Climate-fighting beads, record-breaking CO2, fossil-fueled plastics: 3 big stories you might have missed

Greenland

Arctic icebergs in Greenland. (© Mlenny)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Human Nature shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. In the warming Arctic, a promising solution to climate change

New technology may help keep the Arctic from melting — and prevent climate change in the process.

The story: Arctic sea ice is reflective, which means it helps bounce solar radiation off its surface and back into space, but melted ice has the opposite effect and absorbs radiation from the sun, further warming Earth. One proposed solution: silica microbeads, made mainly of quartz rock sand, that can restore the sea ice’s ability to reflect radiation and make ice thicker and more reflective, Grist reported last week.

The big picture: Applying silica beads in a few critical areas could have a widespread effect that reverses melting across the Arctic. “By using just a tiny amount of material, you end up making young ice seem more like multiyear ice, and that changes the radiative balance in the Arctic back to where it was,” said Dr. Leslie Field, who first discovered silica beads as a solution and founded the nonprofit Ice911. Unlike plastic microbeads, which can absorb toxic chemicals and harm marine life, silica microbeads had no negative effects on birds or fish during environmental testing.

Read the story here.

2. Single-use plastics a serious climate change hazard, study warns

Plastic harms more than marine life — it’s also contributing to climate change.

The story: Almost all plastic (99 percent) is made from fossil fuels, and every step of the process, from refining the plastic to disposing of it, releases greenhouse gases, Sandra Laville reported for The Guardian last week. What’s worse, plastic production is increasing around the world: In a business-as-usual scenario, plastic will make up 13 percent of the world’s carbon budget by 2050, a new study found.

The big picture: Until now, plastic has been in the crosshairs for its harm to marine life, but this study is the first to examine its climate impact. “It has long been clear that plastic threatens the global environment and puts human health at risk,” Carroll Muffett, one of the study’s authors, said. “This report demonstrates that plastic, like the rest of the fossil economy, is putting the climate at risk as well.”

Read the story here.

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3. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere hit highest mark in human history

Global carbon dioxide concentrations reached 415 parts per million on May 11, the highest in human history.

The story: The main culprit is the burning of fossil fuels, Nina Golgowski reported for HuffPost last week. Researchers have been measuring carbon dioxide levels at an observatory in Hawai‘i since the 1950s (when it was only 315 parts per million). They are able to conclude that the current level is the highest in human history by comparing current concentrations to those found in ice cores from hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The big picture: Although the planet has seen this concentration of carbon dioxide before, it was millions of years ago — and it was caused by natural processes, not human activity. “Few if any natural processes can release fossil carbon into the atmosphere as fast as we humans are doing it now via the extraction and burning of fossil fuels,” said Ralph Keeling, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s CO2 program.

Read the story here.

Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International. 

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