More stories

  • in

    Cyclones in the Arctic are becoming more intense and frequent

    CHICAGO – In January 2022, a cyclone blitzed a large expanse of ice-covered ocean between Greenland and Russia. Frenzied gusts galvanized 8-meter-tall waves that pounded the region’s hapless flotillas of sea ice, while a bombardment of warm rain and a surge of southerly heat laid siege from the air.

    Six days after the assault began, about a quarter, or roughly 400,000 square kilometers, of the vast area’s sea ice had disappeared, leading to a record weekly loss for the region.

    Science News headlines, in your inbox

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your email inbox every Thursday.

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    The storm is the strongest Arctic cyclone ever documented. But it may not hold that title for long. Cyclones in the Arctic have become more frequent and intense in recent decades, posing risks to both sea ice and people, researchers reported December 13 at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. “This trend is expected to persist as the region continues to warm rapidly in the future,” says climate scientist Stephen Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

    Rapid Arctic warming and more destructive storms

    The Arctic Circle is warming about four times as fast as the rest of Earth (SN: 8/11/22). A major driver is the loss of sea ice due to human-caused climate change. The floating ice reflects far more solar radiation back into space than naked seas do, influencing the global climate (SN: 10/14/21). During August, the heart of the sea ice melting season, cyclones have been observed to amplify sea ice losses on average, exacerbating warming.

    There’s more: Like hurricanes can ravage regions farther south, boreal vortices can threaten people living and traveling in the Arctic (SN: 12/11/19). As the storms intensify, “stronger winds pose a risk for marine navigation by generating higher waves,” Vavrus says, “and for coastal erosion, which has already become a serious problem throughout much of the Arctic and forced some communities to consider relocating inland.”

    Climate change is intensifying storms farther south (SN: 11/11/20). But it’s unclear how Arctic cyclones might be changing as the world warms. Some previous research suggested that pressures, on average, in Arctic cyclones’ cores have dropped in recent decades. That would be problematic, as lower pressures generally mean more intense storms, with “stronger winds, larger temperature variations and heavier rainfall [and] snowfall,” says atmospheric scientist Xiangdong Zhang of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

    But inconsistencies between analyses had prevented a clear trend from emerging, Zhang said at the meeting. So he and his colleagues aggregated a comprehensive record, spanning 1950 to 2021, of Arctic cyclone timing, intensity and duration.

    Arctic cyclone activity has intensified in strength and frequency over recent decades, Zhang reported. Pressures in the hearts of today’s boreal vortices are on average about 9 millibars lower than in the 1950s. For context, such a pressure shift would be roughly equivalent to bumping a strong category 1 hurricane well into category 2 territory. And vortices became more frequent during winters in the North Atlantic Arctic and during summers in the Arctic north of Eurasia.

    What’s more, August cyclones appear to be damaging sea ice more than in the past, said meteorologist Peter Finocchio of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, Calif. He and his colleagues compared the response of northern sea ice to summer cyclones during the 1990s and the 2010s.

    August vortices in the latter decade were followed by a 10 percent loss of sea ice area on average, up from the earlier decade’s 3 percent loss on average. This may be due, in part, to warmer water upwelling from below, which can melt the ice pack’s underbelly, and from winds pushing the thinner, easier-to-move ice around, Finocchio said.

    Stronger spring storms spell trouble too

    With climate change, cyclones may continue intensifying in the spring too, climate scientist Chelsea Parker said at the meeting. That’s a problem because spring vortices can prime sea ice for later summer melting.

    Parker, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and her colleagues ran computer simulations of spring cyclone behavior in the Arctic under past, present and projected climate conditions. By the end of the century, the maximum near-surface wind speeds of spring cyclones — around 11 kilometers per hour today — could reach 60 km/h, the researchers found. And future spring cyclones may keep swirling at peak intensity for up to a quarter of their life spans, up from around 1 percent today. The storms will probably travel farther too, the team says.

    “The diminishing sea ice cover will enable the warmer Arctic seas to fuel these storms and probably allow them to penetrate farther into the Arctic,” says Vavrus, who was not involved in the research.

    Parker and her team plan to investigate the future evolution of Arctic cyclones in other seasons, to capture a broader picture of how climate change is affecting the storms.

    For now, it seems certain that Arctic cyclones aren’t going anywhere. What’s less clear is how humankind will contend with the storms’ growing fury. More

  • in

    Extreme weather in 2022 showed the global impact of climate change

    It was another shattering year.

    Climate change amped up weather extremes around the globe, smashing temperature records, sinking river levels to historic lows and raising rainfall to devastating highs. Droughts set the stage for wildfires and worsened food insecurity. Researchers found themselves pondering the limits of humans’ ability to tolerate extreme heat (SN: 7/27/22).

    The extreme events from 2022 pinpointed on the map below are just a sample of this year’s climate disasters. Each was exacerbated by human-caused climate change or is in line with projections of regional impacts.

    Science News headlines, in your inbox

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your email inbox every Friday.

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    In its Sixth Assessment Report, released in 2021 and 2022, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, warned that humans are dramatically overhauling Earth’s climate (SN: 8/9/21). Earth’s average surface temperature has already risen by at least 1.1 degree Celsius since preindustrial times, thanks to human inputs of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide and methane (SN: 3/10/22). That warming has shifted the flow of energy around the planet, altering weather patterns, raising sea levels and turning past extremes into new normals (SN: 2/1/22).

    And the world will have to weather more such climate extremes as carbon keeps accumulating in the atmosphere and global temperatures continue to rise. But IPCC scientists and others hope that, by highlighting the regional and local effects of climate change, the world will ramp up its efforts to reduce climate-warming emissions — averting a more disastrous future. More

  • in

    2022’s biggest climate change bill pushes clean energy

    The world needed bold climate action this year, and we got it.

    California and other states announced plans to phase out gas-powered cars after 2035. The United States ratified an international treaty to slash production of the climate-warming hydrofluorocarbons used in cooling and refrigeration. The European Union is finalizing its plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent relative to 1990s levels by 2030. The list of legislative victories goes on.

    But the biggest win came August 16, when President Joe Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act.

    Science News headlines, in your inbox

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your email inbox every Friday.

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    The historic legislation marks the first major move by the United States, which has emitted more carbon dioxide than any other country, toward neutralizing greenhouse gas emissions. It gets the ball rolling by investing $369 billion into accelerating the adoption of wind, solar and other renewable energy sources and decarbonizing the economy. By the end of the decade, the act will help cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by around 40 percent of the levels in 2005, when U.S. emissions nearly peaked, scientists project, bringing the nation within reach of fulfilling its pledge to halve emissions by 2030.

    The legislation is no panacea for the climate emergency, but researchers and activists are optimistic that it will be the helping hand that clean energy needs to flourish. “There would be no way to really mitigate the climate crisis without the investments in this bill,” says Raul Garcia, a legislative director at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization.

    Here’s a look at some of the law’s major provisions and a few of its limitations.

    Cheaper clean energy

    The law aims to ease and incentivize the transition away from fossil fuels by creating tax credits that reduce the cost for companies to adopt clean energy. For instance, small businesses can qualify for credits that support up to 30 percent of the cost of transitioning to solar power.

    The act also aims to help consumers, with $9 billion for rebates that help people ditch gas and buy appliances powered by electricity, such as electric induction cooktops and heat pump water heaters. Households can also get up to $7,500 in tax credits for electric vehicle purchases.

    From astronomy to zoology

    Subscribe to Science News to satisfy your omnivorous appetite for universal knowledge.

    “It’s huge,” Denise Mauzerall, an atmospheric scientist at Princeton University, says of the law’s potential to advance clean energy. But if the United States is to take full advantage of the increased clean energy capacity, it will be crucial to also construct sufficient infrastructure to deliver that energy, she notes. The bill offers only some support to build overhead power lines and other ways to transmit energy. “Without transmission,” she says, “we will really slow ourselves down.”

    Clean energy jobs and goods

    A major goal is to build up a clean energy economy by promoting high-quality jobs in industries such as solar and wind. To maximize tax credits, companies must pay workers a “prevailing wage” and employ apprentices to work a minimum number of hours on clean energy projects.

    The legislation also invests in the domestic manufacturing of clean energy goods. Tax credits of up to 30 percent are available to companies that build or recycle wind turbine blades, solar panels, energy storage equipment and other clean energy products, and funds grants to retool factories to make electric vehicles.

    Through tax credits, the Inflation Reduction Act promotes high-quality jobs in the wind and energy industries, like workers at solar power stations.Sinology/Moment/Getty Images

    Reducing pollution

    Methane — a greenhouse gas that can trap more than 25 times as much heat as CO2 — is another target. The legislation devotes $850 million to the monitoring and mitigation of methane emissions from fossil fuel operations. It also establishes a fine for operations that annually release amounts of methane that exceed 25,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent.

    And CO2 is legally defined as an “air pollutant,” cementing the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate its production under the Clean Air Act.

    But there’s more to the climate problem than decarbonizing today’s pollutive energy industry, Mauzerall says. “Going forward, we need to pay more attention to reducing emissions from the agricultural sector,” she says. About 11 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and about a third of global emissions come from agriculture (SN: 5/7/22 & 5/21/22, p. 22).

    Climate justice

    Billions of dollars are slated to go toward climate justice, a movement that confronts the disproportionate impacts of climate change on marginalized communities. Funding includes $2.8 billion in grants for community-based projects, such as those that increase energy efficiency in affordable housing developments or monitor air quality in marginalized communities.

    “But there are some troubling provisions,” Garcia says. The law authorizes new offshore oil and gas leases and provides fossil fuel companies with carbon capture and sequestration tax credits. These could prolong the life of pollutive oil and gas operations, which are often located near marginalized communities.

    It will be crucial to follow these investments with laws that enforce both climate justice and the clean energy transition, Garcia says. “We need rules and regulations that hold industries’ feet to the fire, to make sure that those investments are going where they need to.” More

  • in

    Greenland’s frozen hinterlands are bleeding worse than we thought

    Sea level rise may proceed faster than expected in the coming decades, as a gargantuan flow of ice slithering out of Greenland’s remote interior both picks up speed and shrinks.

    By the end of the century, the ice stream’s deterioration could contribute to nearly 16 millimeters of global sea level rise — more than six times the amount scientists had previously estimated, researchers report November 9 in Nature.

    The finding suggests that inland portions of large ice flows elsewhere could also be withering and accelerating due to human-caused climate change, and that past research has probably underestimated the rates at which the ice will contribute to sea level rise (SN: 3/10/22).

    “It’s not something that we expected,” says Shfaqat Abbas Khan, a glaciologist at the Technical University of Denmark in Kongens Lyngby. “Greenland and Antarctica’s contributions to sea level rise in the next 80 years will be significantly larger than we have predicted until now.”

    In the new study, Khan and colleagues focused on the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream, a titanic conveyor belt of solid ice that crawls about 600 kilometers out of the landmass’s hinterland and into the sea. It drains about 12 percent of the country’s entire ice sheet and contains enough water to raise global sea level more than a meter. Near the coast, the ice stream splits into two glaciers, Nioghalvfjerdsfjord and Zachariae Isstrøm.

    While frozen, these glaciers keep the ice behind them from rushing into the sea, much like dams hold back water in a river (SN: 6/17/21). When the ice shelf of Zachariae Isstrøm collapsed about a decade ago, scientists found that the flow of ice behind the glacier started accelerating. But whether those changes penetrated deep into Greenland’s interior remained largely unresolved.

    “We’ve mostly concerned ourselves with the margins,” says atmosphere-cryosphere scientist Jenny Turton of the nonprofit Arctic Frontiers in Tromsø, Norway, who was not involved in the new study. That’s where the most dramatic changes with the greatest impacts on sea level rise have been observed, she says (SN: 4/30/22, SN: 5/16/13).

    Keen to measure small rates of movement in the ice stream far inland, Khan and his colleagues used GPS, which in the past has exposed the tortuous creeping of tectonic plates (SN: 1/13/21). The team analyzed GPS data from three stations along the ice stream’s main trunk, all located between 90 and 190 kilometers inland.

    The data showed that the ice stream had accelerated at all three points from 2016 to 2019. In that time frame, the ice speed at the station farthest inland increased from about 344 meters per year to surpassing 351 meters per year.

    The researchers then compared the GPS measurements with data collected by polar-orbiting satellites and aircraft surveys. The aerial data agreed with the GPS analysis, revealing that the ice stream was accelerating as far as 200 kilometers upstream. What’s more, shrinking — or thinning — of the ice stream that started in 2011 at Zachariae Isstrøm had propagated more than 250 kilometers upstream by 2021. 

    “This is showing that glaciers are responding along their length faster than we had thought previously,” says Leigh Stearns, a glaciologist from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, who was not involved in the study.

    Khan and his colleagues then used the data to tune computer simulations that forecast the ice stream’s impact on sea level rise. The researchers predict that by 2100, the ice stream will have singlehandedly contributed between about 14 to 16 millimeters of global sea level rise — as much as Greenland’s entire ice sheet has in the last 50 years.

    The findings suggest that past research has probably underestimated rates of sea level rise due to the ice stream, Stearns and Turton say. Similarly, upstream thinning and acceleration in other large ice flows, such as those associated with Antarctica’s shrinking Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers, might also cause sea levels to rise faster than expected, Turton says (SN: 6/9/22, SN: 12/13/21).

    Khan and his colleagues plan to investigate inland sections of other large ice flows in Greenland and Antarctica, with the hopes of improving forecasts of sea level rise (SN: 1/7/20).

    Such forecasts are crucial for adapting to climate change, Stearns says. “They’re helping us better understand the processes so that we can inform the people who need to know that information.” More

  • in

    Wind turbines could help capture carbon dioxide while providing power

    Wind turbines could offer a double whammy in the fight against climate change.

    Besides harnessing wind to generate clean energy, turbines may help to funnel carbon dioxide to systems that pull the greenhouse gas out of the air (SN: 8/10/21). Researchers say their simulations show that wind turbines can drag dirty air from above a city or a smokestack into the turbines’ wakes. That boosts the amount of CO2 that makes it to machines that can remove it from the atmosphere. The researchers plan to describe their simulations and a wind tunnel test of a scaled-down system at a meeting of the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics in Indianapolis on November 21.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    Addressing climate change will require dramatic reductions in the amount of carbon dioxide that humans put into the air — but that alone won’t be enough (SN: 3/10/22). One part of the solution could be direct air capture systems that remove some CO2 from the atmosphere (SN: 9/9/22).

    But the large amounts of CO2 produced by factories, power plants and cities are often concentrated at heights that put it out of reach of machinery on the ground that can remove it. “We’re looking into the fluid dynamics benefits of utilizing the wake of the wind turbine to redirect higher concentrations” down to carbon capture systems, says mechanical engineer Clarice Nelson of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

    As large, power-generating wind turbines rotate, they cause turbulence that pulls air down into the wakes behind them, says mechanical engineer Luciano Castillo, also of Purdue. It’s an effect that can concentrate carbon dioxide enough to make capture feasible, particularly near large cities like Chicago.

    “The beauty is that [around Chicago], you have one of the best wind resources in the region, so you can use the wind turbine to take some of the dirty air in the city and capture it,” Castillo says. Wind turbines don’t require the cooling that nuclear and fossil fuel plants need. “So not only are you producing clean energy,” he says, “you are not using water.”

    Running the capture systems from energy produced by the wind turbines can also address the financial burden that often goes along with removing CO2 from the air. “Even with tax credits and potentially selling the CO2, there’s a huge gap between the value that you can get from capturing it and the actual cost” that comes with powering capture with energy that comes from other sources, Nelson says. “Our method would be a no-cost added benefit” to wind turbine farms.

    There are probably lots of factors that will impact CO2 transport by real-world turbines, including the interactions the turbine wakes have with water, plants and the ground, says Nicholas Hamilton, a mechanical engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., who was not involved with the new studies. “I’m interested to see how this group scaled their experiment for wind tunnel investigation.” More

  • in

    Climate change could turn some blue lakes to green or brown

    Some picturesque blue lakes may not be so blue in the future, thanks to climate change.

    In the first global tally of lake color, researchers estimate that roughly one-third of Earth’s lakes are blue. But, should average summer air temperatures rise by a few degrees, some of those crystal waters could turn a murky green or brown, the team reports in the Sept. 28 Geophysical Research Letters.

    The changing hues could alter how people use those waters and offer clues about the stability of lake ecosystems. Lake color depends in part on what’s in the water, but factors such as water depth and surrounding land use also matter. Compared with blue lakes, green or brown lakes have more algae, sediment and organic matter, says Xiao Yang, a hydrologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    Yang and colleagues used satellite photos from 2013 to 2020 to analyze the color of more than 85,000 lakes around the world. Because storms and seasons can temporarily affect a lake’s color, the researchers focused on the most frequent color observed for each lake over the seven-year period. The researchers also created an interactive online map that can be used to explore the colors of these lakes.

    The approach is “super cool,” says Dina Leech, an aquatic ecologist at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., who was not involved with the study. These satellite data are “just so powerful.”

    The scientists then looked at local climates during that time to see how they may be linked to lake color around the world. For many small or remote water bodies, records of temperature and precipitation don’t exist. Instead, the researchers also relied on climate “hindcasts” calculated for every spot on the globe, which are pieced together from relatively sparse records. 

    Lakes in places with average summer air temperatures that were below 19° Celsius were more likely to be blue than lakes with warmer summers, the researchers found. But up to 14 percent of the blue lakes they studied are near that threshold. If average summer temperatures increase another 3 degrees Celsius — an amount that scientists think is plausible by the end of the century — those 3,800 lakes could turn green or brown (SN: 8/9/21). That’s because warmer water helps algae bloom more, which changes the properties of the water, giving it a green-brown tint, Yang says.

    Extrapolating beyond this sample of lakes is a bit tricky. “We don’t even know how many lakes there are in the world,” says study coauthor Catherine O’Reilly, an aquatic ecologist at Illinois State University in Normal. Many lakes are too small to reliably detect via satellite, but by some estimates, tens of thousands of larger lakes could lose their blue hue.

    If some lakes do become less blue, people will probably lose some of the resources they have come to value, O’Reilly says. Lakes are often used for drinking water, food or recreation. If the water is more clogged with algae, it could be unappealing for play or more costly to clean for drinking.

    But the color changes wouldn’t necessarily mean that the lakes are any less healthy. “[Humans] don’t value lots of algae in a lake, but if you’re a certain type of fish species, you might be like ‘this is great,’” O’Reilly says.

    Lake color can hint at the stability of a lake’s ecosystem, with shifting shades indicating changing conditions for the critters living in the water. One benefit of the new study is that it gives scientists a baseline for assessing how climate change is affecting Earth’s freshwater resources. Continued monitoring of lakes could help scientists detect future changes.

    “[The study] sets a marker that we can compare future results to,” says Mike Pace, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who was not involved with the study. “That’s, to me, the great power of this study.” More

  • in

    Gas flares are leaking five times as much methane than previously thought

    In many oil and gas producing regions, flames light the sky. The flares burn off 98 percent of the escaping natural gas, oil and gas companies claim. But observations of three U.S. oil and gas fields show efficiency is only around 91 percent, scientists report in the Sept. 30 Science. Making up the difference would be the equivalent of taking nearly 3 million cars off the road. 

    The natural gas escaping is primarily methane. This greenhouse gas lingers for only nine to 10 years in the atmosphere, but its warming potential is 80 times that of carbon dioxide. So oil and gas companies light flares — burning the methane to produce less-potent carbon dioxide and water. The industry and the U.S. government assumed those flares worked at 98 percent efficiency. But previous studies said that might be too optimistic, says Genevieve Plant, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (SN: 4/22/20).

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    Plant and her colleagues sent planes to sample air over more than 300 flares in the Bakken Basin in North Dakota and the Permian and Eagle Ford basins in Texas, which account for more than 80 percent of the flaring in the country. The samples showed five times as much methane unburned than previously estimated.

    The drop from 98 to 91 percent efficiency might seem small, but the effects are large, says Dan Cusworth, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who was not involved in the study. “Any percentage that is in the methane phase instead of CO2 phase is substantially more problematic.”

    Half of the difference is due to flares that aren’t burning. “We expected that flares might show a range of efficiencies, but we did not expect to see so many unlit flares,” Plant says. Between 3 and 5 percent of flares weren’t working at all. If those fires were lit, and 98 percent efficiency achieved, the result could remove the equivalent of about 13 million metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere. Light ‘em up.  More

  • in

    How Kenyans help themselves and the planet by saving mangrove trees

    On the fringe of Kenya’s Gazi village, 50 kilometers south of Mombasa, Mwatime Hamadi walks barefoot on a path of scorching-hot sand toward a thicket of trees that seem to float where the land meets the Indian Ocean. Behind her moves village life: Mothers carry babies on their backs while they hang laundry between palm trees, women sweep the floors of huts thatched with palm fronds and old men chat idly about bygone days under the shade of mango trees.

    Hamadi is on her way to Gazi Forest, a dense patch of mangroves along Gazi Bay that coastal residents see as vital to their future. Mangroves “play a crucial role in safeguarding the marine ecosystem, which in turn is important for fisheries we depend on for our livelihood,” she says as she reaches a boardwalk that snakes through the coastal wetland.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    Hamadi is a tour guide with Gazi Ecotourism Ventures, a group dedicated to empowering women and their community through mangrove conservation. This group is part of a larger carbon offset project called Mikoko Pamoja that has taken root and is now being copied farther south on Kenya’s coastline and in Mozambique and Madagascar.

    Through Mikoko Pamoja, residents of Gazi and nearby Makongeni are cultivating an economic ecosystem that relies on efforts to preserve and restore the mangrove forests. Revenue from carbon credits sold plus the money Hamadi and others earn from ecotourism are split between salaries, project costs and village improvements to health care, sanitation, schools and more.

    Mikoko Pamoja, launched in 2013, is the world’s first mangrove­-driven carbon credit initiative. It earned the United Nations’ Equator Prize in 2017, awarded for innovative solutions to poverty that involve conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

    “The mangrove vegetation was a thriving, healthy ecosystem in precolonial times,” says Ismail Barua, Mikoko Pamoja’s chairperson. During British rule, which stretched from the 1890s to 1963, the colonial government issued licenses to private companies to export mangrove wood. They did this without community involvement, which led to poaching of trees. Even after Kenya gained independence, mangroves were an important source of timber and fuel for industrial processes, main drivers of extensive destruction of the forests.

    Today, mangrove restoration is helping the region enter a new chapter, one where labor and resources are well-managed by local communities instead of being exploited. “The community is now able to run its own affairs,” Barua notes. Through innovative solutions and hard work, he says, “we’re trying to bring back a semblance of that ecosystem.”

    DOLIMAC/ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES PLUS

    “The mangrove vegetation was a thriving, healthy ecosystem in precolonial times.…We’re trying to bring back a semblance of that ecosystem.”Ismail Barua

    A fragile carbon sponge

    The dominant mangrove species in Gazi Forest is Rhizophora murcronata. With oval, leathery leaves about the size of a child’s palm and spindly branches that reach to the sun, the trees can grow up to 27 meters tall. Their interlaced roots, which grow from the base of the trunk into the salt­water, make these evergreen trees unique.

    Salt kills most plants, but mangrove roots separate freshwater from salt for the tree to use. At low tide, the looping roots act like stilts and buttresses, keeping trunks and branches above the waterline and dry. Speckling these roots are thousands of specialized pores, or lenticels. The lenticels open to absorb gases from the atmosphere when exposed, but seal tight at high tide, keeping the mangrove from drowning.

    The thickets of roots also prevent soil erosion and buffer coastlines against tropical storms. Within these roots and branches, shorebirds and fish — and in some places, manatees and dolphins — thrive.

    Mangrove roots support an ecosystem that stores four times as much carbon as inland forests. That’s because the saltwater slows decomposition of organic matter, says Kipkorir Lang’at, a principal scientist at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, or KMFRI. So when mangrove plants and animals die, their carbon gets trapped in thick soils. As long as mangroves stay standing, the carbon stays in the soil.

    Robust estimates of mangrove forest area in Kenya before 1980 are not available, Lang’at says. However, with the clear-cutting of mangrove forests in Gazi Bay in the 1970s, he says, the area was left with vast expanses of bare, sandy coast.

    Other parts of the country experienced similar losses: Kenya lost up to 20 percent of its mangrove forests between 1985 and 2009 because no mechanism existed for their protection. The losses had a steep price: Just as mangroves absorb more carbon than inland forests, when destroyed, they release more carbon than other forests. And since the mangroves provided habitat and shelter for fish, their destruction meant that fishers were catching less.

    Recognizing this high cost, as well as the eco­system’s other benefits, Kenya’s government ratified the Forest Conservation and Management Act of 2016, a law protecting mangroves and inland forests. Cutting down mangroves is now banned throughout the country, except in very specific areas under very specific circumstances.

    Available data suggest that Kenya’s rate of mangrove loss has declined in the last two decades. The country is now losing about 0.65 percent of its mangrove forest annually, according to unpublished evaluations conducted in 2020 by KMFRI. Since the turn of the millennium, global mangrove deforestation has slowed as well, hovering between a loss of 0.2 and 0.7 percent per year, says a 2020 study in Scientific Reports.

    Mikoko Pamoja offers hope for turning around those declines. The project, whose Swahili name means “mangroves together,” has its roots in a small mangrove restoration effort that started in 1991 in Gazi Bay, spearheaded by KMFRI. The effort evolved into a scientific experiment to see what it would take to restore a degraded ecosystem. It attracted collaborators from Edinburgh Napier University, Europe’s Earthwatch Institute and other organizations across Europe.

    Now, Gazi Forest boasts 615 hectares of mangrove forest, including 56,000 individual seedlings planted by the community. Plans to plant more mangrove trees — at least 2,000 per year — are in the works.

    Creating carbon credits

    Gazi Forest siphons carbon from the atmosphere at a rate of 3,000 metric tons per year, says Rahma Kivugo, the outgoing project coordinator for Mikoko Pamoja. These aren’t merely ballpark numbers: To sell the carbon offsets collected by Mikoko Pamoja, forest managers must calculate the amount of carbon stored by mangroves.

    Volunteers venture into the forest twice a year, checking on 10 selected 10-square-meter plots in the wild forest and five plots in planted forest. Workers measure the diameter of mature trees at an adult’s chest height. They then estimate the trees’ height. Finally, they classify young trees as knee-height, waist-height, chest-height and higher.

    From these observations, researchers estimate the volume of mangrove material above ground in each plot and extrapolate for the whole forest area.

    Once they have an idea of the volume of plant material above ground, team members can estimate root volume below ground using a standardized factor specific to mangrove forests, says Mbatha Anthony, a research assistant at KMFRI in charge of carbon accounting. Even though mangrove forests store a lot of soil carbon, the project calculates carbon stored only by the tree itself because “calculating soil carbon is a resource-intensive undertaking for a small project like Mikoko Pamoja,” Anthony says.

    With an estimate of the total volume of biomass in the forest in hand, “we can then translate that into tons of carbon,” says environmental biologist Mark Huxham of Edinburgh Napier University, who helps Mikoko Pamoja with its calculations. In general, 50 percent of aboveground biomass is carbon. Below ground, 39 percent of biomass is carbon.

    The amount of carbon stored by Gazi Forest is then relayed to the Plan Vivo Foundation, a group based in Scotland that certifies carbon calculations. Once its calculations are certified, Mikoko Pamoja receives Plan Vivo Certificates, or PVCs.

    One PVC is equivalent to one metric ton of carbon dioxide emission reductions. These PVCs are submitted to the Association for Coastal Ecosystem Services — an organization that markets carbon credits for Mikoko Pamoja and similar projects. Through ACES, Mikoko Pamoja’s PVCs can then be purchased by anyone who wishes to offset their carbon emissions.

    Roughly 117 hectares of Gazi Forest have been demarcated for the sale of carbon credits. “Mikoko Pamoja generates approximately $15,000 annually from the sale of carbon credits,” Anthony says. From 2014 to 2018, the project generated 9,880 credits — 9,880 tons of avoided carbon dioxide emissions.

    Ismail Barua, chairperson of Mikoko Pamoja, stands at a water distribution kiosk funded by the organization’s conservation work.G. Kamadi

    A community at work

    Mikoko Pamoja sells carbon credits at more than $7 per ton. Revenues get split in a clearly defined manner, according to what residents decide are pressing needs of Makongeni and Gazi villages. Around 21 percent pays wages of residents involved with Mikoko Pamoja. And “more than half of what is earned goes toward community projects,” Kivugo says.

    In total, about $117,000 has gone to community projects since Mikoko Pamoja was founded. These projects include donating medicine to health clinics and textbooks to schools and digging clean water wells. Plans are under way to revive a windmill in Gazi for pumping water and renovate Makongeni’s primary school.

    “The need in the community is great. So carbon trading is unlikely to meet all the needs,” Huxham says. But the funds make a significant contribution to local livelihoods, which primes the community to support conservation, he says.

    The approach seems to be working. On a winding path into the forest, visitors encounter a signboard, with large letters in Swahili declaring, “Take note! This is a Mikoko Pamoja area protected by the community. Littering is prohibited! Trimming trees is prohibited!”

    This sign, written in Swahili, warns visitors to the Gazi Bay mangrove forest against littering and cutting down the trees.G. Kamadi

    Active community participation is central to Mikoko Pamoja’s success. Not only do community members plant mangrove seedlings and survey trees to gauge carbon storage, community scouts monitor the health of this ecosystem.

    Scouts clean up litter within the forests and survey the forest’s biodiversity. From a wooden watchtower above the forest, scouts also track and report illegal logging.

    “Should we spot suspicious activities in the forest, we will call the Kenya Forest Service rangers, who have the authority to detain and arrest any trespasser,” says local scout Shaban Jambia.

    Back at the boardwalk, Hamadi leads a small knot of visitors through the mangroves, pausing occasionally to touch a tree’s waxy leaves. She plucks a propagule — a dark-brown pod longer than her hand — from a tree belonging to the mangrove species Bruguiera gymnorhiza.

    She drops the propagule over the boardwalk’s handrail, into the soft marsh soil about 1.5 meters below. It lands, sticking almost perfectly perpendicular in the ground. “This will soon take root and germinate into a new plant,” she explains to the visitors. “That’s how this species propagates.”

    Hamadi, the tour guide, is one of 27 members of the Gazi Women Mangrove Boardwalk group. Members offer interpretive services to visitors for a fee. The women also prepare Swahili cuisine for sale to groups visiting the area.

    “A dish of coconut rice served with snapper fish is particularly popular, washed down with flavored black tea or tamarind juice,” says Mwanahamisi Bakari, the group’s treasurer.

    These ecotourism efforts have attracted international support. The World Wide Fund for Nature Kenya, for instance, constructed a conference facility, which the women’s group rents to those who want to use the location as a backdrop to discuss sustainability efforts.

    A template for others

    Mikoko Pamoja’s success is spurring conservation efforts throughout Kenya and beyond. For instance, on southern Kenya’s coast is the Vanga Blue Forest, a swath of mangroves five times as large as Gazi Forest. Of Vanga Blue’s more than 3,000 hectares of mangrove forest, a little more than 15 percent — 460 hectares — has been set aside for the sale of carbon credits following Mikoko Pamoja’s example.

    In 2020, with help from KFMRI, a network of scientists from countries along the western Indian Ocean published a blueprint for mangrove restoration. These guidelines are now being customized to suit the restoration plans of individual countries, says Lang’at. The group is also using Mikoko Pamoja’s carbon credit example to set up projects of its own.

    Madagascar’s first community-led mangrove carbon project, known as Tahiry Honko (which means “preserving mangroves” in the local Vezo dialect), was introduced in 2013 and then certified for carbon sale by Plan Vivo in 2019. With Mikoko Pamoja as a guide, Tahiry Honko “is helping tackle climate breakdown and build community resilience by preserving and restoring mangrove forests,” says Lalao Aigrette, an adviser at Blue Ventures, the conservation group coordinating the preservation effort.

    Tahiry Honko is generating carbon credits through the conservation and restoration of over 1,200 hectares of mangroves surrounding the Bay of Assassins on Madagascar’s southwest coast.

    In Mozambique, studies are under way to gauge how much mangrove preservation can protect communities against cyclones, says Célia Macamo, a marine biologist at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique.

    In the meantime, the Limpopo estuary and other locations along the Mozambican coast are sites of mangrove restoration efforts. KMFRI is helping local organizers structure their efforts. “We also hope they will assist us when we start working with carbon credits,” Macamo adds.

    Mangrove restoration projects have spread outside of Kenya’s Gazi Bay to places such as Limpopo estuary in Mozambique (shown), where residents collect and transport young seedlings.HENRIQUES BALIDY

    Blue economies

    Less than 1 percent of Earth’s surface is covered by mangroves, equivalent to 14.8 million hectares. “Because this area is minuscule compared to terrestrial forests, mangroves have been neglected throughout the world,” says James Kairo, chief scientist at KMFRI.

    At Gazi Bay, a 2011 assessment by the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that the mangrove forests are worth about $1,092 per hectare per year, thanks in part to the potential of fisheries, aquaculture, carbon sequestration and damages averted by the coastal protection that mangroves provide. Assuming that numbers in Gazi Bay hold for the rest of the world, mangroves could provide more than $16 billion in economic benefits planetwide.

    Toward the end of 2020, Kenya’s government included mangroves and seagrasses for the first time in its Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs — the greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments for countries that ratified the Paris Agreement. The agreement seeks to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

    This inclusion commits Kenya to conserving mangroves to balance its emissions. Kenya’s government now “recognizes the potential and importance of the mangrove and seagrass resources that Kenya has,” Huxham says.

    “This is a great commitment on the part of the government. The next challenge is the implementation of these commitments,” says Kairo, who sits on the advisory board of the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021–2030), which aims to support efforts to reverse the cycle of decline in ocean health.

    Now, scientists and community managers for that effort need to determine how mangroves can adapt to rising sea levels. “How can communities next to the sea live in harmony with this system, without impacting on their resiliency and productivity?” Kairo asks.

    Mikoko Pamoja is helping provide answers, Kairo adds. Thanks in large part to that small project that began in a secluded corner on the Kenya coast, those answers are now spreading to the rest of the world. More