Researchers establish long-sought source of ocean methane

Researchers establish long-sought source of ocean methane

A significant amount of the methane naturally released into the atmosphere comes from the ocean. This has long puzzled scientists because there are no known methane-producing organisms near the ocean’s surface. A team of researchers has made a discovery that could help to answer this ‘ocean methane paradox.’

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Living on thin air — microbe mystery solved

Living on thin air — microbe mystery solved

Scientists have discovered that microbes in Antarctica have a previously unknown ability to scavenge hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide from the air to stay alive in the extreme conditions. The find has implications for the search for life on other planets, suggesting extraterrestrial microbes could also rely on trace atmospheric gases for survival.

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Freezing trees, finding answers

Freezing trees, finding answers

Ice storms can wreak havoc on communities. Frozen limbs, dragged down by the weight of the ice, can snap off and fall on cars, homes, and power lines. But scientists aren’t sure how ice storms affect long-term forest health. Researchers are changing that.

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Forests are the key to fresh water

Forests are the key to fresh water

Freshwater resources are critical to both human civilization and natural ecosystems, but researchers have discovered that changes to ground vegetation can have as much of an impact on global water resources as climate change.

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Once they start composting, people find other ways to be ‘green’: With new city program, residents increased energy, water conservation

Once they start composting, people find other ways to be ‘green’: With new city program, residents increased energy, water conservation

Composting food scraps can prompt people to make other earth-friendly choices, new research has found.

When one California city started a composting program to keep food waste out of its landfill, residents began to pay more attention to other environmentally sound practices, such as taking shorter showers, according to a study led by Nicole Sintov, an assistant professor of behavior, decision making and sustainability at The Ohio State University.

“In our study, one pro-environment change appeared to lead to other benefits and that could be important to know as city leaders and others consider conservation projects,” said Sintov, formerly of the University of Southern California.

The study was part of a larger effort to look at the success of the composting program. Sintov’s study included 284 residents of Costa Mesa, a Southern California city that in 2015 began offering curbside recycling and compost pickup for its residents. Prior to the program, no curbside recycling was offered, Sintov said. The research appears in the journal Environment and Behavior.

Sintov and her colleagues were interested in a scientific concept called “spillover,” in which one behavior prompts another. This can work in good ways — such as a person going to bed earlier because she has started an exercise program. But it can also work in bad ways — say someone thinks it’s now OK to eat more doughnuts because he’s eating salad a few times a week.

“The idea is if you’re investing all these resources — composting bins and trucks and new facilities — is it possible that this could lead to any other pro-environment behavior, or do people start to slack off in other areas, which we don’t want,” Sintov said.

She expected that the program might be a good way to test spillover when it comes to conservation — largely because composting is such a hands-on and arguably unappealing endeavor.

The researchers asked participants about three food-waste prevention behaviors, including planning meals before shopping. And they asked about seven energy and water-waste prevention behaviors, including taking shorter showers and unplugging electronics when they’re not in use.

When they examined survey results and compared them with the onset of composting, they found that those who began composting food waste also engaged in more efforts to conserve water and energy compared to those who did not compost.

What surprised Sintov was that none of the three food-conservation behaviors appeared to differ much between Costa Mesa residents who started composting relative to those who did not.

“This may have been because so many people in the community were already doing a good job planning meals and paying attention to how much food they bought and used. There wasn’t a lot of room for improvement to begin with,” Sintov said.

The researchers did not see any of the concerning “negative spillover,” which would have been identified if residents began to be less careful with food and natural resources after the curbside composting program kicked off.

The study took place in a relatively affluent, well-educated community and further research will be necessary to determine if its findings extend to other populations, Sintov said. But it begins to bolster the argument that these types of civic conservation projects may have multiple benefits — including those that might not be as obvious, she said.

Beyond demonstrating that composting was tied to greater conservation efforts, Sintov and her collaborators also found a possible psychological explanation for why that happens.

“We know that humans desire consistency in our thoughts, feelings and actions. That’s well-established, and that’s tied to our self-perception,” Sintov said.

She and her colleagues dug a little deeper in this area, looking for possible scientific links — or “mediators” — between composting and the spillover behaviors.

“Our study found that this happened because waste was on their minds, or ‘cognitively accessible,’ and this thinking about waste seems to lead you to manage waste in other ways.”

The study is relevant to policymakers because it highlights the importance of acknowledging the potential that government programs and other changes could trigger unexpected behavior, Sintov said. It’s also one of the first to examine environmental spillover in a community setting outside of a college campus.

“If we can figure out how to institute changes that would encourage people along the path of positive spillover, that would be really cool,” Sintov said.

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Consumption is the bottleneck for sustainable development

Consumption is the bottleneck for sustainable development

From ending poverty to improving wellbeing, gender equality, cities’ resilience or climate action — while synergies among most of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) foster progress in sustainable development, there are some key conflicts or bottlenecks that could hamper achieving the SDG objectives for 2030. This is the result of a new comprehensive analysis by a team of scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). According to the study, responsible consumption and production seems to be such a bottleneck, as data from the past shows.

“The Sustainable Development Goals aim at tackling complex multi-dimensional challenges faced by humankind and set the international agenda for 2030. However, so far little is known about the interactions, correlations and potential conflicts between the set of SDGs,” explains lead author Prajal Pradhan. “We tried to break up the complicated interlinkages into more comprehensible pairs so we could investigate how different SDGs influence each other. It turns out that in general, synergies outweigh trade-offs for most SDGs and countries. However, one SDG stands out as being in partial conflict with a number of other goals — that is responsible consumption and production.” Improvements in well-being, economic prosperity, and lifestyles currently still come to a large extent through an increase in consumption and therefore with the growing environmental and material footprints. To successfully implement the 2030 development agenda, such conflicts in objectives need to be identified, governed and tackled.

Adopted in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals comprise 17 goals and 169 targets, ranging from human well-being to economic prosperity and environmental protection. The UN objectives to transform the world until 2030 are also the frame that member states are expected to adopt for their agendas and policies for development and sustainability. Identifying synergies and tradeoffs through SDG interactions is central to the design of feasible policies. So far, SDG interactions have mostly been analysed qualitatively, for few targets or for individual regions of the world.

Lessons from the past: Data reveals more synergies than trade-offs

“Our study provides the first complete quantification of synergies and trade-offs as they can be detected in data from the past to the present within and across the SDGs, both at country level and on a global scale,” says co-author Jürgen Kropp, vice chair of PIK’s research domain Climate Impacts & Vulnerabilities. Using a statistical setup applying data from the UN Statistics Division on 122 indicators for more than 200 countries between 1983 and 2016, “we were able to carve out the lessons to be learned from historical data. This is a simple but highly useful approach, as the SDGs may be still new, but the challenges are certainly not,” he adds.

The results not only reveal possible conflicts between the SDG goals, they also highlight a huge potential for synergies when it comes to the fight against poverty, hunger and for health and well-being. Eliminating poverty and improving public health positively influenced most other SDGs. For instance, around three billion people around the globe live in countries where improvements on health and well-being matched with the provision of clean water and sanitation. Identifying the countries where synergies occur allows for being able to learn from the best practices. As another example, countries associated with sustainable cities also seem to score well on climate action — which again indicates a strong potential for synergy. Based on the study results more elaborated concepts can be developed in order to make reliable projections about future fulfillments of SDGs and associated consequences.

“The SDGs represent a holistic and multi-dimensional perspective on development,” says co-author Wolfgang Lucht, chair of PIK’s research domain Earth System Analysis. “The empirical framework on the evaluation of SDG interactions here presented makes a fundamental contribution to ensuring successful policy implementation of the SDG agenda. Attainment of SDGs is central for the great transformation that is required for overcoming the unsustainable practices visible in the historical data. To achieve this, the SDGs need to act as a system of interacting components that together move the world into a safe and just operating space. Our study shows that the SDGs are much more than just a collection of targets, but a system of synergistic re-enforcement. While no single SDG has the power to transform the world alone, the whole set of SDGs together does.”

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Materials provided by Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Improving urban green spaces increase thermal comfort of citizens

Improving urban green spaces increase thermal comfort of citizens

A female architect from Universidad Politécnica de Madrid has assessed the link between urban green spaces and the thermal comfort sensation of people. The results provide significant suggestions to improve thermal comfort of citizens.

We are aware that thermal sensation in green areas is reduced, but we cannot precisely specify the effects of its cushioning. A female researcher from School of Architecture at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid has carried out a new model that simulates six different scenarios of green areas and has established the differences among the physiological equivalent temperature on each situation. Results indicate that an increased percentage of green spaces in cities and better landscape design parameters help moderate the urban heat island effect and thus thermal comfort of users.

Esther Higueras, a member of the research group Bioclimatic Architecture in a Sustainable Environment — ABIO (UPM), has assessed the thermal comfort modification potential of a long belt-shaped park (around 9 km) in Beijing and the effects of its landscape parameters using the ENVI-met© software, a numerical simulation model of surface-plant-air interactions. Beijing was selected because of its humid continental climate affected by monsoons, summer in this city is characterized by torridity and humidity what makes this city a suitable place for many relevant studies of urban microclimate and thermal comfort.

Holistic spatial and temporal distribution scenarios of thermal comfort of the park are obtained in terms of physiological equivalent temperature (PET). This study compared areas of grass, trees of 10 m, trees of 20 m, hardened ground, water bodies and buildings (6 simulations). Green area spaces shown better level of thermal comfort, but there are differences in uncovered areas due to solar radiation and the reflection effect of other surface materials.

The average thermal comfort sensation in green areas range around 2 °C at 2 pm. Regression analyses indicate that the most significant influencing factor on the moderation of thermal comfort is the higher trees, while hardened ground exhibits a negative impact.

This simulation model considered the proportion of each landscape design parameter in the park. However, the model can be valid to improve the conditions of thermal comfort in other parks by modifying those percentages to adjust them to each situation.

Esther Higueras states “the work results provide a detailed knowledge of the real benefits of green areas on the thermal comfort of people.” Besides, the researcher adds, “the conclusions allow us to make suggestions to designers of urban parks such as to increase the coverage of taller trees, implement effective approaches in uncovered spaces, reduce the percentage of hardened pavement or to display the landscape parameters taking into account aesthetic aspects that can influence the perceived thermal sensation.”

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Materials provided by Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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