Overnight Energy & Environment

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Ancient bacteria could be lurking below Mars’ surface

When future Mars missions return to Earth with sub-surface samples, scientists warn “ancient sleeping bacteria” could be lurking out of sight.

Such bacteria may have been able to survive much longer than anticipated, according to a new study published in the journal Astrobiology.

To explore whether life could survive in Mars’s harsh environment — which averages -80 degrees Fahrenheit at mid-latitudes and is bombarded by galactic cosmic radiation and solar protons — researchers tested the limits of six types of Earthling bacteria and fungi.

They exposed the microorganisms to a simulated Martian surface and zapped them with gamma rays and protons, according to the study.

Ultimately, they found some species could survive on Mars over hundreds of millions of years. One particularly robust microbe called Deinococcus radiodurans — also called “Conan the Bacterium” — proved particularly well-suited to these conditions.

And if such bacteria are asleep under Mars’s subsurface, the soil’s contamination with these microbes “would essentially be permanent — over time frames of thousands of years,” senior co-author Brian Hoffman, of Northwestern University, said in a statement.

Hoffman stressed this discovery “could complicate scientific efforts to look for Martian life.”  

That’s because future missions like ExoMars and the Mars Life Explorer — which will carry drills to extract materials from 2 meters below Mars’s surface — could end up bringing back dormant contaminants to Earth, according to the authors.  

Likewise, any future human travelers to Mars could accidentally pollute the Red Planet “with their own hitchhiking bacteria,” the researchers warned.   

“If microbes evolved on Mars, they could be capable of surviving until present day,” Hoffman said. “That means returning Mars samples could contaminate Earth.” 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin.

Today we’ll take a deeper look at accusations that Mississippi starved its capital city of necessary water funding, followed by a surprising gas glut that could give Europe an easier-than-expected winter.

Plus: Egypt seeks to nip climate protests in the bud before COP27. 

Fallout from Jackson’s water crisis rolls on

The summer water crisis that left Jackson, Miss., without fresh drinking water is over — but the fight over what happened is still going on. 

The city’s rickety water system and the lingering bad blood from last month’s shortages have triggered new accusations between state and local authorities.

  • As the city braces for another strain on its water and sewer systems this weekend, local activists and leaders are harshly criticizing state and federal officials.
  • Leaders at groups like the NAACP also said the city was left out of disbursements of federal funds that could have avoided the crisis. 

Catching up: The crisis that started in late August saw the city of around 163,000 people largely without water — or under boil orders — for more than two weeks. 

Game day risk: Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (D) advised residents on Monday to conserve water ahead of this weekend’s highly-anticipated football game between Jackson State University and Southern University, The Clarion Ledger reported. 

Warning that the event could push city water past its breaking point, Lumumba fired back at Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) for his criticisms and treatment of the city, according to the Ledger.

  • “Some days, he wants you to know that he is the savior for Jackson and its water problems. Then on other days, he wants you to know how much disdain he has for Jackson, like when he says it’s always a great day not to be in Jackson,” Lumumba said.
  • Reeves had called him “incompetent” and accused him of having “irrevocably broken” the disaster response systems put in place after the shortage. 

The backdrop: The criticism comes amid an ongoing investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) into whether the state of Mississippi discriminated against its majority-Black capital city.

  • “We believe we gave compelling evidence that the state of Mississippi intentionally starved the city of Jackson of the resources to maintain its water infrastructure,” Derrick Johnson of the NAACP told The Associated Press last week.
  • If the EPA agrees, the state could lose millions in federal funds. 

Left out: Johnson, the NAACP president who attended college in Jackson, told a town hall meeting on Monday that “in the 25 years that the state of Mississippi has received federal funds for water, the city of Jackson only received funds three of those years,” according to local ABC-affiliate WAPT.

RECOVERING FROM A BAD DEAL

One state lawmaker argued another contributing factor behind the Jackson crisis was an ill-advised $90 million deal between the city and multinational company Siemens.

  • While Siemens was supposed to upgrade and modernize city water infrastructure, state Rep. De’Keither Stamps (D) accused them of doing a slipshod job.
  • “Some meters were measuring in gallons when they were supposed to be measuring in cubic feet,” Stamps, a former Jackson city council member, told CBS, adding some residents were paying substantially higher bills.
  • Meanwhile, the city’s ailing sewer system went unaddressed, according to CBS. 

Partial victory: The city of Jackson sued Siemens for fraud in 2020 and settled for nearly $90 million.

  • But the city is still on the hook for legal fees, interest on the loan and the expensive repairs needed to keep the water system functioning, CBS noted.
  • “It’s sad. Sometimes I gotta laugh to keep from cryin’,” Stamps told the outlet.

Europe may now have too much gas

As Russia gradually cut off much of Europe’s gas supply over the past six months, officials scrambled to replace what had been their dominant energy source.  

But now, experts fear that the continent may have the opposite problem: too much gas on its hands. 

How is that possible? Facing the prospect of a cold winter ahead, Europe rushed to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from around the world to fill up storage sites, Bloomberg reported. 

But a mix of uncharacteristically warm weather and successful bids on LNG cargo means that storage facilities are already almost full, according to Bloomberg. 

Ships in waiting: Huge LNG tankers are waiting their turn in line off the coasts of Spain, Portugal, the U.K. and other nations, the BBC reported. 

About 268 LNG ships are on the water worldwide, with 51 in the vicinity of Europe following the continent’s “gas-buying spree,” according to the BBC.

  • Europe’s original target was to fill storage facilities to 80 percent capacity by Nov. 1.
  • That target has been exceeded — now reaching around 95 percent — far ahead of that deadline.  

For now, gas prices are falling: Gas prices in Europe have plunged, dropping to less than a third of their summer peak, according to Bloomberg.  

Previously driven by skyrocketing gas prices, companies that sell the resource flooded the European market, The New York Times reported.  

So is Europe out of the woods? Not necessarily. What lies ahead largely depends on the weather, Bloomberg reported.

  • A sudden cold snap could force the continent to draw gas from its stockpiles.
  • Governments also fear that energy assets could be under threat of sabotage, which could rattle the market.

Next winter could be worse: “As temperatures start to drop and storages get emptied, the market reality of supply-demand mismatch will mean higher prices,” Katja Yafimava, senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, told Bloomberg.

  • Such a situation could translate into further inflationary pressures, according to Yafimava.
  • “This problem is likely to become more acute during the next winter,” she added.

Citizen spaces shuttered at climate change summit

Egypt’s government is cracking down on outside organizing and exhibits in advance of the forthcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in the resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh, The Guardian reports.

  • The “pavilions” host a wide array of unofficial programming and organizing outside the closed compound where the U.N. summit will be held.
  • The pavilions will be closed on the first day of the conference, Cairo announced.

Fears of exclusion: The closure of the outside spaces has activists worried that Egypt’s military rulers are aiming to shut out voices clamoring for faster and more urgent action on climate change, Reuters reported.

  • Past crackdowns on organizing at COP summits have created “a climate of fear,” according to the U.N. Human Rights Council — a development unlikely to change this year.
  • “It’s going to be virtually impossible for anyone who is not accredited for the conference itself to be able to access the city during the conference period,” said Egyptian human rights activist Hossam Bahgat.

Pollution exposure tied to lower-weight babies: study

Hispanic women in Los Angeles who were exposed to air pollution and stress during pregnancy were more likely to deliver low-birth-weight babies, a new study has found. 

Combined effects: Exposures to such contaminants and psychological stress disrupted fetal growth processes during early to mid-pregnancy, according to the study, published on Tuesday in JAMA Network Open

  • “Air pollution has a harmful effect on many different populations,” lead author Zhongzheng (Jason) Niu, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, said in a statement.
  • “Our study identified the effects on expectant mothers who are already most vulnerable,” he added.  

The impacts can be serious: Infants with reduced birth weights face heightened risks of death or complications like breathing problems, brain bleeding, jaundice and infections, according to the authors.  

Low birth weight is also connected to the long-term development of certain diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, intellectual disabilities, metabolic syndrome and obesity.   

Multifaceted approach: Niu and his colleagues said they combed through data from 2015-2021 from 628 predominantly low-income Hispanic pregnant women in Los Angeles.

  • Clinicians collected bio-specimen data, medical records and residential information during patient appointments.
  • Mothers-to-be completed questionnaires to gauge their perceptions of stress. The researchers also assessed neighborhood-level stressors by using a statewide metric called CalEnviroScreen Score.  

Using four local air monitoring stations, the researchers assessed the effects of three components of polluted air: PM 2.5 and PM 10 — particulate matter with diameters of less than 2.5 microns and less than 10 microns, respectively — as well as nitrogen dioxide.  

Pollution from PM 2.5 comes from the combustion of gasoline, oil, diesel fuel and wood, while PM 10 emissions are a result of dust and smoke, the authors noted. 

Nitrogen dioxide is released when fossil fuels are burned at high temperatures, the researchers added. 

Tangible effects: Exposure to all the pollutants in early to mid-pregnancy was associated with lower birth weight, the scientists found.  

Nitrogen dioxide had the greatest impacts.  

  • Those women exposed while nine to 14 weeks pregnant gave birth to babies with a 40.4-gram (1.43-ounce) decrease in birth weight.
  • Pregnant individuals exposed to nitrogen dioxide while 33 to 36 weeks pregnant reported the biggest reduction in birth weight: 117.6 grams (4.15 ounces).  

 To read more details from the study, please click here for the full story.   

Tuesday Transport

Lunar contractors plan for future of spaceflight, Georgia’s big new electric vehicle plant is underway and a key step for hydrogen-powered trucking. 

Firms involved in NASA’s moon program look to the future 

  • The companies participating in NASA’s Artemis moon program are working toward future missions, as the agency tries to launch its first lunar rocket next month, The Wall Street Journal reported. NASA has ordered three more Orion spaceships developed by Lockheed Martin, while Boeing is working on hardware for space launch system rockets and SpaceX is developing new ground tests, according to the Journal.

Hyundai plant breaks ground in Georgia

  • South Korean carmaker Hyundai broke ground Tuesday on its $5.54 billion EV plant outside Savannah, Ga., the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported. “These are jobs of the future coming to Georgia,” Gov. Brian Kemp (R-Ga.) said, adding that “the automotive industry will see more change in the next 10 years than in the prior 100.”  

Coming soon: Dozens of hydrogen-powered truck stops

  • Clean energy trucking company Nikola will build 60 hydrogen fueling stations nationwide by 2026 — a move spurred by Democrats’ climate stimulus legislation, according to Green Car Reports, a tip site for green car enthusiasts. That legislation will save the company $100,000 per fueling station, the site reported. 

For more stories about sustainability please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section and explore other newsletters here. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Tags bacteria Climate change COP27 Jackson water crisis liquified natural gas natural gas pollution
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