris wheel in the distance.

The skyline of Atlanta’s downtown. The city of Atlanta’s population is expected to grow from roughly 500,000 in 2018 to as many as 1.2 million residents in 2035. 


Steven Davy/The World

So, how exactly will the folks in Atlanta increase the city’s green energy supply from 8% to 100% by 2035?  They’re going to start by trying to use less energy.

“There's an awful lot of low-hanging fruit left,” said Matt Cox, CEO of the Greenlink Group, who helped craft Atlanta’s new plan.

Cox says you start with the basics: insulating old homes and installing energy-efficient lights and better cooling and heating systems.

“We identified an opportunity to reduce the consumption in the city 25% to 30%, just through the energy-efficiency side alone.”

Matt Cox, Greenlink Group, CEO

“We identified an opportunity to reduce the consumption in the city 25% to 30%, just through the energy-efficiency side alone.”

Related: The Green New Deal doesn't include carbon pricing. Some say that's a big mistake.

And Cox says studies found there's another benefit to investing in efficiency: “They were showing an internal rate of return of over 60%. That’s six-zero percent. That kind of a return on an investment is a tremendous opportunity that you don’t see hardly anywhere. You look at the stock market, you’re going to be happy to get 7% or 10% out of that.”

But efficiency is just a start. Atlanta’s plan also relies on putting up a lot more solar panels — on homes, commercial buildings and at utility scale solar farms. It banks on things like improved battery storage for solar energy as well as renewable-energy credits from outside the state to offset coal and gas power still coming from the local grid. Atlanta’s mix will also still include a lot of nuclear power, which environmentalists are split over.

Electric scooters on the streets of Atlanta

Atlanta is filled with electric scooters and dockless bicycles for rent. The transportation sector is not, however, included in the city’s ambitious new green energy plan.


Jason Margolis/The World 

But whatever the city does to try to reach its goal, Atlanta will need the cooperation of some key players who aren’t so gung-ho on the new plan.

“I guess you would say it's a nice dream. In country talk, it’s pretty good fodder, but fodder doesn't feed much.”

Lauren “Bubba” McDonald Jr., Georgia Public Service Commission, chair

“I guess you would say it's a nice dream. In country talk, it’s pretty good fodder, but fodder doesn't feed much,” said Lauren “Bubba” McDonald Jr., the chair of the Georgia Public Service Commission, which oversees the utility that supplies most of the state’s power.

Related: This high school sophomore from Minnesota 'jumped on the bandwagon' to save the planet

Don’t get him wrong, McDonald supports a push toward more solar energy. He says with the drop in solar installation prices, combined with Georgia’s sunny climate and ample space to build solar farms, solar energy in the state makes sense.

“The sun will be here 80 years from now and I'll bet you, if you want to make a bet right now, I’ll bet you that it'll be shining just as bright 80 years from now as it is today,” said McDonald.

But he also says there are limits. If Atlanta were to paper itself with solar panels, that might meet only 25% of the city’s energy needs.

McDonald is a free-market guy, so he doesn’t like mandates or subsidies to increase the mix of green energy. And he’s not especially concerned about the growing threat of man-made climate change, either.

“I'm not going to sit here and just say it's a bunch of 'booey,' because there may be some cause,” said McDonald. “But this Earth has been here a long time. And I'm a strong believer; I'm a Christian, and I know who's in charge.”

Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, chair of the Georgia Public Service Commission, supports solar energy in Georgia, but says there are limits to how much the state can cost-effectively support.

Lauren “Bubba” McDonald Jr., chair of the Georgia Public Service Commission, supports solar energy in Georgia, but says there are limits to how much the state can cost-effectively support.


Jason Margolis/The World 

To get its green plan off the ground, Atlanta will need to sell it to regulators like McDonald, as well as lawmakers in the state’s conservative Legislature.

“You don't lead with climate change,” said Stephanie Stuckey, a former state representative and now the director of sustainability with the Southface Institute in Atlanta.

Stuckey says building a political coalition for green energy means focusing on jobs.

“You lead with: Let's provide economic development for the entire state,” said Stuckey. “All of the areas where we are building large-scale, industrial solar arrays in Georgia are in rural areas and the economic development and the local government leaders who are embracing these projects are by and large conservative, and they’re not talking about climate change.”

Stephanie Stuckey waits for the subway in Atlanta.

Stephanie Stuckey helped write Atlanta’s original green energy plan when she was the chief resilience officer within Atlanta’s previous mayoral administration. She says when building a political coalition in largely conservative Georgia, “You don't lead with climate change.”


Jason Margolis/The World 

Atlanta’s green energy plan touts the creation of 8,000 new jobs in the industry if policymakers fully implement the plan. Backers say the plan could also help low-income families in other ways.

“We know that solar can lower a person's home energy bill,” said Chandra Farley, the director of just energy with the nonprofit group Partnership for Southern Equity.

Farley says many black households in Atlanta are struggling just to keep the lights on, paying as much as 10% of their income on their electricity bills, and wants policymakers to help Atlanta’s low-income communities by investing in the green plan. To Farley, it’s really a matter of priorities.

“Atlanta is still pretty segregated by race and class. The west side of Atlanta, it's right on the other side of the billion-dollar stadium,” said Farley.

Atlanta’s gleaming new football stadium actually cost $1.6 billion, and Georgia taxpayers could end up paying $700 million for it. Supporters of the city’s green energy plan say that makes their idea sound like a bargain.

It’s early days — Atlanta’s green energy blueprint was just approved by the City Council in March with no set funding source. But City Hall is making the case that it’s not only the right thing to fight climate change in the future, but also to help people in the region right now.

A woman stands in a park.

Chandra Farley, with the Partnership for Southern Equity, says solar panels would provide lower costs and price stability to lower-income households in Atlanta that are struggling to pay their power bills.


Jason Margolis/The World 


Russia agrees to free whales held in 'whale jail'

Apr 10, 2019 2:05


Video of dozens of orca and beluga whales being held in a small pen near the Russian far east city of Nakhodka sparked outrage earlier this year.

The whales were reportedly captured last summer and herded into pens in the Pacific Ocean, apparently awaiting illegal sale to marine parks in China.

Several have since disappeared and may have died. Others appear to be sick.

And activists have been trying for months to get the Russian government to step in and rescue the whales from what they're calling a "whale jail."

Related: The Northern right whale, already an endangered species, is in deep trouble

Those efforts may now be paying off. Russian authorities recently brought charges against four companies and this week signed an agreement with a group of international marine activists and scientists to try to return the whales to the wild.

The group includes Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the famed marine explorer Jacques Cousteau. 

Cousteau says the goal is to release all 97 of the whales still in captivity in Nakhodka.

But activist Charles Vinick, who's also part of the effort, thinks that won't be quick or easy.

"We have to understand the health condition of each whale. ... We also have to look at where it is appropriate to transport them so that they can be having the best opportunity to have food, and guidance of older adults."

Charles Vinick, whale activist

"We have to understand the health condition of each whale,” Vinick says. “We also have to look at where it is appropriate to transport them so that they can be having the best opportunity to have food, and guidance of older adults."

Several whales are seen swimming in the water in a tiny pool surrounded by decking where people are standing

The "whale prison" holds nearly 100 whales, including orcas and belugas. 


Alexander Safronov/Handout via Reuters

That guidance is key for social animals like belugas and orcas, especially ones that were captured when they were young.

Vinick helped lead the effort to release the captive orca Keiko in 2002. (Keiko portrayed the orca Willy in the 1993 film "Free Willy.")

His release was widely publicized but ultimately unsuccessful: Scientists say Keiko never learned to properly socialize with other orcas or find his own food, and he died after about 18 months back in the wild.

Related: Japan to resume commercial whaling after pulling out of IWC

So the challenge of rehabilitating and freeing the 97 whales in captivity in Russia is a big one.

The activists say they don't yet have a plan for reaching that goal, although the Russian government has promised to build a rehab facility for captive or injured whales as part of this week's deal.

This story includes material from Reuters and AFP.

From fashion to tools, animal behaviors are often surprisingly human

Apr 9, 2019 28:45


On average, Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, but when we step outside and observe our animal relatives, we see that our behaviors and abilities are shared across the animal kingdom. Fashion design, interacting with fire, and making multistep plans all seem like qualities that are unique to humans, but according to Adam Rutherford, author of “Humanimal: How Homo sapiens Became Nature’s Most Paradoxical Creature — A New Evolutionary History,” species from crabs to birds of prey exhibit many of these complex behaviors, too.

Fashion, for example. You may have thought that fashion was exclusive to humans; after all, there are no other species strutting down the runway. Of course, there are organisms that decorate themselves, but this is purposefully for sexual selection. Still, there are some animals that do embrace something similar to fashion, for a stylistic purpose.

Take Julie the chimpanzee. For no apparent reason, except perhaps trying to make a fashion statement, the Zambian chimp starting sporting a piece of long grass behind her left ear in 2010. Soon enough, the trend caught on among others in her tribe, with many following suit by putting grass in their own left ears. Julie died in 2012, but members of her own tribe continue to uphold the trend, and it has since caught on in neighboring tribes.

Related: Inside the minds of zoo animals

Rutherford, a British geneticist, also explained how humans behave similarly to other animals when it comes to sexual relations. “Do other animals, not us, have sex for nonreproductive reasons? The answer is yes — all the time. They have loads of nonreproductive sex in every shape and form that you can imagine,” he said.

Another theory about what makes humans unique from other animals is our use of tools. It is now widely known that chimpanzees also use tools, but Rutherford explained how a wide array of species, including crabs, octopuses and birds do as well. “It turns out that about 1% of animals use tools, which doesn’t sound like much but that’s literally thousands of different species. And what’s really interesting about it is they range across classes of animals,” he said. “Loads of animals use tools. None to the degree of sophistication that we do, but there are many, many hundreds, maybe thousands, of animals that are obligate tool users.”

Humans are not even all that special when it comes to the use of fire. Up until 2017, it was thought that no animal apart from us could start a new fire. But then science literature reported a shocking finding — that three different types of raptors in Australia intentionally start fires of their own. These raptors find burning sticks and drop them on piles of brush, where their prey are hiding. The prey then run into the open to escape the flames, giving the raptors a clear opportunity to scoop them up for lunch. “So, we’re not the only animal that can start new fires,” Rutherford said. “We don’t think they can start it from scratch like we can, but who knows? Maybe that’s just coming.”

Related: A 'lexicon' of chimp gestures may tell us things about our own language

Rutherford explained that we’re distinguished from other animals by our ability to share information and culture at a grand scale. This major evolutionary leap forward enabled us to develop our distinct humanness. “[It] all comes from us getting much much better at sharing ideas - we’re a species of teachers,” Rutherford said.

Hannah Uebele is an intern at Innovation Hub.

Brazil's Bolsonaro wants to mine on Indigenous lands — illegally

Apr 9, 2019 9:48


In Brazil, Native tribes have a constitutional right to reject any development on their territory. But the country’s new President Jair Bolsonaro has announced a controversial plan to allow mining on Indigenous land without their consent.

Prior to the 1950s, the interior of the Brazilian Amazon was occupied solely by the Indigenous tribes who have lived there for millennia. But in the 1950s and 1960s, the Brazilian government began a program to encourage people to settle the Amazon and make it commercially productive. The government built a new capital city, Brasilia, at the edge of the rainforest and began exploiting the land, with little thought for the Indigenous tribes living there.

Related: Shell oil says it will quit a lobbying group that opposes global climate goals

Then, in 1988, following the collapse of the military dictatorship, a new constitution was written that, for the first time, gave Indigenous tribes legal ownership of their land and the constitutional right to reject any development on their territory. Bolsonaro wants to reverse those rights.

Sue Branford, who writes about the Amazon for Mongabay, says no one is quite clear how he will do this since the constitution clearly says Indigenous people have an “inalienable right” to veto projects on their land.

“It's more likely that Bolsonaro will decide on a presidential decree, which will at least allow him some time to overrule the constitution. He has a big majority in Congress, and the agriculture and mining lobbies in Congress are very strong, so I don't actually think he will have any real long-term problem.”

Sue Branford, journalist, Mongabay

“It will probably be quite difficult for [him] to take the correct route, which is a constitutional amendment that would have to go through Congress,” Branford said. “It's more likely that Bolsonaro will decide on a presidential decree, which will at least allow him some time to overrule the constitution. He has a big majority in Congress, and the agriculture and mining lobbies in Congress are very strong, so I don't actually think he will have any real long-term problem.”

Related: Brazil’s Bolsonaro heads to White House amid scandals at home

The Amazon contains vast mineral wealth, Branford says. It has large gold reserves — probably the largest in the world — as well as silver and bauxite. Bolsonaro believes Brazil should exploit this wealth, rather than have it sit unused because “a handful of Indians” want to conserve it, a phrase Bolsonaro has used to describe Indigenous peoples of the Amazon. 

This is widely seen in Brazil as a backward way of thinking, Branford notes. “Particularly now, when we're getting more and more concerned about global warming, there is a growing number of Brazilians who feel that the Amazon forest should be conserved; that if Brazil goes on cutting down the forest, [the country] is going to reach a turning point.”

Scientists have, in fact, warned for many years that when roughly 25% of the forest is felled, the loss will spark a process by which the rich, tropical forest will begin to transform into a savannah. As of now, about nearly 22% of the forest is gone.

Related: One year after Marielle Franco’s death, Brazil's human rights activists demand answers

Past experience has taught Indigenous tribes some hard lessons. Once a road is built into the forest to service a mine, for example, other roads begin to branch off it, which inflicts further harm on the ecosystem. In addition, population influx becomes difficult to control once roads have been established.

“[The government] promised that they would control the influx of population, that there would be none of these lateral roads built off the main highway. They made a series of projections about what they thought the environmental damage would be. Ten years later, the damage was off the scale. It was much worse than their worst projection at the time.”

Sue Branford, journalist, Mongabay

“I remember when they were building the BR-163 Highway, which went from Cuiabá to Santarém, a port on the Amazon,” Branford said. “They promised that they would control the influx of population, that there would be none of these lateral roads built off the main highway. They made a series of projections about what they thought the environmental damage would be. Ten years later, the damage was off the scale. It was much worse than their worst projection at the time.”

To make matters worse, Branford adds, Bolsonaro has dismantled FUNAI, the government agency tasked with mapping and protecting indigenous lands, and is in the process of dismantling IBAMA, the environmental agency, Branford explains.

“Loggers and small-time miners can move into Indigenous land and [they] are very much on their own,” she said. “There are really no institutional forces they can turn to to have these invaders evicted from their lands. So, there's been a considerable increase of violence in these areas now.”

Bolsonaro’s plan will still have to go through the courts where it could encounter surprising resistance, Branford says.

“The general prosecutor, Raquel Dodge, who is the most powerful prosecutor in the country, is saying, ‘Hang on, Bolsonaro, we're going to fight this in the courts. We’re not going to let you ride roughshod over our constitution.’”

Sue Branford, journalist, Mongabay

“[T]he judicial system in Brazil, which is widely regarded as reactionary and conservative, is actually now [at] the forefront in organizing opposition to Bolsonaro,” Branford said. “The general prosecutor, Raquel Dodge, who is the most powerful prosecutor in the country, is saying, ‘Hang on, Bolsonaro, we're going to fight this in the courts. We’re not going to let you ride roughshod over our constitution.’”

Bolsonaro also faces pushback from the Federal Public Ministry, an independent group of lawyers within the government that is not part of the official judiciary. It has announced its support for the Indigenous people of the Amazon and says it will do everything it can to stop mining on their lands.

“So, we will see opposition and it will come, rather surprisingly, I think, mainly from the judicial system, who is not at all intimidated by Bolsonaro,” Branford said.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

In Idai's wake, aid groups worry about 'double tragedy' of cholera

Apr 8, 2019 4:04


Cyclone Idai has caused widespread devastation in Mozambique since it made landfall in early March. The flooding and destruction of infrastructure have displaced thousands and left people in desperate need of food, shelter and medicine.

Mozambique's director of the charity Oxfam, Rotafina Donco, spoke with Marco Werman about what she has seen in the coastal city of Beira and what risks still remain for those surviving in the wake of the cyclone. 

Rotafina Donco: More than half of those people lost completely everything. As you can imagine, the shelter and the material that is used to build the houses is mud. When the cyclone hit, all the houses were just taken away by the wind and the water. I had the opportunity to converse with some of the women who are living in camps and they said that they don't have anything. All their houses were washed away and they don't have even a home to go to. I could see their destruction. I could see that some of the people are trying to rebuild, but you can still see that even if it doesn't rain for one day or so, they will still be in trouble.

Marco Werman: The women that you met Beira, were they residents of Beira or had they come in from the countryside?

They are coming from the countryside where they were rescued. Actually, most of the people who are being housed in the transit camps are people from mostly surrounding areas.

Related: Tropical cyclone Idai: The storm that knew no boundaries

It's a city of half a million people. Reports suggest that 95% of the city was destroyed by Cyclone Idai. What did you see? How's the city coping?

The communication network has been re-established and there is at least electricity in the shops are working. Little by little things are coming back, but you can still see the devastation. When the food distribution starts, even people from outside the community are coming to receive the food that is being brought to the camp. This is creating some tensions among those displaced and those living around the community. There's been some conflicts going on, especially with regard to food items.

A man holds a piece of paper with a list. Dozens of people surround him.

People wait to receive aid at a camp for the people displaced in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai in John Segredo near Beira, Mozambique, on March 31, 2019.


Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

You're from one of the provinces that was most severely impacted by the cyclone. How has the storm affected you personally?

When I went to Beira, I really cried. Tears were just dropping because I couldn't believe the destruction that has taken place. The concern now for sure is to make sure that at least we don't have a double tragedy such as cholera — 2,772 cases are being reported in Beira, Dondo, Matanda, and Buzi. The concern is to make sure that these waterborne diseases are being contained so that at least we curb this, because it's treatable and it can also be prevented.

Mozambique is at a really critical moment here. It is a sign of poverty whenever cholera does break out. What does a cyclone like this do to overall progress in a country? How will the poorest of the poor be taken care of at this point?

This is really a concern because now it's just like going back 10 years. Of course, at this point in time, we need to save lives because of cholera and other things, but we also need to start a road to recovery because, to be honest, almost everything was destroyed — especially harvests. Right now, no one will be harvesting — meaning that we might also be faced by challenges for food in the near future. These are some of the things that need to be programmed and well thought out so that at least we can help people with their recovery.

Muddy fields are seen from a birds-eye view

Flooded fields are seen from the air near Beira, Mozambique, in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, on March 23, 2019.


Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Legally, 'climate refugees' don't exist. But in Georgia, they say they're already here.

Apr 8, 2019 6:20


Clarkston, Georgia, is often referred to as the Ellis Island of the South. Some 60 languages are spoken in this city of 13,000 just outside of Atlanta, and perhaps half the population is foreign born. Many are refugees.

Felix Hategekimana is a refugee from Rwanda, a soft-spoken man who doesn’t talk much about his backstory, except to say that he fled violence back home: “We have political issues and security [issues].”

But Hategekimana says there’s more to the troubles in Rwanda. Droughts and floods have plagued his country in recent years, and that’s led to more people migrating.

Related: UN compact recognizes climate change as driver of migration for first time

“Some people lose life in the disaster of the rain. Some people lose life, others lose their homes and they lose their property, like their farms where they plant their vegetables.”

Felix Hategekimana, Rwandan refugee in Clarkston, Georgia

“Some people lose life in the disaster of the rain,” Hategekimana said. “Some people lose life, others lose their homes and they lose their property, like their farms where they plant their vegetables.”

You hear a lot of stories like this from refugees in Clarkston. Legally, there’s no such thing as a "climate change refugee." Refugee status is only awarded based on a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group — not because your home got wiped out by a flood, or your crops were destroyed by a drought.  

Felix Hategekimana, left, and Mekuanet Gelagay from Ethiopia stand next to a map at the Friends of Refugees center with push pins designating places from where people have relocated to Clarkston.

Felix Hategekimana, left, and Mekuanet Gelagay from Ethiopia stand next to a map at the Friends of Refugees center with pushpins designating places from where people have relocated to Clarkston, Georgia. 


Jason Margolis/The World 

But Clarkston’s mayor, Ted Terry, says the impacts of more extreme weather are woven throughout the lives of many new residents here.

“You hear these stories of, ‘My journey to refugee status happened because of my entire town being decimated in terms of the agricultural economy.’ The story they tell is that it really exacerbated economic conditions, increased unemployment,” Terry said.

Related: A climate migration crisis is escalating in Bangladesh

A sign welcomes Georgia’s newest arrivals at the Refuge Coffee Shop in Clarkston.

A sign welcomes Georgia’s newest arrivals at the Refuge Coffee Shop in Clarkston, Georgia. 


Jason Margolis/The World 

Climate scientists agree that storms are becoming more severe, and the trend is only going to continue. Case in point, the Category 4 cyclone that struck southern Africa recently has left at least 600,000 people displaced. The immediate needs there — food, clean drinking water and shelter — are stark. After that, a big question: rebuild or relocate?

It’s a dilemma that many people across the globe are facing, which will inevitably lead to more people on the move. But the world still hasn’t agreed on what to do with so-called climate refugees.

Take a place like Syria.

Related: Commentary: The border wall problem few of us are talking about? Climate change.

“It becomes more drier, I think,” said Malk Alarmash, a Syrian refugee now living in Clarkston.

A decade ago, Syria suffered a severe drought. A significant body of research links that drought to climate change on the one hand — helping sow the seeds of Syria’s civil war — and a massive international refugee crisis on the other.

But Alarmash can’t say that a lack of rainfall led people to flee Syria.

“I don't know. I don't have any information about that, like climate change,” Alarmash said.

An inability to pin the seeds of conflict on climatic shifts isn’t unusual; the relationship between climate change and forced migration is immensely complicated. 

“There's a lag between effect, conflict, displacement and refugee crisis,” said Brian Bollinger, executive director of the Friends of Refugees group in Clarkston.

A drought can destroy people’s food supplies and livelihoods. That can lead to internal migration, inflame tensions and maybe even contribute to conflict and a refugee crisis. But all of this can unfold over years. And climatic shifts can play out over decades, so the fingerprints can be subtle and difficult for even migrants themselves to recognize.

“The climate is the last thing in their mind. They know it's all related, but they just say, 'This is from God.' They don’t say this is a man-made thing. They conclude this is Allah’s wishes.”

Omar Shekhey, a Clarkston resident who is originally from Somalia

“The climate is the last thing in their mind. They know it's all related, but they just say, 'This is from God,'” said Omar Shekhey, a Clarkston resident who is originally from Somalia. “They don’t say this is a man-made thing. They conclude this is Allah’s wishes.”

A man drinks coffee

Omar Shekhey, who runs the Somali American Community Center in Clarkston, Georgia, says refugees might not be aware of all the issues surrounding climate change, but he says you can’t separate changes in the climate from many conflicts that are driving people to flee their home countries.


Jason Margolis/The World 

Shekhey came to the US on a student visa back in the 1980s and was educated as an engineer. Today, he runs the Somali American Community Center in Clarkston and works with immigrants and refugees from his native country. To him, the links between climate change and displacement are clear.

“It goes together — the civil war, the war and the climate, you cannot separate them.”

Shekhey says when he went to help his family in a Kenyan refugee camp, his brother told him that Somalis back home weren’t just dying from bullets.

“He said, ‘Omar, we used to count bodies and most of the bodies that we count, people were dying for lack of food, from disease.’”

Still, Shekhey says most Somali refugees aren’t connecting the dots to climate change. But as global temperatures continue to rise, Mayor Terry, who also works with the Sierra Club, believes that those dots will become clearer, even in the US.

“We're looking at a future, I think, if we don't take steps to reverse global warming, we're looking at potentially hundreds of millions of people around the world, including you know, in America, Louisiana. Their coastline is disappearing,” Terry said. “And so, at some point, there has to be some sort of recognition and define what it means to be a climate refugee.”

Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry wants to address the root of climate change and has pushed his city to commit to running on 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Clarkston, Georgia's mayor, Ted Terry, wants to address the root of climate change and has pushed his city to commit to running on 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.


Steven Davy/The World  

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that one person was displaced each second, on average, by a climate or weather-related event worldwide between 2008 and 2016. And remember, to state the obvious, the life of a refugee is hard. It’s a second chance, and most people aren’t asking to leave their home countries. The Pentagon recently put out a report saying climate change is leading to more wars and forced migration.

That's why Clarkston's mayor also wants to address the root of the problem, starting in his own community. It's one reason Clarkston is committing to 100 percent renewable energy — instead of fossil fuels — by midcentury. 

“In some way, we're trying to alleviate future calamities. We just have to do our part; we have to consider ourselves part of the global community.”

Ted Terry, Clarkston mayor

“In some way, we're trying to alleviate future calamities,” Terry said. “We just have to do our part; we have to consider ourselves part of the global community.”

Clarkston is hoping to get to green while also helping out some of its newcomers. Refugee Hategekimana is one of a dozen people who took a solar panel installation class at the Friends of Refugees center.

“If you get your certificate in solar energy, maybe you can get a better job where you can help yourself to have a better life in the United States,” Hategekimana said.

Solar installation pays extra dividends, providing low-carbon energy and resilience against the effects of extreme weather events like bigger storms and floods that can knock out the electrical grid.

The efforts in this small city — a few more solar panels and welcoming refugees — won’t solve a worldwide crisis that’s only getting worse. But in Clarkston, people with firsthand experience say, everybody has to do their part.

Australia's new rapid-removal law for violent videos may be a 'knee-jerk' reaction

Apr 5, 2019 3:46


Imagine this: Mark Zuckerberg being extradited to Australia over a violent video a user posts on the platform.

Seems far-fetched, but it's exactly what Australian lawmakers want to be able to do through a new law they approved this week.

Picture Australia requesting extradition of Mark Zuckerberg:

The country is exploring possible jail time for executives of social media companies that fail to police content like the Christchurch shooter's live stream

— Christopher Mims 🎆 (@mims) March 27, 2019

The point of the legislation is to get social media companies to move quickly to take down violent content that's posted on their platforms. The law, which passed Australia's parliament on Thursday, will fine social media and web hosting companies up to 10% of their annual global turnover and imprison executives for up to three years if videos showing terrorist attacks, murders, rape or kidnapping is not removed “expeditiously.”

The new law is in response to last month's terror attack in neighboring New Zealand, where a lone gunman broadcasted his attack live on Facebook and the video was widely shared on several platforms before being removed.

Australian Attorney General Christian Porter heralded the laws as a "world first in terms of legislating the conduct of social media and online platforms" but technology experts say the law is a "knee-jerk" overreaction by a government and a failure to truly address the issue.

Nicholas Suzor, a law professor at Queensland University of Technology, says the legislation is too ambiguous.

Related: New Zealand shooting video was 'made to make us watch it.' This professor says don't.

“The real problem here is that it's actually quite vague about what platforms are required to do,” he said. “So, it's not clear how quickly a platform has to remove a video and particularly — even whether they need to know about it before they become criminally liable.”

Even Porter, while supporting the law, couldn't explain.

“Using the Christchurch example, I can't precisely say what would have been the point of time at which it would have been reasonable for them to understand that this was livestreaming on their site or playable on their site, and they should have removed it,” Porter said at a Thursday news conference after the bill passed both houses of parliament. “But what I can say, and I think every Australian would agree  — it was totally unreasonable that it should exist on their site for well over an hour without them taking any action whatsoever.”

Australia is not the first country to try to hold social media companies accountable for what's posted on their sites.

In Germany, for example, there is a law that says that social media companies have to remove hate speech, fake news, and other problematic content within 24 hours  — or face fines.

The passage of this latest piece of legislation in Australia comes as governments around the world are scrambling to figure out the right way to regulate the internet, says Suzor.

Related: New Zealand promises new gun laws within days. How can they move so fast?

“What that means is that too often, we get knee-jerk reactions and sloppily designed laws that don't really understand how you could regulate tech companies in a way that preserves innovation and freedom of speech and access to information,” he says. “That's the big problem that we have. Not necessarily that countries want to regulate, but that they're going about it the wrong way.”

Under Australia's new legislation, Suzor says there's a danger that companies will go overboard and take down legal content.

"In the past we've seen that these types of laws threaten legitimate speech a lot and they most often are minorities and disadvantaged groups."

Nicholas Suzor, Queensland University of Technology

“In the past we've seen that these types of laws threaten legitimate speech a lot and they most often are minorities and disadvantaged groups,” Suzor said, pointing to a video depicting the aftermath of the shooting of Philando Castile as an example of content that could inadvertently get taken down because of the new law.

Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota in July 2016. His girlfriend live-streamed the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook, and the video sparked protests and helped galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement. The officer involved in the shooting was later acquitted.  

But under Australia’s new law, if Castile’s murder had been shown on the video instead of just its aftermath, it would be considered illegal.

“This is something that is documented on social media,” Suzor says. “And it's not something that would be technically prohibited under this law. But there's no way that an algorithm can easily figure it out. So, my real concern here is that any technical response from the platforms will either be ineffective or much too broad in the type of content that it restricts.”

Related: 'It feels like it happened right here,' says one American Muslim

This kind of legislation also creates uncertainty for Australia's tech industry, says Sarah Moran, who runs a company focused on getting girls and women into tech called Girl Geek Academy.

“It makes my job really hard, particularly when you're talking to aspirational young people to say — I love that you want to build technology, but I cannot tell you what is on the horizon from the politicians that may choose to prevent you from doing that,” Moran says.

“It’s much easier to pass a law to be able to restrict technology than to restrict the people that live and vote in Australia.”

Sarah Moran, Girl Geek Academy

While technology firms have strongly opposed Australia’s content legislation, they say they are working to keep violent and problematic content off their platforms.

"We have zero tolerance for terrorist content on our platforms," said a spokesperson for Google in an emailed statement. "We are committed to leading the way in developing new technologies and standards for identifying and removing terrorist content."

Facebook said last week it was exploring restrictions on who can access their live video-streaming service, depending on factors such as previous violations of the site's community standards.

"With the vast volumes of content uploaded to the internet every second, this is a highly complex problem," said Sunita Bose, managing director of Digital Industry Group, Inc., of which Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon and Twitter are members.

Bose said the laws fail to understand the complexity of removing violent content.

Moran agrees.

“Technology doesn’t fight back,” she says. “It’s much easier to pass a law to be able to restrict technology than to restrict the people that live and vote in Australia.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

Can bacteria help us prevent salt damage to concrete roads and bridges?

Apr 4, 2019


Bacteria, which have been working for millennia as nature’s stonemasons, could soon be enlisted to help neutralize the destructive effects of road salt.

According to the Transportation Research Board, it takes about 10 million tons of road salt to keep roads safely navigable in the winter. And while it’s certainly an effective method for staving off snow and ice, around this time of year, we start to see the toll it takes on our infrastructure in the form of cracks, potholes and bumps.

It turns out, those bumps aren’t just the inevitable annoyances that come with wear and tear — they’re actually caused by a chemical that forms when road salt reacts with the surface of roads, bridges and sidewalks that are made from white-gray concrete.

As a civil materials engineer at Drexel University, I spend my time teaching and developing advanced materials that we can use to build more robust roads, bridges, buildings and infrastructure.

The concrete killer

The chemical causing the havoc is called calcium oxychloride — CAOXY, in chemistry shorthand — and it forms when a common type of road salt, calcium chloride, reacts with the calcium hydroxide that is an ingredient in concrete.

CAOXY is a destructive component. When it forms inside concrete, it expands — creating internal distress and cracks that are then amplified by the chiseling effect of the freeze-thaw cycle.

A graph showing the chemistry behind bacteria saving concrete.

CAOXY forms when calcium hydroxide, an ingredient in concrete, reacts with a common road salt called calcium chloride. 


Yaghoob Farnam/Creative Commons

According to the US Federal Highway Association, winter road maintenance accounts for roughly 20 percent of state department of transportation maintenance budgets, through spending more than $2.3 billion on snow and ice control. This does not include the billions of dollars needed to repair infrastructure damage caused by snow, ice and deicing salts, fixing potholes, patching and reinforcing roads and dealing with the corrosion that salt causes on the metal parts of vehicles. The annual direct losses caused by corrosion on US highway bridges are estimated at $276 billion, approximately 3.1 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

While research is underway to develop new types of concrete, such as self-heating concrete, that can melt snow and ice without the need for road salt, it might be more feasible to treat roads with something that would still allow the salt to do its job while counteracting its negative side effects by preventing the formation of CAOXY.

Bacterial blockers derailing chemical reaction

My multidisciplinary group at Drexel University, which includes civil, environmental and materials engineers, decided that any antidote for CAOXY-related damage would need to prevent the chemical reaction that forms it. But curtailing the reaction is tricky because it can occur at temperatures above freezing. This means that CAOXY can start forming almost as soon as the salt hits the road.

One of the best ways to block the reaction from happening is to make sure there aren’t enough ingredients for it. So, we wanted to create another chemical reaction that could use up the calcium in road salt before it reacted to form CAOXY.

Nature provided the perfect solution in the form of some talented bacteria.

On the other side of our lab, students were examining bacteria called Sporosarcina pasteurii to understand how they performed their magic. The bacteria, which are commonly found in the soil, have the unique ability to convert nutrients and calcium into calcium carbonate or calcite — also known as limestone, a common stone in Earth’s crust. This bacterium, S. pasteurii, is credited with depositing limestone as a binder (or glue), aiding the formation of coral reefs and helping to bind and stabilize soil.

But the S. pasteurii findings that interested my colleagues and me were discovered about 15 years ago in Europe. This research showed how bacteria like S. pasteurii could make their own sort of concrete, a biomortar, that could be used to repair damaged marble surfaces, such as sculptures or historical buildings.

Through their metabolism of the nutrients, the bacteria produce an enzyme that acts as a catalyst for calcite formation. The process also increases the alkaline nature of the surrounding environment, which also enables the reaction.

Our group was hoping to put the bacteria to work repairing cracks in concrete, most of which has limestone as its main ingredient. The breakthrough came when we noticed one of the primary ingredients S. pasteurii needed to make its limestone is calcium.

Could the little bacterial masons help us thwart CAOXY?

Where the S. pasteurii meets the road

We put our idea to the test using samples of ordinary Portland cement, the kind used to build roads, bridges and sidewalks. In addition to a control sample that was made with no bacteria, we treated one sample in the lab with S. pasteurii and nutrient solution.

Then, we exposed our samples to calcium chloride solution at varying temperatures, to simulate the winter environment in which a typical road salt-concrete interaction occurs.

A chart shows the chemistry behind bacteria preserving concrete. 

When calcium hydroxide (from the concrete) mixes with the road salt calcium chloride in the presence of bacteria, the microbes produce limestone which patches the road.


Yaghoob Farnam/Creative Commons

By measuring temperature changes indicative of CAOXY formation, measuring CAOXY amount and monitoring the acoustics of the samples with small sensitive microphones for the sounds of cracking, we saw that the bacteria-treated samples were left unscathed.

And the S. pasteurii actually converted some of the road salt into calcite that helped to seal up the micropores that are precursors to cracks and potholes.

So, can using bacteria before the salt assault really save us from road damage? I think so.

S. pasteurii are a particularly hardy type of harmless bacteria that can be found in soil. They can form spores in order to survive in a wide range of temperatures and high- or low-acidity environments. This means they may lie dormant in the off-season and spring into action with the first road salting of the winter. And more importantly, the calcium carbonate they form seems to be harmless to their immediate ecosystem – unlike road salt, which is known to affect nearby aquatic environments by the end of the season.

Of course, more work is needed to fully understand the interactions of S. pasteurii with deicing salt and its effect on concrete performance. My colleagues and I don’t yet know how quickly bacteria perform this chemical reaction, and we are working on promising ways for how we would add the bacteria to the roads in a real-world situation. But this is a path worth pursuing, because it’s unlikely we’ll be able to kick our addiction to road salt any time soon.The Conversation

Yaghoob Farnam is an assistant professor of civil engineering at Drexel University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ethiopia urges Boeing to review controls, backs pilots

Apr 4, 2019


Ethiopian authorities said on Thursday pilots of state carrier Ethiopian Airlines had carried out proper procedures and urged Boeing to review its flight control technology. The statement is the first public findings on the crash of a 737 MAX jet that killed 157 people.

The doomed flight repeatedly nosedived as the pilots battled to control the nearly full aircraft before it crashed six minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa in clear conditions, Ethiopian authorities said on Thursday.

"The crew performed all the procedures repeatedly provided by the manufacturer but was not able to control the aircraft,"  Transport Minister Dagmawit Moges told a news conference, presenting the outlines of a preliminary report,

Investigators are expected to publish the report by Friday.

Listen: Remembering passengers on doomed Ethiopia Airlines Flight 302

Boeing's top-selling aircraft has been grounded worldwide since the March 10 disaster, which came just five months after a Lion Air 737 MAX crash in Indonesia that killed 189. An initial report into that accident also raised questions about the jet's software, as well as training and maintenance.

Families of the victims, regulators and travelers around the world have been waiting for signs of whether the two crashes are linked, and the extent to which Boeing technology and the actions of the Ethiopian Airlines pilots played a role.

Ethiopian investigators did not blame anyone for the crash, in line with international rules requiring civil probes to focus on technical recommendations for safer flight. Nor did they give a detailed analysis of the flight, which is expected to take several months before a final report due within a year.

But in a clear indication of where Ethiopian investigators are directing the attention of regulators, they cleared the pilots of using incorrect procedures and issued two safety recommendations focused on the recently introduced aircraft.

They suggested that Boeing review the flight control system and that aviation authorities confirm any changes before allowing that model of plane back into the air.

"Since repetitive uncommanded aircraft nose down conditions are noticed ... it is recommended that the aircraft control system shall be reviewed by the manufacturer," Dagmawit said.

The nose-down commands were issued by Boeing's so-called MCAS software. The preliminary report into the Lion Air disaster suggested pilots lost control after grappling with MCAS, a new automated anti-stall feature that repeatedly lowered the nose of the aircraft based on faulty data from a sensor.

The US Federal Aviation Administration, which has come under fire over the way it decided to certify the MCAS software, cautioned the investigation had not yet concluded.

"We continue to work toward a full understanding of all aspects of this accident. As we learn more about the accident and findings become available, we will take appropriate action," the US agency said in a statement.

Boeing said it would study the report once it was released.

No tensions

Ethiopian Airlines said its crew had followed all the correct guidance to handle a difficult emergency.

However, the report could spark a debate with Boeing about how crew responded to problems triggered by faulty data from an airflow sensor, particularly over whether they steadied the plane before turning key software off.

Questions on whether the pilots had leveled out the plane before disengaging MCAS and how many times MCAS activated were not answered in a news conference that lasted about 40 minutes.

Following a previous Ethiopian Airlines accident off Beirut in 2010, Addis Ababa authorities rejected the conclusions of a Lebanese investigation citing pilot error and suggested the aircraft had exploded in a possible act of sabotage.

Officials denied reports of tensions between Ethiopian officials and US and other foreign investigators accredited to the current probe.

"We don't have any reservations from different stakeholders who were engaged in the investigations," chief investigator Amdye Ayalew Fanta said.

Aviation safety analyst Paul Hayes said deeper investigation would delve into the role played by software and how pilots were able to respond, and said he hoped scars from the 2010 dispute would not get in the way of a comprehensive investigation.

"Pilots shouldn't have to cope with such an emergency situation. We need to understand what are the factors that meant these two crews were overcome," said Hayes, safety director at UK-based consultancy Flight Ascend.

"It is unusual for there to be a single cause," he added.

Boeing said on Wednesday it had successfully tested an update of the MCAS software designed to make it easier to handle.

By Jason Neely/Reuters

Reporting by Jason Neely; Writing by Katharine Houreld and Tim Hepher; Additional reporting by Maggie Fick, Jamie Freed and David Shepardson; Editing by Mark Potter.

Shell oil says it will quit a lobbying group that opposes global climate goals

Apr 3, 2019 5:08


Royal Dutch Shell PLC on Tuesday became the first major oil and gas company to announce plans to leave a leading US refining lobby due to disagreement on climate policies, citing its support for the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

In its first review of its association with 19 key industry groups, Shell said it had found "material misalignment" over climate policy with the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, and would quit the body in 2020.

The review is part of Shell's drive to increase transparency and show investors it is in line with the 2015 Paris climate agreement's goals to limit global warming by reducing carbon emissions to a net zero by the end of the century.

It is the latest sign of how investor pressure on oil companies, particularly in Europe, is leading to changes in their behavior around climate. Last year, Shell caved in to investor pressure over climate change, setting out plans to introduce industry-leading carbon emissions targets linked to executive pay.

Its chief executive, Ben van Beurden, has since repeatedly urged oil and gas producers to take action over climate and pollution, staking out a more radical position than the heads of other major oil companies.

"AFPM has not stated support for the goal of the Paris Agreement. Shell supports the goal of the Paris Agreement," the Anglo-Dutch company said in its decision.

"The need for urgent action in response to climate change has become ever more obvious since the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015. As a result, society's expectations in this area have changed, and Shell's views have also evolved," van Beurden said in the report.

Mindy Lubber is the CEO of the corporate sustainability organization, Ceres. Lubber spoke with The World's Marco Werman about Shell's announcement. 

Related: How European kids are schooling politicians on climate change

Marco Werman: Why does it matter that Shell is leaving this organization?

Mindy Lubber: Well it matters because if a company steps up and says they're going to act on climate and they're going to take steps to deal with getting their company in line with the Paris Agreement, they can't honestly at the same time be supporting trade associations who are trying to kill that agreement. It is simply not responsible or not honest. I mean, Shell agreed to three things a couple of months ago in a series of negotiations with investors, many of our members and others. They agreed to set very clear and specific goals on how to bring their carbon footprint down. No. 2, they said they're going to hold their executives accountable, their top thousand executives, to meeting those climate goals. No. 3, they're going to align their policy positions with that of their trade associations and Shell gets a good deal of credit for being the first fossil fuel company to stand up and say, "We are pulling out of one of the trade associations we're part of because they're advocating for the opposite of what we believe in on climate."

If this is about the goals of the Paris agreement, it seems Shell's going to have to change a lot more than who does its bidding in Washington. How does this move fit into Shell's broader strategy to change what they do and how they do it?

Well, that's precisely what needs to happen. The fossil fuel industry is going to have to look substantially different. And so what the investors were saying to Shell, in many, many of our discussions and meetings, is you need to look at the future of this company, you need to set goals for — I would argue — radically reducing your emissions, and that might be starting to change your product mix. It may be that some of these oil and gas companies need to develop more of a renewables part of their business. It is the energy mix of the future and if they're going to stay viable, they need to be moving in that direction.

And what investors are asking them is to set very clear goals and implement them on how they're going to bring their carbon footprint down over the short term and over a longer term.

Related: Concrete production uses a ton of sand and emits a lot of carbon. Here are some greener alternatives.

Royal Dutch Shell has wavered somewhat on turning toward a more sustainable business model over the years and they have not left other big lobbying groups like the American Petroleum Institute, so how do you know that their recent new direction is really going to stick?

... There's no question, Shell's got a lot more to do. They are at the start of their process, not the end of it.

We all know that to get to the Paris Agreement, it's about changing everything in what you do. Shell has to look at what the company might be and might look at 10 years from now and 20 years from now. That's more than a fossil fuel company.

"It is not easy to ask a fossil fuel company to de-carbonize overnight, but they cannot survive as a company in their present form and, at the same time, meet the Paris agreement."

Just generally speaking, can any fossil fuel company really do what the science tells us needs to be done to quickly de-carbonize our economy?

Look, it is not easy to ask a fossil fuel company to de-carbonize overnight, but they cannot survive as a company in their present form and, at the same time, meet the Paris agreement. The science says we need a major decrease of fossil fuels and the ExxonMobils and Shells and BPs have to look at transitioning their businesses or, frankly, the share value of their companies will not survive.

Shell is one of the biggest players in the global petroleum business, but it is only one. How much do you think the rest of the industry is going to follow their lead?

You know, there were certainly two or three other fossil fuel companies that are either following their lead or making their own commitments. A couple of them are probably in Europe, Total, BP is certainly trying to do more, but we've got ExxonMobil, who's doing anything but, so we still got a long way to go. I think it's important more than symbolically that Shell is setting goals. They are holding their executives accountable to meeting those goals. They are being transparent about it and they're starting to pull out of lobbying organizations that, frankly, lobby for policies that will defy their goals. That's a good start. And we need to see the other fossil fuels follow suit.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Reuters contributed to this report. 

WhatsApp tipline to fight fake news ‘too little, too late,’ Indian police chief says

Apr 3, 2019 4:04


Editor's note: Checkpoint Tipline, a service launched earlier this week by WhatsApp, was originally reported as a tipline to combat fake news and misinformation during India’s elections. After Buzzfeed news reported that they attempted to file tips and received no responses, the local company partnering with WhatsApp posted an FAQ saying the tipline is primarily a research project for collecting data about misinformation, and rather than a fact-checking “helpline.”

WhatsApp on Tuesday launched a service for Indians to check the veracity of information, in the messaging platform's latest attempt to combat fake news in India ahead of national elections beginning this month.

WhatsApp said in a statement it was working with local startup Proto to classify messages sent to the service by users as true, false, misleading or disputed. They will also build a database of such content to better understand misinformation.

The move comes as WhatsApp, with over 200 million users in India, battles criticism of its platform being used for the spread of misinformation, while social media companies across the board work to prevent the phenomenon‚ particularly during sensitive events such as elections.

WhatsApp owner Facebook, Inc. said on Monday it had deleted 712 accounts and 390 pages in India and Pakistan for "inauthentic behavior," saying many were linked to India's opposition Congress party and others related to Pakistan's military.

The first phase of India's elections are scheduled to begin on April 11, with final results expected on May 23.

Rema Rajeshwari is a police chief in the southern Indian state of Telangana, where she oversees about 700 villages. She spoke with The World's Marco Werman about the fact-checking service and the upcoming elections. 

Marco Werman: I want to get your initial reaction to this tipline that WhatsApp announced this week. What can you tell us about it?

Rema Rajeshwari: WhatsApp has been at the center of controversy in India since last year after fake messages spread on its platforms and sparked a number of lynching incidents. Over 40 people died and the company made it harder to forward messages and limited the number of groups to which the messages can be forwarded after it came under a lot of pressure from the government and different stakeholders. Two days ago, the company came up with this new initiative called Checkpoint Tipline. They say this is to stop the spread of suspected content ahead of India's national elections and by launching this tipline, they are saying that they are able to enable the users to point out dubious information for debunking. They have partnered with an Indian startup called Proto to create a system in which users can forward suspicious messages they have received.

Related: India is trying to market its elections as a tourist attraction.

So, it's a collaboration? A lot of organizations and people seem concerned about the fake news there.

Yeah, very much. Some are not quite happy about this step because they are criticizing it as a very feeble attempt to fight fake news. They say it's too little and too late because we barely have 10 days to go for the national elections and the amount of fake news which is already in circulation is quite enormous. We just have to wait and see in the next 10 days how fast they can get to the top.

"They say it's too little and too late because we barely have 10 days to go for the national elections and the amount of fake news which is already in circulation is quite enormous."

Have you tried using Checkpoint Tipline? What does it actually do and how does it work?

You have to send a message first. They have given this number so you can send a message to them and the response typically comes instantly by saying, "Thank you, we have received the information, we will verify the content and get back to you." They also have similar responses in four Indian languages: Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, and Telugu. The ones who have been using the service since the last 24 hours have been complaining that it's not instant. For that, the company came up with the response saying that if it's an old rumor, the user will get a quick response, but if it's a new rumor, it will take some time for the verification center to determine if it can be verified.

Related: India’s #MeToo movement triggers probes and departures for alleged sexual misconduct.

What kind of fake news stories are you seeing in your district?

Whatsapp still has misleading content with regard to the candidates, with regard to the manifesto of certain political parties, and about the recent attack in the state of Kashmir. There was a terror attack a month ago. After that terror attack, there was a huge volume of misinformation being spread. If you look at the type of messages being spread these days, it's often something to do with religion and to do with the candidates, their characters, their assets, and the authenticity and the credibility of a particular candidate. This is the kind of message that we are seeing on the platform in India.

The interview was edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed to this report. 

How Twitter and other social media can draw the US into foreign interventions

Apr 3, 2019


Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised to resign by the end of the month. That announcement came after thousands of Algerians took to the streets in March to protest his decision to run for a fifth term.

Social media played a crucial role in those demonstrations, allowing protesters to coordinate the place and time of the mass gatherings.

We do not yet know whether President Bouteflika will keep his promise. Perhaps even more uncertain, will the international community hold him accountable if he does not?

The answer might depend on how active Algerians will be on Twitter. In at least one case, Twitter usage had a dramatic impact abroad during a country’s civil unrest.

My colleague Benjamin T. Jones and I found that during the 2011 Libyan civil war, social media helped convince other countries such as the US to intervene in favor of protesters.

Winning support one tweet at a time

The Libyan civil war exploded in February 2011. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had been in power since 1969, and those who opposed him wanted to implement reforms aimed at reducing government corruption and providing greater political transparency.

Protests began on Feb. 15 in Benghazi and spread to other cities. By Feb. 27, the opposition announced it had organized itself into the National Transitional Council, or the NTC. They claimed to be the true representative of the Libyan people.

A few days later, the NTC established a Twitter account to publicize their version of the conflict.

Up to the civil war, Gadhafi had meticulously controlled most of the communication coming out of Libya. He sought to project an image of the country as a place where political order prevailed and citizens supported him.

Twitter became a powerful instrument to air the rebels’ account of the conflict and present themselves to the international community as a viable — even preferable — alternative to Gadhafi.

our goal is to bring freedom, Justice and democracy to #libya

— NTC Media (@NTC_of_Libya) March 6, 2011Tweets and US policy changes

In our research, we collected data on all the tweets by Libyan rebels. We then used statistical techniques to measure how the rebels’ Twitter feed affected both US behavior toward the Libyan government and relations with the rebels.

We found that messages that denounced Gadhafi’s atrocities against civilians were significantly correlated with the decision of the US to adopt more cooperative behaviors with the rebels — for example, to praise their activities and to agree to meet with them.

Correlation, of course, does not mean causation.

However, even after we accounted for other factors, such as the behavior of the rebels toward Gadhafi and US intelligence on the field, we found that the rebels’ tweets contributed to the US becoming more cooperative with the rebels.

This happened despite the fact that President Barack Obama was reluctant to intervene at the outset of the conflict.

How were they so successful in gaining US support?

Rebels tweeted in English to communicate directly to both US policymaking elites and the broader public. They voiced their support for democracy and human rights while publicizing Gadhafi’s atrocities against civilians.

Examples provided by the rebels included violations of international law by the regime and attacks on civilian homes. Apparently in response and often just a few days later, US officials voiced public support for the rebels’ cause and aims.

In defiance of international law, Colonel Gaddafi’s authorities committed the most serious crimes possible against the Libyan people..#Libya

— NTC Media (@NTC_of_Libya) June 7, 2011

When elites have access to privileged information — gained, for example, in private, secret meetings — elites will know something that the public will not. In technical terms, that’s known as information asymmetry.

Because the public is not privy to this information, elites cannot use it to justify their foreign policy choices. So elites might make choices that seem arbitrary to the public. This process erodes public support for those policies.

Instead, the fact that rebels could communicate to both rebels and elites at the same time via social media enabled rebels to build a coalition of support that included both elites and the public.

That support turned into intervention. Beginning in March 2011, NATO countries, including the US, staged air and naval strikes against Gadhafi’s forces, who were attacking civilians.

The intervention paved the way for the rebels’ victory.

Smoke fills the air as a missile is launched from a military boat at night.

This was one of approximately 110 cruise missiles fired from US and British ships and submarines in March 2011 that targeted sites along Libya’s Mediterranean coast


Roderick Eubanks/Reuters/US Navy photo

Does social media rush interventions?

Since Libya’s civil war, the use of social media across the globe to draw attention to foreign crises has only grown stronger.

In 2013, dozens of videos distributed via YouTube documenting a possible chemical attack on Syrian civilians shook the international community. More videos on those attacks have been posted since 2013.

Graphic content: A video distributed by Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets of civilian victims of the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack in Syria in 2017.


Similar attacks happened in April 2018 and were documented on social media. And just like Obama did in 2011 when intervening in Libya, President Trump bypassed Congress when authorizing strikes in Syria in response to such attacks.

This raises the question of whether social media is rushing US leaders to intervene with very little planning for what comes after.

In the process of bypassing Congress, the president had made an important decision on the use of force all alone, without consulting the Congress, as is required by US law.

Here, as with Obama, President Trump was responding to a sense of urgency. Our research suggests that social media helped create that sense; whether it was good policymaking is another question entirely.The Conversation

Eleonora Mattiacci is an assistant professor of political science at Amherst College.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Europe is not afraid to regulate Big Tech. EU Competition Commissioner Vestager explains why.

Mar 28, 2019 7:53


A requirement for Google's YouTube, Facebook's Instagram and other sharing platforms to install filters to catch copyright violations known as Article 13 (now renumbered to Article 17) has triggered protests, with an online petition garnering more than 5 million signatures so far.

The European Commission wants to reform copyright rules to protect Europe's cultural heritage and ensure fair compensation to publishers, broadcasters and artists. The European Parliament is due to vote on the commission's proposal on Tuesday.

And it was only last year when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said before Congress last year that "It's clear now that we didn't do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well ... Our position is not that regulation is bad. I think the real question is: What is the right framework for this? Not, should there be one?" 

One thing is certain: In Europe, the framework for reining in high-tech companies is taking shape faster than in the US.

Margrethe Vestager is the EU's competition commissioner and former deputy prime minister of Denmark. She serves as a powerful force in the regulation of global businesses, and she joined The World's host Marco Werman in the studio to explain the impact that her role has and how regulations are decided. 

Marco Werman: Can I ask you first of all, what does your title actually mean, commissioner for competition?

Margrethe Vestager: Well, it means that I'm the law enforcer. So, it's my job to have the leadership of the law enforcement of European competition law.

You've been in that position since 2014. What does that mean practically when you're looking at US, high-tech companies like Google. Google searches account for 9 out of 10 searches in the EU, correct?

That's correct, yes. Everyone is welcome to do business in Europe. No matter the flag you're flying or where you have your home, but you will have to do business according to the European rulebook, when in Europe. This is why when someone complains or when we ourselves get a suspicion that something is wrong, we start investigating.


A women speakers into a microphone inside a recording studio.

Margrethe Vestager speaks about EU regulations.


Alex Newman/The World 

What do you consider something that is wrong? What would you start to investigate?

Well, take the first Google case. Here, you have a company which is dominant in search which has then used search to promote its own shopping comparison service and demote rivals in shopping comparison services, on average, to page four. This is a misuse of your success. You're more than welcome to be successful, but if you do become dominant. you get a special responsibility. The more power you have, the stronger your responsibility.

So, the EU has fined Google three times in recent years. The most recent came down last week, a fine of $1.7 billion dollars. Are these fines meant to be big enough to dissuade companies from repeating their wrongdoing? Or, like in the case of Google, that they just see this as the cost of doing business?

Well, there are a number of functions when we take a decision. One is to fine past behavior. Second is to say, "You've got to stop what you did and you cannot do anything to the equivalence." And then, of course, to start remedying the marketplace. What we see now after the Google shopping decision is that the shopping unit, the shopping box, has been opened to rivals. Now, I think in 3 out of 4 searches for a product, you would find rivals in the shopping box and in 40 percent of clicks on a product, that click would go to a rival of Google, to a merchant that is not in the Google universe. So, you see that the market is improving.

Related: Facebook says data leak hits 87 million users, widening privacy scandal

It seems there are really two big issues here: the monopoly trend that seems to dominate high tech and also the privacy problems. Which is more important to you as a regulator and as the commissioner for competition in the EU?

Competition legislation is a very strong tool, but just because you have a very big hammer you shouldn't think that everything is a nail. I think it is important that competition law enforcement works with regulation because you cannot do everything by competition tools. You need also the marketplace to be framed by, for instance, privacy issues, copyright issues, in order for this not to turn into something Wild West, where you basically just see the consumer as part of your product.

You're the former deputy prime minister of Denmark. Some people will hear your comments and say, "The biggest and most successful firms in the world came from countries with the least rigid regulations." Do you think regulation stifles the innovation we all want?

No, I don't think so. I think regulation works sometimes as an incentive. Of course, it very much depends on your state of mind. If you just want a completely open space to innovate or you say, "Well, I consider these to be things that I will build in, I will do, for instance, privacy by design instead of as an add-on. I'll add on something more or less superficial in the end." Instead of saying, "Of course, I respect the privacy of the people who will use my services." So, this is my starting point.

What about on the consumer end, because at the end of the day, a lot of people will say that they just want a high-speed, reliable search engine. They want their GPS directions fast. Privacy almost seems like an afterthought for a lot of consumers. You're the person that looks after consumers — how do you square that circle?

When it comes to privacy, we have different preferences. Some people really value their privacy. Some people really couldn't care less. What we're trying to say is that we can take legitimate decisions in our democracy as how to balance that, because our digital citizen rights, they are not for the most private person and they are not for the one who doesn't care at all. It's a balanced approach to say, "If you if you do this, then we can all find ourselves in this space."

Related: European lawmakers had tough questions for Mark Zuckerberg. For the most part, he ducked them.

We reached out to Google and told them we were going to be speaking with you today. Kent Walker, senior vice president of global affairs at Google told us in writing: "We've always agreed that healthy, thriving markets are in everyone's interest. We've already made a wide range of changes to our products to address the Commission's concerns. Over the next few months, we'll be making further updates to give more visibility to rivals in Europe." Are you satisfied with that statement? Is Google doing enough regarding privacy and competition?

He's absolutely right to say that Google has made a number of changes for rivals to be visible in this marketplace. When it comes to shopping comparison services, I think they're important for everyone so that you can find the cheapest product available in the quality you want, with the after services that you would be expecting, with the low shipping costs. In the Android case, they will be providing you a choice screen if the Google products have been preinstalled, so that you yourself can choose what do you actually want to do. So, yes, they are making a number of changes.

In the interest of open competition, you told an audience at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival that you use a search engine called Qwant, which I just tried out. I found myself looking for Google Earth on Qwant. There are just some things that you can't escape aren't there?

Well, I think to some degree, you're right. I myself try to maintain curiosity.

What does Qwant give you that Google doesn't?

First of all, I get the results I'm looking for very often as the first result. I don't have to scroll through advertising and of course, that's a matter of preference. This is my preference.

And in terms of privacy?

Yes, they are privacy consistent. This is privacy by design services.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed to this report. 

Photo essay: Puerto Rico’s small farmers rebuild, with help from chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen

Mar 27, 2019


Just a few days after Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, chef José Andrés and his nonprofit organization, World Central Kitchen (WCK), were on the ground feeding people. Andrés founded WCK in 2010 in response to the earthquake in Haiti, and the group has consistently followed its mission: get to vulnerable populations and start feeding people with no delay. Since 2010, they have served survivors of natural disasters — including earthquakes and hurricanes — as well as man-made ones — such as Central American migrants waiting in limbo in Tijuana or the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

After serving more than 3.7 million meals in nine months from 26 sites across Puerto Rico, WCK closed its kitchens in June of 2018. Knowing how much work remained for the island’s recovery, WCK sought ways to continue to help the food-insecure island in a sustainable way. They started by asking the island’s farmers — who had been providing WCK with much of their food — how they could help.

Plow to Plate is a grant program born of these conversations. The grant program, developed by WCK in partnership with these farmers, provides grants in the range of $5,000 to $20,000 to speed their recovery from Hurricane Maria — and to make their farm-plan wish-lists come true for first time applicants, and grants of up to $40,000 for second time applicants. In the first round of grants, 35 farms and community organizations received a total of $547,000 to build projects including cold storage, high tunnels, composting operations and purchasing seeds and tools.

Support to rebuild — and improve — the island’s sustainable food infrastructure has never been more important. Even before Hurricane Maria, food insecurity in Puerto Rico was an issue, with 18 percent of residents facing food insecurity, and 1.4 million, or approximately 44 percent of the population receiving NAP food assistance from the US government. Puerto Rico imports between 85 and 95 percent of what they consume, depending on who you ask; and the inefficiencies of the Jones Act—which requires food shipped between US ports (in this case, between the mainland and Puerto Rico) to be American-owned and -operated — means that when food finally reaches the island, it is often expensive and not fresh.

WCK’s Plow to Plate program is designed to support the small farmers, preferably with a focus on agroecological and sustainable methods, who have been working for years to address the need for fresh, healthy, and affordable food in Puerto Rico. By 2023, WCK’s goal is to offer grants to 200 farms, distributing a total of $4 million to strengthen Puerto Rico’s farm economy.

In addition to helping farmers sustain and expand their operations, Plow to Plate grants are building communication, community, and knowledge-sharing among the farmers it supports: grant recipients are required to participate in at least three workshops per year. On an island where farmers rarely know each other, sharing knowledge and advice is a necessary way for small, agroecological farmers to thrive.

In January 2019, the first round of grant recipients began to receive their money. Below, we tell the story of a few of the many promising projects at work in building Puerto Rico’s food sovereignty.

All photos © Lindsay Talley

A portrait of Franco Marcano wearing a hat. Credit:

Lindsay Talley/Civil Eats

“The Internet of Farming” is Cosechas Tierra Viva’s slogan. Run by Franco Marcano and his partner Natalia in Las Piedras, it refers to using technology to help farmers collect information from their environment to work more efficiently. “Back when our grandparents farmed, they didn’t have so many distractions, so they could observe, their senses were more acute, they could see things, feel things, understand the patterns [on the farm] better than we can,” Marcano says. Now, Marcano uses technology to track rainfall, pressure, temperature, moon cycles, and gather years of data to begin to understand his microclimate. “Patterns are changing, and we need to understand patterns. Technology, a weather station, can be the most basic tool in implementing technology.”

Franco Marcano is shown in a hat and shorts walking along of a small field he is farming. Credit:

Lindsay Talley/Civil Eats

Once this field is planted, Marcano’s goal is to turn the smaller area of raised beds on his property into a teaching garden. When he started his small farm, he had a difficult time finding information about small-scale farming, and he wants to make it easier for other farmers in Puerto Rico to learn. Plow to Plate funds will help Cosechas Tierra Viva create a health department-compliant produce packing area complete with cold storage.


Richelle Van Dusen and her partner, Dallas Tate, are shown bent over working in a field of green vegetables.

Richelle Van Dusen and her partner, Dallas Tate, volunteer on their vacation to Puerto Rico helping farmer Jose Soto for the day.


Lindsay Talley/Civil Eats

When Richelle Van Dusen and her partner, Dallas Tate, were planning their vacation to Puerto Rico, they knew they wanted to volunteer somewhere for a day. They reached out to World Central Kitchen’s Puerto Rico team, who coordinated a visit to ARECMA, where they helped farmer Jose Soto for the day. Pictured above: Van Dusen and Tate.

A muddy dirt road is show with overgrown green vegetation on both sides. Credit:

Lindsay Talley/Civil Eats

ARECMA’s Plow to Plate grant money will be used for several different projects on the farm, including building a greenhouse in the cleared space pictured.

A woman in yellow shorts and s striped shirt leans toward an open service window. Credit:

Lindsay Talley/Civil Eats

ARECMA is a non-profit community organization in Humaco, Puerto Rico, whose mission is “to work and ensure the welfare and integral development of the neighborhood and its people.” As part of their efforts, the group cooks low-cost lunches for people in the community each day. Pictured above: Margarita stands ready at the sales window for the steady stream of lunchtime customers.

Desde Mi Huerto

A woman is shown in a portrait photo demonstrating how to remove seeds from a luffa Credit:

Lindsay Talley/Civil Eats

Desde Mi Huerto is the only farm in Puerto Rico dedicated to growing organic seeds to sell to both farmers and home gardeners on the island. Pictured: Co-founder Ivonne Reverón demonstrates how to remove seeds from a luffa, part of the cucurbit family.

A cement structure is shown with a metal bar framing around it.

The Plow to Plate grant for Desde Mi Huerto will be used to build out this structure into a kitchen.


Lindsay Talley/Civil Eats

Alexandra Robles is shown in a black shirt leaning over a table transplants seedlings in the greenhouse.

Alexandra Robles, a Desde Mi Huerto employee, transplants seedlings in the greenhouse.


Lindsay Talley/Civil Eats

F&A Finca

Alfonso Díaz is show walking away from the camera with his two brown and one spotted dogs following behind him.

Alfonso Díaz, owner of F&A, walks with his dogs on the private road that winds through his farm in Utuado. The visible rain clouds are typical here in central Puerto Rico, even now, when much of the island is in a drought.


Lindsay Talley/Civil Eats

A clear plastic structure is show covering large green plants. Credit:

Lindsay Talley/Civil Eats

Most of the heat-loving crops Díaz grows to sell wholesale to major retailers on the island, like Econo Supermercado, prefer drier soil, so he grows them under a protective canopy to enable him to control how much water they receive. He will use his Plow to Plate funds to build more canopy structures, like this one, on his farm.

A close-up photo of hand holding a small green pepper. Credit:

Lindsay Talley/Civil Eats

Alfonso inspects damage to a pepper from a thrip infestation. As an agroecological farmer, rather than spray chemicals to kill the insects, he feels he’s been able to harvest enough peppers from these plants, and will tear them out and replant another crop in this space to eliminate the pests.

La Microfinca

Rivera is shown wearing a green shirt and holding a tray of greens. Credit:

Lindsay Talley/Civil Eats

La Microfinca gets its name from its first iteration as microgreens garden started in Tadilka Rivera’s San Juan apartment. After Hurricane Maria, Rivera was laid off from her job, and jumped at the opportunity to take over family land in Camuy in northwest Puerto Rico to start a suburban farm.

A wide shot photograph of several rows of crops and a gray building in the distance.

Now more of a mini farm than a micro farm, La Microfinca produces greens and root crops to sell at farmers’ markets, restaurants, and CSAs.


Lindsay Talley/Civil Eats

Three men are show putting up a ply board piece of wood that will be one of the walls of a storage unit. Credit:

Lindsay Talley/Civil Eats

Rivera is using her Plow to Plate grant to build cold storage for crops she harvests — a necessity in this subtropical climate. Pictured here, Rivera’s uncle, father, and farm helper begin construction of the cold storage unit. Once the room is built with plywood, it will be insulated with foam, and an air-conditioning unit will keep the space cool. In the background, Rivera packs radishes while her stepmother cleans them.

Time for a change: EU lawmakers vote to scrap clock shifts in 2021

Mar 26, 2019


European Union lawmakers voted on Tuesday to scrap daylight saving time — the practice of moving clocks forward by an hour in the spring then back again in the autumn — starting in April 2021,

The European Parliament voted by 410 to 192 in favor of ending the practice of seasonal time shifts. The vote is not the last word on the issue but will form the basis of discussions with EU countries to produce a final law. The countries have yet to take a stance.

EU law has required all countries in the bloc to observe daylight saving time, moving clocks forward by an hour on the last Sunday of March and back by an hour on the final Sunday in October.

The practice of switching the clocks, also observed in countries such as the United States, was first introduced in World War I to save energy by prolonging evening daylight in summer.

The European Commission proposed in September ending the practice after an EU-wide opinion survey showed a large majority in favor of doing so. The survey generated 4.6 million responses, with 84 percent of respondents wanting to end seasonal clock changes.

Critics say the survey was dominated by Germans, who made up 70 percent of the respondents.

A parliament report in favor of operating on a single time throughout the year said scientific studies link time changes to diseases of the cardiovascular or immune systems because they interrupt biological cycles, and that there were no longer any energy savings.

"New technology and different ways of living mean that we no longer earn anything (from time change), in fact we don't save," Marita Ulvskog, the lawmaker in charge of the time change file, told the EU parliament during a debate on the issue on Monday.

If the Commission's original proposal had passed, the coming weekend would have been the last occasion to set clocks forward, with EU countries then deciding whether to stick to permanent summer time or switch back in October to permanent winter time.

Countries would not then be able to change their clocks forward and backward during the year, but would be free to decide which time zone they wanted to be in.

The European Union will have 27 members once Britain leaves the bloc. The UK government has indicated it will stick to the current system after Brexit.

The seasonal time shift has also been the subject of debate in the United States, where legislators have tried unsuccessfully to abolish it. For now, Hawaii and most of Arizona do not follow the practice since World War II of adjusting clocks.

Russia decided in 2011 to switch to permanent summer time in an attempt to improve citizens' well-being but shifted to permanent winter time in 2014 after public complaints.

The majority of countries outside Europe and North America do not adjust their clocks.

Reporting by Clare Roth and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Frances Kerry.

The Green New Deal doesn't include carbon pricing. Some say that's a big mistake.

Mar 25, 2019 7:24


The Green New Deal resolution recently introduced by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts has attracted a lot of attention for its bold proposals to transform the US economy as well as a lot of criticism for going too far and being politically untenable. One perhaps unlikely source of criticism has come from the editorial voices at The Washington Post.

The Post's Editorial Board recently laid out its own argument for a Green New Deal that, unlike the AOC-Markey plan, includes carbon pricing and stops short of broader progressive goals.

Related: Legally, 'climate refugees' don't exist. But in Georgia, they say they're already here.

Stephen Stromberg of the Post, who authored the editorial, expressed some surprise that the Green New Deal did not include carbon pricing, noting that in 2009, Sen. Markey co-sponsored a carbon-pricing bill that, at the time, was considered “the premier global warming/climate change legislation of the Obama era.” The bill did not pass.

“There has been some hand-wringing among environmentalists about the political attractiveness of a carbon pricing-type program.”

As a result, “there has been some hand-wringing among environmentalists about the political attractiveness of a carbon pricing-type program,” Stromberg said. “On top of that, for a long time, [some] have been wary of carbon pricing, either through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program like California has, for a variety of reasons."

Related: Shell oil says it will quit a lobbying group that opposes global climate goals

One reason is ideological: Some people are skeptical of market-based mechanisms and believe government mandates will be more effective. Others believe carbon pricing won't spur enough research and development into alternative energy plans. Still others simply don't like the idea that companies would essentially be allowed to pay to pollute.

“We accept that that's one way to look at it,” Stromberg said. “But another way to look at it is [that] it’s ramping down carbon emissions over time, it's doing so in a cost-effective way and it's marshaling every dollar to its highest benefit. So, if you can get over the discomfort of the appearance that companies are paying to pollute, what in fact you get is a highly effective, highly efficient system to get very far — and, in fact, we think where we need to be — to fight climate change.”

Related: The 'Green New Deal' started with six college grads. Now, they're recruiting an army of young people.

In the eyes of many critics, carbon pricing has another big downside: If coal plants and other industries are allowed to produce emissions simply by paying a fee, they will continue to create pollution hazardous to public health, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. Stromberg acknowledges that this is “a substantial problem.”

To limit it, the Post recommends “a higher price on carbon than we've seen anywhere else before, one that would be much more effective at fighting the coal industry and making it less and less economical — not to mention other industries that produce carbon emissions in various ways.”

In addition, the government will need to make wise choices about what to do with the revenue generated by carbon pricing. “A slice of that revenue undoubtedly has to be spent on helping particularly low-income people cope with the transition,” Stromberg said. 

Possible schemes to achieve this include rebates paid directly to citizens and increasing the earned-income tax credit for the working poor. Rebates ensure that people who will be paying more in energy prices and gas prices will not be harmed by the energy transition. “In fact, there has been study after study showing that people can be made whole, if not better than whole, if you have this type of rebates system,” Stromberg said.

The Post editorial also takes issue with the Green New Deal’s call for massive public investments in things like high-speed rail. It singled out high-speed rail because of the “spectacular failure” of California’s ambitious plans to create a line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco, Stromberg says. High-speed rail’s inclusion in the Green New Deal “signified an insensitivity to the lessons of recent government waste,” Stromberg said.

“That's what we're really worried about: This idea that the government will spend a large amount of money, will muster man-hours and resources toward projects that seem like they might help in this really important fight, but end up not helping. High-speed rail is just one example.”

“That's what we're really worried about: This idea that the government will spend a large amount of money, will muster man-hours and resources toward projects that seem like they might help in this really important fight, but end up not helping. High-speed rail is just one example,” he said. 

That being said, the Post does advocate for direct government spending and intervention beyond a carbon pricing plan, Stromberg adds. In their view, the government should provide reliable, public transportation as an alternative to cars, particularly for low-income people who can't afford to use Uber or pay higher gasoline taxes. The government should also provide more research and development funding to develop zero-carbon technologies and to regulate efficiency standards for cars and appliances.

“There are gaps in a carbon pricing system,” Stromberg said. “You do have to have some willingness to set mandates, some willingness to spend money. We believe that that shouldn't be the first impulse. That should be sort of the backup impulse after you've put carbon-pricing system in place."

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

This high school sophomore from Minnesota 'jumped on the bandwagon' to save the planet

Mar 25, 2019 14:56


This past March 15, an estimated 1 million schoolchildren around the world went on strike for the climate.

They were inspired by Greta Thunberg, who began striking outside the Swedish parliament during school hours in August 2018 when she was 15 years old. Thunberg was angry that Sweden would not meet its targets under the Paris climate agreement. Until the Swedish election on Sept. 9, she sat with a simple, handmade sign proclaiming she was on a “school strike for the climate.”

"...[T]here’s really no point in studying for a future and a job that might not even be there because of what could happen [due to climate change].”

Anna Grace Hottinger, high school sophomore, Shoreview, Minnesota 

Every Friday following the elections, Thunberg has kept the strike going and inspired students around the globe to join her. Their common demand is simple: Take action now while there is still time to avert the worst possible effects of climate disruption.

A young woman holds a sign

US Youth Climate Strike organizer Anna Grace Hottinger on the steps of the State Capitol building in Saint Paul, Minnesota. 


Courtesy of Anna Grace Hottinger

The majority of the million or so students around the world who went on strike for the climate on March 15 appear to be young women. In the US, one of the student leaders is Anna Grace Hottinger, a high school sophomore from Shoreview, Minnesota. Hottinger helped organize the March 15 school strike and has continued the Fridays for Future campaign, despite the impact it has had on her grades and social life.

Related: How European kids are schooling politicians on climate change

“Striking is more important than education if you might not have a reason to have that education in the future,” Hottinger said. “I personally feel like I may not be able to see [the impacts of climate change] with my own eyes in the future because I am privileged enough to be able to move away of these situations. But it soon won't be something that we can shift out of, which is a very scary thing, because no matter what, we’ll all be stuck with this issue.”

Hottinger’s passion for economics helped spark her interest in climate change because she realized “the economy would be kind of screwed up” by the effects of a warming planet.

A few weeks later, her sister was evacuated from the recent California wildfires. “I decided that that's when I needed to do something because this is an effect of climate change,” she said.

Hottinger became involved with a climate advocacy group called Minnesota Can't Wait. When she found out about the upcoming global strike inspired by Thunberg, she “just kind of jumped on the bandwagon. It was an easy way in, and now we're doing great things.”

Related: The 'Green New Deal' started with six college grads. Now, they're recruiting an army of young people.

Hottinger hopes the school strikes will send the message that addressing climate change is an urgent matter. She hopes that causing social disruption by leaving school in large numbers, like 2018's March For Our Lives, will make it clear to adults that this is an issue youth care greatly about.

Hottinger accepts the risks involved in not going to school every Friday, although she has yet to receive any punishment for her choice.

“[Missing school is] worth it because this is a future that I'm fighting for and helping lead, not just for myself, but for so many other people. It's not just about me. But also, there’s really no point in studying for a future and a job that might not even be there because of what could happen [due to climate change].”

Anna Grace Hottinger, high school sophomore, Shoreview, Minnesota 

“I do miss school a lot for this type of stuff and it does tend to backfire on all of my academic things, such as my grades and my school attendance,” she said. “It’s worth it because this is a future that I'm fighting for and helping lead, not just for myself, but for so many other people. It's not just about me. But also, there’s really no point in studying for a future and a job that might not even be there because of what could happen [due to climate change].”

Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg sparked the School Strike for Climate movement when she began protesting Sweden’s lack of compliance with the Paris Agreement.


Anders Hellberg/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Hottinger understands that one event, like the March 15 strike, will not create the change she seeks. What will make a change, she says, is going to a local place every Friday and striking and by making their actions heard and seen.

“...That is what accomplishment will look like. But it'll only look like that if we keep persisting, keep showing up and keep making our voices heard.”

Anna Grace Hottinger, high school sophomore, Shoreview, Minnesota 

“I think that when it happens, we're going to have lawmakers and leaders on board with us and we are going to be having all kinds of goals, such as being carbon neutral, being on the Paris Climate Agreement, and so many more things,” she said. “That is what accomplishment will look like. But it'll only look like that if we keep persisting, keep showing up and keep making our voices heard.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Antarctica Dispatch 9: Thoughts on climate change and returning home

Mar 22, 2019 6:55


The Nathaniel B. Palmer is headed back to port in Chile. Scientists aboard the vessel have spent the last several weeks conducting research at Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.

There’s a sense of excitement to return home to family.

Victoria Fitzgerald and Scott Braddock are shown on one of the Schaefer Islands wearing heavy red jackets with Scott pointing off to the distance.

Victoria Fitzgerald, a PhD student at the University of Alabama, left, and Scott Braddock, a PhD student at the University of Maine, explore one of the Schaefer Islands off the west coast of Antarctica.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

University of Alabama PhD student Victoria Fitzgerald is excited to see her 10-month-old daughter. “I left and she was barely crawling,” Fitzgerald said. “And now she’s like standing up for herself.” 

Aleksandra Mazur is shown putting Swedish flags in Mardi Gras pastries.

University of Gothenburg researcher Aleksandra Mazur helps prepare a traditional Swedish Mardi Gras pastry for the scientists and crew aboard the Palmer.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Other scientists expressed enthusiasm for simpler things one could take for granted on the mainland like fresh vegetables — long since absent in the pantry of the Palmer. And University of Gothenburg researcher Aleksandra Mazur longed for uninterrupted sleep, “[i]n complete silence. No voices, no ice hitting the ship,” she said.

Oceanographer Peter Sheehan is shown with a red jacket and white scarf with Thwaites glacier in the background.

Peter Sheehan, an oceanographer at the University of East Anglia, is photographed in front of Thwaites Glacier early on the morning of the Nathaniel B. Palmer's arrival.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Oceanographer Peter Sheehan said he’s looking forward to the little things. “I’m looking forward to a glass of wine,” he said. “I’m looking forward to my own bed. I am looking forward to — I suppose just the little things like cycling to work — the little routines you don’t realize that you’d miss until you don’t have them anymore.”

Gui Bortolotto and Lars Boehme are shown leaning on a counter with Bortolotto holding a camera.

Gui Bortolotto and Lars Boehme, both from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, examine a photograph while on the bridge of the Nathaniel B. Palmer.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

As researchers headed home, they reflected on what brought them to Antarctica in the first place: a changing climate, and their desire to understand it better.

Marine ecologist Gui Bortolotto says the topic can be depressing, especially when he thinks about his 2-year-old son.

“We still have the feeling that he just arrived in this world, and when my wife and I talk about this, we’re like wondering if he’s going to be happy with all the issues the world has,” he said.

The front of the Nathaniel B. Palmer ship is shown at the bottom of the photo breaking through ice floes.

The Nathaniel B. Palmer breaks through ice floes during its southward transit.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Bortolotto also worries about the fate of his own hometown, a low-lying coastal city in Brazil. But he said he works hard to separate these feelings from his work.

“When I’m doing my job, I’m not thinking that my hometown will be underwater, I’m thinking that this is a global issue that I need to help to understand,” he said.

One important takeaway after the long trip to Thwaites Glacier, is just how difficult it is to gather data in places like Antarctica.

Researchers hoist the orange-colored Hugin autonomous submarine onto the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer.

Researchers hoist the Hugin autonomous submarine onto the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer at the start of the ship’s mission to study Antarctica’s massive Thwaites Glacier.



Linda Welzenbach/Rice University

And it took seven years for University of Gothenburg oceanographer Anna Wåhlin to get an unmanned submarine down underneath the glacier with its roughly 20 sensors track changes in the water and mapping the seabed.

Chief Scientist Rob Larter is shown in the nearground looking out at Thwaites glacier on the morning of arrival.

Chief Scientist Rob Larter looks out at the glacier on the morning of arrival.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

The researchers on the Palmer are already starting to analyze the data they gathered on this trip and write up their findings. Ultimately, their data will be published and fed into models that will provide more accurate predictions of future sea level rise.

Why Luxembourg's free transit may not fix its traffic problem

Mar 20, 2019 4:02


Luxembourg is one of Europe's smallest countries. It's roughly the size of Rhode Island, nestled between Belgium, Germany and France.

And yet, the tiny nation has a big traffic problem.

So, it's doing something no other country ever has: Making all public transportation free.   

"I don't think there is a great potential for people to change their behavior as a result of making public transport free in Luxembourg," said Oded Cats, who studies transportation at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. 

Cats says there are already cities and towns around the world experimenting with this. Estonia's capital Tallin, for example, made public transit free for residents back in 2013.

But the results weren't so great. People who were biking, walking, or already using public transit, used it more. 

Oded Cats: We don't see any reduction in car traffic and therefore we cannot also expect any change in emissions, unfortunately. 

Marco Werman: I mean, do you understand that? Because I don't. If I were offered free public transportation I think I'd be using it a lot more, and I have a car. I know the benefits of car transportation in a city like Boston, where you need a car. 

Yeah, I agree. Intuitively, you would expect that. What we see is that price is very seldom a reason for people to start with to not use public transport. There are two things you can do to attract people to use public transport. One is to make the cost of using a car more expensive — and I emphasize using a car. So you make a more conscious choice of whether to use a car for any given trip, especially in a rush hour to downtown. You can do pricing measures for congestion charging. Secondly, you can make public transport more attractive and improve the level of service by reducing frequency and liability primarily. It's very seldom the case that one doesn't use public transport because it's too expensive compared to the car. 

"It's very seldom the case that one doesn't use public transport because it's too expensive compared to the car. "

So you mentioned Tallinn, the Estonian capital, where there was a fare reduction. What cities have you looked at where they have eliminated any fee for riding public transport and what have you seen there? 

We have very limited experience internationally with free public transport. We see it generally in small towns, tourist resorts, ski resorts and university towns — places where there is very little public transport to start with and there are specific user groups. There are very few cases where we have mid-sized or larger cities that introduced this, Tallinn being the most interesting example, with about half a million residents. What makes it difficult is for this to become financially sustainable. So, public transport systems worldwide have two main sources of income, one being subsidies through taxpayer money, and the other being ticket revenues. The split between these two varies from one place to the other. So in Tallinn, the break down was 70 percent subsidies and 30 percent ticket revenues before it became free. In most European cities, it's about 50-50. In the US, by the way, it's much higher. There, it's about 80 to 90 percent coming from subsidies, with few exceptions in large metropolitan areas. So, if your subsidy level is already very high, then the questions are whether you want to get to 100 percent and what is the identity of income source that will substitute the lost ticket revenues. 

So clarify one thing: in Tallinn, do they have reduced fare or is it completely free? 

Now it is completely free for residents. You must register as a resident of Tallinn for you to be eligible for a free ride. The only reason this was financially sustainable for them is because there were 30,000 people that lived in Tallinn but were not registered as residents and for them to benefit from free rides, this was an incentive for them to register. And once they are registered, they pay a municipal tax. The additional revenues from this municipal tax for those people that are now newly registered and it covers lost ticket revenues. 

When this plan goes into effect in Luxembourg who's going to be able to get on and off the buses and trains for free, just citizens? With the whole Benelux — Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg — you've got a lot of people coming in just to work for the day, right? 

Indeed, very good point. In Luxembourg, about 50 percent of people are actually commuters from neighboring countries, primarily Germany, France and Belgium. That is an interesting challenge because it will only be free on the Luxebourgian part of the trip. If you take, let's say, a train trip from Germany or France, they will have to pay for the ride. Only the domestic trips in Luxembourg will be free. 

Luxembourg is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Ultimately, isn't that the reason you're actually able to try this out in the first place? Could you imagine this happening in a less wealthy country? 

No, that is indeed the case. Luxembourg can afford it. It's also the case that its subsidy level for public transport is already fairly high. It has very limited rural or suburban areas where public transport is less efficient. So, for all these reasons it's a place where you can afford introducing this.

At the same time, I would not expect great impacts. First, because of its traffic beyond domestic borders and secondly, because a lot of people who work in Luxembourg either lease a car or get a car from their employer and have some obvious benefits associated with using a car such as a park and so forth. So, I don't think there is a great potential for people to change their behavior as a result of making public transport free [in] Luxembourg.

When does this plan actually go into effect? 

After this summer, I believe. 

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Mozambique starts three days of mourning after cyclone kills hundreds

Mar 20, 2019


Following a powerful cyclone that left a trail of destruction across swathes of southeast Africa, Mozambique on Wednesday started three days of national mourning.

Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique's port city of Beira with winds of up to 105 mph on Thursday last week, then moved inland to Zimbabwe and Malawi, flattening buildings and putting the lives of millions of people at risk.

Drone footage showed residents of a shantytown at the port still picking through wreckage days after the storm hit and trying to drag plastic sheeting over their ruined homes.

The film, released by the Red Cross, showed the settlement pockmarked with empty plots where the winds had blown whole buildings from their foundations.

"Great floods have sowed mourning and devastation in various areas of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi," Pope Francis said on Wednesday. "I express my pain and closeness to those dear people."

Mozambique's President Filipe Nyusi said a day earlier that the cyclone had killed more than 200 people in his country but rescuers were still discovering more bodies.

In neighboring Zimbabwe the official death count stands at 98 but is likely to grow as hundreds are still missing.

In the worst-hit eastern parts of Zimbabwe, grieving families rushed to bury their dead because the cyclone has knocked out power supplies and stopped mortuaries from functioning.

Malawi has not released details of any casualties from the storm, which weakened as it moved further inland over the weekend, leaving heavy rains in its wake.

A woman is shown holding her child in a white blanket and standing next to the strewn metal debris of buildings.

A woman and her child stand next to the strewn debris of buildings in the aftermath of the Cyclone Idai in Beira, Mozambique.


Josh Estey/Care International/ via Reuters

Disease, shortages

Aid groups said they were struggling to reach many survivors trapped in remote areas of Mozambique, surrounded by wrecked roads and submerged villages.

"Challenges remain in terms of the search and rescue of thousands of people, including children," UNICEF said. It estimated that 260,000 children were at risk there.

Beira, a low-lying coastal city of 500,000 people, is home to Mozambique's second-largest port and serves as a gateway to landlocked countries in the region. There were food and fuel shortages in parts of central Mozambique because Beira is cut off by road, local media reported.

Zimbabwe's Grain Millers Association said 100 trucks carrying wheat destined for Zimbabwe were stuck in Beira.

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa is due to visit the worst-affected areas on Wednesday. Both Mozambique and Zimbabwe have declared states of emergency in some areas.

The floods also brought the threat of waterborne diseases, said aid group Doctors Without Borders

"People are using well water with no chlorination, and that water is unlikely to be clean and safe to drink ... Pneumonia and other respiratory diseases are going to be a problem," Gert Verdonck, an emergency coordinator with the charity said from Beira.

The European Union announced on Tuesday an initial emergency aid package of 3.5 million euros ($3.97 million) to Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe for emergency shelters, hygiene, sanitation and health care. Britain and the United Arab Emirates have also pledged aid.

Reporting by Manuel Mucari in Maputo and MacDonald Dzirutwe in Harare; Additional reporting by Frank Phiri in Blantyre, Catarina Demony in Lisbon and Philip Pullella in Rome; Writing by Alexander Winning; Editing by Andrew Heavens.

Seven decades after the bomb, children of Hiroshima victims still worry about hidden health effects

Mar 19, 2019 6:40


Nakatani Etsuko says her father rarely spoke of the day that the world’s first atomic weapon killed 140,000 people in his city of Hiroshima, Japan.

But she says he did mention one thing: “That there were so many dead bodies in the river, you couldn’t see the water.”

Etsuko’s father was a teacher in Hiroshima. He was out of town when the bomb fell on Aug. 6, 1945. But he returned to the city the next morning to check on his school.

It was gone. All 319 students were dead. He couldn’t save anybody, but Etsuko says he stayed to help cremate the bodies and collect the bones to give to the parents.

Hiroshima clock

A photo in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum shows a clock stopped at the moment the atomic bomb exploded over the city.


Ibby Caputo/The World 

But that meant that he was exposed to radiation lingering in the city after the bombing. After a few days, he collapsed and started showing signs of radiation sickness. He grew pale and lost his hair and had a high fever and diarrhea. He slept all day.

Related: 'I still hate the glow of the setting sun': Hiroshima survivors tell their stories

He eventually did recover — many others who were exposed to residual radiation did not — but Etsuko says the memory of what happened haunted him.

“Because he had this experience, he was very worried about his children,” Etsuko said. Even his children who were born after the bombing.

Etsuko was born four years later. Her father worried about her and her siblings’ health, and about discrimination against them. Rumors spread that bomb survivors carried contagious diseases and that their children would be disabled or have deformities.

“I still remember those words very vividly,” Etsuko said. “And I have been feeling very anxious about it ever since.”

Etsuko says she was a sickly child. She and her family feared that was because of the bomb, and she says it’s one of the reasons she never married. She says she worried what would happen if she had children.

Related: Hiroshima survivors want more than a US apology

Even today, at 69, Etsuko still worries about getting sick because of her father’s exposure to radiation. And she’s not alone. A few years ago, she founded an organization of children of survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. She’s also a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Japanese government seeking to win medical benefits for survivors’ children.

Direct survivors of the atomic bomb, a group known as hibakusha, are eligible for special health benefits under a law passed decades after the war. Etsuko’s lawsuit is aimed at extending those benefits to people like her.

Nakatani Etsuko

Nakatani Etsuko's father suffered from radiation poisoning following the Hiroshima bombing. She was born four years later, and has been plagued by anxiety about her health since she was a child.


Ibby Caputo/The World 

The problem is, there’s no evidence that children conceived after the bombing have suffered higher rates of illness.

“Until now, we have not seen effects,” said Eric Grant, with the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Hiroshima. The organization has been investigating the health effects of atomic bomb radiation on both survivors and their children since soon after the war.

“It would be surprising to see large effects” on these children now, after so long, Grant said. 

The Japanese government seems even more certain. In its response to the lawsuit, the government cites a 2013 report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation stating that there is no scientific proof that genetic mutations occur in children whose parents were exposed to radiation.

Separately, a spokesperson for the government’s Health Service Bureau said there is “absolutely no scientific basis” for claims that children of survivors have been affected.

Still, Grant says, that may not be the last word.

“The possibility remains,” he said, and his organization is continuing to study it.

This possibility — however small — worries many children of survivors. It doesn’t help that a lot of them don’t trust the data that shows no health effects, a distrust that goes back all the way to the days after the war, when researchers studied A-bomb survivors but didn’t actually treat their injuries.

Children of survivors are also concerned because lab studies of mice do show genetic mutations in the offspring of parents exposed to radiation. But it’s not clear whether those studies have any relevance to health impacts in humans.

Grant says there is now technology to look for genetic markers that could indicate radiation-induced mutations that could, in turn, be linked to health issues. He says the technology is extremely expensive and the Radiation Effects Research Foundation hasn’t yet begun to put it to use, but he says researchers hope to move ahead with it soon.

For her part, Etsuko doesn’t want to wait for more research. She says the government should extend the bomb survivor support laws, just in case.

“The problem is the government relies on the data, and as long as the research shows that children of survivors are not affected by radiation, the government is not willing to extend support laws."

Etsuko Nakatani, 69, adult child of Hiroshima survivor 

“The problem is the government relies on the data, and as long as the research shows that children of survivors are not affected by radiation, the government is not willing to extend support laws,” she said.  

Related: Why this Hiroshima survivor dedicated his life to searching for the families of 12 American POWs

Like Etsuko, some children of survivors are now in their 60s and 70s. And like her, they’ve lived with anxiety about their health for their whole lives. She says that in itself is a burden.

“The most important problem is our insecurity about our own health,” she said. 

It’s an unquenchable fear that may be one of the most enduring impacts of the bomb.

Death toll in Mozambique cyclone, floods could surpass 1,000

Mar 19, 2019


Eighty-four deaths have been confirmed so far in Mozambique as a result of Cyclone Idai, which has also left a trail of death and destruction across Zimbabwe and Malawi, with vast areas of land flooded, roads destroyed and communication wiped out.

But, the number of people killed in the powerful storm and preceding floods in Mozambique could exceed 1,000, the president said on Monday.

Speaking on Radio Mocambique, President Filipe Nyusi said he had flown over the affected region, where two rivers had overflowed. Villages had disappeared, he said, and bodies were floating in the water.

"Everything indicates that we can register more than 1,000 deaths," he said.

The cyclone has also killed 98 people and more than 200 are missing in Zimbabwe, the government said on Monday, while the death toll in Malawi from heavy rains and flooding stood at 56 as of last week. No new numbers had been released following the cyclone's arrival in the country.

Caroline Haga, a senior International Federation of the Red Cross official who is in Beira, said the situation could be far worse in the surrounding areas, which remained completely cut off by road and where houses were not as sturdy.

Nyusi flew over areas that were otherwise accessible, and some of which had been hit by flooding before Cyclone Idai.

A man is shown standing with a hooded jacket looks at a washed away bridge.

A man looks at a washed away bridge along Umvumvu river in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe.


Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

Rescue effort

In Beira, Mozambique's fourth-largest city and home to 500,000 people, a large dam had burst, further complicating rescue efforts.

Large swathes of land were completely submerged, and in some streets people waded through knee-high water around piles of mangled metal and other debris.

In the early hours of Monday morning, rescuers launched dinghies onto chest-high waters, navigating through reeds and trees — where some people perched on branches to escape the water — to rescue those trapped by the flooding.

Meanwhile, rescuers were struggling to reach people in Zimbabwe's Chimanimani district, cut off from the rest of the country by torrential rains and winds of up to 105 mph that swept away roads, homes and bridges and knocked out power and communication lines.

Zimbabwe's treasury has released $18 million to rebuild roads and bridges, provide water and sanitation and electricity. Families began burying the dead but the death toll is expected to rise.

Many people had been sleeping in the mountains since Friday, after their homes were flattened by rock falls and mudslides or washed away by torrential rains.

The Harare government has declared a state of disaster in areas affected by the storm. Zimbabwe, a country of 15 million people, was already suffering a severe drought that has wilted crops.

Southeastern Africa gateway

Beira, which sits at the mouth of the Pungwe River, is also home to Mozambique's second-largest port, serving as gateway for imports to landlocked countries in southeast Africa.

The director of a company that jointly manages the port — Cornelder, based in the Netherlands — said the port had been closed since last Wednesday but would hopefully resume operations on Tuesday.

Two cranes would be working and the company had two large generators and enough fuel for now, though damage to access routes and roads further inland was more likely to cause a problem, said the director, who asked not to be named.

The fuel pipeline running from Beira to Zimbabwe was believed to be intact, the person said, though communication was still very patchy and therefore the situation at the port remained uncertain.

In February 2000, Cyclone Eline hit Mozambique when it was already devastated by its worst floods in three decades. It killed 350 people and made 650,000 homeless across southern Africa, also hitting Zimbabwe.

By Manuel Mucari/Reuters

Additional reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe in Zimbabwe and Emma Rumney in Johannesburg; Editing by Angus MacSwan.

Boeing faces growing scrutiny in Ethiopian crash probe

Mar 18, 2019


Boeing faced escalating pressure on Monday after the initial analysis of the black boxes from the Ethiopian Airlines crash showed "clear similarities" with a Lion Air flight from Jakarta in October.

The parallels between the two crashes sharped the focus on the safety of software installed in Boeing 737 MAX planes.

The Ethiopian Airlines disaster eight days ago killed 157 people, grounded Boeing's marquee MAX fleet worldwide and sparked a high-stakes inquiry for the shaken aviation industry.

The Lion Air flight in October which crashed killed 189 people.

Both planes were MAX 8s and crashed minutes after take-off with pilots reporting flight control problems.

Under scrutiny is a new automated system in the MAX model that guides the nose lower to avoid stalling.

Lawmakers and safety experts are asking how thoroughly regulators vetted the system and how well pilots around the world were trained for it when their airlines bought new planes.

Ethiopian Transport Ministry spokesman Muse Yiheyis said on Sunday that data recovered from the black boxes by investigators in Paris demonstrated parallels with the Lion Air crash and had been validated by US experts.  

US officials did not corroborate that.

With the prestige of one of the United States' biggest exporters at stake, Boeing has said the MAX series is safe, though it plans to roll out new software upgrades shortly.

Shadow over 737 MAX

Boeing has lost billions of dollars of market value since the crash, and halted deliveries of its best-selling model, one intended to be the industry standard but now under a shadow.

There were more than 300 MAX airplanes in operation at the time of the Ethiopian crash, and nearly 5,000 more on order.

Media reports heaped further pressure on Boeing.

The Seattle Times said the company's safety analysis of a new flight control system known as MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) had crucial flaws, including understating the power of the system.

It also said the Federal Aviation Administration followed a standard certification process on the MAX rather than detailed extra inquiries. The FAA declined to comment but has said it followed a normal process.

The Wall Street Journal reported that federal prosecutors and US Department of Transportation were scrutinizing the FAA's approval of the MAX series, while a jury had issued a subpoena to at least one person involved in its development.

Boeing and the FAA declined to comment on that.

Last week, sources told Reuters that investigators found a piece of a stabilizer in the Ethiopian wreckage set in an unusual position similar to that of the Lion airplane. 

Ethiopia is leading the probe, though the black boxes were sent to France and US experts are also participating.

It was unclear how many of the roughly 1,800 parameters of flight data and two hours of cockpit recordings, spanning the doomed six-minute flight and earlier trips, had been taken into account in the preliminary Ethiopian analysis.

In Addis Ababa, a source who has listened to the air traffic control recording of the plane's communications said flight 302 had an unusually high speed after take-off before it reported problems and asked permission to climb quickly.


The inquiry is not only crucial to give some closure to the families of the victims, who came from nearly three dozen countries but also has huge financial implications for Boeing and its many customers worldwide.

The MAX is Boeing's best-selling model ever, with a backlog of orders worth well over $500 billion at a list price of $121 million each.

Norwegian Airlines has already said it will seek compensation after grounding its MAX aircraft, and various companies are re-considering orders.

Some airlines are revising financial forecasts, too, given the MAX had been factored in as providing some maintenance and fuel savings.

Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg sought to allay some fears at the weekend.

"While investigators continue to work to establish definitive conclusions, Boeing is finalizing its development of a previously-announced software update and pilot training revision that will address the MCAS flight control law's behavior in response to erroneous sensor inputs," he said.

Dozens of aviation authorities had grounded the MAX series before acting US FAA boss Daniel Elwell said the United States would do the same.

One source close to the probe said Ethiopian officials had been reluctant to share information with US investigation teams and the planemaker.

"There was a lot of distrust, especially at first, but it is easing," the source said, asking not to be named.

There have also been arguments over access to the crater left by the explosive high-speed impact of Flight 302.

The agony for families of the dead in Ethiopia has been compounded by their inability to bury remains. Charred fragments are all that remain and DNA testing may take months.     

'Worse than Voldemort' — global students' strike targets climate change

Mar 15, 2019


In a global protest against government inaction on climate change, tens of thousands of school students around the world walked out of classes on Friday and took to the streets.

"Climate change is worse than Voldemort," read a handmade sign carried by one student in Wellington, New Zealand, referring to the evil wizard in the hugely popular Harry Potter books and films.

Why history's most famous scientists are usually a bit weird

Mar 15, 2019


When Melissa Schilling was growing up, she was an awkward kid who “worried a lot about being accepted and being popular,” she said. “The fact that I didn’t have a lot of friends, I felt, meant that I wasn’t a successful person.” Schilling, now a professor of management and organizations at New York University’s Stern School of Business, saw her childhood concerns in a whole new light when she began researching the lives of some of the world’s most famous innovators in the fields of science and technology.

While Schilling viewed the incredible accomplishments of the likes of Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Dean Kamen and others with awe and wonder, there was also something liberating about their unconventional and often isolated lives.

It was, “the idea that you don’t have to be super social to be a very successful person and that you should really just embrace who you are and enjoy being that person,” she said.

Schilling explores the ingenuity of eight remarkable innovators— the others are Benjamin Franklin, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison — in her book, “Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World.”

The book grew out of a multiple case study research project in which Schilling chose most of the people she would write about by doing an automatic scrape of lists of famous inventors and scientists who had already been widely recognized for multiple innovations. There was just one snag.

Related: Albert Einstein: The slacker years

There were no minorities and “tragically there was only one woman — Marie Curie,” Schilling explained, “which initially made [her] go out digging and searching for more women,” until she realized that endeavor meant “she wasn’t being a scientist anymore,” and so she decided to return to her original selection.

Curie, the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize and the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in different categories — one for physics and one for chemistry — is perhaps the greatest outlier on Schilling’s list.

“She was a woman in science when other women weren’t women in science and you might assume that that meant she was hailed and praised as being this remarkable thing,” said Schilling, but it was exactly the opposite. “She was actually spurned and criticized and ridiculed for being somewhere where she didn’t belong,” she added.

Curie’s life was also defined by what she gave up. Her two daughters suffered from the socially isolated life their mother chose and the “scant time and even less overt affection,” she afforded them, relying heavily on her father-in-law to raise them, according to Schilling.

A relentless work ethic, social detachment, insensitivity and neglect of family and friends were characteristics that Schilling, a longtime innovation researcher, frequently observed about her eight creative geniuses. Rule breaking was another trait — just take Steve Jobs.

“He didn’t even put a license plate on his car and a lot of times he didn’t wear shoes or wear deodorant or shower. Those rules were for other people,” explained Schilling.

Related: Nikola Tesla changed the world — so why did we forget him?

But there were plenty of positive traits she discovered among her quirky innovators, including passionate idealism, a commitment to a higher cause than themselves, and an incredible belief in their own ability to overcome trials and challenges on the path to success.

Few of us are likely to become the next Albert Einstein or Elon Musk, but Schilling believes that much can be achieved by parents and teachers, and in the workplace, to “nurture the innovation potential that lies within us all” and to build self-efficacy.

Look out world, here I come? Well, maybe not quite so fast. It takes a “weird tolerant” world to truly appreciate breakthrough innovators, according to Schilling, but her work might just inspire you to embrace your inner weirdness, and who knows where that might take you.

The original version of this story appeared on the Innovation Hub blog. 

Can the Ban Treaty eliminate the threat of nuclear war? The clock is ticking down

Mar 14, 2019


The “Doomsday Clock” is ticking ever closer to midnight —  two minutes before, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 

Both the United States and Russia have withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The second US-North Korea summit ended with President Donald Trump saying, “sometimes you have to walk.” And Pakistan and India, two nuclear-armed powers, recently backstepped from the brink of war. 

So it’s a good time for a nuclear ban treaty, advocates say. 

Related: Japan has plutonium, rockets and rivals. Will it ever build a nuke?

The United Nations’ Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons — also known as the Ban Treaty —  could become the first new major legal move toward disarmament in more than 20 years. The text pledges signatories both not to possess nuclear weapons, and also not to “assist, encourage or induce” other states to do so. 

The treaty is the first to ban "possession, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, thereby closing the legal gap on the prohibition of all classes of weapons of mass destruction," according to the Toda Peace Institute. 

The idea is to build international moral consensus against nuclear weapon possession or threats to use them — even to deter attacks.

The idea is to build international moral consensus against nuclear weapon possession or threats to use them — even to deter attacks. 

But critics say its verification protocols — used to check that nations are cutting back on nuclear weapons possession and construction — are weak. The government of Japan, the only country to suffer atomic attacks, opposes the Ban Treaty, saying it doesn’t adequately address the reality of nuclear threats. Critics also say the treaty could cause havoc with established nuclear treaties and interfere with security cooperation with NATO. 

Since it opened for signatures in July 2017, 70 countries have signed and 22 have ratified. It needs 28 more to reach 50 — the number of countries necessary to bring it into effect. 

“We are expecting a couple more in the coming few weeks or months ..." said Céline Nahory, the lead treaty campaigner from the Geneva-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

“Nuclear weapons are not props in a political game. ... They're aiming at things. They are ready to wipe out hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of civilians. It's not a game, it's an urgent threat to our security.”

Beatrice Fihn, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

“Nuclear weapons are not props in a political game,” ICAN’s Beatrice Fihn said. “They're aiming at things. They are ready to wipe out hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of civilians. It's not a game, it's an urgent threat to our security.”

Related: How Trump’s exit from a Cold War-era treaty could trigger a 3-way arms race

ICAN pushed for this treaty for a decade and even won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2017 for it. Nahory and Fihn spend their days encouraging MPs and foreign ministry officials to get on board with the Ban. 

“[The treaty] is doing quite well to enter into force by 2020,” Nahory said. 

The genesis of the Ban Treaty

The basis of the Ban Treaty is the Non-proliferation Treaty — NPT — which was signed in 1968 and went into effect in 1970.

nuclear war head acquisition Credit:

Federation of American Scientists/Creative Commons 

“The NPT is really something that needs to be protected, and it’s been sacred."

Heather Williams, nuclear expert, King's College London

“The NPT is really something that needs to be protected, and it’s been sacred,” said Heather Williams, a nuclear expert at King’s College London and adviser to the UK House of Lords International Relations Committee.

The whole world — with the exception of India, Pakistan, Israel, South Sudan, and (after 2003) North Korea — is part of it.

Nuclear nations — the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China — agree through the NPT to pursue nuclear disarmament and share peaceful nuclear energy technology. Non-nuclear nations agree not to acquire nuclear weapons. All of these nations accept the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) to keep them in check with compliance verification rules, who report to the UN General. 

Every five years, a review at UN headquarters assesses the likelihood of reaching total disarmament with the goal of avoiding “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.”

The Humanitarian Initiative, a series of conferences examining the potential horror of nuclear detonation since 2010, is largely responsible for generating the momentum for the Ban Treaty movement. Its membership has grown from 16 countries in 2010 to 159 by 2014, with meetings in Oslo, Norway, Nayarit, Mexico and Vienna, Austria

“I’d been working on nuclear issues for a decade before Oslo, and I never really talked about the humanitarian side to nuclear weapons before,” Williams said. 

By the Vienna Conference in December 2014, the Humanitarian Initiative gave way to the Ban Treaty.

For governments like Austria, Mexico, and South Africa, it was a way of saying to the nuclear possessors: “You aren’t doing enough in existing disarmament forums, we’re going to find a way to put pressure on you,” Williams said. 

Building bridges between Ban and NPT  

The Ban Treaty was designed to ensure that nuclear countries fulfill NPT promises, but critics of the treaty say it’s more like a disruption. Japan, for example, prefers NPT “as the cornerstone of the international nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime,” The Diplomat reported. 

NPT regulations are implemented by the IAEA — an independent international organization founded in 1957 that offer specific protocols for verification compliance — whereas the Ban Treaty is vague on verification, stating it will identify authorities to deal with those matters ... later. 

The treaty “is … weaker on verification than the state of the art standard in the IAEA,”  Ambassador Lars-Erik Lundin, a Swedish diplomat, told The World. As the former EU lead representative to the IAEA, Lundin is an outspoken critic. 

The Ban Treaty “does not link up legally to the NPT regime, binding the P5 to pursue nuclear negotiations in good faith,” Lundin said. (P5 stands for the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.) 

The treaty lacks basic details as to how verifications will actually work.

“There are relatively quick fixes to many of these problems, proposed by Sweden and others during the negotiations, which were rejected,” Lundin complains. Verification and its relationship to the NPT “need to be reconsidered in order for the treaty to gain real international recognition and respect,” Lundin argued. 

Without a bridge to the NPT to make use of all its verification provisions, critics fear the Ban treaty creates an alternative forum — with much weaker standards. But Patricia Lewis, a nuclear physicist and arms control expert, says there are “quite a few bridge-building projects” trying to help non-Ban Treaty states accommodate the Ban Treaty within the NPT. 

Even inside the Trump administration, Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, has suggested an expanded dialogue within the NPT about “creating the environment” for disarmament, including governments and civil society.

It’s a small tweak, but one which might help create the conditions for denuclearization to include verification (building trust) compliance (punishment for violations) and deterrence (nuclear umbrella agreements).  

Uncertain consequences

The Ban Treaty could alter relationships between its members and nuclear states in terms of peacekeeping and training cooperation between NATO and non-NATO members.

The Ban Treaty could alter relationships between its members and nuclear states in terms of peacekeeping and training cooperation between NATO and non-NATO members. 

That’s because some Ban Treaty signatories like Ireland and Austria also participate in the Partnership for Peace program, or PfP, designed in 1994 to build trust between NATO states and the former Soviet Union. 

If a NATO exercise included PfP members with nuclear weapons, “that could cause difficulties as the treaty prohibits participating in any nuclear weapon activities. They would have to withdraw,” Lewis said. 

Non-nuclear NATO members like Belgium, Canada, and Germany would need to work out exactly how much relations would change with Ireland and Austria. 

Nuclear-capable ships visiting ports of entry in Ban treaty member nations could also prove dicey. 

Take, for example, what happened between the US and New Zealand. The US has denuclearized most of its surface fleets, but the US neither confirms nor denies if particular naval vessels carry nuclear weapons. A ship could transport a warhead at sea on occasion. This does not work for places like New Zealand, that declared itself a nuclear-free zone in 1987. As a result, the US naval visits ceased for 30 years, as did New Zealand’s active membership in ANZUS (Australia/New Zealand/US) treaty system.

The Ban Treaty could have similar — broader — effects. But Japan and Norway “ban these visits already and everyone copes admirably,” Lewis said. 

For the US, commercial as well as security relations are a concern once it comes into effect. Last year, at a disarmament conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, Ford said the nuclear and nuclear-umbrella states could face “a future of endless political and litigious civil society harassment." 

If countries like Sweden sign on to the Ban, they could also face constraints on civilian research and development in technologies if their projects are seen as “dual use” military applications, Lundin adds. 

Ratification in full global gear

Despite the Ban Treaty’s complexities, it seems likely that the 49 nations who signed will ratify soon.

The foreign ministries of Indonesia, Brazil, Liechtenstein, Kazakhstan, and Ireland each told The World that their countries are taking measures to ratify the treaty soon. Swedish arms control expert Andreas Persbo said he expects the treaty to go into effect "early next year.”

Kazakhstan voluntarily gave up “the fourth largest nuclear arsenal in the world” (transferring 1,410 Soviet-era weapons to Russia by 1994), and President Nursultan Nazarbayev is calling for “a world free of nuclear weapons by [the United Nation’s 100th anniversary in] 2045,” says Aigerim Seisembayeva, third secretary in its embassy. 

On Jan. 30, El Salvador became the 21st to sign and on Feb. 22, South Africa joined the Ban Treaty — 22 down, 28 to go.

How European kids are schooling politicians on climate change

Mar 14, 2019 5:49


Dhanya Reitschuster didn’t want to cut class this Friday — or last Friday or the one before. “I personally really like my school,” said Reitschuster, 15. “If they would listen to us, then we wouldn’t [have] to be here.”

“They” are world leaders, who, since signing the Paris Accord in 2015, have failed to make headway in reducing carbon emissions to slow global warming. And by “we,” she means the roughly 500 middle- and high-schoolers protesting with her in downtown Munich on a drizzly winter morning, and the thousands of kids doing the same in cities across Germany and Europe. For weeks now, they’ve been racking up unexcused absences on Fridays because they’re afraid for the planet’s future.

“Why should we go to school when our world is broken in 50 years?”

Amanda Schliewen, 14

“Why should we go to school when our world is broken in 50 years?” asked Amanda Schliewen, 14, marching with Reitschuster and a group of friends from a Munich Montessori school.

Romy Karolus, 14, says adults in power have betrayed them. “They always say that they love us, but they didn’t care about our future.”

The school strike movement known as Fridays for Future began in August 2018 when Swedish high school student Greta Thunberg started skipping school on Fridays to picket the Swedish parliament for climate action. Her school strike picked up attention on social media, and over the months since then, increasing numbers of European schoolkids have followed her lead.

Greta Thunberg

16 year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has been the sparkplug behind the student strikes and the Fridays for Future protests. She spoke at a rally in Hamburg, Germany on March 1. 


Morris Mac Matzen/Reuters/File Photo

Large majorities of Europeans believe climate change is a serious problem and that governments need to take action. But skipping school to say so has been controversial.

Last month, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s office scolded striking kids in the United Kingdom for wasting teachers’ time. A Belgian environment minister accused Belgian school strikers of being manipulated by shadowy, outside powers (she resigned soon after). One student in Munich said his high school has moved all their tests to Fridays. And more than a dozen students who spoke to a reporter at a recent march said they were going to get in trouble for being there.

Despite the pushback, the protests have been growing, with tens of thousands of kids taking part in Europe, alone. A worldwide strike is planned for March 15, with more than 1,000 marches planned in 89 countries, according to organizers. The striking students are getting new support from parents, teachers and scientists who say: They’re right.

kids climate march

Large majorities of Europeans believe climate change is a serious problem and that governments need to take action. But skipping school to say so has been controversial.


Marcus Teply/The World

“Younger people are seeing with absolute clarity the real problem that this planet faces,” said professor Joy Carter, vice-chancellor of Winchester University in the UK, and an environmental geochemist. She's one of thousands of European scientists and academics who have signed letters in support of the striking students.

“We’re already seeing wildfires, increased temperatures, water shortages; already these major effects are with us. Politicians have to wake up, and governments need to do that. And young people are a catalyst for change.”

Joy Carter, vice-chancellor of Winchester University in the UK 

“We’re already seeing wildfires, increased temperatures, water shortages; already these major effects are with us. Politicians have to wake up, and governments need to do that. And young people are a catalyst for change.”

Dr. Bart Verheggen, a climate scientist at Amsterdam University College, says schoolchildren “make a very strong moral appeal” to political leaders. While he hasn’t signed a letter in support of the kids, he says their call for much greater emissions reductions than the world has achieved so far makes a strong point.

“The thinking is usually that children should be in school to learn from the adults. But that does not mean necessarily that it cannot be a two-way street. There is a lot that adults can learn from children.”

Their science lesson is pretty simple. “We want you to follow the Paris Agreement and the IPCC reports,” Thunberg told an audience of European politicians and civil society representatives in Brussels on Feb. 21. “Unite behind the science. That is our demand.”

kids climate march

Over a few months, kids have shown they can rally by the thousands, capture headlines and spark public debate about the need to respond to climate change. 


Marcus Teply/The World

Faced by overwhelming scientific consensus on the urgency of climate change, governments agreed three years ago at the UN climate conference in Paris to take action to try and limit global warming. But in practice, that means making politically unpopular changes, like drastically reducing carbon emissions by cutting way back on society’s use of fossil fuels like coal and gasoline. Many politicians have been unwilling, or unable, to follow through.


Despite the pushback against the Fridays for Future events — asking for action on climate change — the protests have been growing, with tens of thousands of kids taking part in Europe, alone. 


Marcus Teply/The World

Fridays for Future wants them to get back on track. By cutting class, they’ve captured the spotlight, and now politicians are the ones getting schooled.

“Politicians don’t want to talk to us? Good. We don’t want to talk to them, either. We want them to talk to the scientists,” said Thunberg.

Some politicians are listening to both. In a speech alongside Thunberg, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the EU should step up its efforts and dedicate a quarter of its budget to fighting climate change.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel dedicated a recent, weekly podcast to climate action, and said she supports the strikers. But Merkel herself has struggled to move as quickly as many say she needs to. In the same message, she told students unhappy with the pace of her government’s coal phaseout plan that its 20-year timeline is the best she can do.

Many climate activists say that’s too slow. The latest UN climate science report warns that without drastic action, it might only take 11 years for the Earth to cross the dangerous warming threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius. The clock is ticking.

kids climate march

The striking students are getting new support from parents, teachers and scientists who say: They’re right.


Marcus Teply/The World

And that’s where Fridays for Future’s future becomes hard to predict.

Over a few months, kids have shown they can rally by the thousands, capture headlines and spark public debate. But if the weight of scientific consensus hasn’t managed to spur policymakers to difficult, drastic action, how can a bunch of class-cutting teenagers?

The answer may be in the march of time itself. Because no matter what action governments take now, in a few years, Greta Thunberg and the rest of the school strikers will be old enough to vote — and run for office themselves.  

Antarctica dispatch 8: Behold grease, shuga and pancake ice

Mar 13, 2019 6:55


As February gives way to March and the nights grow longer at the bottom of the world, the sea around the Nathaniel B. Palmer is starting to freeze up.

The National Science Foundation-chartered icebreaker is wrapping up its trip to Thwaites Glacier, on the west coast of Antarctica, where an international group of scientists is on an eight-week expedition to unlock the secrets of why, and how fast, the Florida-sized glacier is melting.

But ice is not just what the scientists here are studying. It’s also what controls where, when — and even if — they can do their work.

Grease ice forms in front of a the large horizontal ice face of Pine Island Glacier.

Grease ice forms before sunrise in front of Pine Island Glacier.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

As the Amundsen Sea freezes up and winds move old ice around, this refreezing has already prevented the Palmer from reaching areas clear for passage just days before.

On Wednesday, the captain of the Palmer and science team leaders decided to start heading north a few days ahead of schedule after a final study site was blocked by ice and satellite images showed the passageway out of the Amundsen Sea growing narrower.

The front of the Nathaniel B. Palmer ship is shown at the bottom of the photo breaking through ice floes.

The Nathaniel B. Palmer breaking through ice floes during its southward transit.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

The seawater here is always close to freezing, and the whole top layer of water must reach that temperature before the surface layer starts to solidify. That means a small drop in temperature or a strong wind blowing off the frigid continent can prompt ice to form fast, growing up to five inches thick in just two days.

“You just need a tiny little bit of energy taken out of the system and it starts to freeze,” says Lars Boehme, an oceanographer and ecologist from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “And it starts to freeze a lot.”

The yellow railing of the a research vessel is in the nearground with ice shown forming in the Amundsen Sea.

Larger pancake ice forms in the Amundsen Sea.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

This rapid freezing has added an extra challenge to safely lifting autonomous gliders and submarines from the sea over the past few weeks.

Sea ice formation, as explained by Nathaniel Bowditch in what’s commonly known as the mariner’s bible (officially titled American Practical Navigator) starts when tiny, needle-like crystals called spicules or frazil ice form in the top inch or so of seawater.

Grease ice turning to shuga on a still day with large white icebergs off in the distance.

Grease ice turning to shuga on a still day.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

When these crystals are blown together by winds and currents, they form matte streaks called grease ice, which look like an oil spill and subdue the effects of wind and waves on the surface of the water.

Next comes shuga ice — so called, says the Palmer’s captain Brandon Bell — because it looks like sugar thrown into water that didn’t dissolve, a soupy opaque layer of ice crystals and small ice chunks that floats on top of the water and dampens the waves even further, making the water unearth it undulate.

A narrow break in new ice is shown in the middle of the photo on a gray day in the Amundsen Sea.

The wind cleaves a break in new ice on a gray day in the Amundsen Sea.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Temperature, wave action and salinity control how new ice progresses from shuga to older, thicker, more brittle ice, but in this part of the Amundsen Sea, the next stage is often the formation of disks of ice, tiny at first, looking like cells or tiny lily pads, that grow larger until they’re classified as pancake ice.

Thousands of circular white pieces of ice are show across the photo.

Pancakes, circular pieces of ice formed when wind and waves break up new ice and abrasion rounds off its edges, start to form here.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

“As it gets colder and colder, the water is trying to freeze into a sheet, but there’s movement, so it’s breaking that sheet apart, and you get these little chunks of ice,” says Joee Patterson, a marine technician on the Palmer who’s on her ninth voyage to Antarctica. “As they get tossed and blown by the wind and current, it rounds off the edges a little bit.”

“One of the things that’s really distinct about the pancakes as they start forming is that the edges are sort of curled up because they’re kind of crashing into each other,” Patterson said.

If temperatures stay low enough, the pancakes, which can be up to nine feet across, can join together and freeze into ice cakes, larger ice floes, and, once they’re several miles wide, ice fields.

The brown railing of the research vessel is shown in the near ground with larger pancake ice formations in the Amundsen Sea.

Larger pancake ice forms in the Amundsen Sea.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

When it’s young, these large pieces of ice can still be flexible.

“You can actually see the sea swell moving under the ice field. It’s very disorienting, and kind of gives you a sense of vertigo because the ground is gently rippling underneath you,” Patterson said.

These relatively flat sheets of new ice regularly grow up to six feet thick in their first year. If the ice survives the next summer’s warmer days and round-the-clock Antarctic sunlight, it’s then called second-year and then multi-year ice.

As it ages, ice gets harder and more brittle and the salt is squeezed out of it. (Ice that’s clear and has all the salt squeezed out of it is called bar ice, because it’s good in the kind of beverage not allowed on a dry ship like the Palmer.)

As it ages, large white pieces of ice crash into each other to form pressure ridges in a photo with a thin water path through the two sides.

As it ages, pieces of ice crash into each other to form pressure ridges.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

As the wind and waves crash pieces of ice together, they form pressure ridges that look like tiny mountain ranges made of meringue. Old ice, deformed in this way and growing thicker each winter from snowfall, is much harder — requiring more time and fuel — for a reinforced ship like the Palmer to break through.

As the ship turns north to begin the journey along the west coast of Antarctica, around the Antarctic Peninsula and to the southern tip of Chile, Captain Brandon Bell is keeping a close eye on the weather as far away as Australia, and on ice images supplied by the US National Ice Center, constantly on the lookout for pathways of open water to ease the trip home.

US will not suspend Boeing 737 MAX planes; discussion on black box analysis

Mar 13, 2019


The US Federal Aviation Administration said on Tuesday it would not ground Boeing 737 MAX bucking a trend of countries around the world that have suspended the aircraft's operations.

US and Ethiopian aviation safety officials discussed on Tuesday whether the flight data and cockpit voice recorders from Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, which crashed on Sunday killing all 157 people onboard, would go to Washington or London for download and analysis.

US officials said the devices suffered some damage but they were confident of some initial results within 24 hours of the data being downloaded.

A map of the take-off and crash locations of the Ethiopia Airlines crash.

US carriers are eager to see the results as a growing number of countries and carriers are grounding the planes. There were 371 of the 737 MAX family jets in operation before this week's groundings and about two thirds of the fleet is now grounded, based on Reuters calculations.    

It is not clear if a final decision on where the recorders would go for analysis has been made. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) declined to comment.

The FAA's acting administrator, Dan Elwell, said its review had shown "no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft."

President Donald Trump spoke to Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg and got assurances the aircraft was safe and did not need to be grounded, two people briefed on the call said.

The European Union's aviation safety regulator suspended all flights in the bloc by the 737 MAX and a US senator who chairs a panel overseeing aviation suggested the United States take similar action following Sunday's crash, the second since October involving that type of plane.

But Elwell said no foreign civil aviation authorities had provided data that would warrant action. If any safety issues were identified during an urgent review of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the FAA would "take immediate and appropriate action," he said.       

Britain, Germany and France joined a wave of suspensions of the aircraft following the crash, piling pressure on the United States to follow suit.

Boeing, the world's biggest planemaker, which has seen billions of dollars wiped off its market value since the crash, said it understood the actions but retained "full confidence" in the 737 MAX and had safety as its priority.

The three US airlines using the 737 MAX - Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines — stood by the aircraft, although many potential passengers took to social media to express concerns, asking if they could change flights or cancel.

The cause of Sunday's crash, which followed another disaster with a 737 MAX five months ago in Indonesia that killed 189 people, remains unknown. On Monday, the FAA released details of a series of design changes and training requirements mandated from Boeing on the MAX fleet after the Indonesia crash.

There is no evidence the two crashes are linked. Plane experts say it is too early to speculate on the reason for the latest crash. Most are caused by a unique chain of human and technical factors.

European suspension

In an unusual decision, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said it was suspending all flights in the bloc by the Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 jets.

It shied away, however, from the even rarer step of pulling the safety certification for the plane itself, focusing instead on the softer process of restricting its use by airlines. That leaves some leeway for the FAA to decide its own approach.

Flight ET 302 came down in a field soon after takeoff from Addis Ababa, creating a fireball in a crater. It may take weeks or months to identify all the victims, who include a prize-winning author, a soccer official and a team of humanitarian workers.

Boeing shares fell 6.1 percent on Tuesday, bringing losses to 11.15 percent since the crash, the steepest two-day loss for the stock since July 2009. The drop has lopped $26.65 billion off Boeing's market value.           

Of the top 10 countries by air passenger travel, all but the United States and Japan have halted flights of the 737 MAX. China, Indonesia, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, India and others have temporarily suspended the plane.

Canada has no plans to ground 737 MAX aircraft but is ready to act to suspend flights if new information emerges indicating there is a problem, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said. Argentina and other South American nations are evaluating closing their airspace to 737 MAX planes, Argentina's state-run news agency, Telam, reported.

US Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee on aviation and space, said it would be "prudent" for the United States "to temporarily ground 737 Max aircraft until the FAA confirms the safety of these aircraft and their passengers."

Trump also fretted over modern aircraft design.

"Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT," Trump tweeted, lamenting that product developers always sought to go an unnecessary step further when "old and simpler" was superior.

"I don't know about you, but I don't want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!"

Trump did not refer to Boeing or recent accidents, but his comments echoed an automation debate that partially lies at the center of an investigation into October's Lion Air crash in Indonesia. A focus there is the role of a software system designed to push the plane down, alongside airline training and repair standards.

Boeing says it plans to update the software in coming weeks.

Victims from 30 nations

Given problems of identification at the charred disaster site, Ethiopian Airlines said it would take at least five days to start handing remains to families.

The victims came from more than 30 nations, and included nearly two dozen UN staff.

"We are Muslim and have to bury our deceased immediately," Noordin Mohamed, a 27-year-old Kenyan businessman whose brother and mother died, told Reuters.

"Losing a brother and mother in the same day and not having their bodies to bury is very painful," he said in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, where the plane had been due.

The new variant of the 737, the world's most-sold modern passenger aircraft, is viewed as the likely workhorse for global airlines for decades and 4,661 more are on order.

By David Shepardson and Duncan Miriri/Reuters

Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Duncan Miriri in Addis Ababa; Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Mark Potter and Alistair Bell; Editing by Keith Weir, Grant McCool and Peter Cooney.

Happy 30th birthday, internet. Here is 21 years of The World's website.

Mar 12, 2019 0:29


Tim Berners-Lee first proposed the World Wide Web on March 11, 1989. Now, the internet and the web mean virtually the same thing and the world is connected in a way no one foresaw three decades ago. 

In honor of the annivesary, we thought we’d take a nostalgic trip of our own and look at The World's many iterations on the information superhighway.

My day without the web

Host Marco Werman challenges The World's producer Lucy Martirosyan to go a day without her smartphone or internet to mark the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web. She's the youngest producer in the newsroom and grew up with the internet her whole life. She reflects about the challenge.

The World’s website is as old as the show itself, which launched in 1996. Back in the 1990s, an on-air promo for the website said that there are plenty of stops on the information superhighway, but that if you’re looking for news and features about the whole world, was your destination. (You can play the audio file above to hear it.)

That’s quite a mandate for a website that — at first — took three days to update.

Jonathan Dyer, now The World’s managing editor, would select three stories from the show and send them to PRI’s headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the website was managed at the time.

It was a website designed for the audience to be able to come back and listen to the show or individual stories. 

Take a closer look at these homepages, archived on Wayback Machine.


The World's website in 1998 featured a story about a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. 1999

A screen grab of The World's website in 1999 featuring a story about US military helicopters in Albania. 2000

The World's website in 2000 featuring a story about a Russian submarine. 2001

The World's website in 2001 featured a story on the war in Afghanistan. 2002

The World's website in 2002 featured a story about elections in Turkey. 2003

The World's website in 2003 featured a story on music of Venezuela. 2004

The World's website in 2004 featured a story about Kung Fu Fighting. 2005

The World's website in 2005 featured a story about Israeli settlements. 2006

The World's website in 2006 included a story about musician Dougie MacLean. 2007

The World's website in 2007 featured a story about the arrest of six militants in New Jersey. 2008

The World's website in 2008 featured a story about an attack in Iraq. 2009

The World's website in 2009 featured a story about election fraud in Afghanistan. 2010

The World's website in 2010 featured a story about a battle in Kirkuk, Iraq. 2011

The World's website in 2011 featured a story about France's role in Libya. 2012

The World's website in 2012 featured an interview with Nasser Weddady. 2013

The World's website in 2013 featured a story about President Obama and Syria. 2014

The World's website in 2014 was relaunched at 2015

The World's website in 2015 featured a story about a global refugee crisis. 2016

The World's website in 2016 featured a story about a controversy over pronouns. 2017

The World's website in 2017 featured a story about DACA recipients. 2018

The World's website in 2018 featured a story about a filmmaker in Afghanistan.


The World's website in 2019 featured a story about the cancelation of Carnival in Haiti.

The trolls are winning, says Russian troll hunter

Mar 12, 2019 5:17


Slaying online trolls can be a lonely business. Just ask Russia’s Lyudmila Savchuk, who first exposed the story of Russia’s disinformation campaign back in 2014. 

The journalist and 33-year-old mother of two, Savchuk started noticing websites and social media accounts attacking local opposition activists in her hometown of Saint Petersburg with a frequency she hadn’t seen before. 

Lyudmila Savchuk stands to the left, wearing a black sweatshirt

Russia’s Lyudmila Savchuk was hired as a blogger. Once on the inside, Savchuk was stunned to see hundreds of young Russians working as paid trolls in rotating shifts.


Charles Maynes/The World 

The posts were all too similar. The verbal assaults too coordinated. So, when Savchuk later heard that an organization rumored to be behind the campaign — the Internet Research Agency or IRA — was hiring writers, she went for it.   

“I wanted to get in there to see how it works, of course,” says Savchuk. “But the most important thing was to see if there was some way to stop it.”

Related: In Russia, a 'ghost empire' rises

She was hired as a blogger and told to report to Savushkina 55, a nondescript four-story office building on the outskirts of town. 

Once on the inside, Savchuk was stunned to see hundreds of mostly younger Russians working as paid trolls in rotating shifts.

Roaming the halls when she could — cameras were everywhere — Savchuk discovered the IRA was full of different “departments.” There was the “news division,” the "social media seeders", and a group dedicated to producing visual memes known as “demotivators.”

Related: A guide to Russian 'demotivators'

Despite the division of labor, the content was remarkably uniform. The US, the EU, Ukraine’s pro-European government, and Russia’s opposition were regular targets for scorn. And then there was Russian President Vladimir Putin — seemingly no Russian triumph under his rule was too small to warrant a celebratory tweet, meme or post. 

“Each worker has a quota to fill every day and every night,” Savchuk says. “Because the factory works around the clock. It never stops. Not for a second.”  

“I wanted to get in there to see how it works, of course. But the most important thing was to see if there was some way to stop it.”

The work occasionally dipped into the absurd: at one point, Savchuk had to pretend to be a fortune teller named “Cantadora” — mixing blog musings on astrology, crystals, and rare gemstones with pro-Kremlin talking points. (One of Cantadora’s more accurate predictions was Vladimir Putin’s victory in Russia’s then-future 2018 presidential elections.) 

This kind of soft-pedal trolling, Savchuk says, seemed to prove that the IRA was bent on reaching even the most marginal and apolitical of Russia’s expanding online audience. 

Related: A mole among trolls: Inside Russia's online propaganda machine

In total, Savchuk spent just two and a half months at the IRA before she went public about the troll factory in a local newspaper.

Her conclusion: The troll farm was a Kremlin project, run by a shadowy local restaurateur named Evgeny Prigozhin.

While Prigozhin has denied those charges, his name may sound familiar to American audiences. Often called “Putin’s Chef” for his close ties to the Russian President, Prigozhin was placed under US sanctions in 2018 for what American officials say was a coordinated attempt to interfere with the US elections.

Related: Autocracies that look like democracies are a threat across the globe

But that? That would all come later.  

Even before the local troll exposé spread into a full-blown international scandal, Savchuk shifted to activism: lecturing on disinformation and trying to name and shame participants in the troll farm.

“I acted like any journalist would,” she says. “Only, then I went further. I realized an article wasn’t enough.” 

She even sued the IRA in a Russian court in 2015 — winning a symbolic 1 ruble victory over the troll farm for labor code violations. 

The court ruling brought the work of the Internet Research Agency “out of the shadows,” says Ivan Pavlov, a human rights lawyer who represented Savchuk in the case.

“I can make comparisons to Al Capone. The US government couldn’t get him for being a gangster but they could get him for tax evasion,” he tells The World.  

Meanwhile, Savchuk continued to publish her thoughts on countering disinformation to her main online outlet: her Facebook feed. And this is where Savchuk’s weird troll-slaying story takes an even weirder turn. 

After returning home from a disinformation conference in Washington, DC, in November, Savchuk found her Facebook account inexplicably blocked.  

Repeated attempts to restore her account and verify her identity with her passport went nowhere. Finally, in mid-February — boom. With no explanation, her profile was back. 

After returning home from a disinformation conference in Washington, DC, in November, Savchuk found her Facebook account inexplicably blocked.

Why this happened at all is still a mystery. Facebook did not respond to questions from The World about Savchuk's access. 

But Savchuk posits that IRA trolls may have flooded the platform with complaints about her account. Her problems with Facebook, she notes, started only after she talked openly about threats she’d received from people affiliated with Evgeny Prigozhin.  

Putin sits at a desk while a man on either side stand behind him

Evgeny Prigozhin, left, assists Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a dinner with foreign scholars and journalists at the restaurant Cheval Blanc on the premises of an equestrian complex outside Moscow Nov. 11, 2011


Misha Japaridze/Pool/File Photo/Reuters

The possibility is not far-fetched. Last October, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an investigation claiming that people affiliated with Progizhin were behind attacks on opposition figures and bloggers.

Another possibility: Savchuk was swept up by a Facebook campaign to weed out fake Russian troll accounts. Company executives have touted those efforts amid increased congressional scrutiny after the 2016 election. And some western media outlets have mistakenly identified Savchuk as a “former troll.” 

Related: Trump's business history with Russia is a long and colorful one 

Either way, Savchuk feels burned by the experience. She says she thought her work against the IRA was helping Facebook understand how its platform could be gamed.  

“When Facebook blocked me,” she says. “I couldn’t do that anymore.” 

Meanwhile, the stress and online isolation have taken a toll. Savchuk doesn’t hide that she had a breakdown since blowing the whistle on the IRA. 

And while she doesn’t regret taking on the fight, this troll slayer — now 37 — is no longer convinced she can win.

Even though he was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative team last year, “Putin’s Chef” is doing just fine, Savchuk notes.

A recent investigation into Prigozhin suggests his media empire and government contracts have grown exponentially since the IRA was cast out of the shadows.

Despite — or maybe because of — attention from the US, good things keep coming Prigozhin’s way.  

Global Boeing fears grow, families await Ethiopia crash remains

Mar 12, 2019


While black box recorders are yet to yield the cause, Singapore and Australia became the latest nations to suspend Boeing 737 MAX aircraft on Tuesday.

Sunday's disaster — following another fatal crash of a 737 MAX jet in Indonesia five months ago — has caused alarm in the international aviation industry and wiped billions of dollars off the market value of the world's biggest planemaker.

Safety experts say it is too early to speculate on what caused Sunday's crash or whether the two recent accidents are linked. Most accidents are caused by a unique chain of events combining human and technical factors.

The 157 victims came from more than 30 different nations, and included nearly two dozen UN staff.

Listen: Remembering passengers on doomed Ethiopia Airlines Flight 302

Given the problems identifying them at the charred disaster site, Ethiopia Airlines said it would take at least five days to start handing remains to families.

"We are Muslim and have to bury our deceased immediately," Noordin Mohamed, a 27-year-old Kenyan businessman whose brother and mother died, told Reuters.

"Losing a brother and mother in the same day and not having their bodies to bury is very painful," he said in the Kenyan capital Nairobi where the plane had been due.

Ethiopian Airlines flight 320 came down in a field soon after takeoff from Addis Ababa on Sunday, creating a fireball in a crater. It may be weeks or months before all the victims are identified.

The United States has said it is safe to fly the planes, and Boeing has said there is no need to issue new guidance to operators of the aircraft based on the information it has so far.

But Singapore and Australia's aviation authorities — following China, Indonesia and others — said temporary suspension of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in and out of their airports was necessary during a safety review.

Travelers worried

Anxiety was also evident among travelers, who rushed to find out from social media whether they were booked to fly on 737 MAX planes — the same model involved in the Lion Air crash off Indonesia that killed 189 people in October.    

Black box recorders were found from the Ethiopian crash site on Monday, but it was unclear where they would be looked at.

So long as the recordings are undamaged, the cause of the crash could be identified quickly, although it typically takes a year to fully complete an investigation.

Nearly 40 percent of the in-service fleet of 371 Boeing 737 MAX jets globally is grounded, according to industry publication Flightglobal. That includes 97 jets in biggest market China.

Boeing shares fell 5 percent on Monday.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a "continued airworthiness notification" for the 737 MAX late on Monday to assure operators, and detailed a series of design changes mandated by Boeing in response to the Indonesia crash.

Boeing issued a statement as well, saying it had been working with the FAA in the aftermath of the Lion Air crash to develop enhancements to flight control software that will be deployed across the 737 MAX fleet in coming weeks.

The MAX 8 has new software that automatically pushes the plane's nose down if a stall is detected.

The new MAX 8 variant of the 737, the world's best-selling modern passenger aircraft, has bigger engines designed to use less fuel. It entered service in 2017.

With another 4,661 on order, 737 Max 8s could become the workhorses for airlines around the globe for decades.

Global groundings

Ethiopian Airlines, which has four other 737 MAX 8 jets, has grounded them as a precaution. A prize-winning author, a soccer official and a team of humanitarian workers were among those who perished on its flight.

Gol in Brazil temporarily suspended MAX 8 flights, as did Argentina's state airline Aerolineas Argentinas and Mexico's Aeromexico.

South Korean budget carrier Eastar Jet said it will temporarily ground its two 737 MAX 8s from Wednesday to cooperate with the government's emergency safety inspections.

India's regulator ordered additional maintenance checks on 737 MAX 8 aircraft operating in the country and said a review found "no significant concern."

Vietnam state media reported the aviation regulator would not issue licenses to local airlines to operate the 737 MAX until the cause of the Ethiopian crash is determined.

Still, major airlines from North America to the Middle East kept flying the 737 MAX, though Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau said he would not hesitate to take action once the cause of the crash is known.

Southwest Airlines, which operates the largest fleet of 737 MAX 8s, said it remained confident in the safety of all its Boeing planes even as it fielded queries from customers.

Former FAA accident investigator Mike Daniel said the decision by regulators to ground the planes was premature. "To me it's almost surreal how quickly some of the regulators are just grounding the aircraft without any factual information yet as a result of the investigation," he told Reuters.

By Duncan Miriri and Jamie Freed/Reuters

Additional reporting by Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; Katharine Houreld in Nairobi; Eric Johnson in Seattle; James Pearson in Hanoi; Alexander Cornwell in Dubai; Heekyong Yang in Seoul; Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Tim Hepher in Paris; Writing by Sayantani Ghosh and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Georgina Prodhan.

Students around the world expected to skip school for climate

Mar 11, 2019


Students around the world are expected to skip school on March 15 in order to demonstrate against climate change, taking their cue from Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg whose weekly "school strike for climate" has won a global following.

The then 15-year-old Thunberg began riding her bicycle to parliament last August, taking up a place on the cobblestones in front of Stockholm's Parliament House with her "school strike for climate" hand-painted sign.

Fridays for future. The school strike continues! #climatestrike #klimatstrejk #FridaysForFuture

— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) September 16, 2018

Thousands of students around the world have since copied her and youth organizations are calling for an unprecedented strike on Friday in which students in more than 40 countries are expected to participate.

"I think this movement is very important. It not only makes people aware, and makes people talk about it more, but also to show the people in power that this is the most important thing there is," Thunberg said.

Related: These fourth graders penned climate change poetry inspired by our coverage

Thunberg has almost 250,000 followers on Twitter where her movement carries the hashtags #FridaysForFuture and #SchoolStrike4Climate. 

A group of children pose with signs about climate change

Swedish 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg, center, attends a protest next to Sweden's parliament in Stockholm, Sweden on March 8, 2019. The sign reads "School strike for the climate."


Ilze Filks/Reuters

A TEDx talk she delivered on climate change now carried on TED's main website has garnered more than 1.2 million views and last month Thunberg joined protests in Belgium, where she won a European Union pledge to spend billions of euros to combat climate change.

"I think the most fun thing is to watch all the pictures around the world of hundreds of thousands of children school striking for the climate," Thunberg said.

She has also had an impact on her parents, author and actor Svante Thunberg and opera singer Malena Ernman. 

Related: These kids are hoping to save Galapagos tortoises — and their own home — from climate change

Inspired by their daughter's concern for the environment, the pair have stopped flying and have adopted vegan diets as part of their efforts to live more environmentally sustainable lives, Svante Thunberg told a conference in Katowice, Poland, in December.

Specifically, Thunberg said she wants Sweden to adhere to the Paris Agreement, part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

"I've said that I will continue to strike every Friday until Sweden is in line with the Paris Agreement," she said. "That may take a couple of years and I'll just have to try to be patient."

A micro safari through household germs reveals that cleanliness isn’t always a good thing

Mar 11, 2019 27:33


Queen Elizabeth I — who ruled England from 1558 to 1603 — one declared, “I bathe once a month whether I need it or not.” Without question, our perception of cleanliness has changed radically, but our modern-day obsession with hygiene may not be an unalloyed good.

Every imaginable surface around us is covered in bacteria, according to Rob Dunn, a professor of Applied Ecology at both North Carolina State and the Natural History Museum of Denmark. In his book, “Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live,” Dunn explains that we are always surrounded by countless creatures that are naked to the human eye.

Related: Superbugs: India and the Rise of Drug-Resistant Germs

If you were to take a journey through your home with a microscope in hand, “It’d be like going off in a ship, like Darwin traveling the world, and every time you came around a corner, you’d come across something new,” according to Dunn.

Germ theory, which came into wide acceptance in the late 1800s, brought much greater awareness about health and hygiene and helped people understand how disease could be spread through touch, the sharing of water, etc. But over time, there has been an increased fervor about getting rid of bacteria, sometimes with unexpected consequences.

Lots of bacteria help us and enrich our lives, Dunn says. He explains that when we season our food with salt, the flavor comes from square-shaped bacteria that have been present in the salt crystal for hundreds of thousands of years. Lots of our yogurt is produced from the bacteria bulgaricus, which — if you can believe it — traces its roots to a man in Bulgaria.

Related: The future of agriculture may be too small to see. Think microbes

Dunn believes our obsession with cleanliness really began after World War II, when the language and sentiment of the battlefield moved into our homes. Pesticides and antimicrobials began to be used as weapons against the microscopic beings in our living spaces, and the need to control and sterilize our homes came to define our modern sense of hygiene. Companies were able to tap into consumers’ fears and sell products that promised to kill all forms of germs, both harmful and benign. 

The problem, Dunn says, is that bacteria that harm us are only a tiny minority of the species around us. “When we try to kill everything, we are more likely to favor the harmful species,” he argues, “and that sets us up for all sorts of problems.” 

The use of household products that claim to kill 99 percent of germs, is the “ideal recipe” for speeding up evolution, according to Dunn. He says we are creating an environment that’s counterproductive and actually promotes the evolution of the surviving 1 percent. Similarly, the overuse of antibiotics has led to the evolution of new resistant, species of bacteria.

Dunn believes it’s time to change the conversation, and imagine a different kind of future, one where germs and microbes are viewed a little less skeptically - and, more often, as assets to human health.

Nadia Lewis is an intern at Innovation Hub. A version of this story originally appeared on the Innovation Hub blog. 

Antarctica Dispatch 7: Under Thwaites Glacier

Mar 6, 2019 7:59


Scientists aboard the icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer this week are getting their first up-close look ever at a massive Antarctic glacier that could play a big role in global sea level rise.

They think the Thwaites Glacier is melting and becoming unstable primarily because water that’s warmer and saltier than normal is reaching the underside of its ice shelf, which juts out into the sea. But they don’t know exactly how much heat that water is bringing to the area, or whether it’s been brought by changing wind patterns linked to climate change.

On this voyage, scientists are measuring the water temperature and salinity in front of Thwaites and looking at troughs and sediments on the seafloor, all in an effort to figure out how much this warm water may be getting piped in under the glacier’s floating edge, and what it might mean for the glacier’s future.

It’s a crucial question. Thwaites is increasingly unstable, and a rapid collapse could raise global sea levels by 1-2 feet over 50-100 years.

The Hugin, a long orange metal submarine is shown on the deck of the ship.

The Hugin on deck.



Linda Welzenbach/Rice University

One of the newest scientific tools that they have on board to study all these things is an unmanned submarine called Hugin. It’s about the length of a shipping container and has roughly 20 sensors on it that track changes in the water and map the seabed.

Researcher Anna Wåhlin is shown with a microphone looking out on the ocean.

University of Gothenburg oceanographer Anna Wåhlin, director of the Hugin project, waits on the bridge of the Nathaniel B. Palmer for the Hugin submarine to surface in icy seas near the face of Thwaites Glacier.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

The Hugin submarine is shown getting tied to a winch cable.

After wrangling the Hugin with a small Zodiac, the sub gets tied to a winch cable and hoisted back on deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

The words

A good luck message on the side of the Hugin survived the sub’s 13-hour mission in the Amundsen Sea around Thwaites Glacier.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

University of Gothenburg scientists are shown throwing snowballs.

University of Gothenburg scientists have a celebratory snowball fight after the Hugin returns from its first mission near Thwaites Glacier on March 1, 2019.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Aleksandra Mazur is shown opening a metal panel on the Hugin.

Aleksandra Mazur opens a panel on the Hugin to download data from its excursion.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Scientists are shown tightly gathered around a computer.

Scientists gathered in the ship’s lab to look at early images the Hugin captured of the seafloor near Thwaites.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Most of the data the Hugin collected on its first Thwaites mission still needs to be analyzed, and, there are more missions to come on this voyage. But whatever its discoveries, project director Anna Wåhlin says this first mission has already proved the value of high-tech, autonomous vehicles like the Hugin in the push to get a better understanding of what’s going on where the water meets the ice in Antarctica.

Are viruses the best weapon for fighting superbugs?

Mar 6, 2019


Antibiotics won the battle against resistant bacteria, but they may not win the war.

You probably know that antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs, have hampered physicians’ ability to treat infections. You may also be aware that there has been a steep decline in the number of new antibiotics coming to market. Some headlines suggest humanity is doomed by antimicrobial resistance; even politicians and governments have weighed in, comparing rising antimicrobial resistance to other popular crises such as climate change. Although I believe these assertions are exaggerated, antimicrobial resistance is a serious problem.

Related: A second HIV patient has been ‘cured,’ but researchers say reducing cases is still the top priority

I am a physician scientist with a specialty in infectious diseases. I have been fascinated by the role that bacteria play in human health, and the potential for using viruses to treat bacterial infections.

What causes antimicrobial resistance?

One significant factor contributing to antimicrobial resistance is the excessive use of antibiotics. In the US, where antibiotics are widely available, some patients demand these drugs for many different illnesses. Many physicians appease their patients because they don’t understand when and when not to use them and because there is no regulatory structure to limit their use. Anyone with a prescription pad can prescribe any antibiotic to treat any condition and rarely, if ever, face any consequences. There are some efforts to reduce antibiotic use, but the scope of the problem in the US remains large.

Some countries, such as Sweden, use incentives to encourage doctors to improve antibiotic uses. But there is no counterpart for this system in US hospitals and clinics.

The problem goes beyond humans; 70 percent of all antibiotics are actually used on animals. This means that humans can be exposed to antibiotics by just handling animal products. The drumstick you are preparing for dinner might also have antibiotic-resistant bacteria tagging along.

Once antimicrobial resistance develops in a bacterium, it doesn’t always go away. For example, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, evolved resistance to multiple different antibiotics; yet, despite efforts to reduce its spread by limiting the use of antibiotics that led to its emergence, MRSA still persists in hospitals and the community.

An alternative to antibiotics

Another reason for finding alternatives to antibiotics is that we share our microbes with the people and pets who live around us; thus, others can acquire one of these superbugs without ever taking an antibiotic.

A not-so-obvious reason for developing new therapies is that our bodies are home to a large community of microorganisms, including bacteria, called our microbiome. These microorganisms are necessary to maintain our health. Those same antibiotics that kill harmful bacteria also kill the good ones.

There is an alternative to antibiotics, but it was dismissed by medicine years ago.

Related: London HIV patient becomes world's second AIDS cure hope

The original phage therapy story

That alternative was something called phage therapy, which uses viruses that infect bacteria, called bacteriophages, to kill disease-causing bacteria. Bacteriophages, or phages, were used frequently in the early- and pre- antibiotic eras between the 1920s and '40s to treat life-threatening infections.

But phage therapy had many disadvantages. The first was that phages were unpredictable. One type of phage might wipe out the bad bacteria in one individual but not another. So hospitals had to keep a broad collection of phages to kill disease-causing bacteria from all their patients. An antibiotic such as vancomycin, by comparison, predictably kills entire groups of bacteria.

Another downside is that phage collections require maintenance. So not only did hospitals have to keep a large variety of phages on hand, but they had to keep them in shape. So medicine chose antibiotics for convenience, and hadn’t looked back in any meaningful way, until recently.

Making a comeback?

So, why is phage therapy making a comeback? Antibiotic resistance is an obvious answer, but doesn’t explain the full story.

As a specialist in infectious diseases, I have been interested in phage therapy as long as I can remember, but only recently have I felt comfortable saying this out loud. Why? A physician might be considered a “quack” just for mentioning phage therapy because the early attempts were neither a rousing success nor a colossal failure. Like any therapeutic, it had its strengths and weaknesses.

However, now scientific advances can guide us toward which phage is best for destroying a particular microbe. With the rising antimicrobial resistance crisis, physicians and scientists have a well-timed opportunity to work together to develop effective phage therapies.

The proof of this comes from recent landmark phage therapy cases. The successful treatment of a physician with a life-threatening infection and a grave prognosis caused by a multi-drug resistant bacterium at my institution serves as a great example. Another pivotal case circulating in popular media has kept this trend going. We physicians may be able to treat just about any disease-causing bacterium; it is just a matter of finding a suitable phage.

A big part of phage therapy research is devoted to “phage hunting,” where we microbiologists scour the soil, the oceans and the human body to identify phages with the potential to kill the bacteria that ail us. While the pace of these studies has been slow, the new research is revealing the therapeutic potential of phages in medicine.

You might think that with all the phage hunting and landmark cases that we would start using phage therapy all the time, but we don’t.

The case for using phages

One advantage of antibiotics is that since they have been used for decades, we know a lot about their safety. Physicians make simple calculations every day about the risk-benefit ratio of using antibiotics, but aren’t equipped to make the same calculations about phages. Does anyone really want a doctor injecting them with a virus to cure a bacterial infection? I doubt that would be anyone’s choice when the question is posed that way.

But, remember that phages are natural. They’re on every surface of your body. They are in the ocean and soil, and in your toilet and sink. They are literally everywhere. Thus, putting a phage into your body to kill a bacterium quite frankly is something that nature does to us every single day, and as far as we know, we are no worse for the wear.

Phages are estimated to kill half the world’s bacteria every 48 hours and are probably the most potent antibacterial agents out there. Is there really a compelling reason to be concerned when a doctor gives us a phage instead of us acquiring that same phage from our sink at home? Only time will tell. Unfortunately, as antimicrobial resistance continues to rise, time may not be on our side.The Conversation

David Pride, Associate Director of Microbiology, University of California San Diego

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

London HIV patient becomes world's second AIDS cure hope

Mar 5, 2019


Almost three years after an HIV-positive man in Britain received bone marrow stem cells from a donor with a rare genetic mutation that resists HIV infection, doctors say he has become the second known adult worldwide to be cleared of the AIDS virus.

Doctors added that the man underwent highly sensitive tests that are still showing no trace of a previous HIV infection.

"There is no virus there that we can measure. We can't detect anything," said Ravindra Gupta, a professor and HIV biologist who co-led a team of doctors treating the man.

AIDS experts said the case is a proof of the concept that scientists will one day be able to end AIDS, and marks a "critical moment" in the search for an HIV cure, but does not mean that cure has already been found.

Gupta described his patient as "functionally cured" and "in remission," but cautioned: "It's too early to say he's cured."

The man is being called "the London patient," in part because his case is similar to the first known case of a functional cure of HIV — in an American man, Timothy Brown, who became known as the Berlin patient when he underwent similar treatment in Germany in 2007 which also cleared his HIV.

Brown, who had been living in Berlin, has since moved to the United States and, according to HIV experts, is still HIV-free.

Some 37 million people worldwide are currently infected with HIV and the AIDS pandemic has killed about 35 million people worldwide since it began in the 1980s. Scientific research into the complex virus has in recent years led to the development of drug combinations that can keep it at bay in most patients.

Gupta, now at Cambridge University, treated the London patient when he was working at University College London. The man had contracted HIV in 2003, Gupta said, and in 2012 was also diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

Last chance

In 2016, when he was very sick with cancer, doctors decided to seek a transplant match for him.

"This was really his last chance of survival," Gupta told Reuters.

The donor — who was unrelated — had a genetic mutation known as CCR5 delta 32, which confers resistance to HIV.

The transplant went relatively smoothly, Gupta said, but there were some side effects, including the patient suffering a period of "graft-versus-host" disease — a condition in which donor immune cells attack the recipient's immune cells.

Most experts say it is inconceivable such treatments could be a way of curing all patients. The procedure is expensive, complex and risky. To do this in others, exact match donors would have to be found in the tiny proportion of people and most of them of northern European descent, who have the CCR5 mutation that makes them resistant to the virus.

"Although this is not a viable large-scale strategy for a cure, it does represent a critical moment," said Anton Pozniak, president of the International AIDS Society. "The hope is that this will eventually lead to a safe, cost-effective and easy strategy ... using gene technology or antibody techniques."

Specialists said it is also not yet clear whether the CCR5 resistance is the only key — or whether the graft-versus-host disease may have been just as important. Both the Berlin and London patients had this complication, which may have played a role in the loss of HIV-infected cells, Gupta said.

His team plans to use these findings to explore potential new HIV treatment strategies. "We need to understand if we could knock out this (CCR5) receptor in people with HIV, which may be possible with gene therapy," he said.

The London patient, whose case was set to be reported in the journal Nature and presented at a medical conference in Seattle on Tuesday, has asked his medical team not to reveal his name, age, nationality or other details.

By Kate Kelland/Reuters

Reporting by Kate Kelland; editing by Catherine Evans.

Chinese innovation makes the 'Chinese Dream' real for many

Mar 4, 2019 33:45


Since he started campaigning for office, President Donald Trump has talked about few countries more than he’s talked about China. Mostly, he’s accused the country of hurting US manufacturing and stealing technology and intellectual property. Over the past several months, both countries have been at loggerheads as they have tried to sketch out more amicable trade deals (though a better deal than hoped has recently been hinted at). And the latest Huawei scandal has exacerbated tensions between the two countries.

Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media, sees China one of the top risks for the US in 2019.

“The thing that should be worrying the United States strategically, is not that the Chinese is ripping off American intellectual property, which they do, but rather that they’re taking American strategy,” he says.

Drawing parallels with the Marshall Plan, Bremmer believes China’s grandiose infrastructure investments in various developing countries around the world is part of a strategy to align these countries’ political interests with China’s agenda.

George Yip agrees that China is becoming a key player in the global sphere. Yip, a professor of marketing and strategy at Imperial College Business School in London and co-author of “Pioneers, Hidden Champions, Changemakers, and Underdogs: Lessons from China's Innovators,” explains that the Chinese government has been actively encouraging Chinese students, educated in the West, to invest their knowledge back in their home country. He thinks the trend has led to a boom in small Chinese technology companies that have been at the helm of China’s progress.

While the “American Dream” has seemed ever more out of reach to many Americans, many Chinese believe that a better quality of life is increasingly possible in their homeland.

The “Chinese have watched their country go from zero to hero in the last 40 years,” Bremmer explains. “The China Dream [now] seems very real for many people.”

Various governmental policies and incentives have also helped to turn those dreams into reality.

Meanwhile, Trump’s “America First” rhetoric seems to be discouraging foreign students from coming to the US. According to a report by the National Science Foundation, the percentage of science and engineering graduate students from overseas fell by 6 percent from 2016 to 2017. Bremmer believes some foreign students simply do not feel as welcome here anymore.

While the Chinese government has been instrumental in pushing technological innovations, Bremmer warns of two major downsides, which may slow the country’s growth: a lack of a civic culture in Chinese society and President Xi Jinping’s increasingly authoritarian hold on power.

Yip is less fazed by these roadblocks. He argues that China’s civic culture was incredibly stressed by the Cultural Revolution, but is being reinstated with the government’s push towards Confucianism. As for Xi, Yip believes the Communist Party will reign him in if he crosses any boundaries.

And Yip emphasizes that, though Westerners have long thought that the Chinese are conformist, innovation is the order of the day for many of the country’s entrepreneurs. But with a Chinese twist: “The saying is that, while the West is good at going from zero to one, China is very good at going from one to 100.”

Antarctica Dispatch 6: First sight of Thwaites — mapping uncharted seafloor

Feb 28, 2019 6:15


The Nathaniel B. Palmer arrived at Thwaites Glacier around 2 a.m. ET on Feb. 26, nearly a month after departing Chile. On the first day at Thwaites, the Palmer traced a roughly 100-mile path around the edge of the glacier and above it into the Amundsen Sea.

During the trek, researchers mapped portions of the sea floor in front of the glacier that were previously uncharted.

The railing of the Nathaniel B. Palmer is shown with Thwaites Glacier in the distance.

On the first day at Thwaites Glacier, the Nathaniel B. Palmer traced a roughly 100-mile path around the Florida-sized glacier's edge.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

These maps will help scientists understand what happened as Thwaites receded in the past, and how it might behave going forward, allowing models to better predict how much the Florida-sized piece of ice might contribute to sea level rise in coming decades.

Oceanographer Peter Sheehan is shown with his jacket hood over his head while looking out at Thwaites.

Oceanographer Peter Sheehan looks out at Thwaites from the bow of the ship before sunrise on the day of arrival.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

“It looks kind of mystical,” said Peter Sheehan, an oceanographer with the University of East Anglia in the UK. “It’s like standing in a cathedral, you feel the hush of reverence.”

From the side of the vessel, the Nathaniel B. Palmer is shown with a smoke stack in the nearground, navigating along the eastern tongue of Thwaites glacier.

The Nathaniel B. Palmer navigates along the eastern tongue of Thwaites glacier.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Layers of snow are shown along the edge of Thwaites Glacier

Layers of snow shown here, are like the rings in trees and can help scientists date glaciers.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Layers of snow, compacted over time, are visible toward the top of Thwaites glacier. In locations where ice is slower-moving, these layers, like the rings in trees, can help scientists date glaciers.

The Amundsen Sea was particularly still during the Palmer’s first day at Thwaites, allowing the ship to get closer to the glacier than expected. Navigating through uncharted waters, Chief Mate Rick Wiemken, said he kept about a quarter mile from the glacier face to reduce any risk to the ship from calving icebergs.

The front face of Thwaites glacier is shown rising an estimated 60 to 75 feet above the dark blue ocean waters.

The front face of Thwaites glacier rises an estimated 60 to 75 feet above water in the areas where it is most intact. Roughly 90 percent of an ice sheet typically sits below the water line.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

As the Palmer navigated west along the face of Thwaites, the glacier front grew increasingly broken and chaotic — visual signs of its instability.

Glacier fronts are typically relatively uniform, with sheer vertical fronts like cliff faces. The wavy top and gentle seaward slope of Thwaites in many places, and in icebergs recently calved from Thwaites, are also signs of its volatility.

The Nathaniel B. Palmer is shown tracing the edge of the Thwaites ice shelf from east to west and reached portions of the glacier that were more degraded.

As the Nathaniel B. Palmer traced the edge of the Thwaites ice shelf from east to west, it reached portions of the glacier that were more degraded.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Irregular shapes and downward slope characteristics are shown at the face of much of Thwaites Glacier.

The irregular shapes and downward slope characteristic at the face of much of Thwaites Glacier are signs of its instability. Crevasses and low points mark sites where future icebergs may calve.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Thwaites Glacier starts on land and flows into the Amundsen Sea, forming a vast shelf of ice floating over a cavity of water that's never been directly studied before.

“We know more about the moon than this particular part of Earth,” says Anna Wahlin, an oceanographer from the University of Gothenburg who hopes to send an automated submarine near the front of Thwaites on this expedition.

Chief Scientist Rob Larter is shown in the nearground looking out at Thwaites glacier on the morning of arrival.

Chief Scientist Rob Larter looks out at the glacier on the morning of arrival.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

“This is a critical boundary in the world today,” said Chief Scientist Rob Larter of the British Antarctic Survey, looking out at the glacier on the morning of arrival.

”This is where rapid change is really happening, and we’re actually standing and looking at the bit that’s rapidly changing.”

Sea ice and icebergs are shown broken off of Thwaites and blown westward.

Sea ice and icebergs broken off of Thwaites were blown westward by recent storms, compacting them west of the main glacier faces and allowing the Nathaniel B. Palmer to reach areas never before studied.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Antarctica Dispatch 5: Detour, with scenery

Feb 28, 2019 7:53


A medical emergency aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer sends the ship and reporter Carolyn Beeler back north just as they’re about to reach the Thwaites Glacier. That means a big delay in starting work on the ship’s core mission, but also an unscheduled visit to a research base at a dramatic location just off the Antarctic Peninsula.

research station

The Rothera Research Station on Adelaide Island, operated by the British Antarctic Survey. It’s home to more than 100 researchers in the summer months, and 20-30 in the Antarctic winter.


Apacheeng lead at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

gravel airstrip A gravel airstrip at Rothera station allows flights in and out for supplies, personnel and research missions. The ill crew member of the Nathaniel B. Palmer was airlifted from here to a hospital in Chile. Credit:

Carolyn Beeler/The World


Icebergs calving off local glaciers litter the sea around the Rothera station. Researchers at the station say glaciers in the area are in rapid retreat as the region warms. “It’s really scary,” says one.


Carolyn Beeler/The World


Sunset in Ryder Bay off the Antarctic Peninsula, Feb. 20, 2019, as the Nathaniel B. Palmer waited near Rothera station.



Carolyn Beeler/The World


Antarctica Dispatch 4: Fieldwork begins, cue the seals

Antarctica Dispatch 3: The ship's first encounters with icebergs

Antarctica Dispatch 2: Crossing the Drake Passage

Antarctica Dispatch 1: Gearing up and shipping out

What Thwaites Glacier can tell us about the future of West Antarctica

How to step away from the screen

Feb 26, 2019 30:28


Quick, don’t look away. You might be finding it difficult to stay focused — someone just liked your Instagram photo, your Facebook messenger group chat is blowing up, and oops, oh no, looks like you missed a call from mom.

The abundance of apps and services on your digital devices might seem like they control you, your attention and your time, more than you’d like to admit. At least, that’s what Cal Newport, author of “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” claims. Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, says you can adjust your life online. He thinks we can reclaim our offline life — and attention — by using tech more thoughtfully.

“Digital minimalism ... says you should essentially wipe the slate clean, get rid of all those apps and services that you haphazardly downloaded or signed up for and then rebuild that digital life from scratch, but do it with real intention this time,” Newport says.

He explains that people who take 30 days to adopt this minimalist lifestyle lose the impulse to look at their phones. They are then able to think more deeply about how to best use their time.

No one wants to be called a birdbrain, but research shows that our brains react in a similar way to pigeons’ brains, when it comes to rewards. Pigeons find intermittent rewards irresistible, and so do we. The human equivalent of food pellets comes in the form of social media, specifically the notifications that pop up on your phone, indicating that someone is thinking about you. Newport calls these social approval indicators “almost impossible to resist.” Digital social media platforms are able to use this knowledge about our biology to get us hooked.

“We’re a social species. Part of what’s allowed us to thrive so much is that we’re very, very good at monitoring people around us [and] monitoring people’s opinions of us. ... The problem is that gives lots of vulnerabilities for tech to exploit,” Newport says.

Newport explains how social media platforms designed tools and functions, such as the “like” button and retweeting, to “fundamentally re-engineer the social media experience.” Phones became more interactive, which caused us to be more focused on the number of “likes” we got on a post, rather than the quality of the post itself. “This plays with our psychological hardware in a way that made it very difficult not to keep tapping the app. And this is how social media is able to up their revenue,” Newport says.

We can see the serious consequences that tech causes, by studying children's interactions with the digital world. Newport explains how studies attribute rises in anxiety, self-harm, and suicide among adolescents to their time spent online. “We’re on the precipice of looking at this as a public health crisis,” Newport says.

Going offline can be complicated, since people enjoy what the digital world offers. “People aren’t complaining about the app or the digital service, but rather the amount of time they end up using on it,” Newport says. Removing your entire digital presence may not be practical. Newport instead suggests finding your own online autonomy, and deciding how to use tech most efficiently to best suit your needs.

Reclaiming that autonomy can also help your attention span. Newport explains that long-form thinking is “something we have to train and cultivate.” Getting rid of digital distractions, and returning to activities like long-form reading, can whip your attention back into shape, he says.

Facebook and Twitter have been losing users in the United States, and Newport notes that public opinion around how we interact with technology is changing. He believes that society may be ready to examine, critique, and reevaluate the way that we let tech influence our lives.

The original version of this story appeared on the Innovation Hub.

Chinese internet users turn to the blockchain to fight against government censorship

Feb 25, 2019


Thanks to blockchain, internet users have achieved some victories in the fight against China’s strict internet censorship.

A historic moment was made on April 23. Peking University's former student, Yue Xin, had penned a letter detailing the university’s attempts to hide sexual misconduct. The case involved a student, Gao Yan, who committed suicide in 1998 after a professor sexually assaulted and then harassed her.

The letter was blocked by Chinese social networking websites, but an anonymous user posted it on the Ethereum blockchain.

Related: Blockchain seems to be all the hype these days. But what, exactly, is it? 

In another case, in July, Chinese citizens used blockchain to preserve an investigative story which condemned inferior vaccines being given to Chinese babies. The vaccines produced by Shenzhen-based Changsheng Bio-Tech failed to fight tetanus and whooping cough. The company has also allegedly faked data for about 113,000 doses of human rabies vaccine.

A blockchain is a secure database that’s stored in a distributed set of computers. Every addition to the database must be digitally signed, making clear who’s changing what and when.

To ensure that only authorized users have access to the information, blockchains use cryptography-based digital signatures that verify identities. A user signs transactions with a “private key,” which is generated when an an account is created. A private key typically is a long and random alphanumeric code, known only to the person who controls the account.

Related: US health care companies begin exploring blockchain technologies

Using complicated algorithms, blockchains also create “public keys” from private keys. Public keys are known to the public and make it possible to share information. For instance, a bitcoin wallet address is a public key. Any bitcoin user can send payments to that address. However, only the person with the private key can spend the bitcoin.

From researching blockchain and China’s internet control measures, I can see that blockchain systems’ features are in conflict with the goals of the Chinese Communist Party. Truly decentralized blockchains will challenge the ability of authoritarian nations to maintain a tight grip over their populations.

Blockchain’s censorship-resistance features

Blockchain makes censorship extremely difficult.

Yue Xin’s letter, which was written in English and Chinese, and the story about the inferior vaccines have been inserted into the metadata of transactions in the Ethereum blockchain. Each transaction cost a few cents.

Since Ethereum transactions are permanent and public, anyone can read the letter. The posts cannot be tampered with. Since they are distributed among many computers in decentralized networks, it is not possible for Chinese internet censors to pressure any company to remove them.

Related: Mining bitcoin uses more energy than mining gold 

The Chinese government has been alarmed about blockchain censorship resistance. Starting in February, a new regulation of the Cyberspace Administration of China requires users to provide real names as well as national ID card numbers or mobile phones to use blockchains. Law enforcement must be able to access data posted on the blockchain when necessary. Blockchain service providers are required to keep relevant records about transactions and other relevant information and report illegal use to authorities. They also need to prevent the production, duplication, publication and dissemination of contents that are banned by Chinese laws.

According to the new regulation, blockchain services are also required to remove “illegal information” quickly to stop it from spreading. This requirement is puzzling because, in commonly understood blockchains, information stored is immutable and thus cannot be removed.

about a dozen bitcoin buttons in a pile buttons are seen displayed on the floor of the Consensus 2018 blockchain technology conference in New York City, New York, US, May 16, 2018. 



Mike Segar/File Photo/Reuters

Blockchains with Chinese characteristics

The Chinese strategy toward modern technology is to balance economic modernization and political control.

According to the World Economic Forum, blockchain is among six computing “mega-trends” that are likely to shape the world in the next decade. The Chinese government hopes that blockchain can address the diverse economic and social problems China faces, such as insurance fraud, environmental pollution and food safety.

Related: In Estonia, almost everything — from voting to updating medical records — can be done online 

The Chinese government is against truly decentralized blockchain systems such as bitcoin, which relies on users, also known as “nodes” or “peers,” competing to verify transactions. At least tens of thousands of computers from all over the world are connected at any point of time in the bitcoin network.

The former head of the People’s Bank of China’s digital currency research institute, Yao Qian, argued against the need for community consensus in which all users engage in transactions and governance related decisions. He favored a multi-center system, in which consensus is managed by several main nodes. Intervention can be applied in case of emergency. If needed, data can be rolled back, and transactions can be reversed. The system can even be shut down.

China has been the first nation to rank blockchains. Most blockchains that rank high are developed in China or have strong Chinese connections. It is easier for the government to access and control such blockchains. It is impossible for a Chinese blockchain company to operate and succeed in China without helping the government to achieve its censorship goals.

The blockchain most favored by the Chinese government, EOS, uses a model where users vote for representatives. Only the representatives verify transactions and make decisions regarding system updates. All transactions and governance decisions in EOS are processed and approved by only 21 main nodes, known as supernodes. Twelve of the EOS supernodes are in China. This makes it easier for the government to control blockchains, since the penalty of noncompliance with Chinese regulations is high for China-based supernodes.

The third-ranked blockchain, Ontology, and the seventh, Neo, have smaller numbers of main nodes: seven each. Censorship can be easily enforced in these blockchain thanks to small numbers of main nodes, mainly in China, involved in transactions and governance decisions.

Struggle for control

China’s approach to blockchain regulation reflects the tension it faces between using modern technologies to maintain control and using them to stimulate economic growth. The Chinese government wouldn’t allow blockchain implementation without significant modification. Blockchain applications modified to satisfy China’s have lost fundamental elements of the original technology.

Related: This Google engineer was asked to create a censored version of Google News for China. He refused. 

The new laws, combined with the Chinese government’s indication of its favorite blockchains, could constrain activists’ ability to use blockchains to fight censorship. For instance, the supernodes of EOS froze accounts associated with email scams and stopped them from making transactions. It also reversed transactions that were previously confirmed.

These examples illustrate that blockchains are being developed that help suppress contents that are objectionable to the Chinese government. Activists who are vocal against the Chinese government may also be barred from using some blockchains, such as Neo. In this way, China could also emerge as a role model for other authoritarian regimes in developing censorship-enabled blockchain solutions.The Conversation

Nir Kshetri, Professor of Management, University of North Carolina – Greensboro

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate change: Obsession with plastic pollution distracts attention from bigger environmental challenges

Feb 22, 2019


By now, most of us have heard that the use of plastics is a big issue for the environment. Partly fuelled by the success of the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, people are more aware than ever before about the dangers to wildlife caused by plastic pollution — as well as the impact it can have on human health — with industries promising money to tackle the issue.

Single-use plastics are now high on the agenda — with many people trying to do their bit to reduce usage. But what if all of this just provides a convenient distraction from some of the more serious environmental issues? In our new article in the journal Marine Policy we argue plastic pollution — or more accurately the response of governments and industry to addressing plastic pollution — provides a “convenient truth” that distracts from addressing the real environmental threats such as climate change.

Related: UN compact recognizes climate change as driver of migration for first time

Yes, we know plastic can entangle birds, fish and marine mammals — which can starve after filling their stomachs with plastics, and yet there are no conclusive studies on population-level effects of plastic pollution. Studies on the toxicity effects, especially to humans are often overplayed. Research shows, for example, that plastic is not as great a threat to oceans as climate change or over-fishing.

Read more: Plastics in oceans are mounting, but evidence on harm is surprisingly weak

More easily fixed?

Taking a stand against plastic — by carrying reusable coffee cups, or eating in restaurant chains where only paper straws are provided — is the classic neoliberal response. Consumers drive markets, and consumer choices will, therefore, create change in the industry.

Alternative products can often have different, but equally severe environmental problems. And the benefits of these small-scale consumer-driven changes are often minor. Take, for example, energy-efficient light bulbs — in practice, using these has been shown to have very little effect on a person’s overall carbon footprint.

But by making these small changes, plastic still appears to be an issue we can address. The Ocean Cleanup of plastic pollution — which aims to sieve plastic out of the sea — is a classic example. Despite many scientists’ misgivings about the project and its recent failed attempts to collect plastic, the project is still attractive to many as it allows us to tackle the issue without having to make any major lifestyle changes.

Related: Scientists say 25 years left to fight climate change

The real issue

That’s not to say plastic pollution isn’t a problem, rather there are much bigger problems facing the world we live in — specifically climate change.

In October last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced a report detailing drastic action needed to limit global warming to 1.5˚Celsius. Much of the news focused on what individuals could do to reduce their carbon footprint — although some articles did also indicate the need for collective action.

Despite the importance of this message, environmental news has been dominated by the issues of plastic pollution. So it’s not surprising that so many people think ocean plastics are the most serious environmental threat to the planet. But this is not the case. In 2009, the concept of planetary boundaries was introduced to indicate safe operating limits for the Earth from a number of environmental threats.

Three boundaries were shown to be exceeded: biodiversity loss, nitrogen flows and climate change. Climate change and biodiversity loss are also considered core planetary boundaries meaning if they are exceeded for a prolonged time, they can shift the planet into new, less hospitable, stable states.

These “clear and present dangers” of climate change and biodiversity loss could undermine the capacity of our planet to support over seven billion people — with the loss of homes, food sources and livelihoods. It could lead to major disruptions of our ways of life — by making many areas uninhabitable due to increased temperatures and rising sea levels. These changes could start to happen within the current century.

planetary boundaries chart

Planetary boundaries. The green circle indicates a safe operating space. Three boundaries have been greatly exceeded.


Felix Mueller

Lifestyle overhaul

This is not to distract from the fact that some significant steps have been taken to help the planet environmentally by reducing plastic waste. But it is important not to forget the need for large-scale systemic changes needed internationally to tackle all environmental concerns. This includes longer-term and more effective solutions to the plastic problem — but also extending to more radical large-scale initiatives to reduce consumption, decarbonize economies and move beyond materialism as the basis for our well-being.

Related: Why stop at plastic bags and straws? The case for a global treaty banning most single-use plastics

The focus needs to be on making the way we live more sustainable by questioning our overly consumerist lifestyles that are at the root of major challenges such as climate change, rather than a narrower focus on sustainable consumer choices — such as buying our takeaway coffee in a reusable cup. We must reform the way we live rather than tweak the choices we make.

There is a narrow window of opportunity to address the critical challenge of, in particular, climate change. And failure to do so could lead to massive systemic impacts to the Earth’s capacity to support life — particularly the human race. Now is not the time to be distracted by the convenient truth of plastic pollution, as the relatively minor threats they post are eclipsed by the global systemic threats of climate change.

Rick Stafford is a professor of marine biology and conservation at the Bournemouth UniversityPeter JS Jones is a reader in environmental governance at UCL.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Trump's wall will harm wildlife along the US southern border, say environmental experts

Feb 20, 2019 10:10


A wall along the southern border of the United States will disturb critical wildlife habitats, block migration routes for animals already stressed by climate change and could possibly lead to extinction for some rare and endangered species, according to environmental experts.

A federal appeals court in California recently ruled that the Trump administration is within its rights to disregard dozens of environmental laws in order to fast-track the wall, and the Supreme Court has declined to hear a challenge from environmental groups, so preventing the wall’s predicted impacts will be difficult.

Related: US states sue Trump administration in showdown over border wall funds

“Nature has no borders. ... All of the plants and animals and places exist in this region regardless of the borders, regardless of the political boundaries and straight lines that humans like to set.”

Sergio Avila, biologist and outdoors coordinator, Sierra Club

For Sergio Avila, a biologist and outdoors coordinator for the Sierra Club, this is a tragic situation.

“Nature has no borders,” he said. “All of the plants and animals and places exist in this region regardless of the borders, regardless of the political boundaries and straight lines that humans like to set.”

The wall would block the migration path of many species, including the jaguar, the animal Avila studies most closely. Jaguars are the third-largest species of cat in the world, after Siberian tigers and African lions. They live not only in the jungles of the Amazon, but also in the borderlands of Arizona and New Mexico. Blocking their migration prevents them from living their normal life cycle, Avila says.

“It doesn't matter if these jaguars are north or south of the border. They are still blocked. They cannot reach food, they cannot reach water and they cannot reach mates [to create] future generations.”

Sergio Avila, biologist and outdoors coordinator, Sierra Club

“This is part of their territory. This is part of their distribution range,” Avila said. “It doesn't matter if these jaguars are north or south of the border. They are still blocked. They cannot reach food, they cannot reach water and they cannot reach mates [to create] future generations.”

The jaguar and other animals along the southern border are also trying to move as a way to adapt to climate change. “Some of these animals might be moving from warmer areas to cooler areas, either by going from the south to the north or from a lower elevation to higher elevation areas,” he said. “So, it's very important that we acknowledge that the border barriers are compounding the impacts of climate change by not allowing animals to move freely and to adapt and reach water or food or cooler places where they can survive.”

The list of species Avila worries about is long: The bighorn sheep in the mountains of California; the pronghorn antelope in the deserts of Arizona; the ancient herd of bison that travels back and forth between New Mexico and Chihuahua; the butterflies at the National Butterfly Center that migrate between Canada and Mexico and will no longer be able to find their usual resting place. The list goes on.

Related: If Trump wants a wall, eminent domain is the final frontier

And, of course, Avila worries about the wall’s impact on the human population that enjoys the public lands and national parks and can learn about connections to nature.

Even some fish are being affected. In the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, a small area of public land has been set aside to protect the last numbers of a couple of species of desert fish. These fish are an endemic species, meaning they live only in one place. The Fish and Wildlife Service created the refuge to protect the water, the water quality and the habitat that these fish enjoy in that area.

The Department of Homeland Security diverted a small section of the creek where these fish live. By blocking the water, the Department of Homeland Security created flooding that has contaminated their habitat. They also contaminated the fish habitat by pouring concrete inside the creek.

“It is crazy, not only for the life of these fish, but for the efforts that government and nongovernment agencies have put into a region that is so rich, biologically,” Avila said. “It is damaging to the habitat of the fish, but it's also damaging to the local work and the years of outreach and education that a lot of these public officials have conducted down here.”

Avila fears that some endangered species might go extinct as a result of a proposed border wall. “I think it's likely, and I think it's very sad because we're seeing it with our own eyes,” he said. “The solution is in our hands, and yet humans are not stepping up to do enough about it.”

Related: Trump signed an order for the wall 2 years ago. The US just ended the longest shutdown ever over it.

Despite all the political, social and environmental challenges, Avila wants people to remain positive.

“People need to know that the Mexican gray wolves, the jaguars and the ocelots exist out there, that they are prevailing in spite of all this infrastructure; that animals are adapting to climate change; that water is still running in these rivers; that saguaros are still standing in the Sonoran desert. If we keep those images alive and we know that those species are there, let's grab that hope and that energy to share our voices and speak on behalf of them,” he said. 

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Next: The ‘real’ border crisis: The US immigration system isn’t built for kids and families

A climate migration crisis is escalating in Bangladesh

Feb 20, 2019 10:54


Climate disruption is forcing entire communities from their homes across the globe, and perhaps no population is more imperiled than the people of Bangladesh.

“Bangladesh is one of the world's most vulnerable countries to climate change, and it's experiencing a pretty wide range of impacts."

Tim McDonnell, writer, National Geographic

“Bangladesh is one of the world's most vulnerable countries to climate change, and it's experiencing a pretty wide range of impacts,” said National Geographic writer Tim McDonnell, who recently wrote about his travels there.

Nearly 80 percent of Bangladesh sits in a flood plain, near the rising seas. Ice melting in the Himalayas is coming down through its rivers, increasing the volume of water and leading to increased riverbank erosion. Saltwater intrusion from the sea level rise is poisoning crops and fishing areas. And even while annual tropical storms and cyclones continue to hit Bangladesh, the northern part of the country is experiencing drought.

Related: UN compact recognizes climate change as driver of migration for first time

Some of these events are not new, McDonnell points out. “People here have been living with environmental catastrophe for generations and generations,” he said. What’s new is the frequency of the events and the scale of their impact.

Because Bangladesh is such a densely populated country, these events often lead to people being displaced in one way or another. In this respect, McDonnell believes, the country may be the “canary in the coal mine” for the problems facing civilization as climate disruption accelerates.

“All the problems facing Bangladesh are prompting human migration. ... When you look at Bangladesh, you see what happens when you have this kind of unprecedented level of human mobility. ... It really encapsulates the challenges lots of countries are going to face moving forward.”

Tim McDonnell, writer, National Geographic

“All the problems facing Bangladesh are prompting human migration,” McDonnell explained. “When you look at Bangladesh, you see what happens when you have this kind of unprecedented level of human mobility. You have unchecked, rampant urbanization; you have risk for all sorts of vulnerabilities — health problems, human trafficking … It really encapsulates the challenges lots of countries are going to face moving forward.”

Related: Rohingya survivors face a new indignity: Banishment to a half-sunken island

Many Bangladeshis affected by climate disruption are moving to Dhaka, the capital city, but “the city is out of its depth,” McDonnell said. “I spoke to everyone from migrants themselves to scientists to urban planners — a really broad range of people who are involved in this space — and there was pretty much universal agreement that the city is beyond its capacity.”

Binary Data2019-2-26-dhakaslum

Arial view of the Korail slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 31, 2019. 


Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

Thousands of people arrive in Dhaka every day. Not all of them are climate change migrants, McDonnell notes, but many of them are.

“Forty percent of the city's population lives in slum areas,” he added. “The city has very little in the way of affordable housing … People are looking for any place they can stay, but it's all happening in a helter-skelter way that creates a lot of problems. Security, health, utilities, basic living conditions — all of these things are really negatively affected when you have so many people coming in, in such an unplanned way.”

In some cases, Bangladesh faces a double crisis, McDonnell says. Rohingya refugees, for example, who are fleeing into Bangladesh from persecution in Myanmar are moving into areas that are highly exposed to climate change.

Related: Monsoon season ill exacerbate a public health crisis in Rohingya refugee camps

“I think this is something that really needs to be looked at closely all around the world,” McDonnell said. “Not only how climate change is prompting migration or refugee crises, but [how it] is creating additional problems for migrants or refugees who move because of violence or other forms of persecution, and then are exposed to climate change impacts in the place where they arrive.”

High rates of population growth in Bangladesh exacerbate all of its problems. More and more people are exposed to environmental catastrophes, which leads to increased levels of displacement.

A local leader in one of the areas McDonnell visited told him the loss of people in coastal communities “leaves a hole in the heart of the village.” Many people live with the emotional strain of losing a family member to migration and are starting to lose faith in their ability to maintain a life in a place they have called home for generations.

“I didn't meet a single person who said, ‘I'm really excited to get to go try my luck in Dhaka,’” McDonnell said. “This is always a very painful choice for people. But at the same time, I found that people in Bangladesh were really up for trying to adapt the best they can. One scientist I interviewed said Bangladesh might be one of the world's most vulnerable countries to climate change, but it's also one of the most ready to adapt.”

Nevertheless, the World Bank predicts more than 13 million people will become climate migrants in Bangladesh by the year 2050 — an overwhelming number.

“That's why it's so important at this stage for world leaders to become more serious about dealing with this climate change and migration nexus,” McDonnell said. It means “figuring out ways to provide safe passage for people. Getting more serious about what this crisis is going to look like and what we can do to try to ease life for people who are affected by this.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Antarctica Dispatch 4: Fieldwork begins, cue the seals

Feb 18, 2019 6:35


How quickly will Antarctica’s massive Thwaites Glacier melt, and what will that mean for global sea levels and coastal cities? Researchers are sailing toward Thwaites this month on the first leg of a five-year, international effort to try to answer that pressing question, and along the way they’re enlisting local seals as research assistants.

The World’s Carolyn Beeler is along for the ride and brings us the latest from the excursion.

seal tagging

The scientists are sailing south toward Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier on the icebreaker known as the Nathaniel B. Palmer. The expedition is part of a five-year, international effort to try to determine how fast the massive glacier is melting as the planet warms and what that will mean for global sea level rise over the next century.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

seal tagging

A Zodiac boat carries the researchers from the Nathaniel B. Palmer to the Schaefer Islands in search of seals for tagging.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 


Under the watchful eyes of local penguins, Bastien Queste, of the University of East Anglia, and Lars Boehme, of the University of St. Andrews, both in the UK, catch the seal they spotted before anesthetizing her to affix sensors to her head. The sensors will measure depth, temperature and salinity for roughly a year as the seal swims in the water around the Thwaites Glacier.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 


Sensor attached, the seal is ready to resume its normal life. The instruments are part of a range of methods and tools researchers are using to learn more about how changes in the water off West Antarctica may be melting the Thwaites Glacier.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Seal work done under permit number FCO UK No. 29/2018.


Antarctica Dispatch 3: The ship's first encounters with icebergs

Antarctica Dispatch 2: Crossing the Drake Passage

Antarctica Dispatch 1: Gearing up and shipping out

What Thwaites Glacier can tell us about the future of West Antarctica

Dispatch 3: The ship's first encounters with icebergs

Feb 15, 2019


The World’s Carolyn Beeler is on a ship bound for Antarctica on an expedition looking into the fate of one of the frozen continent's biggest glaciers. What they learn could tell us a lot about how quickly sea levels around the world will rise.

It's sobering work, but it does have its moments of just plain joy, like the ship's first encounters with icebergs as it was about to cross the Antarctic Circle.


Waves crash against and smooth the base of the iceberg.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 


Observers reckoned the iceberg to be maybe twice as tall as their ship. The flat top of the tallest point was likely part of the surface of the ice shelf from which the iceberg calved off.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Tall white iceberg recedes to the stern of the Nathaniel B. Palmer.

The iceberg recedes to the stern of the Nathaniel B. Palmer. The ship is on its way to study why and how fast Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier may melt.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Related: Dispatch 1: Gearing up and shipping out and Dispatch 2: Crossing the Drake Passage

Dispatch 1: Gearing up and shipping out

Feb 14, 2019


The icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer is setting out this southern summer on a seven-week scientific expedition to Antarctica’s massive Thwaites Glacier. The voyage marks the beginning of a five-year international effort to try to find out how quickly the glacier may melt in a warming world, and what that could mean for global sea levels.

The World’s Carolyn Beeler is onboard and will be reporting on the expedition. Her first dispatch comes from the port of Punta Arenas, Chile, on the Strait of Magellan.


The icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer, chartered by the US National Science Foundation, is shown. The ship is the length of a football field and dwarfs a nearby cruise ship.     


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Before boarding the Palmer, passengers and crew visit the gear warehouse to get outfitted for the extreme weather that awaits them in Antarctica.

Before boarding the Palmer, passengers and crew visit the gear warehouse to get outfitted for the extreme weather that awaits them in Antarctica.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 


The gear comes only in men’s sizes, so there’s some trial and error for women to get a good fit. All told, Carolyn Beeler was issued three jackets, five pairs of warm or waterproof pants, steel-toed rubber boots, ski goggles, a neck warmer, multiple pairs of gloves and a hat.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

USTED ESTA AQUI-YOU ARE HERE. A map in the port orients visitors. Relevant distance for people headed to the Palmer: Antarctica, 3,838 km, or roughly 2,400 miles.

Usted esta aqui means "you are here." That's what the marker at the bottom of this booth says. The map in the port orients visitors, showing the relevant distance for people headed to the Palmer: Antarctica, 3,838 km, or roughly 2,400 miles.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Related: What Thwaites Glacier can tell us about the future of West Antarctica

Not a mannequin. The World's Carolyn Beeler in her more-or-less well-fitting parka on the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer in Punta Arenas.

Not a mannequin. The World's Carolyn Beeler is pictured in her more-or-less well-fitting parka on the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer in Punta Arenas, Chile. 


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

The Nathaniel B. Palmer, underway from Punta Arenas, Chile.

The Nathaniel B. Palmer is underway from Punta Arenas, Chile.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Next up: Dispatch 2: Crossing the Drake Passage

A new book suggests AI and robots will take jobs — but make the world better

Feb 13, 2019


Richard Baldwin's newest book "The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics, and the Future of Work" has some dire predictions.

"What's going to happen with this globalization and service sector automation, is many tasks — chores that people do now — will be done either remotely or automatedly and we will need fewer people to do the same amount of work," Baldwin told The World. "So there will be a displacement of jobs."

But Baldwin, a professor of international economics at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and the author of "The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalisation," says there is hope at the end of the process.  

"It's just that we have to get from here to there," he said. 

Related: Seniors are the evangelists of Finland's new AI strategy

Baldwin talked through some of the major themes of his book with The World's Marco Werman. 

Computer technology has advanced at an incredibly rapid rate, even in just a few years. 

The front cover for Credit:

Courtesy Richard Baldwin

"Machines now — I mean computers, can see — they can talk," he said. "They can listen. They can translate, they can generate outputs, they can understand subtle patterns and they couldn't do that in 2015."Marco Werman: So AI's going to get more muscular. You're also seeing platforms, I gather, like eBay and Alibaba turning into places where you don't just purchase goods and stuff. You also buy skilled professional services. What does that look like and do you see this happening already?

Oh yes. So Upwork — that's the largest one. It went public last year. And what they do, like eBay but for services, they help people who want to hire, say, for example, a logo designer or a translator or copyeditor, they help them find them somewhere in the world, pay them, manage them and have the whole product delivered. This is services.

Maybe the easiest way to think about it is freelancing gone global. Now, the way you can see this is already done in a big way is in industries like web development, where it's very common that a coordinator will get online people sitting in different countries — somebody doing the coding, somebody doing the user experience, somebody doing the graphic designs — and they're on the screen all day long working in some sort of virtual office, producing a really top quality website very, very quickly and for much less money than if it all had to be done in California or Germany or someplace like that. And I'm just projecting that this will spread to many other activities because ultimately there's a huge cost savings to be made by hiring lower-cost foreign service providers.

It will open up this international wage competition that we've never really seen before in the service sector. What's going to happen with this globalization and service sector automation, is many tasks — chores that people do now — will be done either remotely or automatedly and we will need fewer people to do the same amount of work. So there will be a displacement of jobs. That's the process. It's not like all of a sudden, an automated robot will take over the job of, say, a journalist like yourself or a professor like me.

You write about what some countries are doing to plan for this scenario. Denmark — what are they doing to prepare?

So the Danish model is they let firms hire and fire freely, whatever you want. But then the government stands ready to do whatever is necessary to get the displaced worker a new job. If they have to move cities, they give them support for that, if they need some income support in the meantime, they do that. Retraining, looking after the workers not the jobs. And it's one of the reasons why, in Denmark, they're willing to accept globalization and automation. They embrace it, in fact, because they know eventually everybody will have a fighting chance of winning — it won't just always be the displaced workers paying the adjustment costs.

Related: Saudi Arabia has a new citizen: Sophia the robot. But what does that even mean?

That suggests some progress, but I've got to say it's easy to imagine the dystopian scenario where humans are figuratively and literally prisoners of robots. One of the arguments you make, is that ultimately you think this can all be a good thing for society. So, how and why?

I'm a pessimist in the short run and an optimist in the long run. We will do the things that artificial intelligence and tele-migrants can't do. AI is very bad at the most human skills. So dealing with unknown situations, managing people, motivating people, ethics, creativity. Those are things that computers have trouble doing and so, our jobs of the future will be filled with those more human tasks. So I view this AI and the tele-migration as a good thing once we can get through the transition. People's jobs will be more interesting because all the robotic repetitive stuff will be done by machines. Things that can be done remotely will be done remotely and allow us to do things where we actually have to be together. So, ultimately, I think it will be a very, very good thing.

It's just we have to get from here to there.

Related: Meet Pegg, a gender-neutral robot assistant

In that transition, I can imagine what you're predicting could well make a lot of powerful people unhappy. Do you see governments falling because of this upheaval or are governments more likely to take advantage of the upheaval for their own power?

Well, I think the move for populism is no way near over. We're in a situation where it's almost like a powderkeg. People are feeling fragility and vulnerability and anger from the last wave of globalization and automation. And into this, we're going to throw this explosive pace of digital technology which will bring globalization and automation to a whole new set of people who've never seen it before — white-collar workers, professional workers — and I think they will be angry and wouldn't be surprised if we get a backlash that has a political element to it. Who knows exactly what the backlash will be against, but the common denominator of all this is digital technology.

Read an excerpt from "The Globotics Upheaval" 

From THE GLOBOTICS UPHEAVAL: Globalization, Robotics, and the Future of Work by Richard Baldwin. Copyright © 2019 by Richard Baldwin and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Architecture's 'Lego' trend: Build rooms halfway across the world, then snap together

Feb 12, 2019 4:52


In the age of hyperglobalization, it seems that pretty much anything can be outsourced. Well, not anything. I mean, you couldn’t build an American hotel or apartment building in China or Eastern Europe, right?

In the city of Newton, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, large boxes — 65 feet long and 13 feet wide — dangle in the air from a 600-ton crane. They’re being stacked on top of each other like Legos.

“They fit together like Lego blocks.”

Architect Arthur Klipfel

“They fit together like Lego blocks,” said architect Arthur Klipfel, who is developing the 68-unit apartment complex. "One box has the bedroom in it. The other box has a living-dining-kitchen in it."

Workers use ropes to help guide a modular unit shown suspended in air by a crane.

Workers help guide a modular unit onto an apartment complex under construction in Newton, Massachusetts.


Diego Lopez/The World

Klipfel also designed the “modulars” — independent pieces that are fitted together to form a building. His company, Green Staxx, allows architects to choose from his library of more than 20 standardized boxes.

“The boxes can come with the kitchen cabinets, the flooring, all the bathroom fixtures, the prime coat of paint, the electrical,” said Gwen Noyes, Green Staxx’s chief operating officer and Klipfel’s spouse.

For the project in Newton, the modular work was done 350 miles north, in a Québec factory operated by RCM Group. Here's a company video explaining how RCM builds modulars.

“[Construction workers are] working in a controlled environment, ” Noyes said. "The factory is beautiful. They have year-round work, and they don't have to deal with the weather."

Gwen Noyes is shown wearing a gold-colored hard hat with her named on the back while taking a photo.

Gwen Noyes, Green Staxx’s chief operating officer, takes a photo of a modular unit being lowered onto an apartment complex under development in Newton, Massachusetts.


Steven Davy/The World

While Noyes is happy with her Canadian partners, she’d also like to have more options to build closer to their projects. Right now, however, there just aren’t modular factories nearby that can accommodate the scale of the Newton project. And so, the finished boxes are trucked down through Canada, through the woods of Maine, then on to eastern Massachusetts.

There are lots of variables affecting cost. The developers can pay rural Canadian carpenters somewhat less than Boston-area workers. But delays on the roads and in staging yards can add up if workers and equipment are left waiting at the job site. 

But the real cost savings to building a building off-site in a Canadian factory is speed.

"If a project saves four months, you're saving an incredible amount of money," Klipfel said. 

Noyes and Klipfel see factory-built modulars as an affordable, quick solution to housing shortages in Boston and cities across the globe. Their prefabricated designs are also built green, with insulation and energy-efficient heating and cooling built in.

A worker is shown from below standing on an orange platform of a hydraulic crane.

A worker stands on the platform of a hydraulic crane during the construction of a modular apartment building.


Steven Davy/The World

Modulars have been around since after World War II. But with improved technology and logistics, developers are taking the idea more seriously.

“It’s absolutely a trend,” said Stephani Robson, a senior lecturer at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. “In fact, I think it’s going to be the way many hotels will be built going forward.”

Robson points to a hip, Dutch boutique hotel brand, citizenM, which recently opened a property in New York. The rooms were constructed in Poland.

“Building modular helps us to create a very constant quality of rooms,” said Maarten de Geus, the project architect for citizenM’s hotels. 

In Poland, the modular boxes are fitted with pretty much everything, including mattresses and television, said de Geus, who is with Dutch firm Concrete.

Here’s one limitation though: size.

“CitizenM has a very small bedroom, it’s just the width of a bed,” de Geus said. “It really is a room within the size of a sea container.”

Visualize that: You’re spending the night in a shipping container, but with a bed, desk and bathroom. (You have to climb off the foot of the bed; the sides touch the walls.) The rooms do look sleek and modern — and comfortable — but may not be for everyone.

A modular apartment unit from CitizenM is shown on a factory floor being moved using a forklift.

A modular apartment unit from citizenM is moved using a forklift.


Courtesy of Richard Powers/Concrete Architectural Associates and citizenM

That’s one major limitation with most modular buildings — architects just can’t get that creative.

“The issue is that the pieces themselves have to conform to whatever the transportation infrastructure can handle,” Robson said. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t see some innovations where we can build a larger guest room out of multiple components.” 

Another limitation is distance. One architect I spoke with said when you’re building rooms in factories halfway across the globe, you just can’t keep a close eye on quality controls, and that can lead to serious issues. For example, if a small plumbing error is made with a hotel room built offsite in a faraway factory, the mistake can be magnified 300 times before it’s corrected. 

But this story isn’t just about architectural innovation; it’s also about jobs that are shifting across the globe. On the West Coast of the US, some modular units are being constructed in China.  

“We know there’s no stopping progress,” said Justin Weidner, chief of staff at the Carpenters Union, which has 500,000 members in the US and Canada. “[But] traditionally this has been a trade and a career where you didn’t have to worry about offshoring. But with modular construction, that’s definitely a concern. However, it’s coming. People are always looking for ways to be more efficient and productive, and this is one of the ways they’re using.”

And Weidner also sees opportunity — more modulars means more construction. And the Carpenters Union has already forged relationships with some factories building them.

“There will be lots of jobs, they’ll just happen to be in factories instead of on job sites,” Robson said.

The question is: Where will those jobs be? For a new Boston hotel, for example, will the rooms be built in Poland or New England?

Venomous yellow scorpions are moving into Brazil’s big cities – and the infestation may be unstoppable

Feb 11, 2019


I live in São Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil, home to some 12 million people — 20 million if you count the outskirts, which have been sprawling for three decades.

That makes it a good place to observe the phenomenon I research: complex social problems. In academia, this concept refers to problems like corruption, crime and traffic — problems that, in practice, cannot be solved. They must simply be mitigated or managed.

São Paulo is a dense city, with scarce green space and little to no animal life — squirrels, no raccoons, not even a lot of birds. So I was astonished when, in January, I learned that scorpions had infested my neighborhood.

It turns out, people across the city and São Paulo state were having the same problem with these dangerous, venomous bugs. Statewide, scorpion stings have increased threefold over the last two decades.

Four kinds of scorpion live across Brazil, but historically only in rural areas. São Paulo residents are urbanites. We have conquered nature — or so we thought.

A dense cityscape at night

The city of Sao Paulo has a sprawling metropolitan area of nearly 20 million people, Brazil, June 8, 2017.


Nacho Doce/Reuters

Brazil’s urban scorpions

Brazil’s scorpion infestation is the perfect example of how unpredictable modern life has become. It is a hallmark of what those of us in the complex problems field call a “VUCA” world — a world that’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Some 2.5 billion people worldwide, from Mexico to Russia, live with scorpions, which generally prefer hot and dry habitats.

But Brazil’s cities also provide an excellent habitat for scorpions, experts say. They offer shelter in sewage networks, plenty of water and food in the garbage that goes uncollected, and no natural predators.

Scorpions, like the cockroaches they feast on, are an incredibly adaptable species. As the weather in Brazil gets hotter due to climate change, scorpions are spreading across the country — including into its colder southern states that rarely, if ever, had reports of scorpions prior to this millennium.

The number of people stung by scorpions across Brazil has risen from 12,000 in 2000 to 140,000 last year, according to the health ministry.

Most scorpion stings are extremely painful but not fatal. For children, however, they are dangerous and require urgent medical attention. Eighty-eight people died from their wounds in 2017, Brazil’s O Globo newspaper reports, highlighting the lack of adequate medicare care available in small towns. Many of the dead are children.

In Americana, a city with about 200,000 inhabitants in São Paulo state, teams that perform night searches for scorpions captured more than 13,000 last year — that’s the equivalent of one scorpion for every 15 people.

Worse yet, the species terrorizing Brazilians is the highly dangerous yellow scorpion, or tityus serrulatus. It reproduces through the miracle of parthenogenesis, meaning a female scorpion simply generates copies of herself twice a year — no male participation required.

Each instance of parthenogenesis can spawn up to 20 to 30 baby scorpions. Though most will die in their first days and weeks of life, ridding Brazilian cities of scorpions would be a herculean, if not downright impossible, task.

Wicked problems in a crazy world

Brazil’s urban scorpion infestation is a classic “wicked problem.”

This term, first used in 1973 by design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, refers to enormous social or cultural problems like poverty and war — problems with no simple or definitive solution, and which arise at the intersection of other problems.

Wicked problems are a symptom of numerous other related problems, both natural and human-made. In this case, Brazil’s urban scorpion infestation is the result of poor garbage management, inadequate sanitation, rapid urbanization and a changing climate.

It is likely too late to stop the spread of scorpions across Brazilian cities.

In a VUCA world, my academic research and other problem-solving studies show, wicked problems should be identified and confronted as soon as possible, using an array of responses.

In a VUCA world, the more resources you throw at problems, the better. That could mean everything from public awareness campaigns that educate Brazilians about scorpions to exterminator task forces working to control their population in urban areas. Scientists should be involved. Brazil’s national public health system will need to adapt to this new threat.

Brazil’s government appears to be ill-equipped to tackle the scorpion infestation.

Despite dogged press coverage, federal health officials have barely spoken publicly about Brazil’s urban scorpion problem. And, beyond some rather tepid national and state-level efforts to train health officials in scorpion risk, authorities seem to have no plan for fighting the infestation at the epidemic level it is heading towards.

Nor are cities likely to see any federal money dedicated to fighting this scorpion infestation: Brazil has been in a deep recession since 2015, and public health budgets have been slashed.

Venomous yellow scorpions, I fear, have already claimed their place alongside violent crimebrutal traffic and other chronic problems that urbanites in Brazil must cope with daily.

Hamilton Coimbra Carvalho, Researcher in Complex Social Problems, Universidade de Sao Paulo

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dispatch 2: Crossing the Drake Passage

Feb 11, 2019


The World’s Carolyn Beeler is riding along on a scientific expedition to explore the effects of climate change on the vulnerable Antarctic ice sheet.

But to get there, the research ship — a National Science Foundation-chartered icebreaker called the Nathaniel B. Palmer — first has to cross one of the roughest and most treacherous stretches of ocean in the world — the Drake Passage, between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to the east and west, and the tips of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula to the north and south. It makes life onboard challenging — for first-timers and veterans alike.

Related: What Thwaites Glacier can tell us about the future of West Antarctica

Seasickness patches, acupressure wristbands and crystallized ginger are shown on a table.

To help ward off seasickness on the rough crossing, Carolyn boarded the Nathaniel B. Palmer armed with seasickness patches, acupressure wristbands, bags of crystallized ginger and instructions to keep her eyes firmly on the horizon as much as possible. The multipronged strategy seems to have helped. Three days out, she says, they’re “keeping my stomach remarkably happy.”    


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Waves are shown crashing against the side of the ship and spilling water on to the deck.

Huge waves crash up onto the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer as it crosses the Drake Passage.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Every couple seconds, gravity pulls everyone in a different direction on the ship. The hallways run uphill one second and downhill the next. Doors fly open as soon as you turn the handle, or become heavy as lead. Sometimes, you feel like you're being pressed into the floor.

Computers are lashed down aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer...

Computers, heavy equipment and many other things are lashed or bolted down aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer ... 


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Inside the ship, desk chairs are shown knocked over on their side.

... But 20-foot swells take their toll on everything else onboard that can move.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Related: An unexpected challenge on Antarctica: Measuring snowfall


Condiments knocked askew in the Palmer’s dining room hint at sometimes bigger mayhem as the ship pitches and rolls. “We had a lot of things crash to the floor today,” said Chef Julian Isaacs a few days into the crossing to Antarctica. “Mainly utensils and stuff like that… we were quick to pick them up, throw them in the sink, secure them real quick.”


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

How to build a countrywide AI strategy? Finland is turning its seniors into evangelists.

Feb 8, 2019


In many ways, Hely Lyly is your typical grandma. She's retired, sings in a chorus, takes fitness classes, participates in a book club and spends a good chunk of her day taking care of her grandchildren.

These days, though, Lyly, 68, has a new gig — as an artificial intelligence evangelist.

“AI is now my new hobby,” Lyly said, chuckling.

Related: Meet Pegg, a gender-neutral robot assistant

Lyly is one of nearly 100 senior volunteers mentoring their peers on the fundamentals of AI. The mentorship program is just one component of Finland’s national AI strategy, which focuses heavily on getting Finns without a technical or computer science background comfortable with AI.


Seniors attend a training on AI in Finland. The Nordic country is focusing on educating its citizens, and empowering them to participate in discussions that will shape the country's policies in the future.


Credit Pauli Isoaho

Back in October 2017, Finland became the first European country to release a national AI strategy. It plans to release its final report in March of this year. 

Related: In Finnish experiment, robots teach language and math classes

To become an AI evangelist, Lyly had to go through a 12-week training that included lessons on the basics of AI, the ethics of AI — even some programming.

“I really learned that AI can help — especially seniors — a lot.”

“I really learned that AI can help — especially seniors — a lot,” Lyly said. “Because with age, different kinds of limitations — when it comes to physical things like vision or hearing problems — start to increase.”

There are apps and gadgets powered by AI that alleviate those problems, Lyly said, including digital assistants like Siri and Alexa, as well as certain navigation and translation apps. To get that message out, Lyly and her cohort have been visiting community centers, public libraries and other spaces where seniors tend to congregate.

Related: What can AI learn from non-Western philosophies?

“I think it's really great to have the seniors teaching each other because everybody learns at the same time from each other,” said Taru Tuomola, who works at Leppävaaran Elä ja Asu-Seniorikeskus, a senior community center and living facility in Espoo, Finland.

#seniotekoälymentorit Hely ja Sissi + Vilperi #robo puhumassa #tekoäly ja #robotti asioista. @Omnia_AI_Lab @Omniasome @Uudenmaanliitto #100senioritekoälymentoria #älykäsuusimaa #espoontyöväenopisto

— Pauli Isoaho (@isoahopauli) December 14, 2018

Tuomola described a recent training mentorship session at the facility. It began, she said, with a tai chi lesson from a small robot.

“It brought a lot of joy here. … [The seniors] were very interested and surprised about it,” Tuomola said.

In the hours that followed, seniors also got a chance to familiarize themselves with artificial intelligence and its practical applications.

Lyly says this work has challenged some of her own perceptions about seniors.

“I had a certain bias, I think, before I started to discuss [AI] with seniors. I thought that maybe they don't know that much, but they know. But this is not true. They know a lot.” 

“I had a certain bias, I think, before I started to discuss [AI] with seniors," Lyly said. "I thought that maybe they don't know that much, but they know. But this is not true. They know a lot."

So far, these visits have reached more than 300 seniors in Finland’s Espoo area, according to Omnia AI Lab, the adult education center that trains seniors to become mentors. They’re hoping to soon expand the program nationwide. To facilitate that expansion, Omnia says it’s building an AI showroom truck that will tour around Finland.

Finland knows that when it comes to AI, it can’t compete with China and the US — two countries vying to become global AI superpowers. Instead, the Nordic country is focusing on educating its citizens and empowering them to participate in discussions that will shape the country's policies in the future.

The Finnish government is also challenging at least 1 percent of its population to take a free, online AI introductory course and is working with private companies to get people around the country enrolled.

“We keep citizens at the center … of [our] AI strategy,” Maikki Sipinen, who’s part of a team driving Finland's AI strategy at the Ministry of Economic Affairs, wrote in an email. “While tapping into the potential AI holds, we need to make sure nobody is left behind in this transformation.”


Senior AI mentors meet every monday at Omnia AI Lab and learn to program humanoid robots. 


Courtesy Heidi Rajamäki-Partanen

Lyly agrees.

“My mother is 80 years old, and I have seen how difficult it is to live in this society if you don’t use digital services.” 

“My mother is 80 years old, and I have seen how difficult it is to live in this society if you don’t use digital services,” she said.

Lyly admits she hasn’t been able to get her mother excited about AI.

But she says her own adult kids, and her grandkids, are now turning to her to learn all about AI.

Why stop at plastic bags and straws? The case for a global treaty banning most single-use plastics

Feb 7, 2019


Single-use plastics are a blessing and a curse. They have fueled a revolution in commercial and consumer convenience and improved hygiene standards, but also have saturated the world’s coastlines and clogged landfills. By one estimate, 79 percent of all plastic ever produced is now in a dump, a landfill or the environment, and only 9 percent has been recycled.

This growing legacy poses real risks. Plastic packaging is clogging city sewer systems, leading to flooding. Abandoned plastic goods create breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and can leach toxic additives such as styrene and benzene as they decompose. Single-use plastics are killing birds and harming marine life.

I study international environmental law with a focus on marine ecosystems. In my view, land-based pollution from single-use plastics is a slow-onset disaster that demands a global response.

A riverbank filled with plastic bags

Plastic bag litter along the Jukskei River, Johannesburg, South Africa. 


NJR ZA/Wikimedia Commons

One attractive strategy is pursuing a legally binding phase-out of most single-use plastics at the global level. I believe this approach makes sense because it would build on current national and municipal efforts to eliminate single-use packaging, and would create opportunities for new small and medium-sized businesses to develop more benign substitutes.

Single-use plastic bans

About 112 countries, states and cities around the world have already imposed bans on various single-use plastic goods. Of these measures, 57 are national and 25 are in Africa. And the list of these restrictions continues to grow.

Most of these bans target thin single-use plastic carrier bags or imports of non-biodegradable bags. Some, such as the one in Antigua-Barbuda, include other single-use or problematic items, such as foam coolers and plastic utensils. A few — notably, Kenya’s plastic bag law — impose stiff punishments on violators, including jail time and fines of up to $38,000.

Groups of states are starting to enact regional policies. The East African Legislative Assembly has passed a bill to ban the manufacture, sale, import and use of certain plastic bags across its six member states, with a combined population of approximately 186 million people. And in October 2018 the European Union Parliament approved a ban on a number of single-use plastic items by 2021, along with a requirement to reduce plastic in food packaging by 25 percent by 2025 and cut plastic content in cigarette filters 80 percent by 2030.

Most of these bans are quite new or still being implemented, so there is limited research on how well they work. However, researchers at the United Nations who have reviewed 60 “national bans and levies” estimate that 30 percent of these measures have reduced consumption of plastics.

Plastics manufacturers contend that better recycling is the most effective way to reduce the environmental impact of their products. But many factors make it hard to recycle plastic, from its physical characteristics to insufficient market demand for many types of recycled plastics. In many instances, single-use plastics can only be recycled, optimistically, 10 times before their fibers become too short to be reprocessed.

Lessons from other global bans

Several global bans and product phase-outs offer lessons for a treaty banning single-use plastic goods. The most successful case is the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This treaty phased out production and use of chlorofluorocarbons in a variety of products, including refrigerators and spray cans, after they were shown to harm Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Today, scientists predict that stratospheric ozone concentrations will rebound to 1980 levels by the middle of this century. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Montreal Protocol has prevented millions of cases of skin cancer and cataracts from exposure to ultraviolet radiation. In 2016 nations adopted the Kigali Amendment, which will phase out production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, another class of ozone-depleting chemicals.

Why has the Montreal Protocol worked so well? One key factor is that every nation in the world has joined it. They did so because alternative materials were available to substitute for chlorofluorocarbons. The treaty also provided financial support to countries that needed help transitioning away from the banned substances.

Where countries trying to reduce use of these chemicals fell short of their goals, the Protocol provided institutional support rather than punishing them. But it also included the option to impose trade sanctions on nations that refused to cooperate.

Another pact, the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, banned or severely limited production and use of certain chemicals that threatened human and environmental health, including specific insecticides and industrial chemicals. Today 182 nations have signed the treaty. Concentrations of several dangerous POPs in the Arctic, where global air and water currents tend to concentrate them, have declined.

Nations have added new chemicals to the list and created “elimination networks” to help members phase out use of dangerous materials such as PCBs. And producers of goods such as semiconductors and carpets that use listed chemicals are working to develop new, safer processes.

Even though the United States has not signed the Stockholm Convention, US companies have largely eliminated production of the chemicals that the treaty regulates. This shows that setting a global standard may encourage nations to conform in order to maintain access to global markets.

Other international bans have been less successful. In 1989, seeking to reduce the slaughter of elephants for their tusks, parties to the Convention in Trade of Endangered Species banned ivory sales by ending trade in African elephant parts. Initially demand for ivory fell, but in 1999 and 2008 treaty states allowed African nations to sell ivory stockpiles to Japan and China, ostensibly to fund conservation. These two sales reignited global demand for ivory and created unregulated domestic markets that stimulated high levels of poaching.

An opportunity to lead

What lessons do these treaties offer for curbing plastic pollution? The Montreal Protocol shows that bans can work where substitute products are available, but require reliable monitoring and the threat of sanctions to deter cheating. The Stockholm Convention suggests that industries will innovate to meet global production challenges. And struggles to curb the ivory trade offer a cautionary message about allowing exceptions to global bans.

I believe the rapid spread of single-use plastic bans shows that enough political support exists to launch negotiations toward a global treaty. Emerging economies such as Kenya that are aggressively tackling the problem are especially well placed to take a lead at the UN General Assembly in calling for talks on stemming the tide of plastic pollution.

Lise Meitner — the forgotten woman of nuclear physics who deserved a Nobel Prize

Feb 7, 2019


Nuclear fission — the physical process by which very large atoms like uranium split into pairs of smaller atoms — is what makes nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants possible. But for many years, physicists believed it energetically impossible for atoms as large as uranium (atomic mass = 235 or 238) to be split into two.

That all changed on Feb. 11, 1939, with a letter to the editor of Nature — a premier international scientific journal — that described exactly how such a thing could occur and even named it fission. In that letter, physicist Lise Meitner, with the assistance of her young nephew Otto Frisch, provided a physical explanation of how nuclear fission could happen.

It was a massive leap forward in nuclear physics, but today Lise Meitner remains obscure and largely forgotten. She was excluded from the victory celebration because she was a Jewish woman. Her story is a sad one.

What happens when you split an atom

Meitner based her fission argument on the “liquid droplet model” of nuclear structure — a model that likened the forces that hold the atomic nucleus together to the surface tension that gives a water droplet its structure.

She noted that the surface tension of an atomic nucleus weakens as the charge of the nucleus increases, and could even approach zero tension if the nuclear charge was very high, as is the case for uranium (charge = 92+). The lack of sufficient nuclear surface tension would then allow the nucleus to split into two fragments when struck by a neutron — a chargeless subatomic particle — with each fragment carrying away very high levels of kinetic energy. Meisner remarked: “The whole ‘fission’ process can thus be described in an essentially classical [physics] way.” Just that simple, right?

Meitner went further to explain how her scientific colleagues had gotten it wrong. When scientists bombarded uranium with neutrons, they believed the uranium nucleus, rather than splitting, captured some neutrons. These captured neutrons were then converted into positively charged protons and thus transformed the uranium into the incrementally larger elements on the periodic table of elements — the so-called “transuranium,” or beyond uranium, elements.

Some people were skeptical that neutron bombardment could produce transuranium elements, including Irene Joliot-Curie — Marie Curie’s daughter — and Meitner. Joliot-Curie had found that one of these new alleged transuranium elements actually behaved chemically just like radium, the element her mother had discovered. Joliot-Curie suggested that it might be just radium (atomic mass = 226) — an element somewhat smaller than uranium — that was coming from the neutron-bombarded uranium.

Meitner had an alternative explanation. She thought that, rather than radium, the element in question might actually be barium — an element with a chemistry very similar to radium. The issue of radium versus barium was very important to Meitner because barium (atomic mass = 139) was a possible fission product according to her split uranium theory, but radium was not — it was too big (atomic mass = 226).

illustrated image of an atom splitting

Nuclear fission of uranium 235. 


Stefan-Xp/Wikimedia Commons

Meitner urged her chemist colleague Otto Hahn to try to further purify the uranium bombardment samples and assess whether they were, in fact, made up of radium or its chemical cousin barium. Hahn complied, and he found that Meitner was correct: The element in the sample was indeed barium, not radium. Hahn’s finding suggested that the uranium nucleus had split into pieces — becoming two different elements with smaller nuclei — just as Meitner had suspected.

As a Jewish woman, Meitner was left behind

Meitner should have been the hero of the day, and the physicists and chemists should have jointly published their findings and waited to receive the world’s accolades for their discovery of nuclear fission. But unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Meitner had two difficulties: She was a Jew living as an exile in Sweden because of the Jewish persecution going on in Nazi Germany, and she was a woman. She might have overcome either one of these obstacles to scientific success, but both proved insurmountable.

Meitner had been working as Hahn’s academic equal when they were on the faculty of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin together. By all accounts they were close colleagues and friends for many years. When the Nazis took over, however, Meitner was forced to leave Germany. She took a position in Stockholm, and continued to work on nuclear issues with Hahn and his junior colleague Fritz Strassmann through regular correspondence. This working relationship, though not ideal, was still highly productive. The barium discovery was the latest fruit of that collaboration.

Hahn knew that including a Jewish woman on the paper would cost him his career in Germany. So he published without her.

Yet when it came time to publish, Hahn knew that including a Jewish woman on the paper would cost him his career in Germany. So he published without her, falsely claiming that the discovery was based solely on insights gleaned from his own chemical purification work, and that any physical insight contributed by Meitner played an insignificant role. All this despite the fact he wouldn’t have even thought to isolate barium from his samples had Meitner not directed him to do so.

Hahn had trouble explaining his own findings, though. In his paper, he put forth no plausible mechanism as to how uranium atoms had split into barium atoms. But Meitner had the explanation. So a few weeks later, Meitner wrote her famous fission letter to the editor, ironically explaining the mechanism of “Hahn’s discovery.”

Even that didn’t help her situation. The Nobel Committee awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei” to Hahn alone. Paradoxically, the word “fission” never appeared in Hahn’s original publication, as Meitner had been the first to coin the term in the letter published afterward.

A controversy has raged about the discovery of nuclear fission ever since, with critics claiming it represents one of the worst examples of blatant racism and sexism by the Nobel committee. Unlike another prominent female nuclear physicist whose career preceded her — Marie Curie — Meitner’s contributions to nuclear physics were never recognized by the Nobel committee. She has been totally left out in the cold, and remains unknown to most of the public.

An elderly white woman sits between two white men presenting an award.

This photograph was taken at Meitner's home in Cambridge, UK, when she received the Enrico Fermi award for 1966, shared with Hahn and Strassmann. Presenting it is Glenn T. Seaborg, Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, and on the left is Professor Otto Frisch.


IAEA/Flickr Commons

After the war, Meitner remained in Stockholm and became a Swedish citizen. Later in life, she decided to let bygones be bygones. She reconnected with Hahn, and the two octogenarians resumed their friendship. Although the Nobel committee never acknowledged its mistake, the slight to Meitner was partly mitigated in 1966 when the U.S. Department of Energy jointly awarded her, Hahn and Strassmann its prestigious Enrico Fermi Award “for pioneering research in the naturally occurring radioactivities and extensive experimental studies leading to the discovery of fission.” The two-decade late recognition came just in time for Meitner. She and Hahn died within months of each other in 1968; they were both 89 years old.

Commentary: The border wall problem few of us are talking about? Climate change.

Feb 7, 2019


Fog rolls in over the mountains as night falls in Buena Vista, a small town in Guatemala with a spectacular view over the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes. The land here is studded with boulders and blanketed by yellow daisies and lavender. At this altitude, there are few trees and almost no water. Families rely on rainwater for drinking, washing and agriculture. When the rains don’t come or they come in torrents, people suffer.

The harsh conditions and increasingly unpredictable weather are putting added stress on poor families and pushing up migration in an area where locals estimate nearly half of the 250 households have already seen someone leave.

Related: Climate change is the overlooked driver of Central American migration

At a community meeting I attended here in the Guatemalan highlands in August 2017 as part of an international reporting fellowship, I asked how many men were thinking of migrating. Most smiled uncomfortably. With a little prodding from the head of the community council, nearly every man in the room raised his hand. The unforgiving land only allows for one crop a year, they said, and if it fails, farmers quickly start accumulating debt.

While many Americans have been engaged in recent debates over Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, I’ve been thinking about the families I met in Guatemala. I’ve also been thinking about climate change and how it’s increasingly threatening communities in Central America and beyond.

While many Americans have been engaged in recent debates over Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, I’ve been thinking about the families I met in Guatemala. I’ve also been thinking about climate change and its increasing threat to communities in Central America and beyond.

When mentioning border security in his State of the Union address, the president focused on threats and heightened fears held by citizens in a country where fear is the source of so many problems.

Related: Commentary: Trump’s immigration blame game

But so little of the discussion hinges on what life is like for the people who are migrating and why they would risk their families, their security, their very lives to cross the US border.


The harsh conditions and increasingly unpredictable weather in the highlands of Huehuetenango are putting added stress on poor families and pushing up migration in an area where locals estimate nearly half of the 250 households have already seen someone leave.


Sara Schonhardt/The World 

There is talk of gangs and violence and poverty or political instability — all real drivers of migration. But seldom is there mention of the inability to grow food or make a living off the land. Unsurprisingly, climate change was absent from the State of the Union.

Related: Guatemala’s changing climate is forcing families to leave their homes, livelihoods

Climate change is just one part of it. Farming is also threatened by land conflicts, agribusiness and extractive industries and infrastructure developments like dams that impact water, deforestation and natural disasters. But many of these things are integral to the environment, and they all impact food security.

It’s not just about the economy

Back in 2017, Susana Carrillo Pablo de Calmo stood in her potato field high in the inhospitable hills of Huehuetenango and started to sob as she talked about her husband leaving. He migrated to the US in March 2016 to pay off loans used to plant crops that continually failed. He ended up milking cows near Los Angeles. At least, that’s what Susana thought. They spoke by phone each week, and at that time he was sending money back every month.

Traditionally, men in Guatemala have migrated internally in search of work — to the capital or coffee or sugarcane plantations. But climate change has also hit those operations.

Years of prolonged drought in an area known as the dry corridor that snakes through Guatemala, into El Salvador and Honduras, has reduced people’s ability to grow food and driven up the need for humanitarian assistance, forcing many families to turn to migration as a coping strategy.

A study by the World Food Program released in August 2017 found that younger and more vulnerable people are leaving due to a lack of work and food. A drought that started in 2014 caused a significant increase in irregular migration to the US, the study says. Yet, when food shortages drive migration, families left behind can become even more vulnerable to poverty and food insecurity.


Huehuetenango in the Guatemalan highlands has suffered from a lack of water and deforestation in recent years. A coffee-growing region, many plantations have also been hit by weather-related disease. Guatemala is consistently among the countries most at risk from extreme weather events, such as droughts, landslides and hurricanes, according to the Global Climate Risk Index. That makes it hard for subsistence communities that rely on rain-fed agriculture to get by. 


Sara Schonhardt/The World 

More and more women are now migrating, too, some with entire families driven by a lack of livelihood options. Many are fleeing domestic violence. Some are also escaping a fate that includes forced marriage or sexual trafficking.

The women who stay fight battles of their own.

Related: Guatemalan women transform their town one brushstroke at a time

Left to do the work of two people, they care for five, six, 11 children; tend to chickens, goats and other livestock; look after the crops; and collect wood for the stove and water. If a harvest fails due to a lack of rain or disease, they must find ways to make ends meet.

In Huehuetenango, a poor, overlooked province given its high population of Indigenous people, severe frost has stung. An early cold snap ruined Susana’s potato crop in 2016, and it was only through money her husband sent back that she was able to repay her debts. She’s doing a job that’s not hers, she says.

All but one of Eulogia Matias’ four sons have migrated to the US, the youngest going three years ago just after getting married. Despite missing her children, Eulogia says she worries more about what would happen if they returned.

“The soil is not as fertile as it used to be, so what will they do?” 

Eulogia Matias’

“The soil is not as fertile as it used to be, so what will they do?” she asks.

Finding ways to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather is important, say scientists, because climate change isn’t going away — and neither is migration.


All but one of Eulogia Matias’ four sons have migrated to the US, the youngest leaving three years ago just after getting married. Despite missing her children, Eulogia says she worries more about what would happen if they returned.


Sara Schonhardt/The World 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists convened by the United Nations, produced a report released last October that says rising global temperatures will lead to an increase in fatal heat waves, water and food shortages and wildfires and coastal flooding. Without urgent action to address the causes of those disasters, more than 140 million people could be internally displaced by the middle of this century, according to a 2018 World Bank report.

Solutions to such problems need to come from national governments since the poorest are often the most vulnerable to climate impacts and too often, don’t have the money or resources to immigrate. But the global community will also increasingly be called on for humanitarian outreach. Both sides will need to focus on adaptation so populations can try to navigate climatic changes that are not going away.

Yet, these are not discussions we’re having when it comes to border security. Worse, perhaps, the Trump administration has walked back environmental standards and safeguards and announced it would pull out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

The media is partially at fault for continuing to cover Trump’s press conferences and statements as though nothing else in the world is happening. Too few resources go toward telling the stories of women like Susana and Eulogia or explaining the roots of the challenges they’re facing. Focusing on security alone overlooks some of the main causes of out-migration. Perhaps if we looked beyond our borders, we might have a better idea of why we’re dealing with a crisis there in the first place.

Sara Schonhardt traveled to Guatemala as a 2017 fellow with the International Reporting Project.

Germany to restrict Facebook's data gathering activities

Feb 7, 2019


Germany, where privacy concerns run deep, has ordered Facebook to curb its data collection practices in the country after a landmark ruling on Thursday that the world's largest social network abused its market dominance to gather information about users without their consent.

Germany is in the forefront of a global backlash against Facebook, fueled by last year's Cambridge Analytica scandal in which tens of millions of Facebook profiles were harvested without their users' consent.

The cartel office objected in particular to how Facebook pools data on people from third-party apps — including its own WhatsApp and Instagram — and its online tracking of people who aren't even members through Facebook "like" or "share" buttons.

"In future, Facebook will no longer be allowed to force its users to agree to the practically unrestricted collection and assigning of non-Facebook data to their Facebook accounts," cartel office chief Andreas Mundt said.

Facebook said it would appeal the decision by the Federal Cartel Office, the culmination of a three-year probe, saying the antitrust watchdog underestimated the competition it faced, and undermined Europe-wide privacy rules that took effect last year.

"We disagree with their conclusions and intend to appeal so that people in Germany continue to benefit fully from all our services," Facebook said in a blog post.

In its order, the cartel office said it would only be allowed to assign data from WhatsApp or Instagram to Facebook if users consented voluntarily. Collecting data from third-party websites and assigning it to Facebook would similarly require consent.

If consent is withheld, Facebook will have to substantially restrict its collection and combining of data. It should develop proposals to do this within 12 months, subject to the outcome of appeal proceedings, the regulator said.

If Facebook fails to comply, the cartel office could impose fines of up to 10 percent of the company's annual global revenues, which grew by 37 percent to $55.8 billion last year.


German Justice Minister Katarina Barley welcomed the ruling. "Users are often unaware of this flow of data and cannot prevent it if they want to use the services," she told Reuters. "We need to be rigorous in tackling the abuse of power that comes with data."

The German anti-trust regulator's powers were expanded in 2017 to include consumer protection in public interest cases where it could argue that a company — such as Facebook — had so little competition that consumers have no effective choice.

Facebook has an estimated 23 million daily active users in Germany, giving it a market share of 95 percent, according to the Cartel Office which considers Google+ — a rival social network that is being closed down to be its only competitor.

The next most popular social media sites in Germany are Pinterest and Google's YouTube.

Facebook said the cartel office failed to recognize the extent of competition it faced from YouTube or Twitter for users' attention, and also said the regulator was encroaching into areas that should be handled by data protection watchdogs.

Brussels-based anti-trust lawyer Thomas Vinje of Clifford Chance said the decision had potentially far-reaching implications. "It's limited to Germany but strikes me as exportable and might have a significant impact on Facebook's business model," he said.

The European Commission said: "We are closely following the work of the Bundeskartellamt both in the framework of the European Competition Network and through direct contacts."

"The European legislator has made sure that there is now a regulation in place that addresses this type of conduct, namely the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)," it added.

As part of complying with the GDPR, Facebook said it had rebuilt the information its provides people about their privacy and the controls they have over their information, and improved the privacy 'choices' that they are offered. It would also soon launch a 'clear history' feature, it said.

The cartel office's Mundt also expressed concern over reports that Facebook, which counts 2.7 billion users worldwide, plans to merge the infrastructure of its Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram services.

Facebook has said that discussions on such a move are at a very early stage.

By Douglas Busvine/Reuters

Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke, Matthias Inverardi, Nadine Schimroszik and Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Keith Weir and Georgina Prodhan.

Climate change is the overlooked driver of Central American migration

Feb 4, 2019


As people from Guatemala and Honduras continue to seek sanctuary in the US for a variety of reasons, including violence and poverty, another factor driving their migration has gotten much less attention: climate disruption.

Many members of the migrant "caravans" that made headlines during the 2018 US midterm elections are fleeing a massive drought that has lasted for five years.

The drought has hit harder in some places than in others, says John Sutter, senior investigative reporter for CNN, who went to rural Honduras to report on climate change and immigration. In the area of Central America known as the "dry corridor," for example, drought is not uncommon. But, Sutter says, some of the climate scientists he spoke with say they are seeing unprecedented effects.

If the rains don’t fall, crops simply don’t grow.

“In particular, spring rains, which are incredibly important for corn crops — a staple in this region — just haven't been coming,” Sutter reports. “They're almost completely missing when you look at the average rainfall by the month. It's partly that rains have decreased; it’s partly that they've shifted and are no longer falling in the seasons when they have been so useful to farmers in the past. But it's been very troubling and created a lot of hardship.”

Honduran house

The spring rains in Central America are crucial to the growth of the corn crop, which itself is crucial to the Central American diet. For the last five years, the rains have either arrived in the wrong season or sometimes not at all.


André Schütte/Wikimedia Commons

Many people who live in the dry corridor of Central America are subsistence farmers, completely reliant on what they grow for their survival. Unlike in the US and parts of Europe, there is no crop insurance or other programs to tide farmers over in bad years. Often, there are no irrigation systems, either. So, if the rains don’t fall, crops simply don’t grow.

“If you have year after year after year — and, at this point, essentially five years of very bad drought conditions — then that's when conditions can lead to hunger and starvation.”

John Sutter, CNN investgative reporter

“If you have one bad year and the rains don't fall, that creates a certain stress,” Sutter says. “If you have year after year after year — and, at this point, essentially five years of very bad drought conditions — then that's when conditions can lead to hunger and starvation.”

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says 2 million people in the region are at risk for hunger, Sutter points out.

“I think that's [something] people underestimate about the caravan, or any migration story, really, when you hear about it: It has to be really bad for you to want to flee a problem,” Sutter says. “There’s an incredible attachment to a sense of home and place, especially among people who are farmers, who are attached to the land. It's a big deal to think about leaving. That gives you a hint at how intense the situation is for many farmers.”

While President Donald Trump claims that caravans of migrants heading from Central America to the US are an “invasion” of “gang members and very bad people,” his own commissioner of the US Customs and Border Protection says that crop failure is one of the main drivers of migration.

“Migration stories are always complex. ... It's not untrue that violence is driving people out; it’s not untrue that poverty is driving people out. But it is also true that climate change and severe drought are causing people to move from Central America, and from other [regions].

John Sutter, CNN investigative reporter

“Migration stories are always complex,” Sutter says. “It's not untrue that violence is driving people out; it’s not untrue that poverty is driving people out. But it is also true that climate change and severe drought are causing people to move from Central America, and from other [regions]. And I think that we have to look at that in a clear-eyed way and think about what that means.”

He adds: “I wish the administration, or really anyone in Washington, would talk about this issue of migration in terms of climate change, because the projections for how many climate migrants or climate refugees there will be in the world are uncertain, and we're not preparing for that.”

If anything, Sutter says, the United States and some European countries are doing the opposite. They are putting up walls and barriers and trying to slow the movement of people — fully knowing that climate change is going to push people out their homes.

The United States has done more than any other country to cause global warming, while many of the people suffering from the worst effects of this warming have done little, if anything, to cause it, Sutter points out.

“I think it's a really important moral question we need to ask ourselves: We’re causing this hardship in parts of the world many of us may never travel through or see, but it’s real and it's causing repercussions, one of which is that people are on the move to try to make ends meet, to try to make a livelihood,” Sutter says. “It doesn't invalidate the other stories that we've heard about the caravan, but it certainly complicates them.”

Many climate experts believe the big, industrialized countries — the US, Europe, China — owe it to these people to tell this part of the story to the world.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Why I can’t quit Facebook: I want to click 'love' when I see refugees' big milestones

Feb 4, 2019


These days it seems everyone is starting to #DeleteFacebook after a series of data privacy scandals. I’ve considered it, too. But there’s one reason I can’t quit: I’d lose my main window into the lives of refugees I’ve met as a journalist covering global migration.

There’s a special intensity to this beat. You spend time with people who are on a literal odyssey, one filled with uncertainty, frustration, boredom and minor triumphs. You might spend a few hours together at a border crossing or a few days hanging out and breaking bread in a camp as they figure out what’s next. You inevitably form a bond over this strange turning point in their lives, puncturing the professional distance between journalist and source.  

And then they move on.

Because of Facebook, I’ve been able to watch the milestones of refugees long after parting ways. I’ve seen photos of families reuniting after war and bureaucracy kept them apart for years. I’ve hit the “love” button as people checked in to new countries after weeks or months in transit, followed by marriage engagements, new baby announcements or “first snows.” I’ve seen them mourn relatives and friends who’ve died in their home countries. Over time, their posts switch from their native languages to German, French and English as they integrate into their new homes.

Related: We asked listeners why they can't quit Facebook. Here's what you said.

From 2014 to 2017, I was a reporter based in Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, covering Syria’s exodus and Europe’s refugee crisis. The people I met had few possessions and a burning drive to reach safe northern European countries where they could restart their lives. Apps like Facebook and WhatsApp were their lifelines: It’s how they kept in touch with family and friends who’d been scattered across the region and found smugglers who would take them to Europe by boat — or plane if they could afford pricey fake passports.

Facebook was the only constant — the social media platform virtually everyone had that was accessible from any smartphone.

A reporter and teenage male sitting cross-legged on the ground for an interview

The World reporter Tania Karas interviewing Waris, a teen Afghan refugee, in Athens, Greece in 2015. They keep in touch via Facebook. 


Tania Karas/The World

“When you’re a refugee, everyone around you is changing their numbers and switching countries. Facebook is how we keep track of each other,” my Syrian friend Eizeddin Ghosn, 29, told me last month via Facebook Messenger. In 2015, we met in Idomeni, a tiny Greek border village that had become a temporary tent city for 14,000 refugees. He’d traveled there from Yabroud, a town outside Damascus, that was once a rebel stronghold.

“Of course, we’re aware of the Facebook data and privacy issues,” said Ghosn, who is now an electrical engineer living in Amsterdam. “But for us, worrying about that would be a luxury.”

While reporting, Facebook became a critical tool for me to keep track of transient sources. It was more reliable than most other forms of communication. Cellphone theft was rampant in refugee camps, so phone numbers could be useless. Apps like Viber and WhatsApp made it tricky to save old contacts if you get a new phone or new SIM card.

So I “friended” everyone I interviewed. Almost immediately, a fuller picture of my sources emerged on my screen. I’d met them in some of their darkest moments — living in squalid camps or sleeping on the streets — but their Facebook photos gave me insight into their old lives. I saw them smoking hookahs in Damascus, or sipping coffee with a view of Aleppo’s famous citadel before the war. It was yet another reminder that “refugee” was just one slice of their identities. The refugee-crisis prism through which I shared their stories with the world was a narrow one.  

Forced migration comes with bureaucratic hurdles that seem insurmountable to refugees having to contend with hostile governments. I wrote about many of these problems as a journalist. Facebook is where I saw their resolutions unfold. Two years ago, I cheered when Ensaf, a Syrian teen girl I interviewed in Greece in 2016, posted a photo of herself and her dad on a plane to Germany, where they finally reunited with her mom and brother after more than a year apart. A few months later, they posted photos of the whole family skiing for the first time.

A Facebook post announcing a new baby.

Facebook is where The World reporter Tania Karas learned Najah, a young Syrian mother she interviewed in 2016, was pregnant with her second child.



There have been other milestones, too. Facebook is where I learned Najah, a young Syrian mother who traveled alone to Europe with her baby girl, Amira, was pregnant with her second child. It’s where 14-year-old Mohammad from Afghanistan checked in to the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 2016. That was two months after I met him in Patras, Greece, where he was caught trying to stow himself in a lorry headed for Italy.

And every November, I get a Facebook Memories reminder about the death of 6-year-old Rand, a Syrian girl whose family I profiled after she was killed by an oncoming train hours after they arrived in Greece.

A teenager standing beneath the Eiffel tower

Mohammad, an Afghan teen refugee, stands beneath the Eiffel Tower in Paris after repeated attempts trying to reach Europe. Facebook is where The World reporter Tania Karas learned he had made it.



There’s a cruel irony in relying on Facebook to keep in touch with refugees. The same platform that connects us fueled one of the largest and most horrific human displacements in recent history in Myanmar. In mid-August 2017, I set out to write a profile of Chicago’s Rohingya Muslim refugee community and found my sources glued to their Facebook apps. They despaired as their feeds filled with violent images from home, where a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign had just begun. They witnessed their villages razed and families killed via Facebook Live — and later, it was revealed that Myanmar military officials used Facebook to incite hate against the Rohingya minority. It was heartbreaking to watch as members of Chicago’s Rohingya Cultural Center used the same platform to find out if loved ones had survived, and later, to raise money for aid. A full circle of hate — incitement, brutality, displacement and awareness-raising — started and ended with Facebook.

And of course, Facebook rumors have been behind anti-refugee attacks in Germany, which took in over 1 million refugees in the past few years. Facebook played in an enormous role in accelerating Europe’s refugee crisis in the first place — it helped spread German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s August 2015 “refugees welcome” speech far and wide — and viral Facebook posts also spurred some Central Americans to join recent migrant “caravans” to the United States. The tool that aids human migration is simultaneously a public square tainted by hate speech that drives people further apart.

But for now, I can’t delete it. It’s where I’ve built an ecosystem of contacts that don’t easily transfer to any other social network. It’s challenged the imaginary boundary between myself and my sources, prompting me to view them on a person-to-person level. The process of migration, like social media, is ephemeral. For better or worse, Facebook is where I get to see what happens next in their stories.

Facebook is a persuasion platform that’s changing the advertising rulebook

Feb 1, 2019


Facebook — the social network that started in a Harvard dorm room 15 years ago — has evolved into a media and advertising giant. It’s helped create a new age of precise consumer insights. With over 2 billion users worldwide, Facebook can offer granular data about each and every one of them to advertisers — not just demographics but the very narrowly defined interests, conversations and interactions they have on the platform. Advertisers try to leverage all that information into online purchases by directly targeting consumers with messages meant to stand out as they scroll through a newsfeed.

As a media and advertising psychology scholar, I’ve been researching Facebook and its effects on persuasion for the past 12 years. Long gone are the days of brands offering consumers meticulously crafted messages with mass appeal that provide strong arguments or important cues to get them to change their attitudes and behaviors.

Related: In Myanmar, fake news spread on Facebook stokes ethnic violence

Facebook has driven an ongoing digital revolution within the advertising industry, redefining the persuasive process advertisers have traditionally known. Now people communicate differently on and because of Facebook and other social media services. And their buying behaviors have changed too.

Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo

Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018.


Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo via Reuters

Facebook’s not so social anymore

My collaborative research suggests that people’s motivations for using Facebook have shifted over the years. People used to visit for online socialization and interpersonal communication. But now their reasons are more passive, having to do with the desire to be entertained and the simple fact that checking Facebook is convenient.

Facebook users, for the most part, have moved from being hyperactive — endlessly posting about the ins and outs and ups and downs of their lives — to being, simply put, habitual lurkers.

There are two reasons. First, Facebook has reinvented itself repeatedly over the past 15 years with updates to its look and feel as well as functionality.

Second, users’ perceptions of Facebook have changed. The size of a typical “friends” network has increased immensely. For many, the Facebook experience has shifted from simulating a high school reunion with a few handfuls of invitees to an outdoor rock concert with a huge audience.

The connection with one’s strong ties — your close friends — still remains. But people are gravitating toward using Facebook to see what’s out there, grab a smile or a laugh and then move on with their lives. Sure, there’s always the political rants, that obscene post by a college friend or other messages that make your eyes roll — but for the most part, people use Facebook because it entertains them and it’s part of their daily ritual. Research suggests this pattern holds in the United States and other countries, such as Taiwan.

It’s automatic

A few years ago, some graduate students and I brought college student volunteers into our lab. We asked them to use Facebook while we recorded where their eyes traveled on the screen and how they responded psychophysiologically in terms of their heart rate, skin conductance level and facial electromyography muscle activation. Researchers have long associated these biological measures with psychological processes that could indicate attention, emotional arousal and what psychologists call emotional valence — that is, pleasant versus unpleasant emotions.

We were trying to understand the psychophysiological responses that precede specific behaviors on Facebook, such as pressing the “like” button as well as sharing or commenting on someone else’s post. These behaviors have emerged over the years as indicators of online advertising and marketing effectiveness. Traditional advertising concepts like return on investment have been replaced by return on engagement.

We found that prior to pressing the “like” button, participants exhibited a particular pattern of heart rate activation and skin conductance level — the same one that characterizes an orienting response. This is a brief, automatic “What is it?” reaction to an external stimulus or a change in the environment. It’s the same response you have, without much conscious effort, when someone enters the room or calls your name. It makes perfect sense that pressing “like” would have similar characteristics. Who, when scrolling through an endless newsfeed, pauses to think long and hard about whether to “like”? Very few!

facebook on a phone

A smartphone user shows the Facebook application on his phone in the central Bosnian town of Zenica. 


Dado Ruvic/Reuters

The fact that people press the “like” button in this automatic mode is significant for multiple reasons. First, the nature of the Facebook environment offers multiple bits of information at any particular moment, all competing for your attention. Specific bits that do catch your attention may be lucky enough to be rewarded with a behavior — a “like” or a “share.”

And from an advertising perspective, these automatic behaviors are important. Other studies my colleagues and I conducted found that expressing intentions to like, share and comment on something were strong positive predictors of participants’ readiness to enact relevant behaviors offline. It makes sense: if you “like” a bunch of woolen socks online, maybe you’re getting closer to investing in some new warm gear.

Targeted ads push you to act

The way people interact with Facebook is changing how they can be persuaded to think about or do a particular thing.

With tons of information presented at the same time, your brain is forced to decide quickly what’s relevant or interesting. Facebook and other social media services take advantage of this – pushing you to slip easily from thought to behavior. It emphasizes your impulses and decreases the opportunities for you to think more thoroughly about your perceptions, attitudes and decisions.

Think about seeing a product on Facebook, “liking” or “sharing” it, then immediately clicking the ad to place the product in a shopping cart on Amazon. Just like that, within a few seconds, you’ve moved from noticing a product and indicating an attitude online to that same product being purchased and marked for shipping to your doorstep.

This is a vastly different process from seeing an ad on TV, then having to get into your car or take the bus to travel to the brick-and-mortar store, picking the advertised product from the pile, holding it in your hands and taking it to the register for purchase.


A cellphone user looks at a Facebook page at a shop in Latha street, Yangon, Myanmar.


Ann Wang/Reuters

Of course not every single exposure to an ad on Facebook and other social media ends up with a conversion to purchase. There is a lot that does not end up in the shopping cart.

But having the infrastructure to facilitate these types of impulsive behaviors has ramifications for other areas of persuasion. Take alcohol use and overuse as an example. How does this thought-behavior connection pan out when someone with a high risk of alcohol abuse sees a message from a friend or a marketer on Friday night promoting drinking? Or when a college student sees his friends posing with green beer mugs on St. Patrick’s Day on Facebook? Would that prompt him to get that nth drink that would raise his blood alcohol concentration level to a risky one? Our research on the effects of branded alcohol posts suggests this is plausible.

Changing consumer habits combined with companies’ abilities to target them with personalized messages streamed to their mobile devices mean advertisers and marketers are in a new environment. People mindlessly scroll, clicking automatically. Messages come at people nonstop, trying to convert them into consumers by exploiting those habits. And even at times when that conversion likelihood is low, brands can just try again, and again, and again and again.The Conversation

Saleem Alhabash, Associate Professor of Advertising + Public Relations, Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

European colonization of the Americas killed 10 percent of world population and caused global cooling

Jan 31, 2019


While Europe was in the early days of the Renaissance, there were empires in the Americas sustaining more than 60 million people. But the first European contact in 1492 brought diseases to the Americas which devastated the native population, and the resultant collapse of farming in the Americas was so significant that it may have even cooled the global climate.

The number of people living in North, Central and South America when Christopher Columbus arrived is a question that researchers have been trying to answer for decades. Unlike in Europe and China, no records on the size of Indigenous societies in the Americas before 1492 are preserved. To reconstruct population numbers, researchers rely on the first accounts from European eyewitnesses and, in records from after colonial rule was established, tribute payments known as “encomiendas.” This taxation system was only established after European epidemics had ravaged the Americas, so it tells us nothing about the size of pre-colonial populations.

Related: Ignored and deported, Cree 'refugees' echo the crises of today

Early accounts by European colonists are likely to have overestimated settlement sizes and population to advertise the riches of their newly discovered lands to their feudal sponsors in Europe. But by rejecting these claims and focusing on colonial records instead, extremely low population estimates were published in the early 20th century which counted the population after disease had ravaged it.

On the other hand, liberal assumptions on, for example, the proportion of the Indigenous population that was required to pay tributes or the rates at which people had died led to extraordinarily high estimates.

Our new study clarifies the size of pre-Columbian populations and their impact on their environment. By combining all published estimates from populations throughout the Americas, we find a probable Indigenous population of 60 million in 1492. For comparison, Europe’s population at the time was 70 to 88 million spread over less than half the area.

The Great Dying

The large pre-Columbian population sustained itself through farming — there is extensive archaeological evidence for slash-and-burn agriculture, terraced fieldslarge earthen mounds and home gardens.

By knowing how much agricultural land is required to sustain one person, population numbers can be translated from the area known to be under human land use. We found that 62 million hectares of land, or about 10 percent of the landmass of the Americas, had been farmed or under another human use when Columbus arrived. For comparison, in Europe 23 percent and in China 20 percent of land had been used by humans at the time.

This changed in the decades after Europeans first set foot on the island of Hispaniola in 1497 — now Haiti and the Dominican Republic — and the mainland in 1517. Europeans brought measles, smallpox, influenza and the bubonic plague across the Atlantic, with devastating consequences for the Indigenous populations.

A llama on Incan steps in the Andes mountains

A llama near the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu in Cusco, Peru, Dec. 2, 2014.


Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters

Our new data-driven best estimate is a death toll of 56 million by the beginning of the 1600s — 90 percent of the pre-Columbian Indigenous population and around 10 percent of the global population at the time. This makes the “Great Dying” the largest human mortality event in proportion to the global population, putting it second in absolute terms only to World War II, in which 80 million people died — 3% of the world’s population at the time.

Related: Climate change is contributing to the migration of Central American refugees

A figure of 90 percent mortality in post-contact America is extraordinary and exceeds similar epidemics, including the Black Death in Europe — which resulted in a 30 percent population loss in Europe. One explanation is that multiple waves of epidemics hit Indigenous immune systems that had evolved in isolation from Eurasian and African populations for 13,000 years.

Native Americas at that time had never been in contact with the pathogens the colonists brought, creating so-called “virgin soil” epidemics. People who didn’t die from smallpox, died from the following wave of influenza. Those who survived that succumbed to measles. Warfare, famine and colonial atrocities did the rest in the Great Dying.

Global consequences

This human tragedy meant that there were simply not enough workers left to manage the fields and forests. Without human intervention, previously managed landscapes returned to their natural states, thereby absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. The extent of this regrowth of the natural habitat was so vast that it removed enough CO₂ to cool the planet.

Related: Thwaites Glacier can help predict global sea level rise

The lower temperatures prompted feedbacks in the carbon cycle which eliminated even more CO₂ from the atmosphere — such as less CO₂ being released from the soil. This explains the drop in CO₂ at 1610 seen in Antarctic ice cores, solving an enigma of why the whole planet cooled briefly in the 1600s. During this period, severe winters and cold summers caused famines and rebellions from Europe to Japan.

A graph showing temperature over time

Global temperatures dipped at the same time as the Great Dying in the Americas.


Robert A. Rohde/Wikipedia

The modern world began with a catastrophe of near-unimaginable proportions. Yet it is the first time the Americas were linked to the rest of the world, marking the beginning of a new era.

We now know more about the scale of pre-European American populations and the Great Dying that erased so many of them. Human actions at that time caused a drop in atmospheric CO₂ that cooled the planet long before human civilization was concerned with the idea of climate change.

Such a dramatic event would not contribute much to easing the rate of modern global warming, however. The unprecedented reforestation event in the Americas led to a reduction of 5 parts per million CO₂ from the atmosphere — only about three years’ worth of fossil fuel emissions today.

An unexpected challenge on Antarctica: Measuring snowfall

Jan 28, 2019


Any explorer who makes it to the planet’s southernmost continent quickly learns how to battle the wind. It howls through the unpaved street of McMurdo Station — the largest US research outpost on the continent. Here, the wind is a foe fiercer than even the cold. It is common for 100-mph winds to whip snow, blindingly, across the open ice. And this wind has posed a challenge for scientists hoping to model the future of the continent, and of our planet. 

    View this post on Instagram         

Knowing how much snow accumulates in Antarctica is key to understanding future sea level rise. But it turns out, there's no good way to measure snowfall on the continent. It's too windy. @NOVAPBS’s science editor, Caitlin Saks, was just in Antarctica with Scott Landolt, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Mark Seefeldt, of the @cuboulder who are trying to figure out a good way to measure snowfall. Here, the wind is a foe even fiercer than the cold. It is common for 100-mph winds to blindingly whip snow across the open ice. And this wind has posed a challenge for scientists hoping to model the future of the continent and our planet. Go to the link in our bio to read more about why snowfall measure is crucial to our understanding of how Antarctica’s ice mass will change in the coming decades. Video by Caitlin Sacks.

A post shared by The World (@pritheworld) on Jan 29, 2019 at 1:48pm PST

In particular, the blowing wind obfuscates a seemingly simple measurement: How much snow is falling on the continent? Scott Landolt, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Mark Seefeldt, of the University of Colorado Boulder, are out to solve this problem. 

Related: What Thwaites Glacier can tell us about the future of West Antarctica

According to Landolt, “Antarctica and Greenland are really the last frontiers when it comes to snowfall precipitation measurement.”

The amount of snowfall is an important parameter used in modeling how the Antarctic continent’s mass of ice will change in the coming decades. As the planet warms, the margins of the continent are melting three times faster than just one decade ago. But a warmer climate also means that there is more moisture in the air, and that could mean more snow precipitating out onto the continent. That snow, in turn, compacts into ice and becomes locked in the continent’s interior. 

a man in a red coat stands on top of a large research instrument

Researcher Scott Landolt services an instrument designed to measure snowfall in Antarctica.


Caitlin Saks/The World 

Professor David Holland of NYU, who is not involved in the project, explains that this measurement is important because, “it is one part of the equation in terms of the total volume of the Antarctic ice sheet. Is it getting bigger or smaller? Snowfall is certainly how it becomes larger.”

Related: Antarctica needs humans to protect it. It also needs humans to stay away. What's a potential visitor to do?

While total precipitation can be estimated indirectly from computer models, satellite measurements and digging snow pits, until now there has been no way to regularly measure how much snow is actually falling on the continent. In science-lingo, this is called “ground truth” — the reality of what is happening on the ground. 

a man in a red coat stands at the bottom of a tall white pole

Researchers Scott Landolt and Mark Seefeldt set up an automatic snowfall measuring system in Antarctica.


Caitlin Saks/The World 

Seefeldt explains, “If we're able to show more ground truth to what the models are showing, then we are able to provide more validity to what's going to happen in the future climate.”

The challenge of building a snowfall measuring system is twofold: First, an instrument must be devised to buffer the effects of the merciless winds. Second, this system must work on its own, without a human to service it during the long winter, when the continent is plunged into 24 hours of darkness and the temperatures can easily fall below -50 degrees Fahrenheit — and that’s without the wind-chill.  

Landolt and Seefeldt developed a system that is at once simple and high tech. The primary instrument is what amounts to a bucket that collects and weighs the snow. The weight of the snow, not depth, is what matters. 

Landolt says, “What we're really trying to do is look at how much water is actually being added in to the frozen component of the ice shelf and the ice sheets to offset what is being melted into the oceans.” 

Surrounding the instrument are two concentric circles of metallic fins. These act as wind baffles to disrupt the horizontal wind flow and allow the sensor to capture the vertical snowfall. The research team dubs these cacophonous fins their “Antarctic wind chimes.” 

Metallic fins encircle a man in a red coat

Researcher Scott Landolt services an instrument designed to measure snowfall in Antarctica. Metallic fins encircle the snow collection sensor to dampen the effect of windblown snow.


Caitlin Saks/The World 

To help corroborate the data, a suite of other instruments also monitors the snowfall by measuring properties such as windspeed, particle size and height of the snow below the instrument. They have even deployed video cameras to give a visual on the storm.

The set-up is automatic, and all the data are remotely transmitted back to the States, allowing the researchers to monitor Antarctic snowstorms from the comfort of their desks. Power is supplied by a mere sixteen 12-volt batteries. In Antarctica, where energy costs are considerable, the whole system has been designed to operate on an average of only 3 watts —  less than a traditional incandescent nightlight.

The system was first deployed during the 2017-2018 Antarctic summer field season (which is winter in the US). This season, Seefeldt and Landolt returned to service the four measurement sites. While they are successfully measuring snowfall during certain events, there is much work to be done. They aim to improve the quality of the data so that they can have a reliable and continuous record of snowfall for an entire season. 

“The hope is we're able to add more sites and in more critical locations,” Seefeldt says. 

David Holland claims that such a network could improve weather models. 

two rows of metallic fins encircle a sensor

High-tech, yet simple: Two rows of metallic fins, or wind baffles, encircle a snowfall measuring sensor. The baffles disrupt the effects of windblown snow.


Caitlin Saks/The World 

“In the south, around Antarctica, there is very little weather input to initialize the weather models for forecasting,” says Holland. “So, the more data you put in, the better the weather forecasting. It is just a direct benefit to the global weather forecasting to have data in sparse places.” 

As for climate predictions, Seefeldt has his sights set on West Antarctica: “Measuring precipitation there is much more critical to understanding mass balance than it is where we're currently located.”

West Antarctica is the theater where scientists predict the most dramatic changes in ice mass will play out this century. Much of the ice there is at risk of catastrophically destabilizing and melting away. This could happen fast — potentially, much more quickly than the gradual pile-up of snow inland — and it would have dire implications for sea level.

While the question of the balance of snow-gain versus ice-loss is crucial for a better understanding of Antarctica’s future, few scientists believe that a snowier Antarctica could counteract the effects of a warming ocean as it steadily eats away at the margins of the southern continent. 

You can find more reporting on Antarctica from Caitlin Saks' on NOVA

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1713552. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Brazil dam collapse death toll rises to 60, hundreds still missing

Jan 28, 2019


Grief over the hundreds of Brazilians feared killed in last week's mining disaster has quickly hardened into anger as victims' families and politicians say iron ore miner Vale SA and regulators have learned nothing from the recent past.

By Monday, firefighters in the state of Minas Gerais had confirmed 60 people dead in Friday's disaster, in which a tailings dam broke sending a torrent of sludge into the miner's offices and the town of Brumadinho. Nearly 300 other people are unaccounted for, and officials said it was unlikely that any would be found alive.

Members of rescue team carry a body

Members of rescue team carry a body recovered after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil Jan. 27, 2019. 


Adriano Machado/Reuters

Shares of Vale, the world's largest iron ore and nickel producer, plummeted 21.5 percent in Monday trading on the Sao Paulo stock exchange, erasing $16 billion in market cap. 

Related: The Amazon used to be a hedge against climate change. Those days may be over.

Brazil's top prosecutor, Raquel Dodge, said the company should be held strongly responsible and criminally prosecuted. Executives could also be personally held responsible, she said.

Brazil's Vice President Hamilton Mourao, who is acting president since Monday morning when Jair Bolsonaro underwent surgery, also said the government needs to punish those responsible for the dam disaster.

Members of a rescue team search for victims in a sea of red mud

Members of a rescue team search for victims after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil Jan. 28, 2019. 



Adriano Machado/Reuters 

In a tweet, Brazilian Senator Renan Calheiros asked Justice Minister Sergio Moro "how many people should die before federal police changes Vale management, before key evidence disappears." Moro is a previous judge in charge of Brazil's largest-ever corruption probe.

One of Vale's lawyers, Sergio Bermudes, told newspaper Folha de S. Paulo that the executives should not leave the company and that Calheiros was trying to profit politically from the tragedy.

Related: For illegal loggers in the Brazilian Amazon, 'there is no fear of being punished'

Vale Chief Executive Fabio Schvartsman said during a visit to Brumadinho on Sunday that facilities there were built to code and equipment had shown the dam was stable two weeks earlier.

The disaster at the Corrego do Feijao mine occurred less than four years after a dam collapsed at a nearby mine run by Samarco Mineracao SA, a joint venture by Vale and BHP Billiton, killing 19 and filling a major river with toxic sludge. 

a rescue team member cries into his hands

A member of rescue team reacts, upon returning from the mission, after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil Jan. 27, 2019.


Adriano Machado/Reuters 

While the 2015 Samarco disaster dumped about five times more mining waste, Friday's dam break was far deadlier, as the wall of mud hit Vale's local offices, including a crowded cafeteria, and tore through a populated area downhill.

"The cafeteria was in a risky area," Renato Simao de Oliveiras, 32, said while searching for his twin brother, a Vale employee, at an emergency response station.

Related: A 'Third Way' to save the Amazon: make trees more valuable

"Just to save money, even if it meant losing the little guy... These businessmen, they only think about themselves," said Oliveiras. 

As search efforts continued on Monday, firefighters laid down wood planks to cross a sea of sludge that is hundreds of meters wide in places, to reach a bus in search of bodies inside. Villagers discovered the bus as they tried to rescue a nearby cow stuck in the mud.

an ox stuck in red mud and covered with red mud

An ox is seen on mud after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian miner Vale SA burst, in Brumadinho, Brazil Jan. 27, 2019. 


Adriano Machado/Reuters

Longtime resident Ademir Rogerio cried as he surveyed the mud where Vale's facilities once stood on the edge of town.

"The world is over for us," he said. "Vale is the top mining company in the world. If this could happen here, imagine what would happen if it were a smaller miner." 

Nestor Joseacute de Mury said he lost his nephew and coworkers in the mud.

"I've never seen anything like it, it killed everyone," he said.

Safety debate

The board of Vale, which has raised its dividends over the last year, suspended all shareholder payouts and executive bonuses late on Sunday, as the disaster put its corporate strategy under scrutiny.

"I'm not a mining technician. I followed the technicians' advice and you see what happened. It didn't work," Vale CEO Schvartsman said in a TV interview. "We are 100 percent within all the standards, and that didn't do it."

a closeup of a young boys face peering through a fence

A boy looks at members of rescue team, as they return from the mission, after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil Jan. 27, 2019.


Adriano Machado/Reuters 

Many wondered if the state of Minas Gerais, named for the mining industry that has shaped its landscape for centuries, should have higher standards.

"There are safe ways of mining," said Joao Vitor Xavier, head of the mining and energy commission in the state assembly. "It's just that it diminishes profit margins, so they prefer to do things the cheaper way; and put lives at risk."

Related: 'Our wealth is the forest': Indigenous tribes are the last best hope for the Amazon

Reaction to the disaster could threaten the plans of Brazil's newly inaugurated president to relax restrictions on the mining industry, including proposals to open up indigenous reservations and large swaths of the Amazon jungle for mining.

Indigenous people stand on the banks of a flooded river

Indigenous people from the Pataxo Ha-ha-hae tribe look at Paraopeba river, after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Sao Joaquim de Bicas near Brumadinho, Brazil Jan. 25, 2019.


Funai/Handout via Reuters

Mines and Energy Minister Bento Albuquerque proposed in an interview late on Sunday with newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo that the law should be changed to assign responsibility in cases such as Brumadinho to the people responsible for certifying the safety of mining dams. 

"Current law does not prevent disasters like the one we saw on Brumadinho," he said. "The model for verifying the state of mining dams will have to be reconsidered. The model isn't good."

The ministry did not immediately respond to questions about the interview.

German auditor TUV SUD said on Saturday it inspected the dam in September and found all to be in order.

Brazil's new president targets Amazon rainforest, Indigenous peoples

Jan 28, 2019


On his first day in office, Brazil’s recently elected President Jair Bolsonaro — sometimes called the Trump of the Tropics — shifted regulation of Indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest to the Ministry of Agriculture, an agency known to favor development over sustainability and Indigenous rights.

Critics say this is a dangerous move. Many Brazilians worry it will lead to increased deforestation, weaken Amazon protections and give Indigenous people less control over their ancestral lands.

“It’s a bit like giving the fox the keys to the hen house. ... [President Bolsonaro] really threw the advantage to those interests that want as little forest land as possible to be under Indigenous control.”

Dan Nepstad, executive director and senior scientist for the Earth Innovation Institute

“It’s a bit like giving the fox the keys to the hen house,” said Dan Nepstad, executive director and senior scientist for the Earth Innovation Institute. “He really threw the advantage to those interests that want as little forest land as possible to be under Indigenous control.”

Related: The Amazon used to be a hedge against climate change. Those days may be over.

Brazil has long debated how much control Indigenous groups should have of their ancestral land. Bolsonaro’s solution, Nepstad says, was to take the responsibility of defining and officially demarcating Indigenous territories away from FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, which is specifically designed for that purpose.

For some years, FUNAI has been defining the appropriate boundaries of Indigenous territories, which are then formally demarcated as off-limits to development, Nepstad explains. Now MAPA, the agricultural ministry, will be responsible for this. “The concern is that the many Indigenous territories that are in the queue will now be dead in the water and, worse, that some that are quite far along the process could actually be reversed,” Nepstad said.

Brazil has one of the world’s most diverse populations of Indigenous people — around a million people who speak a couple hundred different languages. Other groups have been living in the forests for a century or more, including communities of escaped slaves.

Brazil has one of the world’s most diverse populations of Indigenous people — around a million people who speak a couple hundred different languages. Other groups have been living in the forests for a century or more, including communities of escaped slaves.

President Bolsonaro recently tweeted: “Less than 1 million people live in those places, isolated from the real Brazil. They are exploited and manipulated by nonprofits. Together, we will integrate those citizens and give value to all Brazilians.”

To some, this sounds like President Bolsonaro thinks he's doing Indigenous peoples a favor by integrating them into Brazilian society. Nepstad and others disagree.

In Brazil, Nepstad said, “there is a whole narrative that Indigenous people are primitive, malnourished, undereducated, [and] they don't get proper health care. In many cases, that's true. But I would point the finger at the federal government for the lack of services, more than the fact that Indigenous people are controlling their own destiny.”

Related: Will Brazil's women writers lose progress under far-right President Bolsonaro?

Among Indigenous people, there is a hunger for a better income, so they can keep their communities healthy and their customs and ceremonies alive, Nepstad says. Indigenous leaders say now that they have more control of their own territory, they need economic alternatives in order to thrive.

“There is a whole narrative that Indigenous people are primitive, malnourished, under-educated, [and] they don't get proper health care. In many cases, that's true. But I would point the finger at the federal government for the lack of services, more than the fact that Indigenous people are controlling their own destiny.”

Dan Nepstad, executive director and senior scientist for the Earth Innovation Institute

Environmental issues loom large over these land rights debates. The Amazon is already a stressed ecosystem and researchers warn of a tipping point: After a certain amount of deforestation, not enough forest will remain to maintain a thriving rainforest ecosystem. Nepstad believes this tipping point is not far off. Eighty percent of the original Amazon forest is still intact, and the science indicates that the tipping point for irreversible damage lies somewhere between 65 and 80 percent.

Many research studies find that the best way to protect rainforest is to empower the Indigenous people living there. Maps of a healthy rainforest and Indigenous populations overlap almost exactly.

Despite his deep concerns, Nepstad remains optimistic. One of the bright spots right now, he says, is a new set of partnerships between the organizations that represent Indigenous groups and state governments within Brazil.

He says he has seen “amazing progress” in bringing Indigenous leaders into the policy process. Even as Bolsonaro weakens FUNAI, he believes these state-level partnerships provide hope that Indigenous people will be a stronger voice in the policies that define the future of their region.

He also sees the debate shifting among the populace as more people begin to see the dangers of climate change. Despite the deniers and the rhetoric that claims that addressing climate change holds back the economy, Nepstad says, people are recognizing the advantages of saving the forests.

“When forests are falling, your kid has a much higher likelihood of having bronchitis. When forests are being burned, airports are closed and transmission lines are getting burned. There is a growing sense that Brazil has made a huge achievement and [a desire to] consolidate that achievement and really be proud of the Amazon. I think if conservation strategies tap into that hope, Brazil will contain the Bolsonaro presidency,” he said. 

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Historian: Technology and politics has always been dysfunctional in the US

Jan 23, 2019


Throughout his presidency, President Donald Trump has taken to Twitter with his spin on every twist and turn. So it might be tempting to believe that the relationship between technology and politics in our country’s history had never been this dysfunctional before.

Not quite so, if you consider the arguments of Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard University who, not surprisingly, takes the long view. Our political and communication systems have seen consistent cycles of utopian and dystopian visions around technology, she says and that is the consequence of too much “faith in technological change to fix political problems,” dating all the way back to the very founding of the country.

According to Lepore, the author of “These Truths: A History of the United States,” the framers of the Constitution thought of the document itself as a machine designed for ultimate political performance, “that would go on and on and on indefinitely, without breaking down.”

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass had high hopes for steamships and telegraphs in the mid-19th century. He also had great faith in photography as a democratic art form with the potential to “help end slavery,” according to Lepore.

Related: For years, activists in Southeast Asia warned Facebook that content on the platform could lead to real-life violence. Then it did.

Furthermore, Douglass thought photography could end racial discrimination because, “if people could be depicted accurately and not in racist caricatures, nobody could believe the lie of racism,” she says. Lepore now sees echoes of Douglass’ beliefs in the struggles of the activist movement, Black Lives Matter.

As new technologies rolled on to the scene, including radio and television, Lepore says that standards were introduced to require balanced coverage of different political views, but these were eventually tossed aside. She points to the Fairness Doctrine established by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949, and later repealed during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. More deregulation followed in 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act.

Subsequent debate about how best to keep our inventions in check have often come too late, Lepore argues, and she has a theory about why that is. It involves what she calls “the mad scientist.” It is not a term of endearment.

Related: Lawmakers want to know about Facebook's operations beyond the US

“The mad scientist moves from being a chemist in the 19th century, to a biologist in the beginning of the 20th century. Then the mad scientist is a physicist and now the mad scientist is a computer scientist.”

“It’s whatever thing we have thought was so great and gonna save the world and when we find out it’s not going to save the world, then we start having ethical conversations.”

Will those ethical conversations, and hopes of healing our divisions, become more difficult, now that we all inhabit our own technological bubbles, fueled by Facebook, Twitter, and cable news? Lepore doesn’t offer any predictions but with history as our guide, it doesn’t look so good.  

Elizabeth Ross is senior producer at Innovation Hub. You can follow her on Twitter: @eross6. This story originally appeared on the Innovation Hub. 

What Thwaites Glacier can tell us about the future of West Antarctica

Jan 23, 2019


Editor's note: The World’s Carolyn Beeler will be aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer for a seven-week research expedition to Thwaites Glacier this January through March. Follow along with her journey on The World, and on Instagram, @pritheworld. Have a question about Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica, life on the ship or anything else? Send a voice memo or email to, or leave her a message at 857-285-4157. 

Scientists this winter began a race against time to better understand a massive, and unstable, glacier that could change the world’s coastlines within decades.

An international group of researchers launched a five-year, roughly $50 million project to study Thwaites Glacier, a remote, and notoriously foul-weathered, glacier in the middle of West Antarctica.

“It’s about the size of the island of Great Britain,” said Ted Scambos, a University of Colorado scientist and co-leader of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration.

Related: As Greenland’s ice sheet melts, scientists push to learn ‘how fast’

“That’s a huge area. When you add something like a half a mile to a mile of ice over all of that … that’s what we’re going to pick up and put into the ocean.”

A map of West Antarctica shows the location of Thwaites Glacier

Source: Quantarctic, Norwegian Polar Institute, International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration


Alex Newman/The World

And because of the nature of the bedrock underneath it, if Thwaites starts to collapse, it could go fast, contributing roughly 2 feet of global sea level rise in as little as 50 years, Scambos said.

“That’s the problem. Having sea level rise is not nearly as big an issue as having it rise rapidly, faster than we’re able to react or plan or build,” Scambos said. “And so, that’s why Thwaites becomes really important because it could be a real, turbo-charging effect for how fast sea level rises around the world.”

The ultimate goal of the Thwaites project, which Scambos has been championing for years, is to develop more accurate global sea level rise models so coastal residents and governments have enough time to plan for future changes.

Related: An environmental newspaper fights for press freedom in the Russian Arctic

In cities like Miami, perhaps the American city most vulnerable to sea level rise, infrastructure decisions are made as early as 50 years out.

“Ultimately, the challenge is to understand the melting of the Antarctic ice so that we can better predict sea level rise over the next few decades and century.”

Karen Heywood, oceanographer, University of East Anglia

“Ultimately, the challenge is to understand the melting of the Antarctic ice so that we can better predict sea level rise over the next few decades and century,” said Karen Heywood, an oceanographer at the University of East Anglia involved with the research.

A ‘phenomenal effort’

The research is being funded by the US and Britain’s government scientific agencies, and over the next five years, eight teams of researchers, each led by one British and one American scientist, will try to answer key questions about the glacier. They include how much changing ocean circulation patterns and warming temperatures are melting the underside of the glacier; how “pinning points,” or ridges in the ocean floor underneath the land-based portion of the glacier will impact its destabilization;  and how to forecast or model a potentially rapid collapse at the face of the glacier.

So far this winter, hundreds of thousands of pounds of fuel and equipment have been airlifted to Thwaites in 35 trips by American military transport planes outfitted with skis and delivered by British ships to the floating sea ice on the edge of Antarctica.

“It’s a phenomenal effort on the part of both countries, UK and the US,” Scambos said.

The supplies will be stored on the ice next winter — Antarctica's summer — when the season on top of the glacier starts in earnest.

Related: As the Arctic warms up, a 'new ocean' is bringing new commerce to the top of the world

Under the ice shelf 

But studies at the glacier’s face and the ocean underneath it begin in just a few weeks, aboard a US research vessel with ice-breaking capabilities called the Nathaniel B. Palmer.

Karen Heywood, from the University of East Anglia, is co-leading a project that will focus this season on how much warming ocean water underneath the floating lip of the ice shelf is melting the glacier’s underside. Right now, no one knows exactly how deep the giant, underwater cave underneath the edge of Thwaites is, or what the ocean floor beneath it looks like.

“Under the ice shelf itself, we know almost nothing at the moment.” 

Karen Heywood, oceanographer, University of East Anglia

“Under the ice shelf itself, we know almost nothing at the moment,” Heywood said.


The Nathaniel B. Palmer US ice breaker, carrying scientists and a British robot submarine, docks at a port in Punta Arenas in southern Chile, Jan. 6, 2009, before a trip to Antarctica. The submarine will dive under an ice shelf in Antarctica to seek clues to world ocean level rises in one of the most inaccessible places on Earth. 


Alister Doyle/Reuters 

On the research cruise, one of Heywood’s collaborators, a Swedish researcher named Anna Wahlin, will test a robotic submarine called a HUGIN that will eventually navigate under that floating ice shelf.

“There’s never been any measurements or any instruments sent underneath the Thwaites Glacier ice shelf, and that’s really why it’s so exciting,” Heywood said.

Heywood’s team will also be tagging seals with sensors that will collect and transmit temperature and salinity data back to researchers for up to a year.

Another research group, co-led by the University of Houston’s Julia Wellner, will map the ocean floor using sonar technology and collect sediment cores to learn how ice reacted when it met warm water in the past.

“Did it [destabilize], did it take a step back when warm water reached it in the past,” Wellner said. “Or, was it somehow able to withstand those past warm-water incursions?"

A third research team will visit islands near Thwaites to search for organic material, such as penguin bones and seashells, to better understand historic sea level fluctuations in the area.

Research results are expected to start trickling out before the end of the year.

Thwaites, a 'lynchpin'

That data could help predict the future not just of Thwaites, but of the entire Mexico-sized, West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

“Thwaites is sort of in this lynchpin position,” Scambos said. “And if we lose Thwaites, it’s sort of like taking the middle out of this ice sheet. And that means that the other areas of the ice sheet are also going to collapse.”

A complete collapse of West Antarctica would push sea levels up 10 to 11 feet, Scambos said. That would likely take centuries but it could happen more rapidly.

“The worst case could be 100 years from now, that you would get that much water into the ocean. We don’t have high confidence in that. It could be that we have longer; it could be that we don’t have that long,” said Richard Alley, another collaborator on the project from Penn State University.

“We’re not sure yet what is the ‘black swan,’ the absolute worst thing that could happen at Thwaites.” 

Richard Alley, Penn State University

“We’re not sure yet what is the ‘black swan,’ the absolute worst thing that could happen at Thwaites,” Alley said. “We’re really hopeful that this five-year research collaboration will give us a lot of insight into [that].”

Scientists have known how important Thwaites is for years, but “there’s still not as much data on it as we’d like because it is so hard to access, even by Antarctic standards,” Wellner said.

The novelty of doing research in such a remote location and the urgency of the problem they’re trying to solve makes the research exciting, she said. But it also adds pressure to the 100-plus scientists involved with the project.

“There’s this big push that we need answers soon,” Wellner said. “There’s not more pressure to get it right than normal, but there’s more pressure to be quick about it.”

A teen scientist helped me discover tons of golf balls polluting the ocean

Jan 22, 2019


Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans has become a global environmental crisis. Many people have seen images that seem to capture it, such as beaches carpeted with plastic trash or a seahorse gripping a cotton swab with its tail.

As a scientist researching marine plastic pollution, I thought I had seen a lot. Then, early in 2017, I heard from Alex Weber, a junior at Carmel High School in California.

Alex emailed me after reading my scientific work, which caught my eye, since very few high schoolers spend their time reading scientific articles. She was looking for guidance on an unusual environmental problem. While snorkeling in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary near the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Alex and her friend Jack Johnston had repeatedly come across large numbers of golf balls on the ocean floor.

As environmentally conscious teens, they started removing golf balls from the water, one by one. By the time Alex contacted me, they had retrieved over 10,000 golf balls — more than half a ton.

four pictures of golf balls found at the bottom of the ocean

Dense aggregations of golf balls littering the sea floor in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, California.


Alex Weber, CC BY-ND

Golf balls sink, so they don’t become eyesores for future golfers and beachgoers. As a result, this issue had gone largely unnoticed. But Alex had stumbled across something big: a point source of marine debris — one that comes from a single, identifiable place — polluting federally protected waters. Our newly published study details the scope of this unexpected marine pollutant and some ways in which it could affect marine life.

Cleaning up the mess

two women in scuba suits collect golfballs

Alex Weber and Jack Johnston collecting golf balls from the sea floor.


Alex Weber, CC BY-ND

Many popular golf courses dot the central California coast and use the ocean as a hazard or an out-of-bounds. The most famous course, Pebble Beach Golf Links, is site of the 2019 US Open Championship.

Alex wanted to create a lasting solution to this problem. I told her that the way to do it was to meticulously plan and systematically record all future golf ball collections. Our goal was to produce a peer-reviewed scientific paper documenting the scope of the problem, and to propose a plan of action for golf courses to address it.

Alex, her friends and her father paddled, dove, heaved and hauled. By mid-2018 the results were startling: They had collected nearly 40,000 golf balls from three sites near coastal golf courses: Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and the Carmel River Mouth. And following Alex’s encouragement, Pebble Beach employees started to retrieve golf balls from beaches next to their course, amassing more than 10,000 additional balls.

In total, we collected 50,681 golf balls from the shoreline and shallow waters. This represented roughly 2.5 tons of debris — approximately the weight of a pickup truck. By multiplying the average number of balls lost per round played (1-3) and the average number of rounds played annually at Pebble Beach, we estimated that patrons at these popular courses may lose over 100,000 balls per year to the surrounding environment.

The toxicity of golf balls

Modern golf balls are made of a polyurethane elastomer shell and a synthetic rubber core. Manufacturers add zinc oxide, zinc acrylate and benzoyl peroxide to the solid core for flexibility and durability. These substances are also acutely toxic to marine life.

When golf balls are hit into the ocean, they immediately sink to the bottom. No ill effects on local wildlife have been documented to date from exposure to golf balls. But as the balls degrade and fragment at sea, they may leach chemicals and microplastics into the water or sediments. Moreover, if the balls break into small fragments, fish, birds or other animals could ingest them.

a sea otter holding a golfball

A sea otter holding a golf ball at one of our study sites. 


Alex Weber, CC BY-ND

The majority of the balls we collected showed only light wear. Some could even have been resold and played. However, others were severely degraded and fragmented by the persistent mechanical action of breaking waves and unremitting swell in the dynamic intertidal and nearshore environments. We estimated that over 60 pounds of irrecoverable microplastic had been shed from the balls we collected.


Thanks to Alex Weber, we now know that golf balls erode at sea over time, producing dangerous microplastics. Recovering the balls soon after they are hit into the ocean is one way to mitigate their impacts. Initially, golf course managers were surprised by our findings, but now they are working with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to address the problem.

Alex is also working with managers at the sanctuary to develop cleanup procedures that can prevent golf ball pollution in these waters from ever reaching these levels again. Although her study was local, her findings are worrisome for other regions with coastal golf courses. Nonetheless, they send a positive message: If a high school student can accomplish this much through relentless hard work and dedication, anyone can.The Conversation

Matthew Savoca, Postdoctoral researcher, Stanford University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

'Vaccine hesitancy' is on the WHO's list of 10 threats to global health in 2019

Jan 21, 2019


Every year, the World Health Organization releases a list of what they believe are the top 10 threats to global health. This year, the list included a few new additions like "weak primary health care" and what WHO calls "vaccine hesitancy" or the "reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines."

WHO outlines work to eliminate cervical cancer through HPV vaccines as a goal for the year. 

Air pollution and climate change were also identified as global health threats. 

The World's Marco Werman sat down with WHO's Tarik Jasarevic in Geneva, Switzerland, to talk about why some of the top 10 made it on the list. You can read the full list of issues here

Marco Werman: People like lists. It makes things easier to understand. This is kind of a life- and -death list, though. How do you make the decision to put a threat on the list for 2019? What are the factors? 

Tarik Jasarevic: It’s not really a ranking list. We wanted to show the range of health risks that the human population is facing these days. So, this is not an exhaustive list. And it really ranges from outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, to noncommunicable diseases to humanitarian crises to weak health systems. 

Yes, so the threats range from air pollution and climate change to HIV. Could any of these threats actually be real in 2019? Like, influenza. Do you see any potential outbreak on the horizon? 

When it comes to influenza, we know for sure that there will be a new pandemic. But we don't know when, and we don't know how severe it will be. We know that influenza viruses are changing. We always have new strains, and we just don't know how severe the new strain will be. 

What we need to do is basically two things: One is what we are already doing — preparing the seasonal vaccine so that we protect people based on our calculations on what combination of viruses should be dominant in the coming months for either northern or southern hemisphere. More importantly, we need to be ready. We need to raise preparedness in all countries, so once we get this pandemic, we are able to quickly detect this strain of influenza virus and prepare vaccines quickly and use those vaccines. 

There are obviously other things that we have been fighting for years, like HIV. We made huge progress but unfortunately, still 1 million people die every year of HIV/AIDS, despite the progress we made in putting people on antiretrovirals.  

There's been a big reaction to "vaccine hesitancy" making the WH0's 10 threat issues list for 2019. It's really anti-vaxxers being on the list. Not getting your kids vaccinated, that's a largely personal choice, isn't it? 

Well, people do not vaccinate their children for various reasons. It's not so simple, really, to put everyone in the same category. People don't do it sometimes because of inconvenience to access vaccines. Sometimes, it's complacency. Sometimes, it's a lack of confidence (in vaccines).  What we really have to do is remind everyone that vaccines do prevent between 2 and 3 million deaths a year. And further, 1.5 million children could be saved if the immunization coverage would be optimal. We see the return of diseases. And while it is maybe normal, though unfortunate, that we see this in conflict areas and in humanitarian crises, when the immunization coverage goes down, we see a re-emergence of diseases like diphtheria and polio, as we have seen in Syria, Yemen or Bangladesh. But we also see the rise of measles, for example, by 30 percent globally — and in countries who are not really in a humanitarian or conflict context. So, it is important that we all understand the importance of vaccines. 

So, we know that in the US, an outbreak of measles has occurred, as well. As far as parents opting or choosing not to vaccinate their kids, is that a uniquely American or Western trend? 

No, we have seen this in different areas of the world. Locally, there could be some resistance for all sorts of reasons. To give you an example, we are doing the Ebola response in DR Congo and in some instances, people may not want to accept interventions for all sorts of rumors, or fears because of misconceptions. And this can happen in any society, really. 

One thing that really struck me, Tarik, is that a lot of the threats on this list actually seem fairly manageable but we as individuals or groups of people don't seem to have a handle on them. Is that fair? 

Well, it depends. For example, when it comes to air pollution — this is closely linked to climate change — we know that nine out of 10 people are breathing polluted air. And air is polluted because of the use of fossil fuels. And we know that 7 million people die due to the diseases that can be linked to environmental health risks. And this is something, really, that we just started working to find solutions for. We hosted the first global air pollution conference this year. But we know that more has to be done. 

Air pollution and climate change is a massive thing to tackle. I mean, what can the WHO do about that? 

We are part of a global UN community, and wider as well, trying really to make sure that everyone understands that this will have a concrete impact. Some may think that it's a very conservative estimate, that climate change up to 2050 can provoke at least 250,000 additional deaths per year. That’s due to malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea, heat, stress and all sorts of health conditions. 

But again we need really to ... work with countries to try to see how their system can be adapted. For example, look at one of the things on the list is a dengue fever. And why is dengue fever on the list? Dengue fever has been there for a long time. It is because of a climate change that we are seeing a vector that is transmitting dengue but also some other vector-borne diseases in areas that we have not seen before. And then more and more people are getting at risk of vector-borne diseases simply because vector, such as a mosquito, is moving to new areas because of a climate change. And people who don't have immunity are more likely, obviously, to get infected. 

So, as you say, this list isn't a ranking, per se. Is the idea then to draw people's attention to these threats, that perhaps they might not have been thinking about? 

I think that the intention is to say, "Look how wide the range of health threats is." It really goes from what you see on TV, such as Ebola outbreak, to things that you don't maybe hear so much about, but like noncommunicable diseases, kills 70 percent of people. 

Seventy percent of people who die every day will die from noncommunicable diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension. And we know what the risk factors are: tobacco, alcohol, lack of physical activity, and inappropriate nutrition as well as air pollution. So, we have to tackle all these issues. From highly killing pathogens like Ebola to something that is linked to a lifestyle like noncommunicable diseases — to something that exists for a long time, like HIV and dengue. And then we really need to look into the underlying issue — and that's the strength of health systems. Because what WHO is saying is that we want universal health coverage. We want every individual on this planet to be able to access basic health care at an affordable cost, including accessing the medicines at affordable cost. Now, this cannot happen without strong primary health care systems. And we have also seen that when you have an outbreak of a highly infectious pathogen — like hemorrhagic fevers, Ebola, Lassa fever or yellow fever — that only systems that are strong enough can really quickly detect and respond to outbreaks of these pathogens.

So, basically, we want countries to invest in their health systems.

Is there anything that you'd recommend for each of us as individuals to take on as an immediate action? 

Well, I think what individuals should be doing is really following the advice of health authorities because health authorities are in the position to provide really credible and scientifically based advice on what persons should be doing. For example, we mention antimicrobial resistance. This is about people using antibiotics in a responsible way, so we slow down this process of pathogens mutating and becoming resistant to medicines. 

In other words, follow your doctor's advice. 


This interview was condensed and edited for clarity. 

Newark, NJ, has a lead contamination problem in its water

Jan 19, 2019 10:48


Hundreds of thousands of citizens may be at risk of lead exposure from their tap water in Newark, New Jersey.

The city recently started handing out water filters to some of its citizens after plans to replace the city's lead piping system stalled. The National Resource Defense Council has sued the city of Newark to force it to respond to its water contamination problems.

“Newark has pretty serious lead contamination, which has been going on for at least a couple of years,” says Erik Olson, the NRDC’s Senior Director of Health and Food. “We know that at least since January of 2017, the city had levels of lead that far exceed the EPA's ‘action level,’ as it's called. A lot of kids, especially, are being put at risk from that."

Newark is just one of the thousands of communities across the US still served by water systems that are in violation of federal lead standards, according to recent studies. The NRDC says more than 18 million people nationwide are at risk of lead exposure from their water. Exposure to lead in the womb or during early childhood has been linked to learning disabilities, lowered IQ, behavioral problems, school delinquency and even crime later in life. Some of these effects appear to be irreversible.

Scientists agree on one key point: There is no safe level of lead. Studies have shown that even very low levels of lead can cause harm to a child's brain, especially if the child is young and still developing.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one part per billion of lead in any school drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency’s target for treating water is 15 parts per billion. In some areas of Newark, levels are currently running at about 51 parts per billion, Olson says.

Like many older cities, Newark has thousands of water service lines made from pure lead. These are the pipes that connect the water main in the street to people's homes.

“The problem, of course, is that lead is poisonous and when water runs through the pipe, it's sort of like drinking your water through a lead straw,” Olson says. “Estimates are that as many as six million to 10 million homes in the US are served by these lead pipes. And because the city of Newark isn’t treating its water correctly to make sure it is not corrosive, that corrosive water is leaching lead out of the pipes — and even out of indoor plumbing — and contaminating the tap water in many homes across the city.”

In Newark, schools have installed filters in order to try to reduce students’ exposure to lead. And now, after NRDC sued the city on behalf of local citizens, Newark has started to offer water filters to about 40,000 households across the city. “The filters are not being offered to everyone in the city, which is a big problem, but we're hoping that they’ll get filters for everybody until they actually fix the [underlying] problem,” Olson says. “Everybody at risk should be protected.”

For the vast majority of homes, however, filters are only a temporary measure, Olson says. To protect its citizens over the long term, Newark needs to do two things: First, it needs to treat its water so it doesn't leach lead out of lead pipes; secondly, they need to pull all the lead pipes out of the ground. “Even a corrosion-control treatment is not a full solution to the problem,” Olson notes. “People can continue to be exposed to lead until the pipes get pulled out of the ground.”

Digging up streets, pulling out a huge network of lead pipes and putting in new pipes is expensive, but some cities have already done it and others are beginning the process, Olson says.

“You don't actually have to dig up the entire street and the entire front lawn [anymore],” he explains. “There are now newer technologies in which you can just dig a small pit at each end of the lead service line and pull a new pipe through while you pull out the old lead pipe. It's much cheaper and more efficient.”

But cost is not the only issue facing state government officials, Olson says. In some cases, city officials, water utilities and anti-regulatory forces apply political pressure on state agencies not to bring enforcement action. They also push for cuts to EPA’s budget and to state environmental agency budgets to limit enforcement resources. This has created a culture, Olson says, in which cities and utilities “can violate safe drinking water rules with impunity.”

An NRDC survey of violations and enforcement actions found that only three percent of violations nationwide faced any threat of penalties. “I think that sends a pretty clear signal,” Olson says.

On a hopeful note, Olson points out that many newly elected members of Congress have spoken out about this problem and want to invest in the country’s drinking water infrastructure.

“We know it's going to cost billions of dollars to fix these lead contamination problems and other drinking water contamination issues,” he says. “I think there's a good chance, especially if the public pushes hard, that infrastructure legislation could address this issue and could help pay for pulling these lead pipes out of the ground. So, stay tuned.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Take a dip in the woods: Scientists say ‘forest bathing’ is good for you

Jan 19, 2019


When is the last time you took a walk in the woods? Numerous studies suggest that taking in the peaceful atmosphere of a forest can have significant health benefits. Now, the practice of “forest bathing” is becoming more popular around the world.

“The first forest bathing started in Japan in the 1980s as a form of preventative health care,” said Moshe Sherman, a medical qi gong therapist who leads regular forest bathing outings. “The idea is that in order to balance the stress of urban life, we need to expose ourselves to nature. It's very simple: Just get yourself into nature and be present.”

Related: Getting outside is a prescription for better health

The Japanese tradition in which practitioners spend meditative time breathing in nature is known as shinrin-yoku. It differs from walking or hiking in subtle but significant ways, Sherman says.

“We don't have a destination in mind, and we don't rush. Just like when we take a bath in hot water, we settle in and relax,” he said. “We can talk, but it's not a time to talk about work, like we might during a walk with a friend, or to complain about relationships. It’s a time to go inward.”

“The idea is that in order to balance the stress of urban life, we need to expose ourselves to nature. It's very simple: Just get yourself into nature and be present.”

Moshe Sherman, medical Qi Gong therapist , forest bathing guide

The idea is to bring the healing energy of nature into ourselves in every way. The Japanese term shinrin-yoku literally means “to bring in the forest.” “We bring it in through our eyes; we bring it in through our ears — hearing the sounds. We bring it in through feeling, whether it's feeling the weather or touching a leaf,” Sherman explained. 

In the urban environment, people often put up what Sherman calls “energetic shields” to protect themselves from the battering of city life. Being out in the forest is a chance for those shields to come down, he says.

“Forest bathing” has been widely researched, mostly in Asia and Europe, Sherman notes. A review published in the summer of 2017 analyzed 143 research studies and noted the likely benefits of forest bathing to the human cardiovascular system, the respiratory system and, perhaps most importantly, to the immune system. One 20-minute session of forest bathing led to an increase in a type of white blood cell called NK cells, or natural killer cells — cells that protect humans from viruses and even from tumor formations.

Plants and trees give off organic compounds called phytoncides, which help protect them from parasites and disease. These compounds are also beneficial for human health, according to some research. “When we're around trees, and we're around plant life, we're breathing those in,” Sherman said. 

Scientists, and Sherman, too, have also noted the psychological benefits of the practice.

Related: How working the land is helping US war veterans heal

“People usually feel more relaxed, more present, and when you start to talk to people, you realize that they're processing some heavy stuff that they're going through in their lives,” Sherman said. “It helps them with that. People report feeling better overall. People are chatty, which is always a good sign after a healing session or after a group event when people feel chatty. It means the energy is flowing; it means they're feeling uplifted and feeling open to sharing and receiving.”

What’s more, once you’ve learned how to forest bathe, you can do it anytime.

“It’s more fun when you do it with a group, but you can do it yourself once you know how to do it,” he said. “It's like that saying: ‘Give a person a fish, they eat for a day; teach them how to fish and they can eat forever.’ I think forest bathing is so essential to modern life and to creating balance and health in the modern environment.”

This article is based on a report by Kara Holsopple of The Allegheny Front that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

National parks and public lands suffer during US government shutdown

Jan 19, 2019


When the United States government began a partial shutdown on Dec. 22, 2018, many national parks were left open without adequate personnel.

All across the country, facilities on public lands and at national monuments are critically understaffed when furloughed employees stay home, which leads to a host of problems: overflowing trash cans, illegal off-road driving, poaching of animals and plants, and theft of artifacts, as well as safety risks for park visitors.

Former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell experienced a government shutdown when she worked in the Obama administration. At that time, parks and monuments closed to protect them from harm. She calls the Trump administration’s decision to keep them open “incredibly unwise.”

“It leaves the assets that remind us of our history and our past vulnerable to vandalism, souvenir taking and bad action,” Jewell says. “The number of law enforcement people that are still on staff can't possibly be the eyes and ears that the National Mall or other parks need to make sure that these places are protected.”

The Interior Department is responsible for more than 400 sites, including national parks and historic buildings and structures. Other conservation areas, including the National Forest system, are run by the Department of Agriculture. Jewell says that department is also facing problems.

“I’m really feeling sick about the message the shutdown sends to the men and women who work for the federal government about their value.

Sally Jewell, former US secretary of the interior

Related: What’s the economic impact of a government shutdown?

“The campgrounds are not getting service, the restrooms aren't getting cleaned; people will get lost on the trails, dogs are going off leash in areas where that's not allowed, which impacts wildlife,” she says. “So, really, it's very much the same situation for the US Forest Service as it is for the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies that oversee public lands. They all have vulnerabilities and they're all being impacted."

Without appropriate staff in place, poachers can more easily take plants or animals from the parks, which undermines the overall ecosystem and the sustainable use of those products within the ecosystems, Jewell says. At Joshua Tree National Park, for example, trees have been cut down and visitors have driven their vehicles off-road, inflicting permanent damage on the sensitive cryptobiotic crust. “It will stay with those imprints of tires or footprints for hundreds of years,” Jewell says. “These are the kinds of things that people may or may not recognize, but that damage is being done right now.”

During the 2013 shutdown, people poached old growth trees from Olympic National Park. It’s difficult enough to police this type of activity with full staffing, Jewell says, so “there’s no possible way that people can police something like that with limited capacity. This is, I'm sure, happening throughout our national forests and our national parks right now.”

The shutdown does not just increase the risk to assets the park protects and to the people who visit them, Jewell adds. It also causes a break in the collection of data for much of the science that takes place in the parks. Some of this loss of data could have profound effects on research results.

Related: This busy LA immigration court is now a ‘ghost town’ in wake of government shutdown

But perhaps the biggest long-term impact of the shutdown is on the morale of the employees — the fact that when they eventually go back to work, they will be faced with cleaning up the mess.

“When your career has been built around protecting these resources, understanding them, removing invasive species and educating people who come and visit, to come back multiple weeks later after a shutdown and to be faced with the visual and the olfactory [effects] and the deep, personal sense of offense you would feel when you walk in there — it is just demoralizing,” Jewell says. “We need people to want to be public servants, to be appreciated for being public servants. That is hard to quantify but very, very damaging with a shutdown of this nature.”

She adds: “I’m really feeling sick about the message the shutdown sends to the men and women who work for the federal government about their value. I'm sick about the impact on the science that we're not going to get back. I am sick about the poaching that I know is going on, the vandalism that I know is going on, the artifacts that I know are being slipped into people's pockets, the work that would be done to help protect our forests from fires, the work that would be done to reduce the risk of invasive species.”

Jewell says that during her time at Interior, she saw how deeply people cared about public lands — and this sentiment occurred across the political spectrum. “They want to see these place preserved and protected, not just for now, but for the generations to follow,” Jewell says.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Trump reveals missile defense strategy with eye on North Korea

Jan 17, 2019


President Donald Trump unveiled a revamped US missile defense strategy on Thursday that called North Korea an ongoing and "extraordinary threat," seven months after he declared the threat posed by Pyongyang had been eliminated.

The plan, which also detailed concerns about the burgeoning capabilities of Iran, Russia and China, called for developing space-based sensors to detect incoming enemy missiles and exploring space-based weapons to shoot down missiles among other steps to shield the United States.

The open acknowledgment in the Missile Defense Review of US plans to counter Russian and Chinese technological advances likely will alarm those nations. It marked a departure from the approach taken by Republican Trump's Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, to tamp down concerns by major nuclear powers about expanding US missile defenses.

"Our goal is simple: To ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States — anywhere, anytime, anyplace," Trump said at the Pentagon.

Trump did not mention the North Korean missile threat in his remarks. But acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan called North Korea's missiles a "significant concern."

"While a possible new avenue to peace now exists with North Korea, it continues to pose an extraordinary threat and the United States must remain vigilant," the report said.

For Trump, who is trying to revive efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear arsenal, the report's release came at an awkward moment. Senior North Korean envoy Kim Yong Chol was headed for Washington on Thursday for expected talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday and a possible encounter with Trump, a person familiar with the matter said. 

The talks could lead to an announcement of plans for a second Trump summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after their meeting last year in Singapore, the source told Reuters.

Trump wrote on Twitter after the June 2018 summit that there is "no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea."

Space-based sensors 

The Missile Defense Review recommended studying experimental technologies including space-based weaponry that might be able to shoot down enemy missiles, a throwback to former President Ronald Reagan's 1980s "Star Wars" initiative.

It called for investments in space-based sensors that can better detect and track incoming missiles, and perhaps counter super-fast hypersonic technology, an area in which China has made major advances and Russia is actively working.

"The US will now adjust its posture to also defend against any missile strikes including cruise and hypersonic missiles," Trump said.

The document also pointed to projects by US defense industry giants including Raytheon Co, Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co.

"We are committed to establishing a missile-defense program that can shield every city in the United States. And we will never negotiate away our right to do this," Trump said.

A senior Russian legislator, Viktor Bondarev, said after Trump's announcement that the new US strategy would ramp up global tensions, according to Interfax news agency.

The United States previously announced plans to increase the number of ground-based interceptors over the next several years, hiking the number positioned at Fort Greely, Alaska to 64 from 44. Greely, the report said, "has the potential for up to an additional 40 interceptors." The United States is looking at an additional site to host missile interceptors as well.

Trump specifically mentioned Iran's capabilities. The report said Iran possesses the largest ballistic missile force in the Middle East.

"Its desire to have a strategic counter to the United States could drive it to field an ICBM," the report said, referring to an intercontinental ballistic missile.

US officials have said American missile defenses are primarily designed to counter attacks from countries with more-limited arsenals like North Korea, which US intelligence officials believe is still advancing its nuclear program despite a halt to missile launches last year.

Pentagon officials contend that American missiles defenses are too few to effectively counter a major first-strike on the US homeland by an advanced nuclear power like Russia or China. Washington hopes those countries will instead be deterred from attacks by America's nuclear arsenal.

The 'Green New Deal' started with six angry college grads. Now, they're recruiting an army of young people.

Jan 14, 2019


If you’ve heard of the buzzy, new climate plan the Green New Deal, it’s probably been linked to progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“This is going to be the Great Society, the moonshot, the civil rights movement of our generation,” the freshman representative from the Bronx said of the Green New Deal at a climate change town hall in December. “That is the scale of the ambition that this movement is going to require.”

In November, Ocasio-Cortez sketched out her vision to create a massive green jobs and infrastructure program to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions within a decade and guarantee any American who wants one a job along the way. Like just about everything Ocasio-Cortez does, the idea got a lot of attention.

Related: New Chinese policy is forcing people to think: Is there a better way to recycle?

But it didn’t start with her.

The concept of a “green” version of the Depression-era, New Deal policy has been floated by everyone from The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman to the United Nations over the past decade or so.

But in its current form, it’s the brainchild of the Sunrise Movement, a youth activist group that's been working with Ocasio-Cortez since before she got elected.

Sunrise was founded about a year and a half ago by six recent college graduates, veterans of organizing climate campaigns from their campuses.  

“All of us were feeling this sense of unease and frustration that the hurricanes were getting bigger, the fires were getting bigger ... but our movements weren’t growing with them,” said Varshini Prakash, one of Sunrise’s six co-founders, who organized a successful fossil fuel divestment campaign at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Sunrise Movement launched in July 2017 with a big idea: the Green New Deal, a series of proposals to move America off fossil fuels fast by creating millions of green jobs.

“We really see it as not just a climate policy, but a socio-economic project to rival some of the greatest projects in American history,” Prakash told The World.  

Related: The world struck a major climate deal in Poland. So, what’s in it?


The ambitious idea landed on the national stage in November, when members of the group staged a sit-in in the office of the presumptive Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Interest in the group has soared since then. According to Sunrise, it has added 100 local chapters since November, and roughly 1,300 people joined the group’s first strategy videoconference of the new year. 

In that Jan. 10 call, leaders outlined their plan for 2019, which includes fanning out across the country to recruit new members, demonstrating outside of Democratic primary debates and organizing to get candidates elected that support their vision. 

“Everybody who is not with us, we need to kick out in 2020 and elect champions who are going to stand for the Green New Deal,” Sunrise co-founder Will Lawrence said during the call. “And if we do that, we have a window of opportunity to actually pass this thing in 2021.”

So far, likely Democratic presidential contenders including Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have supported the idea.

That’s even though the Green New Deal’s goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions in America by 2030 may well be impossible. A recent UN report found a goal half that ambitious on a global, rather than national scale, would require unprecedented change in nearly every aspect of life.

“The goal of carbon neutrality in 10 years is not technically feasible, for a host of different reasons,” said Harvard professor and climate change expert Dan Schrag. "But to me, that’s missing the point of the excitement of the Green New Deal. The activism and enthusiasm, partly triggered by Ocasio-Cortez, seems to tie the climate problem in with a variety of other issues — including jobs for all, living wages, health care for all — and that coupling is a new twist in this story, and I think it’s really exciting.”

The Green New Deal is an idea, not a fully fleshed-out policy proposal, so there’s no official budget estimate attached. Sunrise itself estimates the program would cost “trillions.”

Related: An Alaskan village is falling into the sea. Washington is looking the other way.

But activists like longtime Washington, DC, environmental campaigner Ben Weiss say they have to aim high.

“It’s the role of outside organizations to push the system as far as it can go,” Weiss said.

Sunrise wants to do that by assembling what it calls an “army” of young people to get supporters of the Green New Deal elected in 2020.

“We’re pissed off that our leaders have failed to do something about [climate change],” Prakash said, “and we’re going to be left dealing with the repercussions of their inaction. So, we have to be the ones to do it if anything’s going to happen.”

Sunrise's tone is decidedly optimistic, but its messaging and the personal stories its members share includes a healthy dose of outrage. And that isn't unique to young Americans. It’s echoed by young activists all over the world right now.

Fifteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg stole the show at the December UN climate talks in Poland when she told the assembled world leaders that they were “not mature enough to tell it like it is.”

“We have not come here to beg world leaders to care,” she said. “We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

Sunrise’s Prakash says it’s no coincidence that young people around the world sound as if they’ve read from the same playbook.

“This is a global fight, honestly, to protect the future of human civilization, and I think that’s how our generation really sees it, which is why we’re seeing people rise up in every corner of the world.”

The question now is whether the buzz surrounding the Green New Deal will eventually lead to action in Washington, and beyond.

Countering Russian disinformation the Baltic nations’ way

Jan 10, 2019


As the new Congress begins, it will soon discuss the comprehensive reports to the US Senate on the disinformation campaign of half-truths, outright fabrications and misleading posts made by agents of the Russian government on social media in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

After years of anemic responses to Russian influence efforts, official US government policy now includes taking action to combat disinformation campaigns sponsored by Russia or other countries. In May 2018, the Senate Intelligence Committee endorsed the concept of treating attacks on the nation’s election infrastructure as hostile acts to which the US “will respond accordingly.” In June, the Pentagon unleashed US Cyber Command to respond to cyberattacks more aggressively, and the National Cyber Strategy published in September 2018 clarified that “all instruments of national power are available to prevent, respond to, and deter malicious cyber activity against the United States.”

Related: Ukrainian Orthodox Church gains independence from Moscow: ‘We have been waiting for this’

There are already indications that Cyber Command conducted operations against Russian disinformation on social media, including warning specific Russians not to interfere with the 2018 elections. However, low-level cyberwarfare is not necessarily the best way. European countries, especially the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have confronted Russian disinformation campaigns for decades. Their experience may offer useful lessons as the US joins the battle.

The Baltic experience

Beginning in 1940 and continuing until they declared independence in the early 1990s, the Baltic countries were subjected to systematic Russian gaslighting designed to make people doubt their national history, culture and economic development.

The Soviets rewrote history books to falsely emphasize Russian protection of the Baltic people from invading hordes in the Middle Ages, and to convey the impression that the cultural evolution of the three countries was enabled by their allegiance and close ties to Russia. Even their national anthems were rewritten to pay homage to Soviet influence.

Soviet leaders devalued Baltic currencies and manipulated economic data to falsely suggest that Soviet occupation was boosting the Baltic economies. Further, Soviet authorities settled ethnic Russians in the Baltic countries, and made Russian the primary language used in schools.

Related: Russia’s shadow armies: Soldiers, mercenaries or volunteers?

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Baltic countries, the Russian Federation has continued to deliver disinformation to the region, making extensive use of Russian-language social media. Some themes characterize the Baltic people as ungrateful for Soviet investment and aid after World War II. Another common message criticizes Baltic historians for “falsification of history” when really they are describing the real nature of the Soviet occupation.

A massive Russian attack

After independence, and as the internet grew, Estonia led the way in applying technology to accelerate economic development. The country created systems for a wide range of government and commercial services, including voting, banking and filing tax returns electronically. Today, Estonia’s innovative e-residency system is being adopted in many other countries.

These advances made the Baltics a prime target for cyberattacks. In the spring of 2007, the Russians struck. When Estonia moved a monument memorializing Soviet soldiers from downtown Tallinn, the country’s capital, to a military cemetery a couple of miles away, it provoked the ire of ethnic Russians living in Estonia as well as the Russian government.

Bronze Soldier of Tallinn

The relocation of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn sparked a Russian cyberattack on Estonia in 2007.


Keith Ruffles/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

For three weeks, Estonian government, financial and media computer systems were bombarded with enormous amounts of internet traffic in a “distributed denial of service” attack. In these situations, an attacker sends overwhelming amounts of data to the targeted internet servers, clogging them up with traffic and either slowing them down or knocking them offline entirely. Despite concerns about the first “cyber war,” however, these attacks resulted in little damage. Although Estonia was cut off from the global internet temporarily, the country’s economy suffered no lasting harm.

Related: Trump's business history with Russia is a long and colorful one

These attacks could have severely damaged the country’s financial system or power grid. But Estonia was prepared. The country’s history with Russian disinformation had led Estonia to expect Russian attacks on computer and information systems. In anticipation, the government spearheaded partnerships with banks, internet service providers and other organizations to coordinate responses to cyberattacks. In 2006, Estonia was one of the first countries to create a Computer Emergency Response Team to manage security incidents.

The Baltic response

After the 2007 attack, the Baltic countries upped their game even more. For example, Estonia created the Cyber Defense League, an army of volunteer specialists in information technology. These experts focus on sharing threat information, preparing society for responding to cyber incidents and participating in international cyber defense activities.

Related: What's the deal with Vladimir Putin calendars?

Internationally, Estonia gained approval in 2008 to establish NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn. Its comprehensive research into global cyber activities helps identify best practices in cyber defense and training for NATO members.

In 2014, Riga, the capital of neighboring Latvia, became home to another NATO organization combating Russian influence, the Strategic Communications Center of Excellence. It publishes reports on Russian disinformation activities, such as the May 2018 study of the “Virtual Russian World in the Baltics.” That report analyzes Russian social media activities targeting Baltic nations with a “toxic mix of disinformation and propaganda.” It also provides insight into identifying and detecting Russian disinformation campaigns.

Baltic elves” — volunteers who monitor the internet for Russian disinformation – became active in 2015 after the Maidan Square events in the Ukraine. And the Baltic nations have fined or suspended media channels that display bias.

The Baltic countries also rely on a European Union agency formed in 2015 to combat Russian disinformation campaigns directed against the EU. The agency identifies disinformation efforts and publicizes accurate information that the Russians are seeking to undermine. A new effort will issue rapid alerts to the public when potential disinformation is directed against the 2019 European Parliament elections.

Will the ‘Baltic model’ work in the US?

Because of their political acknowledgment of threats and actions taken by their governments to fight disinformation, a 2018 study rated Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania the three European Union members best at responding to Russian disinformation.

Some former US officials have suggested adopting similar practices, including publicizing disinformation efforts and evidence tying them to Russia. The Senate Intelligence Committee has called for that too, as has the Atlantic Council, an independent think tank that focuses on international affairs.

The US could also mobilize volunteers to boost citizens’ and businesses’ cyberdefenses and teach people to identify and combat disinformation.

Related: How a sanctioned Russian bank wooed Washington

Disinformation is a key part of Russia’s overall effort to undermine Western governments. As a result, the battle is ever-changing, with Russians constantly trying new angles of attack and target countries like the Baltic nations identifying and thwarting those efforts. The most effective responses will involve coordination between governments, commercial technology companies and the news industry and social media platforms to identify and address disinformation.

A similar approach may work in the US, though it would require far more collaboration than has existed so far. But backed by the new government motivation to strike back when provoked, the methods used in the Baltic states and across Europe could provide a powerful new deterrent against Russian influence in the West.The Conversation

Terry Thompson, Adjunct Instructor in Cybersecurity, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Clean up your cyber-hygiene — 6 changes to make in the new year

Dec 31, 2018


Data breaches, widespread malware attacks and microtargeted personalized advertising were lowlights of digital life in 2018.

As technologies change, so does the advice security experts give for how to best stay safe. As 2019 begins, I’ve pulled together a short list of suggestions for keeping your digital life secure and free of manipulative disinformation.

Related: Can the US protect its power grid from hackers?

1. Set your boundaries and stick to them

As part of my research, I’ve recently been speaking with a number of sex workers in Europe about their digital security and privacy. One consistent thing I’ve heard from them is, “The best way to stay safe is to set boundaries.” Decide — on your own, and in advance — what data you’re willing to share with apps and online services, and stick to those limits.

That way, when the latest new app asks you for permission that oversteps what you’re willing to share, you’ll be more prepared to answer. Also set limits on the online discussions you’re willing to participate in; bow out when a discussion is hurting more than helping you. It’s even useful to set boundaries for how much time you’re willing to spend on digital security — which could be an endless task.

2. Burst your filter bubble

People who get their news primarily — or exclusively — from social media are subjecting themselves to the whims of the algorithms that decide what to display to each user.

Because of how these algorithms work, those people are likely to see articles only from news sources they already like and tend to agree with. This isolation from people with other views, and from evidence that might challenge particular perspectives, contributes to unprecedented levels of partisanship and disagreement in modern society.

Free online tools like AllSides and Purple Feed are some places that show news reports and social media posts from differing political perspectives and identify information that’s generally agreed upon across the political spectrum.

3. Manage your passwords

The biggest threat to password security is no longer the strength of your passwords but the fact that many people reuse the same passwords for all, or many, of their accounts. Researchers are busy designing notifications to tell you when one of these reused passwords has been leaked to the world, but it’s safer to use different passwords, especially for your most valuable accounts.

You can use password manager software. Or, use the original low-tech method, writing your passwords down on paper. Believe it or not, it’s much safer to write them down than reuse the same password everywhere. Of course, this is true only if you’re sure the people you live with or frequent visitors to your home won’t try to get into your accounts.

Related: Hackers find the processing power they need for mining for cryptocurrencies through ‘cryptojacking’

4. Turn on multi-factor authentication

Adding an additional step for logging in to your most important social media, email and financial accounts can add lots of protection. Multi-factor authentication systems are best known for texting you a six-digit code to type in as part of your login process. While any multi-factor authentication is better than none, text messages can fairly easily be intercepted or spied on. An even safer route is to use a special code-generating app on your phone.

People who change phones or SIM cards often, or who want additional protection, might consider using a physical key that plugs into your computer to authorize a login. They can take a bit more time to set up initially but then work much faster than most other methods.

5. Delete apps you don’t use

Smartphone apps track where you are very closely, and share your location data with advertising and marketing companies.

Just carrying a phone in your pocket can give tracking companies clues to where you go and how long you stay, and technical details about your phone can offer clues to your identity.

If you don’t use an app anymore, uninstall it from your phone. If you need it again, you can always reinstall it quickly — but in the meantime, it won’t be tracking you around the world and around the web.

Related: Russian hackers targeted US conservative think-tanks, says Microsoft

6. Keep the apps you do use up-to-date

Software companies don’t always know about all the vulnerabilities in their programs — and when they issue updates users don’t always know if they’re fixing a major problem or something minor. The top piece of advice experts give is to keep your software up-to-date on your computers and your mobile devices.

Having spent 2018 worrying about how hackers, corporate executives and hurried programmers might be trying to exploit your data and your cognitive and digital vulnerabilities, resolve to be more secure in 2019.The Conversation

Elissa Redmiles is a PhD student in computer ccience at the University of Maryland.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Venezuelans fear 'Fatherland Card' may be a new form of social control

Dec 28, 2018


When Reuters revealed in November 2018 that the Venezuelan government had contracted with the Chinese company ZTE to develop a national biometric identification system, public reactions were mixed.

The report stirred outrage both in Venezuela and internationally. But for those who have closely followed the Venezuelan government as it has tightened its grip on people's data and communications, the report represented yet another chapter in a very long story.

The report confirmed suspicions and denunciations made months ago, increasing fears that the alliance with ZTE will bring Venezuela closer to the implementation of a social credit score system similar to what is used in China. This system would determine which citizens have access to basic services based on their political allegiances. It also prompted the US government to initiate investigations into the role of ZTE in Venezuela.

How is the Fatherland Card used?

The Reuters story pointed to the participation of ZTE  in the development of a monitoring system whose primary tool is the “Carnet de la Patria”, or Fatherland Card. This identification card captures multiple pieces of personal data coupled with a unique and personalized QR code. It also serves as a digital wallet within an electronic payment system.

The government has strongly promoted the Fatherland Card as a way to facilitate multiple public services. The card can be requested voluntarily and free of charge. During this process, whoever wants to get a Fatherland Card must answer questions about their social and economic status.

Those who have the card gain access to food and medicine, which have become dangerously scarce amid Venezuela's political and economic crisis. They can also access certain government bonds and gasoline discounts, which are newly important. After decades of reasonable local rates, gas prices are now competitive with international rates.

In principle, the Fatherland Card was introduced as a way to streamline the state-administered distribution of food. More recently, the card has been integrated into state processes for accessing legal and personal documents, which can be extraordinarily difficult to obtain in Venezuela.

It is estimated that more than 70 percent of Venezuelans are already carrying the Card. And although many of them identify themselves as followers of chavismo (the political ideology of president Nicolás Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chávez), Venezuelans who identify as opponents of the dominant political ideology have also registered with the system in order to access personal documents.

The benefits of the Card have accumulated over time. At the beginning of 2018 (a month and a half after the presidential elections), Nicolás Maduro announced that the Card would be required for access to housing bonds and pension payments.

Front side of the

The front of the Carnet de la Patria, or "Fatherland Card" with personal data and photo, normally appearing in the upper right corner, removed. 


Jamez42/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

The Fatherland Card and social control

Some experts say the Fatherland Card has other objectives. Fiorella Perfetto of Caraota Digital maintains that the signing of contracts between the Venezuelan telecommunications company and ZTE in February 2017 is part of a larger scheme that was formulated by former President Hugo Chávez with China at the beginning of the mandate.

In 2016, technologist and writer Omar Castro analyzed a number of tweets related to the issue, remarking on people who compared the Card with ration cards:

In the end it is the people who will continue to finance the economy, it is not a question of financial devices […] What are the implications of this card?

The Card was also the focus of criticism during the 2017 regional and municipal elections, as well as the 2018 presidential elections.

Many voters reported that when they arrived at the polls, there was a “Fatherland Card booth” a few meters away from the polling station. Voters who had a Fatherland Card were encouraged to register at the booth and were promised special access to food and subsidy bonuses if they did so.

Voters who did not have a Fatherland Card had different experiences. Some were encouraged to sign up for the system, while others were coerced to do so. A few even reported that they were told they could not vote if they did not sign up for the Fatherland Card.

At the same time, opposition campaign workers in Maturín reported that three polling places did not allow citizens to vote if they did not present a Fatherland Card.

The Card is intended to address the country's limitations on access to cash, hyperinflation and the serious lack of food and medicine. But it can also be seen as part of a wide-ranging state effort to control information, whether private or public. This has also included internet outages, attacks on online media, and the continuous censorship of media not aligned with the government and due to lack of paper, among other resources.

Victor Drax, from Caracas Chronicles, an independent media collective, commented on what a monitoring system like this may mean for those who use it — and for those who do not:

Remember what we’ve been saying about the 'carnet de la patria' as an instrument of oppression? Reuters just published a thorough investigation about the thing, and it’s so fucking perverse, it’s baffling […] You know what this means? After you get on the system, the State can come directly to you and say 'I know your mother needs medicine. I have it, and you’ll only get it if you do what I want.' This is how the State knows what to do when the time comes to exploit us.

series of pieces published online by local and international media, as well as online conversations, continue to make it clear that the card is only one in a long series of efforts to isolate the nation and control the population. They show that these efforts did not begin with Nicolás Maduro's government and permeate in ways that cannot yet be fully understood.

Following the same ideas, Drax concludes: 

Now you see why Nicolás [Maduro] has been so desperate to get everyone on board with the Fatherland Card […] To say that this tramples over the Constitution is an understatement, especially after 20 years of chavismo. Want to know the best part?

This all came from Hugo Chávez himself.

Laura Vidal is the Latin America editor with Global Voices.

This article is translated by Alexis Faber and republished from Global Voices with Advox under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. 

Almost all countries have fallen short on climate change commitments

Dec 27, 2018 9:21


The Paris agreement set a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Climate Action Tracker measures countries’ progress toward meeting this goal and the latest report finds that just two countries, The Gambia and Morocco, currently have policies that meet the 1.5-degree target.

Scientific evidence shows that a 2-degree warmer world will be far more disastrous for civilization than a world that warms by 1.5 degrees or less.

Climate Action Tracker’s Yvonne Deng notes that the group’s ratings take into account the unique situations of each country.

Related: From the Amazon to the Arctic, The World’s biggest environmental stories of the year

“When you look at the overall emission reductions that we need to see globally, it doesn't mean that every country has to reduce their emissions,” she explains. “Countries that are still developing need to be allowed to increase their emissions from current levels. Countries that have already developed really need to look at decreasing emissions.”

When it comes to global emission reductions across different counties, wealthy countries simply need to do more than their poorer counterparts.

There are various approaches to figuring out how to share global emission reductions across different countries, Deng says. One approach looks at per capita emissions and tries to calculate reductions between now and some future date; another approach factors in what some countries have already emitted to further their own development; a third approach says that wealthy countries simply need to do more than their poorer counterparts.

Climate Action Tracker looks at “the whole range of possible emission levels per country, in any of these approaches,” Deng says, “and then determines what we call the ‘fair share range’ of emission reductions — and that informs our rating scale.”

In addition to rating each of the countries’ commitments under Paris, Climate Action Tracker also uses what they call their CAT Thermometer, a tool that measures global temperature rise under various scenarios. For example, they’ve calculated that if countries do what they've committed to doing under the Paris agreements, the world will see a rise of about 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

“The good news,” Deng says, “is that we have almost all the technologies available that we need for this. … [T]he challenge really is in getting them out there and getting them scaled up. So, this is a political problem. It's a question of willingness to do it. It's not a question of figuring out how to do it technically; that would be even scarier. But we know how to do it.”

Related: The world struck a major climate deal in Poland. So, what’s in it?

Most countries have not yet met their commitments under the Paris climate agreements, and Climate Action Tracker rates a small group of countries as “critically insufficient or highly insufficient.” These include Russia, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US.

Deng notes that in the US, state and local level governments are working to find ways to reduce emissions, but at the federal level, under the Trump administration, there is not only a lack of action but a reversal of direction.

Morrocco’s former environment minister, Hakima El Haite, finds this inexplicable.

Related: Pulling out of Paris, Trump says climate deal ‘punishes the United States.’ Really?

“I’ll be very frank,” El Haite says. “When you see America withdraw from the Paris agreement, I'm not only disappointed, I'm feeling that politicians are not taking their responsibilities seriously. The United States was a leading country during the negotiation, and now, as President Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris agreement, they are still blocking the negotiation. This is not right.”

Morocco has been on a path to a low-carbon economy for decades, El Haite points out. She says her country has understood since 1964 that climate change is a problem they need to address. What’s more, she points out, the whole of Africa accounts for only four percent of global carbon emissions.

“The ones who are impacting the world are the fuel producers and industrial developers,” she says.

“Those countries should lead the negotiations. I’m thinking about the United States, Russia, China, Europe, et cetera. So, I'm really feeling disappointed — as a Moroccan, as an African, as a citizen of the world — and feeling that those who are blocking the negotiation now are not taking responsibility. Many millions and millions of people will die because of this decision.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Japan to resume commercial whaling after pulling out of IWC

Dec 26, 2018


Following an announced withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Japan said on Wednesday it plans to resume commercial whaling starting in July in its waters and exclusive economic zone while ending its controversial hunts in the Antarctic.

Australia and New Zealand welcomed the decision to abandon the Antarctic whale hunt, but expressed disappointment that Japan would engage in any killing of the ocean mammals.

The decision, some experts said, allows Japan to save the money it spends to support Antarctic whaling while taking a tough pro-whaling stance — a matter of national pride for some conservatives.

But doubts exist about whether Japanese commercial whaling can be economically viable, especially as fewer people than ever are eating whale meat, they said.

"From July 2019, after the withdrawal comes into effect on June 30, Japan will conduct commercial whaling within Japan's territorial sea and its exclusive economic zone, and will cease the take of whales in the Antarctic Ocean/the Southern Hemisphere," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a statement announcing the decision.

"The whaling will be conducted in accordance with international law and within the catch limits calculated in accordance with the method adopted by the IWC to avoid negative impact on cetacean resources," Suga said.

Japan, which says most whale species are not endangered and that eating whale is part of its culture, has long campaigned without success for the IWC to allow commercial whaling.

Some influential lawmakers' constituencies include whaling communities, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's election district is home to the whaling port of Shimonoseki.

The decision to withdraw from the IWC followed its latest rejection of Japan's bid to resume commercial whaling at a September meeting, which Suga said showed it was impossible to bridge the gap between whaling advocates and anti-whaling members.

The resumption of commercial whaling is an unusual decision for Japan, which stresses multilateralism in its diplomacy, and it sparked swift criticism from environmental groups and others who believe all whales should be protected.

'Out of step'

"The declaration today is out of step with the international community, let alone the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures," international conservationist group Greenpeace said.

"The Japanese government needs to recommit to the IWC and prioritize new measures for marine conservation."

Yoshie Nakatani, an official at the foreign ministry's fisheries division, said Japan would still attend IWC meetings.

"It's not like we are turning our back on the IWC and abandoning international cooperation," she said. "There is no change to our country's respect for the rule of law and multilateralism."

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters welcomed Japan's decision to halt Antarctic whaling but said he was disappointed with the decision to resume any commercial whaling.

"Whaling is an outdated and unnecessary practice. We continue to hope Japan eventually reconsiders its position and will cease all whaling in order to advance the protection of the ocean's ecosystems," Peters said in a statement.

Australia urged Japan to return to the IWC.

"Australia remains resolutely opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called "scientific whaling," its environment minister, Melissa Price, and foreign minister, Marise Payne, said in a statement.

Japan has long defied such protests to conduct what it calls scientific research whaling, having repeatedly said its ultimate goal was to whale commercially again.

In 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan should halt its Antarctic whaling.

Japan suspended its hunt for one season to re-tool its whaling program with measures such as cutting the number of whales and species targeted, but resumed hunting in the 2015-2016 season, capping its Antarctic catch with a quota of 333 whales annually.

Japan began its so-called scientific whaling in 1987, a year after an international whaling moratorium began. Its aged whaling mothership is in need of a costly replacement or refit.

Much of the meat ends up in shops, even though most Japanese no longer eat it. Whale consumption accounted for 0.1 percent of all Japanese meat consumption, according to the Asahi newspaper. That works out to 35 grams per person per year, according to a whale meat shop owner Koichi Matsumoto.

"We ate whale meat in the old days but there are lots of other things to eat now," said a 75-year-old woman shopper.

"But if we don't explain internationally that whales are increasing ... people won't understand," she added.

The ever-dwindling demand means an uncertain outlook for Japan's whaling.

"It could persist as a small-scale activity. There are still whale meat restaurants and I think some people will keep eating a small quantity," said Yoichiro Sato, a professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University.

"(But) if it's too expensive, people will not eat it. As an industry, its prospect is very grim."

By Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka/Reuters

Additional reporting by Mayuko Ono and Kaori Kaneko; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Darren Schuettler, Robert Birsel.

From the Amazon to the Arctic, The World’s biggest environmental stories of the year

Dec 24, 2018


1. China stopped taking much of the US’s recycling

At the beginning of 2018, China set much stricter purity standards for the recycling it accepts and stopped taking two dozen different types of solid waste entirely. Mountains of recycling that used to be sold to Chinese recycling firms piled up in American cities, and cities and companies worked toward more efficient recycling programs.

A man in a vest stands next to a wall of baled paper products, about 12 feet tall and several hundred feet long.

Ben Harvey of E.L. Harvey & Sons has stored about 3,000 bales of paper in the past month that he’d normally be shipping to China. At $60 a bale, it equals about $180,000 of unsold product, about 10 percent of the company’s revenue. 


Jason Margolis/The World 

2. Cape Town avoided “Day Zero” and the city’s water kept flowing

After three years of drought, residents of Cape Town, South Africa feared the city’s reservoirs would reach such critically low levels that the city would turn off the taps. To avoid reaching “Day Zero,” Cape Town instituted stringent water consumption restrictions that had residents gathering around watering holes to fill up jugs and prompted one local radio journalist to file eight water reports a day. The city’s water-saving campaign worked, and Day Zero was eventually pushed back indefinitely. But the episode was seen as an example of what life might look like in the future as parts of the globe grow increasingly drought-prone.

Cape Town residents gather to collect water at a spring with makshift spigots ear Table Mountain. It's one of dozens of open springs across the city where residents come to collect extra water to add to their meager daily quota of 13 gallons.

Cape Town residents gather to collect water at a spring with makshift spigots near Table Mountain. It's one of dozens of open springs across the city where residents come to collect extra water to add to their meager daily quota of 13 gallons.


Daniella Cheslow/The World

3. The people of the Arctic continued to feel the impacts of climate change most acutely

The 4 million people who live in the Arctic are feeling the effects of rapid climate change more quickly than anywhere else on earth, The World reported in a special series. An Alaskan village is falling into the sea and Arctic permafrost is starting to thaw. But as the landscape around them changes, the people of the arctic are pushing for sustainability and adapting to a new normal as new business opportunities open up at the top of the world.

Students Rosie Leone, Aidan Stansberry and Ian MacDowell  are shown bundled in artic-ready clothing and walking across the ice.

"Team Radar" at work. Students Rosie Leone, Aidan Stansberry and Ian MacDowell spent most of their five days on the ice using radar to map the bed — the rock and soil hundreds of feet below the ice sheet — which can affect the movement of the ice sheet.


Amy Martin/Threshold

4. British and American scientists launched a campaign to understand melting on a massive Antarctic glacier

Science agencies in the US and the UK in April announced they would spend the next five years researching Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier, which is roughly the size of Florida and could contribute up to three feet of sea level rise if it were to collapse completely. Ice melting on Thwaites already contributes about four percent of global sea level rise, an amount that’s nearly doubled since the 1990s.

5. In the US, climate action was driven by cities, states and private businesses 

As the federal government cut regulations aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions, cities, states and private businesses continued to lead the transition to a greener economy. In September, California Governor Jerry Brown convened a global climate summit that attracted heads of state and business leaders from around the world and extracted a slew of new commitments from them, from transitioning to zero-emission vehicles to protecting forests.

Around the world, Starbucks and McDonalds launched an initiative to make their cups fully recyclable and compostable, the nation’s leading coal state looked toward wind, and PepsiCo and Levis are worked to conserve water in their manufacturing processes.

6. One year after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico still struggled to recover

The first anniversary of Hurricane Maria arrived in Puerto Rico in September on an island still recovering from the devastating storm. Some residents had just gotten power back in their homes, and even as much of the island’s agricultural sector had rebounded, Puerto Rico’s coffee industry remained devastated. The island’s national forest was re-growing, but Maria highlighted concerns about the ecosystem’s ability to survive increasingly intense storms. Residents and officials recognized that while life on the island had reached a new normal, a year after Maria, Puerto Rico was still not prepared for another big storm.

houses with blue tarp roofs in Puerto Rico

Blue tarp roofs are still common in Barranquitas, in central Puerto Rico.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

7. Concerns mounted for the future of the Brazilian Amazon

As illegal logging and a “tipping point” threaten the Amazon’s ability to capture and store carbon, a new president in Brazil has promised to exploit the rainforest and roll back protections for it. Scientists are warning that as the forests fail, they’re losing their ability to regulate Earth’s climate and protect us from the impacts of rising emissions.

A barechested man wearing beads and body paint sits in a motorboat as it speeds through a muddy river

"Sometimes, when we see the trees cut down, we feel rage," says Guajajara Guardians of the Forest chief Claudio da Silva. "This is why we keep fighting, so this doesn't happen."


Sam Eaton/The World

8. Kids took center stage in the fight against climate change

Young people will feel the biggest impacts of climate change as they grow up in a warming world, and in 2018 they became some of the most visible campaigners for efforts to cut carbon emissions. A lawsuit brought by 21 young people who argue the US government violated their constitutional rights by supporting the continued use of fossil fuels wound its way through the courts. Kids and teenagers staged a massive climate march in Washington in July. And 15-year-old Greta Thunberg was a sensation at the UN climate talks in Poland in December when she told adults they “are not mature enough” to face the climate crisis head-on.

A young girl stands in front of a government building holding a sign in Swedish. Translated, it says:

Greta Thunberg, 15, holds a placard reading "School strike for the climate" during a demonstration about climate change outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, Sweden, on Nov. 30, 2018.


Hanna Franzen/TT News Agency via REUTERS   

9. The world learned just how fast it has to act on climate change

A landmark United Nations report published in October upped the ante and sped up the clock in the fight against climate change. It found that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would significantly reduce risks from drought, extreme heat, heavy rainfall during hurricanes, and sea level rise. Meeting that target, the report found, is still technically feasible but would require “unprecedented” changes in nearly every sector, and a halving of carbon emissions by 2030. Currently, the world is on track to exceed even the 2 degree Celsius target written into the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

10. The Paris climate agreement stayed alive for another year

Delegates at a UN climate summit in Poland in December agreed on a “rulebook” that governs how countries will track and report their carbon emissions under the Paris climate agreement. But to the disappointment of low-lying island nations and developing countries, the US and other oil-rich countries blocked language “welcoming” the UN report outlining the benefits of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Some of the world’s most vulnerable nations worry that means new targets for carbon emission cuts due by 2020 won’t be as ambitious as they’d hoped.

These fourth graders penned climate change poetry inspired by our coverage

Dec 21, 2018


We hear from a lot of listeners of The World and visitors to our website and social media feeds.

But those comments are usually brief, often anonymous, and it can be hard to know if what we do every day really makes an impact out there beyond our studios.

Well, a little while ago, we got a note from a listener that knocked our socks off.

It came from John Rogers, a fourth-grade teacher at Curtis Guild Elementary School, a public school in East Boston.

“Thought this would make you happy to hear what an impact your news program is having on the youth of our city,” Rogers wrote.

The note included a picture of a young girl named Ana Camile Valdez and a copy of a poem she’d written.

A child's illustrations decorate the border of a page that is a poem about the Amazon

Fourth grader Ana Camile Valdez created this poem after hearing about a story The World did about climate change. 


Courtesy of Curtis Guild Elementary School

And the story of Ana’s poem begins with The World.

The class has a morning meeting every day. There’s a daily greeting, a quote that the kids will discuss and a quick game.

And Rogers also shares news of the school and news of the world.

One morning back in October, he talked about a story he’d heard on The World the night before.

It was about the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, and how scientists are finding that climate change is stressing the forest, and maybe making it less able to absorb carbon dioxide pollution. And how that, in turn, might be making climate change even worse.

A young girl holds a photo of her poem with her illustrations on it in her school classroom and smiles at the camera

Fourth grader Ana Camile Valdez poses with the poem she wrote about climate change. 


Steven Davy/The World

After the meeting, the class got on with its day. No further mention of the news, the Amazon or climate change.

But the next morning, Ana’s poem appeared on Rogers’ desk.

He already knew how great his kids were but this kind of stunned him.

“I felt really impressed that a student took that initiative herself," Rogers said. "[We were] heavy into a poetry unit … but to take it upon herself to write a reflection poem that talks about global warming and standing up for the environment. And it was this beautiful poem about how we have to act now and that the future is ours and we have to make a difference.”

That’s when Rogers sent us his note and invited us to visit his class.

A young girl sits at a school table and reads while a man holds a microphone next to her and records her reading.

Ana Camile Valdez read her poem to host Marco Werman while The World's Livable Planet editor Peter Thomson recorded her. 


Steven Davy/The World

And it turns out that Ana’s poem was only the beginning of the story of these remarkable fourth graders and their engagement with our show.

“It was almost like a wave had begun,” Rogers said. “We all wrote global warming poems.”

And there were others: poems about a mom and her kid teargassed by border patrol agents at the US-Mexico border. Poems about the economic inequality exposed by the "yellow vest" protests in France. Poems about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and freedom of the press. One about a Japanese man who spent 50 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

Also, these being fourth graders, the death and global influence of the man who created SpongeBob SquarePants.

Most of these are heavy topics. But Rogers says the kids can handle it.

“I think fourth grade is always a grade when they come so young and leave like little adults,” he said. “And learning about sad stories or scary stories, I think, just helps motivate that maturity. And poetry, I think, is the perfect vehicle to have them reflect on it, because it takes away some of the barriers of traditional essay writing."

    View this post on Instagram         

A little while ago we got a note from a listener that knocked our socks off. John Rogers, a fourth-grade school teacher at Curtis Guild Elementary in East Boston, sent us a photo of one of her students and a poem she wrote. . As part of his morning routine with his students, Rogers discusses world news. Back in October, he shared one of The World’s stories about the Brazilian Amazon which inspired Ana Camile Valdez to write a “Global Warming Poem.” . Ana’s poem kind of blew us away, so host @MarcoWerman and environment editor Peter Thomson visited the school to meet Ana and the rest of Mr. Rogers’ class. First things first, Ana read her poem. . Global Warming Poem. By Ana Camile Valdez The world is getting hotter day after day. But do you ever wonder why? This is why: Cars, buses, trains and deforestation is messing up the air. They affect the air, and we have to remember trees help us breathe. But now the trees in the rainforest are doing the opposite. They are not cleaning the air. Instead of revering carbon tree may contribute! . Air is what we breathe. That is what we need. Our future in jeopardy But that can all change. Let’s start protecting our planet today. . Ana explained to host @MarcoWerman why the story prompted her to write her poem. “I am also a human being, so I really care about the earth. And really it’s mindblowing how we just destroyed our earth… But we can still change. It’s not too late.” . Video by @stevendavy Amazon story by @sameatonpix With support from @pulitzercenter

A post shared by PRI's The World (@pritheworld) on Dec 21, 2018 at 12:07pm PST

As for Ana, the girl who got this all rolling with that first poem, she says she was motivated by a simple impulse.

“I’m also a human being, so I really care about the Earth,” she said. “And like, really it’s like, mind-blowing how we just destroyed our Earth. But we can still change, it’s not too late."

Ana and her fourth-grade classmates at the school were inspired by us here at The World, and by Rogers, their teacher.

But man, have we been inspired by them.

A man high fives a child in a school classroom.

Host Marco Werman high-fives a fourth-grader at Curtis Guild Elementary School in East Boston.


Steven Davy/The World

Rewilding war zones can help heal the wounds of conflict

Dec 20, 2018


Where the Iron Curtain once divided Europe with barbed wire, a network of wilderness with bears, wolves and lynx now thrives.

Commemorating 100 years since the end of World War I, people wear poppies to evoke the vast fields of red flowers which grew over the carnage of Europe’s battlefields. Once a human conflict has ended, the return of nature to barren landscapes becomes a potent symbol of peace.

These tragedies, which force people away from a place, can help ecosystems replenish in their absence. Though rewilding is typically considered an active decision, like the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, abandoned rural land often returns to wilderness on its own accord.

Today, as people vacate rural settlements for life in cities, accidental rewilding has meant large predators returning to areas of Europe, long after they were almost made extinct.

Sudden changes, such as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986, result in wildlife recolonizing exclusion zones in previously developed areas.

Warfare can also result in human exclusion, which might benefit wildlife under specific conditions. Isolation and abandonment can generate wild population increases and recoveries, which has been observed in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Related: A pioneering ‘rewilding’ project in England transforms a 200-year-old family farm

The strange link between war and wildlife

Fish populations in the North Atlantic benefited from World War II as fishing fleets were drastically reduced. Fishing vessels were requisitioned by the navy, seamen were drafted and the risks of fishing due to enemy strikes or subsurface mining deterred fishermen from venturing out to sea.

As a result, the war essentially created vast “marine protected areas” for several years in the Atlantic Ocean. After the war, armed with faster and bigger trawlers with new technology, fishermen reported bonanza catches.

A more gruesome result of World War II allowed opportunistic species such as the oceanic whitetip shark to flourish, as human casualties at sea proved a rich and plentiful food source.

Warship wrecks also became artificial reefs on the seabed which still contribute to the abundance of marine life today. The 52 captured German warships that were sunk during World War I between the Orkney mainland and the South Isles, off the north coast of Scotland, are now thriving marine habitats.

Exclusion areas — or “no mans lands” — which remain after fighting has ended, may also help terrestrial ecosystems recuperate by creating de facto wildlife reserves. Formerly endangered species, such as the Persian leopard, have re-established their populations in the rugged northern Iran-Iraq frontier.

An uneasy post-war settlement can create hard borders with vast areas forbidden to human entry. The Korean Demilitarised Zone is a 2.5 miles by 155 miles strip of land that has separated the two Koreas since 1953. For humans, it is one of the most dangerous places on Earth, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers patrolling its edges. For wildlife, however, it’s one of the safest areas in the region.

Today, the zone is home to thousands of species that are extinct or endangered elsewhere on the Korean peninsula, such as the long-tailed goral.

Miraculously, even habitats scarred by the most horrific weaponry can thrive as places where human access is excluded or heavily regulated. Areas previously used for nuclear testing, such as the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean have been recolonized by coral and fish, which seem to be thriving in the crater of Bikini Atoll, declared a nuclear wasteland after nuclear bomb tests in the 1940s and 50s.

War — still good for nothing

For all the quirks caused by abandonment, warfare overwhelmingly harms human communities and ecosystems with equal fervor. A review of the impact of human conflict on ecosystems in Africa showed an overall decrease in wildlife between 1946 and 2010. In war’s aftermath, natural populations were slow to recover or stopped altogether as economic hardship meant conservation fell by the wayside.

Humans often continue to avoid a “no mans land” because of the presence of land mines. But these don’t differentiate between soldiers and wildlife, particularly large mammals. It’s believed that residual explosives in conflict zones have helped push some endangered species closer to extinction.

However, where possible, accidental rewilding caused by war can help reconcile people after the fighting ends by installing nature where war had brought isolation. There is hope that should Korea reunify, a permanently protected area could be established within the current demilitarized zone boundaries, allowing ecotourism and education to replace enmity.

Map showing European Green Belt that traces the original route of the Iron Curtain. 

Today’s European Green Belt traces the original route of the Iron Curtain. 


Smaack/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA

Such an initiative has already succeeded elsewhere in the world. The European Green Belt is the name for the corridor of wilderness which runs along the former Iron Curtain, which once divided the continent. Started in the 1970s, this project has sprawled along the border of 24 states and today is the longest and largest ecological network of its kind in the world. Here, ponds have replaced exploded landmine craters and forests and insect populations have grown in the absence of farming and pesticide use.

Where war isolates and restricts human movement, nature does seem to thrive. If, as a human species, we aim for a peaceful world without war, we must strive to limit our own intrusions on the natural paradises that ironically human warfare creates and nurture a positive legacy from a tragic history.The Conversation

Antonio Uzal is a senior lecturer in wildlife conservation at Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

If you recycled all the plastic garbage in the world, you could buy the NFL, Apple and Microsoft

Dec 18, 2018


This year, I served on the judging panel for The Royal Statistical Society’s International Statistic of the Year.

On Dec. 18, we announced the winner: 90.5 percent, the amount of plastic that has never been recycled. Okay — but why is that such a big deal?

Related: New Chinese policy is forcing people to think: Is there a better way to recycle?

Much like Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” competition, the international statistic is meant to capture the zeitgeist of this year. The judging panel accepted nominations from the statistical community and the public at large for a statistic they feel shines a light on today’s most pressing issues.

Last year’s winner was 69. That’s the annual number of Americans killed, on average, by lawn mowers — compared to two Americans killed annually, on average, by immigrant jihadist terrorists and the 11,737 Americans killed annually by being shot by another American. That figure, first shared in The Huffington Post, was highlighted in a viral tweet by Kim Kardashian in response to the proposed migrant ban.

This year’s statistic came into prominence from a United Nations report. The chair of the judges and RSS president, Sir David Spiegelhalter, said: “It’s really concerning that so little plastic has ever been recycled and, as a result, so much plastic waste has leached out into the world’s environment. It’s a great, growing and genuinely world problem.”

Related: Mountains of US recycling pile up as China restricts imports

Let’s take a closer look at this year’s winning statistic. About 90.5 percent of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste produced since mass production began about 60 years ago is now lying around our planet in landfills and oceans or has been incinerated. If we don’t change our ways, by 2050, there will be about 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste.

When the panel first began looking at this statistic, I really didn’t have any comprehension of what billions of tons of plastic means. Based on a study from 2015 and some back of the envelope calculations, that’s the equivalent of 7.2 trillion grocery bags full of plastic as of 2018.

But again, I still didn’t quite have a feel for how much that actually is. People tend to use distance measurements to compare numbers, so I tried that. Assuming that a grocery bag of plastic is about 1 foot high, if you stacked the grocery bags, you could go to the moon and back 5,790 times. That’s starting to feel a bit more real.

In fact, if you could monetize all of the plastic trash clogging up our environment — including the 12 percent that is incinerated — you could buy some of the world’s biggest businesses.

Assuming it costs 3.25 cents to produce a plastic bottle, we can estimate that a grocery bag contains about US$1 of plastic material production. (I took a grocery bag and filled it with 31 bottles.) So 7.2 trillion grocery bags is the equivalent of a cool $7.2 trillion.

What can you buy with that? Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Walmart, Exxon, GM, AT&T, Facebook, Bank of America, Visa, Intel, Home Depot, HSBC, Boeing, Citigroup, Anheuser-Busch, all the NFL teams, all the MLB teams and all the Premier League Football teams.

Related: As China gets tough on recycling, will America get cleaner?

In other words, if someone could collect and recycle all the unrecycled plastic on earth, this person would be richer than any individual on the planet.

One of the most difficult aspects of statistics is putting the numbers into a context that we can wrap our heads around, into a format that means something to us. Whatever it is that speaks to you, all I can say is that this speaks to me. It’s clearly time to clean up our act.The Conversation

Liberty Vittert, Visiting Assistant Professor in Statistics, Washington University in St Louis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Who is responsible for migrants?

Dec 18, 2018


President Donald Trump tends to portray migrants as a foreign problem that has suddenly — and unfairly — been “dumped” at America’s doorstep.

Migration “is a way they get certain people out of their country and dump in the US,” he wrote on Nov. 25 about a caravan of mostly Honduran women, children and young men seeking asylum in the United States.

He is not alone. The flow of refugees and asylum-seekers from poor countries to the United States border is often attributed, incorrectly, to domestic unrest in a far-off nation. Some Americans blame far-off governments for not being “willing to take care of their own country’s problems,” as one New York Times reader commenting on