Warming Trends: The Value of Natural Land, a Climate Change Podcast and Traffic Technology in Hawaii

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

The rainforest in North Queensland, Australia. Credit: Tim Graham/Getty Images
The rainforest in North Queensland, Australia. Credit: Tim Graham/Getty Images

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Warming Trends

On Most Natural Lands, Development Is a Money Loser

Restoring or keeping land in its natural form is generally more economically beneficial than converting land for human activities like agriculture or logging, a new study found. 

Researchers from the University of Cambridge assessed the monetary value of ecosystem services like carbon storage, species habitat and flood protection provided by natural land and compared it to the potential economic benefits of developing that land. Their findings, published in Nature Sustainability on Monday, show 70 percent of 46 sites analyzed around the world were more valuable when maintained as natural habitat.

Carbon sequestration—with a ton of carbon valued at $31—is a huge aspect of the calculation, but even if carbon was removed from calculations, 42 percent of sites were still more valuable when kept in a natural state.

“We’ve really lost a great deal of nature that provides the life support systems that we all depend on. Losing more really doesn’t make economic sense,” said senior author Andrew Balmford, professor of conservation science at Cambridge. “There is no conflict between conservation and economics, in fact, the two are in alignment.”


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Despite this alignment, assigning monetary value to natural benefits is a challenge, Balmford said. The researchers used a toolkit that compares the benefits of various ecosystem services on land that is natural or restored versus land that has been converted.

“I think very many of us are motivated to conserve nature for moral reasons. We believe it’s the right thing to do,” Balmford said. “But it’s plainly not enough. Nature is in grave trouble. We’re entering a sixth mass extinction with all sorts of consequences for other species, and consequences for life support systems that we depend on.”


‘Love in the Time of Climate Change’

A new play-turned-podcast navigates the painful yet comedic struggles of dating in the age of climate change, with expert discussions on how the climate crisis connects to other issues. 

The first episode of “Love in the Time of Climate Change” begins with a young woman trying to pass a Saturday night by painting, but she is distracted, stressing about climate change, Covid-19 and dating. She swipes through Tinder, doomscrolls through Twitter and dives into a list of endangered species. Overwhelmed by her anxiety, she decides to attend a support group to talk out her stress. 

“It’s pretty semi-autobiographical,” said playwright Rozina Kanchwala, who founded the nonprofit Eco.Logic. “It really just was sort of my experiences with all things ranging from modern dating to working in the environmental space to just like having anxiety over what the future will hold.”

After several successful performances of the play version of the story, the pandemic hit, and Kanchwala had to find a new way to share her creation. 

“It felt like there was still life in the play, so I thought a podcast would be a way to further the reach and also talk about the issues that come up in the play,” she said.

Each segment of the eight-episode podcast begins with a scene from the play and is followed by a discussion with guests on climate-related topics like activism, justice, corporate accountability and migration.

“We’re just trying to find ways to bring to light a lot of issues in a way that is accessible and relatable to people,” Kanchwala said. “It’s hopefully a creative, comedic way to help people understand that they’re not alone.”


Toward Smarter Red Lights 

New traffic-monitoring technology implemented on the big island of Hawaii reduced travel time by seven minutes on average, according to a case study, and 30 minutes on average when a car crash occurred.

Sensors with software created by Blyncsy were placed on 30 traffic signals around the big island. The sensors anonymously monitor Wi-Fi and Bluetooth data from cell phones and other devices in passing vehicles to determine how fast traffic is moving and how long cars are waiting at red lights. 

Using this information, transportation officials can adjust the timing of traffic signals to better manage traffic.

“A vehicle driving down the road today, they have no input on how the traffic system works,” Blyncsy CEO Mark Pittman said. “It’s hard for a traffic engineer to see where the worst intersections are. So what we’re able to do is empirically provide our customers insight into how their intersections perform.”

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Keeping cars moving not only makes for happy drivers, but also reduces greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. In this case study, carbon emissions were reduced by 140 metric tons per day. In a place like Hawaii, where sea level rise is a looming threat, Pittman said, that’s a huge deal. 

“You’re idling, waiting at the intersection, stop-and-go traffic,” Pittman said. “The gas you’re wasting is a cost to you as the driver, but of course the environment, too.”


The Crisis Kids Will Be Stuck Solving 

In a virtual classroom, a group of elementary-age students recently discussed some of our planet’s biggest problems, like warming temperatures, rising seas and environmental justice, in preparation for the upcoming Illinois Kids’ Climate Summit

The students wanted to find solutions to these problems. They were inspired by Greta Thunberg and full of ideas about how to improve solar panels and protect endangered species.

On April 13, at the virtual summit, they will ask questions of climate experts at one of two town hall-style events—one for them and other elementary students, and one for middle school students. Rhonda Stern, who is meeting with the kids each week ahead of the summit, encourages them to ask questions that other kids their age would be interested in learning about.

“It puts them in charge of the conversation,” said Stern, who co-founded the summit. “I have worked with gifted kids since 2000, and they love fresh issues, they bring a new perspective, they’re not political, they just want to problem solve.”

When Stern and her colleague Newenka DuMont founded the summit last year, they felt like there were plenty of opportunities available for high school students to take action on climate change. They wanted to focus on a younger group of kids, teach them about climate change and empower them to take action in ways that were meaningful to them.

Climate change is “our crisis that they’re going to be stuck solving,” DuMont said.


‘These Fish Are Showing Signs of Chronic Stress’

Ninety-nine percent of Gulf of Mexico red snapper studied in surveys showed liver damage between 2011 and 2017, an indication of stress from exposure to oil, a new study published in the journal Aquatic Toxicology found. 

Researchers from the University of South Florida measured concentrations of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAHs) in the livers and bile of 570 red snapper. PAHs are toxins in crude oil that fish absorb and filter through their livers. Presence of PAHs in bile indicates recent, short-term exposure to oil, while presence in the liver indicates chronic, long-term exposure. 

One of the red snapper sampled in the Gulf-wide study in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Photo Courtesy of the University of South Florida

Though the liver damage could be from exposure to oil after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the Gulf experiences small oil spills frequently and ships also leak oil in the water, the study says.

“These fish are showing signs of chronic stress,” said lead author Erin Pulster, a scientific researcher at the University of South Florida. “This is adding some correlation between chronic pollution and chronic stress to the health of the fish, and it suggests that we need to continue to monitor these fish and pollution inputs.”