A flock of birds flies over the border between Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Coahuila state, Mexico, on Feb. 16, 2019. Credit: Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP via Getty Images

SCIENCE

There’s a Plume of Birds Over a City Near You

The spring bird migration in the United States is quickly gearing up. On Thursday night, nearly 2 million birds passed over Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located. In Cook County, Illinois, home of Chicago, about 270,000 birds passed over. And about 90,000 birds ventured over Denver, Colorado.

Most birds migrate under the cover of night, which means that avid birders can’t see the plume of airborne travelers filling the sky as they work their way north to breed from late April into May.

But a new tool helps illustrate how significant that nightly migration really is. The migration dashboard created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and several partners uses radar data collected from weather stations to count how many birds passed over every county in the U.S., with updated numbers each morning for the night before. 

“You can see how many birds are in flight, what direction and speed they’re moving, the altitude they’re flying,” said Andrew Farnsworth, a senior research associate at the Cornell lab. “It’s a game changer when it comes to thinking about how to tell people about all sorts of measures of migration and just what the magnitudes are at a much more local scale than we’ve ever been able to do.”

The hyper-local data is available for the first time this spring because of recent advancements in machine learning and cloud computing, Farnsworth said. 

He hopes this tool gets more people excited about the biannual migration, potentially encouraging more people to adopt bird-friendly behaviors like turning off disorienting lights during peak migration. Plus, he said, the tool can be used by scientists to dive deeper into migration patterns over space and time, especially as those patterns change with a warming climate. 

“How are birds adapting to that? How do they evolve these patterns to deal with climate change? And how can they keep up or not, with really rapid changes?” Farnsworth said. “There’s some real fundamental information there that’s good to understand for science.”

SCIENCE

For the Olympic Mountain Glaciers, a Double Whammy of Melting 

More than 250 glaciers that currently cover the Olympic Mountains in western Washington State could be gone by 2070 as the climate warms, new research shows. The region’s glaciers, most of which are located within Olympic National Park, have already lost more than half their volume since 1900, with most of the loss occurring in the last 40 years. 

Researchers from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia used historical images, aerial and satellite photos and climate models to assess the past, present and future of the glaciers, which are vital stores of water in the West to buffer against drought. 

Normally, glaciers melt in the summer when temperatures are warm and grow in the winter when snow accumulates, keeping the enormous rivers of ice relatively stable over time. But the researchers found that climate change will not only increase summer temperatures, leading to faster melt, but will also increase winter temperatures, resulting in less snow and more rain, which does not help a glacier grow. 

“For the Olympics then, it’s kind of a double whammy, that it’s not getting as nourished in the wintertime and it’s increasing losses in the summer during the melt,” said study lead author Andrew Fountain, a geology and geography professor at Portland State University. “So the glaciers are rapidly retreating.”

Although climate change threatens glaciers around the world, the Olympic glaciers are especially vulnerable because they’re located at a much lower elevation than other glaciers, such as those in Mount Rainier National Park, located southwest of Seattle. 

The only real solution to slow down the melt is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale, Fountain said. 

“What’s happening to the glaciers in the Olympics is the same thing that’s going to be happening elsewhere in the U.S., and it’s certainly happening to glaciers globally,” he said. “Sure, this is a study of one small part of the glacial regime, but it’s emblematic of what’s happening elsewhere.”

CULTURE

A Podcast on Florida’s ‘Self-Inflicted Wound,’ aka Its Environment

A boat captain, a surfer, a mermaid and a snake bite survivor are among the guests on a new podcast exploring Florida’s vulnerable environment. 

In an interview-style weekly show called “The Nature of Florida,” journalist and filmmaker Oscar Corral dives into conversation with an environmentally engaged guest on each episode to discuss the Sunshine State’s natural resources under threat, and what can be done to protect them.

Inside Climate News recently discussed the podcast with Corral. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Your experience has been largely in documentary film. Why did you decide to create a podcast?

After I’ve launched a documentary, I noticed that after about a year, the buzz starts to die off, and it starts to lose its momentum a little bit. And so I thought, well, what’s the best way to maintain the momentum of environmental awareness and letting people know what’s happening environmentally? I thought the best way to do that was to start a podcast about environmental issues. There’s nothing like that in Florida as far as I can tell. There’s a couple that talk about wildlife here and there and minor things, but environmental issues, like topical, current issues and the political issues behind them, there’s nothing else like that. So that’s what I did. 

Why is Florida an important and interesting place to talk about environmental issues?

There’s a lot of problems in Florida, as there are in many places, but in Florida, it’s really, really striking because Florida is known for its beaches and springs. But many times in the last decade, you’ve seen the complete uninhabitability, you can’t even use some of the waters in Florida, because they’re so polluted from blue-green algae or from nutrients. So it’s something that’s vividly visible. It smells bad, it looks bad, you can’t swim in it. And then it negatively affects the state’s largest industry, which is tourism. And so for Florida, environmental issues, they’re like this self-inflicted wound for their primary economic driver. It’s really frustrating. And so the podcast is trying to talk about these issues and why they are not being addressed and how do we address them.

Will your podcast go into climate change? 

Yes, climate change is definitely a theme that we’re exploring in several of our interviews, because Florida is extremely vulnerable to climate change. We’re a low-lying state, and we’re vulnerable to sea level rise. And in fact, we’re already seeing the effects of it in parts of Florida, including some of our most popular tourist destinations, like Miami Beach. So yes, climate change is definitely a part of this.

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SOLUTIONS

Helping Companies Log Their Carbon Emissions

In a past career modeling the consequences of climate change at Oxford University, Kristian Rönn realized that the only way to make a dent in carbon emissions was for emitters to start counting their greenhouse gases.

“The prevailing narrative is still that us consumers can fix the climate issue,” said Rönn. “That’s essentially a narrative invented by Big Oil to shift the blame onto consumers. But at the end of the day, it’s corporations that need to decarbonize.”

That’s why Rönn left academia and started Normative, a carbon accounting company that helps corporations log emissions from all along their supply chains and advises them on how to pursue a smaller carbon footprint. 

The latest product Normative is offering is its carbon glossary, a collection of common terms used in the carbon accounting universe to help companies navigate the “jungle full of jargon” that Rönn said comes with tackling emissions. Terms in the glossary include greenwashing, offsetting and carbon sequestration.

Stockholder demand and new laws in Europe and the U.S. are driving more and more companies to seek out carbon accounting services, Rönn said. 

“Whenever we talk to a client that doesn’t know the latest, then we can always bring the glossary up,” he said. “We can use the tool ourselves when we engage with companies and try to spread the gospel of net zero, if you will.”

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