Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Scientists: World isn’t prepared for volcanic eruption

Lava flows from Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland
Associated Press/Marco Di Marco
Lava flows from Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland on Aug. 3, which is located 20 miles southwest of the capital of Reykjavik and close to the international Keflavik Airport. The volcano is erupting just eight months after its last eruption officially ended. Associated Press/Marco Di Marco

A large volcanic eruption could disrupt world food production and trade networks, causing damage to the global society equivalent to a strike from a giant asteroid, scientists argue. 

There is a 1-in-6 chance of a “magnitude seven” eruption in the next century — a volcanic explosion equivalent in power to a half-mile wide asteroid hitting the planet, according to a commentary published in Nature on Wednesday.  

“That’s a roll of the dice,” coauthor Lara Mani, a researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Center for the Study of Existential Risk, said in a statement.  

Yet while “hundreds of millions of dollars are pumped into asteroid threats every year, there is a severe lack of global financing and coordination for volcano preparedness,” Mani added. 

A magnitude-seven eruption is one that ejects more than 100 cubic kilometers (about 24 cubic miles) of lava, rock, ash and particulate matter, according to the United States Geological Survey. 

The last such explosion happened in 1815 in Indonesia, cutting out sunlight and dropping average global temperatures by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit), according to co-author Mike Cassidy, a visiting researcher at Cambridge now at the University of Birmingham. 

In the U.S. and Europe — on the other side of the world — crops failed and famine, disease and political upheaval spread around the world at the time of the Indonesian explosion, the authors noted, warning that the impacts of such an event today would be much worse. 

“We now live in a world with eight times the population and over forty times the level of trade,” Cassidy said in a statement.  

“Our complex global networks could make us even more vulnerable to the shocks of a major eruption,” he added.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll take a look at new research linking proximity to fracking sites to early childhood leukemia. Plus: what scientists have to say about the Inflation Reduction Act. Then we’ll explore findings that could help future explorers survive on Mars and see just how much damage wildfires are causing to global forests.

Study: Greater leukemia risk for kids near frack sites

Pennsylvania children who live near fracking sites before birth and during infancy are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with early-childhood leukemia than kids who didn’t live near such facilities, a new study has found.  

The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives on Wednesday, explored the connection between the development of cancer and proximity to unconventional oil and gas drilling — also known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”  

What’s fracking? It’s a drilling technique that allows for the extraction of oil and gas deep underground by injecting fluid at high pressure into the rock and releasing the trapped fuels to the surface.  

Looking into health impacts: Scientists have previously reported on potential threats posed by fracking such as air pollution, water contamination or wastewater spills, the researchers said.  

  • Chemicals with known or suspected cancer links have reportedly been used in the water injection process that occurs during fracking.  
  • Yet data on the association between fracking and childhood cancer remains scarce.  

A major concern: “Unconventional oil and gas development can both use and release chemicals that have been linked to cancer,” senior author Nicole Deziel, of the Yale School of Public Health, said in a statement.  

As a result, Deziel continued, the possibility that children living near such sites are “exposed to these chemical carcinogens is a major public health concern.” 

Broad health impacts: The study included 405 Pennsylvania kids aged 2-7, who were diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) between 2009 and 2017 as well as 2,080 control subjects.  

  • ALL is the most common form of childhood leukemia. 
  • Although long-term survival rates are high, patients may end up at higher risk of other physical and mental health problems.   

Vulnerable windows: The authors probed the link between in-utero exposure and ALL diagnosis in two different exposure periods:  

  1. A “primary window,” from three months pre-conception to one year before diagnosis. 
  2. A “perinatal window,” from pre-conception to birth.  

What did they find? Children with at least one fracking well within 1.24 miles of their birth residence during the primary window had 1.98 times the odds of developing ALL in comparison to those with no such wells.  

Meanwhile, children with at least one fracking well within 1.24 miles of their birth residence during the perinatal window were 2.8 times more likely to develop ALL than their peers who had no wells nearby.  

To read further about the implications of these findings, please click here for the full story.

Scientists applaud climate bill but demand action

Scientists across the world are applauding the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act — signed into law on Tuesday — for its potential to help combat climate change.  

At the same time, however, these researchers are urging the U.S. to do more, according to Nature’s news magazine.  

On board to fight climate change: With $369 billion in climate investments, the Inflation Reduction Act could reduce emissions by about 30 to 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, Nature reported.  

The legislation also “signals to other nations that the United States, a major emitter,” is now “on board to address climate change,” according to Nature.  

Where’s that climate money going? The Inflation Reduction Act will funnel a significant amount of money — $490 million — directly into climate and weather forecasting research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Nature reported. Much higher sums will go to other purposes that could also help the climate, including $60 billion in grants and tax credits for clean-energy investments and pollution clean-up in disadvantaged communities.

  • The transition to green energy will be worth $128 billion in tax credits.
  • Another $60 billion is being allocated to U.S. manufacturing of renewable technologies.  

Talk and action: “This is the biggest thing to happen to the U.S. on climate policy,” Bill Hare, of the nonprofit Climate Analytics, told The Associated Press.  

Over the past few decades, there has been “a lot of talk, but not action,” added Hare, whose organization published an independent analysis of the bill.  

A ‘radical shift’ — with some caveats: This analysis, called the “Climate Action Tracker,” acknowledges the new progress made but still rates American action on climate as “insufficient.”  

  • The legislation signifies “a radical shift in U.S. climate action” and sends a positive “global signal,” according to the tracker. 
  • Nonetheless, its climate finance allocations do not match the country’s “fair share contribution” to combatting climate change, the analysts argued. 
  • The bill also “includes several concessions for the fossil fuel industry,” they added.  

International accountability: Mohamed Adow, of the Nairobi-based think tank Power Shift Africa, told Nature that the U.S. must take responsibility for its historical emissions and help deliver climate finance to poorer nations.  

  • Wealthy countries promised $100 billion a year through 2025 to poorer ones several years ago, but that pledge has yet to be fulfilled, Adow said. 
  • “That’s what we need to see for a real jump in progress on the global stage,” he added.

How future Mars explorers can live off the land

Scientists have identified techniques by which humans could potentially both grow food and harvest oxygen from Mars’s inhospitable environment. 

If their approach ends up viable in real Martian territory, it could help future Mars explorers to live off the land. 

Nitrogen fixers and salt removers: Scientists found that alfalfa — a flowering plant commonly used for cattle feed — could grow in simulated Martian soil, according to a study published Wednesday in PLoS One.

  • Alfalfa is a “nitrogen fixer” that puts nutrients back into the soil — in this case allowing the cultivation of turnips, radishes and lettuce on previously lifeless soil.
  • The authors also found a kind of cyanobacteria (commonly called blue-green algae) that naturally pulls salt from water. 

Preparing the ground: Long-term human missions to Mars will require explorers to turn local resources like soil, water, solar radiation, nitrogen and carbon into the necessities of life, according to the paper. 

The alfalfa and cyanobacteria helps get around two key problems with using those resources, the authors explained.

  • Martian “soil” is crushed, sterile volcanic rock — not the nutrient-rich, water-trapping and biologically-active dirt that plants on Earth depend on. 
  • And Martian water comes in the form of salty brines unsuitable for plants used to freshwater. 

Treating the simulated Martian soil and water with alfalfa and cyanobacteria allowed the scientists to “sustain normal growth and productivity of the next generation of crops.” 

Harvesting air is possible too  

Breathable oxygen can be pulled from the Martian air using the high-energy states known as plasmas, an international team of scientists also found this week. 

Oxygen production would be  a starting point not only for creating usable air but for the manufacture of liquid fuels and building materials, according to the study, published in the Journal of Applied Physics.

  • Martian air is mostly carbon dioxide, which contains potentially usable oxygen but is a “very difficult molecule to break,” coauthor Vasco Guerra of the University of Lisbon said in a statement. 
  • Even once oxygen is separated out, that leaves behind toxic carbon monoxide that requires filtration.   

Pulling oxygen with plasmas: To break oxygen off cleanly with fewer byproducts, the scientists used plasmas — a high-energy state where electrons are “light and easily accelerated up to very high energies with electric fields,” according to a statement from the American Institute of Physics.  

The scientists found that this characteristic of the ”fourth state of matter” (in addition to solids, liquids and gasses) eased the process of breaking carbon dioxide into carbon and oxygen.

Fires claim an additional Belgium each year

Wildfires are growing worse around the world, with tree cover loss from fires worldwide today double its rate 20 years ago, a new study has found. 

Losing a Belgium-sized area: Destructive fire claims an area of forest the size of Belgium each year on top of what it took two decades ago, according to research published on Wednesday by the World Resources Institute.

  • Wildfires have caused a quarter of global tree loss over the past 20 years.
  • A wave of “unprecedented” subarctic forest fires making 2021 the worst fires season in recorded history. 

The U.S. is third-worst: Under this new fire regime, blazes of growing intensity have cost the U.S. a combined 30 million acres of forest since 2001 — an area of forest roughly the size of New York state. 

But that was only enough to put the country in third place for forest losses to wildfire. 

  • The enormous fires in the boreal forests of Canada and Russia made those two the biggest losers of forest last year — with a combined 190 million acres in forest losses since 2021.
  • Russia’s losses alone cost it an area of forest the approximate size of France.

Water Wednesday

Waste chokes a holy river, seaweed rottting on Caribbean beaches and drying rivers bring a message of global warning. 

Himalayan holy river littered with waste 

  • Nepal’s holy Bagmati River is now “choked with debris, its contents undrinkable and unsuitable even for cleaning,” according to The Associated Press. While people used to cleanse bodies of the deceased in the Bagmati prior to cremation, many families now resort to using purified water bought at nearby stores, the AP reported.  

Smelly seaweed covering Caribbean beaches 

  • Millions of tons of a foul-smelling seaweed called sargassum have been washing up on Caribbean shores — blanketing coastlines from Puerto Rico to Barbados, according to Euronews. Researchers blame the increase in sargassum on a variety of factors, including climate change, human sewage, washed up fertilizers from Brazil’s rivers and dust blowing from Africa’s Saharan Desert, Euronews reported. 

Rhine recovery doesn’t dispel river warnings 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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