Warming Trends: Composting the Dead to Help Soils and the Climate, Musk’s Contest to Clean Carbon From the Atmosphere and Posters for Holidays on Flooded Shorelines

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

In Washington state, a funeral home is offering human composting. After 30 days, a body turns to soil, and can be laid to rest in a forest. Credit Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images

In Washington state, a funeral home is offering human composting. After 30 days, a body turns to soil, and can be laid to rest in a forest. Credit Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images

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Warming Trends
Solutions

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust and Corpses to Compost

Where will you go when you die? In Washington state, you could choose your garden.

Recompose, an ecological death care company in Seattle, started offering human composting at the end of 2020. The option became legal in 2019 thanks to efforts by Recompose founder Katrina Spade, who worked with her state senator to pass a bill legalizing “natural organic reduction”—the process that turns human bodies into soil.

Inside the Recompose “Greenhouse,” 10 futuristic, white hexagonal vessels are surrounded by ferns, trees and other greenery—a lively contrast to a typical funeral home. Inside each vessel, a body rests in an 8-by-4-foot cylinder with wood chips, alfalfa, straw and plant material. For a month, microbes work to break down the body, which creates one cubic yard of nutrient-rich soil. Families can choose to bring home the soil formed from the remains of their loved ones or donate it to Bells Mountain, a land trust in southern Washington, where it will restore degraded forest land.

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The $5,500 process uses just one-eighth of the energy that conventional burial or cremation uses, according to the Recompose website. While conventional burial uses massive amounts of land and materials, and cremation is powered by fossil fuels, human compost sequesters carbon and provides nutrients for plants. The process prevents one metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions per body, the website says.

“This is truly returning to the Earth,” said Anna Swenson, customer and communications manager at Recompose. “Rather than consuming fossil gas one more time to be cremated, you can be soil material for the forest, or wherever your family uses it.”

Although Washington is the only state where this process is legal, Recompose is working with other states, including in Colorado, California and Oregon, to pass bills allowing this option. 

Science

Between a Wall and a Hot Place

Physical barriers at political borders may block the migration of around 700 mammal species whose ranges are moving poleward amid climate change, a new study found.

Researchers from Durham University in the United Kingdom simulated the ranges of over 12,000 species of birds and mammals that may seek cooler climates as the planet warms. They found that nearly 20,000 miles of fences and walls that separate countries could potentially stand in the way of migrating animals, according to the results published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday.

“Our results show how important it is to have a supranational, international perspective trying to conserve biodiversity in the next few decades and the importance of making sure habitats are connected to each other over political boundaries,” said co-author Mark Titley, a Ph.D. researcher in Durham University’s Department of Biosciences. 

Policies protecting animals tend to be implemented at the national level, and different countries often have differing policies on how to manage their wildlife populations. So an animal on one side of the border may be much better protected than the same animal on the other side of the border. 

The U.S.-Mexico, India-Myanmar and China-Russia borders have the most potential to be ecologically damaging, the study said. For example, the U.S.-Mexico border could block 122 mammal species, including the jaguar, which Titley said have been an increasingly rare sight as the border wall has been constructed during the last few years.

Though barriers can be designed to allow animals through gaps and corridors, the best solution, Titley said, is to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

“What we need to do is tackle the root of the issue and urge world leaders to cut climate emissions urgently and justly,” he said, “because only doing that will stop these big biodiversity losses.”

Solutions

Musk’s Carbon Contest

A new prize funded by Elon Musk will award $100 million to innovators who have workable ideas for how to remove climate-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

The competition, led by XPRIZE, will give funds to teams who can demonstrate methods to remove at least one ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—the equivalent emissions of driving a car about 2,200 miles—per day, with the potential to scale up.

“This is not a theoretical competition; we want teams that will build real systems that can make a measurable impact and scale to a gigaton level,” Musk said in a statement. “Whatever it takes. Time is of the essence.”

Carbon removal technologies are essential to keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—a standard set by the Paris climate agreement. 

The judges expect to see both engineered and nature-based solutions, along with other fixes that combine the two. Projects will be judged on their ability to remove carbon, their cost per ton and the amount of time they can store carbon. Guidelines for the four-year-long competition will be announced on April 22.

Science

California Sees Fire and (Late) Rain

California’s rainy season is starting nearly a month later than it did in the 1960s, a new study found, which is extending the state’s deadly fire season. 

Researchers in California and Serbia found that California’s rainy season, which normally begins in late October or early November, is arriving about 27 days late in early December. This study is the first to show that the drier autumns followed by wetter winters that were projected to occur by the late 21st century are happening now. 

A delayed rainy season can be devastating in California as it expands the fire season, as was seen in 2020, when the fall fires arrived weeks early and burned right through the end of the year, and also contributes to tough drought conditions, like those the state endured the mid-2010s.

This change is occurring due to several atmospheric conditions, the authors say, like movements in the North Pacific jet stream, delayed storm tracks and changes in a low pressure zone.

Although the findings cannot be directly connected to climate change, since the researchers did not conduct an analysis that could attribute them to the warming atmosphere, “our results are really correlated to climate models,” said lead author Jelena Lukovic, a climate scientist at the University of Belgrade in Serbia. 

Culture

Check Availability Before Booking These Seaside Destinations

These posters showing future beach vacations aren’t from a travel agency. Instead, an online financial company is showing how sea level rise will affect popular oceanside destinations with illustrations that resemble tourism advertisements. They compare what these destinations look like today with how they will look in 2100 if climate change drives sea levels to rise by several feet. 

Money.co.uk created the posters to bring awareness to climate change and urge individuals to take action in their own lives to reduce their carbon footprint.

The posters show icons like the Statue of Liberty and the skyscrapers in Hong Kong surrounded by floodwaters that will impede tourist visits, while the beaches of the Maldives are shown completely underwater.

“By focusing on tourism, we can illustrate how global warming and rising sea level will impact the everyday person, perhaps taking away something that we look forward to every year,” said Money.co.uk energy expert Ben Gallizzi. “We also want people to think about the residents of these endangered places and how a lack of tourism could severely affect the livelihoods of their inhabitants.”

Although some of the posters take artistic liberty in how dramatically the sea level is forecast to rise, several of them accurately show the extent of the predicted damage, such as in the representation of the Maldives, which by 2100 could be 71 percent submerged.

“In most of the small island developing states, the sea would only have to rise marginally to lead to the disappearance of much of their land,” Gallizzi said.