Warming Trends: Mercury in Narwhal Tusks, Major League Baseball Heats Up and Earth Day Goes Online: Avatars Welcome

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

Red Sox starting pitcher Steven Wright is feeling the heat in the top of the fourth inning on Aug. 31, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston. Credit: Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Red Sox starting pitcher Steven Wright is feeling the heat in the top of the fourth inning on Aug. 31, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston. Credit: Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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Culture

Major League Baseball’s Future Looks Hot, With More Home Runs

MLB is back, after a shortened 2020 season because of Covid-19. But another global crisis is threatening America’s pastime: climate change. 

Since 1970, cities with a Major League Baseball team have seen a temperature increase of 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit on average during the March to September baseball season, a Climate Central analysis shows.

The fastest warming city was Toronto, home of the Blue Jays, which has warmed 5.2 degrees on average since 1970. The second-warmest was Phoenix, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, which has warmed 4.4 degrees. And, the third-warmest was Houston, home of the Astros, at 3.8 degrees. Fortunately, all three stadiums have a retractable roof and air conditioning. 

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A warming climate also means MLB cities are experiencing more weather conditions that can force outdoor games to be canceled, like heavy rain and heat waves.

There is an upside, though. Hotter, more humid air is less dense, which makes it more conducive to home runs. Baseballs can travel faster with less resistance in this kind of air. So if you snag one of the limited capacity tickets to a game this year, don’t forget your mitt.

SCIENCE

Narwhal Tusks Contain More Mercury as the Climate Warms

As the climate changes, narwhals are being exposed to higher levels of the neurotoxin mercury,   according to data collected from their tusks, a new study shows.

Researchers analyzed narwhal tusks from animals up to 50 years old to track mercury levels and carbon and nitrogen isotopes, an indirect way of seeing what they ate. The tusks are essentially a three-meter-long tooth that protrudes from the whale’s head and resembles a unicorn horn. 

“It’s a crazy mystical thing but it’s really like a tooth like our own,” said study co-author  Jean-Pierre Desforges, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University in Montreal. He compared the analysis of chemical concentrations in the tusks to counting rings in a tree trunk. “In the same way that our teeth grow annual layers, theirs do as well.”

Like other top predators, narwhals ingest high levels of contaminants that have accumulated up the food chain. Researchers found that before 1990, mercury levels in narwhals were relatively high, because they were eating fish that were higher on the food chain like halibut and Arctic cod. But after 1990, as sea ice began to disappear, narwhals changed their diet and began to eat more open ocean fish that were lower on the food chain, like capelin and polar cod. Because of the shift to a low-mercury diet, mercury levels stored in their tusks declined.

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Researchers expected this trend to continue as the narwhal diet remained the same, but around 2000, mercury levels increased despite no change in the animals’ diet. 

“That suggested to us that it wasn’t diet that was driving the mercury exposure but likely some other factor,” Desforges said. “I think that’s most consistent with human emissions globally.”

Mercury is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, so Desforges said that the increase in the contaminant in narwhal tusks could be due to more mercury circulating the planet. With more mercury available in the environment, plants and animals low on the food chain take it up more readily, storing higher concentrations of it that are then taken up by predators like the narwhal.

CULTURE

An Earth Day Universe Online

For the second year in a row, Earth Day is going virtual. This year’s festival platform resembles an old school video game like Pokémon or Zelda, where tiny pixelated avatars, customized by the participant, navigate a digital landscape filled with trees, solar panels, wind turbines and bicycles. 

Users will interact with climate scientists, environmental artists and exhibitors from groups like the NYC Fair Trade Coalition, the Northeast Wilderness Trust and the Pollinator Partnership. When two avatars approach each other in the virtual space, they can talk to each other via Zoom in small boxes on the screen. 

When much of the world locked down because of the pandemic last year, organizers with the Earth Day Initiative scrapped their plan for a massive gathering of climate activists in New York City, and in just three weeks put together a six-hour livestream event to celebrate 50 years since the first Earth Day instead.

The 2021 Earth Day festival will run on Monday, April 19, from 12 to 7 p.m. EDT. It will follow a virtual stage event on Sunday, April 18, with panels and discussions with climate leaders, performers and others.

The video-game interface works in a similar way to an in-person festival event, said Earth Day Initiative executive director John Oppermann.

“It gives people an activity they haven’t been able to do in a long time,” he said. “People have really missed the in-person experience of climate strikes.”

A virtual Earth Day event will be held in an online space resembling an old school video game. Image Courtesy of Earth Day Institute
A virtual Earth Day event will be held in an online space resembling an old school video game. Image Courtesy of Earth Day Initiative

The highlight of the Monday event will be a virtual climate march led by March for Science NYC and Fridays for Future at 3 p.m. EDT, where up to 600 people can join in with their personalized avatars to march across the online universe. At the end of the march, participants will watch a rally with speakers and performers centering around the theme, “science not silence.”

“We’ve done a lot of things over the last year, with activists doing digital strikes and sharing things on social media, but we haven’t been able to literally march together,” Oppermann said. “This is as close as we can get to it and it’s in cartoon form.”

With the Biden administration initiating new climate policy and the international climate talks at COP26 in Glasgow slated for November, Oppermann said many see 2021 as a pivotal moment for climate action, which will affect the tone of this year’s Earth Day.

“It’s a year of high anxiety and high hopes when it comes to climate,” he said. “It’s kind of now or never.”

CULTURE

A True Crime Murder Mystery With an Environmental Twist

A new podcast tells an environmental story using the format’s hottest genre: true crime.

In its debut season, “The Crime,” a new podcast from Vice News on Spotify, examines the murders of three coal miners in Colombia who worked for Drummond, an Alabama-based coal company. The seven-episode show, available in English and Spanish, investigates the mystery of how miners’ union leaders were killed by Colombian paramilitaries, and the alleged involvement of their employer.

Agnes Walton, a Vice News climate journalist and co-host of the podcast, said it explores the power of fossil fuel companies relative to the people who work for them.

“When these companies that are used to acting with impunity confront resistance from the community, they are used to confronting that resistance with a heavy hand,” Walton said.

Although the story centers on a murder mystrey, Walton said, the issue of climate change is also there, if at the periphery.

“When you want to know why climate change is happening, why the burden of emissions that has accumulated over the world exists, and why the movement to stop this from happening is being resisted and curtailed,” she said, “one of the stories you need to tell is the power of these companies to intimidate people and intimidate the resistance.”