SOUND JOURNALISM ABOUT THE PLANET

Highlights from the Week's News

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Meet a Unique Storm Chaser

July 21, 2024

The Climate Record of JD Vance, Trump's Choice for Vice President

It was just four years ago that the Republican nominee for vice president, JD Vance, said, “We, of course, have a climate problem in our society,” placing some of the blame on China’s greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, Vance, currently a senator from Ohio, has completely reversed his position and has become a strong supporter of the oil and gas industry.

U.S. Senator JD Vance speaking at The People's Convention in Detroit, Michigan  |  Credit: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

The transformation occurred as Vance was running for Senate in 2022 and seeking former president Trump’s endorsement, the New York Times reports. At that time, Vance said he was skeptical that climate change is caused purely by man.

E&E News reports that during Vance’s 2022 election campaign, the oil and gas industry contributed nearly $283,000, placing him in the top 20 members of Congress it supported. A spokesperson for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association told the news outlet that Vance is “somebody who understands kind of what we do and how we do it.”

In 2023 Vance introduced a bill, dubbed the “Drive American Act,” which would get rid of federal tax credits for electric vehicles and instead would give them for vehicles made in the U.S. and powered only by gas or diesel. Last month, at the Turning Point Action conference, Vance said wind turbines are “hideously ugly,” and repeated Trump’s statement that they “kill all the birds.”

Vance co-sponsored a bill that would have undone the Biden administration’s environmental regulations, but it was vetoed by the president. In the Marietta Times, Vance wrote an opinion piece last year, stating that it is time to double down on the Ohio energy industry, which needs new pipelines and refineries to maximize output of the state’s shale reserves. And he wrote, “We need less red tape and fewer restrictions from the federal government.”

In 2016, Vance said he was a “Never Trump” guy in an interview with Charlie Rose, but now he embraces the former president and doubts human-caused climate change.

This Ocean Creature Is an Ecosystem Engineer

Stingrays, with their wide flat bodies, don’t really look like fish, but they are cousins of sharks. They can grow up to about four feet across and have fins the length of their bodies. Most of the time, estuary stingrays (Hemitrygon fluviorum) stay in shallow waters near coastlines in warmer parts of the world, partially burying themselves on the ocean floor. Now, new research from the University of New Castle, Australia, shows they play an important function in the ecosystem by moving sand around.

Drone imagery of the study location, Pelican's Spot in the Brisbane Water estuary, where populations of the estuary stingray (Hemitrygon fluviorum) can grow to 130 centimeters (or about four feet) across and are found only in Australia.  | Credit: University of Newcastle PhD student Molly Grew

 

During one year in the Brisbane Water estuary off the coast of New South Wales, the rays’ graceful fins shifted an amount of sand equal to the mass of the Great Sphinx of Giza. Lead researcher Molly Grew told Australian Geographic that the rays’ turnover of sediment helps with nutrient cycling, but until her study, they did not know how much sand they stirred up. In a university release, she said that when feeding and sleeping, stingrays create pits that look like shallow divots in the ocean floor, and their burrowing process helps to penetrate oxygen into the sand, upon which many organisms rely.

The rays eat worms, invertebrates, and mollusks that hide under the sand. To find them, they flap their wings and spurt water, disturbing the sand to expose their prey. Grew calls the rays “ecosystem engineers,” and she said that without them, sediments become anoxic and lose the small animals living in the sand, which is a problem up the food chain.

Now, researchers are concerned about the loss of the animals, mainly from coastal development that can destroy habitat, and also from bycatch in commercial fishing. Estuary stingrays are now categorized as near threatened.

The study was published in the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation.

How Climate Change Is Making Days Longer

Earth’s rotation is not constant. The interplay of the sun, the moon, and the planet’s core tweak the rate it spins and has done so for billions of years—that is until human-caused climate change entered the mix.

A tidewater glacier on the Antarctic coast  |  Credit: Jason Auch/Creative Commons

New research shows that by pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we are making our days longer. The burning of fossil fuels leads to ice melting in polar regions, which sends more water into the world’s oceans—especially near the equator. This creates a bulge around Earth’s midsection—or more technically, a shift in mass—that’s causing the planet to rotate more slowly and lengthen the day.

How much? New research from ETH Zurich says it’s only a few milliseconds more than the current rotation of 86,400 seconds, but that can potentially affect computer systems, GPS, and even space travel, all of which rely on precise clocks. What’s more, the researchers found that the change in mass is also shifting Earth’s axis and movements in the planet’s core.

The study says that by the end of the century, global warming will have a greater influence on the Earth's rotational speed than the gravitational pull of the moon, which tugs at the oceans and has slowed the planet’s rate of spin for millennia.  

The study about Earth’s rotation was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS

This Seabird Not Only Flies into Hurricanes but also Chases Them

Tornado-chasing is having another moment in Hollywood with the release of the movie Twisters, but humans aren’t the only storm chasers on the planet. According to new research, a daredevil seabird living on an island in the Atlantic Ocean, will deliberately fly into hurricanes—and not for an Oscar. It’s all about food.

A new study from the WHOI and partners reveals the pelagic seabird Desertas petrel (Pterodroma deserta) exhibits unique foraging behaviors during hurricane season. Contrary to other pelagic seabirds, these petrels do not avoid intense tropical cyclones but instead exploit the dynamic conditions for their benefit.  | Credit: Kirk Zufelt

Scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution say Desertas petrel seabirds (Pterodroma deserta) have figured out that strong storms churn the ocean and lift deeper water to the surface. That brings mid-level to bottom dwelling fish, squid, and crustaceans to upper layers where the birds can easily pick them off.

While most birds avoid a hurricane or take shelter in the eye, scientists tracked the petrels and found that they not only flew into cyclones but would also follow the storms for thousands of miles. Lead author Francesco Ventura said in a press release,  “When we saw the data, we nearly fell off our chairs. This is the first time we have observed this behavior.”

The researchers say that the birds can spend weeks at sea during breeding season, flying roundtrips of up to 7,500 miles across the Atlantic in search of food. They belong to the genus Pterodroma, which means "wings on the run.” The pigeon-sized birds nest on an island off the western coast of North Africa, the only known colony in the world, with fewer than 200 pairs.

Remarkably, the birds knew to reduce their ground speed when encountering strong winds to avoid injuring their wings. They also knew to take advantage of tailwinds in the wakes of the storms to increase speed—thrillseeker tactics that might make for a blockbuster if Hollywood could outfit them with a GoPro.

The study was published in the journal Current Biology.