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Seven ways climate change could kill you (really)

Seven ways climate change could kill you (really).

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The Most Terrifying Papers I Read Last Year

Originally posted on ClimateSight:

An ice sheet forms when snow falls on land, compacts into ice, and forms a system of interconnected glaciers which gradually flow downhill like play-dough. In Antarctica, it is so cold that the ice flows right into the ocean before it melts, sometimes hundreds of kilometres from the coast. These giant slabs of ice, floating on the ocean while still attached to the continent, are called ice shelves.

For an ice sheet to have constant size, the mass of ice added from snowfall must equal the mass lost due to melting and calving (when icebergs break off). Since this ice loss mainly occurs at the edges, the rate of ice loss will depend on how fast glaciers can flow towards the edges.

Ice shelves slow down this flow. They hold back the glaciers behind them in what is known as the “buttressing effect”. If the ice shelves were smaller…

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I thought I’m with stupid was a song not a crime

Originally posted on Love versus Goliath : A Partner Visa Journey:

I’m puzzled. Now, I’ll admit making me puzzled is not that difficult these days. The kids do it to me regularly. My doctors manage it every now and then. Politicians puzzle me every waking hour.

Even so, I did think “I’m with stupid” was a song, not a crime.

Mr Newman or Mr Campbell or whatever your name is, chill out mate.

Look, I agree it is not exactly what I’d call a great song. Frankly, I’d go so far as to say the Queensland Police might have been better arresting the Pet Shop Boys.

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A Strange New Gene Pool of Animals Is Brewing in the Arctic

Scientists have seen the future and it is “grolar bears.”

by Time McConnell at Nautilus. December 11, 2014

Illustration : Eric Nyquist

The journey began in spring 2010, just as the sea ice surrounding the North Pole began its annual melt. Two bowhead whales, 50-foot-long behemoths that scour the Arctic seas for plankton, each started from their homes on opposite sides of North America—one in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, the other in Baffin Bay on the west side of Greenland. As the summer progressed, sea ice shrank (to its third-lowest cover in the last 30 years), and the whales swam toward each other through the now ice-free passage above the continent. Two independent teams of scientists from Canada and the United States watched the whales closely via satellite. “We were all pretty excited,” recalls Kristen Laidre, a biologist at the University of Washington and member of the U.S. team.

In September, in an inlet some 1,800 miles north of Fargo, North Dakota, where the North American landmass dissolves into the Arctic Ocean, the whales met in the middle. They spent two weeks together, and although not much happened before they turned around, the meeting was historic. The fossil record indicates the last time Pacific and Atlantic bowhead whales came into contact was at least 10,000 years ago.

In the last 40 years, the Arctic has warmed by about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit, more than twice the overall global rise in that same period. Already grizzly bears are tromping into polar bear territory while fish like cod and salmon are leaving their historic haunts to follow warming waters north. One tangible result of the migration, scientists report, is that animals will learn to live with new neighbors. But polar biologists worry that animals could get a little too friendly with each other. With less ice clogging Arctic seas, whales are ranging farther; meanwhile, animals like seals that breed on the ice have fewer places to go. In both cases, the chances of encountering a different species jump. “All of a sudden, hybridization will skyrocket,” says Brendan Kelly, a polar ecologist at the National Science Foundation.

While it’s tempting to imagine a strange new Arctic teeming with “grolar bears” and “narlugas,” hybridization comes at a cost.

The first confirmed cross between a polar bear and a grizzly bear—a white bear with brown patches—was documented in 2006; genetic analysis of a second, found in 2010, revealed that its mother was also a hybrid, suggesting that more instances are happening under scientists’ radar. In 2009, a biologist at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory photographed a probable bowhead/right whale hybrid in the Bering Sea. More hybrids are possible. Kelly and his coauthors have counted 34 opportunities for hybridization across 22 Arctic or near-Arctic species, based on the animals’ genetic compatibility and geographic range. The list includes potential hybrids of ringed and ribbon seals, Atlantic walrus and Pacific walrus, and beluga whales and narwhals.

While it’s tempting to imagine a strange new Arctic teeming with “grolar bears” and “narlugas,” hybridization comes at a cost. Arctic biodiversity will be reduced through gradual consolidation, taking with it a blend of genes that have evolved by natural selection over millennia. “There’s going to be a whole bunch of organisms containing genes that we’re going to lose,” Kelly says. Which genes, exactly, is unclear. A hybrid’s success, like any organism’s, hinges on its fitness to its environment. Because the Arctic is changing rapidly, it’s hard to predict which traits will be most important for, say, a population of grolar bears. Merging features of two well-adapted parent species might help hybrids cope with shifting conditions. But more often than not, Kelly thinks, genetic incompatibilities in hybrids will erase traits crucial to the long-term survival of both parent species. If that happens, he says, “then we can expect a great reduction in those populations, and possibly extinctions.”

Bearing Witness: In 2007, photographer Steven Kazlowski captured what may be a “grolar bear,” a hybrid of a polar bear and grizzly bear, on Bernard Sandspit, a barrier island, along the Arctic coast of Alaska. “I showed the photos to many local Inupiaq residents, who were all quite sure that it was a hybrid of a polar and grizzly bear,” Kazlowski said. “It was amazing to see something you only hear folklore legends about in the flesh and blood.” DNA tests have confirmed the existence of hybrid bears in the area.©Steven Kazlowski/

Hybrids pop up throughout evolutionary history in cases where some major environmental shift, such as an eroding mountain range, removes a barrier that kept two similar but distinct groups apart. When the glaciers retreated from Northern Europe at the end of the last Ice Age about 13,000 years ago, butterflies fluttering north from Italy met and hybridized, producing the ancestors of the modern-day meadow brown species.

Even humans once dabbled in hybridization, an experience that taught us something about its risks and rewards. When our ancestors spilled out of Africa into Europe, between 37,000 and 85,000 years ago, we encountered communities of Neanderthals, a species from which we had split roughly 550,000 years prior. It’s hard to know what the courtship might have been like (bouquets of sticks? cave-painting classes?), but Homo sapiens found they still had enough in common with Homo neanderthalensis, physically and genetically, to successfully reproduce. The residue of those encounters is still present in the DNA of modern humans, of which about 2 percent is inherited directly from Neanderthals.

The number of those inherited genes may be less significant than what they control, according to studies published in the journals Nature and Science. Both studies confirmed that most of these Neanderthal genes regulate the inner mechanics of hair and skin cells, a sign that natural selection favored the Neanderthals’ adaptations to the cold European climate when those traits were passed along to hybrids. But the Nature study also found that Neanderthal genes are largely missing from the X chromosome of modern human males, a sign that hybrid males were often sterile. That would keep two hybrids from having kids of their own, which explains why rather than merging into a new, third species, humans stayed separate from Neanderthals and eventually out-competed them to extinction.

Even humans once dabbled in hybridization, an experience that taught us something about its risks and rewards.

Sterile offspring is just one of many ways that hybridizing can go awry. Rather than producing a mash-up super-species with all the best traits of the parents, hybrids are more often dysfunctional, if they’re produced at all, evolutionary biologists believe. The first barrier to hybridization in the wild is fairly obvious: Mom and Dad have to physically, er, fit together (housecats and tigers might have some similar DNA, but good luck getting them to get it on). If mating does happen, sperm from one species might not have the right enzymes for cutting through the outer membrane of the other’s eggs to gain access for fertilization. Once that bridge is crossed and a zygote (the earliest stage of development) is formed, with half its genes from one species and half from the other, the most important test is whether the genes will be compatible enough to successfully carry out their duties.

“Are those genes gonna play well in the same sandbox, or are they going to go after each other?” offers Adam Porter, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

With parents of the same species, a zygote’s genes are in sync, churning out proteins to do the work of metabolism, DNA replication, building vital organs, and other basic physiological functions necessary to create a healthy baby. But if genes in different parent species have evolved in separate ways to conflict or compete with one another, Porter says, “that can screw things up.” The hybrid might never make it past the zygote stage, or it might be born with fatal malfunctions.


As it turns out, hybridization is particularly bad news for male mammals (including our bears, whales, and seals), an observation first made in 1922 by the seminal British biologist J.B.S. Haldane. Because a male’s sole X chromosome comes from only one parent (as opposed to a female, which has one X from each parent), important traits that are controlled by an interaction between X chromosome genes and genes elsewhere are more likely to be incompatible in male hybrids. At the same time, regular competition between males for females drives male reproductive systems to evolve relatively quickly, creating a particularly wide gulf in this respect between otherwise similar species. For these reasons, hybrid males often encounter problems in developing gonads and manufacturing sperm, both of which lead to sterility.

But polar and grizzly bears have passed these tests and proven compatible on a DNA level. So why aren’t grolar (or pizzly, pick your poison) bears taking over the Arctic? Robert Rockwell says differences in the way the bears are hard-wired to behave may keep them romantically disinterested. Rockwell is an ecologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and was one of the first to document the movement of grizzlies into polar bear territory in northern Manitoba, Canada. This is one of only two places where the species overlap—the other is on the north edge of Alaska. Once the bears are together, well, one thing leads to another.

“There’s going to be some sex happening,” Rockwell says. But sexually active male polar bears are 1,200-pound giants, four times the weight of a female grizzly. That pairing “might be lunch instead of a hybrid.” Moreover, polar bears mate far out on the sea ice, a place it’s rare (though not unheard of) to find a grizzly. Still, during courtship, dominant polar males will drive the scrawny ones off the ice, where they could encounter grizzly females—Rockwell says he’s observed grizzlies hanging out at places where low-ranking polar males come ashore. But at this point, Rockwell says, there just aren’t enough individuals of either species for there to be much real pressure to interbreed. “I think the numbers are such that a hybrid would be pretty rare.”

So will polar and grizzly bears repeat the story of humans and Neanderthals, staying separate until one species drives the other to extinction? Maybe. But climate-driven migrations could tilt the population equation in favor of more meet-ups, and more hybrids. If that happens, the hybrids would meet a different fate, one equally damaging to biodiversity.

When hybrids mate with each other, they form what biologists call a “hybrid swarm” (or a “schmoo,” as Porter puts it). The swarm may lead to sexual compatibility among the parental populations that gave rise to it. Then, through continuous mating, the original species would dissolve into one new one—effectively an extinction by merger. “Basically you’ve swapped out the genome that has been fine-tuned by evolution for thousands of generations,” says Andrew Whiteley, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a co-author with Kelly.

The biologists explain that there is no set rule for when hybridization becomes impossible. Changes in DNA are highly variable, depending on the species and the natural pressures on it. Different species of European shrew, for example, have been found to interbreed despite having evolved vast differences in the arrangement of their chromosomes, while similar changes in house mice have stopped hybridization cold. Kelly points out that, for reasons that are still being studied, the chromosome count of marine mammals tends to evolve slowly, increasing the odds of a successful hybrid even between species that have been divergent for a long time.

Sexually active male polar bears are 1,200-pound giants, four times the weight of a female grizzly. That pairing “might be lunch instead of a hybrid.”

How exactly this will all play out in the Arctic is an open question because of how quickly the climate is changing. The success (or not) of hybrids is determined at least as much by their environment as by the genes themselves—the same hybrid might be quite well adapted to one environment, and terribly suited to another. Typically, natural selection makes those decisions over thousands of generations, favoring the best-adapted individuals over time until the species fits perfectly in its habitat.

But “we’re speeding up the evolutionary clock,” Kelly says. “If you change an environment rapidly, that’s very few generations, and very little opportunity for an adaptive response.” In other words, hybridization is a roll of the dice, the outcome of which will likely be different for each population of each species.

More than half the polar species identified by Kelly as at-risk for hybridization are listed as endangered or otherwise protected, which means their disappearance would have tangible implications for conservation. Do grolar bears need or merit the same protection as polar bears? The Endangered Species Act says yes, and affords hybrids in the wild the same protection as their endangered parents. But once the hybrids mix into a swarm, with the original species lost altogether, “those changes are very concerning to us,” says Pete Souza, an ecological services manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

On the flip side, Souza says, careful hybridization has been used to bring an imperiled species back from the brink. In the early 1990s, only about 25 Florida panthers remained in the wild. Populations with a gene pool that small are highly susceptible to disease and dysfunction, and have difficulty recovering. So the USFWS imported eight female cougars from Texas, and dropped them off where they were likely to mate with male panthers. They did, and today the panther population has jumped to as high as 160, thanks to a genetic jumpstart courtesy of the cougars.

But Whiteley cautions that we shouldn’t count on a positive outcome. Animals (especially top-tier predators like bears, seals, and whales) don’t live in isolation; each species performs a vital ecological role. This is especially true in the Arctic, where biodiversity is low to begin with, and animals are already under stress from environmental changes. “If we pull at the tapestry enough,” Whiteley says, “things are gonna start to fall apart.”

Tim McDonnell is the associate producer of Climate Desk. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Sierra, and Audubon.

Original article here

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More on Antarctica. It IS melting….and fast!

A couple of days ago I posted an article from Time that discussed the rate of loss of Antarctic Ice. Another article has appeared, this time from Slate that explains what’s going on in simple terms, so that even deniers might be able to understand it.

Iceberg B31 recently broke off of Pine Island Bay in West Antarctic. Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE / EOSDIS Rapid Response

by Phil Plait from Slate

The scientists used observations from four different techniques to measure the amount and change in rate of ice loss from a region in West Antarctica. This area was already known to be melting at an astonishing rate; a recent study using Cryosat 2 showed that in the period from 2010 to 2013, the region was losing ice to the tune of 134 billion metric tons of ice per year.

The new study looked at four observation sets covering the years 1992–2013. They found that on average over that time, ice loss from West Antarctica was about 83 billion metric tons per year … but the average increase in that loss was 6.1 billion tons every year. By the end of the time range, the numbers between the new study and the one from CryoSat2 are consistent.

Amundsen sea
The location of the Amundsen Sea embayment, where the studies were done.

Illustration by NASA

This is staggering. Staggering. Imagine a block of ice a mile wide, a mile long, and a mile high—the size of a mountain. That would weigh something less than 6 billion tons.*

But it’s worse than that. We’re not just losing more ice every year; the rate itself is accelerating. We’re losing ice faster now than we were 21 years ago, and the rate at which we’re losing ice has more than doubled that average over that time span.

Think of it this way. Imagine in a given year that area lost 100 billion tons of ice. At an increase of 6 billion more tons per year every year, then the next year it would lose 106 billion tons, then 112 the year after that, and so on.

But in fact that loss rate is increasing. So it goes from 100 billion tons one year to 106 the next, then (say) 113 the year after that, to (say) 121 after that … The new study indicates that at the more recent end of the time range (2003-2011), ice loss is accelerating by nearly 16 billion tons per year every year.

This is the same math as freefall, an apt analogy. Antarctica is melting. Fast.

And this isn’t some natural variation, it’s not sunspots, it’s not the Earth’s orbit changing. It’s us. These changes aren’t happening on geologic or astronomical timescales, they’re happening on human timescales. We’re dumping carbon dioxide into the air at an accelerated rate, and there’s now more CO2 in the atmosphere than there has been for at 800,000 years. As my Slate colleague Eric Holthaus points out, the North Pole is draining away as well. We’re melting at both poles.

For decades, we’ve played at geoengineering by accident. Now we know what we’re doing, and it’s time we stopped playing. The deniers may stick their fingers in their ears and ignore or distract or sow doubt about what’s going on around them, but the rest of us can hear what our planet is telling us quite well.

The science is in, the scientists agree, and the global thermometer keeps rising ever upwards. After all this time, maddeningly, we’re still at Step 1: acknowledging the problem. It’s way past time we got past that and started doing something about it.

As always, don’t be fooled by people saying Antarctic sea ice is growing. Its growth is tiny, far smaller than what’s being lost, and sea ice comes and goes every season; the ice loss in West Antarctica is from glaciers on land, and won’t be coming back.

*Correction, Dec. 3, 2014, at 14:30 UTC: I originally wrote that mass loss was increasing at 6 billion tons per year, but neglected to add that this loss was accelerating, and is now at 16 billion additional tons per year every year. My thanks to Twitter user @didaclopez for pointing this out.

Original article here

For anyone who might be struggling to grasp what an accelerating rate of loss means, this old video from 2000 is an excellent primer for understanding exponential growth.

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Fastest-Melting Region of Antarctica Triples Rate in a Decade

Originally posted on TIME:

The fastest-melting region of Antarctica is doing so at a rate triple that of a decade ago, according to a new analysis, making it the largest area contributor to the rise in sea level.

The findings of the 21-year study by scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California, Irvine offer the most precise estimates yet of just how fast glaciers in West Antarctica’s Amundsen Sea Embayment are melting. Scientists determined the rate by taking several radar, laser and satellite measurements of the glaciers’ mass to measure changes over time; between 1992 and 2013, they lost an average of 91.5 billion U.S. tons per year, or what they calculated as the equivalent of losing the water weight of Mt. Everest every two years.

“We have an excellent observing network now,” Isabella Velicogna, a co-author of the study, said in the statement. “It’s critical that we maintain…

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December 10th. An hour of climate activism, please. Mark your calendars.

December 10th. An hour of climate activism, please. Mark your calendars..

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