Warming Trends: The BBC Introduces ‘Life at 50 Degrees,’ Helping African Farmers Resist Drought and Driftwood Provides Clues to Climate’s Past

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

Logs from Siberia washed ashore as driftwood on beach at Svalbard, Norway. Credit: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Logs from Siberia washed ashore as driftwood on beach at Svalbard, Norway. Credit: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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CULTURE

Life at 50 Degrees, the Documentary

On the edge of the Sahara Desert in Mauritania, a salt miner decides to change careers and move to the cooler coast. In Kuwait, a mother plants and maintains a patch of trees in the middle of the desert, as a step toward cooling her children’s future. In Canada, the village of Lytton recovers from a heat wave during which temperatures reached more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit, driving a wildfire that destroyed 90 percent of the town.

It’s all a part of a new documentary series highlighting locations around the world that have reached or nearly reached a climate change milestone of 50 degrees Celsius, or 122 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The Life at 50 Degrees series, produced by the BBC, visits 10 countries around the world where deadly heat is becoming more common, and shows how people are adjusting to the new reality. Some stay and try to adapt by painting buildings white to reflect the hot sunlight or planting trees for shade. Others choose to move to cooler climates, becoming climate migrants. Some face dire health impacts from the heat, including one of the filmmakers own crew members who fell ill in the heat of Mexicali, Mexico. 

“The glimpse into the future is one of the things to emphasize with this film,” said Stephanie Stafford, one of the documentary’s producers. “It’s putting the human face to the current climate crisis and saying, ‘OK, it will be this but more if we continue.’”

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The series has started to air and will continue with new episodes next week, just as the COP26 international climate talks in Glasgow begin. The film’s producers hope that decision makers will see the stories they are telling and be motivated to act on climate change. 

“It’s just an impactful time to be releasing these films,” said Ceci Golding, another producer of the documentary. “These films are like witness testimony for those decision makers, like those who work for governments or NGOs. We just wanted to let the stories speak for themselves as kind of a warning cry.”

SCIENCE

Studying Driftwood for Signs of Climate’s Past 

Scientists have found that driftwood can provide information about sea ice loss in the Arctic over time, giving them a new tool for understanding historical climate change. 

A new study collected data from pieces of driftwood up to 500 years old found on the shores of Svalbard, a polar archipelago located more than 1,000 miles north of Norway. The wood comes from trees from northern Europe, Siberia, Canada and other high latitude regions, where dead trees fall into rivers and flow into the Arctic Ocean. When the climate is cold enough, the trees freeze into sea ice and drift with ocean currents until they wash up on land. 

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford and published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, measured tree rings in the Svalbard driftwood and compared them to existing databases of tree rings from the regions surrounding the Arctic to determine where a tree was likely to have come from. Based on the ages and origins of the sampled driftwood, the researchers could infer the state of sea ice extent and the ocean currents that were dominant at that point in time. 

The findings align with existing knowledge about the historical climate in the polar region, recorded by early sailors and whalers and more recently from satellites, said lead author Georgia Hole, a geoscientist at Oxford. The researchers found a decline in driftwood over the last 30 years, corresponding with the loss of sea ice during those decades.

“A lot of our information on past climate does rely on these kinds of proxy tools,” Hole said. “Driftwood is one of these probably more novel and less currently well developed tools to get insight into past climate.”

Hole said she is excited about the future of driftwood as a proxy for studying the past Arctic climate and ocean circulation, as the field develops tools to dive even further back in time. A huge benefit of driftwood is how, by matching the pattern in a piece’s rings to databases of other trees the ages of which were known, scientists can precisely estimate the age of the wood to within a few years of when it died, she said. Other methods, like radiocarbon dating,can only estimate within decades or centuries. 

“Whereas by looking at our tree ring patterns and matching it to records from trees around the Arctic, it can be a yearly resolution,” she said, “even though there’s a gap between when it died and when it flowed into the ocean and reached our beach, it will still be, say, within 10 years from when it died and moved into that place.”

SCIENCE

Skeptical Scientists Change Their Minds About Global Warming

A significant number of scientists who once denied the reality of human-driven climate change now are more likely to accept that global warming is happening and that it is caused by humans, according to a new study.

The study found that the consensus was nearly universal among earth scientists, especially those considered to be climate experts. 

The findings are based on a survey of more than 2,000 earth scientists from a directory of faculty at academic and research institutions. These included climate scientists, oceanographers, paleontologists, economic geologists, meteorologists and others. Each respondent was asked whether they believed global warming was happening, and if it was, whether it was human-caused or driven by natural causes. 

The survey, conducted by researchers in the United States and Australia, was a replication of a 2009 survey led by University of Illinois-Chicago researchers, using the same directory to find scientists and asking them the same questions. 

In 2009, 80 percent of respondents agreed that global warming was caused by humans. In this new survey, that number increased to 91.1 percent. Among climate experts in 2009, 97.4 percent believed humans were responsible for warming. Today, that number is 98.7 percent. 

The biggest jump in consensus was among economic geologists, a discipline that includes scientists that help industry groups find natural resources like fossil fuels. Only 44 percent of these scientists agreed in 2009 that global warming was caused by human activity. That number has since risen to 84.1 percent.

“Amongst this group who have a vested interest in not thinking that burning fossil fuels will cause climate change, they nearly doubled the level of agreement that fossil fuels are causing climate change,” said John Cook, a climate communication researcher at Monash University in Melbourne. 

The scientific consensus on global warming is important for bringing awareness to society as a whole about the reality and gravity of climate change, Cook said. 

“When people understand that scientists agree that humans are causing global warming, they’re more likely to believe that climate change is real and caused by humans and support climate actions,” he said. 

SOLUTIONS

Preparing Small Farmers in Africa for Climate Change

Small scale farmers in several African countries are seeing massive declines in their crop yields, as temperatures increase and rainfall decreases, a new United Nations report found, forcing them to change the crops they grow and their agricultural practices.  

In the days before the COP26 international climate talks, the authors of the report, published by the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), wrote that world leaders should put more resources toward helping developing countries prepare for climate change than toward preventing climate change through emissions reductions. 

Developing countries need $70 billion to $100 billion per year to adapt to a changing climate, the report said, but currently only receive about $22 billion.

“It is humans and people that we’re talking about,” said Paxina Chileshe, a climate adaptation specialist for IFAD. “So they don’t only feed themselves, but we know that, particularly in the African context, a significant proportion of the food that is consumed on the table is produced by small scale farmers.”

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The report focused on small scale farmers in eight countries in eastern and southern Africa, including Angola, Mozambique and Rwanda. For these farmers, climate adaptation means changing the way they operate, like minimizing tilling to help the soil retain moisture, and changing what they grow—for example, switching from thirsty crops like maize to more drought-tolerant alternatives like the root vegetable cassava, grasses like sorghum and millet, and certain types of beans and nuts. Chileshe and her organization hope that these adaptation methods will be a priority at next week’s climate talks in Glasgow. 

“Small scale farmers who normally are the ones who are at the forefront and facing the brunt of climate change, they’re not always at the negotiating tables,” Chileshe said. “When we look at climate change conferences, the most affected people are not there negotiating; they don’t have a voice.”

SOLUTIONS

Managing Waste Can Reduce Methane Emissions

Waste accounts for a significant portion of methane emissions, releasing a greenhouse gas that is shorter-lived than carbon dioxide but far more potent in warming the atmosphere. But a new report finds that the climate change commitments of many countries lack effective waste management plans. 

The report, compiled by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), analyzed 99 countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions, climate plans that nations made after the 2015 Paris Agreement, which many countries have updated ahead of the COP26 climate talks next week. 

Among the plans analyzed, 25 percent lacked a waste strategy entirely, the report said. About 40 percent included waste-to-energy incineration and other unsustainable waste management techniques. 

“All these different schemes for waste burning, they’re not only expensive, but they’re harmful,” said Claire Arkin, the global communications lead at GAIA. “They’ve been proven to be a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. And also, they harm surrounding communities who tend to be low income communities and communities of color, communities in the Global South. So that’s a major environmental injustice.”

Only 12 climate plans discussed environmental justice, the report said, and just 11 proposed bans and restrictions on plastic waste, material that is made primarily from fossil fuels. 

Arkin said she was happy to see that 35 percent of climate plans included strategies for composting, a method that results in fewer methane emissions than landfills, but more is needed. 

“These kinds of waste management and reduction strategies are kind of the low hanging fruit for addressing climate change,” she said.