Warming Trends: Swiping Right and Left for the Planet, Education as Climate Solution and Why It Might Be Hard to Find a Christmas Tree

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

A workers at Holiday Tree Farms tags freshly harvested Christmas trees at the Beaver Creek shipping yard on Nov. 18, 2017 in Philomath, Oregon. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A workers at Holiday Tree Farms tags freshly harvested Christmas trees at the Beaver Creek shipping yard on Nov. 18, 2017 in Philomath, Oregon. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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A Climate-Driven Christmas Tree Shortage?

Around 70 percent of noble fir seedlings in the Pacific Northwest died this summer, after a harsh drought combined with an unprecedented, climate change-driven heatwave in June that drove temperatures to as high as 118 degrees Fahrenheit. The species makes up the majority of the Christmas tree crop in the region.

“The trees just couldn’t keep up with the water loss,” said Chal Landgren, a Christmas tree specialist at Oregon State University.

That could mean a Christmas tree shortage eight years from now, he said, which is about how long a Christmas tree needs to grow before it is harvested. Oregon is the country’s largest producer of Christmas trees. In 2017, the state produced 4.7 million trees, nearly one-third of the total U.S. production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


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It’s too soon to know the full extent of the damage to this year’s supply of Christmas trees or that in years to come, Landgren said. But, he added, as climate change continues to drive heat and drought in the region, “some growers, particularly in the lower elevations in Oregon, are going to probably switch to growing different species than the noble fir. They’ll grow more Douglas fir and more Turkish or Nordmann fir.”


Swipe Left, Swipe Right, For the Planet

By now, almost everyone recognizes that “swiping right” or “swiping left” refers to a way to indicate whether someone wants to pursue a prospective dating partner or not. But can those same reflexes help collect data on the state of the planet? 

In a new study, researchers analyzed the use of an application called Picture Pile in studies conducted in different environmental settings. In the app, users are shown pictures and asked a question about what they see. For example, for a satellite image that shows acres of downed trees, volunteers might be asked, “Does this picture show deforestation?” To answer, they swipe left in the app for “yes,” right for “no” and down for “maybe.”

After reviewing the studies, the researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria concluded that this application could help measure economic losses due to disasters, the number of acres used for sustainable agriculture and other metrics that measure progress on the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which seek to solve global issues like poverty, inequality and climate change by 2030. 

Although U.N. agencies and national statistical offices are collecting data on the more than 200 indicators that underlie the 17 goals, study lead author Dilek Fraisl said that official data can have gaps or be out of date. 

“This is where citizen science approaches can come in to help complement official statistics,” Fraisl, a researcher at IIASA, said. 

The researchers estimated that 15 indicators for Sustainable Development Goals could be informed with data collected by citizen scientists through Picture Pile.

For example, in 2017, Picture Pile was used to understand the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, a storm that hit the island as a Category 4 hurricane in October 2016. Volunteers quickly categorized where damaged buildings were located by swiping left on images that contained battered structures. If this had been done immediately after the storm, the report said, the data could have been used by damage assessors. 

The next steps, Fraisl said, is to bring their findings and ideas to national statistical offices to establish partnerships, start discussions and build trust in the citizen science systems to ensure that the data is accurate and reliable. 


Things to Do With a Crab Shell (Besides Tossing It)

A startup in Washington state is turning discarded crab shells into material that can be used in clothing, mattresses and even as a coagulant in water treatment facilities. 

Tidal Vision gets the wasted shells from shellfish producers and turns it into chitosan, a material derived from the polymer chitin that forms the hard shells of crabs, lobsters, oysters and shrimp. The material is biodegradable, hypoallergenic and can be used in more than 400 different products as a natural substitute for synthetic and toxic materials, said Kari Ingalls, Tidal Vision’s Director of Business Development for Textiles & Other. 

Chitosan is not a new product, Ingalls said, but Tidal Vision’s proprietary, zero-waste process of converting shells that would otherwise be wasted into a usable form is novel. Discarded shells are often dumped into a landfill or incinerated, so Tidal Vision’s process offers a way to recycle this waste. 

“We are developing technologies that unlock the potential of sustainable chitosan and enable massive adoption for the first time in North America,” she said. 

The material can help preserve food, can be used as a natural fertilizer and can clean wastewater and stormwater

Ingalls said chitosan has a bright future because interest is growing in natural and nontoxic products, “whether because of regulatory pressures coming down on them, or because consumers are asking for it.”


How Much Water Doth a Waterfall Make?

How much water can be diverted from a waterfall before it loses its aesthetic and ecological value?  

Researchers at ETH Zurich are developing a tool for water managers to determine this by using images and audio recordings of waterfalls. 

In their study, the researchers used data about how much water was withdrawn along with sound and visual data from 15 waterfalls in Norway, Austria and Switzerland. They found that once a threshold amount of water running through the system was reached, a waterfall’s appearance and sound level would stay consistent. 

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The researchers developed an equation that water managers can use to determine how much water can be diverted for uses like hydropower generation or irrigation, without compromising the value to tourists visiting popular cascades or to plants and animals that depend on a certain amount of water in a waterfall system. 

“This hasn’t been done, to link the covered area or the sound [of a waterfall] to its discharge and to quantify the extent of a water withdrawal,” said Isabella Schalko, the study’s lead author and an environmental engineer at ETH Zurich. “So it would actually allow a more transparent discussion about new or planned hydropower stations.”


Education as a Climate Solution

When Harriet Cheelo, a young woman raised by farmers in Zambia, got a scholarship to study agriculture sciences in Costa Rica, she didn’t know what climate change was, although she had  noticed delayed rains and prolonged droughts on her family’s farm. But after her studies, she not only gained an awareness of what was happening to her farm but she also brought knowledge of solutions to her community.

Cheelo shared her story during a panel at COP26, the U.N. climate meetings in Glasgow last month, stressing the importance of educating girls as a climate change solution. Educated women, she said, can become leaders in their communities, bringing in their own knowledge, perspectives and ideas for how to survive the effects of climate change. 

“Investing in girls’ education is one of the most powerful ways to tackle climate change,” Cheelo said. “Women, girls and children are particularly the most vulnerable to climate change, and educating women and girls definitely helps them prepare better and also helps them to have a platform where they are able to be part of decision-making, green innovation and policy making.”

Thanks to her own education, Cheelo now works as a climate-smart agriculture guide for CAMFED, an organization that enables girls in sub-Saharan Africa to receive an education. She teaches other female farmers methods to grow sustainably, like implementing drip irrigation using plastic bottles, and prepare for climate shocks like drought by covering crops with mulch to keep the soil moist.

Women “have so much to bring to the table,” Cheelo said. “I’m thinking of the many more generations that are coming behind me and how powerful they’re going to be if they continue having access to education.”