Our intelligent ancestor, the Neanderthal

While the jury is still out as to why the Neanderthal, an ancient ancestor of modern humans, became extinct about 40,000 years ago, it has long been assumed that it was because they possessed a low level of intelligence. Pioneering research is challenging this idea, uncovering evidence to suggest that our ancient cousins were in fact much more like us than we thought.

Photo by hairymuseummatt, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
By Cecilie Jensen - September 30, 2021
This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine

Try to imagine the modern human, Homo Sapiens, as just one of three species of humans coexisting on the planet Earth. That’s a difficult picture to paint by any stretch of the imagination. Yet this was the reality 60,000 years ago, when the first anatomically modern humans left Africa. It was a time when Europe and the Middle East were already populated by the Neanderthals, while the Denisovans spread across large parts of Asia.

Ever since the discovery of the Neanderthal 1, the first specimen to be recognised as an early human fossil in 1856, researchers have been trying to figure out what brought about the extinction of earlier species of humans. For a long time, paleoanthropologists viewed Neanderthals as being very distinct from our own species, and inherently incapable of sharing the “modern” characteristics that came to define our own evolution.

A substantial and rapidly growing body of research is putting this “dumb brute” conception of the Neanderthal firmly to bed: there is evidence to show that they were a sea-faring peopleskilled cooperative hunters, and possibly even capable of medical treatment and healthcare. These discoveries are adding to the complexity of understanding why Neanderthals died out and the modern human survived; if the differences between the two species were much smaller than previously assumed, what gave the modern human the competitive advantage over our ancient cousin?

How “modern” is modern?

‘It is widely accepted that there is a difference in terms of modernity between Neanderthals and modern humans,’ said Guillaume Guérin, research scientist at Geosciences Rennes. ‘But I think the more we look at these different criteria and trends that could be characteristic for modernity, actually there is not so much difference between the Neanderthals and modern humans.’

Take the ability to fashion fully shaped objects out of bone material, for example. Dr Malvina Baumann of the University of Liege explains that the seeming lack of bone industry among the Neanderthals for many years was considered as a cognitive gap, another key difference that sets the modern human above the Neanderthal. However, a new analytical method developed by Dr Baumann has uncovered a rich bone industry that can be attributed to both the Denisovans and the Neanderthals. The discovery that our ancestors knew how to use both stone and bone tools  to cover a variety of needs opens up a whole new perspective on the richness and “modernity” of their technical systems.

For Guérin, “modernity” is best understood as a spectrum, rather than the sheer absence or presence of specific defining features. ‘We can find rock art, sea-faring technology or evidence that suggests that Neanderthals were able to navigate, as well as evidence of burials and even long-distance interactions; all of these actions that have been considered traits of modernity are present in the Neanderthal world to some degree,’ he said.

"When you look at Neanderthals, you have no map of their dispersal across Europe at a given time and you have little knowledge about their evolution. Although we have found many tools and artefacts specific to Neanderthals, we don’t know which came first and which came later, and if the fauna they hunted evolved over time following clear patterns or not. And that’s essentially because we have radiocarbon to work on modern humans, but we don’t have it to study Neanderthals."

- Guillaume Geurin, research scientist at Geosciences Rennes and PI of the QuinaWorld project

New dating methods could revolutionise our understanding of Neanderthals 

Until now, an obstacle to fully understanding the behaviours of Neanderthals is the fact that two critical parts of the equation have eluded scientists: time and space. 

‘When you look at Neanderthals, you have no map of their dispersal across Europe at a given time and you have little knowledge about their evolution,’ explained Guérin. ‘Although we have found many tools and artefacts specific to Neanderthals, we don’t know which came first and which came later, and if the fauna they hunted evolved over time following clear patterns or not. And that’s essentially because we have radiocarbon to work on modern humans, but we don’t have it to study Neanderthals.’

Radiocarbon dating is a traditional technique for dating fossils. It’s based on the presence of carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of carbon that accumulates in the bodies of animals throughout their lifetime, and gradually decays after they die. By measuring the amounts of carbon-14 left in a specimen, scientists can calculate how old it is. The problem with this method arises with samples that date back further than 50,000 years, by which time the carbon-14 remains will have completely decayed; and Neanderthals were around much earlier than that.

A physicist by training, Guérin uses luminescence dating as his main tool for analysing archaeological remains. While not as precise as radiocarbon, luminescence dating dates crystalline materials to the last time they were exposed to sufficient heat or sunlight, with a dating range of up to 200-500,000 years. 

‘With a mathematician colleague, we developed statistical models to better analyse the data and improve the chronology and resolution of luminescence dating to make it, not as precise as radiocarbon, but a lot more precise than it used to be,’ explained Guérin. Using this method, the team behind the QuinaWorld project, led by Guérin, is studying remains of the Quina Mousterian, a lithic technology associated with the Neanderthals. ‘It looks like there is something quite singular with this particular industry that could be linked with a particular climatic period,’ said Guérin. ‘The industry is associated with reindeer remains, and we’re talking about a huge number, implying that the Neanderthals killed dozens of reindeer at a time. And this gives us something quite specific to go on.’

Insights from Neanderthal hunting techniques

Gaining a better understanding of Neanderthals’ hunting strategies can provide important insights into their general social and behavioural patterns. ‘Reconstructions of early weapon technologies do not only allow assessing past hunting strategies, but also the technical and cognitive capacities of Palaeolithic hominins,’ said Dr Karen Ruebens of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. For example, the appearance of projectile technologies, such as stone-tipped spears, made it easier to hunt prey from a distance and increased the Neanderthals’ chances of surviving the hunting trip. That’s why the innovation of tools like the spear is considered a “tipping point” in human evolution and believed to have triggered major economic and social transformations, including the ensuing global success of modern humans.

"Reconstructions of early weapon technologies do not only allow assessing past hunting strategies, but also the technical and cognitive capacities of Palaeolithic hominins."

- Dr Karen Ruebens of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and researcher on the TIP-N-POINT project

Yet, while we have ample faunal remains from hunting events to suggest that Neanderthals were skilled hunters, we find only sporadic occurrences of projectile weapons. This leaves us with a host of unanswered questions as to how Neanderthals brought down their prey. As part of the TIP-N-POINT project, Dr Ruebens and her team therefore wanted to get a better understanding of how Neanderthals used stone weapons in hunting. They analysed two collections of stone artefacts from a site in France, and when they compared the two assemblages, some interesting differences emerged: in one of the assemblages there was evidence that the Neanderthals had further retouched the edges of the points they produced out of stone, while in the other assemblage the points appear to have been used without further modification. Further study of the former showed that the retouched tools were associated with a diverse range of animals, while the unmodified points were linked predominantly with reindeer remains. This is an intriguing find that underscores the importance of continued research into the links between lithic variability and faunal diversity.

‘At a broader regional scale,’ says Dr Reuben, ‘it is clear that points are not ubiquitously present in the Neanderthal archaeological record in western Europe and hunting with stone-tipped spears was not practiced by all Neanderthal groups. Understanding regional differences in Neanderthal behaviour, acknowledging that they were doing different things at different times in different regions, is important in understanding their behavioural flexibility.’ This can ultimately shed light on how they responded to the arrival of modern humans in Europe.

The first regional cultural entity in the history of Europe?

For Guérin, important answers to open questions about Neanderthal behaviour and the species’ evolution could be found in studying the Quina Mousterian. Remains of this Neanderthal technology have been found across Europe, from Spain to Germany. If dating Quina Mousterian remains using the new luminescence dating techniques reveals that they are all from the roughly the same period, that could be an indicator that skills and knowledge were shared more broadly among Neanderthal groups than is currently thought; and that could be the sign of a culture that spread across our continent. ‘We are working under the assumption that perhaps the Quina Mousterian is a marker of what was quite an elaborate and developed culture,’ said Guillaume.  ‘And this could mean that the first Europe in cultural terms could have been the Europe of Neanderthals rather than modern humans.’

"We are working under the assumption that perhaps the Quina Mousterian was quite an elaborate and developed culture. And this could mean that the first Europe in cultural terms could have been the Europe of Neanderthals rather than modern humans."

- Guillaume Guérin, research scientist at Geosciences Rennes and PI of the QuinaWorld project

Rather than settle the question of how and why the Neanderthal became extinct, it seems likely that continued research into the lives of our lost cousins will only add more nuances to their behaviour and capabilities, opening intriguing questions about our own evolution and presence on planet Earth.

Rapid Shift to Clean Energy Could Save ‘Trillions.’ But Corporate-Backed Groups Are Fighting the Transition in US Budget Bill

Wind, solar, and batteries are already the cheapest source of electricity and an aggressive shift to clean energy makes more economic sense than a slow one, according to a new study. However, an enormous lobbying effort is underway to block climate policy in the $3.5 trillion budget bill under consideration.

Wind turbines
Public Domain image via Pixabay
By Nick Cunningham September 29, 2021
This article was originally published on DeSmog

A slow transition away from fossil fuels would be “more expensive” than a rapid shift to renewable energy, according to a new study, a conclusion that stands in sharp contrast to fossil fuel industry talking points aimed at heading off aggressive climate policy currently being shaped in Congress.

An accelerated clean energy transition would lead to “net savings of many trillions of dollars,” a calculation that does not even take into account the damages from unchecked climate chaos, the recently released study from Oxford University found. On economics alone, the logic of a rapid shift to renewable energy is obvious and necessary. 

“The belief that the green energy transition will be expensive has been a major driver of the ineffective response to climate change for the last forty years,” the researchers write. “This pessimism is at odds with past technological cost-improvement trends, and risks locking humanity into an expensive and dangerous energy future.”

The authors note that outdated thinking on renewable energy — that it comes with tradeoffs like higher electricity prices, for instance — has long dominated policy discussions. Echoes of this idea can be found today in mounting attacks by a network of lobbyists and think tanks on the climate provisions in the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package.

But that line of argument has been inaccurate for years, and the Oxford study says it is now decisively wrong. “Our analysis suggests that such trade-offs are unlikely to exist: a greener, healthier and safer global energy system is also likely to be cheaper,” they write [original emphasis].

The U.S. has a chance to solidify an accelerated track towards cleaner energy. The Democrats in Congress are working on legislation that would push the U.S. electricity system to roughly 80 percent carbon-free power by 2030, a definition that includes hydro and nuclear power, up from around 40 percent today.

The so-called Clean Electricity Payment Program (CEPP) is complex, but it essentially rewards utilities that move quickly to add renewable energy to their portfolios with each passing year, while imposing fees on laggards who move slowly.

As the Washington Post reports, the largest corporate entities in the country, including ExxonMobil and Pfizer, and powerful lobbying groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, PhRMA, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, are pulling out all stops to prevent passage of the budget bill.

Industry Ramps Up Misinformation  

Building the more than 600 gigawatts of solar, wind, and batteries needed to get to the 2030 target would put a lot of people to work. One study from the Analysis Group finds that the CEPP would help create an estimated 7.7 million net new jobs over the next decade as the electricity sector moves rapidly to scale up renewables. 

But the win-win logic of creating jobs and cleaning up the electricity sector is not the message that industry front groups and their lobbyists are engaging with.

In the past few weeks, a constellation of right-wing think tanks, front groups, and trade associations have mobilized to defeat the CEPP, as well as the broader $3.5 trillion budget package — nicknamed the Build Back Better bill — under consideration by the Democrats in Congress.

Many of the misleading talking points being pushed by these lobbyists take the familiar form of outdated notions that renewable energy is expensive. They also opportunistically try to link the proposed bill to electricity blackouts, which have occurred in various parts of the country this year, including from soaring temperatures in California and extreme winter storms in Texas, while conspicuously ignoring the fact that these disasters are made worse by climate change.

For example, the Institute for Energy Research and its advocacy arm, the American Energy Alliancewarned that the CEPP would lead to “skyrocketing costs and rolling blackouts,” and that it will “kill the U.S. economy.” Both groups have extensive ties to Koch Industries and regularly push pro-fossil fuel rhetoric.

Other groups have sought to revive well-worn arguments about wasteful spending, while adopting a new campaign warning about inflation. Indeed, raising the dangers of inflation has become one of the central attack lines by right-wing groups in recent months as the budget negotiations drag on.

For example, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a group founded by David Koch, has held public events in August and September that put pressure on Congress to “end Washington waste,” and warn about inflation, an echo of the Tea Party events from 2009, which in many ways was an astroturf phenomenon.

In one September 17 post on its website, AFP linked to an analysis by the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), which recently launched an Inflation Tracker. IWF says the “inflationary” $3.5 trillion plan would “hurt poor, elderly, minorities.” IWF also has extensive Koch ties.

The Wall Street Journal looked at AFP’s recent attempts to drum up anger at federal spending and found that the front group is struggling to break through with conservatives who are more animated by culture war issues related to mask mandates and vaccine requirements. In an effort to appeal to people, AFP has been “name-checking” mask mandates, and then trying to connect them to the dangers of big government in general, and urging people to oppose the budget bill.

In September, the purportedly non-partisan Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) named House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Bernie Sanders as their “Porkers of the Month,” a derisive award it hands out to government officials who “endanger America’s financial stability.” CAGW, which has received funding from tobacco companiesExxon, and right-wing foundations, uses similar talking points: the budget bill is costly, will push up inflation, and will result in taxes on American families.

Right-wing groups don’t oppose all government spending on energy. The National Taxpayers Union, which claims it fights for free enterprise and against government waste, recently defended oil subsidies while criticizing incentives for renewables.

But these are all small examples of what has become a massive corporate lobbying blitz to kill the budget bill. As the Washington Post reports, the largest corporate entities in the country, including ExxonMobil and Pfizer, and powerful lobbying groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, PhRMA, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, are pulling out all stops to prevent passage of the budget bill.

As the Post reports, the Chamber is spending heavily on ads targeting the handful of wavering corporate-friendly Democrats, and has vowed to cut off support for any member of Congress that votes in favor. 

DeSmog reached out to the Chamber of Commerce, the Institute for Energy Research, the Independent Women’s Forum, Citizens Against Government Waste, the National Taxpayers Union, and Americans for Prosperity. IER responded but did not provide comments in time for publication.

Only AFP answered questions. When DeSmog cited the Oxford study and the cheap cost of renewable energy, Lorenz Isidro, an AFP spokesperson, said: “Top down energy mandates like the Clean Electricity Standard do little if anything to actually improve the environment but would increase energy rates, make everything we buy more expensive, and leave everyone worse off, particularly the least fortunate.”

But as the Oxford study shows, renewable energy is the cheapest source of power generation, and a faster transition results in more economic benefits. The corporate ad and lobbying campaign currently underway is full of misinformation.

“I am not surprised to see the oil & gas industry lobbying to water down efforts to replace their energy product with renewables + storage,” Matthew Ives, one of the authors of the study, wrote in an email. “They have been actively lobbying to reduce investment in renewables for a long time but I don’t think they, even with their wealth and influence, could hold back the tide of technological advance that is happening in these new clean technologies,” he wrote, adding: “I’m afraid the train has left the station.”

Arguments about inflation also appear opportunistic; economists are debating whether inflation is a temporary phenomenon related to the pandemic. In any event, the suite of social and economic programs included in the budget reconciliation bill — paid family and medical leave, universal pre-K, an expansion of Medicare, free community college, to name a few — are aimed at lowering the largest expenses in most people’s lives. 

In fact, an analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy finds that most of the benefits of the budget bill are concentrated on the poorest 20 percent of taxpayers, and just about every American would receive a tax cut except for the richest 5 percent.

On top of that, the tax hikes on the rich are intended to offset the cost of the overall package, so claims of enormous deficits are inaccurate. Finally, the spending is spread out over ten years, not all at once.

Whether or not the claims are accurate, Republican politicians and right-wing groups have seized on inflation as an intentional messaging campaign to scare the public away from the budget bill.

Their sky-is-falling rhetoric about renewable energy is part of a longer pattern of behavior of manipulating economic data, says Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director for climate and energy at the Union for Concerned Scientists, told DeSmog.

“Fossil fuel companies are not reliable economic messengers,” she said. “They seem to be just all-in on delaying the transition in a way that might protect quarter-to-quarter returns to shareholders, but the evidence is mounting that it could prove financially ruinous for everyone and for the economy.”

“It gives us an opportunity to jump start clean energy in West Virginia. We’re still 91 percent coal-fired, and our electricity customers have paid massive rate increases over the last 10 to 12 years because we’ve doubled down on coal unlike most other states,”

All Eyes on Manchin

The language used by corporate lobbying outfits on costly renewables, inflation and debt appear carefully crafted to appeal to one senator in particular: Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), the pivotal vote in the Senate. At times, the language used by corporate lobbyists very closely echoes Sen. Manchin’s own arguments.

In a widely circulated op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in early September, Sen. Manchin expressed his opposition to the budget bill, warning of excessive spending and inflation. He also argued how spending today could leave the country ill-positioned for some future crisis.

Notably, the Chamber of Commerce seemingly adopted Sen. Manchin’s argument as its own, although it repurposed it to warn against the Chamber’s chief concern, the proposed higher corporate tax rates. “[T]ax increases will lessen the resiliency of our economy when crisises [sic] hit, making it more difficult to recover when the next inevitably does come,” the Chamber’s senior economist Curtis Dubay wrote.

Whether they are sharing talking points is unknown, but the Chamber very explicitly says that it is rewarding Sen. Manchin with campaign contributions, along with Democrats wavering on the budget bill.

On September 22, the Chamber launched a six-figure ad campaign targeting a handful of Democrats, urging them to block the entire budget bill, calling it an “existential threat to America’s fragile economic recovery.”

Sen. Manchin holds outsized influence over the final outcome. While he has expressed concerns about the CEPP, what he seems to ignore is the enormous opportunity that his home state of West Virginia could see from the budget bill in general, and the CEPP in particular.

“It gives us an opportunity to jump start clean energy in West Virginia. We’re still 91 percent coal-fired, and our electricity customers have paid massive rate increases over the last 10 to 12 years because we’ve doubled down on coal unlike most other states,” James Van Nostrand, a law professor at West Virginia University and director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, told DeSmog. “Coal is not a cost-effective way to generate electricity anymore.”

A new study from RMI, a sustainability think tank, finds that compared to other regions in the U.S., Appalachia would see the biggest economic benefit from the growth of renewable energy over the next decade.

Van Nostrand agreed. “West Virginia would benefit disproportionately from all the money that would come out of the Clean Electricity Payment Program,” he said.

Sen. Manchin has repeatedly questioned why there is urgency around the budget bill, an odd claim given the accelerating climate crisis and the policy programs addressing it within the bill. The United Nations said on September 17 that unless the world dramatically accelerates climate policy to speed up the energy transition, the world is on track to warm to a catastrophic 2.7 degrees Celsius (nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the “climate alarm bells” are “ringing at fever pitch.” If emissions are not cut drastically, Guterres says the world is in for a “hellscape of temperature rises.”

In early September, a group of 94 organizations, including environmental, faith, justice, and labor groups, sent a letter to Congress, calling on them to stand up to corporate lobbyists and pass the budget bill. “Now is not the time to let deep-pocketed corporate lobbyists stand in the way of vital public investments in an economy that works for all of us,” they wrote.

“Manchin knows better. He clearly knows better. He could deliver such huge benefits for West Virginia … Why would you say no to this? This is a no-brainer,” Van Nostrand told DeSmog.

Recently, the Intercept reported that Sen. Manchin continues to earn more than a half million dollars per year from his personal stake in his coal business. The New York Times pointed out that Sen. Manchin will preside over the Senate Committee in charge of writing the CEPP, while also being the Senator who has received more campaign donations from the oil and gas industry than any of his colleagues last year. Sen. Manchin did not respond to a request for comment.

Van Nostrand hopes that Sen. Manchin will realize the monumental opportunity that he has at the moment. “What is your legacy going to be? What are you going to put on your tombstone?” he said. “You’re the guy who blocked massive amounts of money that could have come to West Virginia because it wasn’t good for the coal industry and your own personal financial interest?”

This article is republished from DeSmog under a Creative Commons license.
DeSmog was founded in January 2006 to clear the PR pollution that is clouding the science and solutions to climate change. Their team quickly became the world’s number one source for accurate, fact-based information regarding global warming misinformation campaigns.

Farm Runoff, Nitrogen Dead-Zones, Cause Unprecedented Environmental Crisis

Algae and dead fish in Dianchi Lake, China, 2007. Lakes and coastlines from Florida to Michigan in the U.S. and lakes and rivers in China and India are facing massive algal blooms and eutrophication that kill fish and other aquatic creatures.
Image by eutrophication&hypoxia via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
By Ashoka Mukpo - September 28, 2021
This article was originally published on Mongabay.

  • The creation of synthetic fertilizers in the early 20th century was a turning point in human history, enabling an increase in crop yields and causing a population boom.
  • But the overuse of nitrogen and phosphorus from those fertilizers is causing an environmental crisis, as algae blooms and oceanic “dead zones” grow in scale and frequency.
  • Of the nine “planetary boundaries” that scientists say we must not cross in order to sustain human life, the boundary associated with nitrogen and phosphorus waste has been far surpassed, putting Earth’s operating system at risk.
  • Global policymakers are beginning to slowly recognize the scale of the problem, as climate change threatens to make it worse. Absent major reforms to agribusiness practices, scientists are aiming to convince the world to reduce waste.

On a sunny day, Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán is normally a sweeping vista of turquoise and sapphire, with the lake drinking the color of the sky until the two are nearly indistinguishable from each other. Ringed by mountains and towering volcanos, below Atitlán’s waves lie sunken ruins that were once used for worship and ceremony by the Mayan communities that have thrived here for thousands of years.

But in 2009, those communities awoke one morning to an unsettling sight. Vast swaths of the azure lake had instead turned sickly green. A film of foul-smelling scum was drifting on its surface, washing ashore, and swirling in the coves where people bathe and catch fish.

Atitlán had been overrun by cyanobacteria, or as it’s more commonly known, blue-green algae. The outbreak was massive, covering 40% of the lake’s surface; big enough to be seen from space. It was the first time a blue-green algae outbreak that size had been recorded at the lake, but it wouldn’t be the last. In 2015, another extensive bloom chased away tourists, a vital part of the local economy, and now, algal blooms are a semiconstant health threat for the lake’s Indigenous residents.

The surface of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán is normally a sweeping, fluorescent blue vista. The lake is a vital part of the local economy and the Indigenous residents also depend on it for water.
Image by Murray Foubister via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The explanation for the algal growth explosion at Atitlán, an affliction now shared by many of Earth’s freshwater lakes, is inseparable from the story of our species’ 20th-century population boom. In recent decades, the lake has been flooded with phosphorus and other nutrients, delivered largely via sewage and agricultural runoff. Along with its sister element nitrogen, phosphorus is almost entirely responsible for our ability to feed billions of people. The two elements are essential for plants and crops, and as the building blocks of synthetic fertilizers, vital to modern industrial food production.

They are also the cause of one of the world’s least recognized, and most severe, ecological crises: the human-caused destabilization of Earth’s natural nitrogen and phosphorous cycles.

Widespread use of synthetic fertilizers enabled crop yields to skyrocket during the past century. But there’s a catch: Excess nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from agriculture is leaking into lakes and flowing into estuaries, bays and seas planetwide, causing toxic algal blooms like the ones at Atitlán, as well as immense oxygen-free “dead zones” in the oceans, where most marine life can’t survive. Mega storms and higher temperatures caused by climate change are making the problem worse.

These algae blooms and dead zones are now on the rise, and experts say that unless governments start taking effective action, and fast, Lake Atitlán’s woes are just a taste of what’s to come. The imbalances caused by nitrogen and phosphorus overload are threatening biodiversity across the world, and according to some scientists, pushing us out of the “safe operating space for humanity.”

From guano to green revolution

The struggle to provide, or “fix,” enough nitrogen in soil to grow bountiful crops has been a constant of human history. Both nitrogen and phosphorus are necessary components of photosynthesis; without enough, plants turn sickly and stunted. Nitrogen is naturally abundant, making up 80% of the atmosphere, but most plants can’t use it until it’s converted into its “reactive” form, limiting where they can grow.

Early societies found a way to get around those limits by burning vegetation, then planting crops in the charred soil to boost growth. With this discovery, “slash-and-burn” agriculture was born, and while they didn’t know it, these Neolithic farmers were injecting reactive nitrogen and phosphorus, released from incinerated plant matter, into the soil.

Later civilizations learned that interspersing their crops with clover and legumes, such as soybeans (among the rare plants that can fix their own nitrogen), or applying animal manure (which contains digested reactive nitrogen and phosphorus) were even better solutions than slash and burn. These innovations allowed agriculture to support bigger populations.

In the mid-1600s, a German alchemist inadvertently discovered that phosphorus was part of the makeup of the human body when he boiled down 50 buckets of urine while searching for the mythical “philosopher’s stone.” As a result, crushed human bones (along with copious amounts of manure) were subsequently used as fertilizer in Europe.

Despite these discoveries, famine remained a constant danger, and when the colonial powers of Europe and the United States learned of a technique used by Indigenous groups in Peru, who fertilized their crops with nutrient-rich seabird guano, a hotly contested cross-Atlantic extractive trade was born. By the mid-1800s, newly independent Peru, Chile and Bolivia were fighting a bloody war over control of the islands where the bird droppings fell. Around the same time, U.S. scientists discovered that natural rock deposits of soluble phosphorus existed and could be mined.

A guano island in Peru. Seabird guano, or seabird excrement, is rich in nutrients and has been used by Indigenous farmers in Peru to fertilize their crops. By the mid-1800s, newly independent Peru, Chile and Bolivia were waging wars over control of the islands where the bird droppings fell.
Image by Eduardo Bom, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Then, in the first decade of the 20th century, two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, changed the course of history, for good and ill. The pair developed the Haber-Bosch process, a means of directly converting atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia (a reactive nitrogen compound) through intense pressure and heat. This breakthrough led to the production of synthetic fertilizers — and the deadly explosives used in World War I.

The twin developments of phosphorus mining and artificial nitrogen fixation marked an underappreciated turning point in the story of humanity. Coupled with new high-yield crops and chemical pesticides, people were suddenly able to produce food on a scale previously inconceivable, and our population was off to the races. Between 1900 and 2000, the number of human beings on the planet rose from 1.6 billion to 6 billion, while the total land mass used for agriculture increased by only 30% — an impossible feat without synthetic fertilizer.

The downside was that reactive nitrogen and phosphorus were introduced into the biosphere in staggering volumes. In 1890, humanity annually produced 15 million tons of reactive nitrogen (almost entirely by growing legumes and rice), and used about 2 million tons of phosphorus for agriculture. Today, that figure tops 200 million tons of reactive nitrogen per year and 47 million tons of phosphorus.

The growth of industrial agriculture was one of many technological miracles that arose during the 20th century. But as with many others, there was a hidden price.

St. Johns River in Florida, U.S., would become overgrown for miles with aquatic vegetation, flourishing on thephosphorous and nitrogen nutrients discharged into waterways.
Public Domain image via Pixabay.

By land, by air, and by sea

Before the advent of synthetic fertilizers and fossil fuels, the movement of nitrogen through the biosphere was relatively stable. In what’s known as the “nitrogen cycle,” the element’s atoms traveled through flora and fauna, being released via excretion and death back into the ground, with some escaping through bacterial conversion to the atmosphere or trickling into waterways. The nitrogen cycle was a foundation of life on Earth, helping to sustain and nourish flora and fauna alike in a harmonious balance of atomic movement.

That balance was shattered by industrialization and technology. While nitrogen-based fertilizers, which also contain phosphorus mined from the earth, today produce food that sustains around half of the world’s population, their liberal application has created a nitrogen “cascade.” Governments, eager to expand national economies, subsidized fertilizer purchases, allowing farmers to grow more food and faster, while chemical companies used the Haber-Bosch process to saturate the market with relatively cheap nutrients.

In turn, the massive influx of nitrogen and phosphorus became a form of pollution, spilling into Earth’s ecosystems. Now, nearly 80% of the nitrogen used in synthetic fertilizer is lost into the environment through soil erosion, runoff, atmospheric conversion and other forms of waste. A 2002 study estimated that for every 100 nitrogen molecules converted by the Haber-Bosch process into fertilizer, only 14 end up consumed as food.

This “overload” of nitrogen and phosphorus is wreaking environmental havoc across the world. Runoff from fertilizers and sewage, which contains nutrients consumed by humans, seeps into groundwater and enters waterways. Just as commercial crops love these two elements, so too do cyanobacteria and algae found naturally in water bodies like Lake Atitlán.

This nutrient feast leads to “blooms” of astronomical growth, sometimes dubbed “red tides.” The abundance of algae uses up the oxygen in the water, then dies, floating to the surface as a rotting green or red scum that is often toxic and which further depletes water oxygen levels. This process, called eutrophication, is now a common sight from Michigan to Shanghai, along with dead zones that began in river mouths and in bays but which have even occurred in the middle of the ocean.

Eutrophication in Lille, France. The abundance of algae, caused by excess nutrient pollution via fertilizers and sewage, uses up the oxygen in the water, then dies. It then floats to the surface as a rotting green or red scum that is often toxic, further depleting water oxygen levels.
Image by F. lamiot via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5).

“The overloading of nutrients into fresh waterways feeds more algae blooms, and as the algae duplicates and grows very quickly, they will consume oxygen and create a very dangerous living environment for fish and other types of animals in the water system,” said Xin Zhang, associate professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “It’s the same case with ocean fronts and in estuaries.”

While most people have never heard the word “eutrophication,” growing numbers are becoming familiar with its effects. In the U.S., lakes and coastlines from Florida to Michigan are struggling with algae, and in China, which has some of the highest concentrations of nutrient overloads on Earth, a massive bloom forced the competitive sailing event to be postponed during the 2008 Olympics. In India, the sacred Ganges River has turned green with algae.

“Human disturbance to the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles has already exceeded the planetary boundary,” Zhang said. Scientists have so far recognized nine planetary boundaries that they say represent the safe limits of human activity. Beyond them, we risk disrupting natural Earth systems and putting our very survival. (The Stockholm Resilience Center, which helped develop and popularize the concept, maintains a description of the full nine boundaries, which include: climate change; biodiversity loss; ocean acidification; ozone depletion; atmospheric aerosol pollution; freshwater use; land-system change; release of novel chemicals; and biogeochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorus.)

Nutrient pollution “dead zones”

Across the planet, people whose livelihoods depend on lakes and oceans are bearing the brunt of the worsening crisis. For decades now, shrimpers who fish the Gulf of Mexico have borne the cost of one of the biggest marine “dead zones” in the world, with agricultural runoff traveling to the Gulf from the Midwest via the Mississippi River causing an estimated $2.4 billion in damages per year. Similar dead zones exist off the coast of Oregon and in Chesapeake Bay, in northern Europe and East Asia.

As much as 10% or more of the ocean is now a dead zone, according to some estimates.

Thanks to global warming, they are also getting bigger and arriving earlier. This summer’s dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, was the largest ever recorded, covering an area the size of Connecticut, a 16,400-square-kilometer (6,334-square-mile) graveyard where fish and other aquatic life can’t find enough oxygen to survive.

“It’s not going away. It’s the size of a state, and it’s been there for 30 years,” said Rebecca Boehm, an economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists who wrote a paper on the Gulf dead zone’s impact on fishing livelihoods. “It’s like what are we doing? The definition of insanity is letting this happen over and over again.”

The Gulf of Mexico has one of the biggest marine “dead zones” in the world, with agricultural runoff traveling to the Gulf from the Midwest via the Mississippi River causing an estimated $2.4 billion in damages per year.
Image by tonynetone via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The threat of nutrient overload isn’t new, and the risk has long been recognized. Since the 1970s, regulations have been put in place to limit nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in some regions, and where there’s been political will to enforce them, they’ve shown results.

But scientists say those piecemeal successes aren’t anywhere close to the scale of what will be necessary to reverse the damage.

For nitrogen, the planetary boundary hasn’t just been crossed — it’s been smashed, researchers say. Climate change is the boundary that grabs most headlines, but nutrient runoff, what scientists dub “biogeochemical flows,” is an unsung crisis that is already damaging ecosystems as well as the people who rely on them around the world, and which is almost certain to get worse.

“The science is a bit like climate 20 years ago, where the scientists are mobilizing and highlighting an issue, and the policy is coming afterwards,” said Mark Sutton, an environmental physicist and chair of the International Nitrogen Initiative. “I think in order to define the policy response, one has to be very clear about the problem in the first place.”

No easy answers, for farmers, people or the planet 

Sutton says a key problem blocking global action is what he calls “fragmentation” of efforts to address nitrogen pollution by policymakers.

Agricultural runoff isn’t the only way that nitrogen is being pumped into the biosphere. It’s also released into the atmosphere as nitric oxide when fossil fuels are burned, and is also converted into another gas, nitrous oxide, by bacteria on agricultural lands. Both are greenhouse gases, with the latter being 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a climate change-causing greenhouse gas.

Nitrous oxide is also caustic to the ozone layer, but despite this threat, it isn’t covered by the Montreal Protocol, which Sutton says is emblematic of the incoherent and ineffective control of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution by global environmental policy.

“Depending on what country you’re in, let’s say that nitrous oxide is about 5% of your total greenhouse gas emissions, or maybe more. But is [that even] 5% of the discussion? From what I can see, it’s more like zero — it’s completely forgotten,” he said.

Until recently, the problem of nitrogen runoff into waterways and its emission into the atmosphere were treated as separate problems. And without a coordinated global plan, policies to deal with them have been scattershot, or in many cases actively counterproductive. One analysis of national laws and regulations covering nitrogen, for example, found that one-quarter were written to spur greater use of fertilizers to boost crop yields.

Depending on the region, that may not be a problem. Africa, for example, suffers from a shortage of phosphorus and nitrogen, whereas the U.S., India and China are in heavy surplus. But in the absence of an effective, global policy on nutrient usage, distribution, and waste, the consequences of fertilizer overuse are being almost entirely overshadowed by the need to grow economies and feed people.

“The challenge for national policymakers is to balance the concerns of food security with increasing concerns over the environment,” Zhang said.

One thing consumers can do to help, scientists say, is reduce food waste and meat consumption. Producing feed for livestock often requires large amounts of fertilizer, and the amount of nutrients that reach the plate is lower for meat than for vegetables and cereals. “Only a small portion of nitrogen in the feed is converted to meat from livestock,” Zhang said. “It’s a highly inefficient system.”

But while consumers can play a minor role, in the long run the nutrient pollution crisis won’t be solved without confronting the way we grow and produce food. Easy answers, however, will not be forthcoming. Our World in Data estimates that without synthetic fertilizers, humanity could only sustain around half its current population. Those fertilizers might be poisoning the world’s lakes and oceans, but billions of people also need them to survive.

A farmer sprays liquid urea ammonium nitrate fertilizer on pre-emergent crops. The challenge for national policymakers is to balance the concerns of food security with increasing concerns over the environment, which includes synthetic fertilizer overuse.
Image by eutrophication&hypoxia via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

A slow awakening

As with the other planetary boundaries, policymakers have been slow to grasp the potentially catastrophic impacts of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. Those who have begun to recognize the scale of the problem are finding there are few palatable approaches to it. As with fossil fuel companies, industrial agribusiness wields immense political and economic power, and more crucially, there is no easy path to an immediate sharp reduction in fertilizer use without creating a risk of food insecurity.

Instead, Sutton said, a more realistic strategy is to focus on waste instead of overuse. Aiming for reduced nitrogen and phosphorus leakage via adaptive agricultural techniques and better waste management may be an easier sell politically, and research shows that a sizeable portion of nutrients can be recycled instead of carelessly released into ecosystems.

Some examples of existing practices that could be scaled up and implemented planetwide include the planting of “cover crops” that hold nutrients in soils after harvests, instituting the inter-cropping of nitrogen-fixing legumes, tightening up storage of manure, and introducing agroforestry buffer zones, along with other proposals under discussionResearch shows that by applying some of these solutions, inputs of fertilizer could even be reduced without sacrificing yields.

“Our message is that it’s good financially, so that if you look at the total amount of nitrogen pollution in the world, added up just in terms of nitrogen price and not even valuing the health and ecosystem costs, you get something like $200 billion of wasted nitrogen,” Sutton said. “If you halve that nitrogen waste you save yourself $100 billion for the circular economy.”

For phosphorus, figuring out ways to reduce waste is crucial for another reason. Unlike nitrogen, there’s no way to manufacture phosphorus; nearly all of it is mined in North Africa, with Morocco controlling nearly three-quarters of the world’s reserves, some of which lie in occupied and disputed Western Sahara. While there’s no immediate threat of it running out, the supply is finite and will at some point be depleted.

“We have a situation where 85% of the supply is controlled by just five countries, so my perspective is that we should be thinking hard about it,” said Elena Bennett, the Canada Research Chair in Sustainability Science at McGill University.

Reducing nutrient waste could save billions of dollars, and protect the planet, but implementing new measures will cost money. For farmers, often in debt and barely surviving economically, making those changes will require capital many of them don’t have, especially in low-income countries. Governments will likely have to step in to cover much of those costs.

“Farmers are quite vulnerable. It’s not like they have super high profit margins. A lot of them are working off-farm jobs to make enough income to keep things running, and so whatever we do to solve this problem has to have in it some solution that also protects farmers,” Bennett said.

Some countries are now waking up to the problem’s scale, along with the need for a more serious global response, but so far there hasn’t been much tangible progress. Early in 2019, the United Nations passed a resolution on sustainable nitrogen management in Nairobi. But the measure is both vague and voluntary, pledging to “consider the options for facilitating improved coordination of policies across the global nitrogen cycle at the national, regional and global levels.”

Later that year, the Colombo Declaration was signed by 29 countries, pledging to halve nitrogen waste by 2030. The non-binding declaration was celebrated with a new “nitrogen song,” recorded by Ricky Kej, a Grammy Award-winning musician from India. For now, it does not look like a Paris Agreement for nitrogen and phosphorus is on the near horizon.

What will have a definitive impact on the nitrogen crisis, though, is a more familiar catastrophe: climate change.

A harmony of disasters

In 2018, a group of scientists released a study analyzing satellite images for 71 of the world’s lakes. The results were consistent across regions: More than half showed evidence of algae blooms, and they were getting worse. The few lakes that showed signs of recovery were primarily those that had also experienced a reduction in atmospheric temperatures.

“One of the only things that we saw consistently across all the lakes is that the only ones that were able to sustain an improvement of water quality were those that had warmed less,” said Anna Michalak, director of the department of global ecology at the Carnegie Institute of Science and the report’s co-author.

The relationship between higher temperatures and algae blooms isn’t entirely straightforward. In hotter climates, there’s more rainfall evaporation and water runoff, which can reduce the amount of fertilizer nutrients delivered to lakes and coastlines. But once those nutrients do arrive, warmer lakes typically have worse algal outbreaks.

“Once they’re there, and this is true for coasts as well, higher temperatures tend to accelerate the growth of phytoplankton,” Michalak said.

Lake Atitlán’s algae bloom in 2009 as seen from space. Scientists who analyzed satellite images of some lakes across the world have found that algal blooms got worse as temperatures got warmer. Image by NASA’s Terra satellite.

The climate change-induced severe storms that have become a familiar feature of life in recent years will also make the problem worse. Heavy rainfall dislodges fertilizer runoff from soils and transports it to waterways. If models forecasting that warming oceans will generate more intense storms are accurate, this could be very bad news.

“There’s huge swaths of the world that are already relatively wet and are projected to get wetter, both in terms of total and extreme precipitation, and those are areas where rainfall changes would lead to increased nutrient loading,” Michalak said.

Heavier downpours in the U.S. Midwest, for example, would likely worsen the Gulf Coast’s dead zone. “If you have these extreme rain events on barren farm fields that have manure or nitrogen, then that just washes into the river and ends up in the Gulf,” said Boehm of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

If extreme weather events worsen in the years ahead, that will hamper efforts to reduce nutrient runoff even if they are implemented at scale. Through many decades of overuse, the legacy of synthetic fertilizers will be here to stay for years or decades, even in the best-case scenario where the world takes action.

“We’re headed there whether we like it or not, simply because we’ve built up so much phosphorus in the agricultural soils over the last 70 years,” Bennett said. “That’s a very slow ship to turn around … There’s tons and tons just sitting in the soil waiting to be knocked downstream by one of these big summer storms.”

The convergence of climate change with the nitrogen and phosphorous crisis — the threat of globally warmed algal blooms and hypoxia in the planet’s lakes and oceans — is another blinking warning light for the environment. It’s also a reminder of an inescapable truth: Damage done to one of the biosphere’s life support systems will inevitably, and unpredictably, be amplified by damage done elsewhere.

As worrying as the links between the two crises are, Sutton said he’s hopeful that policymakers are waking up to the scale of the threat, citing the Colombo Declaration as an example of progress. But as of now, the needle is still pointing in the wrong direction, and time is running short.

If history is any guide, some unease is in order. Scientists today note that many of Earth’s worst biodiversity extinction events — including the Late Ordovician extinction event and End-Permian event that wiped out 90% of all species — were preceded by widespread ocean anoxia. In contrast, the Cambrian explosion of new life on Earth was catalyzed by increased ocean oxygen levels.

The inhabitants of the Late Ordovician and End-Permian eras had no control over their fate; we do.


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This article is republished from Mongabay under a Creative Commons license.
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