Warming Trends: Forests Are the Best Big-City Water Filters, Plus Veggie Burgers by Default, Sea Songs by ET’s Doctor and a Reminder to Eat Fresh Food in the Fridge

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

A portion of an aqueduct to move water to the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, is viewed on July 8, 2021, thirty minutes east of Fresno, California. Credit: George Rose/Getty Images
A portion of an aqueduct to move water to the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, is viewed on July 8, 2021, thirty minutes east of Fresno, California. Credit: George Rose/Getty Images

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Forests Are a Big Source of City Water

Forests hold and filter water that is siphoned to large U.S. cities, supplying at least some of the water that is provided to more than 125 million Americans, a new study found. The finding gives new urgency to protecting forests against development and wildfires, its authors say. 

The study, conducted by the U.S. Forest Service and published in the journal Water Resources Research, relied on a new database of inter-basin transfers—artificial movements of water toward population centers like Los Angeles, New York City and Phoenix. Researchers looked at models that revealed forests provide 46 percent of the surface water supply, despite making up just 29 percent of the landscape in the contiguous United States.

“We’ve known for a long time that forests provide the best water quality among all land uses, and we’ve known for a long time that forests are really important for providing water supply,” said study co-author Peter Caldwell, a hydrologist at the U.S Forest Service.


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But forests in the country are under threat, he said. In the eastern U.S., most forests are held by private landowners who could choose to develop the land or sell it to a developer. In the West, most forest is publicly owned, but is threatened by wildfires that are getting worse with climate change. 

The database underlying this study can help inform how to manage forests against these threats, Caldwell said. Understanding which forests are supplying the most water to population centers can guide managers to prioritize certain forests for fire prevention in the West or landowners in the East to target for preservation, potentially with funding to keep the land intact.

“This is just one of many ecosystem services that forests provide,” Caldwell said. “And we don’t really put a price tag on that often, and maybe we should, and that is something we’re starting to think about, is how can you put a dollar value on ecosystem services.”


How Menu Designs Can Drive Climate-Friendly Food Choices

If you order a burger at most restaurants, you would assume that the patty would be made of beef. If you wanted a veggie burger, you would have to specify that to your server. But what if the more climate-friendly veggie burger was the default option, and you had to specify if you wanted a higher-impact beef patty? 

That question was posed in a new study that used different menu designs for a variety of fictional restaurants to understand how changing defaults and labeling food items with their carbon footprint influenced how 265 survey respondents selected what to order. 

The study, conducted by researchers from Julius Maximilian University in Germany and published in PLOS Climate, found that when menus had low-emissions options set as the default, greenhouse gas emissions per dish declined by 31.7 percent, and when dishes had carbon footprint labels, greenhouse gas emissions per dish declined by 13.5 percent.

The researchers expected the redesigned menus to have some environmental benefit, co-author Benedikt Seger said, but their results were even more significant than expected.

He cautioned, however, that these results would likely be less significant in the context of a real restaurant, where people are actually eating and buying the food they are ordering, and are influenced by the people who are with them or the dishes they see at tables around the restaurant. Plus, climate change may not be at the top of their minds while enjoying a night out.

“If you go to a restaurant, especially in the evening, you want to enjoy the food and the atmosphere and the people around you,” Seger said. “So you don’t want to care much about climate change and other existential threats.”


Songs for the Sea, by the Real-Life Doctor Who Treated ET 

You may have seen James Kahn as the real life doctor who played the fictional doctor who declared E.T. dead in the 1982 film “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.” Or you may have read his novelizations of films like “Return of the Jedi” or “Poltergeist.” But Kahn has left medical practice and TV and movie writing behind for a new venture, creating music.

His latest album, “By the Risin’ of the Sea,” dives into the societal and environmental issues that have pervaded our lives in recent years. Every song is a sea shanty, a style of music that ties back to historic sailors who sang rhythmic melodies to galvanize the crew in their collective work. Kahn said this mirrors the collective work that we need to do to solve the climate crisis. 

Inside Climate News recently discussed the new album with Kahn. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why did you choose to have each song on the album be a sea shanty?

I decided to write a whole album of shanties about various contemporary dilemmas, primarily climate dilemmas, but environmental crises in various ways. So there’s a couple songs specifically about climate change, some about habitat loss and species die offs and Covid-19. Shanties were originally written as work songs by the sailors of the 17th and 18th centuries facing stormy seas and the elements and I felt like we’re going, metaphorically, and in some cases, specifically, physically going through the same things. We have our own storms that we’re trying to weather and face, and it seemed like the shanty was a good genre to talk about those things that we’re facing, those elemental crises.

Why did you choose to title the album with a song about climate change?

The most important thing facing us is climate change. And the way we see that, in the most obvious sense of it, is the temperatures are rising slowly and ice shelves are melting and they’re causing the seas to rise. And those rising seas have already caused loss of habitats and encroachment on islands that are shrinking. And certainly, you know, places in this country like New Orleans and in areas of Florida, they’re the first to be affected, and as the sea rises, there’s going to be loss of habitat and loss of land. 

So in that song, I go through all the various ramifications of climate change. So it talks about the temperature rising and the seas are rising. And that’s going to cause refugee crises, there’s huge problems with immigration and refugees and a lot of that is caused by droughts because of the rising temperature which causes famine and causes war, and people flee their countries from that. So a whole range of things are caused by this. 

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What do you want your listeners to think about or take away from this album?

When I argue with people or debate with them, it always ends up at a kind of impasse. People have their positions and no one really changes very much. So my deeper hope is that through music and song, people can be reached at a deeper level, at a more emotional or spiritual level than simply logic or debate.

And then, you know, encourage everyone to consider altering various aspects of their lifestyles. Drive your car less, eat less red meat. There’s a million things we can do. And if a single person does them, nothing’s going to happen. But if lots and lots of people do it together in concert, then we can really affect some change. 


Online Grocer Nudges Consumers to Eat Fresh Foods First

More than one-third of the food wasted in the United States gets thrown away in households, more than is lost in food service, in grocery stores and on farms. 

But a new feature offered by an online grocer is working to reduce that segment of the country’s food waste by helping their customers prioritize what to eat and remember what’s in their fridge.

Farmstead, which delivers fresh groceries for free in several cities, debuted a new section on its receipts that list three items in each customer’s delivery that should be eaten first to prevent spoiling. Whether it’s fresh salmon or raw chicken, Farmstead founder and CEO Pradeep Elankumaran hopes that the section will help educate customers on how long foods stay fresh and remind them that these perishable items are in their kitchens. 

“The majority of people in the U.S. waste food, and it’s not because they want to waste food,” Elankumaran said. “It’s because the mechanics of helping them not waste food are just not established.” 

This new feature is just one way the company is working to reduce food waste. Available in Chicago, San Francisco, Miami and a few other cities, Farmstead is powered by its novel software that helps predict demand. The software, driven by artificial intelligence, relies on recurring customers’ buying habits to decide what stock to carry. That leads to less waste in their warehouses, too, Elankumaran said, reducing food waste to less than 3 percent on average.

“We are buying wholesale and selling to retail just like any supermarket,” he said. “Unlike a supermarket we are using software that we have created to control all of the costs of producing this order and bringing it to your door.”