Geology for Global Development

Oceans

Private solutions, public science: how to bridge the gap?

Private solutions, public science: how to bridge the gap?

The urgency around many sustainability issues leads some billionaire investors to throw caution in the wind, frustrated with the pace of academic research. Robert Emberson sympathises with private projects like the Ocean Cleanup, even when things go wrong. ‘How’, he asks, ‘might we build a constructive bridge between ambitious entrepreneurs and scientific sceptics? ‘

Reading and writing about sustainable development in 2019 can be tough going, with a seemingly unending series of headlines suggesting that we as a society are lagging behind in the race to achieve our goals and that the deleterious effects of climate change are looming closer and closer, if not already upon us.

So when good news of any kind comes along, it can often be something to cling to – and perhaps even more devastating if that news is not what it seems. This up and down emotional trajectory describes my response to the clean-up operation launched last year to remove the plastic waste from the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, which ran into difficulties early this year.

The story is not yet over, though, and there are lessons to be learned for scientists working on issues related to sustainability more generally – so perhaps a positive outcome is still to come.

For those unaware, plastic pollution, both small and large, often ends up in the ocean, where gyres – or ocean currents – preferentially carry the waste products to certain areas, where it accumulates. These patches are hard to delineate, since unlike the images of islands of plastic bottles and grocery bags sometimes portrayed in the media, the plastic concentration is relatively low (4 particles per cubic metre), but the patch – which may be as large as 15,000,000 square kilometres – likely represents the largest waste accumulation in the ocean.

The open ocean, while home to diverse ecosystems and vitally important to many food networks, is a challenging thing to govern. Since it is not owned by any given country, the responsibility to clean up waste accumulating within the seas is nigh on impossible to assign. It’s a classic problem of ‘the commons’ – shared resources, like the ocean or the atmosphere, that many users need but none own, can be overexploited and depleted. Resolving those issues can be challenging at best.

For some scientists, problems with the system had been evident from the start

So, in 2012, enter the Ocean Cleanup Project. At a TED talk, the 18-year-old inventor Boyan Slat laid out a plan to use floating booms to gradually gather up the waste in an efficient manner. Investors were intrigued, and the project took off quickly; billionaires funding it allowed for it to be deployed in mid-2018, rapid progress by any standard. The clean-up attempt had begun in earnest.

Quickly, though, problems arose; the system of floating booms couldn’t withstand the storms in the open ocean, and by January 2019 the first clean-up system had been towed to Hawaii for repairs after teething problems.

For some scientists, problems with the system had been evident from the start. Kim Martini and Miriam Goldstein, research oceanographers unaffiliated with the project, analysed the project and found major issues. While there was communication between the scientists and the engineers involved with the project, and some of the issues raised were addressed, the two oceanographers still maintained that while the aim was laudable, the design was not as accomplished. Despite this, the project went ahead, and the concerns of the scientists proved to be well founded.

Clearly, this is a well-intentioned project. But perhaps just as clear is that a communications gulf existed between the scientists and the project developers. And therein lies the key question: how can scientists involved in sustainability issues best communicate their thoughts to private sector projects aiming to solve those issues? It certainly seems unlikely that the Ocean Cleanup will be the last case where such communication matters.

Indeed, it’s not surprising that in some cases private investors and entrepreneurs have stepped in with big ideas to solve problems of the commons. It’s clear that in many cases billionaires have lofty ambitions beyond the business that made them rich – both Jeff Bezos at Amazon at Tesla’s Elon Musk have moved into space exploration, and for individuals with such a mindset the idea of ‘saving the world’ might well appeal. They may also consider themselves less limited by regulation and national borders than scientists and government.

In fact, there’s more than just regulation and borders that hold back some ideas. The precautionary principle, both in unwritten and legal contexts, prevents some action where it is unclear if that action could result in harm to the public. This is often applied to geoengineering ideas, since the long-term implications may not be well known. A private project to dump iron sulphate into the ocean to encourage plankton growth and thus a draw-down of Carbon Dioxide in 2012 was cited as falling foul of these principles, having not established the long-term risk of seeding the ocean in this way.

The slower pace of academic research, …, makes it ever more appealing for private individuals to skip those steps and spend a fortune to fix something now, rather than wait until it’s too late

At the same time, however, there is an increasing sense of urgency around many sustainability questions. The slower pace of academic research, the painstaking process of ensuring reproducibility in findings, and the need to establish long term effects of potential solutions to climate or sustainability issues makes it ever more appealing for private individuals to skip those steps and spend a fortune to fix something now, rather than wait until it’s too late.

I can sympathise with that view. It’s well-meaning, and solving a problem is better than sitting on the sidelines, or worse profiting from it. Moreover, hindsight is 20:20, so if a solution only becomes problematic after it is deployed, then those behind it can always argue that they did what they could in advance. That must be balanced though with an abundance of caution, and perhaps this is where scientists can help.

I would argue that we should be realistic – solutions will come from all sectors of society, and private individuals and entrepreneurs may well be the ones leading the charge. While it shouldn’t be incumbent upon research scientists alone to ensure their voices are heard by private projects, we shouldn’t shy away; building bridges, especially in the form of communication channels, would be of great benefit. Goldstein and Martini did a great service to science by reaching out and making their voices heard, even if they might have been perceived as naysayers.

We might not be able to change the minds of those leading private initiatives, but we can at least provide them with the most information possible to make their decisions.

Robert Emberson is a Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and a science writer when possible. He can be contacted either on Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website robertemberson.com

The ethical questions behind the school climate strike. Do we have a place in earth’s ecosystems? Jesse Zondervan’s February 2019 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

The ethical questions behind the school climate strike. Do we have a place in earth’s ecosystems? Jesse Zondervan’s February 2019 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

Each month, Jesse Zondervan picks his favourite posts from geoscience and development blogs/news which cover the geology for global development interest. This month’s picks include: The ethical questions behind the school climate strike; Military worries about the fight against sea-level rise – how will you help? Do we have a place in earth’s ecosystems?

School climate strikes

As school climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg spread across the world in the past month, adults are starting to ask ethical questions.

If one would prefer climate activism to focus on conventional electoral politics, rather than civil disobedience, Rupert Read argues one should question the premise that our societies are fully democratic. If adults have failed, how can we support and listen to our children rather than telling them what to do?

The idea that young people are the key to making positive change to the way we live in our environment is not a new one, but did you ever wonder why? Steve Cohen at Columbia University’s Earth Institute considers how the experiences of the next generation support a survivalist ethic and a change in environmental politics.

The fight against sea-level rise

If the urgency displayed by our children leaves you hungry to roll up your own sleeves, paradoxically it may appear you could help by joining the army to help fight sea-level rise. At a conference on climate change and security at The Hague defence leaders from around the world expressed worry not only for a risk for conflict risks but also of stress on military capacity in all countries with a coastline, not just the poorer nations.

Alternatively, if you have a more entrepreneurial spirit, I would recommend looking at entrepreneurial opportunities for addressing climate change in the developing world.

Sea-level rise and it’s cost is a hot topic this month, with climatologist Radley Horton testifying on capitol hill about sea level rise.

“There has been a lot of focus on whether worst-case scenario for 2100 is 4.3 feet, six feet, or even eight feet of sea level rise,” he said. “Even the most optimistic scenario imaginable—of one foot of sea level rise by 2100—would have direct and profound impacts.”

Indeed, the house market has already responded and cost US coastal home owners nearly 16 billion in property value. Buyout programs in flood-prone areas are becoming more common, even as they come with their own shortcomings.

The insurance industry recognises that investors, lenders, insurers and policymakers undertake significant risk management efforts to minimise rising losses from climate-related hazards. Might more geoscientists be needed here?

As usual, I have many more interesting topics on offer for you, such as: humans have been present in ecosystems for a long stretch of time, so is there a place for us? Check out all stories below!

School climate strikes – an ethical debate

School climate strikes: why adults no longer have the right to object to their children taking radical action by Rupert Read at The Conversation

Youth Strike for Climate and the Ethics of Climate Policy by Steve Cohen at State of the Planet

Climate Adaptation

How Entrepreneurs Can Help Developing Countries Hard Hit by Climate Change by Georgina Campbell Flatter at Entrepeneur

Prepare now for accelerating climate threats, military officials warn by Laura Goering at Thomson Reuters Foundation

There’s a place for us: New research reveals humanity’s roles in ecosystems from the Santa Fe Institute at ScienceDaily

Sand from glacial melt could be Greenland’s economic salvation from University of Colorado Boulder at ScienceDaily

Climate Change Is Having a Major Impact on Global Health by Tanya Lewis at Scientific American

How pollution and greenhouse gases affect the climate in the Sahel by Alessandra Giannini at The Conversation

Investors and lenders need better tools to manage climate risk to homes, mortgages and assets, finds new research at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

The fight against sea-level rise

Lamont Climatologist Testifies on Capitol Hill About Sea Level Rise by Marie Denoia Aronsohn at State of the Planet

Rising Seas Soaked Home Owners for $16 Billion over 12 Years by Thomas Frank at E&E News

Leave No House Behind in Flood Buyout Programs, Group Says by Daniel Cusick at E&E News

What rising seas mean for local economies from Stanford University at ScienceDaily

Predicting impacts of climate change

The Ocean Is Running Out of Breath, Scientists Warn by Laura Poppick at Scientific American

Disaster Risk

Large-scale hazard indication mapping for avalanches at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF

Norway’s Arctic islands at risk of ‘devastating’ warming: report by Alister Doyle at Thomson Reuters

Observing Volcanoes from Space by Emily Underwood at EOS Earth and Space Science News

The U.S. May Finally Get an Early Warning System For Volcanoes by Robin George Andrews at Earther

Deep sea mining

Deep sea mining threatens indigenous culture in Papua New Guinea by John Childs at The Conversation

 

Check back next month for more picks!

Follow Jesse Zondervan @JesseZondervan. Follow us @Geo_Dev & Facebook.

The importance of wetlands

The importance of wetlands

World Wetlands day is celebrated on 2nd February, marking the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands, also known as Ramsar Convention, in the Iranian city of Ramsar on 2nd February 1971. It “provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.

Today 170 countries have adopted it and 2,341 Ramsar sites covering over 2,5 million km² are designated as Wetlands of International Importance. But what are wetlands and why should we care about them? I’ll address these questions and other important points in this article.

First, what are wetlands?

Basically, a wetland is an area of land that is covered with water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary. This water can be salt, fresh or somewhere in between, and have a maximum depth of six metres. Mangroves, marshes, ponds, peatlands, swamps, deltas, estuaries, low-lying areas that frequently flood are all wetlands and they can be found on every continent. Some of the largest ones are the Sundarbans mangrove forest in the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta in Bangladesh, the Amazon River basin (figure below), and the Pantanal, both in Brazil.

Wetlands cover about 3% of world’s surface. A web-based map shows the global distribution of wetlands and peat areas. It was launched in 2016 by researchers from Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program – SWAMP and is based on satellite images acquired by the  Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument.

Why should we care about wetlands?

Wetlands are rich but also fragile environments. They can provide water, fish/biodiveristy, recreational areas and help to regulate the climate.

  • Biodiversity: Wetlands function as wildlife refuge, supporting high concentration of mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates, being nurseries for many of these species.
  • Resources: Further, they can be a huge resource for humans, supporting rice paddies (Figure 2), a staple food. They also help purify water by trapping pollutants and heavy metals in the soil and neutralizing harmful bacteria by breaking down suspend solids in the water.
  • Geohazards: Wetlands provide flood control and storm protection in coastal areas acting like a sponge during storm events such as hurricanes, reducing their power of destruction.
  • Climate change: Here is another important point that I would like to highlight about wetlands. They play an important role in climate change mitigation and adaptation, since they store huge amounts of carbon. If you are curious about this topic, see this post where Heather [a regular contributor to the GfGD Blog] discusses how carbon is stored in peat soils in the tropics and the main threats to these areas.

Wetlands in Amazon river basin during the dry season (Oct 2017), close to Santarém, Brazil – Photo: Bárbara Zambelli

Threatened environment

Despite their social and ecological importance, wetlands are continuously being degraded and even destroyed worldwide. According to this research the world has lost 64-71% of their wetlands since 1900 AD. Here is a list of the main threats towards wetlands:

  • Pollution: Generally located in low-lying areas, they receive fertilizers and pesticides from agricultural runoff, industrial effluents and households waste or sewage. These pollutants have detrimental effects on water quality and threaten the fauna and flora of wetlands. As I mentioned before, wetlands work as water filters, therefore there is a growing concern about how pollution will impact drinking water supplies and wetland biological diversity.
  • Agriculture and urbanization: One of the biggest threats to this environment is its drainage to make room for agriculture and human settlements. Such activities are an increasing threat and they destroy the ecosystem and all the benefits wetlands can provide.
  • Dams: The construction of a dam alters the natural flow of water through a landscape. This alteration may lead to an increase or decrease of water flow through a wetland, being potentially harmful for wetland ecosystems. Thus, it is essential to choose the location of a dam wisely, to reduce the impact on existing ecosystems.
  • Climate change: Climate change is shifting the world’s temperature and precipitation patterns. Wetlands are getting lost due both too much and too little water. Shallow coastal wetlands such as mangroves are being swamped because of sea level rise. In areas affected by droughts, estuaries, floodplains and marshes are drying up. Wetlands and climate change are the theme of World Wetlands Day in 2019.

Opportunities – taking action

Wetlands are a critical environment and their effective management can give a substantial contribution to biodiversity conservation and restoration, maintaining its bioecological characteristics and allowing the using of resources economically.

According to SWAMP, “carbon-rich mangroves and peatlands are high priorities in climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies throughout the world.”

With their partners, SWAMP have developed a collaborative agenda expected to raise the awareness about sustainable management of wetlands in changing world and livelihoods of local communities. The Ramsar Convention, an international agreement, is still important today because it supports environmental policy development and it encourages countries to commit to it. It is also valuable as an international forum for gathering and sharing knowledge about sustainable wetlands management. Also international NGOs such as Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Wetlands International play an important role.

Finally, regarding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), recently Ramsar published a briefing note of how wetlands can contribute to their achievement. Access it hereto find out more details.

Jesse Zondervan’s January 2019 #GfGDpicks: which climate adaptation methods are on the rise in 2019?

Jesse Zondervan’s January 2019 #GfGDpicks: which climate adaptation methods are on the rise in 2019?

Each month, Jesse Zondervan picks his favourite posts from geoscience and development blogs/news which cover the geology for global development interest. This past month’s picks include:  Why it’s so hard to predict tsunamis, which climate adaptation methods are on the rise in 2019 & opportunities for scientists to solve local challenges with Thriving Earth Exchange.  

Plastic waste in the oceans and on beaches visibly smashes itself back in our faces to trouble our consciences after attempts to dump and hide the consequences of human waste-production. The size of our triggered guilt aside, how does our plastic problem quantitively compare in scale to the problem of carbon dioxide emission? You may be surprised, or not.

More significantly, climate adaptation, rather than prediction or prevention, takes the foreground at the start of 2019. In a long-read worth having a cup of tea over, National Geographic reports ways of adaptation gaining steam, such as the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange, a sort of tinder for scientists and communities facing challenges related to natural resources, climate change and natural hazards issue (see whether you can help!).

“The American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange, a sort of tinder for scientists and communities facing challenges related to natural resources, climate change and natural hazards issues”

In addition, consider the following about adaptation: if you want to built a sustainable water-energy-food nexus, how do you manage or cope with migration? After all, even though development efforts might be thwarted, migration is a very efficient coping mechanism. Tellingly, both America and Bangladesh have started relocating flooded communities.

In disaster risk, we are looking back at 2018:

When a tsunami triggered by a landslide caused by the Anak Krakatau eruption in Indonesia bypassed the tsunami-warning system put in place to warn for earthquake-induced tsunamis, the world was once more reminded of our inability to predict all hazards, and its consequences.

However, studies like the one which uncovered a historic South China Sea tsunami from the geological record help to dust off our hazy memories of such events. Timely, since large infrastructural projects like the Belt and Road initiative are in full swing planning harbours and nuclear plant locations.

While insurance company Munich Re captured the world’s natural disasters of 2018, the fourth-costliest year since 1980, in numbers, the Bank of England plans to test climate resilience of UK banks.

As usual, there is a lot to check out, so go ahead!

Climate Adaptation

Once derided, ways of adapting to climate change are gaining steam by Andrew Revkin at National Geographic

Water – Energy – Food – Migration Nexus

Water-Migration nexus and the human displacement discourse by Nidhi Nagabhatla at Future Earth blog

Hike in record-dry months for Africa’s Sahel worries scientists by Laurie Goering at BRACED

How technology is helping farmers predict and prepare for El Niño by Michael Hailu at Thomson Reuters Foundation

Sea-level migration

In first, Native American tribe displaced by sea gets land to relocate by Sebastien Malo at Thomson Reuters Foundation

Bangladesh lends land to islanders as water devours homes by Rafiqul Islam at Thomson Reuters Foundation

Bracing for climate change – a matter of survival for the Maldives by Hartwig Schafer at End Poverty in South Asia

Climate Change

The Ocean Garbage Patch Is Tiny Compared to Our Carbon Footprint by Sarah Burns at State of the Planet

Disaster Risk

Why the ‘Child of Krakatau’ volcano is still dangerous – a volcanologist explains by Thomas Giachetti at The Conversation

The Anak Krakatau Tsunami, from the Beginning until Now by Dana Hunter at Scientific American

Scientists say a tsunami hit China 1,000 years ago – and there’s still a risk of a giant wave hitting today by Martin Choi at the South China Morning Post

The natural disasters of 2018 in figures by Petra low at Munich Re

Bank of England plants to test climate resilience of UK banks at Acclimatise

External Opportunities

CfP – 2019 Mexico Conference on Earth System Governance

Multiple positions in the field of climate adaptation governance (post-doc and doctoral researchers)

Seeking Book Proposals on Water, Green Infrastructure, Climate Change Adaptation, and Public Health

 

Check back next month for more picks!

Follow Jesse Zondervan @JesseZondervan. Follow us @Geo_Dev & Facebook.