Climate Change and Coronavirus: Environment Briefs for This Week

Roses were red, black skies were blue, here are the climate change stories Haaretz didn’t report on this week – but are still new

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Rising sun through smog in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, Feb. 2, 2020
Rising sun through smog in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, Feb. 2, 2020Credit: Gemunu Amarasinghe, AP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Newly noticed vast trough could destabilize East Antarctica ice

Eastern Antarctica ice was thought to be more stable than ice on the west coast. Not so. Denman Glacier, which alone locks up enough water to raise global sea levels by 1.5 meters (5 feet), has retreated dramatically in the last 20 years, geophysicists reveal in Geophysical Research Letters. The culprit is hitherto unsuspected topography, including “a previously unknown 5-kilometer-wide, 1,800-meter-deep trough, deepening to 3,400 meters below sea level,” bringing relatively warm water. Forecast: likely disintegration.

Ice is trapping methane in Arctic lakes, until it isn’t

Yay! Scientists have quantified a previously suspected but unmeasured source of methane – a greenhouse gas much more potent (20 to 80 times, depending who you ask) than carbon dioxide. To wit: the short and warmer the winter, the more methane escapes from lakes in the northern hemisphere. Emissions from lakes In normally frosty Finland could jump up by as much as 60 percent, says a new report in Environmental Research Letters, by scientists from Purdue University in the United States, the University of Eastern Finland, the Finnish Environment Institute and the University of Helsinki. And this is why? Chiefly diminishing ice cover, it turns out, based on differences between northern and southern lakes in Finland, a land very rich in lakes. Methane from microorganisms and geological processes get trapped below the ice, unless the ice isn’t there.

Iceberg in progress of calving off Pine Island Glacier, AntarcticaCredit: NASA Earth Observatory
The Lower Denman Glacier, East AntarcticaCredit: NASA

Roses were red / Black skies were blue

In case you have been living under a rock, the Trump administration exploited the coronavirus crisis to eliminate the last standing environmental protections for nature, by giving business carte blanche to pollute the water or air. After all, who needs water and air? The New York Times reports that federal scientists “oppose” the legislative rollback and are counting on the courts to protect environmental laws. Good luck with that: Googling “Trump respect for law” resulted in a sea of links about his contempt for it.

Coronavirus’ contribution to carbon research

It’s no fun for households and businesses to contemplate, let alone experience, supply chain shocks as the coronavirus shuts down factories and transportation. While others dueled over toilet paper and hand sanitizer, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology people put on their thinking masks, analyzed the supply chain crunch. Stuff from cars to smartphones have components that get imported and exported multiple times before the finished product hits stores, they explain in Energy Economics, and urge that global supply chains be restructured in order to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that are baking the planet. 

Coronavirus’ contribution to carbon

Meanwhile, some predict the coronavirus shutdown could send oil as low as $10 per barrel, ZME reports. Last week crude fell to $25. Ostensibly that seems to be a good thing environmentally speaking, because demand for fossil fuel is low because nothing is moving. Great! Less great, it isn’t that the oil-producing companies are collectively seeing the light and massively shifting resources to develop renewable energy. No, they’ve simply created an oil glut and are now straining to store the stuff – including possibly in offshore oil tankers. And once the constraints to traffic lift, there are forecasts of a massive increase in emissions as companies ramp up to compensate for their losses, Business Insider explains.

Coronavirus’ contribution to public health

It’s an ill wind, literally and figuratively. By shutting down manufacturing and transportation to globally significant degrees, the coronavirus is making oil barons and aviation billionaires sad. But it’s also bringing some relief to vast urban populations from the ill effects of pollution. The European Environment Agency estimates that smog leads to around 400,000 premature deaths a year in Europe. Quantification of how many will die of the coronavirus (or suffer irreversible lung damage) versus how many won’t die because of particle pollution is impossible, but it’s a comforting thought to asthmatics and everyone else.

Some good news: Renewables are becoming affordable

Renewable energy – wind, solar and other sources – are now "as cheap or cheaper than dirty fossil fuels at the industrial level, even without taxpayer assistance. And the gap is getting wider," Marketwatch reports, based on a paper in the Journal of Crystal Growth. This won't translate into affordable solar panels on your roof any time soon, Marketwatch says, but it is a giant step in the right direction. Though Marketwatch's Brett Arends qualifies: " It is an open question, depending on what economists and scientists you talk to, on whether it has come too late."

Wind turbines at the Moranchon wind farm in SpainCredit: REUTERS

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