Warming Trends: Farming for City Dwellers, an Upbeat Climate Podcast and Soil Bacteria That May Outsmart Warming

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

The inside of the Greenery S uses red and blue LED lights that are set to the most efficient wavelength to promote plant growth. Photo Courtesy of Freight Farms

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SOLUTIONS

Farm in a Box

For those who want to start a farm but live in a city, a desert or perpetually cold region, this company will help you grow produce inside a shipping container. 

The Greenery S is the latest generation of Freight Farms’ hydroponic farm, inside a 320-square-foot shipping container. It can grow several acres worth of food year-round, in a largely automated and highly efficient system, for $139,000. The vertical farms, which can grow food like spinach, basil and radishes, currently operate in 350 locations around the world. 

The environmental footprint of a traditional farm comes largely from its water use and the transportation of food from farm to table, said Jake Felser, chief technology officer for Freight Farms. The shipping container farm minimizes water use, and the distance from farm to table is often virtually zero. But, the big input needed to run the Greenery S, Felser said, is electricity to power the system’s lights, water pump, temperature and the software that controls everything.

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If the system is powered by clean energy, the carbon footprint is a quarter of the impact of a traditional farm, Felser said. So Freight Farms works to connect its customers to clean energy sources, like community solar. 

The container, Felser said, has “a whole ecosystem of software that makes it really easy to operate the farm, even if you don’t know really how to farm.”

CULTURE

Positively Climate

A new podcast is designed to get listeners excited about climate solutions and technology, without getting discouraged by the climate crisis.

A Positive Climate, which released its first episode this week, was launched by Nova Entertainment, the largest radio network in Australia. In the show, clean-tech experts Alex McIntosh and Nick Zeltzer sit down with innovators to discuss climate problems, like overconsumption of beef and reliance on fossil fuels, and the solutions that they have come up with, like a company that makes plant-based ground beef that cooks and tastes just like normal beef, and a brewery that creates electricity out of wastewater.

“There are very dire statistics out there on climate change, and they’re completely true,” said McIntosh. “I think for us it’s about spinning that narrative and flipping the script and being more positive about it, and saying, ‘Well, here are the amazing products, solutions and technologies that you can adopt as individuals or companies in your everyday life that can actually have an impact.’”

In their clean energy careers, McIntosh and Zeltzer worked at the forefront of electric vehicle, battery and hydrogen technology, and said they were regularly encouraged by how quickly climate-friendly technologies were developing. But their friends and family outside of the industry were discouraged by headlines and inaction on climate change. The podcast is meant to bring what they are seeing everyday to the masses.

“There’s lots of room for action, protest—we need that too,” said Zeltzer. “But we also need to support these awesome founders to give them the leg up that we can to make a difference.”

SCIENCE

As the World Turns (Not the Soap Opera)

A shift in Earth’s axis of rotation in the mid-1990s may have been connected to global warming, researchers have found in a new study.

Reduced water storage on land, caused by melting glaciers, appears to have affected the axis, the (imaginary) line around which the planet spins. Researchers analyzed different factors that affect the movement of the axis, like changes in the atmosphere, oceans or Earth’s interior, but they determined that changes in glacial melt were most in agreement with the shift seen over the last four decades.

The axis had been generally drifting southwards, pushed by movement in the mantle under Earth’s crust and land readjusting after the last Ice Age, 16,000 years ago. But in the mid-1990s, the drift moved eastward as a result of glaciers melting in Alaska, Greenland, Antarctica and elsewhere, changing the way water is distributed on the planet. 

The observed shift was only a few centimeters and it is difficult to say what the consequences of such a shift might be, corresponding author Suxia Liu, a hydrologist at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said.

“As the mass of the giant Earth is so heavy, a tiny step may produce some huge changes,” Liu said. “However so far we are unable to forecast accurately.”

CULTURE

Peru’s Tainted Gold Trade

A new book highlights how greed and corruption have led to a massive environmental and humanitarian crisis in southern Peru. 

Four journalists at the Miami Herald are the co-authors of “Dirty Gold: The Rise and Fall of an International Smuggling Ring,” a book based on their reporting on the illegal gold trade in Latin America, for which they were finalists for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.

In southern Peru, gold miners ran an illegal, environmentally devastating operation where workers sucked mud out of pits and filtered it using liquid mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin. The gold that was removed was transported to the United States via Miami and sold to companies, including Apple and Google. 

“There are good guys and bad guys in this story, but there are also tons of other people,” said Jim Wyss, one of the co-authors. “On one side you have U.S. consumers who are playing into the hands of the dirty gold trade, but not thinking too much about their consumer choices. On another hand you have the miners themselves, who would be easy to write off as bad guys in this narrative, but these are just people trying to make a living.”

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Wyss and the other authors interviewed people on all sides of the story, from gold traders to  law enforcement and local authorities, to people in nearby villages who suffered from mercury poisoning from the massive pollution caused by these dangerous mines. Wyss said he learned that for every ounce of gold that is extracted, there are nine tons of waste added to the environment. 

This reporting, Wyss said, contributed to the international pressure on the Peruvian government to shut down these illegal operations. But, he said, miners are just finding other places to dig for gold. 

“No one wants to work in these mines; they’re there out of desperation,” Wyss said. “Until you can provide them with a different way of making a living, the temptation to go back to this is far too strong.”

SCIENCE

Plucky Soil Bacteria Keep Pace With Climate Change

Bacteria in soil can evolve as the climate warms, keeping up their vital role in the carbon cycle, a new study found.

Soil microbes, including bacteria, break down dead plant and animal material, returning nutrients to the soil.

In what the University of California, Irvine researchers believe is the first experiment of its kind, they monitored Curtobacterium, a microbial soil species, for a year and a half, across a gradient of environments that simulated climate change, where varying altitudes in California provided different climate conditions. The cage that held the bacteria was designed to allow water in but not other microbes, controlling for outside factors but still allowing the scientists to use a real-world environment rather than a lab setting.

Lead author Alex Chase, who participated in the research when he was a doctoral student at the university, said he and the other researchers weren’t sure what was going to happen. He wasn’t even sure if the bacteria would survive outside of the complex soil microbial system.

“We did see the bacteria was able to survive and reproduce and evolve and that was kind of a big thing,” Chase said. “We didn’t see a strong signal for evolution but we did see they were able to respond in this climate gradient.”

He added that this provided evidence that microbial species can evolve quickly in response to climate change, and suggests that this important mechanism in the carbon cycle will be able to continue operating as the planet warms.