TIME Environment

Life May Have Thrived on Earth 3.2 Billion Years Ago, Study Says

Scientists had previously thought the earliest ecosystems were clinging on to an essentially uninhabitable planet

Scientists have found evidence that life on earth may have blossomed 3.2 billion years ago, a challenge to the previous theory that the planet was a hostile climate until 2 billion years ago.

Researchers from the University of Washington studied ancient rocks and found indications that 3.2 billion years ago life was sucking an essential nutrient, nitrogen, out of the air and converting it into larger structures, according to a report published in the weekly journal Nature.

“Imagining that this really complicated process is so old, and has operated in the same way for 3.2 billion years, I think is fascinating,” lead author Eva Stüeken told UW Today.

Nitrogen is an essential ingredient for life, as everything from viruses and bacteria to complex organisms use the nutrient to build genes.

The process that makes nitrogen easier for organisms to use, called nitrogen fixation, did not emerge until 2 billion years ago. This led scientists to theorize that the earliest ecosystems were clinging on to an essentially uninhabitable planet, but the new study shows that may not be accurate.

“Our work shows that there was no nitrogen crisis on the early earth, and therefore it could have supported a fairly large and diverse biosphere,” said study co-author Roger Buick.

MONEY Autos

This Cold-Weather Habit Could Cost You Your Car

It might be tempting to warm your car up by leaving it idling in the driveway. But that could be a very expensive move.

TIME Environment

‘Megadroughts’ Could Devastate Southwest U.S. Within a Century

New study warns of dry consequences if greenhouse emissions continue to rise

Droughts like the one California is experiencing are only going to get worse over the course of the century and could devastate some central and western parts of the U.S., according to a new NASA study.

Using data from 17 climate models, scientists were able to project that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, there is a significant risk of severe droughts in the Southwest and Central Plains between 2050 and 2100. Reductions in rainfall and increased temperatures will lead to drier soil, according to their models, causing “megadroughts,” which could last between 30 and 35 years, according to the report published Thursday in the journal Science Advances. Typically, droughts last about 10 years. But if emissions continue to increase throughout the 21st century, there’s an 80% chance of “megadrought” events worse than any in the past 1,000 years, researchers said.

“Natural droughts like the 1930s Dust Bowl and the current drought in the Southwest have historically lasted maybe a decade or a little less,” said Ben Cook, a NASA climate scientist and lead author of the study in a statement. “What these results are saying is we’re going to get a drought similar to those events, but it is probably going to last at least 30 to 35 years.”

TIME Environment

Here’s How Much Plastic Ends Up In the World’s Oceans

Malin Jacob Study author Jenna Jambeck of the University of Georgia collects plastic samples from a beach near Caleta de Famara, Canary Islands, Spain.

It's equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline

Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans, and that figure could increase by ten-fold over the next 10 years if actions are not taken, according to a new study published in the journal Science.

To determine just how much plastic finds its way into the world’s oceans, researchers at the University of Georgia in Athens and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at University of California, Santa Barbara developed a model that calculated all the sources of ocean debris, and then focused specifically on plastic.

The worst offenders, they found, are the 192 countries situated along an ocean coast. In 2010, the 192 countries altogether generated 275 million metric tons of plastic waste. (One metric ton equals 2,205 pounds.) Based on the researchers’ calculations, 5 to 13 million metric tons of plastic made it to our oceans that year, and most of that waste came from people who live slightly over 30 miles away from the coast.

Lindsay Robinson/University of Georgia

“Our estimate of 8 million metric tons going into the oceans in 2010 is equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world,” said study author Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer from the University of Georgia in Athens, in a statement.

In 2015, the output will be close to 9.1 million metric tons of plastic, Jambeck and her colleagues estimate. And by 2025, the annual cumulative output of plastic into the world’s oceans will be around 155 million metric tons.

Prioritizing the collection of plastic, reducing the use of single-use plastics and cutting down on waste generation are ways to reduce the amount of plastic that makes its way to the coast, the researchers say.

TIME Environment

Scientists Have Figured Out a Way to Convert Solar Energy Into Liquid Fuel

The potential applications of solar power just got a whole lot wider

Researchers at Harvard have discovered how to convert solar energy into liquid fuel, potentially accelerating our switch to the alternative-energy source, according to an article in this month’s scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

At the moment, solar energy can be converted into hydrogen by using photovoltaic cells. The hydrogen can then be stored in fuel cells for future use. But hydrogen has failed to make headway as an energy source in a world that is infrastructurally set up to handle liquid fuels.

Now, however, scientists have figured out a way of using sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. They then use a bacterium to convert the hydrogen, plus carbon dioxide, into the liquid fuel isopropanol.

“This is a proof of concept that you can have a way of harvesting solar energy and storing it in the form of a liquid fuel,” said researcher Pamela Silver.

The hope now is that solar energy will find more takers, particularly in the developing world, where the ability to make energy locally will be a boon.

[Science Daily]

Read next: U.S. Oil Production Reaches All-Time High Amid Low Crude Prices

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Environment

The U.S. Government Is Spending $3.2 Million to Save This Butterfly

One of the 185 Monarch butterflies symbo
Marty Melville—AFP/Getty Images One of the 185 Monarch butterflies symbolizing the 185 people who lost their lives in the Feb. 22 earthquake is seen after its release by Christchurch youths at a remembrance service in Hagley Park in Christchurch on Feb. 22, 2012, one year after a 6.3 quake hit New Zealand's second largest city

The monarch butterfly's breeding grounds have been threatened in recent years

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has pledged $3.2 million to protect the iconic monarch butterfly, which has seen a 90% drop in its population in recent years.

Of that money, $2 million will go to restoring 200,000 acres of the butterfly’s natural habitat between California and the Midwest, PBS reports. The rest will establish a conservation fund that will award grants to landowners who will work toward conserving areas home to the milkweed plant, on which monarchs exclusively lay their eggs.

“It is weed control that is driving eradication of the milkweed plant,” FWS director Dan Ashe said at a press conference Monday. Conservation efforts will focus on a part of the U.S. between Texas and Minnesota, through which the butterflies migrate annually.

The federal government is currently in the middle of a one-year review of whether the monarch butterfly deserves to be classified under the Endangered Species Act, which would grant it further protections.

[PBS]

TIME Environment

Mysterious Ash Covers Parts of Washington and Oregon

It could be from a Russian volcano

A strange ashy substance is falling from the sky in parts of Washington state and Oregon, but no one knows where it came from.

“While the substance is likely ash is from Volcano Shiveluch, they are a number of volcanoes that are currently active. The source of the material has not been scientifically confirmed,” energy officials said.

Volcano Shiveluch is on the Kamchatka peninsula in extreme northeast Russia and spewed a 20,000 foot ash plume in January. But officials say the substance could be coming from an entirely different part of the globe.

Other theories include dust picked up by wind or leftover ash from last year’s wildfires in Oregon in Idaho. But the substance will have to be scientifically tested to definitively determine what it is.

TIME climate change

Undersea Volcanoes May Be Impacting Climate Change

An underwater volcanic erupts in the Pacific Ocean
Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science—AP An underwater volcanic erupts in the Pacific Ocean

Does the global warming process actually begin under the sea?

A new study claims that volcanic eruptions along the ocean floor may impact earth’s climate cycle and that predictive models, including those that analyze humanity’s impact on climate change, may need to be modified.

“People have ignored seafloor volcanoes on the idea that their influence is small—but that’s because they are assumed to be in a steady state, which they’re not,” said Maya Tolstoy, a geophysicist and author of the study that appeared in Geophysical Research Letters and was also reported on in Science Daily.

Until now, scientists presumed that seafloor volcanoes exuded lava at a slow and steady pace, but Tolstoy thinks that not only do the volcanoes erupt in bursts, they follow remarkably consistent patterns that range anywhere from two weeks to 100,000 years.

The reason why the study is important is because it offers up the idea that undersea volcanoes may contribute to the beginning of a global warming cycle.

Here’s how:

Scientists believe as the Earth warms and ice melts, pressure is released which causes more land volcanoes to erupt. More eruptions means more CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere, causing the Earth to warm further and creating a cycle.

But undersea volcanoes erupt for the opposite reason. When more ice is created on a cooling Earth, that lowers sea levels and relieves pressure on undersea volcanoes, bringing about more eruptions.

So that begs the question, could the undersea volcanoes be releasing enough CO2 to affect the warming process on land?

Read more at Science Daily.

TIME China

9 out of 10 Chinese Cities Fail Pollution Test

China Smog Air Pollution Jilin
ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images Smog arrives at the banks of the Songhua River due to low temperatures in Jilin Province, China on Jan. 22, 2015.

Only eight of 74 cities monitored met national standards

Nearly 90% of Chinese cities failed to meet government pollution standards last year, according to the country’s environment ministry.

Although only eight of 74 cities monitored were found to meet national standards, the country’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said the results were an improvement over previous years, Reuters reports.

The country declared a “war on pollution” last year and has since taken steps to reduce the use of coal and eliminate factories that don’t meet certain standards.

Read more: Watch This Haunting Seven-Minute Film About China’s Insane Air Pollution

The government has said that meeting its own standards could take up to 15 years. The city of Beijing, for instance, had an average atmospheric pollutant reading of 93 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter last year — almost three times the state-determined standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

China—the world’s largest polluter— produces a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

[Reuters]

TIME Environment

California Let Oil Companies Contaminate Water, Report Says

'If there are wells having a direct impact on drinking water, we need to shut them down now'

California state regulators allowed oil companies to dispose of wastewater in clean groundwater supplies for years, according to a new report.

The San Francisco Chronicle, citing a review of state data, reports that oil companies built more than 170 waste-disposal wells feeding into bodies of groundwater that could otherwise have been used for drinking or irrigation during one of the area’s worst droughts in centuries. The wells are primarily located in the state’s agricultural Central Valley region, which was particularly devastated by the drought.

“If there are wells having a direct impact on drinking water, we need to shut them down now,” said Jared Bluemnfeld, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. “Safe drinking water is only going to become more in demand.”

Read more at the Chronicle

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com