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What to Know About the Risks of Gas Stoves and Appliances

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Saturday, January 28, 2023

This story was originally published by ProPublica. As a climate reporter, I was well aware of the growing concern about the gas stoves in people’s homes leaking dangerous pollutants, like methane, a potent greenhouse gas and explosive hazard; nitrogen dioxide, which worsens asthma; and benzene, which causes cancer. But I was a renter who had no control over my appliances. So I mostly ignored it — until one day last fall when I smelled the rotten-egg odor of leaking natural gas while baking focaccia. I borrowed a $30 gas leak detector from a friend (a fellow climate reporter, of course). When I turned on the oven in my New York City apartment, the lights for a “significant” leak lit up. My kitchen was filling up with methane. According to the user manual, that meant I should “VENTILATE THE AREA IMMEDIATELY and move to a safe location” in case of an explosion. I opened the windows and ignored the evacuation advice (don’t follow my example), too intent on taking a video of the leak as proof for my landlord before turning off the oven. Then I vented my frustration by panic-texting friends and eating too much focaccia — after cutting it into pieces and baking it in my toaster oven. Luckily, my landlord replaced my faulty stove within days. I made sure to check the new stove (still gas, alas) for leaks after it was installed. “People still don’t recognize that there are health downsides to cooking with gas in your home,” said Regina LaRocque, a Harvard Medical School professor who does research on medicine and public health. “This is the 21st century, and we have better ways of cooking than over a fire.” The issue has caught national attention in recent weeks, as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission considers regulating gas stoves. Public health experts and environmentalists have long warned of the risks of gas ranges. One study found that indoor gas stoves were responsible for roughly 13% of childhood asthma cases in the U.S. The American Public Health Association and American Medical Association have urged consumers to transition away from gas. LaRocque uses a traditional electric coil stove at home. But she and other experts advocated for induction stoves, which use electromagnets to heat up food. These stoves are growing in popularity as consumers choose them for climate, health and safety reasons, though they can cost more than twice as much as a gas range. The federal Inflation Reduction Act will provide rebates to upgrade to electric or induction home appliances (here’s a Wirecutter guide on that program). Some states, including Massachusetts, offer their own rebates as well. Induction stoves are much more common in Europe, LaRocque said. That cultural shift has yet to occur in the United States, where more than a third of households use gas stoves. As Mother Jones reported, the gas industry embraced the term “cooking with gas” in the 1930s; an executive even made sure to get it worked into Bob Hope’s comedy routines. More recently, the industry has opposed electrification efforts with lobbying and social media influencers who tout gas as a “super cool way” to cook. I consulted multiple experts on the hazards of gas stoves and what people can do about them. Their advice boiled down to this: homeowners who can afford it should switch to an induction or electric stove. For renters and others who can’t replace their appliances, the experts provided tips on lowering the health risks. Methane is a greenhouse gas. The gas that’s piped into your house is virtually all methane. When you burn methane to cook food, it turns into carbon dioxide. But unburned methane trickles out from loose fittings and faulty stovetop igniters. Every pound of methane released into the air is 30 to 86 times more effective at warming the planet than a pound of carbon dioxide. When researchers analyzed 53 homes in California last year, they found methane leaking from almost every stove. More than three-quarters of that methane came from stoves that were turned off. The act of igniting a burner or oven released additional puffs of methane. If these leaks are consistent across the nation, then annual methane emissions from U.S. gas stoves would equal the greenhouse gas emissions of half a million cars. These leaks are “pretty much universal,” said Robert Jackson, a Stanford University professor and a study co-author. Jackson, who’s spent more than a decade studying methane leaks from gas wells, pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure, said it can be hard to predict where the leak is coming from. Based on the description of the leak in my kitchen, he told me it likely was caused by ignition problems with the oven. Jackson’s research has inspired him to ditch his gas stove, furnace and hot water heater in favor of induction and electric appliances. “I did not expect to see the high levels of indoor air pollution we saw consistently,” he said. “It strongly motivated me to replace my own stove.” Large methane leaks can cause explosions. If you smell gas in your home, leave the building and call your gas company. The distinctive rotten-egg odor comes from chemicals that gas companies add to the methane to make it easier to detect, since the gas is naturally odorless. Some people are much more sensitive to the smell than others, so it’s not a foolproof warning for explosive risk. Eric Lebel, lead author of the methane study Jackson worked on, recalled smelling gas in some of the homes where he did the testing, even though the homeowners couldn’t smell anything. Lebel is a senior scientist at PSE Healthy Energy, a nonprofit science and policy research institute. Burning natural gas releases nitrogen dioxide, a respiratory irritant. Nitrogen dioxide exacerbates asthma and impairs lung function. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates these emissions from cars and power plants with national air quality standards, but those regulations don’t apply to indoor air. The Lebel and Jackson study measured nitrogen dioxide and a related compound. They found steadily rising emissions after turning on burners and ovens. “Simply having a combustion stove in your home is a health risk,” LaRocque said. In poorly ventilated kitchens, nitrogen dioxide levels could exceed outdoor air standards. “It would be like standing behind an idling car, or standing in a smoke-filled room,” she added. “I think if my child had asthma, I would definitely want to intervene.” Gas stoves leak benzene, a carcinogen that can cause leukemia. In a separate study published last fall, Lebel and his colleagues analyzed gas samples from residential kitchens. Out of 160 samples, all but one contained benzene. “If there’s a leak from that appliance, it likely contains benzene,” Lebel said. “It’s a rather unavoidable cost of owning a gas appliance.” Raw natural gas contains a mix of methane and toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene or formaldehyde. Gas companies strip out the impurities before piping the processed gas to homes, but they don’t eliminate all the toxins. Lebel’s team modeled the benzene concentrations from the leaking stoves and found a handful that failed to meet California’s benzene safety guidelines. They also found traces of other harmful compounds, including toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene, which can cause dizziness, nausea and liver damage. A separate study of gas appliances in the Greater Boston area found benzene in 95% of samples, though at lower levels than Lebel’s study. Turn on the range hood above your stove. Paul Francisco, associate director of building science at the University of Illinois Urbana, Champaign, suggests cooking on the back burners and using the hood whenever you turn on the stove or the oven. The fans improve ventilation and will pull benzene, methane and nitrogen dioxide outdoors. However, this only works if the hood connects to the outside of your house. Follow the piping on the hood: If the top of the device goes through the ceiling or the wall, then it should help with air quality. Another type of range hood, called a “ductless” hood, simply recirculates indoor air. If your hood has grilles or vents on the front, then it’s likely, but not guaranteed, to be ductless, Francisco said. These fans won’t cut down on harmful gases, but they might be able to reduce particulate matter — tiny particles created during cooking, which can cause or exacerbate respiratory illness. A 2014 study found that cooking on induction stoves produced far fewer particles than cooking on gas or electric stoves. Open a window to improve ventilation. At a minimum, an open window will dilute toxic gases. If your kitchen is in the upper half of a building, opening the window should draw the contaminants outside as long as there’s no wind and it’s warmer inside than outside, Francisco said. If you live in the lower half of a building, opening a window in the winter won’t be as effective, he said, though any ventilation is better than none. Get an induction hot plate. If you can’t replace your stove, experts said the next best thing is to buy an induction burner. Here are some consumer guides with reviews of portable hot plates. During last summer’s heat waves, when I couldn’t fathom lighting a fire inside my kitchen, I did almost all my cooking using an induction hot plate, an Instant Pot and an electric toaster oven. Excessive heat is another reason why some chefs advocate for induction burners. What about air purifiers? These devices have become more popular as a way to improve air quality and reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections. Most air purifiers won’t have any effect on toxic gases, though they do remove particulate matter, Francisco said. Some specialty models filter out volatile organic compounds, a class of chemicals that includes benzene. Should I buy a gas detector? There are a number of methane monitors that are designed for consumers, priced from roughly $30 to $200. Some will tell you about the presence of a leak. Others are sensitive enough to detect specific concentrations of methane. You can also find indoor monitors that detect particulate matter for $200 to $300. It’s much harder to monitor for benzene or nitrogen dioxide. The types of instruments used by Lebel and Jackson cost tens of thousands of dollars and require users to undergo extensive training.   The South Coast Air Quality Management District, a regulatory agency in California, maintains a list of “low-cost” air quality sensors (less than $2,000) that can be used by citizen scientists and advocacy groups. These sensors can be used to detect particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds.   Lebel said it shouldn’t be up to individuals to solve a systemic issue. It seems problematic, he said, “to be asking citizens to be scientists and try and discover if their stove is leaking.”

This story was originally published by ProPublica. As a climate reporter, I was well aware of the growing concern about the gas stoves in people’s homes leaking dangerous pollutants, like methane, a potent greenhouse gas and explosive hazard; nitrogen dioxide, which worsens asthma; and benzene, which causes cancer. But I was a renter who had no […]

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

As a climate reporter, I was well aware of the growing concern about the gas stoves in people’s homes leaking dangerous pollutants, like methane, a potent greenhouse gas and explosive hazard; nitrogen dioxide, which worsens asthma; and benzene, which causes cancer. But I was a renter who had no control over my appliances. So I mostly ignored it — until one day last fall when I smelled the rotten-egg odor of leaking natural gas while baking focaccia.

I borrowed a $30 gas leak detector from a friend (a fellow climate reporter, of course). When I turned on the oven in my New York City apartment, the lights for a “significant” leak lit up. My kitchen was filling up with methane. According to the user manual, that meant I should “VENTILATE THE AREA IMMEDIATELY and move to a safe location” in case of an explosion. I opened the windows and ignored the evacuation advice (don’t follow my example), too intent on taking a video of the leak as proof for my landlord before turning off the oven. Then I vented my frustration by panic-texting friends and eating too much focaccia — after cutting it into pieces and baking it in my toaster oven. Luckily, my landlord replaced my faulty stove within days. I made sure to check the new stove (still gas, alas) for leaks after it was installed.

“People still don’t recognize that there are health downsides to cooking with gas in your home,” said Regina LaRocque, a Harvard Medical School professor who does research on medicine and public health. “This is the 21st century, and we have better ways of cooking than over a fire.”

The issue has caught national attention in recent weeks, as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission considers regulating gas stoves. Public health experts and environmentalists have long warned of the risks of gas ranges. One study found that indoor gas stoves were responsible for roughly 13% of childhood asthma cases in the U.S. The American Public Health Association and American Medical Association have urged consumers to transition away from gas.

LaRocque uses a traditional electric coil stove at home. But she and other experts advocated for induction stoves, which use electromagnets to heat up food. These stoves are growing in popularity as consumers choose them for climate, health and safety reasons, though they can cost more than twice as much as a gas range.

The federal Inflation Reduction Act will provide rebates to upgrade to electric or induction home appliances (here’s a Wirecutter guide on that program). Some states, including Massachusetts, offer their own rebates as well.

Induction stoves are much more common in Europe, LaRocque said. That cultural shift has yet to occur in the United States, where more than a third of households use gas stoves. As Mother Jones reported, the gas industry embraced the term “cooking with gas” in the 1930s; an executive even made sure to get it worked into Bob Hope’s comedy routines. More recently, the industry has opposed electrification efforts with lobbying and social media influencers who tout gas as a “super cool way” to cook.

I consulted multiple experts on the hazards of gas stoves and what people can do about them. Their advice boiled down to this: homeowners who can afford it should switch to an induction or electric stove. For renters and others who can’t replace their appliances, the experts provided tips on lowering the health risks.

Methane is a greenhouse gas. The gas that’s piped into your house is virtually all methane. When you burn methane to cook food, it turns into carbon dioxide. But unburned methane trickles out from loose fittings and faulty stovetop igniters. Every pound of methane released into the air is 30 to 86 times more effective at warming the planet than a pound of carbon dioxide.

When researchers analyzed 53 homes in California last year, they found methane leaking from almost every stove. More than three-quarters of that methane came from stoves that were turned off. The act of igniting a burner or oven released additional puffs of methane. If these leaks are consistent across the nation, then annual methane emissions from U.S. gas stoves would equal the greenhouse gas emissions of half a million cars.

These leaks are “pretty much universal,” said Robert Jackson, a Stanford University professor and a study co-author. Jackson, who’s spent more than a decade studying methane leaks from gas wells, pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure, said it can be hard to predict where the leak is coming from. Based on the description of the leak in my kitchen, he told me it likely was caused by ignition problems with the oven. Jackson’s research has inspired him to ditch his gas stove, furnace and hot water heater in favor of induction and electric appliances.

“I did not expect to see the high levels of indoor air pollution we saw consistently,” he said. “It strongly motivated me to replace my own stove.”

Large methane leaks can cause explosions. If you smell gas in your home, leave the building and call your gas company. The distinctive rotten-egg odor comes from chemicals that gas companies add to the methane to make it easier to detect, since the gas is naturally odorless.

Some people are much more sensitive to the smell than others, so it’s not a foolproof warning for explosive risk. Eric Lebel, lead author of the methane study Jackson worked on, recalled smelling gas in some of the homes where he did the testing, even though the homeowners couldn’t smell anything. Lebel is a senior scientist at PSE Healthy Energy, a nonprofit science and policy research institute.

Burning natural gas releases nitrogen dioxide, a respiratory irritant. Nitrogen dioxide exacerbates asthma and impairs lung function. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates these emissions from cars and power plants with national air quality standards, but those regulations don’t apply to indoor air.

The Lebel and Jackson study measured nitrogen dioxide and a related compound. They found steadily rising emissions after turning on burners and ovens.

“Simply having a combustion stove in your home is a health risk,” LaRocque said. In poorly ventilated kitchens, nitrogen dioxide levels could exceed outdoor air standards. “It would be like standing behind an idling car, or standing in a smoke-filled room,” she added. “I think if my child had asthma, I would definitely want to intervene.”

Gas stoves leak benzene, a carcinogen that can cause leukemia. In a separate study published last fall, Lebel and his colleagues analyzed gas samples from residential kitchens. Out of 160 samples, all but one contained benzene.

“If there’s a leak from that appliance, it likely contains benzene,” Lebel said. “It’s a rather unavoidable cost of owning a gas appliance.”

Raw natural gas contains a mix of methane and toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene or formaldehyde. Gas companies strip out the impurities before piping the processed gas to homes, but they don’t eliminate all the toxins.

Lebel’s team modeled the benzene concentrations from the leaking stoves and found a handful that failed to meet California’s benzene safety guidelines. They also found traces of other harmful compounds, including toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene, which can cause dizziness, nausea and liver damage. A separate study of gas appliances in the Greater Boston area found benzene in 95% of samples, though at lower levels than Lebel’s study.

Turn on the range hood above your stove. Paul Francisco, associate director of building science at the University of Illinois Urbana, Champaign, suggests cooking on the back burners and using the hood whenever you turn on the stove or the oven. The fans improve ventilation and will pull benzene, methane and nitrogen dioxide outdoors.

However, this only works if the hood connects to the outside of your house. Follow the piping on the hood: If the top of the device goes through the ceiling or the wall, then it should help with air quality.

Another type of range hood, called a “ductless” hood, simply recirculates indoor air. If your hood has grilles or vents on the front, then it’s likely, but not guaranteed, to be ductless, Francisco said. These fans won’t cut down on harmful gases, but they might be able to reduce particulate matter — tiny particles created during cooking, which can cause or exacerbate respiratory illness. A 2014 study found that cooking on induction stoves produced far fewer particles than cooking on gas or electric stoves.

Open a window to improve ventilation. At a minimum, an open window will dilute toxic gases.

If your kitchen is in the upper half of a building, opening the window should draw the contaminants outside as long as there’s no wind and it’s warmer inside than outside, Francisco said. If you live in the lower half of a building, opening a window in the winter won’t be as effective, he said, though any ventilation is better than none.

Get an induction hot plate. If you can’t replace your stove, experts said the next best thing is to buy an induction burner. Here are some consumer guides with reviews of portable hot plates.

During last summer’s heat waves, when I couldn’t fathom lighting a fire inside my kitchen, I did almost all my cooking using an induction hot plate, an Instant Pot and an electric toaster oven. Excessive heat is another reason why some chefs advocate for induction burners.

What about air purifiers? These devices have become more popular as a way to improve air quality and reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections. Most air purifiers won’t have any effect on toxic gases, though they do remove particulate matter, Francisco said. Some specialty models filter out volatile organic compounds, a class of chemicals that includes benzene.

Should I buy a gas detector? There are a number of methane monitors that are designed for consumers, priced from roughly $30 to $200. Some will tell you about the presence of a leak. Others are sensitive enough to detect specific concentrations of methane. You can also find indoor monitors that detect particulate matter for $200 to $300.

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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