Highlights from the Week's News

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When a Dustup Is a Good Thing

May 07, 2023

Europe Feels the Pain of No Rain in Spain

Drought is threatening one of the biggest fruit and vegetable producing countries for all of the European Union—Spain. Nearly half of Spain’s crop exports like lettuce and strawberries have been grown in the southeastern part of the country that uses diverted water from the River Tagus to the north. The Tagus runs about 620 miles from east to west, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at Lisbon, Portugal. The Spanish government completed the Tagus-Segura Water Transfer project including its canals, tunnels, aqueducts, and reservoirs in the late 1970s.

Part of one of Spain's transfer system's aqueducts in its passage through Carrascosa del Campo | Credit: Midir

However, Euronews reports that facing climate change and increased desertification, the government has decided to limit the amount of water that is taken from the river, which has dropped so low in some areas, it’s possible to cross by foot. Drought has hit Spain and much of Europe since 2018. Last year in Italy, the Po River suffered its worst drought in 70 years and France endured its driest winter in more than 60 years.

It’s also been hot. The average temperature in Spain has increased by 1.3 C since the late 1970s, and at the end of April, the country endured a heat wave similar to what usually happens in July or August. It was almost 102 degrees F in Córdoba, setting a new record for the month. The heat was also felt in Morocco, Algeria, and Portugal.

A report last week by the organization, World Weather Attribution, showed that that heat wave would almost certainly not have happened without human-induced climate change. The World Meteorological Association said last week that there are high chances of El Niño conditions occurring in the Pacific Ocean by September, which would likely fuel higher global temperatures.

How Dust Supports the Fight Against Climate Change

The basis for life in the ocean is phytoplankton, plant-like organisms that live close to the surface and provide food for a range of marine animals. Also called microalgae, phytoplankton need nutrients such as nitrates, phosphates, and sulfur to survive, and according to new research led by Oregon State University, they obtain much of it from atmospheric dust that’s lifted from the land into the air by wind and transported vast distances.

Dust spreads from China | Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

As explains, the dust is composed of small particles of various minerals and organic compounds that can come from both natural sources, such as deserts or wildfires, as well as from human activities such as agriculture. According to NOAA, about half of the dust in the atmosphere comes from North Africa because of the abundance of sources and the position of the region under the subtropical jet stream that carries it around.

The new study shows that by supporting phytoplankton, dust can play a big role in mitigating climate change. Phytoplankton sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into organic matter through photosynthesis, some of which sinks to the deep sea and is locked away.

The amount of dust in the atmosphere can be influenced by everything from volcanic eruptions to land use changes—and is not always beneficial. It can contribute to air pollution and erosion.

The study was published in the journal Science.

"Green Guide" Aims to Stop Deceptive Greenwashing

As Kermit the Frog would tell you, it’s not easy being green. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says it should be for consumers but not for imposters.

Credit: Greg Henshall/Wikimedia Commons

Since 1992, the FTC has published its Green Guide to help companies avoid making deceptive environmental marketing claims under Section 5 of the FTC Act or other laws in response to a growing demand for environmentally friendly and sustainable goods by consumers who have no way of vetting products that tout everything from being recyclable to organic.

The guides, which have been revised in 1996, 1998, and most recently in 2012, are about to get another makeover, in part to tackle issues like greenwashing, following, as the Guardian reports, formal complaints to the agency that fossil fuel companies, big agriculture, major food producers, and other polluting industries are making claims that don’t pass the sniff test.

The new version will also attempt to take the grey area out of green terms such as net zero, biodegradability, carbon offsets, or other vague language that implies corporate responsibility but lacks a precise definition. The FTC’s goal is to clarify rules for companies and outline how they can substantiate their claims such as product certifications and seals of approval that imply, for example, that materials or energy sources are “renewable.”

For consumer, environmental, and clean energy groups, the objective would be to stop what has been called an insidious campaign of disinformation aimed at capitalizing on consumers’ concerns.

The guides are nonbinding but could help the FTC when it takes legal action against companies. The public can submit comments by June 13 of this year and attend a workshop titled Talking Trash at the FTC on May 23 to discuss recycling.

Scientists "Gobsmacked" by All the Benefits This Plant Provides

It might be time to show mosses some respect. The plants have lived on Earth for over 450 million years, surviving in extremes from the driest deserts to the wind-swept hills of Antarctica. Despite covering an area equal to the land mass of Canada, mosses haven’t been studied as much as their vascular plant cousins but according to a new report, we’d be lost without them.

Papillae on the leaf of the moss Crossidium davidai. | Credit: Dr. David Eldridge, University of New South Wales, Sydney

Researchers from the University of New South Wales, Sydney looked at mosses growing on soil in more than 123 ecosystems across the globe to better understand their roles in their environments. The scientists were, in their own words, “gobsmacked” to learn 24 amazing things the plants were doing. For starters, they’re good neighbors, the authors say, helping to produce healthier and more biodiverse soils for nearby plants, providing habitat for microbes, and even fighting pathogens harmful to other organisms and people.

Mosses take in moisture from the air unlike vascular plants that draw up water from their roots. But mosses do have roots—called rhizoids—that anchor them to a surface, making them excellent at controlling erosion. The researchers say that mosses have a positive ecological function of creating surface microclimates that affect soil temperature and moisture. On top of all that, the authors say mosses are a vital ally to combat climate change, storing 6.4 gigatons more carbon than bare soils without plant cover.

Unfortunately, mosses are threatened globally by livestock, overharvesting, land clearing, and even changing climates. That said, mosses might outlive us in the end. The researchers found that when some dry out, they don’t die—they can live in suspended animation forever until they receive water and spring back to life.

The study was published in the journal Nature Geoscience.