Warming Trends: A Hidden Crisis, a Forest to Visit Virtually and a New Trick for Atmospheric Rivers

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

A new virtual reality simulation shows a user what a forest ecosystem may look like in 30 years as climate change takes effect.
A new virtual reality simulation shows a user what a forest ecosystem may look like in 30 years as climate change takes effect. Credit: Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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A Virtual Forest Offers a Bird’s-Eye View of Climate Change

Geographers have put together climate models and ecological data to create a virtual reality forest that simulates what climate change could do to woodland ecosystems by 2050.

“Walking” through the virtual simulation, users can see how the composition of trees and plants in a Wisconsin forest might have changed from 2020 to 2050 under a baseline, “business as usual,” scenario or a “hot and dry” scenario. They can “witness” how the distribution of different species of trees within the forest shifts, single out specific species and, more generally, observe the forest from a bird’s-eye view.  

“The main problem that needs to be addressed is that climate change is abstract,” said Alexander Klippel, geographer and director of Penn State’s Center for Immersive Experience. “Its meaning only unfolds in 10, 15 or 100 years. It is very hard for people to understand and plan and make decisions.”




A New Book Explores ‘A Secret in Plain View’

In a new book, “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,” Catherine Coleman Flowers tells the story of her growth as an environmental activist and exposes a little-known issue in the United States: the sanitation crisis. InsideClimate News talked to Flowers, a 2020 MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow, about the book’s climate and environmental justice themes.

Catherine Coleman Flowers. Credit: Michael Carson
Catherine Coleman Flowers. Credit: Michael Carson

Why do you call the sewage issues in this country “America’s dirty secret”?

Because it was a secret that was in plain view in rural communities, but outside of rural communities, people just assumed that those kinds of conditions just existed in other parts of the world and not in the wealthiest country in the world. 

How is this a story about environmental justice?

A lot of these communities that are impacted the most tend to be communities that can’t get access to the funding to deal with it: poor communities, communities of color, communities that have traditionally been marginalized. 

How does climate change relate to the issues you bring up in this book about sewage?

In Alaska, it’s the melting permafrost; in other places it might be flooding; in some places the water tables are rising. And all that impacts whether or not the wastewater technology works. 

Another way it impacts it is the warmer it gets, the more we’re going to get diseases or parasites that generally wouldn’t live further north because it’s too cold or temperate, so that means that intestinal parasites could become more prevalent in other parts of the country.

That’s why you have wastewater treatment, to prevent that.




What Caused That Big Hole in the Ice? An Atmospheric River, a New Study Suggests

In the Weddell Sea near Antarctica, massive sea ice openings called polynyas—so large that they change global ocean circulation and alter marine food webs—rarely occur. But in 2017, a polynya in this region of the Southern Ocean did form, and researchers at Rutgers University published evidence in the journal Science Advances this week that atmospheric rivers may be the cause. 

Atmospheric rivers are long swaths of warm and moist air. In August and September of 2017, an atmospheric river drove warm, moist air from South America to the cold and arid Weddell Sea, causing the ice to warm and form a sea ice hole that covered thousands of square miles. 

The new study is the first to show that atmospheric rivers cause melting in Antarctic sea ice. As the climate warms, scientists project there will be more atmospheric rivers melting ice and helping to drive sea level rise around the world. 

“Previous studies have shown that atmospheric rivers have wide-ranging climate impacts in various mid-latitude and polar regions,” co-author Kyle Mattingly said, “and our paper expands on this work by demonstrating their role in Southern Ocean sea ice dynamics.” 



Inventions That Could Make Bikes Safer and Homes Fresher

The Global Grad Show is a Dubai-based exhibition that each year showcases 100 “social impact innovation” projects, selected this year from 1,600 proposals submitted by graduate students from 60 countries. 

This exhibition, which opened Nov. 9, includes two inventions by Harvard graduate students that propose solutions to environmental problems.

One is a vented window designed to improve poor indoor air quality—among the top five environmental health concerns listed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Aditi Agarwal, 32, who graduated in 2020 after studying building science at Harvard, said she wanted to create a product that allowed fresh air to move between the inside and outside of a home without affecting energy costs.

“Considering we spend about 90 percent of our time indoors in a sealed polluted environment, that is obviously negatively affecting our health,” she said. 

Aditi Argawal's product, called EZ Breezy, has three layers that allow air to passively flow into a home. Courtesy of Aditi Argawal
Aditi Argawal’s product, called EZ Breezy, has three layers that allow air to passively flow into a home. Courtesy of Aditi Argawal

The vent has three layers that react to different climatic conditions like heat and humidity,and requires no electricity to operate.

The other Harvard project is a small camera with five buttons that attaches to a bicycle’s handlebars. When riders are on busy or unsafe streets, they can snap a photo of the street and add a rating to indicate how dangerous it is. The safety data that cyclists collect is transferred to an online database, where it is added to a map with other riders’ photos and ratings. 

Samuel Clay's product, called Comfort Maps, mounts to a bicycle's handlebars and is used to assess road conditions for cyclists. Courtesy of Samuel Clay
Samuel Clay’s product, called Comfort Maps, mounts to a bicycle’s handlebars and is used to assess road conditions for cyclists. Courtesy of Samuel Clay

Samuel Clay, 35, who earned his Master’s degree in engineering in 2020, is the graduate student behind the device. An avid cyclist, he said he hopes to get gasoline-powered vehicles off the road by improving safety conditions for people on bikes, scooters and light electric vehicles.

“When you look at what’s dissuading people from biking, it’s not so much about convenience or sweat or even about environmental concerns,” Clay said, “it’s really about safety.”

At least for now, both vented window and bike camera are just prototypes.