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    ‘Ice Rivers’ invites you to get to know our world’s melting glaciers

    Ice RiversJemma WadhamPrinceton Univ., $26.95

    I’ve always been a sucker for glacier lingo, whimsical words for a harsh landscape gouged, smoothed and bulldozed by ice. Moulins, drumlins, eskers and moraines. Cirques and arêtes. Cold katabatic winds blowing down a mountain, huffed from a glacier’s snout and said to be its spirit.

    Jemma Wadham’s Ice Rivers: A Story of Glaciers, Wilderness, and Humanity leans into this duality of whimsy and harshness, cheerfully pulling readers into this strange, icy world. Wadham, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol in England, confesses that her goal is to give readers a sense of connection to glaciers, which she knowingly anthropomorphizes: In her writing, glaciers have heavy bodies, dirty snouts and veins filled with water.

    “When I’m with them, I feel like I’m among friends,” she writes. “It is, in many ways, a love story.” And knowing the glaciers, she reasons — perhaps coming to love them — is key to trying to save them.

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    Accordingly, the book’s chapters are anchored by site, and each chapter documents a different field expedition or series of expeditions to a particular glacier. Wadham takes us from the Swiss Alps to Norway’s Svalbard islands, from India’s Himalayas to Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys. It’s a breezy read, with an eager party host vibe (“let me introduce to you my friend the glacier; I think you two will get along”).

    While describing each site, Wadham dives into an engaging mishmash of personal recollections about her fieldwork, snippets of accessible glacier and climate science (I now know that these rivers of ice have three different manners of flow), a dash of alpine and polar exploration history, and many bits of local color. Ötzi the 5,300-year-old iceman, Erik the Red, Svalbard’s many polar bears and wild Patagonian horses all make an appearance, not to mention the mummified corpses of seals and penguins littering the Dry Valleys (SN: 7/12/18).

    An interesting thread winding through the book concerns how the focus of glaciology as a field has shifted through time. After several years of not winning grants that would allow her to continue working on Svalbard, in 2008 Wadham got the opportunity to go to Greenland instead. “Valley glaciers were no longer considered quite as cutting-edge to the research council funders,” she writes. “Instead, glaciologists had become obsessed with the vast ice sheets,” for the potential of their meltwaters to raise sea levels and alter ocean currents. Several years later, funders began to call for projects looking at melting glaciers’ impacts on ocean life and the water cycle, opening up an opportunity for Wadham to study Patagonia’s fast-changing glacial region.

    Where the book really comes alive is in its vivid snapshots of a scientist’s life in the field: making a bleary-eyed cup of coffee in Patagonia using a thin sock as a filter; fearfully skittering across fragile fjord ice on a Ski-Doo; consuming tins of bland fiskeboller, or fish balls, which were mostly used for food but sometimes for rifle practice; solo dancing away a gray mood on a pebbly beach on Svalbard, with a rifle ready to repel polar bears resting nearby on the stones.

    These recollections are honest, funny and poignant, and reveal how the highs and lows of fieldwork are inextricably intertwined. Wadham writes, for example, of dreading the “hollow feeling caused by constant sleep deprivation” due to the midnight sun and the relentless roaring of winds and water, a feeling tempered by her fierce love for the open expanses of the wild and for pursuing a “big mission.”

    She also writes wistfully of the “communal mirth of field-camp life” where she had never laughed as much before and, less wistfully, of the heavy, claustrophobic atmosphere of an Antarctic research station with its supercharged heating system and extreme politeness over meals with strangers. Against the backdrop of Patagonia’s swiftly shrinking glaciers, Wadham comes to grips with difficult personal losses, even as she wrestles with mysterious headaches. Months later, while recovering from emergency brain surgery, she secretly begins to write about her glaciers. Still more months pass before she finds her way back to the ice, this time in the Peruvian Andes.

    “I quickly realized one key thing about fieldwork — if you think you are there to work, you’re gravely mistaken,” Wadham writes. “You’re actually there to survive, and perform some research along the way — if you’re lucky.… In some ways I found all this ‘surviving’ a grounding process.”

    Every glacier Wadham has studied has shrunk since she first set foot on the ice over a quarter century ago. But Ice Rivers isn’t focused on mourning those glaciers so much as on celebrating the peace and purpose — the grounding line — Wadham found in them. It certainly makes me want to know them better.

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    Rice feeds half the world. Climate change’s droughts and floods put it at risk

    Under a midday summer sun in California’s Sacramento Valley, rice farmer Peter Rystrom walks across a dusty, barren plot of land, parched soil crunching beneath each step.

    In a typical year, he’d be sloshing through inches of water amid lush, green rice plants. But today the soil lies naked and baking in the 35˚ Celsius (95˚ Fahrenheit) heat during a devastating drought that has hit most of the western United States. The drought started in early 2020, and conditions have become progressively drier.

    Low water levels in reservoirs and rivers have forced farmers like Rystrom, whose family has been growing rice on this land for four generations, to slash their water use.

    Rystrom stops and looks around. “We’ve had to cut back between 25 and 50 percent.” He’s relatively lucky. In some parts of the Sacramento Valley, depending on water rights, he says, farmers received no water this season.

    California is the second-largest U.S. producer of rice, after Arkansas, and over 95 percent of California’s rice is grown within about 160 kilometers of Sacramento. To the city’s east rise the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, which means “snowy mountains” in Spanish. Rice growers in the valley below count on the range to live up to its name each winter. In spring, melting snowpack flows into rivers and reservoirs, and then through an intricate network of canals and drainages to rice fields that farmers irrigate in a shallow inundation from April or May to September or October.

    If too little snow falls in those mountains, farmers like Rystrom are forced to leave fields unplanted. On April 1 this year, the date when California’s snowpack is usually at its deepest, it held about 40 percent less water than average, according to the California Department of Water Resources. On August 4, Lake Oroville, which supplies Rystrom and other local rice farmers with irrigation water, was at its lowest level on record.

    Drought in the Sacramento Valley has forced Peter Rystrom and other rice farmers to leave swaths of land barren.N. Ogasa

    Not too long ago, the opposite — too much rain — stopped Rystrom and others from planting. “In 2017 and 2019, we were leaving ground out because of flood. We couldn’t plant,” he says. Tractors couldn’t move through the muddy, clay-rich soil to prepare the fields for seeding.

    Climate change is expected to worsen the state’s extreme swings in precipitation, researchers reported in 2018 in Nature Climate Change. This “climate whiplash” looms over Rystrom and the other 2,500 or so rice producers in the Golden State. “They’re talking about less and less snowpack, and more concentrated bursts of rain,” Rystrom says. “It’s really concerning.”

    Farmers in China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam — the biggest rice-growing countries — as well as in Nigeria, Africa’s largest rice producer — also worry about the damage climate change will do to rice production. More than 3.5 billion people get 20 percent or more of their calories from the fluffy grains. And demand is increasing in Asia, Latin America and especially in Africa.

    To save and even boost production, rice growers, engineers and researchers have turned to water-saving irrigation routines and rice gene banks that store hundreds of thousands of varieties ready to be distributed or bred into new, climate-resilient forms. With climate change accelerating, and researchers raising the alarm about related threats, such as arsenic contamination and bacterial diseases, the demand for innovation grows.

    “If we lose our rice crop, we’re not going to be eating,” says plant geneticist Pamela Ronald of the University of California, Davis. Climate change is already threatening rice-growing regions around the world, says Ronald, who identifies genes in rice that help the plant withstand disease and floods. “This is not a future problem. This is happening now.”

    Saltwater woes

    Most rice plants are grown in fields, or paddies, that are typically filled with around 10 centimeters of water. This constant, shallow inundation helps stave off weeds and pests. But if water levels suddenly get too high, such as during a flash flood, the rice plants can die.

    Striking the right balance between too much and too little water can be a struggle for many rice farmers, especially in Asia, where over 90 percent of the world’s rice is produced. Large river deltas in South and Southeast Asia, such as the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam, offer flat, fertile land that is ideal for farming rice. But these low-lying areas are sensitive to swings in the water cycle. And because deltas sit on the coast, drought brings another threat: salt.

    Salt’s impact is glaringly apparent in the Mekong River Delta. When the river runs low, saltwater from the South China Sea encroaches upstream into the delta, where it can creep into the soils and irrigation canals of the delta’s rice fields.

    In Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta, farmers pull dead rice plants from a paddy that was contaminated by saltwater intrusion from the South China Sea, which can happen during a drought.HOANG DINH NAM/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

    “If you irrigate rice with water that’s too salty, especially at certain [growing] stages, you are at risk of losing 100 percent of the crop,” says Bjoern Sander, a climate change specialist at the International Rice Research Institute, or IRRI, who is based in Vietnam.

    In a 2015 and 2016 drought, saltwater reached up to 90 kilometers inland, destroying 405,000 hectares of rice paddies. In 2019 and 2020, drought and saltwater intrusion returned, damaging 58,000 hectares of rice. With regional temperatures on the rise, these conditions in Southeast Asia are expected to intensify and become more widespread, according to a 2020 report by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

    Then comes the whiplash: Each year from around April to October, the summer monsoon turns on the faucet over swaths of South and Southeast Asia. About 80 percent of South Asia’s rainfall is dumped during this season and can cause destructive flash floods.

    Bangladesh is one of the most flood-prone rice producers in the region, as it sits at the mouths of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. In June 2020, monsoon rains flooded about 37 percent of the country, damaging about 83,000 hectares of rice fields, according to Bangladesh’s Ministry of Agriculture. And the future holds little relief; South Asia’s monsoon rainfall is expected to intensify with climate change, researchers reported June 4 in Science Advances.

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    A hot mess

    Water highs and lows aren’t the entire story. Rice generally grows best in places with hot days and cooler nights. But in many rice-growing regions, temperatures are getting too hot. Rice plants become most vulnerable to heat stress during the middle phase of their growth, before they begin building up the meat in their grains. Extreme heat, above 35˚ C, can diminish grain counts in just weeks, or even days. In April in Bangladesh, two consecutive days of 36˚ C destroyed thousands of hectares of rice.

    In South and Southeast Asia, such extreme heat events are expected to become common with climate change, researchers reported in July in Earth’s Future. And there are other, less obvious, consequences for rice in a warming world.

    One of the greatest threats is bacterial blight, a fatal plant disease caused by the bacterium Xanthomonas oryzae pv. oryzae. The disease, most prevalent in Southeast Asia and rising in Africa, has been reported to have cut rice yields by up to 70 percent in a single season.

    “We know that with higher temperature, the disease becomes worse,” says Jan Leach, a plant pathologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Most of the genes that help rice combat bacterial blight seem to become less effective when temperatures rise, she explains.

    And as the world warms, new frontiers may open for rice pathogens. An August study in Nature Climate Change suggests that as global temperatures rise, rice plants (and many other crops) at northern latitudes, such as those in China and the United States, will be at higher risk of pathogen infection.

    Meanwhile, rising temperatures may bring a double-edged arsenic problem. In a 2019 study in Nature Communications, E. Marie Muehe, a biogeochemist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, who was then at Stanford University, showed that under future climate conditions, more arsenic will infiltrate rice plants. High arsenic levels boost the health risk of eating the rice and impair plant growth.

    Arsenic naturally occurs in soils, though in most regions the toxic element is present at very low levels. Rice, however, is particularly susceptible to arsenic contamination, because it is grown in flooded conditions. Paddy soils lack oxygen, and the microbes that thrive in this anoxic environment liberate arsenic from the soil. Once the arsenic is in the water, rice plants can draw it in through their roots. From there, the element is distributed throughout the plants’ tissues and grains.

    Muehe and her team grew a Californian variety of rice in a local low-arsenic soil inside climate-controlled greenhouses. Increasing the temperature and carbon dioxide levels to match future climate scenarios enhanced the activity of the microbes living in the rice paddy soils and increased the amount of arsenic in the grains, Muehe says. And importantly, rice yields diminished. In the low-arsenic Californian soil under future climate conditions, rice yield dropped 16 percent.

    According to the researchers, models that forecast the future production of rice don’t account for the impact of arsenic on harvest yields. What that means, Muehe says, is that current projections are overestimating how much rice will be produced in the future.

    Managing rice’s thirst

    From atop an embankment that edges one of his fields, Rystrom watches water gush from a pipe, flooding a paddy packed with rice plants. “On a year like this, we decided to pump,” he says.

    Able to tap into groundwater, Rystrom left only about 10 percent of his fields unplanted this growing season. “If everybody was pumping from the ground to farm rice every year,” he admits, it would be unsustainable.

    One widely studied, drought-friendly method is “alternate wetting and drying,” or intermittent flooding, which involves flooding and draining rice paddies on one- to 10-day cycles, as opposed to maintaining a constant inundation. This practice can cut water use by up to 38 percent without sacrificing yields. It also stabilizes the soil for harvesting and lowers arsenic levels in rice by bringing more oxygen into the soils, disrupting the arsenic-releasing microbes. If tuned just right, it may even slightly improve crop yields.

    But the water-saving benefits of this method are greatest when it is used on highly permeable soils, such as those in Arkansas and other parts of the U.S. South, which normally require lots of water to keep flooded, says Bruce Linquist, a rice specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension. The Sacramento Valley’s clay-rich soils don’t drain well, so the water savings where Rystrom farms are minimal; he doesn’t use the method.

    Building embankments, canal systems and reservoirs can also help farmers dampen the volatility of the water cycle. But for some, the solution to rice’s climate-related problems lies in enhancing the plant itself.

    Fourth-generation rice farmer Peter Rystrom (left) stands with his grandfather Don Rystrom (middle) and his father Steve Rystrom (right).CALIFORNIA RICE COMMISSION, BRIAN BAER

    Better breeds

    The world’s largest collection of rice is stored near the southern rim of Laguna de Bay in the Philippines, in the city of Los Baños. There, the International Rice Genebank, managed by IRRI, holds over 132,000 varieties of rice seeds from farms around the globe.

    Upon arrival in Los Baños, those seeds are dried and processed, placed in paper bags and moved into two storage facilities — one cooled to 2˚ to 4˚ C from which seeds can be readily withdrawn, and another chilled to –20˚ C for long-term storage. To be extra safe, backup seeds are kept at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo., and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault tucked inside a mountain in Norway.

    All this is done to protect the biodiversity of rice and amass a trove of genetic material that can be used to breed future generations of rice. Farmers no longer use many of the stored varieties, instead opting for new higher-yield or sturdier breeds. Nevertheless, solutions to climate-related problems may be hidden in the DNA of those older strains. “Scientists are always looking through that collection to see if genes can be discovered that aren’t being used right now,” says Ronald, of UC Davis. “That’s how Sub1 was discovered.”

    Over 132,000 varieties of rice seeds fill the shelves of the climate-controlled International Rice Genebank. Breeders from around the world can use the seeds to develop new climate-resilient rice strains.IRRI/FLICKR (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    The Sub1 gene enables rice plants to endure prolonged periods completely submerged underwater. It was discovered in 1996 in a traditional variety of rice grown in the Indian state of Orissa, and through breeding has been incorporated into varieties cultivated in flood-prone regions of South and Southeast Asia. Sub1-wielding varieties, called “scuba rice,” can survive for over two weeks entirely submerged, a boon for farmers whose fields are vulnerable to flash floods.

    Some researchers are looking beyond the genetic variability preserved in rice gene banks, searching instead for useful genes from other species, including plants and bacteria. But inserting genes from one species into another, or genetic modification, remains controversial. The most famous example of genetically modified rice is Golden Rice, which was intended as a partial solution to childhood malnutrition. Golden Rice grains are enriched in beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. To create the rice, researchers spliced a gene from a daffodil and another from a bacterium into an Asian variety of rice.

    Three decades have passed since its initial development, and only a handful of countries have deemed Golden Rice safe for consumption. On July 23, the Philippines became the first country to approve the commercial production of Golden Rice. Abdelbagi Ismail, principal scientist at IRRI, blames the slow acceptance on public perception and commercial interests opposed to genetically modified organisms, or GMOs (SN: 2/6/16, p. 22).

    Looking ahead, it will be crucial for countries to embrace GM rice, Ismail says. Developing nations, particularly those in Africa that are becoming more dependent on the crop, would benefit greatly from the technology, which could produce new varieties faster than breeding and may allow researchers to incorporate traits into rice plants that conventional breeding cannot. If Golden Rice were to gain worldwide acceptance, it could open the door for new genetically modified climate- and disease-resilient varieties, Ismail says. “It will take time,” he says. “But it will happen.”

    Climate change is a many-headed beast, and each rice-growing region will face its own particular set of problems. Solving those problems will require collaboration between local farmers, government officials and the international community of researchers.

    “I want my kids to be able to have a shot at this,” Rystrom says. “You have to do a lot more than just farm rice. You have to think generations ahead.” More

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    Australian fires in 2019–2020 had even more global reach than previously thought

    The severe, devastating wildfires that raged across southeastern Australia in late 2019 and early 2020 packed a powerful punch that extended far beyond the country, two new studies find.

    The blazes injected at least twice as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as was previously thought, one team’s satellite-derived estimates revealed. The fires also sent up vast clouds of smoke and ash that wafted far to the east over the Southern Ocean, fertilizing the waters with nutrients and triggering widespread blooms of microscopic marine algae called phytoplankton, another team found. Both studies were published online September 15 in Nature.

    Meteorologist Ivar van der Velde of the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research in Leiden and colleagues first examined carbon monoxide data collected over southeastern Australia by the satellite-based instrument TROPOMI from November 2019 to January 2020, during the worst of the fires. Then, to get new estimates of the carbon dioxide emissions attributable to the fires, the team used previously determined ratios of carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide emitted by the region’s eucalyptus forests — the predominant type of forest that was scorched in the blazes — during earlier wildfires and prescribed burns.

    Van der Velde’s team estimates that the fires released from 517 trillion to 867 trillion grams of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. “The sheer magnitude of CO2 that was emitted to the atmosphere … was much larger than what we initially thought it would be,” van der Velde says. The emissions “from this single event were significantly higher than what all Australians normally emit with the combustion of fossil fuels in an entire year.”

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    Previous assessments of CO2 emissions from the fires, based on estimations of burned area and biomass consumed by the blazes, calculated an average of about 275 trillion grams. Using the satellite-derived carbon monoxide data, the researchers say, dramatically improves the ability to distinguish actual emissions from the fires from other background sources of the gases, giving a more accurate assessment.

    That finding has worrisome implications. The fires swiftly cut a swath through southeastern Australia’s eucalyptus forests, devastating the forests to a degree that made their rapid recovery more difficult — which in turn affects how much carbon the trees can sequester, van der Velde says (SN: 3/9/21). Fires in northern and central Australia’s dry, grassy savannas are seen as more climate neutral because the grasses can regrow more quickly, he says.

    And severe fire seasons are likely to become more common in southeastern Australia with ongoing climate change. Climate change has already increased the likelihood of severe fire events such as the 2019–2020 fire season by at least 30 percent (SN: 3/4/20).

    The smoke and ash from the fires also packed a powerful punch. Scientists watched in awe as the fires created a “super outbreak” of towering thunderclouds from December 29 to December 31 in 2019 (SN: 12/15/20). These clouds spewed tiny aerosol particles of ash and smoke high into the stratosphere.

    Aerosols from the fires also traveled eastward through the lower atmosphere, ultimately reaching the Southern Ocean where they triggered blooms of phytoplankton in its iron-starved waters. Geochemist Weiyi Tang, now at Princeton University, and colleagues analyzed aerosols from the fires and found the particles to be rich in iron, an important nutrient for the algae. By tracing the atmospheric paths of the cloud of ash and smoke across the ocean, the team was able to link the observed blooms — huge patches of chlorophyll detected by satellite — to the fires.

    A satellite image snapped on January 6, 2020, shows smoke from southeastern Australia’s wildfires wafting eastward over the Southern Ocean.Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communication Technology

    Researchers have long thought that fires can trigger ocean blooms, particularly in the Southern Ocean, under the right conditions, says marine biogeochemist Joan Llort, now at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center and a coauthor on the study. But this research marks the most direct observation ever made of such an event — in part because it was such a massive one, Llort says.

    Large ocean blooms are “yet another process which is potentially being modified by climate change,” says biogeochemist Nicolas Cassar of Duke University, also a coauthor on the study.

    One of the big questions to emerge from the study, Cassar adds, is just how much carbon these phytoplankton may have ultimately removed from the atmosphere as they bloomed. Some of the carbon that the algae draw out of the air through photosynthesis sinks with them to the seafloor as they die. But some of it is quickly respired back to the atmosphere, muting any mitigating effect that the blooms might have on the wildfire emissions. To really assess what role the algae play, he says, would require a rapid-response team aboard an ocean vessel that could measure these chemical processes as they are happening.

    The sheer size of this wildfire-triggered bloom — “larger than Australia itself” — shows that “wildfires have the potential to increase marine productivity by very large amounts,” says Douglas Hamilton, a climate scientist at Cornell University who was not connected with the study.

    “The impact of fires on society is not straightforward,” Hamilton adds. The same smoke that can cause severe health impacts when inhaled “is also supplying nutrients to ecosystems and helping support marine food webs.” What this study demonstrates, he adds, is that to understand how future increases in fire activity might help shape the future of marine productivity “it is crucial that we monitor the impacts closely now.” More

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    Potty-trained cattle could help reduce pollution

    You can lead a cow to a water closet, but can you make it pee there? It turns out that yes, you can.

    Researchers in Germany successfully trained cows to use a small, fenced-in area with artificial turf flooring as a bathroom stall. This could allow farms to easily capture and treat cow urine, which often pollutes air, soil and water, researchers report online September 13 in Current Biology. Components of that urine, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, could also be used to make fertilizer (SN: 4/6/21).

    The average cow can pee tens of liters per day, and there are some 1 billion cattle worldwide. In barns, cow pee typically mixes with poop on the floor to create a slurry that emits the air pollutant ammonia (SN: 1/4/19). Out in pastures, cow pee can leach into nearby waterways and release the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (SN: 6/9/14).

    “I’m always of the mind, how can we get animals to help us in their management?” says Lindsay Matthews, a self-described cow psychologist who studies animal behavior at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Matthews and colleagues set out to potty train 16 calves, which had the free time to learn a new skill. “They’re not so involved with milking and other systems,” he says. “They’re basically just hanging out, eating a bit of food, socializing and resting.”

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    Matthews was optimistic about the cows’ potty-training prospects. “I was convinced that we could do it,” he says. Cows “are much, much smarter than people give them credit for.” Each calf got 45 minutes of what the team calls “MooLoo training” per day. At first, the researchers enclosed the calves inside the makeshift bathroom stall and fed the animals a treat every time they peed.

    Once the calves made the connection between using the bathroom stall and receiving a treat, the team positioned the calves in a hallway leading to the stall. Whenever animals visited the little cows’ room, they got a treat; whenever calves peed in the hallway, the team spritzed them with water. “We had 11 of the 16 calves [potty trained] within about 10 days,” Matthews says. The remaining cows “are probably trainable too,” he adds. “It’s just that we didn’t have enough time.”

    [embedded content]
    Researchers successfully trained 11 calves, such as this one, to urinate in a bathroom stall. Once the cow relieved itself, a window in the stall opened, dispensing a molasses mixture as a treat. Toilet training cows on a large scale and collecting their urine to make fertilizer could cut down on agricultural pollution, the team says.

    Lindsay Whistance, a livestock researcher at the Organic Research Centre in Cirencester, England, is “not surprised by the results.” With proper training and motivation, “I fully expected cattle to be able to learn this task,” says Whistance, who was not involved in the study. The practicality of potty training cows on a large scale, she says, is another matter.

    For MooLoo training to become a widespread practice, “it has to be automated,” Matthews says. “We want to develop automated training systems, automated reward systems.” Those systems are still far from reality, but Matthews and colleagues hope they could have big impacts. If 80 percent of cow pee were collected in latrines, for instance, that could cut associated ammonia emissions in half, previous research suggests.

    “It’s those ammonia emissions that are key to the real environmental benefit, as well as potential for reducing water contamination,” says Jason Hill, a biosystems engineer at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul not involved in the work. “Ammonia from cattle is a major contributor to reduced human health,” he says (SN: 1/16/09). So potty training cattle could help create cleaner air — as well as a cleaner, more comfortable living space for cows themselves. More

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    How AI can help forecast how much Arctic sea ice will shrink

    In the next week or so, the sea ice floating atop the Arctic Ocean will shrink to its smallest size this year, as summer-warmed waters eat away at the ice’s submerged edges.

    Record lows for sea ice levels will probably not be broken this year, scientists say. In 2020, the ice covered 3.74 million square kilometers of the Arctic at its lowest point, coming nail-bitingly close to an all-time record low. Currently, sea ice is present in just under 5 million square kilometers of Arctic waters, putting it on track to become the 10th-lowest extent of sea ice in the area since satellite record keeping began in 1979. It’s an unexpected finish considering that in early summer, sea ice hit a record low for that time of year.

    The surprise comes in part because the best current statistical- and physics-based forecasting tools can closely predict sea ice extent only a few weeks in advance, but the accuracy of long-range forecasts falters. Now, a new tool that uses artificial intelligence to create sea ice forecasts promises to boost their accuracy — and can do the analysis relatively quickly, researchers report August 26 in Nature Communications.

    IceNet, a sea ice forecasting system developed by the British Antarctic Survey, or BAS, is “95 percent accurate in forecasting sea ice two months ahead — higher than the leading physics-based model SEAS5 — while running 2,000 times faster,” says Tom Andersson, a data scientist with BAS’s Artificial Intelligence lab. Whereas SEAS5 takes about six hours on a supercomputer to produce a forecast, IceNet can do the same in less than 10 seconds on a laptop. The system also shows a surprising ability to predict anomalous ice events — unusual highs or lows — up to four months in advance, Andersson and his colleagues found.

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    Tracking sea ice is crucial to keeping tabs on the impacts of climate change. While that’s more of a long game, the advanced notice provided by IceNet could have more immediate benefits, too. For instance, it could give scientists the lead time needed to assess, and plan for, the risks of Arctic fires or wildlife-human conflicts, and it could provide data that Indigenous communities need to make economic and environmental decisions.

    Arctic sea ice extent has steadily declined in all seasons since satellite records began in 1979 (SN: 9/25/19). Scientists have been trying to improve sea ice forecasts for decades, but success has proved elusive. “Forecasting sea ice is really hard because sea ice interacts in complex ways with the atmosphere above and ocean below,” Andersson says.

    [embedded content]
    In 2020, the sea ice in the Arctic shrank to its second lowest extent since satellite monitoring began in 1979. This animation uses those observations to show the change in sea ice coverage from March 5, when the ice was at its maximum, through September 15, when the ice reached its lowest point. The yellow line represents the average minimum extent from 1981 to 2010. Current forecasting tools can accurately predict these changes weeks in advance. A new AI-based tool can predict these changes with nearly 95 percent accuracy several months in advance.

    Existing forecast tools put the laws of physics into computer code to predict how sea ice will change in the future. But partly due to uncertainties in the physical systems governing sea ice, these models struggle to produce accurate long-range forecasts.

    Using a process called deep learning, Andersson and his colleagues loaded observational sea ice data from 1979 to 2011 and climate simulations covering 1850 to 2100 to train IceNet how to predict the state of future sea ice by processing the data from the past.

    To determine the accuracy of its forecasts, the team compared IceNet’s outputs to the observed sea ice extent from 2012 to 2020, and to the forecasts made by SEAS5, the widely cited tool used by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. IceNet was as much as 2.9 percent more accurate than SEAS5, corresponding to a further 360,000 square kilometers of ocean being correctly labeled as “ice” or “no ice.”

    What’s more, in 2012, a sudden crash in summer sea ice extent heralded a new record low extent in September of that year. In running through past data, IceNet saw the dip coming months in advance. SEAS5 had inklings too but its projections that far out were off by a few hundred thousand square kilometers.

    “This is a significant step forward in sea ice forecasting, boosting our ability to produce accurate forecasts that were typically not thought possible and run them thousands of times faster,” says Andersson. He believes it’s possible that IceNet has better learned the physical processes that determine the evolution of sea ice from the training data while physics-based models still struggle to understand this information.

    “These machine learning techniques have only begun contributing to [forecasting] in the last couple years, and they’ve been doing amazingly well,” says Uma Bhatt, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute who was not involved in the new study. She also leads the Sea Ice Prediction Network, a group of multidisciplinary scientists working to improve forecasting.

    Bhatt says that good seasonal ice forecasts are important for assessing the risk of Arctic wildfires, which are tied strongly to the presence of sea ice (SN: 6/23/20). “Knowing where the sea ice is going to be in the spring could potentially help you figure out where you’re likely to have fires — in Siberia, for example, as soon as the sea ice moves away from the shore, the land can warm up very quickly and help set the stage for a bad fire season.”

    Any improvement in sea ice forecasting can also help economic, safety and environmental planning in northern and Indigenous communities. For example, tens of thousands of walruses haul out on land to rest when the sea ice disappears (SN: 10/2/14). Human disturbances can trigger deadly stampedes and lead to high walrus mortality. With seasonal ice forecasts, biologists can anticipate rapid ice loss and manage haul-out sites in advance by limiting human access to those locations.

    Still, limitations remain. At four months of lead time, the system was about 91 percent accurate in predicting the location of September’s ice edge.IceNet, like other forecasting systems, struggles to produce accurate long-range forecasts for late summer due, in part, to what scientists call the “spring predictability barrier.” It’s crucial to know the condition of the sea ice at the start of the spring melting season to be able to forecast end-of-summer conditions.

    Another limit is “the fact that the weather is so variable,” says Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. Though sea ice seemed primed to set a new annual record low at the start of July, the speed of ice loss ultimately slowed due to cool atmospheric temperatures. “We know that sea ice responds very strongly to summer weather patterns, but we can’t get good weather predictions. Weather predictability is about 10 days in advance.” More

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    50 years ago, chemical pollutants were linked to odd animal behavior

    Sea life’s chemical senses Science News, September 18, 1971

    For fish and other underwater life, a sensitivity to chemicals plays the same role as the sense of smell does for land animals.… [Researchers] have been studying the subtle ways this delicate fish-communication system can be disrupted by pollutants…. One study examined the effects of kerosene pollution on the behavior of lobsters…. The experiments demonstrate that chemical communication interference takes place at extremely low dilutions.

    Update

    Chemical pollution — from sewage and agricultural runoff to pharmaceutical waste — muddles aquatic animals’ senses with potentially dire effects, decades of research has shown. A chemical used to treat sewage seems to limit some fish species’ abilities to form schools, making the fish vulnerable to predators (SN: 10/27/07, p. 262). Drug-tainted waters can have a variety of effects on fish, including suppressing their appetites (SN: 12/20/08, p. 15). A plastic chemical also appears to confuse senses: Its scent can lure sea turtles into eating plastic debris (SN: 3/28/20, p. 14). More

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    Clouds affected by wildfire smoke may produce less rain

    When smoke rises from wildfires in the western United States, it pummels clouds with tiny airborne particles. What happens next with these clouds has been largely unstudied. But during the 2018 wildfire season, researchers embarked on a series of seven research flights, including over the Pacific Northwest, to help fill this gap.

    Using airborne instruments to analyze small cumulus clouds affected by the smoke, the scientists found that these clouds contained, on average, five times as many water droplets as unaffected clouds. That in itself was not a huge surprise; it’s known that organic and inorganic particles in smoke can serve as tiny nuclei for forming droplets (SN: 12/15/20). But the sheer abundance of droplets in the affected clouds astounded the team. 

    Counterintuitively, those numerous droplets didn’t make the clouds more likely to produce rain. In fact, the opposite occurred. Because the droplets were about half as big as those found in a typical cloud, they were unlikely to collide and merge with enough other droplets to result in rain. The chances of rain were “virtually zero,” the researchers write in the August Geophysical Research Letters.

    The new research suggests that wildfires could lead to clouds producing less rain in the U.S. West, feeding into drought conditions and potentially increasing future wildfire risk.

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    But the environmental dynamics involved are complex, says Cynthia Twohy. She’s a San Diego–based atmospheric scientist at NorthWest Research Associates, a research organization specializing in geophysical and space sciences headquartered in Redmond, Wash. For instance, Twohy and her colleagues found that “the ratio of light-absorbing to light-scattering particles in the smoke was somewhat lower than measured in many prior studies,” she says.  

    “The take-home message is that while other studies have shown wildfire smoke has an absorbing (warming) influence that can be important for cloud formation and development, these impacts may be less in the western U.S., because the smoke is not as dark,” Twohy says. The impact of the lighter smoke is still an open question. “It’s just another way that smoke-cloud interactions are a wild card in the region.”  

    The team used onboard probes to sample clouds affected by wildfire smoke and compare them to their more pristine counterparts. The probes measured how many cloud droplets were present in the samples, the size range of those droplets and the liquid water content of the clouds.

    A special tube mounted on the exterior of the plane to collect and evaporate cloud droplets was used to “reveal the particles that the droplets were condensed on,” says Robert Yokelson, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Montana in Missoula who was not involved with the research. This process enabled the researchers to confirm what the original smoke particles were made of, a technique that Yokelson calls “neat.”

    The analysis detected the amounts of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and potassium found in residual particles evaporated from cloud droplets. These elements were present in similar amounts to those found in smoke particles sampled from below the clouds, “implying that the cloud droplets also formed on smoke particles,” Twohy says.

    Previous studies conducted in the Amazon have shown that “smoke will make the cloud droplets smaller and more numerous,” thereby reducing rainfall, Yokelson says. But this study provides robust evidence that the phenomenon isn’t isolated to the Amazon. It echoes the results of a much smaller 1974 study of smoke-filled clouds over the western United States, providing a crucial present-day snapshot of the challenges facing the region.

    Wildfires in the western United States have been breaking records in recent years — increasing in number and size due to climate change — a trend that scientists think will get worse as the globe continues to warm (SN: 12/21/20). As a result, Twohy says, it’s increasingly important that researchers continue to monitor these fires’ influence on the atmosphere. More

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    Climate change made Europe’s flash floods in July more likely

    Climate change has increased the likelihood of heavy downpours in Western Europe such as the July rains that led to devastating flash floods, researchers affiliated with the World Weather Attribution network report August 23. Such extreme rains are 1.2 to 9 times more likely to happen — and those downpours are 3 to 19 percent heavier — as a result of human-caused climate change, the team found.

    The World Weather Attribution conducts quick analyses of extreme events to assess the contribution of climate change (SN: 7/7/21). The new study focused on two regions where record-setting rains fell July 12–15 and triggered floods that killed more than 200 people.

    In a single day, an average 93 millimeters of rain fell near Germany’s Ahr and Erft rivers; in just two days, 106 millimeters of rain fell in Belgium’s Meuse River region. With many river measurement stations destroyed, the researchers focused on assessing the contribution of climate change to the intense rainfall using climate simulations comparing conditions with and without human-caused climate change.

    That intense rainfall might occur once every 400 years under current climate conditions, but those odds are likely to increase as the world continues to warm, said coauthor Maarten van Aalst on August 23 at a news conference on the report. It’s “still a rare event, but a rare event we should prepare for,” said van Aalst, a climate and disaster risk researcher at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and the director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.

    That finding is consistent with data cited in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report, which notes that as global temperatures continue to rise, western and central Europe will see more intense rainfall events (SN: 8/9/21). More