Polar Bears Will Survive if Global Warming Reduces Sea Ice

(p. A9) Scientists have identified a distinct subpopulation of polar bears in southeastern Greenland that, in an area with little sea ice, survive by hunting from ice that breaks off glaciers.

The discovery suggests a way that a small number of bears might survive as warming continues and more of the sea ice that they normally depend on disappears.

. . .

The subpopulation, believed to number several hundred animals, was identified during a multiyear study of what was thought to be a single population of bears along Greenland’s entire 1,800-mile-long east coast. Through analysis of satellite-tracked movements, tissue samples and other data, the bears in the southeast were found to be isolated, both physically and genetically, from the others.

“This was a wholly unexpected finding,” said Kristin Laidre, a biologist at the University of Washington who has studied marine mammal ecology in Greenland for two decades. Dr. Laidre is the lead author of a paper on the subpopulation published Thursday [June 16, 2022] in the journal Science.

Southeastern Greenland is especially remote, with narrow fjords hemmed in by steep mountains. At the inland end there are often glaciers that terminate in the water; at the other end is open ocean, with a strong south-flowing current. “These bears are very geographically isolated,” Dr. Laidre said. “They’ve really kind of evolved to being residents because that’s the only way to live down there.” The researchers estimated that this subpopulation had been isolated for at least several hundred years.

For the full story, see:

Henry Fountain. “Study Shows Polar Bears Can Survive in Coastal Areas of Little Sea Ice.” The New York Times (Saturday, June 18, 2022): A9.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 16, 2022, and has the title “‘Wholly Unexpected’: These Polar Bears Can Survive With Less Sea Ice.”)

The Science article discussed above is:

Laidre, Kristin L., Megan A. Supple, Erik W. Born, Eric V. Regehr, Øystein Wiig, Fernando Ugarte, Jon Aars, Rune Dietz, Christian Sonne, Peter Hegelund, Carl Isaksen, Geir B. Akse, Benjamin Cohen, Harry L. Stern, Twila Moon, Christopher Vollmers, Russ Corbett-Detig, David Paetkau, and Beth Shapiro. “Glacial Ice Supports a Distinct and Undocumented Polar Bear Subpopulation Persisting in Late 21st-Century Sea-Ice Conditions.” Science 376, no. 6599 (June 16, 2022): 1333-38.

Adapting to Climate Change, Bird Species Send Out Explorers to “Scout New Habitats”

(p. B1) From what we can tell, the Steller’s sea eagle trekking across North America does not appear homesick.

The bird has strayed thousands of miles from its native range in East Asia over the last two years, roving from the Denali Highway in Alaska down to a potential sighting South Texas before moving eastward and back north to Canada and New England. Its cartoonish yellow beak and distinctive wing coloration recently attracted crowds of rapt birders to Maine before turning up on April Fools’ Day in Nova Scotia.

“We live in a world of very little surprise,” said Nick Lund, the outreach manager for Maine Audubon and creator of The Birdist blog. Catching a glimpse of a far-flung bird in one’s backyard, he said, “is like the purest form of joy.”

But the rogue Steller’s sea eagle isn’t just a lost bird: It is an avian vagrant, a term that describes birds that wing their way well beyond their species’s normal range of movement.

Humans have long marveled at such exotic stragglers — which experts also refer to as waifs, rarities, extralimitals, casuals and accidentals — and what they suggest about the biological importance of wandering. “The ‘accidentals’ are the exceptional individuals that go farthest away from the metropolis of the species; they do not belong to (p. D4) the ordinary mob,” Joseph Grinnell, a field biologist in California, noted in 1922. “They constitute sort of sensitive tentacles, by which the species keeps aware of the possibilities of aerial expansion.”

. . .

A new book, “Vagrancy in Birds,” extends this century-old notion — arguing that vagrancy does not always represent a tale of navigational avian misfortune, but can be one of the first visible signs of bird species adapting to human-driven alterations to Earth’s waters, lands and skies.

“We’re destroying and creating habitats,” said Alexander Lees, a co-author of the book and a senior biodiversity lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. “We’d expect wildlife to adapt to that.”

. . .

“We think of ranges as stable in space and time. But ranges are incredibly dynamic and they can change,” Dr. Lees, of Manchester Metropolitan University, said.

Vagrancy, the scientists argue, might help species chart an escape route from human-driven climate change and widespread habitat destruction. Instead of staying put and facing potential extinction, a few solitary pioneers can scout new habitats as their former homes become unlivable.

The critically endangered Chinese crested tern, for example, was presumed to be extinct after last being spotted in 1937. Then, in 2000, and again a few years later, biologists rediscovered the species at sites in China and Taiwan where it hadn’t bred before. In 2016, scientists found two nesting Chinese crested tern pairs incubating eggs on an uninhabited island in South Korea. Its tiny surviving population — only about 50 birds — is still threatened by egg-poaching humans and nest-destroying typhoons. But as one conservation officer noted in 2017, the Korean nesting site “means the future of this species looks more promising now.”

. . .

“There’s this historical narrative around vagrants that they have to be lost. They have to be aberrant. There’s something wrong with them,” Dr. Zawadzki said.

But faced with climate change, she said, the opposite might prove true: The ability to explore — or, seen another way, the opportunity to “get lost” — becomes a huge advantage.

“They’re more likely to survive,” she said.

For the full story, see:

Marion Renault. “They’re Not Lost. They’re Adapting.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 12, 2022): D1.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 12, 2022, and has the title “These Birds Aren’t Lost. They’re Adapting.”)

The book mentioned above is:

Lees, Alexander, and James Gilroy. Vagrancy in Birds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2022.

Federal T.V.A. Electric Utility Finds that Renewables Are Less Dependable than Gas

(p. A17) WASHINGTON — The nation’s largest federally owned utility plans to invest more than $3.5 billion in new gas-burning electric plants, despite President Biden’s commitment to swiftly move away from fossil fuels and eliminate greenhouse gases from the power sector in a little more than a decade.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to nearly 10 million people across the Southeast, is replacing aging power plants that run on coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. But critics say substituting gas for coal would lock in decades of additional carbon dioxide emissions that are heating the planet and could be avoided by generating more electricity from solar, wind or another renewable source.

. . .

In its deliberations about replacing coal-fired generators, the T.V.A. found that solar or other zero-emissions sources would be less dependable and more expensive than gas, said Catherine Butler, a spokeswoman for the T.V.A.

. . .

“We have an obligation to serve, and ensure the lights come on,” she said. “So, when renewables aren’t available, natural gas will be available to ensure that reliable, resilient service is available to power our communities.”

For the full story, see:

Lisa Friedman. “Largest Federal Utility Chooses Gas, Undermining Biden’s Climate Goals.” The New York Times (Friday, March 18, 2022): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated March 18, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

Nuclear War Is a Greater Threat to Humanity Than Is Climate Change

(p. A19) Weeks before thermobaric rockets rained down on Ukraine, the chattering classes at the World Economic Forum declared “climate action failure” the biggest global risk for the coming decade. On the eve of war, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry fretted about the “massive emissions consequences” of Russian invasion and worried that the world might forget about the risks of climate change if fighting broke out. Amid the conflict and the many other challenges facing the globe right now, like inflation and food price hikes, the global elite has an unhealthy obsession with climate change.

This fixation has had three important consequences. First, it has distracted the Western world from real geopolitical threats. Russia’s invasion should be a wake-up call that war is still a serious danger that requires democratic nations’ attention. But a month into the war in Ukraine, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres—whose organization’s main purpose is ensuring world peace—was focused instead on “climate catastrophe,” warning that fossil-fuel addiction will bring “mutually assured destruction.” His comments come at a time when nuclear weapons are posing the biggest risk of literal mutually assured destruction in half a century.

Second, the narrow focus on immediate climate objectives undermines future prosperity.

. . .

Third, in the world’s poorest countries, the international community’s focus on putting up solar panels coexists with a woeful underinvestment in solutions to massive existing problems.

For the full commentary, see:

Bjorn Lomborg. “Be Afraid of Nuclear War, Not Climate Change.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, March 30, 2022): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 29, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

Middle Class Hurt by California Mandate for New Home Batteries and Solar Panels

(p. B1) This month, state regulators updated California’s building code to require some new homes and commercial buildings to have solar panels and batteries and the wiring needed to switch from heaters that burn natural gas to heat pumps that run on electricity. Energy experts say it is one of the most sweeping single environmental updates to building codes ever attempted by a government agency.

But some energy and building experts warn that California may be taking on too much, too quickly and focusing on the wrong target — new buildings, rather than the much larger universe of existing structures. Their biggest fear is that these new requirements will drive up the state’s already high construction costs, putting new homes out of reach of middle- and lower-income families that cannot as easily afford the higher upfront costs of cleaner energy and heating equipment, which typically pays for itself over years through (p. B3) savings on monthly utility bills.

. . .

Adding solar panels and a battery to a new home can raise its cost by $20,000 or more. While that might not matter to somebody buying a million-dollar property, it could be a burden on a family borrowing a few hundred thousand dollars to buy a home.

“You’re going to see the impact in office rents. You’re going to see it in the cost of the milk in your grocery store,” said Donald J. Ruthroff, a principal at Dahlin Group Architecture Planning in Pleasanton, Calif. “There’s no question this is going to impact prices across the board.”

. . .

The Sycamore Square townhouses were the last ones developed in San Bernardino before the solar mandate took effect last year. Glenn Elssmann, a partner in the project who hired Mr. Marini’s company as the contractor, said the added cost of the solar requirement would have made construction of the development impossible. Homes in Sycamore Square started at $340,000 for the four-bedroom, three-bath units and reached as high as $370,000.

Jimmie Joyce, 44, who works in payroll at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, will soon close on the purchase of a house in Sycamore Square after trying for almost a year to buy closer to Inglewood, a city near the Los Angeles International Airport where he lives now. His commute will likely increase from about 40 minutes to an hour and a half.

“I, for one, didn’t even plan on moving out that far,” Mr. Joyce said. “The way the market is, people are just overbidding to just try to get in things.” He said he made an offer $10,000 to $15,000 higher than the asking price on a home that ended up with more than 70 bids, including one that was $60,000 more than his.

His new home is already expensive for him, he said, and adding $10,000 to $20,000 more for solar, a battery and other amenities “would make that much more challenging.”

The changes regulators adopted this month will also require most new commercial buildings, including schools, hotels, hospitals, office buildings, retailers and grocery stores, and apartment buildings and condos above three stories to include solar and batteries. And regulators will require single-family homes to have wiring that will allow them to use electric heat pumps and water heaters, rather than ones that burn natural gas. About 55 percent of California’s homes use electric heat and 45 percent use natural gas.

For the full story, see:

Ivan Penn. “Greener Buildings, for a Lot of Green.” The New York Times (Monday, August 30, 2021): B1 & B3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Sept. 9, 2021, and has the title “California’s Plan to Make New Buildings Greener Will Also Raise Costs.”)

Less-Ventilated Energy-Efficient Buildings Reduce Indoor Air Quality, Harming Cognitive Performance

(p. D6) A new study shows that poor indoor air quality is associated with subtle impairments in a number of cognitive functions, including our ability to concentrate and process information. The study tracked 302 office workers in commercial buildings in six countries — the United States, Britain, China, India, Mexico and Thailand — for 12 months.

The scientists used monitors to measure ventilation and indoor air quality in the buildings, including levels of fine particulate matter, which includes dust and minuscule particles from smoking, cleaning products and outdoor air pollution that seeps into the building. The workers were asked to use an app to take regular cognitive tests during the workday. The tests included simple math problems, as well as a tricky color and word brain teaser called the Stroop test, in which a word like “blue” or “purple” is printed in green or red ink.  . . .

The study found that the office workers in buildings with the poorest indoor air quality tended to perform worse on the brain teasers. While the effect wasn’t dramatic, the findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the air we breathe affects brain health.

. . .

“This study looked at how several factors in the indoor environment have an immediate impact on our cognitive function and performance,” said Joseph G. Allen, the director of the Harvard Healthy Buildings program and the study’s senior author. “This study shows that the air you’re breathing at your desk at that moment has an impact on how well you think.”

In the past, air quality control in buildings has been mostly focused on energy efficiency and comfort, with little consideration given to infection control or overall worker health.

. . .

Dr. Allen is the co-author of a new book, “Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity.” He said he’s been encouraged to see more businesses and individuals taking indoor air quality more seriously as a result of the pandemic. Recently he saw a job posting at a major company advertising for a “head of healthy buildings” in the company’s global real estate division.

“It tells you that serious companies are changing how they approach their buildings, and they’re not thinking about this as a one-off during Covid,” said Dr. Allen.

. . .

“The pressure is coming from employees, parents of kids in school, teachers — there’s a heightened level of awareness and expertise,” said Dr. Allen. “How many people were talking about MERV 13 filters prior to the pandemic? This knowledge that our indoor spaces have been underperforming is not going away. I think people are rightly frustrated and fed up with it.”

For the full story, see:

Tara Parker-Pope. “What Bad Indoor Air Could Do to Your Brain.” The New York Times (Tuesday, September 28, 2021): D6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Sept. 28, 2021, and has the title “Is Bad Indoor Air Dulling Your Brain?”)

The book co-authored by Allen, and mentioned above, is:

Allen, Joseph G., and John D. Macomber. Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020.

Best New Climate Models Fail at Accurately “Hind-Casting” Past Temperatures

(p. A1) BOULDER, Colo.—For almost five years, an international consortium of scientists was chasing clouds, determined to solve a problem that bedeviled climate-change forecasts for a generation: How do these wisps of water vapor affect global warming?

They reworked 2.1 million lines of supercomputer code used to explore the future of climate change, adding more-intricate equations for clouds and hundreds of other improvements. They tested the equations, debugged them and tested again.

The scientists would find that even the best tools at hand can’t model climates with the sureness the world needs as rising temperatures impact almost every region.

When they ran the updated simulation in 2018, the conclusion jolted them: Earth’s atmosphere was much more sensitive to greenhouse gases than decades of previous models had predicted, and future temperatures could be much higher than feared—perhaps even beyond hope of practical remedy.

(p. A9) “We thought this was really strange,” said Gokhan Danabasoglu, chief scientist for the climate-model project at the Mesa Laboratory in Boulder at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR.

. . .

As world leaders consider how to limit greenhouse gases, they depend heavily on what computer climate models predict. But as algorithms and the computer they run on become more powerful—able to crunch far more data and do better simulations—that very complexity has left climate scientists grappling with mismatches among competing computer models.

While vital to calculating ways to survive a warming world, climate models are hitting a wall. They are running up against the complexity of the physics involved; the limits of scientific computing; uncertainties around the nuances of climate behavior; and the challenge of keeping pace with rising levels of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. Despite significant improvements, the new models are still too imprecise to be taken at face value, which means climate-change projections still require judgment calls.

“We have a situation where the models are behaving strangely,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Sciences, a leading center for climate modeling. “We have a conundrum.”

. . .

In its guidance to governments last year, the U.N. climate-change panel for the first time played down the most extreme forecasts.

Before making new climate predictions for policy makers, an independent group of scientists used a technique called “hind-casting,” testing how well the models reproduced changes that occurred during the 20th century and earlier. Only models that re-created past climate behavior accurately were deemed acceptable.

In the process, the NCAR-consortium scientists checked whether the advanced models could reproduce the climate during the last Ice Age, 21,000 years ago, when carbon-dioxide levels and temperatures were much lower than today. CESM2 and other new models projected temperatures much colder than the geologic evidence indicated. University of Michigan scientists then tested the new models against the climate 50 million years ago when greenhouse-gas levels and temperatures were much higher than today. The new models projected higher temperatures than evidence suggested.

For the full story, see:

Robert Lee Hotz. “Climate Scientists Encounter Computer Models’ Limits.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, February 7, 2022): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 6, 2022, and has the title “Climate Scientists Encounter Limits of Computer Models, Bedeviling Policy.”)

“Hell No,” Greta Thunberg’s Dad Would Not Go to Global Warming COP26 Summit

(p. A1) One person is delighted not to attend the United Nations climate change conference this month.

Greta Thunberg’s dad.

For three years, Svante Thunberg chaperoned his daughter to events across the globe, including spending weeks cooped up in a sailboat crossing the Atlantic, as Greta Thunberg rose to become the leading face of youth climate activism.

Now Ms. Thunberg, who turned 18 in January, is an adult and Mr. Thunberg, 52, can finally get a bit of his life back.

“Hell no,” says Mr. Thunberg (p. A10) when asked if he will be traveling to the COP26 summit, currently underway in Glasgow. “I am certainly not going.”

. . .

Mr. Thunberg, who runs a music-production business and once aspired to owning an SUV, went along with his daughter to attend two previous COP summits. He now drives an electric car. Her parents had to set up a foundation to manage over a million dollars of prize money their child won and wants to give away. Mr. Thunberg says he quit the foundation’s board as soon as he could.

“We have other things to do,” he says. Ms. Thunberg’s mother, Ms. Ernman, is an opera singer who once represented Sweden at the Eurovision song contest. “We have jobs,” Mr. Thunberg says.

. . .

The parental odyssey started after Greta, aged about eight, watched a TV program about trash clogging the oceans. Ms. Thunberg was shocked that more wasn’t being done to address this, her father says.

She went into a depression at age 11. She largely stopped talking, virtually stopped eating for several months and had to be taken out of school. She says she was later diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Ms. Thunberg, her parents and her younger sister chronicled this in a book called “Our House Is On Fire.”

. . .

. . . climate activism appeared to energize their daughter, who was now eating better and proving very adept at delivering blunt messages in public.

Her parents were amazed that, despite not saying anything particularly new on climate change, she was cutting through. Global dignitaries lined up to invite her to lecture them on their failure to act.

For the full story, see:

Max Colchester. “Greta Thunberg’s Dad Takes a Break From Climate Talks.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, November 2, 2021): A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Nov. 1, 2021, and has the title “Greta Thunberg’s Dad Won’t Be With Her at the Climate Summit—and He’s Thrilled.”)

Asteroids as Another Existential Threat

Do we best prepare for uncertain existential future threats by huge centrally planned government spending, or by allowing the flourishing of general purpose technologies and nimble entrepreneurs?

(p. C4) The most immediate threat isn’t from the largest or smallest asteroids but from those in between. Over the past two decades, asteroid hunters with NASA and other international space agencies have identified and tracked the orbits of more than 20,000 asteroids—also known as near-Earth objects—that pass through our neighborhood as they orbit the sun. Of those, about 2,000 are classified as potentially hazardous—asteroids that are large enough (greater than 150 yards in diameter) to cause local destruction and that come close enough to Earth to someday pose a threat.

The good news is that scientists don’t expect any of these known asteroids to collide with Earth within at least the next century. Some will come pretty close, though: On an unlucky Friday the 13th in April 2029, the thousand-foot-wide asteroid Apophis will pass a mere 19,000 miles from Earth—closer than the satellites that bring us DISH TV.

But here’s the bad news: Hundreds of thousands of other near-Earth asteroids, both large and small, haven’t been identified. We have no idea where they are and where they are going. On Feb. 15, 2013, a relatively small, 60-foot-wide asteroid traveling at 43,000 mph exploded in the atmosphere near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, sending out a blast wave that injured 1,500 people. No one had seen the asteroid coming.

We need to find and track these unknown invaders as soon as possible. But while NASA’s “planetary defense” budget has been steadily increasing over the past decade, the $150 million allocated in 2019 for asteroid detection, asteroid tracking and related programs amounts to less than 1% of the space agency’s $21.5 billion budget.

For the full commentary, see:

Gordon L. Dillow. “The Asteroid Peril Isn’t Science Fiction.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 5, 2019): C4.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 5, 2019, and has the same title as the print version.)

Dillow’s commentary is related to his book:

Dillow, Gordon L. Fire in the Sky: Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and the Race to Defend Earth. New York: Scribner, 2019.

Feds Impede Consumer Choice by Going Back to Incandescent Ban

(p. A16) In 2019, the Trump administration blocked a rule designed to phase out older incandescent bulbs, calling it unnecessary and an impediment to consumer choice.

With the move, the administration heeded to both industry demands as well as free market proponents who have long railed against tougher efficiency regulations for consumer appliances and goods, like energy-saving bulbs or water-saving dishwashers, as governmental overreach.

“The new bulb is many times more expensive, and I hate to say it, it doesn’t make you look as good,” Donald J. Trump, the former president, quipped at a White House meeting in 2019, referring to an early common complaint that LEDs emit a harsher light, though recent LED lights come in warmer hues. “We’re bringing back the old light bulb,” he later told a rally in Michigan.

The Biden administration has moved to reinstate the standards. But in a letter to the Department of Energy last year, NEMA, the industry group, urged federal rules to allow companies to manufacture and import inefficient bulbs for at least another year, followed by another year or more to sell out stockpiled inventory.

For the full story, see:

Hiroko Tabuchi. “Obsolete Bulbs Fill the Shelves At Dollar Stores.” The New York Times (Monday, January 24, 2022): A1 & A16.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 23, 2022, and has the title “Old-Fashioned, Inefficient Light Bulbs Live On at the Nation’s Dollar Stores.”)

“Unprecedented” and “Huge” Serendipitous Discovery of 60 Million Icefish Nests

(p. D3) As soon as the remotely operated camera glimpsed the bottom of the Weddell Sea, more than a thousand feet below the icy ceiling at the surface, Lilian Boehringer, a student researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, saw the icefish nests. The sandy craters dimpled the seafloor, each the size of a hula hoop and less than a foot apart. Each crater held a single, stolid icefish, dark pectoral fins outspread like bat wings over a clutch of eggs.

Aptly named icefishes thrive in waters just above freezing with enormous hearts and blood that runs clear as vodka. . . .

The sighting occurred in February 2021 in the camera room aboard a research ship, the Polarstern, which had come to the Weddell Sea to study other things, not icefish. It was 3 a.m. near Antarctica, meaning the sun was out but most of the ship was asleep. To Ms. Boehringer’s surprise, the camera kept transmitting pictures as it moved with the ship, revealing an uninterrupted horizon of icefish nests every 20 seconds.

. . .

The nests persisted for the entire four-hour dive, with a total of 16,160 recorded on camera. After two more dives by the camera, the scientists estimated the colony of Neopagetopsis ionah icefish stretched across 92 square miles of the serene Antarctic sea, totaling 60 million active nests. The researchers described the site — the largest fish breeding colony ever discovered — in a paper published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

“Holy cow,” said C.-H. Christina Cheng, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved with the research. “This is really unprecedented,” she said. “It is crazy dense. It is a major discovery.”

. . .

“The seafloor is not just barren and boring,” Dr. Purser said. “Such huge discoveries are still there to be made, even today in the 21st century.”

For the full story, see:

Sabrina Imbler. “Deep in Frigid Waters, Icefish Colonies Thrive.” The New York Times (Tuesday, January 18, 2022): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 13, 2022, and has the title “‘Major Discovery’ Beneath Antarctic Seas: A Giant Icefish Breeding Colony.”)