Warming Trends: Cruise Ship Impacts, a Vehicle Inside the Hurricane’s Eye and Anticipating Climate Tipping Points

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

The deck of a cruise ship is seen in Singapore, on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Credit: Bryan van der Beek/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The deck of a cruise ship is seen in Singapore, on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Credit: Bryan van der Beek/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Cruising to Environmental Degradation 

The cruise industry was one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. But as massive vessels carrying thousands of tourists set sail again this fall, they will be taking a significant toll on the environment, according to a new study by researchers in the U.K., Spain and Croatia. 

The paper, published this week in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, looked at the environmental and human health impacts of the cruise industry by reviewing more than 200 research reports 

Some key takeaways: Pollution from cruise ships is poorly regulated and occurs at significant levels in port communities; sensitive marine ecosystems like coral reefs are put in danger by seagoing vessels; and the fossil fuels that power cruise ships make them a more carbon intensive mode of transportation than even airplanes. 


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Hrvoje Carić, a pollution expert at the Institute of Tourism in Croatia and a co-author of the new paper, said one significant environmental impact of cruises comes from the biocides applied to the bottom of ships to deter algae from growing. These biocides usually contain copper, which research shows can inhibit biological processes in marine organisms. 

“Biocides, as the name says, are basically killing everything that is ‘bio,’ and are doing so by emitting heavy metals, usually copper that then cannot be dissolved, but only absorbed,” Carić said. “And as it leaks into the environment, it accumulates.”

Carić said he hopes the scientific review helps inspire travelers to demand more from the cruise industry, like transitioning to cleaner burning fuels, using alternatives to biocides and adopting practices that do not have such severe effects on the environment. 

“We have put together this big puzzle that correlates basically the environment and human health,” Carić said. “The value of the review paper is that it’s undisputable, because you’re citing a lot of literature that is already checked and approved.”


A Video Camera In the Eye of the Storm

A solar-powered vehicle designed to withstand hurricane winds of over 120 mph and waves topping 50 feet has captured first-of-its-kind footage from inside a hurricane.

The vehicle, floating in the Atlantic ocean during Hurricane Sam, sent back this video, recorded from inside the storm, to researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Saildrone, the company that engineered the vehicle, known as an Uncrewed Surface Vehicles.

The vehicle, eponymously called Saildrone, is not just capturing sea-sickening footage from the eye of tropical storms. It is also collecting vital data that Saildrone’s vice president for ocean data, Andy Ziegwied, said is dispatched to weather stations to help forecast storms before they hit populated areas, especially storms that rapidly intensify and can complicate evacuation efforts. 

“Saildrone is going where no research vessel has ever ventured, sailing right into the eye of the hurricane and gathering the data that will transform our understanding of these powerful storms,” Ziegwied said. “Hurricanes are really kind of the last frontier for us in terms of survivability.”

Saildrone, in partnership with NOAA, sent five of the unmanned vehicles into the Atlantic this summer to collect hurricane data. This winter, Ziegwied said, the company will focus its ocean research efforts on mapping the seafloor around Florida, an important factor for predicting how storm surge from hurricanes will affect a region. And during next year’s hurricane season, he said, the Saildrones will head back out into the Atlantic and also the Pacific Ocean to continue collecting real-time storm data. 

“Having a better understanding of which storms are likely to become severe hurricanes before or as they hit the coastal communities will give communities more time to prepare and people more time to evacuate before the storm hits,” Ziegwied said. “Ultimately, this data can save lives and help mitigate the economic impact.”


Who Will be the Winners of the ‘Earthshot’ Prize? 

Millions of dollars will be doled out to the first winners of Prince William’s “Earthshot” prize, which is moving into full swing this month, with the expected prize announcements and the release of a book and a TV show about the initiative. 

The prize founders say they were inspired by President Kennedy’s 1961 “Moonshot,” challenge, which set a goal for America to reach the moon by the end of the 1960s, and spawned a frenzy of innovation. The prize will reward five “Earth-saving” projects annually until 2030, with funding to bring their sustainable innovations to scale. Each winner’s project fits into one of five “Earthshot” goals: clean up our air; revive our oceans; reduce waste; restore nature; and solve the climate crisis. This year’s winners will be announced on Oct. 17, from a pool of 15 finalists.

“You effectively motivate and energize everyone to come together to do something extraordinary, which obviously worked for Kennedy, because it all happened within the decade that he was trying to get it done,” said filmmaker and author Jonnie Hughes. “That’s a brilliant framing, I think.”

The initiative’s accompanying book, “Earthshot: How to Save Our Planet,” was authored by Hughes and Colin Butfield and includes contributions from Prince William, environmentalist David Attenborough and pop star and ocean advocate Shakira. Hughes said the book serves as a how-to guide for people to set their own Earthshot goals. 

A five-part documentary film, also produced by Hughes and Butfield, features each of the five Earthshot goals and will premiere on BBC One and Discovery+ on Sunday, with footage from 99 locations around the world. 

Hughes said the prize is exciting because it is part of the next wave of innovation—the sustainability revolution—which he said will be as swift and disruptive as the Industrial Revolution.

“These revolutions, when they happen, oh my goodness, they embrace everything, and change the whole society,” he said. 


Anticipating Tipping Points

Imagine a spinning top. At first, the top spins rapidly, holding steady and standing up straight. But as it begins to lose momentum, the top slows and begins to wobble side to side, before it finally stops and tips over. 

That wobble, said Chris Bauch, a professor of applied mathematics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and co-author of a recent research paper that details the a new artificial intelligence algorithm that measures the wobble, can serve as an analogy for climate tipping points—the moment when slowly changing systems, like carbon emissions from thawing permafrost, weather changes from shifting ocean circulation or sea level rise from melting ice sheets, hit a point of no return. The “wobble,” the signal that occurs just before a tipping point, can be measured using the new algorithm created by mathematicians at the university.

“This algorithm combines mathematical theories about tipping points in order to better anticipate them and also better understand what kind of state lies beyond the tipping point,” Bauch said.

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What makes this algorithm unique, Bauch said, is that it focuses on the characteristics of tipping points generally, rather than specific tipping points. The algorithm may not have extensive data on the system, but would still be able to recognize the early warning signals that occur just before a tipping point, allowing stakeholders to either prevent the tipping point from being breached, or prepare for the new reality, Bauch said. 

“Instead of developing a highly specific model for this climate, we’re saying, ‘Well, let’s focus on using the data we’ve got,’” Bauch said, “and let’s use what we know about how systems behave near tipping points to understand if the tipping point is in the cards or not.”

An earlier version of the hurricane item in this column used an incorrect term for the devices that captured video footage from the eye of the hurricane. They are Uncrewed Surface Vehicles.