Warming Trends: Climate Clues Deep in the Ocean, Robotic Bee Hives and Greenland’s Big Melt

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

Beewise's Beehome is a high-tech beehive that helps beekeepers remotely monitor and care for their bees. Credit: Beewise
Beewise's Beehome is a high-tech beehive that helps beekeepers remotely monitor and care for their bees. Credit: Beewise

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A Robot Beehive Means More Bees and More Honey 

A modern beehive powered by solar energy, monitored by artificial intelligence and equipped with a robot arm is coming to the United States. 

Beehome, a beehive that holds up to 24 bee colonies (which includes a queen and her 30,000 to 50,0000 offspring), is available to beekeepers from the Israeli company Beewise. About 150 to 200 devices will be put to use in the U.S. by the end of the year, with 1,000 expected by the end of 2022. Most of the devices will be in California, where pollination from bees is vital for the state’s agriculture industry. 

Ordinarily, beekeepers must travel long distances to care for their many hives, often not knowing what problems they might encounter when they arrive, Beewise CEO Saar Safra said. But these eight-foot-tall devices allow beekeepers to check in on all their hives remotely 24/7, and perform tasks like providing medicine or food via a robotic arm inside the device. 

“It’s kind of a win-win-win,” Safra said. “So the bees win, the beekeepers win and we win, because when I say we, I mean you, right, three times a day on your plate.” 

Bees face a number of stressors, including climate change, pesticides and parasites that cause entire colonies to collapse at a rate of about 30 percent per year, according to the EPA. With this technology, Safra said that in tests, the collapse rate decreased to 8 percent per year, compared to control groups that collapsed at a rate of 30 to 40 percent. 


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Beewise charges customers $2,000 to set up the device in addition to a $400 monthly subscription fee. 

“After the first month they deploy, they immediately see the returns,” Safra said. “It’s very mechanical and simple: more bees, more honey; more bees, more pollination. So if we can save the bees, not only are we doing something that is important for this planet, we’re actually creating commercial value to beekeepers.”


A Walk Through Pando

A group of students, citizen scientists and tree lovers have set out to create a comprehensive visual representation of the world’s largest organism for the first time.

The Pando tree—a 106-acre network of 40,000 aspen trees, all clones of one another connected underground by a shared root system—is thousands of years old and located in central Utah. The nonprofit organization Friends of Pando is leading a photographic survey of the entire body of trees, involving about 8,000 images taken with 360-degree cameras that will ultimately create a comprehensive collection of connected images of the tree.

This image will serve as a baseline to compare to future images, said Lance Oditt, the lead photographer for the Pando Photographic Survey. This kind of visualization could help scientists study the system, Oditt said, providing a precise map of Pando with geolocated images, data on the kinds of plants growing around the aspen, and a record of Pando’s color, which can be useful for understanding growth and diseases. 

But the image won’t just be used for scientific purposes. The final product will include augmented and virtual reality experiences where people can “walk through” Pando remotely and watch short documentaries as they move through the tree system. Plus, the experience will include features designed for people with disabilities, Oditt said, such as a sound-based experience for people who are blind.

This was important personally to Oditt, he said, because disabilities are common in his family, including deafness, muscular dystrophy and autism. “I started thinking about ways to share those experiences with people who had no chance or no opportunity to experience it for themselves,” he said. “I started investigating the use of 360 and VR technologies to make some wilderness areas accessible to people who would not have a chance to enjoy it otherwise.”

Aspen trees that are part of Pando are seen at night. Credit: Lance Oditt / Studio 47.60 North / friendsofpando.org
Aspen trees that are part of Pando are seen at night. Credit: Lance Oditt / Studio 47.60 North / friendsofpando.org

Most of the photography was completed earlier this month, but a group has to return to collect images from some of the more treacherous parts of the lava-rock landscape, Oditt said. The final product is likely to be ready in the spring.

“Immersive experiences with natural subjects play a huge role in education, awareness and a sense of self advocacy, like, ‘Hey, I saw this, it was beautiful to me. I want to protect this,’” Oditt said. “That right there is likely to spur other kinds of research and approaches that we haven’t even imagined yet, frankly, because there’s no record. We have no idea.”


Extreme Weather Causes a Big Melt in Greenland

A scorching Northern Hemisphere summer marked by deadly wildfires and heat waves isn’t over yet. Last week, in another unwelcome extreme climate event, warm, moist Atlantic air surged northward, bringing rainfall to the summit of the Greenland Ice Sheet, at 10,551 feet of elevation, for the first time on record.

“There is no previous report of rainfall at this location,” National Snow and Ice Data Center scientists posted on the Greenland Today website after the Aug. 14 and 15 rainstorm. As a result of the extreme weather, which included temperatures as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit above average, surface melting spread across about 337,000 square miles—an area about twice as large as California.

The surface melting was “the highest melt event so late in the melting season,” said University of Liege polar climate scientist Xavier Fettweis

Ice melting off the Greenland Ice Sheet raises sea levels, and rain can wash bright, reflective snow off the ice, leaving a darker surface susceptible to intensified melt. And this summer’s rain at the ice sheet summit is part of a trend toward more rain overall on the Greenland Ice Sheet, according to ice researcher William Colgan

Analyzing climate data from 1981 to 2010, Colgan and other researchers showed that global warming means even more rain, especially in late summer, with September rainfall up by 224 percent during the study period. The maximum intensity of September rainfall also increased by 54 percent during this same period. 

“We speculate that this increasing trend in rainfall in Northwest Greenland may be related to a northward shift in the limit to which relatively warm and moist mid-latitude air masses can penetrate each summer,” Colgan wrote in a blog post about the study. Just a little more rain can have a huge effect on melting, he added. 


New York’s Bullet-Proof Subway Barriers

Nearly 70 subway entrances in lower Manhattan are now equipped with flood barriers made of the same material used in spacesuits and bullet-proof vests.

Stairwells at 20 Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway stations now have an on-site flood barrier made of Kevlar, a soft material that can withstand 16 feet of storm surge. Each barrier costs about $400,000 and can last about 20 years. 

Made by the Delaware-based materials company ILC Dover, the Stairwell Flex-Gate product was one of many adaptations the MTA invested in as part of its $2.6 billion campaign to protect the system from inundation after Superstorm Sandy severely flooded eight stations and eight under-river subway tunnels in October 2012. 

Climate change is likely to make storm surges like the one brought on by Sandy more likely as sea levels rise around New York City, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment. 

What makes the Flex-Gate product unique is the fact that it is stored right at the stairwell, ILC Dover president and CEO Fran DiNuzzo said, and it can be deployed quickly, meaning the MTA can make decisions about closing the subway closer to the time of the actual flood, compared to off-site barriers like sandbags and steel plates that need to be implemented hours or days in advance.

“This system literally takes about five minutes,” DiNuzzo said. “You could do it in the middle of a storm if you wanted to.”


An Underwater World Provides Clues About Climate Change

Oceanographers in Israel have discovered a deep sea ecosystem nearly 4,000 feet below the surface of the eastern Mediterranean that may reveal clues about how climate change will affect isolated ecosystems that are rich in biodiversity. 

A decade of research by marine scientist Yizhaq Makovsky and his team from University of Haifa Charney School of Marine Sciences and other institutions, led to a site not far off the coast of Tel Aviv. A complex ecosystem there is thriving on the pitch black ocean floor, fueled by methane seeping from the rocks below. 

The team sent an autonomous underwater vehicle down to document a forest of Lamellibrachia tube worms spread across the bottom, looking like a grassy field that you could play football on, Makovsky said. On top of that were hundreds of shark eggs—the largest concentration ever found—with dozens of sharks swimming around above them. Puddles of dense, highly saline brine water pooled at the bottom—a shocking thing to see at the bottom of the ocean, Makovsky said. And dotting the whole area were little white flakes that looked like snow, but were actually tiny bacteria, thriving amid it all. 

“We found that right underneath our nose,” Makovsky said. “Basically, only a few tens of kilometers from the biggest city in Israel, Tel Aviv, and we didn’t know it existed.”

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Since the sun’s rays cannot reach this environment, organisms depend on other means to get energy. This ecosystem is powered by methane which bacteria oxidize for energy, and when they are eaten, provide energy to the rest of the food chain. 

This hotspot of life has likely existed for thousands of years, Makovsky said, and has been subject to the influence of human activity for at least 10,000 years, since the beginning of agriculture in the fertile crescent of the eastern Mediterranean region. 

This discovery is significant because it can provide clues about what climate change could do to deep sea environments, Makovsky said. The deep sea in the eastern Mediterranean is about 10 degrees Celsius warmer than the deep sea in the ocean, showing what these important ecosystems could look like if global warming continues to heat up the seas. 

“Studying the paleo records stored in the seafloor in the area can teach us about the drastic environmental impacts of anthropogenic activity and climatic changes, which occurred in the southeastern Mediterranean Sea, and the way they work,” Makovsky said. “Together these studies can serve as a natural early warning system for predicting and mitigating the potential impacts of global change.”