Climate change: Greenhouse gas concentrations again break records

Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases once again reached new highs in 2018.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says the increase in CO2 was just above the average rise recorded over the last decade.

Levels of other warming gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, have also surged by above average amounts.

Since 1990 there's been an increase of 43% in the warming effect on the climate of long lived greenhouse gases.

The WMO report looks at concentrations of warming gases in the atmosphere rather than just emissions.

The difference between the two is that emissions refer to the amount of gases that go up into the atmosphere from the use of fossil fuels, such as burning coal for electricity and from deforestation.

Concentrations are what's left in the air after a complex series of interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans, the forests and the land. About a quarter of all carbon emissions are absorbed by the seas, and a similar amount by land and trees.

Using data from monitoring stations in the Arctic and all over the world, researchers say that in 2018 concentrations of CO2 reached 407.8 parts per million (ppm), up from 405.5ppm a year previously.

This increase was above the average for the last 10 years and is 147% of the "pre-industrial" level in 1750.

The WMO also records concentrations of other warming gases, including methane and nitrous oxide. About 40% of the methane emitted into the air comes from natural sources, such as wetlands, with 60% from human activities, including cattle farming, rice cultivation and landfill dumps.

Methane is now at 259% of the pre-industrial level and the increase seen over the past year was higher than both the previous annual rate and the average over the past 10 years.

Nitrous oxide is emitted from natural and human sources, including from the oceans and from fertiliser-use in farming. According to the WMO, it is now at 123% of the levels that existed in 1750.

Last year's increase in concentrations of the gas, which can also harm the ozone layer, was bigger than the previous 12 months and higher than the average of the past decade.

What concerns scientists is the overall warming impact of all these increasing concentrations. Known as total radiative forcing, this effect has increased by 43% since 1990, and is not showing any indication of stopping.

deforestation

"There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement on climate change," said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

"We need to translate the commitments into action and increase the level of ambition for the sake of the future welfare of mankind," he added.

"It is worth recalling that the last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to five million years ago. Back then, the temperature was 2-3C warmer, sea level was 10-20m higher than now," said Mr Taalas.

The UN Environment Programme will report shortly on the gap between what actions countries are taking to cut carbon and what needs to be done to keep under the temperature targets agreed in the Paris climate pact.

Preliminary findings from this study, published during the UN Secretary General's special climate summit last September, indicated that emissions continued to rise during 2018.

Both reports will help inform delegates from almost 200 countries who will meet in Madrid next week for COP25, the annual round of international climate talks.

 

Cuban scientists conclude productive visit to Italy and South Africa

Cuban scientists Maria del Carmen Perez and Concepcion Campa returned to the island on Wednesday after carrying out a working trip to South Africa and Italy, described as intense and fruitful.


Perez, general director of the Sierra Maestra Science, Technology and Innovation Entity (ECTI), and Dr. Campa, in charge of the Moringa program, arrived in Rome on Friday from Pretoria, where they participated in the II International Symposium on Moringa, recognized as a 'Tree of Life.'

The event brought together experts from 24 countries, whose aim was to extend the knowledge and use of the plant, native to northern India and which, in addition to being nutritious, benefits health due to its high content of proteins, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. We arrived in Italy, 'taking advantage of the trip to South Africa' to hold meetings with experts from the Biodiversity, Climate and Water Climate division of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Campa told Prensa Latina.

She particularly detailed the meeting with the Emergency Division that accompanies the Moringa project, which emerged after the passing of Hurricane Matthew that devastated coconut, cocoa and coffee plantations in Guantanamo, eastern Cuba, crops that take one decade to recover. Moringa appeared as an alternative for reforestation, food and nutrients, a source of employment and income.

They also held an important bilateral meeting with executives of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation, with whom they talked about the five ECTI projects, particularly Moringa and 'we received suggestions of searches for new projects.'

The outstanding scientist offered details to Prensa Latina about the production of that prodigious plant in Cuba, which is sold in more than 60 pharmacies in Havana, a project that emerged under Fidel Castro in 2011.

ECTI develops those five projects and the same number of productive bases with extensive areas to produce all those plants, she said.

  • Published in Cuba

Saving 'half Earth' for nature would affect over a billion people

As the extinction crisis escalates, and protest movements grow, some are calling for hugely ambitious conservation targets. Among the most prominent is sparing 50% of the Earth's surface for nature.

'Half Earth' and similar proposals have gained traction with conservationists and policy makers. However, little work has gone into identifying the social and economic implications for people.

Now, researchers have produced the first attempt to assess how many and who would be affected if half the planet was 'saved' in a way that secures the diversity of the world's habitats.

A team of scientists analysed global datasets to determine where conservation status could be added to provide 50% protection to every "ecoregion": large areas of distinct habitats such as Central African mangroves and Baltic mixed forests.

Even avoiding where possible "human footprints" such as cities and farmland, their findings suggest a "conservative" estimate for those directly affected by Half Earth would be over one billion people, primarily in middle-income countries.

Many wealthy and densely populated nations in the Global North would also need to see major expansions of land with conservation status to reach 50% -- this could even include parts of London, for example.

The study's authors, led by University of Cambridge researchers, say that while radical action is urgently required for the future of life on Earth, issues of environmental justice and human wellbeing should be at the forefront of the conservation movement.

"People are the cause of the extinction crisis, but they are also the solution," said Dr Judith Schleicher, who led the new study, published today in the journal Nature Sustainability. "Social issues must play a more prominent role if we want to deliver effective conservation that works for both the biosphere and the people who inhabit it."

Towards the end of next year, the leaders of most of the world's nations will aim to agree global targets for the future of conservation at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Beijing.

"Goals that emerge from the Convention on Biological Diversity could define conservation for a generation," said Schleicher, who conducted the research while at the University of Cambridge's Conservation Research Institute and its Department of Geography.

"We need to be ambitious given the environmental crises. But it is vital that social and economic implications at local levels are considered if the drivers of biodiversity loss are to be tackled. The lives of many people and the existence of diverse species hang in the balance."

The idea of a 'Half Earth' for nature was popularised by famed biologist E.O. Wilson in his 2017 book of the same name. More recently, a 'Global Deal for Nature' -- aiming for 30% protection by 2030 and 50% by 2050 -- has been endorsed by a number of leading environmental organisations. However, these proposals have been ambiguous about "exact forms and location," say Schleicher and colleagues.

Based on their analyses, researchers cautiously estimate that an additional 760 million people would find themselves living in areas with new conservation status: a fourfold increase of the 247 million who currently reside inside protected areas.

The team call for proponents of Half Earth, and all supporters of area-based conservation, to "recognise and take seriously" the human consequences -- both negative and positive -- of their proposals.

"Living in areas rich in natural habitat can boost mental health and wellbeing. In some cases, protected areas can provide new jobs and income through ecotourism and sustainable production," said Schleicher.

"However, at the other extreme, certain forms of 'fortress' conservation can see people displaced from their ancestral home and denied access to resources they rely on for their survival."

While conservation coverage has been increasing, species numbers continue to plummet -- suggesting a "disconnect" between international targets and implementation at local and regional levels, argue the team.

"Conservation needs strong action to protect life on earth, but this must be done in a way that takes account of people and their needs," said co-author Dr Chris Sandbrook from Cambridge's Department of Geography.

"Failing to consider social issues will lead to conservation policy that is harmful to human wellbeing and less likely to be implemented in the first place."

Conservation is not just a problem for people of the Global South. Recent reports on UK wildlife revealed devastating declines in iconic species. Yet the study reveals that achieving 50% ecoregion coverage could even see parts of central London become protected. "It highlights the absurdity of hitting arbitrary targets," Sandbrook said.


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Materials provided by University of Cambridge. The original story is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Climate-heating greenhouse gases at record levels, says UN

The main greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change have all reached record levels, the UN’s meteorology experts have reported.

Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are now far above pre-industrial levels, with no sign of a reversal of the upward trend, a World Meteorological Organization report says.

“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5m years ago, when the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher than now,” said the WMO secretary general, Petteri Taalas.

“The science is clear. Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth. The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.”

Levels of CO2 rose to a global average of 405.5 parts per million in the atmosphere in 2017 – almost 50% higher than before the industrial revolution.

Levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas responsible for about 17% of global warming are now 2.5 times higher than pre-industrial times owing to emissions from cattle, rice paddies and leaks from oil and gas wells.

Nitrous oxide, which also warms the planet and destroys the Earth’s protective ozone layer, is now over 20% higher than pre-industrial levels. About 40% of N2O comes from human activities including soil degradation, fertiliser use and industry.

The WMO also highlighted the discovery of illicit production of CFC-11, a banned chemical that also both warms the planet and destroys ozone. Investigations indicate that at least some of the production is in China.

In October the world’s scientists said global warming of even 1.5C would have severe consequences for humanity. International climate agreements had for two decades set 2C as a limit.

“Every fraction of a degree of global warming matters, and so does every part per million of greenhouse gases,” said the WMO deputy secretary general, Elena Manaenkova. “CO2 remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and in the oceans for even longer. There is currently no magic wand to remove all the excess CO2 from the atmosphere.”

Prof Corinne Le Quéré, of the University of East Anglia, said she was not surprised by the new record levels of greenhouse gases. “But I am very concerned that all three gases most responsible for climate change are rising upwards unabated. It seems the urgency and extent of the actions needed to address climate change have not sunk in.

“Low-carbon technologies like wind, solar, and electric transport need to become mainstream, with old-fashioned polluting fossils pushed out rapidly.”

Efforts to cut emissions are increasing and on Wednesday the UN’s climate change body published a report on the commitments made in 2018. It found 9,000 cities in 128 countries were taking action, along with 240 states and regions in 40 countries and more than 6,000 businesses in 120 countries.

Patricia Espinosa, head of the UN framework convention on climate change, said: “On one hand, greenhouse gas emissions have yet to peak and countries struggle to maintain the concentrated attention and effort needed for a successful response to climate change. On the other hand, climate action is occurring, it is increasing and there is a will to do more. I highlight this because falling into despair and hopelessness is a danger equal to complacency, none of which we can afford.”

To predict the future, the brain uses two clocks

That moment when you step on the gas pedal a split second before the light changes, or when you tap your toes even before the first piano note of Camila Cabello's "Havana" is struck. That's anticipatory timing.

One type relies on memories from past experiences. The other on rhythm. Both are critical to our ability to navigate and enjoy the world.

New University of California, Berkeley, research shows the neural networks supporting each of these timekeepers are split between two different parts of the brain, depending on the task at hand.

"Whether it's sports, music, speech or even allocating attention, our study suggests that timing is not a unified process, but that there are two distinct ways in which we make temporal predictions and these depend on different parts of the brain," said study lead author Assaf Breska, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UC Berkeley.

The findings, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, offer a new perspective on how humans calculate when to make a move.

"Together, these brain systems allow us to not just exist in the moment, but to also actively anticipate the future," said study senior author Richard Ivry, a UC Berkeley neuroscientist.

Breska and Ivry studied the anticipatory timing strengths and deficits of people with Parkinson's disease and people with cerebellar degeneration.

They connected rhythmic timing to the basal ganglia, and interval timing -- an internal timer based largely on our memory of prior experiences -- to the cerebellum. Both are primal brain regions associated with movement and cognition.

Moreover, their results suggest that if one of these neural clocks is misfiring, the other could theoretically step in.

"Our study identifies not only the anticipatory contexts in which these neurological patients are impaired, but also the contexts in which they have no difficulty, suggesting we could modify their environments to make it easier for them to interact with the world in face of their symptoms," Breska said.

Non-pharmaceutical fixes for neurological timing deficits could include brain-training computer games and smartphone apps, deep brain stimulation and environmental design modifications, he said.

To arrive at their conclusion, Breska and Ivry compared how well Parkinson's and cerebellar degeneration patients used timing or "temporal" cues to focus their attention.

Both groups viewed sequences of red, white and green squares as they flashed by at varying speeds on a computer screen, and pushed a button the moment they saw the green square. The white squares alerted them that the green square was coming up.

In one sequence, the red, white and green squares followed a steady rhythm, and the cerebellar degeneration patients responded well to these rhythmic cues.

In another, the colored squares followed a more complex pattern, with differing intervals between the red and green squares. This sequence was easier for the Parkinson's patients to follow, and succeed at.

"We show that patients with cerebellar degeneration are impaired in using non-rhythmic temporal cues while patients with basal ganglia degeneration associated with Parkinson's disease are impaired in using rhythmic cues," Ivry said.

Ultimately, the results confirm that the brain uses two different mechanisms for anticipatory timing, challenging theories that a single brain system handles all our timing needs, researchers said.

"Our results suggest at least two different ways in which the brain has evolved to anticipate the future," said Breska.

"A rhythm-based system is sensitive to periodic events in the world such as is inherent in speech and music," he added. "And an interval system provides a more general anticipatory ability, sensitive to temporal regularities even in the absence of a rhythmic signal."

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Materials provided by University of California - Berkeley. Original written by Yasmin Anwar. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Music improves social communication in autistic children

Engaging in musical activities such as singing and playing instruments in one-on-one therapy can improve autistic children's social communication skills, improve their family's quality of life, as well as increase brain connectivity in key networks, according to researchers at Université de Montréal and McGill University.

The link between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and music dates back to the first description of autism, more than 70 years ago, when almost half of those with the disorder were said to possess "perfect pitch." Since then, there have been many anecdotes about the profound impact music can have on individuals with ASD, yet little strong evidence of its therapeutic benefits.

To get a clearer picture, researchers from UdeM's International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound (BRAMS) and McGill's School of Communication Sciences and Disorders (SCSD) enlisted 51 children with ASD, ages 6 to 12, to participate in a clinical trial involving three months of a music-based intervention.

First, the parents completed questionnaires about their child's social communication skills and their family's quality of life, as well as their child's symptom severity. The children underwent MRI scans to establish a baseline of brain activity.

Children were then randomly assigned to two groups: one involving music and the other not. Each session lasted 45 minutes and was conducted at Westmount Music Therapy.

In the music group, the kids sang and played different musical instruments, working with a therapist to engage in a reciprocal interaction. The control group worked with the same therapist and also engaged in reciprocal play, without any musical activities.

Following the sessions, parents of children in the music group reported significant improvements in their children's communication skills and family quality life, beyond those reported for the control group. Parents of children in both groups did not report reductions in autism severity.

"These findings are exciting and hold much promise for autism intervention," said Megha Sharda, a postdoctoral fellow at Université de Montréal and lead author of the new research, published in Translational Psychiatry.

Data collected from the MRI scans suggest that improved communications skills in children who underwent the music intervention could be a result of increased connectivity between auditory and motor regions of the brain, and decreased connectivity between auditory and visual regions, which are commonly observed to be over-connected in people with autism.

Sharda explains that optimal connectivity between these regions is crucial for integrating sensory stimuli in our environment and are essential for social interaction. For example, when we are communicating with another person, we need to pay attention to what they are saying, plan ahead to know when it is our turn to speak and ignore irrelevant noise. For people with autism, this can often be a challenge.

This is the first clinical trial to show that music intervention for school-age children with autism can lead to improvements in both communication and brain connectivity, and provides a possible neuroscientific explanation for improvements in communication.

"The universal appeal of music makes it globally applicable and can be implemented with relatively few resources on a large scale in multiple settings such as home and school," said Aparna Nadig, an associate professor at McGill's SCSD and co-senior author of the study with Krista Hyde, an associate professor of psychology at UdeM.

"Remarkably, our results were observed after only eight to 12 weekly sessions," said Hyde. "We'll need to replicate these results with multiple therapists with different degrees of training to evaluate whether the effects persist in larger, real-world settings," she said.

"Importantly, our study, as well as a recent large-scale clinical trial on music intervention, did not find changes with respect to autism symptoms themselves," Sharda added. "This may be because we do not have a tool sensitive enough to directly measure changes in social interaction behaviors." The team is currently developing tools to assess if the improvements in communications skills can also be observed through direct observation of the interaction between child and therapist.

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Materials provided by University of Montreal. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


After Indonesia's Tsunami-Earthquake Disaster, Scientists Look For Cause

Jakarta: Almost a week after a quake-tsunami wreaked devastation in central Indonesia, scientists are zeroing in on what they believe caused the highly unusual natural disaster.

The 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit off Sulawesi island Friday and sent destructive waves charging into the coast, reducing buildings in Palu to rubble and sweeping people to their deaths.

The city was not regarded as being at high-risk of a tsunami and was left grossly unprepared for the catastrophe, which has so far claimed more than 1,400 lives with hundreds more injured and missing. 

Now experts are piecing together the unlikely chain of events which laid waste to Palu.

The quake was a sideways -- rather than vertical -- movement of tectonic plates, seen as unlikely to generate a tsunami.

p3lkbr6"It's very unlikely the earthquake alone could generate a tsunami of that size", tsunami experts have said. 

But after sifting through mounds of data, scientists believe that the powerful tremor occurred over the vast length of a fault line, triggering underwater landslides that caused the tidal waves.

"This is an earthquake that is not the standard mechanism to generate a tsunami," Costas Synolakis, director of the University of Southern California's Tsunami Research Center, told AFP.


"It's fairly rare."

When the monster waves did roll in, their force was intensified as they rushed down a narrow bay into Palu.

In recent years Sumatra has been the main focus of authorities' concern when it comes to tsunamis as Aceh, on the island's northern tip, was devastated by a deadly quake-triggered tsunami in 2004. 

Officials fear another major quake and tsunami are inevitable at some point on the highly volatile fault line off the island's west coast, meaning there was greater vigilance towards the threat than in Sulawesi.

Apart from a handful of tsunami experts, few seemed worried that the fault line that cut through Palu would produce a tsunami, particularly as it is what is known as a "strike-slip" fault, where tectonic plates move sideways. 

In the Aceh tsunami and the majority of others, destructive waves were generated by a violent upward thrust of the Earth's crust, not a sideways movement.

But such was the force of the quake off Sulawesi and the aftershocks that followed, one or more underwater landslides are believed to have occurred that displaced huge quantities of water and sent waves barrelling into the coast.

'Have to learn from this'

"There is reasonable confidence that this tsunami was triggered at least partially by a landslide," Adam Switzer, a tsunami expert from Nanyang Technological University's Earth Observatory of Singapore, told AFP.

"It's very unlikely the earthquake alone could generate a tsunami of that size."

Even before the tsunami hit, the quake and the aftershocks that followed caused widespread devastation along the Sulawesi coast, with many buildings left in ruins and huge cracks ripped in roads. 

But with officials not expecting such a catastrophic event in the area, Palu seemed ill-prepared. 

A tsunami alert was issued at the national level when the quake hit but was lifted soon afterwards and it is not clear if there was an effective mechanism to relay the warning to people on the ground in Sulawesi. 

And the city's tide-monitoring station, which could have detected the destructive waves, was broken on the day, authorities have admitted.

But while many in Indonesia were surprised that the disaster hit Palu, scientists say there are other examples of such quakes. 

Of about 35 tsunamis documented since 1992, four are believed to have been caused by quake-triggered undersea landslides, but none were in Indonesia, according to Synolakis.

Despite the criticism that authorities were unprepared, seismologists have been more forgiving -- they say the chain of events was so complicated it would have been hard for even advanced warning systems to detect the tsunami.

"This is something the automated systems could not really anticipate," Synolakis said. 

Switzer said and his colleagues were working flat out to figure out exactly what happened, and it would likely be a long process.

"We really need to make sure that we understand this event, because we have to learn from this," he said.

Scientists Look to Jupiter, Saturn's Moon Titan for Global Warming Insight

By analyzing methane in the skies of Jupiter and Saturn's moon Titan, scientists are now pinpointing what effects this global warming gas is having on Earth, a new study finds.

Greenhouse gases warm the planet by trapping heat from the sun. The greenhouse gas that most often makes news is the carbon dioxide generated in great amounts by the burning of fossil fuels. However, methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas, pound for pound capable of warming the planet more than 25 times more than carbon dioxide over the span of a century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In the new study, researchers focused on the most poorly understood aspect of the role of methane in global warming — how much short-wavelength solar radiation it absorbs. Previous estimates from the IPCC regarding the effects of increased methane emissions on global climate omitted the impact of shortwave absorption. [Photographic Proof of Climate Change: Time-Lapse Images of Retreating Glaciers]

Recent climate models are designed to account for shortwave absorption of methane. However, their accuracy is limited by uncertainties in how well methane absorbs shortwave radiation. Whereas the carbon dioxide molecule has a relatively simple linear shape, methane has a more complex tetrahedral shape, and the way it responds to light is also complicated — too much so to pin down in the lab.

Instead, scientists examine the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn's largest moon Titan, which both have "at least a thousand times greater concentration of methane than Earth's atmosphere," study co-author Dan Feldman, a climate scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, told Space.com. As such, these celestial bodies can serve as "natural laboratories" for investigating sunlight's effects on methane, he explained.

The scientists analyzed data of Titan from the European Space Agency's Huygens probe, which landed on the big moon in January 2005, and of Jupiter from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. This helped pinpoint how methane absorbs various short wavelengths of sunlight, data the researchers plugged into climate models of Earth.

The scientists found the global warming effects of methane are likely not uniform on Earth, but vary over the planet's surface. For instance, since deserts near the equator have bright, exposed surfaces that reflect light upward, shortwave absorption is 10 times stronger over regions such as the Sahara desert and the Arabian Peninsula than elsewhere on Earth, Feldman said.

In addition, the presence of clouds can increase methane-shortwave absorption by nearly threefold. The researchers noted these effects west of southern Africa and the Americas, and with the cloud systems in the Intertropical Convergence Zone near the equator. 

"We can really nail down the methane greenhouse effect on Earth based on observations of Jupiter and Titan," Feldman said.

These findings support previous climate models regarding methane's effects on global warming. The researchers said their work could help advance climate-change mitigation strategies by clarifying the risks different regions across the world face.

The scientists detailed their findings online Wednesday (Sept. 26) in the journal Science Advances.

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