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For Uganda’s vanishing glaciers, time is running out

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Sunday, April 23, 2023

This story was originally published by Yale Environment 360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Enock Bwambale stopped at the lip of the dying glacier, its blunted nose arcing steeply down to scoured rocks, then shouted up to his fellow guide Uziah Kule that the ice was too sheer to descend on foot. Hacking his axe into the crusty surface, he twisted in an ice screw so I could rappel down the stubby face of the Stanley Glacier in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Safely down, our small group took in the view of the heights of Mount Stanley: Margherita Peak — at over 16,700 feet (5,100 meters), the third highest point in Africa — and Alexandra Peak, between which hides the Stanley Glacier. I swung my camera around and tried to match a photo by Vittorio Sella, who had documented the summits of the surreal Mountains of the Moon during the first successful European summit attempt, in 1906. But an equivalent contemporary shot was impossible: Sella had taken his photograph from atop a healthy glacier that had been hundreds of feet higher than my head. “Up there nowadays, there’s no glacier,” said Kule. “The glacier we only get it in the valley here.” Worldwide, climate change is causing glaciers to retreat. But African glaciers, which all lie within a day’s drive of the equator, are melting faster than the global average. Since 1906, more than 80 percent of the Rwenzoris’ ice has melted, and UNESCO recently reported that a third of the 50 World Heritage sites that contain glaciers, including the Rwenzoris, will disappear by 2050 no matter what actions are taken to slow global warming. Some scientists predict that Uganda’s glaciers could be gone even sooner: within a decade. Scientists say the loss will herald dramatic changes for this unique ecosystem, a sky island surrounded by a sweltering sea of lowland forest. Little-studied endemic species could go extinct as temperatures rise; vulnerable local communities anticipate the loss of previously reliable tourist revenue; and scientists will lose historical climate data as the ice that indicates temperature changes over centuries turns to water. “The loss of these glaciers is the loss of a critical component of a system, and it isn’t going to come back any time in the foreseeable future,” said James Russell, who has led expeditions to the Rwenzoris almost every year since 2006 and chairs the department of earth, environmental, and planetary sciences at Brown University. “It’s heartbreaking.” Courtesy of Yale Environment 360 Yale Environment 360 Setting out at 2 that morning, we had crossed two glaciers in the dark and summited Margherita Peak just before sunrise. It had taken us six days to get to this point — sometimes hiking rainforest trails so steep that our guides had installed bamboo ladders. Other times we slogged through knee-deep mud. But even on day one, the impact of climate change was evident in the village of Kilembe, our starting point. Here, houses stood tottering on the edge of the riverbank, cracked open to the sky since powerful rains, which started a decade ago, had repeatedly caused flash floods, killing dozens and displacing thousands. Leaving the cultivated hillsides of the village, we crossed the park border and soon entered tropical forest, where jewel-like flowers peered out from under giant ferns, and monkeys materialized and vanished as mist sieved through buttressed hardwoods. We trekked through bamboo forest, climbing to 12,800 feet (3,900 meters), where we entered the otherworldly Afro-Alpine moorlands, which contains endemic, endangered, and rare species. For two days we leapt from grassy tussocks to slippery tree roots, through bogs of spongy moss and silent rivulets. Beards of lichen waved from the branches of giant heather trees. Rwenzori red duikers, an endangered subspecies of antelope, stared from dense thickets of papery silver everlastings. The plants, uniquely adapted to their habitat, got weirder as we climbed. Giant groundsels dotted the valley floors. Their spiky green pompoms make them look like palm trees, but their shaggy coats of dead leaves protected them from the cold. As the planet warms, plants and animals are moving upslope in the Rwenzoris, as they are elsewhere, seeking cooler temperatures. But there’s only so far they can go. Eventually, “they will just step their way off the top of the mountain,” said Sarah Ivory, a researcher at Penn State. “You find rock hyrax footprints on the glaciers now,” Bwambale said as we hiked. “The same for the duikers.” On the fifth day, we noted some changes of our own. Holding up one of Sella’s photos to compare it to today’s landscape, we discovered that a glacier-fed pond nestled in the valley between Mount Baker and Mount Stanley had shrunk to almost nothing. The three highest points in Africa have all lost dramatic amounts of ice in the last century, reports a 2019 paper published in Geosciences. On Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa, the ice has shrunk by 90 percent since its first survey in 1912, to less than 1 square mile. The glaciers on Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest peak, are less than a tenth of a square mile. Glaciers in the far less studied Rwenzoris covered an estimated 2.5 square miles in 1906; in 2003, they covered less than 1 square mile. Today, they are even smaller. While glaciers are retreating everywhere, the causes are different from place to place. In the Rwenzoris, where glaciers occur at a relatively low 14,400 feet (4,400 meters), warming air is the problem. The mountains, whose name means “rain maker” in the local language, receive 6 to 10 feet of precipitation a year, so the glaciers are not being starved of water — they are just melting faster than rain can freeze and replace the melted ice. However, on Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, where the ice occurs at higher elevations, precipitation has declined. Here the ice is evaporating into the dry air. Whatever the cause, high-elevation ice is disappearing all over — a trend that will continue as global warming accelerates the rate of change in mountain ecosystems, cryospheric systems, hydrological regimes, and biodiversity, according to the Mountain Research Initiative. Ice is also melting rapidly in South America’s Andes, where tropical glaciers also occur. As in Africa, these glaciers form because of altitude, not latitude, and they are unaffected by seasons or strong changes in weather. The main difference between the two regions is how melting will affect humans: the retreat of large ice caps and glaciers in South America threatens supplies of irrigation and drinking water, but Uganda’s glaciers are so small that no communities depend on their meltwater. As everywhere though, the rapidly disappearing ice on Africa’s mountains poses an urgent problem for climate scientists. On Mount Kilimanjaro, around 2,000 years of the most recent climate data has disappeared as the surfaces of ice fields have evaporated, according to a 2002 paper in Science. The loss of information derived from ice cores (which contain pockets of ancient air) makes it hard for climate scientists to make accurate models for tropical Africa or to provide that information for global models. Compounding the problem, tropical zones tend to lack recent written records of weather, and constant cloudiness over the Rwenzoris limits satellite measurements. Mount Stanley in 1906 (left) and 2022 (right). Klaus Thymann via Wikipedia Because of these knowledge gaps, said Russell, of Brown University, “we have very little idea about what the equatorial tropics did through time.” To get around this, Russell and other researchers have relied on other methods, extracting alpine lake sediment cores, which, like ice cores, can go back tens of thousands of years; analyzing isotopes found on flakes of stone, which indicate when they were exposed to the sun after ice retreated; and feeding laboriously gathered glacial moraine data into computer models that calculated the extent of past ice maximums. Without understanding what happened to ice in the past, researchers cannot understand what is happening in the Rwenzoris today. Over the past few years, this intensive study has revealed that ice-free conditions could occur in the near future in the Rwenzoris. And while the exact drivers of glacial loss are still debated, what is certain is that the livelihoods of those who depend on them are under threat. In the village where my guides live, the melting of Rwenzori glaciers presents a major blow, since tourism employs around 650 people there. “When [the glaciers] disappear completely, it’s going to be tough,” said Bwambale, as he stood below peaks that were once so white that locals thought they were made of salt. “For the younger generation, they will never see the real beauty of the mountain.” We rose at 2 a.m. on day six and pulled on the cold weather gear jammed into the bottoms of our bags — needed only for the summit. Hiking on barely visible trails and sliding down scree chutes, we traversed a landscape of broken rock freshly deposited by retreating glaciers. As I puffed along, Kule lamented how the retreating and thinning ice has forced the guides to find new and sometimes much tougher routes to the summit. Having already crossed the lower Elena Glacier, we hiked, climbed, and slid until we reached the bottom of the Stanley Glacier, at around 14,700 feet (4,500 meters). It was still dark. Our guides helped me strap on my crampons, and we started the easy but tiring final ascent. In 1906, the explorers crossed a gently sloping ice plain. Today, the glacier is a steeply pitched mass of ice hugging the contour of the valley between Alexandra Peak and Margherita Peak, our goal. To reach the very top, Edwardian explorers had to stand on each other’s heads in hobnailed boots to pull themselves over a giant cornice formed by the rapid daily melting and freezing of ice. At the top, the 1906 team found that all was “covered in snow, and not a single rock comes to the surface.” Indeed, there was so much snow that they suffered intense snow blindness for days. When we summited at around 7 a.m., we saw not a scrap of snow. Instead, we walked along an icy, rock-strewn trail and took in a stunning sunrise that painted the patches of snow on Alexandra Peak in peach and gold. We lingered to look at the Stanley Glacier, lying below us, aware that this rump of ice surreally situated just a few dozen miles from the equator will most likely cease to exist very soon. I snapped a few pictures, and then we headed down. Because the Rwenzoris are visited relatively rarely, the scientists I interviewed after I got home often asked to see my photographs. They all wanted to see how much the ice had retreated. Leaning over a shared Zoom screen, Georg Kaser slid his spectacles down his nose like a medical doctor looking for the symptoms of a terminal illness and examined my photos of the Stanley Glacier and the newly exposed walls of rock on either side. Lead author of two chapters of IPCC reports, Kaser summited Margherita Peak in 1991 and is the former dean of the Institute of Atmospheric and Cryospheric Sciences at the University of Innsbruck. Studying the orange, black, and brown rocks, he pointed at a cliff featuring a line of discoloration. This “indicates a rather recent retreat,” said Kaser. Combining his evaluation of the photos with knowledge of the modern climate conditions brought Kaser to a stark prognosis for the Rwenzoris, and all of Africa’s glaciers. “You can negotiate about almost everything,” he said, “but you cannot negotiate the melting point of ice.” This story was originally published by Grist with the headline For Uganda’s vanishing glaciers, time is running out on Apr 23, 2023.

The loss of the once-sprawling ice fields in the Rwenzori Mountains has profound implications for local communities, uniquely adapted species, and scientists studying the climate record.

This story was originally published by Yale Environment 360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Enock Bwambale stopped at the lip of the dying glacier, its blunted nose arcing steeply down to scoured rocks, then shouted up to his fellow guide Uziah Kule that the ice was too sheer to descend on foot. Hacking his axe into the crusty surface, he twisted in an ice screw so I could rappel down the stubby face of the Stanley Glacier in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Safely down, our small group took in the view of the heights of Mount Stanley: Margherita Peak — at over 16,700 feet (5,100 meters), the third highest point in Africa — and Alexandra Peak, between which hides the Stanley Glacier. I swung my camera around and tried to match a photo by Vittorio Sella, who had documented the summits of the surreal Mountains of the Moon during the first successful European summit attempt, in 1906. But an equivalent contemporary shot was impossible: Sella had taken his photograph from atop a healthy glacier that had been hundreds of feet higher than my head.

“Up there nowadays, there’s no glacier,” said Kule. “The glacier we only get it in the valley here.”

Worldwide, climate change is causing glaciers to retreat. But African glaciers, which all lie within a day’s drive of the equator, are melting faster than the global average. Since 1906, more than 80 percent of the Rwenzoris’ ice has melted, and UNESCO recently reported that a third of the 50 World Heritage sites that contain glaciers, including the Rwenzoris, will disappear by 2050 no matter what actions are taken to slow global warming. Some scientists predict that Uganda’s glaciers could be gone even sooner: within a decade.

Scientists say the loss will herald dramatic changes for this unique ecosystem, a sky island surrounded by a sweltering sea of lowland forest. Little-studied endemic species could go extinct as temperatures rise; vulnerable local communities anticipate the loss of previously reliable tourist revenue; and scientists will lose historical climate data as the ice that indicates temperature changes over centuries turns to water.

“The loss of these glaciers is the loss of a critical component of a system, and it isn’t going to come back any time in the foreseeable future,” said James Russell, who has led expeditions to the Rwenzoris almost every year since 2006 and chairs the department of earth, environmental, and planetary sciences at Brown University. “It’s heartbreaking.”

An aerial map showing the location of Uganda's Rwenzori Mountains
Courtesy of Yale Environment 360 Yale Environment 360

Setting out at 2 that morning, we had crossed two glaciers in the dark and summited Margherita Peak just before sunrise. It had taken us six days to get to this point — sometimes hiking rainforest trails so steep that our guides had installed bamboo ladders. Other times we slogged through knee-deep mud.

But even on day one, the impact of climate change was evident in the village of Kilembe, our starting point. Here, houses stood tottering on the edge of the riverbank, cracked open to the sky since powerful rains, which started a decade ago, had repeatedly caused flash floods, killing dozens and displacing thousands.

Leaving the cultivated hillsides of the village, we crossed the park border and soon entered tropical forest, where jewel-like flowers peered out from under giant ferns, and monkeys materialized and vanished as mist sieved through buttressed hardwoods. We trekked through bamboo forest, climbing to 12,800 feet (3,900 meters), where we entered the otherworldly Afro-Alpine moorlands, which contains endemic, endangered, and rare species.

For two days we leapt from grassy tussocks to slippery tree roots, through bogs of spongy moss and silent rivulets. Beards of lichen waved from the branches of giant heather trees. Rwenzori red duikers, an endangered subspecies of antelope, stared from dense thickets of papery silver everlastings.

The plants, uniquely adapted to their habitat, got weirder as we climbed. Giant groundsels dotted the valley floors. Their spiky green pompoms make them look like palm trees, but their shaggy coats of dead leaves protected them from the cold.

As the planet warms, plants and animals are moving upslope in the Rwenzoris, as they are elsewhere, seeking cooler temperatures. But there’s only so far they can go. Eventually, “they will just step their way off the top of the mountain,” said Sarah Ivory, a researcher at Penn State.

“You find rock hyrax footprints on the glaciers now,” Bwambale said as we hiked. “The same for the duikers.”

On the fifth day, we noted some changes of our own. Holding up one of Sella’s photos to compare it to today’s landscape, we discovered that a glacier-fed pond nestled in the valley between Mount Baker and Mount Stanley had shrunk to almost nothing.

The three highest points in Africa have all lost dramatic amounts of ice in the last century, reports a 2019 paper published in Geosciences. On Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa, the ice has shrunk by 90 percent since its first survey in 1912, to less than 1 square mile. The glaciers on Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest peak, are less than a tenth of a square mile. Glaciers in the far less studied Rwenzoris covered an estimated 2.5 square miles in 1906; in 2003, they covered less than 1 square mile. Today, they are even smaller.

While glaciers are retreating everywhere, the causes are different from place to place. In the Rwenzoris, where glaciers occur at a relatively low 14,400 feet (4,400 meters), warming air is the problem. The mountains, whose name means “rain maker” in the local language, receive 6 to 10 feet of precipitation a year, so the glaciers are not being starved of water — they are just melting faster than rain can freeze and replace the melted ice. However, on Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, where the ice occurs at higher elevations, precipitation has declined. Here the ice is evaporating into the dry air.

Whatever the cause, high-elevation ice is disappearing all over — a trend that will continue as global warming accelerates the rate of change in mountain ecosystems, cryospheric systems, hydrological regimes, and biodiversity, according to the Mountain Research Initiative.

Ice is also melting rapidly in South America’s Andes, where tropical glaciers also occur. As in Africa, these glaciers form because of altitude, not latitude, and they are unaffected by seasons or strong changes in weather. The main difference between the two regions is how melting will affect humans: the retreat of large ice caps and glaciers in South America threatens supplies of irrigation and drinking water, but Uganda’s glaciers are so small that no communities depend on their meltwater.

As everywhere though, the rapidly disappearing ice on Africa’s mountains poses an urgent problem for climate scientists. On Mount Kilimanjaro, around 2,000 years of the most recent climate data has disappeared as the surfaces of ice fields have evaporated, according to a 2002 paper in Science. The loss of information derived from ice cores (which contain pockets of ancient air) makes it hard for climate scientists to make accurate models for tropical Africa or to provide that information for global models. Compounding the problem, tropical zones tend to lack recent written records of weather, and constant cloudiness over the Rwenzoris limits satellite measurements.

Two photos of mountains side by side show one on the left with a lot of snow and ice, and one on the right with very little snow or ice.
Mount Stanley in 1906 (left) and 2022 (right). Klaus Thymann via Wikipedia

Because of these knowledge gaps, said Russell, of Brown University, “we have very little idea about what the equatorial tropics did through time.”

To get around this, Russell and other researchers have relied on other methods, extracting alpine lake sediment cores, which, like ice cores, can go back tens of thousands of years; analyzing isotopes found on flakes of stone, which indicate when they were exposed to the sun after ice retreated; and feeding laboriously gathered glacial moraine data into computer models that calculated the extent of past ice maximums. Without understanding what happened to ice in the past, researchers cannot understand what is happening in the Rwenzoris today.

Over the past few years, this intensive study has revealed that ice-free conditions could occur in the near future in the Rwenzoris. And while the exact drivers of glacial loss are still debated, what is certain is that the livelihoods of those who depend on them are under threat. In the village where my guides live, the melting of Rwenzori glaciers presents a major blow, since tourism employs around 650 people there.

“When [the glaciers] disappear completely, it’s going to be tough,” said Bwambale, as he stood below peaks that were once so white that locals thought they were made of salt. “For the younger generation, they will never see the real beauty of the mountain.”

We rose at 2 a.m. on day six and pulled on the cold weather gear jammed into the bottoms of our bags — needed only for the summit. Hiking on barely visible trails and sliding down scree chutes, we traversed a landscape of broken rock freshly deposited by retreating glaciers. As I puffed along, Kule lamented how the retreating and thinning ice has forced the guides to find new and sometimes much tougher routes to the summit.

Having already crossed the lower Elena Glacier, we hiked, climbed, and slid until we reached the bottom of the Stanley Glacier, at around 14,700 feet (4,500 meters). It was still dark. Our guides helped me strap on my crampons, and we started the easy but tiring final ascent.

In 1906, the explorers crossed a gently sloping ice plain. Today, the glacier is a steeply pitched mass of ice hugging the contour of the valley between Alexandra Peak and Margherita Peak, our goal. To reach the very top, Edwardian explorers had to stand on each other’s heads in hobnailed boots to pull themselves over a giant cornice formed by the rapid daily melting and freezing of ice.

At the top, the 1906 team found that all was “covered in snow, and not a single rock comes to the surface.” Indeed, there was so much snow that they suffered intense snow blindness for days. When we summited at around 7 a.m., we saw not a scrap of snow. Instead, we walked along an icy, rock-strewn trail and took in a stunning sunrise that painted the patches of snow on Alexandra Peak in peach and gold.

We lingered to look at the Stanley Glacier, lying below us, aware that this rump of ice surreally situated just a few dozen miles from the equator will most likely cease to exist very soon. I snapped a few pictures, and then we headed down.

Because the Rwenzoris are visited relatively rarely, the scientists I interviewed after I got home often asked to see my photographs. They all wanted to see how much the ice had retreated. Leaning over a shared Zoom screen, Georg Kaser slid his spectacles down his nose like a medical doctor looking for the symptoms of a terminal illness and examined my photos of the Stanley Glacier and the newly exposed walls of rock on either side.

Lead author of two chapters of IPCC reports, Kaser summited Margherita Peak in 1991 and is the former dean of the Institute of Atmospheric and Cryospheric Sciences at the University of Innsbruck. Studying the orange, black, and brown rocks, he pointed at a cliff featuring a line of discoloration. This “indicates a rather recent retreat,” said Kaser.

Combining his evaluation of the photos with knowledge of the modern climate conditions brought Kaser to a stark prognosis for the Rwenzoris, and all of Africa’s glaciers. “You can negotiate about almost everything,” he said, “but you cannot negotiate the melting point of ice.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline For Uganda’s vanishing glaciers, time is running out on Apr 23, 2023.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

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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