Biggest environmental news stories of the decade

December 31, 2019 by  
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As we begin a new decade, we’re taking a look over the biggest environmental news stories since 2010. There’s a little good news, and a lot of not-so-good news. Still, we can look back and learn from what is happening in the hopes of taking action and restoring a brighter future for our planet. Climate change moves into the mainstream, and more kids get involved While a few climate deniers still fill high-ranking political posts, climate change is much more widely accepted as fact — rather than something to “believe in” — than it was in 2010. According to the TED blog, only four TED Talks specifically on climate change were posted in 2010 and 2011, although speakers mentioned the phenomenon. By 2015, TED said, people had shifted to seeing climate change as happening now, rather than in the far-off future, thanks to debates about whether or not places like the island nation of Kiribati were already sinking. Related: 12 good things that happened for the environment in 2019 By the end of the decade, climate change is on the forefront of many people’s minds, especially young people. Worldwide movements like Extinction Rebellion use massive, nonviolent protests to urge politicians to slow the warming. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg rose to international prominence, taking politicians to task about ignoring climate change and even being named Time Magazine’s person of the year in 2019. Deepwater Horizon The decade started with a tragic oil spill on April 20, 2010, one of the worst in history. The explosion on British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig operating in the Gulf of Mexico, killed 11 people. It leaked oil into the gulf for 87 days, for a total of 3.19 million barrels of crude oil polluting the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. Images of people trying to wipe oil off pelican wings filled the news. Cleanup costs reached at least $65 billion . In addition to economic blows, especially to Louisiana’s shrimp and oyster industries, the animal death toll was high. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, about 82,000 birds, 6,165 sea turtles, 25,900 marine mammals and uncountable numbers of fish perished in the spill. Researchers are still gauging the long-term effects. Extreme weather events become more frequent As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned, global warming escalates weather disasters. The last decade saw 111 climate-related natural disasters that each cost more than $1 billion in damage. These include tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, floods, drought, heatwaves and winter storms. In 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, killing 2,981 people and costing an estimated $93.6 billion in damages. Notable U.S. disasters included Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the Missouri tornadoes of 2011. Animal extinctions Humans continued to edge out other animals in the struggle for habitat and resources. According to the World Wildlife Fund , species loss currently stands at between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate, which is the rate Earth would lose species if humans didn’t exist. In 2012, Lonesome George, the last Pinta tortoise , died at over 100 years old. Formosan clouded leopards no longer slink across Taiwan. The Christmas Island pipistrelle, a microbat, has ceased its ultrasonic squeaking. No more baiji dolphins cavort in the Yangtze River. In this last decade, the planet also lost Caribbean monk seals, West African black rhinos, Madagascar hippopotami and Liverpool pigeons. Rainforest deforestation The decade’s final year witnessed much of the Amazonian rainforest go up in smoke. Brazil and Bolivia were particularly hit hard. Many attributed this tragedy at least in part to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s push for development over preservation. Horrifying photos from the National Institute for Space Research revealed enormous bald swaths where trees once stood. During its peak in August 2019, more than 70,000 individual fires were burning. The rainforest plays a critical role in regulating the entire world’s climate, so concerns stretched far beyond Brazil. Related: Amazon rainforest might reach irreversible tipping point as early as 2021 Increase in ocean plastic During the last decade, plastic continued to fill the oceans. But awareness of ocean plastic also grew. A 2018 United Nations study reported that people dump approximately 13 million tons of plastic into the world’s oceans annually, and the researchers expected this number to grow. At the same time, many concerned citizens in cities around the world worked to decrease plastic waste by banning straws and plastic bags. Some hotel chains vowed to no longer stock beverages packaged in single-use plastic bottles. Many companies started developing products made from recycled plastic. Reusable water bottles became an important fashion accessory. China stopped buying American recycling Americans became more adept at recycling , but they weren’t necessarily aware where their recycled goods went. In 2018, China enacted a policy called National Sword. Suddenly, Americans realized their old plastic had largely been going to China , but China didn’t want it anymore. Now at the end of the decade, American cities are scrambling to save unprofitable recycling programs. Ironically, some cities have canceled these programs just when they’ve convinced people to recycle. Right now, it’s cheaper for American companies to produce new plastic than to recycle old. This is one of the many environmental problems that must be addressed in the coming decade. Images via Shutterstock

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Biggest environmental news stories of the decade

Images from NASA reveal the enduring damage in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

May 24, 2018 by  
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NASA has released more than  65,000 high-resolution aerial images of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria , which document the full extent of the ecological damage caused by the deadly hurricane in 2017. With only days remaining before the start of the 2018 hurricane season, the images from NASA reflect the impact from last year’s record-breaking storms — an impact that is still felt today. NASA gathered the images in a survey this past April, building upon similar work from the previous spring. The original mission focused on tracking long-term forest regeneration after humans abandoned land. After Maria, the mission shifted to become the first comprehensive aerial survey of the island following the devastating storm. “The photos are powerful,” NASA earth scientist Doug Morton told Earther . “[They’re] powerful reminders of the extent of damage.” In a typical year, scientists would expect to observe damage from storms on about 1 percent of the total forest canopy. In the wake of 2017, NASA images show that about 50 percent of forest canopy has suffered damage. “Every forest type we observed has clear signs of damage from the hurricane,” Morton noted. However, the forest is expected to recover. “It’s pretty much prime growing conditions,” said Morton, referring to the now-abundant sunlight and nutrient accumulation from fallen trees and leaves on the forest floor. Related: 2018 hurricane season may be worse than last year While some ecosystems in Puerto Rico may be recovering quickly, others, such as the mangrove swamps found in the island’s northeast region, are still struggling. This data is important to the team at NASA as they try to learn more about the varied resilience of diverse ecosystems found in Puerto Rico. The team also plans to use its aerial imagery and LiDAR data to better inform recovery efforts. + NASA Via Earther Images via NASA

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Images from NASA reveal the enduring damage in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

2018 hurricane season may be worse than last year

May 16, 2018 by  
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Hurricanes Harvey , Irma  and Maria devastated communities in the southern U.S. and Puerto Rico in 2017, and together resulted in around $265 billion in damage. Will the U.S. and Caribbean face more brutal storms this year? Forecasts of 2018’s looming hurricane season predict it could be more active than average — and you can start preparing for it now. North Carolina State University  researchers report that 14 to 18 named tropical storms and hurricanes could form in the Atlantic basin in 2018. In comparison, the average for named storms from 1950 to 2017 was 11. The researchers said of 14 to 18 storms, seven to 11 could become hurricanes, in contrast to the average of six. Three to five storms could turn into major hurricanes. Researchers at Colorado State University anticipate similar numbers.  They forecasted 14 named storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes in the Atlantic basin. Related: How to Prepare Your Home and Family for a Hurricane or Superstorm According to The Guardian and a study led by  Pacific Northwest National Laboratory that was  published earlier this month , Atlantic storms are intensifying quicker than they did 30 years ago. Colorado State researchers said there is a “slightly above-average probability for major hurricanes making landfall” in the Caribbean and the coastline of the continental U.S. The U.S. might not see the same levels of destruction this year, but people should still be prepared. “As is the case with all hurricane seasons, coastal residents are reminded that it only takes one hurricane making landfall to make it an active season for them,” Colorado State researchers said. “They should prepare the same for every season, regardless of how much activity is predicted.” Hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. You can start preparing right now — Inhabitat created a guide for getting your home and family ready for hurricanes and  superstorms . + North Carolina State University + Colorado State University Via The Guardian Images via Depositphotos (1, 2)

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2018 hurricane season may be worse than last year

The future of energy on islands

March 2, 2018 by  
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Islands are places of exceptional biodiversity and economic value, not to mention their great natural beauty. However, because of their isolation from the mainland, they are also difficult to power. This fact is particularly poignant as Puerto Rico , several months after Hurricane Maria, struggles to turn the lights back on. To prepare for a world in which climate change continues to energize super-storms and sea level rise, islands, on which 10 percent of the world’s population lives, must rethink their energy systems for future success. Read on for several solutions that will allow island communities to thrive in the 21st century. Islands currently receive most of their energy from fossil fuels , with some using imported oil, an expensive energy source, to power their electrical grid. With their costs dropping every year, solar and wind could provide cleaner, localized, cheaper energy. Since islands must contend with a limited amount of land, large-scale wind farms may be the preferred utility-scale option. However, neither option will be particularly effective without a battery storage system. To serve this need, Tesla is rolling out battery systems in Puerto Rico , Nantucket and other island communities in hopes that they may someday become ubiquitous. Related: The sinking island nation of Tuvalu is actually growing For islands with the appropriate natural resources, such as Iceland , geothermal power is an attractive energy option. New drilling technologies, such as those developed by  GA Drilling  and  AltaRock Energy , could enable geothermal prospectors to dig deeper and ultimately provide greater energy output. While it has drawn criticism from some environmentalists in the past, nuclear power may also be an effective energy source for island communities. The incredible energy density of nuclear fuel translates into a much more effectively shipped power source than fossil fuels, while the newest Gen IV nuclear reactors are passively safe . Nuclear power plants could even be established on ships, similar to nuclear-powered ships and submarines in the United States Navy, allowing power generation to be moved where it is most needed. Via World Economic Forum Images via Depositphotos   (1)

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Scientist warns Elon Musk’s Starman could be a bio-threat to Mars

March 2, 2018 by  
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Starman, the “driver” of Elon Musk ‘s Tesla Roadster as it cruises through the cosmos, may be carrying the largest collection of terrestrial bacteria ever sent into space. “Even if they radiated the outside, the engine would be dirty,” scientist Jay Melosh said in a  statement . “Cars aren’t assembled clean. And even then, there’s a big difference between clean and sterile.” SpaceX has not yet commented on whether Starman and Musk’s Roadster were sterilized before being sent into space. Starman is not scheduled to land on a planet nor are most bacteria species able to survive in the extreme conditions of space. Nonetheless, life will find a way and, if certain circumstances arise, Starman may be the potential vehicle for bacterial colonization of Mars. When scientists send objects into space, they adhere to the most strict precautions to ensure that no terrestrial organisms could potentially stowaway onto another planet. NASA operates an  Office of Planetary Protection for this very purpose. Scientists are particularly concerned that Earth life could establish a foothold in Mars, then either colonize the planet or be mistaken for Martian life by researchers. “Would Earth’s organisms be better adapted, take over Mars and contaminate it so we don’t know what indigenous Mars was like, or would they be not as well adapted as the Martian organisms?” Melosh said. “We don’t know.” Related: NASA just unveiled a tiny nuclear reactor for future Mars residents While most terrestrial life would perish in the harsh environment of space, species like the tardigrade, which can survive in space and go up to 30 years without food or water . There is a very small chance that Starman and his Roadster will ever arrive on the Martian surface. Therefore, Starman is less an invasive Trojan Horse, more a curator of an interstellar museum of terrestrial life. “The load of bacteria on the Tesla could be considered a biothreat—or a backup copy of life on Earth ,” astronautics scientist Alina Alexeenko said in a statement. If life on Earth ever becomes extinct, there is a chance that Starman, crash-landing back on his home planet, could get the party started again. Via Motherboard Images via SpaceX and NASA

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Groundbreaking new energy storage device charges up in just 20 seconds

March 2, 2018 by  
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A new aqueous storage device can be fully charged in a mere 20 seconds. Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and Kangwon National University scientists developed the device suited for portable electronics , with KAIST emphasizing in a statement that their device is both safe and environmentally friendly. Aqueous storage devices are less flammable than today’s lithium batteries , and could be cheaper too, according to ScienceAlert , but limitations have held scientists back. Cells comprising a battery transfer electrons between two materials, but aqueous solutions limit voltage range between the points, according to ScienceAlert. But scientists at institutions in South Korea , according to KAIST, “came up with new structures and materials to facilitate rapid speed in energy exchange on the surfaces of the electrodes and minimize the energy loss between the two electrodes.” They described their strategy for high-performance aqueous hybrid capacitors in the journal Advanced Energy Materials in January . ScienceAlert said hybrid capacitors like this one are basically a mixture of capacitor and battery. Related: Scientists just created a new type of battery inspired by electric eels Graphene to the rescue again: the scientists utilized graphene-based polymer chain materials for anodes. Graphene’s web-like structure afforded a high surface area, enabling higher capacitance, according to the institute. Metal oxide nanoparticles served as cathode materials. KAIST said, “This method realized higher energy density and faster energy exchange while minimizing energy loss.” The device they developed can charge up in 20 to 30 seconds via low-power charging systems like flexible solar cells or USB switching chargers. It boasts a power density 100 times greater than conventional aqueous batteries. And it can sustain capacity for more than 100,000 charges, according to ScienceAlert. KAIST professor Jeung Ku Kang said in the statement, “This eco-friendly technology can be easily manufactured and is highly applicable. In particular, its high capacity and high stability, compared to existing technologies, could contribute to the commercialization of aqueous capacitors.” + KAIST Via ScienceAlert Images via

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Groundbreaking new energy storage device charges up in just 20 seconds

FEMA contractor failed to deliver millions of emergency meals to Puerto Rico

February 8, 2018 by  
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Millions of meals never made their way to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria , according to Reuters . United States Democratic lawmakers recently said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded a contract of almost $156 million to a one-person company – which delivered 50,000 of an anticipated 30 million meals. The Atlanta-based FEMA contractor Tribute Contracting reneged on their commitment to deliver millions of meals to Puerto Rico after the island faced its “worst natural disaster in 90 years,” Reuters reported. House Oversight Committee Democrats referred to documents revealing the company delivered just thousands of meals. They were terminated for cause 20 days after they won the October 2017 contract from FEMA. This, the Democrats say, led to a “massive food shortage for weeks.” Related: $30M contract cancelled by FEMA after supplies to Puerto Rico fail to arrive Documents show Tribute had issues handling government contracts under $100,000 in the past and were barred from government work until 2019, according to Reuters. Elijah Cummings, representative for Maryland and top Democrat on the committee, and Stacey Plaskett, delegate for the United States Virgin Islands, wrote, “It is unclear why FEMA or any agency would have proceeded with a contract worth $156 million in light of this company’s poor contracting history and these explicit warnings.” Plaskett and Cummings sent a letter to chairman Trey Gowdy, Republican representative for South Carolina, asking him to subpoena FEMA for documents they say it has withheld for over three months regarding the failure to provide millions of emergency meals. They said in the letter their staff spoke with Tribute Contracting owner Tiffany Brown, who “explained that FEMA awarded the contract ‘because I was able to submit a proposal to supply 30 million meals at the cheapest cost.’ She stated that she ‘worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week to try and provide these emergency meals.’ She also explained FEMA knew she could not independently finance the production and delivery of this many meals in such a short time frame.” Gowdy spokesperson Amanda Gonzalez told Reuters although a subpoena was premature, they will continue to review hurricane recovery efforts. FEMA didn’t comment on Tribute but told Reuters when the contract was terminated, the distribution of food on the island “was not affected.” + House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Democrats + Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Letter Via Reuters Images via Wikimedia Commons ( 1 , 2 )

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FEMA contractor failed to deliver millions of emergency meals to Puerto Rico

$30M contract cancelled by FEMA after supplies to Puerto Rico fail to arrive

November 29, 2017 by  
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A recently formed Florida-based company was granted a $30 million contract to provide vital supplies to Puerto Rico in its recovery from Hurricane Maria , only to have the contract cancelled by FEMA after Bronze Star LLC failed to deliver emergency tarps and plastic sheeting for urgent repairs. While no payments were ever made to the company, the botched contract resulted in four weeks of inactivity, between when the contract was given and when it was cancelled, while Puerto Ricans went without the vital supplies they need to rebuild. This failure comes amidst a period of heavy rainstorms, during which emergency tarps would have been very helpful in protecting people — many of whom remain homeless in Puerto Rico. It is not known how thoroughly FEMA vetted Bronze Star before granting the contract, but there are certainly warning signs regarding the company’s seriousness. Formed in August 2017, Bronze Star had never delivered supplies or been awarded a government contract before. The company, founded by two brothers, was listed at an address in a single-family home in a residential subdivision in St. Cloud, Florida . Kayon Jones, co-founder of Bronze Star, claims that, prior to accepting the contract, manufacturers had promised him that tarps would be ready and fit for usage. Related: Tiny Montana company signs $300M contract to help restore power in Puerto Rico Jones also claims that the difficulty in acquiring the tarps was due to their being manufactured in Houston, Texas , which is recovering from Hurricane Harvey. “We were trying to help; it wasn’t about making money or anything like that,” said Jones in an interview with the Associated Press . Although more than half a dozen other businesses bid for the contract, FEMA has not disclosed details as to why the deal was ultimately granted to Bronze Star. Via Associated Press Images via United States Department of Agriculture (1)

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$30M contract cancelled by FEMA after supplies to Puerto Rico fail to arrive

Richard Branson’s plan to help rebuild the Caribbean with clean energy

November 3, 2017 by  
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Renewable energy could help islands in the Caribbean be more resilient in the face of future hurricanes – and billionaire Richard Branson wants to make that happen. He’s spearheading a plan for recovery centering on renewable energy. Replacing fossil fuel power grids with clean energy sources like solar and wind could also promote economic development. Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Caribbean islands. Now, Branson aims to help them rebuild. He has spoken with lenders and foundations about a fund to pay for a Disaster Recovery Marshall Plan, a name that nods to the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe following World War 2. His efforts, which focus on renewable energy, could also include debt relief negotiations in which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) might be involved – Branson met with IMF managing director Christine Lagarde and said she was willing to facilitate meetings between creditors and Caribbean nations. He also said in a blog post he met recently with over 50 representatives from Caribbean governments and utility companies. Related: Puerto Rico electricity crisis sparks interest in renewable energy He told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “We want to move the Caribbean countries into clean energy and make them more sustainable, which will make dealing with hurricanes much easier. The Caribbean heads of state agree with one voice that this is a good idea.” Branson rode out Hurricane Irma in a cellar on Necker, his private island in the British Virgin Islands. The island’s solar-powered microgrid weathered the storm well, he said, with the solar panels running again just 24 hours after the hurricane. In a blog post, Branson said people interested in helping could donate to the BVI Community Support Appeal , which aims “to raise money for the long term reconstruction” of the British Virgin Islands. Via the Thomson Reuters Foundation and Richard Branson Images via Caribbean Buzz Helicopters/Virgin and Ricardo Rossello on Twitter

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Colorful Peoples Pavilion in Eindhoven is made from 100% borrowed materials

November 3, 2017 by  
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All the materials needed to build this temporary pavilion in the Netherlands are borrowed. bureau SLA and Overtreders W built the People’s Pavilion – a centerpiece of the Dutch Design Week (DDW) taking place in Eindhoven – using materials from suppliers and Eindhoven residents which will be returned after the event closes. The only exception is the faceted upper façade, which is made of plastic household waste materials collected by Eindhoven residents. The People’s Pavilion will function as the main pavilion of the World Design Event in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, which provides a platform for future makers from all over the world. It will also be used as a meeting place and hang-out for visitors and serves as a venue for music and theater. Related: Spectacular origami pavilion made of recycled plastic pops up in Columbus, Indiana The 269-square-foot (25-square-meter) building can accommodate 200 seated or 600 standing people. Its structure is based on 12 concrete foundation piles and 19 wooden frames, designed in collaboration with Arup. Steel straps hold together wooden beams , while concrete piles and frames are connected with 350 tensioning straps. The glass roof resembles those used in the greenhouse industry. Related: The Folkets House is an inclusive space where refugees can learn skills and find jobs Colorful plastic tiles cover the upper façade of the building and are made from recycled plastic household waste . Leftovers from a refurbishment of BOL.com’s headquarters were used for the glass portion of the façade on the ground floor and will be reused for a new office space after the Dutch Design Week concludes. All the materials, including concrete slabs used for the podium, lighting, heating and bar are borrowed. + bureau SLA + Overtreders W + Dutch Design Week 

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Colorful Peoples Pavilion in Eindhoven is made from 100% borrowed materials

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