TIME Environment

Pollutants Created by Climate Change Are Making Airborne Allergens More Potent

Smog arrives at the banks of Songhua River on January 22, 2015 in Jilin, Jilin province of China.
ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images Smog arrives at the banks of Songhua River on Jan. 22, 2015, in Jilin, China

It could explain why more people are suffering from year to year

If you think your seasonal sneezing, wheezing and sniffling is getting worse, you aren’t simply imagining it.

Currently, some 50 million or so Americans suffer from nasal allergies, but the number is going up, and researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany say a pair of pollutants linked to climate change could be to blame. That’s according to a report in Science Daily.

The two gases are nitrogen dioxide and ground-level ozone, which appear to set off chemical changes in some airborne allergens, increasing their potency.

“Scientists have long suspected that air pollution and climate change are involved in the increasing prevalence of allergies worldwide,” said the institute’s Ulrich Pöschl. “Our research is just a starting point, but it does begin to suggest how chemical modifications in allergenic proteins occur and how they may affect allergenicity.”

Pöschl’s team found that ozone (a major component of smog) oxidizes an amino acid that sets off chemical reactions that ultimately alter an allergenic protein’s structure. Meanwhile, nitrogen dioxide (found in car exhausts) appears to alter the separation and binding capabilities of certain allergens.

Researchers believe that together, the two gases make allergens more likely to trigger the body’s immune response, especially in wet, humid and smoggy conditions.

The team hopes to identify other allergenic proteins that are modified in the environment and examine how these affect the human immune system.

[Science Daily]

TIME public health

5 Ways to Celebrate World Water Day

water
Getty Images

A holiday for H2O

Sunday is World Water Day, a United Nations initiative to celebrate clean water and bring attention to those who don’t have enough of it. A new report released ahead of World Water Day warns about a looming shortage, and centers on this year’s theme: water and sustainable development.

Here are five ways to celebrate World Water Day

Learn about poop water

First charcoal juice becomes a thing, and now poop water? Hey, Bill Gates drinks it—thanks to a new machine called the Omniprocessor that literally transforms waste into water through a steam engine. On his blog, Gates writes about drinking a “delicious” fresh glass of it and marvels at the possibilities to improve sanitation in low-income countries. “The processor wouldn’t just keep human waste out of the drinking water; it would turn waste into a commodity with real value in the marketplace,” Gates writes.

Take a break from meat

Showering and hydration are hardly your main uses of water—but food is. The average American uses 7,500 liters of water each day, according to the U.N. If you’re eating meat, your water usage shoots way up; a steak dinner for two requires 15,000 liters of water for the meat alone. Eating more meat and dairy has been the single greatest factor for water consumption in the past 30 years, says the group—so going vegetarian, even temporarily, can make a difference.

Wash your hands the right way

Only 5% of Americans do, according to a study of men using public restrooms. (If you need a refresher on proper technique, you should use soap and water and wash for at least 15 seconds.) Sounds gross—and it is a public health hazard, according to UNICEF, organizers of Global Handwashing Day, another water-related holiday worth celebrating. “Handwashing with soap prevents disease in a more straightforward and cost-effective way than any single vaccine,” supporter UNICEF writes.

Support a future female farmer

Most of the world’s hungry are women, says the U.N.’s new report, and most don’t own land—or even have time to make an income, since 25% of their day is spent collecting drinking water. “With equal access to resources and knowledge, female farmers, who account for the majority of all subsistence farmers, could produce enough additional food to reduce the number of the world’s hungry by 150 million,” the report says. Investing in water and sanitation actually helps improve equality, which helps stimulate the economy—every dollar invested yields between $5-28, the UN estimates.

Give better water to the world

A new report from WaterAid America found that one in five babies born in the developing world dies during its first month of life because of a lack of clean water. And 35% of facilities in middle- and lower-income countries didn’t have water and soap for hand-washing, another report from the World Health Organization found.

John Green, author of The Fault In Our Stars, recently teamed up with Bill Gates to raise money for clean, safe water in Ethiopia. You can donate to water.org here.

TIME Environment

The World’s Water Supply Could Dip Sharply in 15 Years

A warning ahead of World Water Day

Global water resources may soon meet only 60% of the world’s water demands, the United Nations warned in a dire new report.

The World Water Development Report, issued ahead of World Water Day on Sunday, says demand for water around the world will increase by 55% over the next 15 years. With current supplies, that means only 60% of the world’s water needs will be met in 2030.

The reason for the shortfall include climate change, which causes irregular rainfall and dwindling underwater reserves. The results of the shortage could be devastating to agriculture, ecosystems and economies. With less water, health could also be compromised.

New policies that focus on water conservation, and more optimal treatment of wastewater, could alleviate some of the shortfall.

“Unless the balance between demand and finite supplies is restored, the world will face an increasingly severe global water deficit,” the report says.

TIME Environment

Burmese Pythons Are Taking Over the Everglades

Biologists Track Northern African Pythons In Florida's Everglades
Joe Raedle—Getty Images Edward Mercer, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission non-native Wildlife Technician, holds a Burmese Python during a press conference in the Florida Everglades about the non-native species on January 29, 2015 in Miami.

Burmese pythons aren't your normal predators

True to their name, Burmese pythons are native to the tropics of southern and southeastern Asia, where the gigantic snakes—they can grow as long as 19 ft.—have carved out a comfortable niche for themselves, squeezing their prey to death. But sometime over the past few decades, Burmese pythons began appearing in Everglades National Park in south Florida. The snakes were most likely either pets that had been released into the wild or their descendants, and, like countless tourists before them, they took very well to the tropical heat and lush greenery of Florida.

Too well, as it turns out. A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B confirms what scientists have feared: predation from the Burmese pythons is already changing the delicate balance of the national park’s food chain. Scientists from the University of Florida, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released 26 marsh rabbits fitted with tracking devices into the park. The aim was to find out what effect the pythons would have on the rabbits, which are native to the Everglades but have all but vanished over the past decade—the same period of time when sightings of Burmese pythons became more frequent.

In the fall and winter, the marsh rabbits thrived, reproducing rapidly. But when the weather began to warm—which would have made the temperature-sensitive pythons more active—the marsh rabbits began to disappear. Where? Into the bellies of the Burmese pythons. The snakes hunted the rabbits ruthlessly—the researchers found that 77% of the tracked rabbits were eaten by Burmese pythons, a fact scientists knew because the trackers led them to the digested bodies of the rabbits inside the stomachs of the snakes. (At a control area outside the park, by contrast, no rabbits were killed by pythons, and most that died were eaten by native mammals like bobcats.) So voracious were the Burmese pythons that they essentially hunted the marsh rabbits to the point of extinction.

And that’s what worries scientists so much. Earlier research had linked a drastic decrease in the population of small mammals to the presence of the Burmese pythons, but those findings had been indirect—other factors, like environmental change, could have been behind the decline. The new study makes it much clearer that Burmese pythons are indeed changing the ecological balance of the Everglades for the worst—and perhaps singlehandedly.

That’s incredibly unusual—when it comes to invasive species, only human beings have managed to do so much damage on a continental mammal community. (There are frequent examples of invasive species, including snakes, eliminating species on small islands, but not in a large territory like the Everglades.) As study co-author Bob Reed of the U.S. Geological Society told CBS News:

All of us were shocked by the results. Rabbit populations are supposed to be regulated by factors other than predation, like drought, disease. They are so fecund. They are supposed to be hugely resilient to predation. You don’t expect a population to be wiped out by predation.

But Burmese pythons aren’t your normal predators, as I discovered for myself when I visited the Everglades for a cover story on invasive species. They can disappear at will, go months without eating and they’re afraid of absolutely nothing. The only way to save the Everglades may be to find and remove the snakes—but as this video above shows, that’s far from easy.

MORE: Invasive Species, Coming Soon to a Habitat Near You

TIME Environment

UN Report Warns of Serious Water Shortages Within 15 Years

INDIA-UN-ENVIRONMENT-WATER
Manjunath Kiran—AFP/Getty Images Residents in Bangalore wait to collect drinking water in plastic pots for their households on March 18, 2015.

If we continue on our current trajectory, warns the report, we'll only have 60% of the water we need in 2030

The world will only have 60% of the water it needs by 2030 without significant global policy change, according to a new report from the U.N.

While countries like India are rapidly depleting their groundwater, rainfall patterns around the world are becoming more unpredictable due to global warming, meaning there will be less water in reserves. Meanwhile, as the population increases, so does demand for potable water, snowballing to a massive problem for our waterways in 15 years’ time.

The report suggests several changes of course that nations can take, from increasing water prices to finding new ways of recycling waste water.

TIME Environment

Arctic Sea Ice Levels Are at the Lowest Ever Recorded

Ship among icebergs
M. Santini—De Agostini/Getty Images Ship among the icebergs that have broken off the Sermeq Kujalleq ice sheet, Ilulissat, Qaasuitsup, Greenland.

Ice levels also began to retreat early this year

Arctic sea ice levels last winter recorded their lowest peak since satellite monitoring began in 1979, U.S. scientists said Thursday.

According to the University of Colorado’s Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic ice levels crowned on Feb. 25 with a maximum extent of 14.54 million sq. km — 130,000 sq. km less than the previous record low set in 2011, and 1.1 million sq. km lower than the 1981-2010 recorded average.

The drop was also widespread, with below-average ice levels recorded everywhere except for the Labrador Sea between Greenland and Canada and the Davis Strait slightly further north.

The data center did say that a late season surge in ice growth is still conceivable, but unlikely to match the winter’s high-point. Meaning this year’s Feb. 25 peak date was two weeks earlier than the average. The earliest ice-level maximum was in 1996, reaching its ceiling only one day earlier on Feb. 24.

Recent weather patterns were partly to blame for the melting ice, with an unusual jet stream bringing unseasonably warm temperatures to the Pacific side of the Arctic.

 

TIME Environment

California Announces $1 Billion Emergency Drought Relief Package

The move comes days after new rules cracking down on lawn watering and tap water at restaurants

As if Californians needed another reminder that their state is dangerously hot and dry, they got it on March 15 when more than 30 runners at the Los Angeles marathon were hospitalized due to record high temperatures. The late winter heat wave — the mercury climbed above 90 in the city and surrounding areas — offered stark notice that, four years into a severe drought, the Golden State remains desperately parched with little relief in sight.

Gov. Jerry Brown and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers attempted to deliver some form of it Thursday when they announced a $1 billion plan to provide immediate relief and stave off future problems.

“This is a struggle,” Brown reportedly said during a press conference announcing the package. “Something we’re going to have to live with. For how long, we’re not sure.”

While the legislation includes millions of dollars in emergency aid, it also earmarks $660 million for flood prevention. Brown explained that flood control and drought relief were of a piece, according to the Los Angeles Times, describing them as “extreme weather events” related to climate change.

The new measures come two days after state officials voted March 17 to enact some of the broadest and strictest statewide water limits in California history. Outdoor lawn and landscape watering, which accounts for about half of all consumption in urban areas, will be limited to two days per week.

“It’s the number one thing that could be done and it’s easy,” says Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

The water board regulations will also ban residents from irrigating during rainstorms and for two days afterward. And restaurants will be permitted to offer tap water to patrons only upon request.

Given how little the new water regulations ask of residents, it’s easy to wonder why they weren’t enacted earlier. With surface water at dangerously low levels and non-renewable groundwater being depleted at a rapid pace, Famiglietti warned in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed that the state must immediately ration water before California’s supply is gone completely.

“Because of the severity of the situation, I do think the public is ready for it,” Famiglietti says.

Several polls appear to back him up. An October 2014 survey found that Californians are just as worried about the drought as they are about the economy. Ninety-four percent of state residents polled in February said they consider the drought to be “serious.” Still, Californians seem unwilling to voluntarily curb their water consumption as much as officials would like. In January 2014, Brown urged Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent. Statewide usage this past in January was just 9 percent less than the same month in 2013.

“Even though it was historically dry, it was still raining,” says Sarah Rose, CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters. “People see the rain and think they can go back to their old habits. We’re going to have to create new habits.”

While experts call the new water board rules a step in the right direction, they worry that more drastic, but necessary, measures like rationing and water price increases still haven’t been proposed.

“No one wants to be responsible for delivering the hard news that people have to significantly change their behavior,” says Charles Stringer, chair of the regional water board in Southern California. “We’re trying to get where we need to go without too much pain and sacrifice. But what the water experts and policy makers are saying with increasing urgency is that’s not possible.”

New regulations come with their own problems of how to enforce them. “There’s not going to be the manpower to do it,” says Famiglietti. A recent investigation by the Associated Press found that after California authorized emergency drought measures last summer to allow local communities to issue $500 fines for excessive water use, few residents actually got tickets.

In the meantime, officials are hoping public information campaigns might be more effective. One water district in Northern California has adopted “Brown is the New Green” as a new motto, encouraging residents to let their lawns die to conserve water. “People should feel really proud of having a brown lawn,” says Famiglietti.

TIME Environment

This Was the Warmest Winter on Record

But you wouldn't have guessed it if you lived on the East Coast

Global temperatures from December to February were the highest on record, U.S. climate officials said Wednesday.

If that comes as a surprise to many Americans after an agonizingly cold winter, it’s because the region encompassing the eastern United States and Canada was one of the only places on earth with lower-than-average temperatures.

NOAA

Globally, the average temperature from December to February was 1.42 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the 20th-century average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The average temperature was the highest since tracking began in 1880, surpassing the previous high in 2007 by .05 degrees.

Last month marked the second coldest February on record, behind February 1998.

Read next: It’s Official: Boston Had Snowiest Winter Ever

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME animals

This New Species of Catfish Was Named After a ‘Star Wars’ Character

Greedo from Star Wars
Lucasfilm Greedo from Star Wars

If this new species of catfish looks familiar, don’t be surprised—Peckoltia greedoi is named after Star Wars bounty hunter Greedo.

Researchers discovered the new species of catfish in 1998 in Brazil, but it had been catalogued as an existing species until 2014, CNN reports. When it came time to name the unidentified fish, they noted Peckoltia greedoi‘s uncanny likeness to the Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope character.

“I think it was the whole package that evoked Greedo, but particularly the eyes and the underslung mouth,” said Jonathan Armbruster, biological sciences professor and curator of fishes at the Auburn University Museum of Natural History, who helped name the species.

“As a 7-year-old kid, I watched “Star Wars” in the theater, and it was a life-changing experience for me,” said Armbruster. “Greedo has always been a personal favorite of mine.”

[CNN]

 

TIME Environment

Britain’s Prince Charles Urges Action to Clean Up the World’s Oceans 

Britain's Prince Charles greets participants in a conference about the rule of law in the 21st century as he visits the National Archives in Washington
Jonathan Ernst—Reuters Prince Charles, center, greets participants in a conference about the rule of law in the 21st century titled "The Magna Carta of the Future" as he visits the National Archives in Washington, D.C., on March 18, 2015

The future monarch called ocean waste "one issue that we absolutely cannot ignore"

The U.K.’s Prince of Wales made an ardent speech on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., urging world governments to tackle the growing problem of oceanic pollution.

Prince Charles told the government officials, corporate executives and nonprofit leaders present that he was “horrified” to learn that up to 8 million tons of plastic enter the world’s seas each year.

“One issue that we absolutely cannot ignore is that of the increasing quantity of plastic waste in the marine environment,” he said on the first day of his 20th official visit to the U.S., reports Agence France-Presse.

The 66-year-old heir to the British throne then described a harrowing image of seabirds being killed after mistaking plastic for food.

Accompanied by his wife Camilla, he also paid a visit to the Lincoln Memorial and Martin Luther King Memorial.

On Thursday, the Prince will meet with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office to discuss climate change, youth opportunities and other world affairs.

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