Showing posts with label environmental. Show all posts
Showing posts with label environmental. Show all posts

Book Review: Meg Lowman's "The Arbornaut" Chronicles Her Pioneering Forest Canopy Research

Field biologist Meg Lowman, known as “Canopy Meg,” describes her pioneering research amid the world's forest canopies in "The Arbornaut."

Meg Lowman climbing a tree
Meg Lowman climbing a tree
Photo by Dimossi at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
BY SARAH BOON - September 24, 2021
This article was originally published in Undark
Read the original article
When you consider that “upward of half of all terrestrial creatures live about 100 feet or more above our heads,” as biologist Meg Lowman notes in “The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us,” it makes sense for scientists to go to where the action is. But it’s only been in recent decades that researchers have systematically explored the canopies of the world’s tropical and temperate forests, in large part due to the efforts of so-called arbornauts like Lowman.

It’s daunting work, and often dangerous. And while there have been others in the past who have used ropes and climbing gear to conduct scientific research, Lowman in 1979 pioneered a simple method of rigging a tree for climbing using a slingshot. Essentially, from the ground she shoots a weighted fishing line into the upper branches of the tree, then attaches that fishing line to a nylon cord and hauls it over the same pathway. She then ties a heavier climbing rope to the nylon cord and pulls it up and over the support branch.

“The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us” by Meg Lowman (Allen & Unwin, 368 pages)

Lowman and an Australian colleague also did groundbreaking work building canopy walkways. During a field trip with Earthwatch, an organization that matches citizen scientists with researchers around the world, one of the volunteers got her hair caught on the climbing rope. She had to cut her hair without cutting the rope to free herself — a dicey situation, especially for a volunteer. So Lowman and the owner of the lodge at which they were working discussed how they could bring climbers safely into the canopy via an aerial path. This would also be a boon for research, as many researchers could work in the canopy at the same time. The next year, the world’s first canopy walkway was constructed in Lamington National Park in Queensland, Australia. Lowman has also accessed the canopy using construction cranes and an inflatable raft attached to a dirigible.

The book traces her scientific career, from her study of plants and bird eggs as a child in upstate New York, to her undergraduate years studying tree growth and her master’s research studying tree phenology (spring leafing), and finally to her Ph.D. work, where she got into her specialty: the effects of plant-eating insects on the leaves of tropical trees. The field was understudied because most researchers didn’t access the canopy to measure it — and it’s that access that Lowman developed.

She repeatedly notes that there is a research bias when scientific findings are based on studies done just on the forest floor or in the lower parts of trees, excluding the canopy. She likens it to looking just at someone’s big toe to diagnose an illness.

One of Lowman’s recurring themes is the importance of the scientific process, which she expresses as a series of iterative questions; indeed, the longest section of the book describes her Ph.D. research and the additional sub-studies she did to rule out bias in her main study. The reader is bombarded with experiment after experiment that Lowman conducted to answer smaller questions that arose during the course of her research, like whether insects are drawn to eat the water-resistant ink she uses to label leaves; whether they can find their way back to their food source if they fall out of the canopy; and whether young or old leaves are more toxic to the creatures.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

Near Certain Extinction for the Northern White Rhino May Yet be Thwarted

Only two female northern white rhinos remain in the world, but owing to assisted reproductive technology and a little help from their southern relatives, the species might soon make a comeback.

Northern White Rhino
Photo by Karimi Ngore, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
By Dr Daryl Holland, University of Melbourne - October 01, 2021
This article was first published on Pursuit
Read the original article

When Sudan, the last surviving male northern white rhino in the world, died in Kenya in March 2018, the species was as good as extinct. The two remaining female northern white rhinos, who are infertile, were doomed to live out their lives as the last of their kind.

Except maybe they won’t be the last.

Science has stepped in with a possible lifeline for the northern white rhino (NWR) and other critically endangered large mammals, according to new research published in Nature Communications.

An international team of researchers using assisted reproductive technologies (ART) has combined eggs from the southern white rhino (SWR) with the cryopreserved sperm of a northern white rhino to create viable embryos and embryonic stem cells.

There are five steps needed to get to the stage where we see a live birth of a hybrid northern-southern white rhino, and Professor Marilyn Renfree, from the School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne, who was part of the team that developed the embryos, says the first step - harvesting eggs and sperm - was one of the most challenging.

Based on the lack of males, sperm would seem to be a major stumbling block, but forward-thinking researchers had already collected and stored sperm from four northern white rhinos.

“Over the past few years, the sperm from three bulls was sampled and put in cryopreservation. Samples were also taken from Sudan after his death and frozen,” says Professor Renfree.

It was the eggs that were more difficult to collect. Professor Renfree says the key to the project was new technology developed by Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, who’s based at the Leibniz-Institut in Berlin, that for the first time allowed collection of eggs from the ovaries of rhinoceroses.

“He designed an ovum pick-up (OPU) device. This has never been done before with such a large animal,” Professor Renfree says.

The next step in the process was bringing the eggs to maturity, which was done under laboratory conditions, in much the same way as the eggs of many other species, including humans.

“Rhinos are very large (2,000 kg on average), so they have a reproductive tract that is very hard to access. Professor Hildebrandt developed a 150 centimetre-long OPU device to guide the needle to the correct place using a trans-rectal route.”

“They showed that oocytes can be repeatedly recovered from live females by this trans-rectal ovum pick-up, matured, fertilised by intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) and, for the first time, developed to the blastocyst stage in vitro.”

The device developed by Professor Hildebrandt, who is also an Honorary Professor at the University of Melbourne and lead author of the paper, is currently awaiting patent approval and could also be used to collect eggs from other large mammals.

The southern white rhinoceros is a subspecies of the white rhino and its population is currently rated as ‘near threatened’ by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with about 21,000 individuals remaining.

It is also resident in several zoos around the world. Professor Hildebrandt and his team were able to collect viable eggs from both southern and from the remaining two female northern white rhinos.

The next step in the process was bringing the eggs to maturity, which was done under laboratory conditions, in much the same way as the eggs of many other species, including humans.

Step three is the in vitro fertilisation of the egg with the sperm. Understandably, given the lack of living subjects, the northern white rhino sperm were not the highest quality.

“The northern white rhino sperm, when they were thawed out, were not very good and had to be activated by an electrical stimulus,” says Professor Renfree.

Once fertilisation occurred, forming a zygote, the team stimulated the growth of the zygote for between seven and twelve days, to the developmental stage called a blastocyst – at which point it is ready to be implanted in the uterus.

Now that Professor Hildebrandt and his team have perfected the technique for egg retrieval from rhinos, they have started work to produce a pure northern white rhino embryo.

“The SWR and SWR x NWR hybrid embryos created by the team led by Professor Cesare Galli, who’s the senior author from the Italian reproductive laboratory Avantea, were very high quality and the stem cells created from two of them expressed all of the genes you’d expect them to express,” says Professor Renfree.

Two of the blastocysts have now been cryopreserved and these frozen embryos could soon be implanted into a southern white rhino surrogate to produce a baby hybrid rhino; preserving at least some of the unique genetics of its northern cousin.

Professor Renfree says the stem cells could hold the key to the survival of the rhinos, and other endangered species.

“The embryonic stem cells which are viable are potential candidates to create artificial gametes, both eggs and sperm, using a technique now being developed in mice.”

“If we could create a protocol for creating rhino gametes from stem cells, this is the most promising way forward.”

Now that Professor Hildebrandt and his team have perfected the technique for egg retrieval from rhinos, they have started work to produce a pure northern white rhino embryo.

“The team is going to harvest additional oocytes (immature eggs) from the last two female northern white rhinos who are currently in Kenya,” she says.

“They are infertile and never produced offspring, but they do have oocytes and these could be grown up in culture.”

She says this research also has the potential to help other large mammal species.

“This is a proof of concept project. These techniques have the potential to help the other endangered rhino species, including the Sumatran rhino and the Indian rhino and and other large mammals such as the Gaur, a large Asian cow that is also at risk of extinction.”

This article is republished from Pursuit under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives 3.0 Australia (CC BY-ND 3.0 AU) license/Title and subtitle have been reworded.
Pursuit publishes trustworthy and credible news, commentary and analysis to break through the jargon and give you more insight into the world around you.

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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