Talking Points: Winter 2023

News in Brief


Crumbling Fast

Here’s another one for the “it’s worse than we thought” category: Antarctica is losing ice at double the amount previously estimated, according to new research, creating the potential for “substantial” sea-level rise.

Two new studies, led by researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), examined iceberg calving and ice-sheet melting in the Antarctic. The studies revealed alarming data about the pace at which the Antarctic Ice Sheet has been losing mass in recent decades.

Antarctic ice is melting at double the rate previously estimated, new data show. Photo by Jasmine Nears.
Antarctic ice is melting at double the rate previously estimated, new data show. Photo by Jasmine Nears.

The first study, published in Nature in September, studied 25 years of coastline mapping to show that iceberg calving – the breaking off of ice from a glacier front – has changed the Antarctic coastline drastically. Researchers say the edge of the ice sheet has been losing ice faster than it can be replaced. According to the new estimates, the Antarctic has lost 12 trillion metric tons of ice since 1997, double the previously estimated 6 trillion tons.

“Antarctica is crumbling at its edges,” NASA scientist Chad Greene, lead author of the calving study, said in a statement. “And when ice shelves dwindle and weaken, the continent’s massive glaciers tend to speed up and increase the rate of global sea level rise.”

The second study, published in Earth System Science Data, shows that ice-melt is also spreading from Antarctica’s coast into its interior, faster than previously estimated. In the western parts of the ice sheet, the rate of melt has nearly doubled over the past decade. The two reports give us the most comprehensive idea so far of just how much and how fast the continent is changing.

This new (and admittedly frightening) analysis was the product of 36 years of work by NASA. Researchers at JPL put together 3 billion data points from seven different instruments in space, going back as far as 1985. Their measurements, using radar and lasers, are accurate to within centimeters and combined show a subtle, high-resolution picture of the ice loss and its relationship to long-term climate trends and annual weather patterns.

“Subtle changes like these, in combination with improved understanding of long-term trends from this data set, will help researchers understand the processes that influence ice loss, leading to improved future estimates of sea level rise,” said JPL’s Johan Nilsson, lead author of the study.


Setback in Chile

Nearly two-thirds of Chileans voted against a proposed new constitution in September, rejecting a draft that made ecological concerns a cornerstone of lawmaking. The draft constitution, developed over the course of a year by a citizen-led assembly, supported climate-friendly actions and research across the country. The new constitution would have given more voice to Chile’s Indigenous population, while recognizing the rights of nature to exist and regenerate.

A constitutional reform effort in Chile, which would have given more voice to the country’s Indigenous peoples, while recognizing the rights of nature, didn’t make the cut. Photo by Tomás Flores Saavedra.
A constitutional reform effort in Chile, which would have given more voice to the country’s Indigenous peoples, while recognizing the rights of nature, didn’t make the cut. Photo by Tomás Flores Saavedra.

In August, after polling showed that most Chileans would vote against the new constitution, more than 1,200 scientists in the country signed a letter urging citizens to approve the draft. But their plea didn’t make much of a difference — about 62 percent of voters ended up voting against it.

The draft constitution was opposed by mining and agricultural industries in Chile, a major supplier of global copper and lithium. But Chile is also particularly vulnerable to climate change and is suffering from food and water insecurity, heat waves, and megadrought. “I feel very lost,” Andrea Vera Gajardo, a mathematician at the University of Valparaíso, told Nature. “I don’t understand the choice Chile made.”

On the hopeful side, the process of drafting a new constitution has helped kick off a conversation in the country about how science and sound research should play a key part in the country’s development moving forward. “Everything we discussed about the role of science in the climate emergency, how we do science, at what pace, for whom — that’s never happened before,” Vera Gajardo said. “We can’t lose that.”

Temp Gauge

Billionaire Polluters

You may have grave concerns about a system of economics where 2,000-some billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people (or where the 22 richest men have more wealth than all the women of Africa), and you would be right. A new study by Oxfam shows, in a little more detail, how all that wealth has major consequences for the planet.

“The world’s richest people emit huge and unsustainable amounts of carbon,” the group says, and up to 70 percent of those emissions result from their investments, most often the source of their wealth. Oxfam looked at the emissions of the world’s 125 richest billionaires, including emissions from their investments, and found that their CO2 emissions amounted to 3 million tons per year — a million times more than the average Earthling in the bottom 90 percent of humanity.

“Billionaires hold extensive stakes in many of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations, which gives them the power to influence the way these companies act,” Oxfam says, calling for world governments to hold them to account and to enact policies that push corporations and investors to reduce carbon emissions.

“This could also raise trillions of dollars for nations hit hardest by climate disaster,” the report notes. “The revenue could also help advance a green and fair transition at the global level.”


Aliso Impact Study

After years of pushing for an independent study into the public health impacts of the 2015 gas blowout in Aliso Canyon in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, local residents’ persistence has finally borne fruit. In November, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health announced that the University of California, Los Angeles will conduct a five-year study on the short- and long-term impacts of the worst human-caused methane release in US history. The $21 million study was expected to launch right away.

The University of California, Los Angeles will conduct a five-year study on the impacts of the worst human-caused methane release in US history. Photo by Hannah Benet.
The University of California, Los Angeles will conduct a five-year study on the impacts of the worst human-caused methane release in US history. Photo by Hannah Benet.

The blowout, at the Aliso Canyon underground gas storage facility in the Santa Susana Mountains, occurred on October 23, 2015. It took the facility’s owner, Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas), 111 days to cap the well. By that time a total of 109,000 metric tons of methane and other oil and gas constituents had spewed into the air and into nearby residential communities. Roughly 232,200 residents lived within a five-mile radius of the facility, and tens of thousands of them had to be evacuated. Residents noted foul odors and oily mists and reported experiencing a range of health symptoms including headaches, nausea, vomiting, nose bleeds, coughing, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.

Community members who were impacted by the blowout are pinning a lot of hope on the health study since it could help inform lawsuits and the fate of the facility itself. But there’s also a lot of concern that the study will not be a fair one. “People living close to the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility have legitimate questions about how emissions from the facility might affect their health now and in the future,” Dr. Michael Jerrett, of ucla’s Fielding School of Public Health and co-principal investigator of the study, said in a statement. “The outcomes of these studies will be exceptionally important and also at times, very complex.”


Blues Good for Green

Yes, the ice sheets are melting, and attendant eco-anxiety is high. But that grim news has a silver lining, at least on Wall Street. A new study shows that when investors feel low about the environment, they tend to put money into sustainable funds.

“When the mood decreases, it leads to higher flows to sustainable funds,” economist Alexandre Garel, an associate professor at Audencia Business School in Nantes, France, told Bloomberg Green. Garel and two other professors, Adrian Fernandez-Perez at New Zealand’s Auckland University of Technology and Ivan Indriawan of University at Adelaide in Australia, were testing whether positive or negative moods led to pro-social behavior and greater altruism. Their studies actually showed that people in lower moods tend to put their money in sustainable assets, mostly due to the perception that they are less risky. Mutual funds with higher sustainability ratings, in general, currently tend to attract more capital, Bloomberg reported. That trend increases at times when more seasonally depressed individuals are investing.

“However, our study comes with a caveat,” Garel said. “Given the features of our data, we cannot test if the investors’ mood improves after investing in sustainable funds.”


Wobbling Mangroves

Researchers in Australia have discovered a cyclical swing of “lunar wobbles” is a major influence in the way mangroves grow or die back.

The lunar wobble, fluctuations in the moon’s orbit caused by its elliptical trajectory around Earth, cycles every 18 or so years, during which time the resulting gravitational forces on Earth pull low tides lower and high tides higher in distinct phases of around 9.3 years each. A new study published in September in Science suggests that during periods of amplified tides caused by the wobble, mangroves thrive, but in periods where the tide is suppressed, they start dying.

Mangroves, a significant coastal ecosystem around the world, follow tidal shifts related to the fluctuations of the moon’s orbit. Photo by David Clode.
Mangroves, a significant coastal ecosystem around the world, follow tidal shifts related to the fluctuations of the moon’s orbit. Photo by David Clode.

Researchers at Macquarie University, led by wetland ecologist Neil Saintilan, found the wobble to be the dominant factor impacting mangrove cover. In fact, they say that the massive mangrove die-off in Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria in 2015, where some 18,000 acres of mangrove forest died over the summer, was a sign of the wobble at work in conjunction with influence of the El Niño effect, a climate cycle that also causes sea levels to fall. They found that earlier mangrove dieback events in the area in 1998 and 1982 also coincided with the trough period of the lunar cycle. (In fact, some researchers predict the wobble will cause major coastal flooding in the early 2030s, as extreme high tides meet sea-level rise.)

Mangrove forests dominate coastlines throughout the world’s tropic and subtropic regions. They are a reliable carbon sink, as well as a buffer for coastal areas against storm surges and flooding. They provide critical habitat for many animals, including manatees, sea turtles, and even Royal Bengal tigers. However, until now their growth had not been tracked with lunar cycles. This new finding might help us better understand how much carbon mangroves may be able to sequester in the future.

“When we looked in detail at the timing of the peaks and troughs of the lunar cycle, it matched perfectly with changes in mangrove canopy cover,” Saintilan told Science Alert, adding that it was “one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments you get a few times in your career.”

Around the World

Hot Cities

Over half of the world’s population lives in cities, a number which is growing rapidly. But as temperatures rise across the globe due to climate change, these increasingly populated areas are also becoming precarious places to live. Although it’s getting hotter everywhere, in an urban environment dangerous temperatures are exacerbated by heat released from burning fossil fuels in cars, trucks, and generators, running air-conditioners, heat-emitting infrastructure and urban materials that absorb heat. According to recent research, over the past 40 years extreme heat exposure increased by 200 percent in urban settlements across the world.

Cities are now faced with what climatologists call the “urban heat island effect,” a phenomenon where temperatures rise higher and faster in cities than the surrounding areas. Evening temperatures offer little relief as the heat absorbed by the urban landscape during the day continues to warm the city at night.

Urban centers that have little greenery, which works to moderate temperatures or provide shade, become especially dangerous heat sinks with serious public health consequences. This past summer, cities ranging from Dublin to Shanghai broke all-time temperature records. In the coming years, this trend will continue. Elderly and vulnerable people are at most risk of high temperatures, but at a certain point, heat becomes dangerous for every member of society.

Some cities are taking steps to ameliorate the worst heat island effects. Increasingly, leaders are looking toward adaptations like increasing tree cover, using building materials that reflect sunlight, and preserving more green spaces that can cool a city while also providing ancillary health benefits for its residents. It’s an open question as to how quickly and to what scale these mitigation measures will be implemented.

graphic depicting the continents of the Earth

SOURCES: Scientific American, BBC, EPA,, The Guardian, The Washington Post

1 Delhi, India

In May 2022, Delhi recorded a temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest recorded temperature in the city’s existence. That number topped the previous record high by 7 degrees.

Impacts of the extreme temperatures were felt across the city, and many suffered from heat strokes, heat exhaustion, and other related illnesses. Hospital admissions rose dramatically. Day laborers who work outside in the heat were at particular risk. Portions of wheat harvests in the nearby countryside failed. High energy demands led to widespread power outages.

Although scientists say heat waves of this severity will become more common in Delhi, there are also moves toward adaptation. In 2015, the state and federal government began instituting measures that ban working outside during the hottest parts of the day.

2 London, England

In London, temperatures on July 19th topped 104 degrees, breaking an all-time record set over 100 years prior. The average high for London in July is 72 degrees. That was just one of the three major heat waves the United Kingdom experienced over the course of the summer.

Some climate models project London to have a climate resembling Barcelona by the end of the century. Summers are not only hotter, but drier, and multiple fires broke out in the city on the record-setting day. Mapping the city by temperature illustrates the effects land use can have on dangerous heat waves, as the tree-filled Hyde Park remained much cooler than more urban areas.

3 Sacramento, California

Sacramento also broke record highs this past summer, as temperatures soared to an unheard of 116 degrees in early September. The city and the region have begun to take steps to address dangerous heat. The Sacramento metropolitan air quality district has developed a model to map the urban heat island effect in the region, identifying areas most at risk and studying heat-mitigation measures. Those measures include tree planting, lightening roofs and sidewalks to reflect sunlight, and building with porous materials.

4 Buenos Aires, Argentina

More than 16 percent of Buenos Aires residents are over 65 years old, a group considered most at risk of extreme heat waves like the one that hit South America last January. Temperatures in the city skyrocketed to 106 degrees, the highest on record, leading to surging demand for power and to grid failure in and around Buenos Aires. The city launched an initiative in 2017 to better prepare for these high temperatures, including setting up email and phone call systems to notify seniors of dangerous heat conditions, and holding workshops to build awareness about the risks these heat waves pose.

5 Luzhou, China

The heat wave that struck China this July was the worst in six decades, with temperatures crossing 104 degrees in dozens of cities and the related spike in demand for air conditioning leading to an energy crisis. In city of Luzhou in Sichuan Province, officials shut off streetlights at night in an effort to save energy. Sichuan Province, an industrial hub, instituted restrictions on power consumption, limiting access to cooling in homes and work buildings, and ordered factories to shut down for six days to conserve power.

Temperatures are rising faster in China than in the rest of the world, and the record-breaking heat wave has raised concern about its ability to adapt to rapid climate change and conserve already scarce water resources. Some observers have speculated that the crisis could speed China’s transition to additional sources of renewable energy, as a severe drought crippled its ability to produce hydroelectric power during the heat wave.


Timber Cities Curb Emissions

When it comes to green buildings, more wood, less cement and steel is apparently the way to go. A recent study by The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research shows that one way to decarbonize the construction sector is to rely on more trees.

Globally, buildings produce about 20 percent, or 12 gigatons, of global greenhouse gas emissions. Some 18 percent of this comes from cement and steel used in the buildings. A significant amount of these emissions could be avoided in new buildings if we construct mid-rise wood buildings, properly sourced for construction materials, for 90 percent of the world’s new urban population, the study says. In total, it estimates, 106 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions could be avoided through 2100 this way.

Here’s the rub though: This would require about double the amount of land currently dedicated to tree farming — a total of more than 1.5 million square miles. (India has an total area of 1.6 million square miles.) The study warned that increasing the use of wood and other natural materials in buildings “brings not only benefits, but also risks.”

“The increased use of timber can accelerate degradation through poor management and the pressure for deforestation, as already recorded in the Amazon and Siberia forests, and the competition for land and resources,” it noted. However, it also says that with “strong governance and careful planning,” the transition to “timber cities” would not interfere with the protection of forests and other biodiversity hotspots. The study also shows that gains come only when lumber does not need to be transported large distances, at least not by conventional fossil-fuel-burning means.


Is a Bee a Fish? Depends.

The California Supreme Court recently ruled that bumblebees ought to be considered fish, or at least invertebrates, where environmental law is concerned.

Not a fish. But an invertebrate, and therefore worthy of legal protection. Photo by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.
Not a fish. But an invertebrate, and therefore worthy of legal protection. Photo by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab.

Biologically, bees aren’t fish, but they can be protected under California’s Endangered Species Act (CESA), which doesn’t exactly account for them. The law allows for the protection of birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, or fish, so judges had to determine where bees stand, er swim, er fly, in the eyes of the law. The decision stems from industry objections to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife listing of four bumblebee species as deserving protected status. The ruling rejected arguments by industry groups, including the California Farm Bureau Federation, claiming that the state’s Endangered Species Act does not allow the state to protect insects. Not so, the courts have ruled.

While California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye cautioned the public against misconstruing judicial intent, or defining bees as fish for real, she wrote that “although the term fish is colloquially and commonly understood to refer to aquatic species, the term of art employed by the Legislature in the definition of fish in section 45 [of the CESA] is not so limited.”

In other words, fish or no, these bees can be protected.

law & order

Ignoring Sound Science

Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court ruled to limit the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) influence in regulating greenhouse gas emissions. In its ruling in West Virginia vs. US Environmental Protection Agency, the ultraconservative court demonstrated again that it is willing to overlook research on the impacts of such major decisions. The court, which has three justices appointed by former President Donald Trump, has demonstrated a pattern that is “undermining science’s role in informing public policy,” Jeff Tollefson, an environmental correspondent for Nature, wrote in September.

That’s a marked shift from previous decades, when the court weighed public health research in its rulings. The EPA decision curtailed the federal agency’s ability to broadly regulate CO2 and other emissions, a policy tool that helps combat climate change. That decision coincided with the court’s ruling to repeal the right to abortion, a decision that ignored history and research findings that such a ruling would be harmful to people’s reproductive health.

Such decisions should be seen as “break-the-glass” moments for court reform that transcend partisan politics, Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge who teaches at Harvard University, told Tollefson. Gertner remains hopeful that the court’s swing to the right will set off a balancing backlash.

Call of the Wild

Temper, Temper!

Researchers studying the behavior of 10 common octopuses off the coast of New South Wales in Australia discovered behavior by the species that’s all too familiar for us humans, but so far unrecorded for the animal: Throwing stuff at each other when annoyed.

Not only are octopuses highly intelligent, but they can get annoyed and throw things. Photo by Vlad Tchompalov.
Not only are octopuses highly intelligent, but they can get annoyed and throw things. Photo by Vlad Tchompalov.

While examining 20 hours of footage, researchers observed multiple instances in which Octopus tetricus gathered silt, shells, or other debris and then jet propelled it away from their body. Sometimes, the researchers said, this was likely done to discard food scraps. But other times, the octopuses seemed to be purposely targeting each other.

“The throwing – or propelling, or projecting – of objects that have been gathered and held is rare in the animal kingdom,” Professor Peter Godfrey-Smith, one of the University of Sydney researchers, told The Guardian.

While they don’t know exactly why the octopus threw things, the researchers did identify some patterns. When a projectile was aimed at another octopus, for example, the thrower would turn a dark color. They also threw the projectile with more force than when discarding food scraps.

Godfrey-Smith hypothesized that an octopus may throw things as a way of establishing “personal space,” to fend off a mate or another octopus who came too close. Which is something we can all understand.


Fishing Junk

New research has given us a clearer picture of what type of trash ends up in the North Pacific Garbage Patch, and how it gets there. Apparently, up to 86 percent of the big pieces of plastic in the patch can be traced directly back to the fishing industry, according to a study published in Scientific Reports in September, a finding that upends the general assumption that most plastic in the ocean comes from land via rivers.

An analysis of more than 6,000 pieces of trash collected from the North Pacific Garbage Patch revealed that much of it came from the fishing industry. Photo by NOAA Marine Debris Program.
An analysis of more than 6,000 pieces of trash collected from the North Pacific Garbage Patch revealed that much of it came from the fishing industry. Photo by NOAA Marine Debris Program.

An earlier 2018 study had shown that fishing nets made up nearly half of the swirling trash in the open waters between Hawai’i and California, but it wasn’t clear where the rest of the plastic was coming from. The new study, by the Netherlands-based nonprofit Ocean Cleanup, found that much of the rest of this trash comprised items that were lost or discarded by fishing vessels. The study is based on an analysis of the origins of more than 6,000 pieces of trash collected from the patch.

In an interview with Nature, Matthias Egger, a researcher with Ocean Cleanup and one of the authors of the study, hypothesized that plastic pollution from land stays along the coast, whereas plastic lost at sea (or thrown into the sea) is more likely to end up in an ocean garbage patch.

The North Pacific Garbage Patch was first discovered in 1997 and ultimately swelled to over 620,000 square miles, an area three times the size of France. Over the past 10 years, Ocean Cleanup has slowly been removing trash from the patch and studying what it removed and where it came from.

The group’s research also showed that most of the garbage came from just five countries: primarily Japan and China, followed by the United States, Taiwan, and South Korea; next on the list were Hong Kong and Macau.


Trash Barbie

Mattel, the popular multinational toy company, recently released a new “Barbie Loves the Ocean” doll made entirely from recycled, ocean bound plastic. Which is … cool, we guess?

The move is part of a push to make more sustainable toys, a goal Mattel representatives say they’ve made a priority moving forward. Pamela Gill-Alabaster, the head of global sustainability at Mattel, told Bloomberg News that almost 80 percent of parents believe it’s important to purchase sustainable toys. “It’s the right thing to do … But I also think there’s a pull from consumers, and I think we’re going to see more of that,” she said.

Other Barbies made from ocean bound trash include a Jane Goodall Barbie, a conservation scientist Barbie, a renewable energy Barbie, and a chief sustainability officer Barbie. They are all part of the 2022 Barbie Career of the Year Eco-Leadership Team doll set.

Photo courtesy Mattel.
Photo courtesy Mattel.

According to a news release, Mattel aims “to achieve 100 percent recycled, recyclable, or bio-based plastic materials in all products and packaging by 2030.” The company currently has 33 toys they claim are sustainable. In 2020, they had four. So even if a “chief sustainability officer” Barbie doll feels mildly dystopian, it’s probably a good thing that conservation has infiltrated the zeitgeist far enough to earn a Barbie.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.