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A Guilt-Free Shower...Even in Droughts?

February 06, 2022

Extreme Temperatures Now Affect Nearly 60 percent of World Oceans

The surface temperatures of more than half of the world’s oceans are excessively hot, which is becoming the new normal, threatening marine life all over the planet. New research from the Monterey Bay Aquarium shows that heat extremes started about seven years ago and now cover nearly 60 percent of the all the seas, increasing the risk that critical ecosystems like coral reefs, kelp forests, and seagrass meadows will collapse.

So extensive, it is visible from space, the Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef ecosystem. Stretching 2,300 km along Australia’s northeast coastline, this complex of shallow water reefs and islands is home to thousands of species of fish, invertebrates, algae, reptiles, birds, and algae. This image, taken by the VIIRS sensor on the Suomi NPP satellite on August 19, 2017 uses the high resolution SVI 3, 2, and 1 bands, commonly referred to as “natural color” RGB. | Credit: NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS)

In a release, the researchers say that the heat affects the health of sustainable fisheries and could lead to the loss of seagrasses and kelp forests that buffer coastal regions from extreme weather events. The plant life also acts as carbon sinks, storing human-generated greenhouse gases.

The new research shows that the extreme heat was particularly severe in certain parts of the ocean. The South Atlantic passed the point of no return 24 years ago. Among the worst affected areas, are those off the northeast coast of the U.S. and Canada, Somalia and Indonesia, and in the Norwegian Sea.

Warming is happening at a rapid pace. Now, temperatures occurring routinely would have been rare just a hundred years ago. The Guardian notes that there have been earlier studies that show an increase in the number of heatwaves in the ocean that have killed sealife like the effects of a wildfire on a forest. The lead researcher, Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, said that climate change is not a future event and has been affecting us for a while.

A second study published last week, led by the University of Leeds, focuses on coral reefs, which researchers say are likely to suffer catastrophic losses as prolonged heat leads them to expel colorful algae. The result will be bleached corals when global warming reaches 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. Currently, we are on pace to pass that level in 2033.

Consistent with these two reports, scientists at NOAA recently concluded that heat stress on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, reached an unprecedented level in about the last three months of last year. It’s predicted that the reef will undergo its sixth mass coral bleaching event during the Southern Hemisphere summer of 2021-2022. One of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch scientists told the Guardian that his team was surprised, shocked, and concerned when they completed their analysis because there’s never been heat stress like that in their records—with minimum temperatures being higher than previous maximums.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium research was published in the journal PLOS, as was the University of Leeds research. The NOAA research was published in the journal F1000 Research.

Air Conditioning in the U.S. May Succumb to Rolling Blackouts

As the earth warms, it’s likely that the demand for air conditioning will increase. Now, a new study shows that there could be prolonged blackouts in the U.S., if there isn’t an increase in cooling efficiency or capacity. The research is the first to project residential air conditioning demand on a household basis at a wide scale.

Household air conditioning use in the United States. Bar graphs show the predicted change in kilowatt-hour consumption per household, by state, as global climate crosses 1.5 degrees Celsius (blue) and 2.0 degrees Celsius (pink) thresholds above preindustrial temperature averages. States shaded darker grey over the map of the contiguous United States consumed more air conditioning during the baseline period from 2005-2019. Grey shading over the map of the contiguous United States shows baseline air conditioning consumption in kilowatt-hours per household, by state, from 2005-2019. | Credit: Obringer et al 2021

Technological improvements in home air conditioning appliances or the power grid could supply the necessary additional demand, which will be needed in the South and Southwest. But without the capacity to meet demand, rolling blackouts like those in California in 2020, may be imposed during extended periods of heat. According to the Los Angeles Times, without increased cooling efficiency or improvements in the power infrastructure, in about ten years the state could experience the loss of air conditioning for about a week during the summer.

Assuming global warming stays at 1.5 degrees Celsius, people living in some Midwestern states could experience 12 summer days without air conditioning. If temperatures increase more, so will the number of days without cooling across the U.S. The authors emphasize that the impact will be felt disproportionately on marginalized communities, which are more vulnerable to heat-related health effects and disasters.

The study only looked at increases in temperatures and did not consider possible population increases, behaviors, income levels, or other factors that could increase the demand for air conditioning even more.

The study was published in AGU journal Earth’s Future.

Crows Trained to Get Butts off the Ground

Cigarette butts are one of the biggest sources of litter on the planet, with about 4.5 trillion being tossed every year. More than unsightly, they contain toxic chemicals and woven plastic fibers that eventually flow through waterways into the ocean, where they do serious harm to aquatic life.

Hooded Crow

The plastic fibers continuously release microplastic fibers into the environment. About 300,000 tons of potential microplastic fibers may enter the aquatic environment from this source per annum, according to researchers. Plastic cigarette filters have been found in the stomachs of fish, birds, whales, and other marine creatures that mistake them as food. Sometimes even young children pick up and ingest cigarette butts, which contain toxins, including nicotine, carcinogenic tar, cadmium, and benzene.

Cleaning up the waste is expensive and time consuming, so a startup in Södertälje, Sweden called Corvid Cleaning has turned to crows to do the dirty work. In a pilot program, the organization has trained birds to pick up cigarette butts and drop them in a special vending machine, or bird bin, which dispenses food in exchange. The bin can tell the difference between leaves or stones and only offers rewards for cigarettes.

Crows, which are members of the corvid family that also includes ravens, were chosen for their intelligence and reasoning ability, which research suggests is equivalent to that of a seven-year-old child. The organization says the crows participate voluntarily for as long as they want. They plan to study if the program is changing the birds’ behavior, but because the crows live in cities, their activity is already shaped by people. They are also mindful that handling the cigarette butts could be harmful to the crows, so they will monitor levels of compounds in the birds before rolling out the operation across the city. So far hooded crows have been trained in the program, but magpies and jackdaws might participate in the future.

The obvious question is, why we can teach birds to pick up trash but not train smokers to stop littering.

New Technology Shows Long Showers Possible Even in Droughts

Much of the U.S. West and Midwest suffered from severe to exceptional drought last summer, and many cities and counties asked residents to conserve water. So, imagine that, despite restrictions, you could take a long, hot shower while barely wasting a drop or using much energy? That’s the pitch of new recirculating shower technology that continuously filters, sterilizes, and reuses water that would otherwise go down the drain. A handful of companies see its promise, as climate change warms the planet and droughts intensify.

Credit: Orbital Systems

One recirculating shower startup is called Orbital Systems and was founded by Mehrdad Mahdjoubi after he collaborated with NASA to devise a sustainable water supply system for a Mars mission. Recognizing the unsustainable use of the resource on Earth, Orbital designed a shower that Mahdjoubi says reduces water consumption up to 90 percent and energy use by 80 percent compared to a conventional shower. While showering, sensors evaluate the water quality that flows down the drain 20 times per second and analyze what’s too dirty to reuse. The rest is diverted to a filter that removes impurities and then sterilizes it with UV light.

Mahdjoubi told Bloomberg that the company has sold more than 1,000 showers so far and has more than 10,000 on order. Other startups are bringing recirculating showers to market, mostly in northern Europe, with plans to expand to drought-prone regions of the U.S. and other countries in coming years. Hamwells, a startup based in the Netherlands, makes a system called the HomeSpa, and Flow Loop, a Danish company, has developed a recirculating shower called the Eco Loop.

Given that, according to the EPA, showers account for nearly 17 percent of indoor water consumption and use a lot of energy, systems like these could be attractive—that is, if you can afford one. They’ll set you back $4,000 to $6,000. But taking a shower with a clean conscience? Priceless.