Financial Times launches online climate game

Play the game to see if you can save the planet from the worst effects of climate change. You need to keep global warming to 1.5C by cutting energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050.

What do beauty and baby food have in common? They produce a ton of waste

Read the full story at Inc.

Two industries that produce heavy waste are taking steps to clean up.

World Business Council for Sustainable Development launches sustainable packaging framework

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) recently launched SPHERE: The Packaging Sustainability Framework. SPHERE defines sustainability in packaging as maximum circularity and minimum environmental footprint, while avoiding the presence of harmful substances. The framework can be used as a benchmarking tool to identify potential hotspots across a range of packaging at the company level or to evaluate different packaging options for a specific product.

Thawing permafrost is roiling the Arctic landscape, driven by a hidden world of changes beneath the surface as the climate warms

Permafrost and ice wedges have built up over millennia in the Arctic. When they thaw, they destabilize the surrounding landscape. Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images

by Mark J. Lara, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Across the Arctic, strange things are happening to the landscape.

Massive lakes, several square miles in size, have disappeared in the span of a few days. Hillsides slump. Ice-rich ground collapses, leaving the landscape wavy where it once was flat, and in some locations creating vast fields of large, sunken polygons.

It’s evidence that permafrost, the long-frozen soil below the surface, is thawing. That’s bad news for the communities built above it – and for the global climate.

As an ecologist, I study these dynamic landscape interactions and have been documenting the various ways permafrost-driven landscape change has accelerated over time. The hidden changes underway there hold warning for the future.

Illustration of a thermokarst landscape showing permafrost, ice wedges, polygons, erosion, lake drainable and fires
An illustration shows some of the ways permafrost affects the Arctic landscape. Victor O. Leshyk, from Schuur et al. 2022. Permafrost and Climate Change: Carbon Cycle Feedbacks from the Warming Arctic. Annual Review of Environment and Resources Volume 47 (in press)

What is permafrost?

Permafrost is perennially frozen soil that covers about a quarter of the land in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in Canada, Russia and Alaska. Much of it is rich with the organic matter of long-dead plants and animals frozen in time.

These frozen soils maintain the structural integrity of many northern landscapes, providing stability to vegetated and unvegetated surfaces, similar to load-bearing support beams in buildings.

As temperatures rise and patterns of precipitation change, permafrost and other forms of ground ice become vulnerable to thaw and collapse. As these frozen soils warm, the ground destabilizes, unraveling the interwoven fabric that has delicately shaped these dynamic ecosystems over millennia. Wildfires, which have been increasing across the Arctic, have been increasing the risk.

A man in Greenland stands above a large crack in the ground.
Thawing permafrost can cause the ground to sink and crack in places, destabilizing roads and buildings. Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis via Getty Images

Under the surface, something else is active – and it is amplifying global warming. When the ground thaws, microbes begin feasting on organic matter in soils that have been frozen for millennia.

These microbes release carbon dioxide and methane, potent greenhouse gases. As those gases escape into the atmosphere, they further warm the climate, creating a feedback loop: Warmer temperatures thaw more soil, releasing more organic material for microbes to feast on and produce more greenhouse gases.

The evidence: disappearing lakes

Evidence of human-caused climate change is mounting across the permafrost extent.

The disappearance of large lakes, multiple square miles in size, is one of the most striking examples of recent patterns of northern landscape transitions.

The lakes are draining laterally as wider and deeper drainage channels develop, or vertically through taliks, where unfrozen soil under the lake gradually deepens until the permafrost is penetrated and the water drains away.

There is now overwhelming evidence indicating that surface water across permafrost regions is declining. Satellite observations and analysis indicate lake drainage may be linked with permafrost degradation. Colleagues and I have found it increases with warmer and longer summer seasons.

A landscape of lakes showing one losing its water.
Gullies created by thawing soil drain a lake in the Arctic Coastal Plain of northern Alaska. Christian Andresen and Mark J. Lara, CC BY-ND

This insight came after some of the highest rates of catastrophic lake drainage – drainage that occurs over a few days due to permafrost degradation – on record were observed over the past five years in northwestern Alaska.

The disappearance of lakes across the permafrost extent is likely to affect the livelihoods of Indigenous communities as water quality and water availability important for waterfowl, fish and other wildlife shift.

Slumping hills and polygon fields

The thaw and collapse of buried glacial ice is also causing hillsides to slump at increasing rates across the Russian and North American Arctic, sending soil, plants and debris sliding downslope.

One new study in northern Siberia found that the disturbed land surfaces increased over 300% over the past two decades. Similar studies in northern and northwestern Canada found slumping there also accelerated with warmer and wetter summers.

Several slumps along a valley, with signs of more slumps about to form
Slumping hillsides show how easily thermokarst landscape erodes in Canada’s Aulavik National Park. Sarah Beattie/Parks Canada
A person stands in front of an ice wedge showing in an eroded hillside. The wedge is more than twice the height of the person.
An ice wedge dated to the late Pleistocene era in Noatak National Preserve in Alaska. David Swanson/National Park Service

In flat terrain, ice wedges are able to develop, creating unusual geometric patterns and changes across the land.

Over decades to centuries, melting snow seeps into cracks in the soil, building up wedges of ice. These wedges cause troughs in the ground above them, creating the edges of polygons. Polygonal features naturally form as a result of the freezing and thawing process in a way similar to that seen at the bottom of drying mud flats. As ice wedges melt, the ground above collapses.

Even in extremely cold high Arctic environments, the impacts of only a few uncommonly warm summers can dramatically change the surface of the landscape, transitioning previously flat terrain into undulating as the surface begins to sink into depressions with the melting of ice in the soil below. Overall rates of ice wedge thawing have increased in response to climate warming.

Thawing pingo and polygons – a mound and depressions formed by ice wedges – in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Emma Pike /Wikimedia
How permafrost ice wedges cause tundra polygons.

Across many Arctic regions, this thawing has also been hastened by wildfire. In a recent study, colleagues and I found that wildfires in Arctic permafrost regions increased the rate of thaw and vertical collapse of the frozen terrain for up to eight decades after fire. Because both climate warming and wildfire disturbance are projected to increase in the future, they may increase the rate of change in northern landscapes.

The impact of recent climate and environmental change have also been felt at lower latitudes in the lowland boreal forest. There, ice-rich permafrost plateaus – elevated permafrost islands heaved above adjacent wetlands – have rapidly degraded across Alaska, Canada and Scandinavia. They can look like cargo ships filled with sedges, shrubs, and trees sinking into wetlands.

Why does it matter?

Frigid temperatures and short growing seasons have long limited the decomposition of dead plants and organic matter in northern ecosystems. Because of this, nearly 50% of global soil organic carbon is stored in these frozen soils.

The abrupt transitions we’re seeing today – lakes becoming drained basins, shrub tundra turning into ponds, lowland boreal forests becoming wetlands – will not only hasten the decomposition of buried permafrost carbon, but also the decomposition of above-ground vegetation as it collapses into water-saturated environments.

Permafrost across the Northern Hemisphere.
Russia has a large part of the world’s permafrost. When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, some Western institutions paused funding for scientific studies there after years of international cooperation. Joshua Stevens/NASA
Maps showing temperature differences with increasing red in 2050
Red areas are talik, or unfrozen ground above permafrost, expected in the 2050s in five northern Alaska parks. Permafrost thickness varies with climatic conditions and landscape history. For example, the active layer that thaws in summer may be less than a foot thick near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, or a few feet thick near Fairbanks, while the average permafrost thickness below these sites has been estimated to be around 2,100 to 300 feet, respectively (about 660 to 90 meters), but varies greatly. National Park Service

Climate models suggest the impacts of such transitions could be dire. For example, a recent modeling study published in Nature Communications suggested permafrost degradation and associated landscape collapse could result in a 12-fold increase in carbon losses in a scenario of strong warming by the end of the century.

This is particularly important because permafrost is estimated to hold twice as much carbon as the atmosphere today. Permafrost depths vary widely, exceeding 3,000 feet in parts of Siberia and 2,000 feet in northern Alaska, and rapidly decrease moving south. Fairbanks, Alaska, averages around 300 feet (90 meters). Studies have suggested that much of the shallow permafrost, 10 feet (3 meters) deep or less, would likely thaw if the world remains on its current warming trajectory.

To add insult to injury, in water-logged environments lacking oxygen, microbes produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas 30 times more effective at warming the planet than carbon dioxide, though it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long.

A person's legs in tall boots standing in a bog with bubbles coming up.
Methane from thawing permafrost bubbles up from an Arctic bog in Sweden. Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

How big of a problem thawing permafrost is likely to become for the climate is an open question. We know it is releasing greenhouse gases now. But the causes and consequences of permafrost thaw and associated landscape transitions are active research frontiers.

One thing is certain: The thawing of previously frozen landscapes will continue to change the face of high-latitude ecosystems for years to come. For people living in these areas, slumping land and destabilizing soil will mean living with the risks and costs, including buckling roads and sinking buildings.

Mark J. Lara, Assistant Professor in Plant Biology & Geography, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Light-powered microbes are super-producing chemical factories

Read the full story at Osaka University.

Researchers have found that engineering the light-dependent proton pump rhodopsin into Escherichia coli redirects carbon flow from cellular metabolism to biosynthetic product generation. This approach of using light as an energy source can help improve the efficiency of target compound production and reduce CO2 emissions.

The profession of sustainability is doing just fine

Read the full story at GreenBiz.

Sustainability professionals are thriving. That in itself is news.

When the 2008 recession came around, the sustainability function inside companies suffered as many positions were shed as part of cost-saving (euphemistically, “rightsizing”) measures. By the time the recession ended in 2010, only about one in four companies said they planned to add dedicated sustainability resources. A decade later, in 2020, that number had roughly doubled, to nearly six in 10 companies.

Today, 76 percent of respondents from large companies reported an increase in head count, an 18-point jump since 2019 — “a strong indicator of sustainability’s importance within the largest companies,” according to the latest “State of the Profession” report just published by GreenBiz Group.

The report tracks trends among sustainability professionals inside both large and smaller companies. This year’s report, the seventh biennial since 2010, is based on nearly 1,500 anonymous survey responses collected during November and December 2021 among members of the GreenBiz Intelligence Panel, with additional respondents reached through partnerships with Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting, Global Reporting Initiative and Environmental Defense Fund. Among survey respondents, 56 percent were employed by large organizations — those with revenues greater than $1 billion — and 81 percent of those live and work in the United States.

Solutions to the climate crisis will come from the multitudes

Read the full story at GreenBiz.

Climate change is commonly discussed as a systemic problem, not an individual-level problem. But in our current system are very real, very powerful individuals with their hands on the controls, essentially turning the dials up or down on the levels of planet-warming greenhouse gases that are churning into our atmosphere every second. Utility commissioners empowered to approve yet another coal or gas plant or shut it down. American politicians emboldened to enact climate legislation or let it die. Corporate directors who with one vote can continue to pump funds into the fossil fuel industry or cut off its lifeline.

Climate change is not just a systemic problem, it’s also a leadership crisis.

But the climate solutions we have at our fingertips today come from and belong to the multitudes. They were born from farmers, builders, Indigenous knowledge holders, engineers, educators, foresters, healthcare workers and many more. And the multitudes will ultimately bring these solutions to scale. Here’s how.

Restoring tropical peatlands supports bird diversity and does not affect livelihoods of oil palm farmers, study suggests

Read the full story from the University of York.

A new study has found that oil palm can be farmed more sustainably on peatlands by re-wetting the land – conserving both biodiversity and livelihoods.

Transforming textiles: How chemical recycling technologies could play a key role in slashing the textile industry’s environmental footprint

Read the full story at Chemical & Engineering News.

New technologies for chemically recycling textile fibers are emerging around the world. They have the potential to substantially reduce the textile industry’s huge environmental footprint. Consumers could soon be wearing brand-new clothes made from garments that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill or incinerator. But the technologies are far from mature. And industry watchers warn that if the textile industry is to become truly sustainable, a move away from fast fashion is also necessary.

UMaine scientist: PFAS affects species of plants, animals differently

Read the full story at Yahoo! News.

A scientist from the University of Maine tackled one of the more well publicized — but far less understood — issues facing many Mainers: forever chemicals.