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Climate Change Is Hurting Coral Worldwide. but These Reefs off the Texas Coast Are Thriving

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Saturday, November 18, 2023

OFF THE COAST OF GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — Divers descending into azure waters far off the Texas coast dip below a horizon dotted with oil and gas platforms into an otherworldly landscape of undersea mountains crusted with yellow, orange and pink coral as far as the eye can see.Some of the world's healthiest coral reefs can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the Texas coast. Sheltered in a deep, cool habitat far from shore, the reefs in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary boast a stunning amount of coral coverage. But scientists say that like all reefs, they are fragile, and their location will only offer protection for so long in the face of a warming climate.“To see that much coral in one place is really magnificent — an experience that most people don’t get on reefs in this day and age,” said Michelle Johnston, the acting superintendent and research coordinator for the federally protected area.The sanctuary had some moderate bleaching this year but nothing like the devastation that hit other reefs during the summer's record-breaking heat. Still, Johnston said that's among her top concerns for the sanctuary's future. Waters that get too warm cause corals to expel their colorful algae and turn white. They can survive if temperatures fall but they are left more vulnerable to disease and may eventually die. Florida's coral reef — the world's third-largest — experienced an unprecedented and potentially deadly level of bleaching over the summer. Derek Manzello, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch, said that so far this year, at least 35 countries and territories across five oceans and seas have experienced mass coral bleaching. He said it’s too early to know how much of Florida’s reefs will recover since coral may die as much as a year or two after the bleaching.Manzello said climate models suggest that all of the world's coral will be suffering severe bleaching every year beginning around 2040. “If you have severe bleaching events every year, the prognosis is not good because that basically means the corals aren’t going to have a chance to recover,” he said.Sanctuary officials say even in the occasional years when Flower Garden Banks has experienced more serious bleaching than this year, it has bounced back quickly thanks to its overall health and depth, and it’s already recovering this year.A report expected in the coming months will look at the sanctuary's vulnerability to the projected effects of climate change. The Flower Garden Banks stands out for its amount of coral cover — an average of over 50 percent across some areas of the sanctuary — compared with around 10 percent cover in the Caribbean and Northwest Atlantic region, Manzello said. Its corals are also about 60 feet (18 meters) below the surface and surrounded by even deeper waters, compared with many reefs where corals are in shallower water just offshore.In the early 1900s, fishermen told of peering into the Gulf's waters and seeing a colorful display that reminded them of a blooming garden, but it was such an unusual spot so far from shore that scientists making the initial dives in the 1960s were surprised to actually find thriving coral reefs. The corals in the Flower Garden Banks were able to flourish so far from shore because of mountain-like formations called salt domes, which lifted the corals high enough to catch the light, Johnston said. Divers travel from around the world to see the reefs at Flower Garden Banks, where colorful fish, manta rays, sharks and sea turtles waft through and worms that look like Christmas trees pop in and out of corals. Andy Lewis, a Houston attorney, said he knew from his first trip to the sanctuary about a decade ago that it was “going to have to be part of my life.” Lewis became a divemaster and is now president of Texas Caribbean Charters, which takes about 1,000 people a year out on diving trips there, with about half making a return trip.“It’s just a real adventure,” said Lewis, who also serves on the sanctuary's advisory board. “I love getting on the boat.”That boat leaves from a spot near Galveston, where currents from Mississippi River drop sediment that turns the water near shore a murky brown. By the time the boat motors out to the sanctuary, the water is clear and blue.“You drop down and you are on top of live coral as far as you can see," Lewis said.Lauren Tinnes, a nurse from Colorado, described rounding a bluff on her dive this fall and being surrounded by massive reefs as schools of fish darted through. She found the description from so long ago apt: “It's like a field of flowers," she said.The Flower Garden Banks is one of 15 national marine sanctuaries and two national marine monuments protected by the NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, and the only one in the Gulf of Mexico. The sanctuary is made up of 17 separate banks that cover 160 square miles (414 square kilometers). When it was designated in 1992, the sanctuary had two banks. Its largest and most recent expansion of 14 banks came in 2021, a process that included input from the advisory committee, which includes representatives from industries that rely on the Gulf, from oil and gas to recreation to fishing.Johnston said that one way to help the reefs stay healthy is to reduce stresses. That includes making sure mooring buoys offer boats a place to tie up so their anchors don't damage reefs, and removing invasive species that could cause the number of fish to decline.Manzello said efforts like those are being done in hopes that greenhouse gas emissions will also be cut globally.“We need all of these things happening in concert to really shepherd coral reefs through the next 20, 30, 40 years,” Manzello said.Coral reefs support about a fourth of all marine species at some point in their life cycle. They are also economic drivers. By providing a home for fish that keeps them healthy, they support commercial fishing in addition to bringing in tourism revenue.“Because coral reefs are declining all over the globe, when we find ones that are healthy, we want to keep them that way,” said Kelly Drinnen, education and outreach specialist for the Flower Garden Banks. “And they kind of serve as the repositories for what could help restore some other reef potentially in the future.”In fact, samples of healthy corals from the sanctuary are being banked and studied in a lab at Galveston Island's Moody Gardens, a tourist destination that includes an aquarium. That includes growing out fragments of coral with hopes of someday replanting them.The Flower Garden Banks weren't damaged by the massive oil spill that followed the deadly 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, but other reefs in the Gulf were. Data gathered from studying the sanctuary’s deeper habitat is being used to help guide restoration of those reefs.Researchers are also studying the genetics of the Flower Garden Banks coral, including whether it's different than species in Florida. “The more knowledge we have, the better we are equipped to try to protect that reef,” said Brooke Zurita, a senior biologist at Moody Gardens. Stengle reported from Dallas. LaFleur reported from Galveston.Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Far off the Texas coast there is a beautiful surprise in the Gulf of Mexico that draws divers from around the world: a stunning amount of coral coverage on undersea mountains

OFF THE COAST OF GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — Divers descending into azure waters far off the Texas coast dip below a horizon dotted with oil and gas platforms into an otherworldly landscape of undersea mountains crusted with yellow, orange and pink coral as far as the eye can see.

Some of the world's healthiest coral reefs can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the Texas coast. Sheltered in a deep, cool habitat far from shore, the reefs in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary boast a stunning amount of coral coverage. But scientists say that like all reefs, they are fragile, and their location will only offer protection for so long in the face of a warming climate.

“To see that much coral in one place is really magnificent — an experience that most people don’t get on reefs in this day and age,” said Michelle Johnston, the acting superintendent and research coordinator for the federally protected area.

The sanctuary had some moderate bleaching this year but nothing like the devastation that hit other reefs during the summer's record-breaking heat. Still, Johnston said that's among her top concerns for the sanctuary's future. Waters that get too warm cause corals to expel their colorful algae and turn white. They can survive if temperatures fall but they are left more vulnerable to disease and may eventually die.

Florida's coral reef — the world's third-largest — experienced an unprecedented and potentially deadly level of bleaching over the summer. Derek Manzello, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch, said that so far this year, at least 35 countries and territories across five oceans and seas have experienced mass coral bleaching. He said it’s too early to know how much of Florida’s reefs will recover since coral may die as much as a year or two after the bleaching.

Manzello said climate models suggest that all of the world's coral will be suffering severe bleaching every year beginning around 2040.

“If you have severe bleaching events every year, the prognosis is not good because that basically means the corals aren’t going to have a chance to recover,” he said.

Sanctuary officials say even in the occasional years when Flower Garden Banks has experienced more serious bleaching than this year, it has bounced back quickly thanks to its overall health and depth, and it’s already recovering this year.

A report expected in the coming months will look at the sanctuary's vulnerability to the projected effects of climate change.

The Flower Garden Banks stands out for its amount of coral cover — an average of over 50 percent across some areas of the sanctuary — compared with around 10 percent cover in the Caribbean and Northwest Atlantic region, Manzello said. Its corals are also about 60 feet (18 meters) below the surface and surrounded by even deeper waters, compared with many reefs where corals are in shallower water just offshore.

In the early 1900s, fishermen told of peering into the Gulf's waters and seeing a colorful display that reminded them of a blooming garden, but it was such an unusual spot so far from shore that scientists making the initial dives in the 1960s were surprised to actually find thriving coral reefs.

The corals in the Flower Garden Banks were able to flourish so far from shore because of mountain-like formations called salt domes, which lifted the corals high enough to catch the light, Johnston said.

Divers travel from around the world to see the reefs at Flower Garden Banks, where colorful fish, manta rays, sharks and sea turtles waft through and worms that look like Christmas trees pop in and out of corals.

Andy Lewis, a Houston attorney, said he knew from his first trip to the sanctuary about a decade ago that it was “going to have to be part of my life.” Lewis became a divemaster and is now president of Texas Caribbean Charters, which takes about 1,000 people a year out on diving trips there, with about half making a return trip.

“It’s just a real adventure,” said Lewis, who also serves on the sanctuary's advisory board. “I love getting on the boat.”

That boat leaves from a spot near Galveston, where currents from Mississippi River drop sediment that turns the water near shore a murky brown. By the time the boat motors out to the sanctuary, the water is clear and blue.

“You drop down and you are on top of live coral as far as you can see," Lewis said.

Lauren Tinnes, a nurse from Colorado, described rounding a bluff on her dive this fall and being surrounded by massive reefs as schools of fish darted through. She found the description from so long ago apt: “It's like a field of flowers," she said.

The Flower Garden Banks is one of 15 national marine sanctuaries and two national marine monuments protected by the NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, and the only one in the Gulf of Mexico.

The sanctuary is made up of 17 separate banks that cover 160 square miles (414 square kilometers). When it was designated in 1992, the sanctuary had two banks. Its largest and most recent expansion of 14 banks came in 2021, a process that included input from the advisory committee, which includes representatives from industries that rely on the Gulf, from oil and gas to recreation to fishing.

Johnston said that one way to help the reefs stay healthy is to reduce stresses. That includes making sure mooring buoys offer boats a place to tie up so their anchors don't damage reefs, and removing invasive species that could cause the number of fish to decline.

Manzello said efforts like those are being done in hopes that greenhouse gas emissions will also be cut globally.

“We need all of these things happening in concert to really shepherd coral reefs through the next 20, 30, 40 years,” Manzello said.

Coral reefs support about a fourth of all marine species at some point in their life cycle. They are also economic drivers. By providing a home for fish that keeps them healthy, they support commercial fishing in addition to bringing in tourism revenue.

“Because coral reefs are declining all over the globe, when we find ones that are healthy, we want to keep them that way,” said Kelly Drinnen, education and outreach specialist for the Flower Garden Banks. “And they kind of serve as the repositories for what could help restore some other reef potentially in the future.”

In fact, samples of healthy corals from the sanctuary are being banked and studied in a lab at Galveston Island's Moody Gardens, a tourist destination that includes an aquarium. That includes growing out fragments of coral with hopes of someday replanting them.

The Flower Garden Banks weren't damaged by the massive oil spill that followed the deadly 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, but other reefs in the Gulf were. Data gathered from studying the sanctuary’s deeper habitat is being used to help guide restoration of those reefs.

Researchers are also studying the genetics of the Flower Garden Banks coral, including whether it's different than species in Florida.

“The more knowledge we have, the better we are equipped to try to protect that reef,” said Brooke Zurita, a senior biologist at Moody Gardens.

Stengle reported from Dallas. LaFleur reported from Galveston.

Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Climate Change and Wild Turkeys: New Study Overturns Conventional Wisdom

A recent research study has discovered that rainfall during the nesting season does not impact the breeding success of wild turkeys, challenging the commonly held...

Research from North Carolina State University reveals that precipitation levels during wild turkey nesting season don’t significantly impact reproductive success, challenging traditional beliefs and complicating predictions about the effects of climate change on these populations.A recent research study has discovered that rainfall during the nesting season does not impact the breeding success of wild turkeys, challenging the commonly held belief about the importance of precipitation for wild turkey nesting success. This revelation provides fresh insights into the potential effects of climate change on wild turkey populations.“We wanted to know how weather influences nesting success right now, and then use that data to assess how climate change may influence wild turkey populations in the future,” says Wesley Boone, corresponding author of a paper on the work and a postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State University.“Wild turkeys are fairly tolerant of a wide range of conditions, but there are a host of factors that can affect their reproductive success,” says Chris Moorman, co-author of the study and a professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State. “This work focused on two of those conditions, precipitation and temperature, and how they may influence nest survival during the incubation period.” For the study, researchers focused on daily nest survival, which is whether the eggs in the nest survive any given 24-hour period. Over the course of eight years, researchers monitored 715 turkey nests and collected daily precipitation and temperature data for each nest during the entire incubation period. For temperature, the researchers looked specifically at the extent to which temperatures at each nest varied from historical averages.The researchers analyzed all of this data to determine the extent to which precipitation and temperature were associated with daily nest survival.Findings on Precipitation and Temperature“The most surprising finding was that precipitation during nesting was not a good predictor of daily nest survival,” Moorman says. “It had been widely believed that particularly rainy weather made it more likely that eggs wouldn’t survive.”“We also found that temperatures which were higher than historical averages were associated with higher rates of daily nest survival during incubation,” says Boone. “Peak nesting season is generally in April, so we’re talking about warmer than average spring weather.”“Taken by itself, this might suggest that climate change could benefit turkey reproductive success and, by extension, turkey populations,” Moorman says. “However, we also looked at precipitation and temperature data for the months leading up to nesting season, and at the overall likelihood that a turkey nest will successfully hatch at least one egg. And when we looked at both of those datasets, things get a lot less clear.”“For example, the data suggest that more precipitation in January – long before nesting season – is associated with greater nest survival,” Boone says. “The data also suggest that higher temperatures in January are associated with worse nesting survival. But there is so much uncertainty related to those findings that it’s not clear whether there’s a real relationship there, or if it’s an anomaly. However, it does temper any enthusiasm we might have about the likelihood that climate change will benefit turkey populations.”Reference: “Robust assessment of associations between weather and eastern wild turkey nest success” by Wesley W. Boone, Christopher E. Moorman, David J. Moscicki, Bret A. Collier, Michael J. Chamberlain, Adam J. Terando and Krishna Pacifici, 15 November 2023, The Journal of Wildlife Management.DOI: 10.1002/jwmg.22524The paper was co-authored by David Moscicki, a Ph.D. student at NC State; Krishna Pacifici, an associate professor of forestry and environmental resources; Adam Terando, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Bret Collier, a professor of wildlife ecology at Louisiana State University; and Michael Chamberlain, the Terrell Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Georgia.The research was done with support from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, which is headquartered at NC State; and from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, under McIntire Stennis Project Number 7001494. Additional support was provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources-Wildlife Resources Division, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia and the School of Renewable Natural Resources at Louisiana State University.

Coastal women in Bangladesh face health issues due to climate change

Women living in Bangladesh's coastal regions are severely affected by climate change-induced salinity, leading to various health complications. Famiha Suhrawardy reports for Dhaka Tribune.In short:The increased salinity in coastal areas has led to reproductive health issues among women, including miscarriages and difficulties in pregnancy.Local women suffer from waterborne diseases, hypertension, and respiratory infections due to a lack of safe drinking water.Initiatives by Brac, such as the installation of water tanks, have provided some relief, but challenges remain, particularly during dry seasons.Key quote: "It is a very troubling situation for the women living here. Due to the saline water, women face difficulty in getting pregnant and have miscarriages frequently." — Sumi Akter, Mongla resident.Why this matters: This issue highlights the direct human impact of climate change on health, particularly for vulnerable populations like women in coastal areas. It underscores the need for effective environmental and health policies to mitigate the consequences of climate change.LISTEN: Azmal Hossan on the sociology of climate crises in South Asia.

Women living in Bangladesh's coastal regions are severely affected by climate change-induced salinity, leading to various health complications. Famiha Suhrawardy reports for Dhaka Tribune.In short:The increased salinity in coastal areas has led to reproductive health issues among women, including miscarriages and difficulties in pregnancy.Local women suffer from waterborne diseases, hypertension, and respiratory infections due to a lack of safe drinking water.Initiatives by Brac, such as the installation of water tanks, have provided some relief, but challenges remain, particularly during dry seasons.Key quote: "It is a very troubling situation for the women living here. Due to the saline water, women face difficulty in getting pregnant and have miscarriages frequently." — Sumi Akter, Mongla resident.Why this matters: This issue highlights the direct human impact of climate change on health, particularly for vulnerable populations like women in coastal areas. It underscores the need for effective environmental and health policies to mitigate the consequences of climate change.LISTEN: Azmal Hossan on the sociology of climate crises in South Asia.

Arctic wildlife faces dire challenges amid record heat and ecosystem changes

The Arctic's rapid warming is causing significant shifts in ecosystems, posing severe threats to the region's wildlife.Sharon Guynup reports for Mongabay.In short:Arctic species are struggling to adapt to the dramatic changes in their habitats due to climate change.The loss of sea ice is affecting a wide range of species, from walruses to migratory birds.The rapid pace of these environmental changes is outstripping the ability of many species to adapt.Key quote:“Species can adapt over time, but they don’t have time, and ecosystems are really complicated. I’m not clear which species will prevail and where.”— Joel Clement, Arctic climate and policy expertWhy this matters:This situation in the Arctic is a reminder of the broader impacts of climate change on global biodiversity. It highlights the urgent need for effective climate action to mitigate these changes and protect vulnerable species.Read: Shorebird egg theft is becoming a big problem in the Arctic. And climate change is behind it.

The Arctic's rapid warming is causing significant shifts in ecosystems, posing severe threats to the region's wildlife.Sharon Guynup reports for Mongabay.In short:Arctic species are struggling to adapt to the dramatic changes in their habitats due to climate change.The loss of sea ice is affecting a wide range of species, from walruses to migratory birds.The rapid pace of these environmental changes is outstripping the ability of many species to adapt.Key quote:“Species can adapt over time, but they don’t have time, and ecosystems are really complicated. I’m not clear which species will prevail and where.”— Joel Clement, Arctic climate and policy expertWhy this matters:This situation in the Arctic is a reminder of the broader impacts of climate change on global biodiversity. It highlights the urgent need for effective climate action to mitigate these changes and protect vulnerable species.Read: Shorebird egg theft is becoming a big problem in the Arctic. And climate change is behind it.

Climate change triggers severe crawfish shortage in southern US

A combination of drought and extreme weather has led to a dramatic decrease in crawfish availability, impacting the economy and culture in the southern United States.Xander Peters reports for National Geographic.In short:Last year's drought and cold weather spells in Louisiana have caused a significant reduction in crawfish populations.The shortage has led to a 500% increase in crawfish prices, affecting local economies and cultural practices.The situation exemplifies the broader impact of climate change on regional food systems and livelihoods.Key quote:“It'll take four or five years before we get back where we're supposed to be.”— Zachary Hebert, crawfish farmerWhy this matters:The crawfish shortage in the southern U.S. highlights the vulnerability of local food systems to climate change. It underscores the need for sustainable practices and resilience in the face of environmental challenges.Be sure to read: Dead fish carry toxic mercury to the deep ocean, contaminating crustaceans.

A combination of drought and extreme weather has led to a dramatic decrease in crawfish availability, impacting the economy and culture in the southern United States.Xander Peters reports for National Geographic.In short:Last year's drought and cold weather spells in Louisiana have caused a significant reduction in crawfish populations.The shortage has led to a 500% increase in crawfish prices, affecting local economies and cultural practices.The situation exemplifies the broader impact of climate change on regional food systems and livelihoods.Key quote:“It'll take four or five years before we get back where we're supposed to be.”— Zachary Hebert, crawfish farmerWhy this matters:The crawfish shortage in the southern U.S. highlights the vulnerability of local food systems to climate change. It underscores the need for sustainable practices and resilience in the face of environmental challenges.Be sure to read: Dead fish carry toxic mercury to the deep ocean, contaminating crustaceans.

Another Big Question About AI: Its Carbon Footprint

This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Two months after its release in November 2022, OpenAI’s ChatGPT had 100 million active users, and suddenly tech corporations were racing to offer the public more “generative AI” Pundits compared the new technology’s impact to the Internet, or electrification, or the […]

This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Two months after its release in November 2022, OpenAI’s ChatGPT had 100 million active users, and suddenly tech corporations were racing to offer the public more “generative AI” Pundits compared the new technology’s impact to the Internet, or electrification, or the Industrial Revolution—or the discovery of fire. Time will sort hype from reality, but one consequence of the explosion of artificial intelligence is clear: this technology’s environmental footprint is large and growing. AI use is directly responsible for carbon emissions from non-renewable electricity and for the consumption of millions of gallons of fresh water, and it indirectly boosts impacts from building and maintaining the power-hungry equipment on which AI runs. As tech companies seek to embed high-intensity AI into everything from resume-writing to kidney transplant medicine and from choosing dog food to climate modeling, they cite many ways AI could help reduce humanity’s environmental footprint. But legislators, regulators, activists, and international organizations now want to make sure the benefits aren’t outweighed by AI’s mounting hazards. “The development of the next generation of AI tools cannot come at the expense of the health of our planet,” Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey (D) said last week in Washington, after he and other senators and representatives introduced a bill that would require the federal government to assess AI’s current environmental footprint and develop a standardized system for reporting future impacts. Similarly, the European Union’s “AI Act,” approved by member states last week, will require “high-risk AI systems” (which include the powerful “foundation models” that power ChatGPT and similar AIs) to report their energy consumption, resource use, and other impacts throughout their systems’ lifecycle. The EU law takes effect next year. “The models that are able to write a poem for you, or draft an email, those are very large,” says one expert—”too big for most personal devices.” Meanwhile, the International Organization for Standardization, a global network that develops standards for manufacturers, regulators, and others, says it will issue criteria for “sustainable AI” later this year. Those will include standards for measuring energy efficiency, raw material use, transportation, and water consumption, as well as practices for reducing AI impacts throughout its life cycle, from the process of mining materials and making computer components to the electricity consumed by its calculations. The ISO wants to enable AI users to make informed decisions about their AI consumption. Right now, it’s not possible to tell how your AI request for homework help or a picture of an astronaut riding a horse will affect carbon emissions or freshwater stocks. This is why 2024’s crop of “sustainable AI” proposals describe ways to get more information about AI impacts. In the absence of standards and regulations, tech companies have been reporting whatever they choose, however they choose, about their AI impact, says Shaolei Ren, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Riverside, who has been studying the water costs of computation for the past decade. Working from calculations of annual use of water for cooling systems by Microsoft, Ren estimates that a person who engages in a session of questions and answers with GPT-3 (roughly 10 t0 50 responses) drives the consumption of a half-liter of fresh water. “It will vary by region, and with a bigger AI, it could be more.” But a great deal remains unrevealed about the millions of gallons of water used to cool computers running AI, he says. The same is true of carbon. “Data scientists today do not have easy or reliable access to measurements of [greenhouse gas impacts from AI], which precludes development of actionable tactics,” a group of 10 prominent researchers on AI impacts wrote in a 2022 conference paper. Since they presented their article, AI applications and users have proliferated, but the public is still in the dark about those data, says Jesse Dodge, a research scientist at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, who was one of the paper’s coauthors. AI can run on many devices—the simple AI that autocorrects text messages will run on a smartphone. But the kind of AI people most want to use is too big for most personal devices, Dodge says. “The models that are able to write a poem for you, or draft an email, those are very large,” he says. “Size is vital for them to have those capabilities.” The IEA projects that global data centers’ electricity consumption in 2026 will be double that of 2022. Big AIs need to run immense numbers of calculations very quickly, usually on specialized Graphical Processing Units—processors originally designed for intense computation to render graphics on computer screens. Compared to other chips, GPUs are more energy-efficient for AI, and they’re most efficient when they’re run in large “cloud data centers”—specialized buildings full of computers equipped with those chips. The larger the data center, the more energy efficient it can be. Improvements in AI’s energy efficiency in recent years are partly due to the construction of more “hyperscale data centers,” which contain many more computers and can quickly scale up. Where a typical cloud data center occupies about 100,000 square feet, a hyperscale center can be 1 or even 2 million square feet. Estimates of the number of cloud data centers worldwide range from around 9,000 to nearly 11,000. More are under construction. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that data centers’ electricity consumption in 2026 will be double that of 2022—1,000 terawatts, roughly equivalent to Japan’s current total consumption. However, as an illustration of one problem with the way AI impacts are measured, that IEA estimate includes all data center activity, which extends beyond AI to many aspects of modern life. Running Amazon’s store interface, serving up Apple TV’s videos, storing millions of people’s emails on Gmail, and “mining” Bitcoin are also performed by data centers. (Other IEA reports exclude crypto operations, but still lump all other data-center activity together.) Most tech firms that run data centers don’t reveal what percentage of their energy use processes AI The exception is Google, which says “machine learning”—the basis for humanlike AI—accounts for somewhat less than 15 percent of its data centers’ energy use. In 2022, Google’s data centers consumed about 5 billion gallons (nearly 20 billion liters) of fresh water for cooling. Another complication is the fact that AI, unlike Bitcoin mining or online shopping, can be used to reduce humanity’s impacts. AI can improve climate models, find more efficient ways to make digital tech, reduce waste in transport, and otherwise cut carbon and water use. One estimate, for example, found that AI -run smart homes could reduce households’ CO₂ consumption by up to 40 percent. And a recent Google project found that an AI fast-crunching atmospheric data can guide airline pilots to flight paths that will leave the fewest contrails. Because contrails create more than a third of global aviation’s carbon emissions, “if the whole aviation industry took advantage of this single AI breakthrough,” says Dave Patterson, a computer-science professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and a Google researcher, “this single discovery would save more CO₂ than the CO₂ from all AI in 2020.” Patterson’s analysis predicts that AI’s carbon footprint will soon plateau and then begin to shrink, thanks to improvements in the efficiency with which AI software and hardware use energy. One reflection of that efficiency improvement: as AI usage has increased since 2019, its percentage of Google data-center energy use has held at less than 15 percent. And while global internet traffic has increased more than twentyfold since 2010, the share of the world’s electricity used by data centers and networks increased far less, according to the IEA. However, data about improving efficiency doesn’t convince some skeptics, who cite a social phenomenon called “Jevons paradox”: Making a resource less costly sometimes increases its consumption in the long run. “It’s a rebound effect,” Ren says. “You make the freeway wider, people use less fuel because traffic moves faster, but then you get more cars coming in. You get more fuel consumption than before.” If home heating is 40 percent more efficient due to AI, one critic recently wrote, people could end up keeping their homes warmer for more hours of the day. “AI is an accelerant for everything,” Dodge says. “It makes whatever you’re developing go faster.” At the Allen Institute, AI has helped develop better programs to model the climate, track endangered species, and curb overfishing, he says. But globally AI could also support “a lot of applications that could accelerate climate change. This is where you get into ethical questions about what kind of AI you want.” If global electricity use can feel a bit abstract, data centers’ water use is a more local and tangible issue—particularly in drought-afflicted areas. To cool delicate electronics in the clean interiors of the data centers, water has to be free of bacteria and impurities that could gunk up the works. In other words, data centers often compete “for the same water people drink, cook, and wash with,” says Ren. In 2022, Ren says, Google’s data centers consumed about 5 billion gallons (nearly 20 billion liters) of fresh water for cooling. (“Consumptive use” does not include water that’s run through a building and then returned to its source.) According to a recent study by Ren, Google’s data centers used 20 percent more water in 2022 than they did in 2021, and Microsoft’s water use rose by 34 percent in the same period. (Google data centers host its Bard chatbot and other generative AIs; Microsoft servers host ChatGPT as well as its bigger siblings GPT-3 and GPT-4. All three are produced by OpenAI, in which Microsoft is a large investor.) As more data centers are built or expanded, their neighbors have been troubled to find out how much water they take. For example, in The Dalles, Oregon, where Google runs three data centers and plans two more, the city government filed a lawsuit in 2022 to keep Google’s water use a secret from farmers, environmentalists, and Native American tribes who were concerned about its effects on agriculture and on the region’s animals and plants. The city withdrew its suit early last year. The records it then made public showed that Google’s three extant data centers use more than a quarter of the city’s water supply. And in Chile and Uruguay, protests have erupted over planned Google data centers that would tap into the same reservoirs that supply drinking water. Most of all, researchers say, what’s needed is a change of culture within the rarefied world of AI development. Generative AI’s creators need to focus beyond the technical leaps and bounds of their newest creations and be less guarded about the details of the data, software, and hardware they use to create it. Some day in the future, Dodge says, an AI might be able—or be legally obligated—to inform a user about the water and carbon impact of each distinct request she makes. “That would be a fantastic tool that would help the environment,” he says. For now, though, individual users don’t have much information or power to know their AI footprint, much less make decisions about it. “There’s not much individuals can do, unfortunately,” Ren says. Right now, you can “try to use the service judiciously,” he says.

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