Follow by Email

Monday, January 22, 2018

Which countries are achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals fastest?

Is this a race?  It is.  It is critical, in fact, that countries race to complete the Development Goals.

Interested in who is winning?  Here's a good article for you:

The ultimate aim of the Sustainable Development Goals, which replaced the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, is to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for everyone. Each goal has specific targets that need to be met by 2030.
So how close are countries to meeting them? To find out, non-profit organization Bertelsmann Stiftung and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Networkhave created a prototype index that measures their performance.

The SDG Index measures 149 countries, comparing their current progress with a baseline measurement taken in 2015.
Here are the top performers this year:

Across all 17 goals, Sweden tops the list of countries surveyed. It is, on average, 84.5% of the way to achieving the targets envisaged for 2030.
Following closely were Scandinavian neighbours, Denmark and Norway, with Finland in fourth place. Western European countries, plus Iceland (ninth), took the remainder of the top 10 slots and four of the top 20.
Also in the top 20 were Canada (13th), the Czech Republic (15th) and Slovenia (17th). Asia-Pacific’s top performers Japan, Singapore and Australia rounded off the list at 18th, 19th and 20th, respectively.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Save the Snowpack, Save the Water Supply/Bloomberg

Water, too much, too little, continues to loom as our greatest environmental and, very likely, economic challenge. Protecting natural capital, without disrupting natural habitat and infrastructure, particularly around growing urban centers, is key to our balance and quality of life.

Here's a good piece looking at snow fall, how its changing, and whether it will be sufficient to provide ample water to the southwest of the US:

Snowpack is 50 percent lower than the average at this point in the winter at dozens of basins in the region. It’s a major concern in a region with a growing population where water supplies are often pushed to their limits, even in good years. In addition to fueling the West's winter tourism industry, the snow provides a steady supply of water for the Colorado River, which serves 40 million people spread from Denver to Los Angeles.
The problem is not just a lack of snow, but changes in how it is falling and melting. Think of the snowpack as a natural reservoir. During the winter, it freezes in place. When temperatures rise in the spring, the water within is released gradually, filling reservoirs through the rest of the year. That pattern is fracturing around the world. A studyreleased Wednesday by the University of Potsdam also found less available water from snowpack in High Mountain Asia from 1987 to 2009. 

In the western U.S., the snow line is receding to higher elevations—typically above 8,000 feet. Below that line, rain is often falling instead of snow, meaning less precipitation is stored in the snowpack. A big storm might send water to reservoirs, but many pools weren’t built to hold a deluge of rain. As a result, they often have to release the water to avoid flooding.

Without predictable snowpack melts, “it reduces reliability on the supply side,” said Demetri Polyzos, a senior engineer for the Metropolitan Water District, the wholesale water agency for Southern California.
There have been bad starts to the snow season before, and climatologists say it’s too early to rule out the possibility that the Western snowpack will bounce back. But even if it does return to average—or above average—levels, researchers said it is unlikely that critical waterways like the Colorado River would get their normal runoff.
“As it warms, you get less runoff,” said Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan who co-authored the Colorado River drought paper with Udall.
The short-term effects may be manageable. Because 2017 was a wet year, most reservoirs have enough stored water to satiate municipal and agricultural demand through even a dry, hot summer. But water managers still need to respond to the long-term threat.
Western snowpack could decrease by an average of 60 percent over the next 30 years due to anthropogenic warming and natural climate trends, according to an article published last year in Nature.
Climate change will require a coordinated effort in how vital water supplies such as the Colorado River are distributed. Southern California, for instance, has diversified its portfolio with local supplies (desalination plants, recycling water and adding groundwater storage), invested in infrastructure and urged conservation. Arizona, California and Nevada are in the process of negotiating a drought contingency plan to reduce the burden on Lake Mead, the reservoir behind the Hoover Dam that has dropped to 39 percent of capacity.
Pat Mulroy, a Brookings Institution senior fellow known as the “water czar”  for her blunt assessments as head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the drought plan is but one arrow in a quiver, not a silver bullet.
"For water managers in the West, it means if there has ever been a time for partnership and creative solutions, that time has come,” Mulroy said. “The time to dance around it is over.

Schneider Electric Working to Restore Power to Puerto Rico With a Unique Off-Grid Solution/RNN

We know micro grids are part of our new energy future.  We see it here in the aftermath of great devastation, and lack of power, in Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico over 90 days ago and many residents are still without power, making this the longest major blackout in U.S. history. Officials have estimated it could take four to six months to restore the power grid to full functionality. Schneider Electric is supporting the rebuild of several major solar and energy storage plants and aiding the locals by rapidly deploying off-grid products to regain power to their homes.
One thousand Conext XW+ hybrid inverters at 5.5 kW and 6.8 kW power levels are being made available to distributors in Puerto Rico. “Schneider Electric is continuing to support relief efforts in Puerto Rico. The Conext XW+ hybrid inverter is a unique off-grid solution. Our intent in supplying these units is to retrofit the existing non-functional photovoltaic systems that can provide much-needed power immediately. When the grid comes back online, the Conext XW+ units will work in conjunction with the grid and support its capabilities over the long term,” said Evan Vogel, vice president of marketing, Schneider Electric Solar.
As a business with a large local presence in Puerto Rico, local Schneider Electric teams are working with customers to offer relief to the affected areas. The primary focus is to ensure people regain access to reliable, safe energy as soon as possible.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Cave of the 'Mayan Underworld' Filled with Methane-Eating Creatures

Cave of the 'Mayan Underworld' Filled with Methane-Eating Creatures


Cave of the 'Mayan Underworld' Filled with Methane-Eating Creatures
A diver explores a network of submerged caves and underwater rivers in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

In the subterranean rivers and flooded caverns of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula — once thought to hold the path to Xibalba, the mythical Mayan underworld — scientists have uncovered a liminal world where methane is the unlikely driving force for life.

After plumbing the depths of Ox Bel Ha, a submerged estuary complex that rivals Texas' Galveston Bay in size, researchers from the U.S., Mexico, the Netherlands and Switzerland report in a new study that their expedition was the most detailed ecological study to date of a coastal cave system that is constantly underwater. The feat was so pioneering, in fact, that it necessitated the use of techniques previously employed by deep-sea submergence vehicles, they said.

The Ox Bel Ha cave network is unique because it harbors two distinct layers of water: freshwater, fed by rain falling through sinkholes — which doubled as access points for the scientists — and salt water, stemming from the ocean.
In a study published on Nov. 28 in the journal Nature Communications, the team described how methane that forms beneath the jungle floor migrates downward into the watery depths, unlike soil-bound methane, which diffuses upward into the atmosphere.

Once the methane sinks into the water, bacteria and other microbes consume it — along with any dissolved organic materials carried by the inrush of fresh water.

The microbes then "set a stage" for a food web largely populated by crustaceans, including a species of shrimp that derives about 21 percent of its nutrition from methane, the scientists said.

The researchers were surprised by their findings; previous studies had suggested that cave life-forms subsisted on vegetation and other detritus that filtered into the caves from the tropical forest above.

"Finding that methane and other forms of mostly invisible dissolved organic matter are the foundation of the food web in these caves explains why cave-adapted animals are able to thrive in the water column in a habitat without visible evidence of food," study lead author David Brankovits, who conducted the research during his doctoral studies at Texas A&M University at Galveston (TAMUG), said in a statement.

Because the mechanisms of the cave ecosystems mirror those found in the deepest parts of the world's oceans, these findings may help researchers understand how deoxygenation caused by the effects of carbon dioxide emissions might alter the balance of life in the so-called "oxygen minimum zones."

"Providing a model for the basic function of this globally-distributed ecosystem is an important contribution to coastal groundwater ecology," study co-author Tom Iliffe, a professor in the marine biology department at TAMUG, said in a statement.

"[It] establishes a baseline for evaluating how sea level rise, seaside touristic development and other stressors will impact the viability of these lightless, food-poor systems," Iliffe said.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Lies, Mistakes & More: These Scientific Papers Got Nixed in 2017

Lies, Mistakes & More: These Scientific Papers Got Nixed in 2017


Lies, exaggerations, criminal acts, unbridled irony, alternative facts, fake news … No, we're not talking about 2017 politics. This is the 2017 world of science.

This past year, hundreds of scientific papers were retracted from professional journals. In the majority of cases involving these retractions, the reason was an innocent, yet sloppy, error in the methodology of the experiment that the authors themselves caught. But for quite a few papers, the retractions reflected scientific misconduct and a not-so-innocent attempt to tweak the data — or make it up entirely. What follows are five notable retractions from 2017, culled from the Retraction Watch blog.
So many retractions, so little time. There were many more retracted papers that almost made this 2017 "top five" list, such as several that attempted to "prove" a connection between vaccines and autism. One, titled "Systematic Assessment of Research on Autism Spectrum Disorder and Mercury Reveals Conflicts of Interest and the Need for Transparency in Autism Research," wins for irony: The authors didn't reveal the fact that they were associated with organizations involved in demonstrating a vaccine-autism connection. 

Elsewhere, to demonstrate that some journals will publish anything, the blogger Neuroskeptic managed to get four journals to accept a clearly fictitious study, authored by Lucas McGeorge and Annette Kin about "midi-chlorians," the intelligent entities that give Jedi their powers in "Star Wars." And then there was "The art of writing a scientific article," which was published in the Journal of Science Communications and cited almost 400 times. The citations are real; the paper and the journal (with an "s" on Communications) don't exist.
It took 35 years, but Bruce Le Catt was finally called out for the feline he was. Le Catt, being a cat, wrote a rather catty critique of an article written by David Lewis and published in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy. Lewis, who died in 2001, was an American-born philosopher best known for his concept of modal realism, a view that all possible worlds are as real as the actual world. Perhaps there are worlds, for example, in which cats can write … that is, write intelligibly … OK, write intelligibly in words that people other than the cat's owner can understand. Maybe such a world existed in Lewis' mind because, it seems, he was Le Catt, writing a critique of himself. (Philosophers are a fun bunch.)

The 35-year-old ruse — that would be 100 plus in cat years — was an inside joke that was known to a few philosophers of Lewis' generation, including Michael Dougherty of Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio. Dougherty, who is currently writing a book about scientific integrity, asked the journal to let people know that Le Catt was a pseudonym for Lewis, so that — if nothing else — the younger generation of philosophers would know that Lewis was critiquing himself.
If a paper with fake authors and fake funders is published through a fake peer-review process, would it still be fake, or would all of the fakes cancel out? Seems like a philosophical question best handled by Bruce Le Catt (see above). Here are the facts as best they are known: In 2015, a group of Chinese scientists published an article in the Journal of Molecular Neuroscience titled "Nucleolin Promotes TGF-β Signaling Initiation via TGF-β Receptor I in Glioblastoma." (Don't worry so much about what the title means because, as mentioned, there's not much truth associated with this study.)

In June 2017, the journal retracted the article because the funding source stated in the paper wasn't the funding source; one of the co-authors confirmed he wasn't involved in the research or writing of the paper and knew nothing of the study; the senior writer confirmed he was not involved in the submission process and did not support its publication; and, as the editors wrote in their retraction, there is "strong reason to believe that the peer review process was compromised."

Regarding that last point: This paper is one of more than 100 articles retracted in 2017 by Springer, the German-based publishing company that publishes Molecular Neuroscience and nearly 3,000 other scientific journals. Springer has been investigating fraudulent peer review, where the authors themselves or paid consultants provide the glowing review. Since 2012, more than 500 papers have been retracted because of a faked peer review, the vast majority of which has been from China, according to Retraction Watch.
Japanese researcher Yoshihiro Sato, who died in January 2017, was a respected scientist who published his work in such prestigious journals as Neurology, Bone and JAMA. But now, it seems, editors everywhere have a bone to pick with him. As of December 2017, 23 of Sato's papers have been retracted because of falsified data, questions about authorship or plagiarism.

Sato investigated therapies to reduce hip fractures, and his studies seemed to indicate that vitamin D and various genetic drugs worked wonders in frail, older patients who had had a stroke or who had Parkinson's disease or dementia. But the findings were a little too good to be true. A 2016 statistical analysis of Sato's studies, led by Mark Bolland of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, raised doubts about the validity of the results. Sato admitted to cooking the data; he also confessed that — as an honorary gesture — he had added co-authors who hadn't participated in those studies. Since then, JAMA and other journals have issued warnings to readers, asking that they not be swayed by Sato's body of research, which dates back to the 1990s. Many more retractions will likely come in 2018.
Many wanted it to be true.

In June 2016, two researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden published an alarming study in the prestigious journal Science, stating that European perch larvae prefer to eat tiny beads of polystyrene rather than natural food. Ingesting these plastic beads, which are barely visible to the human eye, slows a fish's growth and makes it more likely that it will be eaten by predators, who then have the plastic inside them, the researchers said. The news media ingested the artificial tidbit, too, as the study was reported widely. Many environmentalists quickly latched on to the study as proof of the harm plastic pollution is causing.

But many scientists just as quickly challenged the study, with some wondering if the study actually had been conducted at all. By December 2016, Science stated that the study was under investigation. The researchers couldn't produce the full data; they claimed the data were lost when their laptop was stolen soon after the paper was published. After a deep dive, Sweden's Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN) determined that the researchers had been scientifically dishonest and couldn't have conducted a study that was thorough enough to produce the data they claimed they had. Science retracted the paper in May. That Science even accepted the paper is "remarkable," CEPN stated in its review.
Any way you slice it, 2017 was a bad year for Brian Wansink, director of the Food & Brand Lab at Cornell University and author of the popular book "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think." Wansink has published influential studies, now questioned, that purported that children will choose healthy food, such as an apple, over a cookie if the apple has an Elmo sticker on it. But Wansink's troubles started in November 2016 when, in a blog post, he offered one of his graduate students some odd advice. He told her that, when faced with null results (meaning that the data doesn't support the hypothesis), why not salvage the data and use it for a different study. 

The student ultimately ended up publishing five papers, all of which were about people eating pizza at an all-you-can-eat Italian restaurant buffet.

The blog post, now deleted, raised concerns among many scientists about the quality and integrity of Wansink's own research. And so they investigated, and found a multitude of problems in Wansink's methodology and statistical analysis that went back for years. Cornell University investigated Wansink's research, as well, and found what it called "mistakes," but not misconduct. More than 50 of Wansink's papers are facing close scrutiny, and in the past year, Wansink has corrected and republished at least eight and has retracted four articles, including the one in JAMA Pediatrics about Elmo and apples. That's the way the cookie crumbles.

Monday, January 15, 2018

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?World Economic Forum

We've given you, over the last couple of weeks, a recap of some of the victories and defeats in 2017 as we try to rebuild a smarter world.  Here's some goals that should help drive momentum this year.

“I am pleased to share some good news for people and planet,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said to a packed room of press delegates. The good news? After three years of negotiations and debate, 193 countries had agreed to a set of development goals more bold and ambitious than anything that has come before them.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – part of a wider 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – build on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These eight goals, set by the United Nations back in 2000 to eradicate poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease, expire at the end of this year.

Figure 1: The Millennium Development Goals
Picture 1
Source: United Nations

The MDGs were concrete, specific and measurable, and therefore helped establish some priority areas of focus in international development. But that was also one of their biggest criticisms: by being so targeted, they had left out other, equally important, areas.
Despite the criticism, significant progress has been made over the past 15 years, especially when it comes to the goals of eradicating poverty and improving access to education. That progress, however, has been very uneven, with improvements often concentrated in specific regions and among certain social groups. A 2015 UN assessment of the MDGs found they fell short for many people: “The assessment of progress towards the MDGs has repeatedly shown that the poorest and those disadvantaged because of gender, age, disability or ethnicity are often bypassed.”
In developing the SDGs – a multi-year process involving civil society, governments, the private sector and academia – the United Nations sought to take all these failings into account. So how, then, were these new goals reached and what do they look like?

17 goals for ‘people and planet’

In response to the accusation that the MDGs were too narrow in focus, the SDGs set out to tackle a whole range of issues, from gender inequality to climate change. The unifying thread throughout the 17 goals and their 169 targets is the commitment to ending poverty: “Eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development,” notes the agenda’s preamble.

Figure 2: The Sustainable Development Goals

As well as being more all-encompassing than the MDGs, the consultation process was also much more inclusive – Ban Ki-moon called it the “most transparent and inclusive process in UN history”. An unprecedented effort was made to get the input of as many people as possible, particularly those who wouldn’t normally be consulted for this type of international agreement. In total, 5 million people from across 88 countries in all the world’s regions took part in the consultation, and shared their vision for the world in 2030. This is very different from the development and implementation of the MDGs, which one expert described as “an internal UN bureaucratic creation”

Why You Should Stop Using Plastic Bags

We've covered this many times, but here's another reminder of a better way of shopping.  Are you still using plastic?  Let's hope that ends this year.

Why You Should Stop Using Plastic Bags

Americans dispose of over 100 billion plastic bags every year, and only a fraction are ever recycled.

What’s So Bad About Plastic Bags?

Plastic bags are not biodegradable. They fly off thrash piles, garbage trucks, and landfills, and then clog storm water infrastructure, float down waterways, and spoil the landscape. If all goes well, they end up in proper landfills where they may take 1,000 years or more to break down into ever smaller particles that continue to pollute the soil and water.

Plastic bags also pose a serious danger to birds and marine mammals that often mistake them for food. Floating plastic bags regularly fool sea turtles into thinking they are one of their favorite prey, jellyfish. Thousands of animals die each year after swallowing or choking on discarded plastic bags. This mistaken identity issue is apparently a problem even for camels in the Middle East!

Plastic bags exposed to sunlight for long enough do undergo physical breakdown. Ultra-violet rays turn the plastic brittle, breaking it into ever smaller pieces. The small fragments then mix with soil, lake sediments, are picked up by streams, or end up contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other oceanic trash deposits.

Finally, producing plastic bags, transporting them to stores, and bringing the used ones to landfills and recycling facilities require millions of gallons of petroleum, a non-renewable resource which can arguably be better used for more beneficial activities like transportation or heating.

Consider a Personal Ban on Plastic Bags

Some businesses have stopped offering their customers plastic bags, and many communities are considering a ban on plastic bags - San Francisco was the first to do that in 2007. Some states are experimenting with solutions like mandatory deposits, purchasing fees, and outright bans.
Various grocery store chains now have policies to minimize use, including requesting a small fee to clients who would like plastic bags to be provided to them.
Meanwhile, here are a couple of things you can do to help:
  1. Switch to reusable shopping bags. Reusable shopping bags made from renewable materials conserve resources by replacing paper and plastic bags. Reusable bags are convenient and come in a variety of sizes, styles and materials. When not in use, some reusable bags can be rolled or folded small enough to fit easily into a pocket. Make sure you wash them regularly.
  2. Recycle your plastic bags. If you do end up using plastic bags now and then, be sure to recycle them. Many grocery stores now collect plastic bags for recycling. If yours does not, check with your community recycling program to learn how to recycle plastic bags in your area.

The Plastic Industry Responds

As with most environmental issues, the plastic bag problem is not as simple as it seems. Plastic industry groups like to remind us that compared to the paper bag alternative, plastic bags are light, have low transportation costs, and require comparatively little (non-renewable) resources to make, while generating less waste.

They also are completely recyclable, provided your community has access to the right facilities. Their contribution to landfills is actually fairly small, and by the industry's estimate, 65% of Americans actually re-purpose and reuse their plastic bags. Of course, these arguments are less convincing when the comparisons are made against washable, sturdy reusable shopping bags.Plastic bags also pose a serious danger to birds and marine mammals that often mistake them for food. Floating plastic bags regularly fool sea turtles into thinking they are one of their favorite prey, jellyfish. Thousands of animals die each year after swallowing or choking on discarded plastic bags. This mistaken identity issue is apparently a problem even for camels in the Middle East!

Plastic bags exposed to sunlight for long enough do undergo physical breakdown. Ultra-violet rays turn the plastic brittle, breaking it into ever smaller pieces. The small fragments then mix with soil, lake sediments, are picked up by streams, or end up contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other oceanic trash deposits.

Finally, producing plastic bags, transporting them to stores, and bringing the used ones to landfills and recycling facilities require millions of gallons of petroleum, a non-renewable resource which can arguably be better used for more beneficial activities like transportation or heating.