Antarctic ozone hole “healing” say scientists

July 3, 2016

A study published in Science claims to offer the first compelling evidence that the hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic is shrinking. This study, conducted by US and UK scientists, contains data collected annually between September 2000 and September 2015, which demonstrates a decline of 4 million sq km in the size of the ozone hole during this period.

The study’s authors attribute the good news to the phasing out of Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) chemicals since a global ban was introduced with the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

The study is also the first to highlight the role of volcanic activity in ozone depletion.

Ozone depletion and CFCs

Ozone is a gas which is present in the stratosphere, where it serves to protect humans, animals and plants on Earth by blocking harmful ultraviolet radiation coming from the Sun. For humans, exposure to UV radiation raises the risk of skin cancer and cataract damage.

Although depletion and production of ozone both occur naturally in the stratosphere, the level of ozone has been historically constant.

Yet in the mid 1980s British scientists discovered a dramatic thinning of the ozone layer above the Antarctic. Subsequently, in 1986, work by US researcher Susan Soloman called attention to the destructive effects on the ozone of the chlorine and bromine molecules in CFCs, which at the time were present in everything from aerosols to refrigerators and air conditioning units.

On the back of this research, in 1987 the Montreal Protocol introduced a global ban on CFC production, which was ratified by all UN member countries.

Ozone hole shrinkage

According to a BBC News article, the declining influence of CFCs has been reported by other studies prior to this latest research; however, this is the first time evidence has been put forward that the hole in the ozone layer is actually shrinking.

Between 2000 and 2015, Prof Solomon and her colleagues conducted detailed measurements of ozone in the stratosphere using weather balloons, satellites and model simulations. By so doing, they found that the hole above the Antarctic has shrunk by 4 million sq km over this period. Over half of this gain was due to the reduction of atmospheric chlorine.

For Dr Markus Rex from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, “This is the first convincing evidence that the healing of the Antarctic ozone hole has now started.” He ascribes this achievement to the Montreal Protocol, and sees this latest finding as “a big step forward.”

Nevertheless as Professor Soloman made clear, “Even though we phased out the production of CFCs in all countries including India and China around the year 2000, there’s still a lot of chlorine left in the atmosphere.”

Given that this has a lifetime of between 50 to 100 years, recovery is expected to be slow. “We don’t expect to see a complete recovery until about 2050 or 2060,” said Professor Soloman.

Volcanic Activity

Yet, seemingly contrary to the reports conclusions, the reading taken in October 2015 showed the largest ozone hole on record; findings which at first baffled the researchers.

According to Prof Solomon, “Until we did our recent work no-one realised that the Calbuco eruption in Chile, actually had significantly affected the ozone loss in October of last year.”

The reason that thinning of the ozone layer occurred predominantly over the Antarctic is due to the extreme cold and ample light in this region. Conditions which helped to create Polar Stratospheric Clouds, in which CFCs linger and eat away at the ozone.

Prof Solomon explained that “”After an eruption, volcanic sulphur forms tiny particles and those are the seeds for Polar Stratospheric Clouds.”

“You get even more of these clouds when you have a recent major volcanic eruption and that leads to additional ozone loss.”

In fact this study has been hailed as “historically significant” by some in the field for being the first to draw a connection between volcanic activity and ozone loss.


At the same time, there have been doubts raised by some in the field that the shrinkage in the ozone hole can be attributed to the decreasing amount of chlorine in the stratosphere.

Nasa’s Dr Paul Newman, for example, said, “The data clearly show significant year to year variations that are much greater than the inferred trends shown in the paper.”

“If the paper included this past year, which had a much more significant ozone hole due to lower wave driven forcing, the overall trend would be less.”

Even so, the researchers behind the study clearly believe strongly in their findings. For them, international efforts to tackle the hole in the ozone should serve as a model for other global environmental problems.

“This was an era in which international co-operation went rather well on some issues. I was inspired by the way the developed and developing countries were able to work together on dealing with the ozone hole,” said Prof Solomon.

Sources: BBC News, Guardian Newspaper


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Nuclear bomb testing a breakthrough in the fight against illegal ivory trading

July 6, 2013

Illegally poached ivory may be able to be tracked using nuclear bomb testing, new sources show. By testing the level of atmospheric carbon left over from nuclear bomb testing, scientists may be able to use the results to date elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns in order to determine whether they have been poached and trafficked illegally.

These findings, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS) last month, may make it much easier to enforce the ivory ban.

An international ban on ivory trading was applied in 1989, after the 1980s played host to the worst ivory poaching in recent history, a decade during which over half of Africa’s elephants were slaughtered for their tusks. Since the ban, the demand for ivory decreased markedly as the threat of extinction of these animals became known to the public.

In recent years, however, conservationists have become increasingly concerned about the growing demand for ivory and for rhinoceros horns, trends which are particularly prevalent in China and other Asian countries, where powdered rhinoceros horn is thought to hold medicinal properties.

It is often difficult to tell which of the tusks and horns amassed by world governments across the decades were poached illegally after the ban had come into play, and whether this is being illegally traded back into the black market. Recent research by scientists working with nuclear bomb testing have devised a manner of dating this ivory and horn to determine which of it pre-dates the trade ban and which has been traded illegally since 1989.

During the Cold War, extensive nuclear weapons testing by participant countries caused the amount of radioactive carbon in the atmosphere to almost double in volume. After 1962, such testing was restricted to underground locations, resulting in a steady decrease in the amount of radiocarbon in the air. These changing levels of radiocarbon are known as the ‘bomb-curve’.

Radioactive carbon is absorbed by the plants and animals with which it comes into contact, making it possible to test samples of animal tissue to reveal the concentration of radioactive carbon within. Using such tests, scientists can accurately determine the year in which the animal died, a step up in accuracy from the traditional dating techniques which rely upon the loss of radiocarbon over time, rather than its present concentration levels. Whilst past techniques could decipher only a tiny, almost imperceptible amount of decay, these new techniques based on nuclear bomb testing are able to pinpoint the date of the animal’s death to an astonishingly accurate level.

Combined with DNA testing, scientists are able to accurately describe both the animal’s region of origin and the date it died. These two factors are important in the fight against illegal ivory and horn poaching and trading, allowing scientists and conservationists to pinpoint the source of the ivory, and when it was initially obtained and traded.

Funding for anti-poaching organisations is somewhat limited, so the ability to determine whether a stockpile of ivory was illegally poached, and how recently, conservationists may direct the limited funding directly to ivory poaching hotspots where animals are increasingly at risk.

Nuclear bomb testing is not limited to the dating of ivory. The technique has wider implications for crime forensics, as it could be used in the future to date human bones, as well as in the art world, used to detect art forgeries.

Sources include BBC and The Guardian


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The future looks bright for Fukushima farmers

June 27, 2013

Farmers in Fukushima are turning to “solar sharing,” a process by which they can generate solar power on the same land as they already grow crops. This process will allow them to sell solar power for use on the national grid, via utility companies.

This is certainly a novel enterprise. Fukushima’s farming industry was badly affected by last year’s nuclear accident. The regions farmers are hoping to sell the power to help cover the losses they have suffered due to the nuclear accident at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima nuclear plant. It is believed that most of the farmers will invest the money generated from the sale of the electric power into improving their existing arable land. The ‘solar sharing’ process is in principle really rather simple: solar panels are erected on poles over existing arable land. In order to ensure a sufficient volume of light reaches the crops underneath, the amount of light that reaches the soil is carefully controlled by tilting the position of the solar panels according to the position of the daytime sun. It is, to put it simply, a sort of mechanical ‘sunflower effect.’

Solar sharing was first used in 2004, in Chiba prefecture, and then spread to other prefectures, including Aichi, Mie and Ibaraki. Due to a government scheme introduced last July, electric power companies are now obliged to buy power generated by renewable energy sources at fixed prices. However, the government have set conditions for farmers wanting to participate in the scheme. Importantly, they must continue to cultivate the land itself, and the annual crop yield of the arable land must not fall below 80% of the regional average. This is to prevent farmers from abandoning farming and using the government scheme as their primary source of income instead. Rather the scheme is intended as a ‘stop-gap’ for farmers affected by the Fukushima nuclear accident. Ichiro Hirata, a farmer, whose land is being used for the project, said: “Even if shipments from this area resume someday, my crops will not sell for the time being due to groundless rumours of contamination. Until prices recover, I can now cover the loss by selling electric power.”

However, a local government official did counsel caution: “While solar sharing could help our farmers, damage caused by rumours relating to the nuclear accident could drive them out of business before they even get a chance to try it.”

Yet the notion of solar sharing is gaining ground in Japan. The town government of Aizubange is also considering introducing solar sharing. Moreover, farmers in Sendai have also proposed introducing a block solar sharing scheme. Even in Iwate, a local government official said that they had received numerous inquiries from farmers and local agricultural committees enquiring about how to introduce solar sharing.

Michio Sakemoto, Director of Solar Sharing Kyokai, said: “If the projects in Fukushima prefecture prove successful, we want to encourage farmers in all of the disaster-hit areas to introduce the solar sharing method as a way to keep using their farmland in the most effective and productive way.”


Sources used include: The Japan News and Japan Times

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Davos: Public funding to catalyse private investment in green technologies

February 6, 2013

At the World Economic Forum (W.E.F) Annual Meeting 2013 in Davos, Switzerland last week there was both good and bad news. Though dire warnings were issued about the dangers of climate change, financial instability, and rising food prices. There were also positive proposals outlining how governments can use public funding to stimulate private investment in green technologies.

The new president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, highlighted a recent report that predicted global temperatures could rise by 4 °C within decades. “My children could be living in a world that doesn’t even resemble the one we live in now,” he said.

There are positive signs that businesses are already paying serious attention to climate change. Nearly 700 of the 2415 companies surveyed in the recent Carbon Disclosure Project in London were already investing in emissions cuts, and 63 per cent of those companies said they were doing so because climate change was a physical risk to their business. 70 per cent of all companies surveyed believed climate change could significantly affect their revenues particularly through supply chain disruption from severe weather.

Currently, the world’s governments spend $96 billion a year tackling climate change. However, according to the Davos Green Investment Report, $700 billion of investment every year will be needed in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions to a safe level, while still allowing economic growth.

The key issue is how to meet the shortfall in funding. The 2008 financial crisis has slashed public funds “We just don’t have that much public money,” said Dominic Waughray, a senior director of the WEF in Geneva, Switzerland, and one of the authors of the report. However, Waughray presents a solution saying that governments can encourage big businesses to step up. The WEF report estimates that if public spending is increased to $130 billion, then governments could use that to unleash a potential $570 billion a year of private capital.

This is the story behind The Catalyst fund set up by The International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank and launched in Davos. Its aim is to help companies that are tackling climate change by, for instance, building renewable power plants or boosting energy efficiency. Rather than using public money to fund projects like wind farms outright, the aim of the fund is to attract private investors by providing them with a financial safety net reducing their risk and covering any potential losses in the same way that public money already provides this kind of security to major infrastructure projects. Though still in its early days the fund has already raised $280 million.

Sources include The New Scientist.


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‘Burning ice’ deposits found in the Sea of Japan.

October 29, 2012

Japanese researchers from Meiji University have discovered new deposits of methane hydrate in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. These were present on the sea floor at approximately 800 to 1000m depth. The substance, often referred to as ‘burning ice’, is very important in the hunt for alternative fuel sources as it holds huge reserves of natural gas.

Although the gas is very difficult to extract, the US Department of Energy and Japan, who were in collaboration over the project, announced in May that they had successfully extracted a flow of natural gas from methane hydrates.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) referred to the substance as “a vast, entirely untapped resource that holds enormous potential for U.S. economic and energy security” and declared the successful extraction project, “unprecedented”. In August this year, the DOE announced $2 million funding for Scientific Institutions and Universities to assess the potential of methane hydrate and test additional technologies which may be used in the detection and extraction of it on a much larger scale, particularly around the U.S Gulf Coast. The DOE calls methane hydrate “the Earth’s biggest potential source of hydrocarbon energy”. Japan is also searching for viable alternatives to nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster of 2011 and the discovery of this vast resource may be highly beneficial to Japan’s future energy plans. The Japanese research team will commence further surveys to determine the amount of methane hydrate in the area.

This follows the recent news that shale oil has been extracted from an oil field in Japan. Shale oil, like methane hydrate, may be a feasible alternative fuel source but had been very difficult to extract until now. The Japan Petroleum Exploration Co. (JAPEX), succeeded in doing this by pumping hydrochloric acid into shale layers about 1,800 meters underground.  JAPEX is currently conducting tests to examine the profitability of extracting the oil as the amount of oil present is relatively little.

Sources include: NHK World, Energy.Gov and Japan Times


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‘There’s no such thing as waste, just stuff in the wrong place!’

October 4, 2012

‘There’s no such thing as waste, just stuff in the wrong place.’ This is the motto of the team of designers and builders involved in the construction of the first building in the UK to be made entirely out of waste and organic materials.

Duncan Baker-Brown, an architect based in the UK’s seaside city of Brighton hopes the house, known as ‘The House that Kevin Built’ after the prototype built in 2008, will act as motivation for increased sustainable construction across the UK.

Disturbed by the startling amount of construction waste he found after building projects had been completed, Baker-Brown, who is working on the building in conjunction with Brighton’s arts faculty, hopes the project will encourage people to have a greater awareness of the importance of living sustainably and reducing our carbon footprint. “There is a huge pile of construction waste that’s building up in this country and to ignore is quite frankly sinful,” says Baker-Brown. “Through this project we are going to show that there is no such thing as waste.”

So, what exactly will Kevin build his house from? The walls will be constructed from waste timber, with plywood panels, also made from waste material, inserted in the gaps in the timber structure. The house will be fully fitted with solar panels and a heat recovery system. And whilst it will take more than a few strong men to put the building together, Baker-Brown also plans to set up a community production line on the site itself so that members of the public  – students, apprentices and even school children – can muck in and help out with the construction.

The ecological building will, upon completion, be used as a space for local community groups to display expositions and hold workshops. Upstairs, the Brighton arts’ faculty will install their headquarters for sustainable design.

Baker-Brown’s building was motivated by his perceived need to find new ways to build and live sustainably. And this need is indeed great. In the UK, 45 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions come from architectural structures, and it is hoped that the House That Kevin Built will act as the starting point in a mission to reduce CO2 emissions in Brighton by over 30 per cent, exceeding EU targets.

The building, which is set to be completed in May 2013, is hoped to act as central hub for all those who share concerns about sustainable, carbon-neutral living, and, hopefully, it will inspire more people to reduce the size of their own carbon footprint.

Sources include: The Guardian, Brighton Arts Faculty,


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Extremely normal: The weather report

September 21, 2012

Monsoons in Manila this August went down in history as the heaviest rainfall the Philippines have ever known, whilst on the other side of the world, the US weathermen were telling a very different story, as over 56% of the country was declared severely drought-stricken.  Here in the UK, we’ve worn out our wellies during the wettest summer on record, looking on, somewhat enviously, at the record-high scorching temperatures across central and eastern Europe. Extreme weather seems to be the phrase of the day, and it seems it’s here to stay. For whilst we once might have looked upon that surprising heatwave, or that oddly early cold snap, or that freak flood as a blip on an otherwise-stable agenda, extreme episodes such as these no longer feel so extreme as they become more and more common.

According to climate change scientists, this is not surprising at all. We’ve heard the warnings for years: our human presence on this planet is causing global warming at an unmanageable rate, and as a consequence of our bad behaviour, we will have to reckon with the forces that be. The heatwaves and droughts we hear in the news so frequently are no longer matters of weather, that is to say the short-term (minutes to months) changes in the atmosphere, but are rather the effects of climate change, or changes in the long-term averages of daily weather. As the planet heats up, so we feel the effects of more severe and unpredictable weather.

This is not to suggest that all examples of extreme weather are directly linked to climate change, but scientists are linking individual weather events to climate change with increasingly alarming frequency. To take but one example, the unseasonably warm average temperature in the UK last November was the second hottest since records began. Researchers believe that this was at least 60 times more likely to be due to climate change than to natural variations in the earth’s weather systems. It seems it is becoming impossible to deny the global impact that our actions have upon our world.

The effects of climate change are felt everywhere, not least in our day-to-day weather. Economic, zoological, even …………… climate change affects our world in more subtle ways than we hear about on the news.

For example, climate change has resulted in US winters not being sufficiently cold to control the numbers of bark beetles living in the forests of the USA. Since 1996, these beetles have laid waste to 65,000 square miles of U.S. forest – an area roughly the size of Washington State. Cholera and mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever and malaria are all thriving as the Earth warms. In Bangladesh, for example, the resultant rise in water temperature has increased the risk of cholera outbreaks by up to five times.

Climate change can affect us right down to our housing insurance. In 2011, US insurance firm State Farm Insurance cancelled coverage for 11,000 homeowners in Texas because of exposure to extreme weather.

It seems that we are in the midst of a global climate breakdown, more rapid and widespread than climate change scientists ever expected. Let us hope there is still time to reverse it, or at the very least, slow it down to a sustainable level.

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