With new hotels and restaurants come a greater draw for tourists. But the construction has been spelling disaster for the environment. Cenotes, which are sinkholes or caves that have filled with water and are often used as swimming holes, have grown polluted because of such development. Of the roughly 6,000 cenotes found across the Yucatán Peninsula, roughly 80% are contaminated, according to Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.
Part of the problem stems from the destruction of mangroves that takes place during much of this construction. These trees and shrubs act as a natural filtration system to keep pollutants out of the water. Without them, contaminants like sewage, chemicals, and more find their way into Tulum’s waterways.
From there, the contamination can seep into the underground water system and then into the sea. Divers have even documented contamination of the cenotes with feces. The construction also harms wildlife, such as sea turtles, by destroying their natural habitats.
Read more about how the rise in tourism is impacting destinations like Tulum in Insider’s story here.
Groundwater pollutants in the aquifers under Mexico’s Riviera Maya district include chemicals from painkillers, illicit drugs like cocaine, remnants of personal care products like deodorants and toothpaste, and chemical run-off, according to a United Nations University study.
The pollution of cenotes can also “adversely affect the nearby ecosystem, like lagoons, estuaries and coral reefs, causing a serious deterioration of this ecosystem and in public health,” according to a study published last year that examined coliform bacteria in cenotes in Cancún.
Adding to the problem is the fact that cenotes are often used as dumping grounds for waste. Roughly 25% of household wastewater on the peninsula ends up in the region’s aquifers untreated. Researchers say improvements to regional wastewater treatment and sewage management systems are necessary to help curb this practice. Addressing agricultural runoff is another important step.
Hundreds of songbirds across at least eight US states are dying from a mysterious illness with strange symptoms, but experts have no idea what’s causing it.
The US Geological Survey said on June 9 that sick and dying birds were being reported in several US states, with neurological symptoms and some physical complications that include eye swelling and crusty discharge.
Birds with these symptoms have now been reported in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland. Allisyn Gillet, an ornithologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, said a large variety of songbirds are dying from the unknown illness.
“We need to figure out what makes this disease be able to affect all these different species,” she told Insider, “and why is it in all these different states.”
The affected species include those that are typically seen in backyards – common grackles, blue jays, European starlings, American robins, and cardinals, among others.
It’s ‘as if they didn’t have any control over their head’
Gillet said they realized something was going on when a local wildlife rehabilitation center in the state started taking in birds with the same combination of peculiar symptoms. The birds had eye swelling, crustiness, and discharge, to the extent that it hindered their ability to see.
The birds were also disoriented and exhibiting unusual behaviors, including walking in strange ways and stumbling around. They had little control of their limbs and would do things like kick their legs up while on their backs.
“They would sway their heads in strange ways, as if they didn’t have any control over their head,” Gillet said.
People were reporting the birds seemed oddly unafraid of people, but Gillet said they were likely just too blinded or disoriented to react. She said the mortality rate of the illness appears high, as most of the birds are dead shortly after they are reported to officials. There have been 280 confirmed bird deaths with these symptoms in Indiana alone, according to Gillet.
Diagnostic labs are testing the bird specimens for viruses and bacteria, and are conducting toxicology testing for chemicals. They have been able to rule out avian influenza and West Nile virus, but not much else.
“They haven’t come to any conclusion. There are no definitive results right now,” Gillet said.
One possible factor being explored is the recent brood of cicadas throughout the eastern US. The emergence of the cicadas aligns with the timing and range of the bird illness. Gillet said there’s a correlation there, but a link has not yet been established.
Taking down bird feeders and baths helps the birds ‘socially distance’
In the meantime, officials in the impacted states are recommending citizens take down their bird feeders and bird baths, things that encourage birds to congregate.
“We want them to socially distance,” Gillet explained. “We don’t know enough, so we have to take the proper precautions.”
She also recommended reporting instances of birds displaying these symptoms to local wildlife authorities. Some states, like Kentucky and Indiana, have online wildlife disease reporting systems where citizens can upload photos or videos of the afflicted bird.
Gillet said the illness is especially unfortunate given that birds in North America already face many threats, such as habitat loss, window collisions, and natural predators with inflated populations.
A study published in the journal Science in 2019 found 3 billion birds have vanished from North America since 1970, and that even common species are experiencing declines.
“It’s unfortunate that there has to be another thing that is affecting their populations negatively,” Gillet said.
A Chick-fil-A employee has posted a video on TikTok purporting to show the amount of chicken nuggets that are thrown out by the fast-food chain daily.
In the footage, the worker can be seen by what appears to be another employee tossing away a full tray of chicken nuggets into the trash. The caption of the now-viral video read: “What they do every night with the chicken nuggets at Chick-fil-A.”
The video, which only lasted a few seconds, has since amassed more than 7.4 million views, per Newsweek.
The outlet reported that a user commented: “The amount of food we throw away and the amount of starving people there are just doesn’t sit right with me.”
One person who said they formerly worked at Chick-fil-A wrote that the chain’s workers were not allowed to take home uneaten food, or they would be penalized. “I used to work at [Chick-fil-A] and we would get written up if we took food home and didn’t throw it out. They were stingy [as f***] which is why I quit,” they alleged, according to Newsweek.
A spokesperson for Chick-fil-A told Insider in response to the video: “We aren’t able to determine which Chick-fil-A restaurant this occurred at but can provide some clarity to what may have occurred. Chick-fil-A restaurants have high food safety and quality standards, so when food falls outside a certain hold time we’re no longer able to safely serve it in our restaurants.”
According to Chick-fil-A’s website, the chain has a food donation program called Chick-fil-A Shared Table, which launched in 2012. The program is intended to fight hunger in local communities “by donating surplus food to local soup kitchens, shelters and nonprofits to feed those in need.”
It is unclear, however, if the Chick-fil-A location filmed in the video was part of the program.
Imagine a wall of rock and ice 1,800 feet wide falling the length of four Empire State Buildings stacked end-to-end.
A slab that size is responsible for the disaster in northern India that killed more than 200 people and destroyed two power plants four months ago, according to a new study published Thursday.
Just before dawn on February 7, a massive chunk broke off a glacier on Ronti Peak in the Indian Himalayas. The slab dropped more than a mile into the valley below, from its position roughly 18,000 feet above ground, at almost 134 miles per hour.
As the chunk landed, the rock disintegrated and the ice melted, creating a wall of water and debris that swiftly funneled into the river valley below. From there, the mixture cascaded toward the Rishiganaga and Tapovan hydropower plants in India’s Chamoli district. After a curve in the valley slowed the sludge down, it swept into tunnels underneath the plants at speeds of up to 56 miles per hour, trapping and killing many workers inside.
The severity of the event, known as the Chamoli disaster, initially stumped scientists. Typically, landslides in the region don’t kickstart floods as rapid or lengthy as the one that occurred in February.
“A ‘normal’ dry rock avalanche would not have traveled as far as this one did – in other words, would not have reached either the Rishiganga or Tapovan hydroplants,” Dan Shugar, a geoscientist at the University of Calgary and co-author of the new study, told Insider.
Shugar’s team discovered key elements that could explain the disaster’s severity: The initial avalanche’s composition (about 20% ice and 80% rock), coupled with its mile-long fall, resulted in a hyper-mobile torrent of debris that doomed workers in the valley below.
The researchers calculated that the flood was 27 million cubic meters in volume – enough to cover more than 1,600 football fields in 10 feet of debris and still have some left over.
The flood climbed 722 feet up the valley walls
Flooding and landslides are not uncommon in Uttarakhand, the area of northern India where Chamoli is located. In 2013, heavy rainfall set off devastating floods in the area than killed up to 5,700 people.
After the February disaster, experts initially thought a lake near the top of Ronti Peak had burst after the chunks of glacier holding it together cracked or broke off. Some glacial lakes can hold hundreds of millions of cubic meters of water.
But satellite imagery showed there were no such lakes along the debris flow’s path.
By analyzing maps of the valleys’ terrain, video footage of the event, and earthquake data in the area, Shugar’s team was able to reconstruct what happened.
The chunk of glacier that broke off Ronti Peak in the early morning was, on average, 262 feet thick. When it touched down at the mountain’s base, the slab flattened a section of nearby forest, and threw a thick dust cloud into air. The impact with the valley floor was so violent that the rock and ice therein blended together to form a flood that climbed 722 feet up the valley walls.
It was “almost the ‘optimal’ combination” for melting glacier ice, Holger Frey, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, told Insider. The massive flood, he added, “facilitated the large reach and destructive nature of this disastrous event.”
‘It’s only a matter of time’ until a disaster like this happens again
The flood caught workers at the hydroplants in Chamoli by surprise.
But according to the study, an early warning system could have given workers six to 10 minutes of notice before the flood reached them. Seismic sensors – which monitor rumblings in the Earth for signs of earthquakes or shifting rock – can detect when an avalanche happens and let workers know if a flood is on its way.
Even if the Chamoli disaster couldn’t have been prevented, Frey said, “a well-designed warning system should be able to warn workers at these plants and allow them to seek safe grounds.”
After all, the conditions that led to the Chamoli disaster aren’t going to disappear any time soon.
Evidence from other mountainous regions, like Alaska, suggest glacier-related landslides are increasing in frequency as the climate warms, according to Shugar.
“I expect this would be similar in high mountain Asia,” he said.
Rising air and surface temperatures are linked to more instability in glaciers and an increasing likelihood of landslides high in the mountains. The warmer the Earth becomes, the more glaciers shrink.
“It’s only a matter of time before the next such massive event will happen somewhere in the Himalayas,” Frey said in a press release.
GOP Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah on Thursday asked state residents to engage in a “weekend of prayer” for rain amid a severe drought.
Cox’s request came after he declared a state of emergency last month. The entire state is considered to be “abnormally dry,” with 90.2 percent of Utah undergoing an “extreme drought” and 62.2 percent of the state experiencing an “exceptional drought,” according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Under such conditions, there is an increased risk of fire danger and native vegetation is adversely impacted.
“By praying collaboratively and collectively, asking God or whatever higher power you believe in, for more rain, we may be able to escape the deadliest aspects of the continuing drought,” he said in a video. “Please join me and Utahns, regardless of religious affiliation, in a weekend of humble prayer for rain.”
Cox detailed the measures that he’s already promoted to prevent a strain on existing water reserves but was frank in his assessment of the lack of moisture throughout the state.
“I’ve already asked all Utahns to conserve water by avoiding long showers, fixing leaky faucets, and planting water-wise landscapes,” he said in a press statement. “But I fear those efforts alone won’t be enough to protect us.”
He added: “We need more rain, and we need it now. We need some divine intervention.”
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Yuan Longping, the Chinese agronomist credited with saving millions of people from dying of hunger, died at 90 on Saturday.
In 1973, Longping developed the world’s first high-yield hybrid rice strain, which produced 20% more rice per acre than nonhybrid varieties. That means his innovations helped feed an extra 70 million people per year.
The backstory: China suffered a disastrous famine in the early 1960s as a result of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward plan to collectivize agriculture. Yuan said his experiences of seeing people starving to death led him to research rice, which serves as the main grain for half the world’s population.
Yuan’s breakthroughs turned him into a national hero in China and within the international agriculture community. He crisscrossed the globe introducing his rice hybrids to farmers in lower-income nations.
Looking ahead…food security remains top of mind for Chinese officials. Last year, President Xi Jinping called on citizens to stop wasting food and to be more conscientious about food consumption.
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“Trees are really our currency,” Pieter Van Midwoud, the company’s chief tree planting officer, told Insider, calling it the company’s KPI.
When CEO Christian Kroll set up the company in December 2009, “he wanted to plant trees,” Midwoud said.
“He didn’t necessarily want to set up a search engine. His idea was: ‘where is there a lot of money to plant trees with?'”
“So the search engine was built to serve the purpose of planting the trees,” he said.
Midwoud has worked at Ecosia since 2016, and has overseen the company’s reforestation projects across the world. This involves choosing sites, ensuring the correct trees are planted in each region, working with local communities, and using satellite tech to monitor the trees.
Ecosia focuses largely on biodiversity hotspots with biologically isolated ecosystems, such as East African mountains, Madagascar, and the Brazilian coast.
Midwoud said Ecosia only plants native trees, and not exotic or invasive species. It’s planted more than 750 species so far and is working to create a diverse portfolio.
There are two main criteria that Ecosia considers when choosing which projects to support: they need to have an impact on both people and nature, supporting the local community, as well as restoring nature in the area.
For projects to be successful, Midwoud said Ecosia has to understand the “socio-economic reality” of the communities it’s working with, and what drives them to take ownership of the projects.
Ecosia finances its tree planting through ads
Midwoud said there had been a big jump in users over recent years, especially among young people, as awareness of the climate crisis grows. He said it had the youngest audience of all search engines.
Ecosia describes its business model as “a hybrid between a non-profit and full-profit business.” Rather than using its profits to pay dividends to shareholders, it uses them to fund reforestation projects.
In 2018, Ecosia became a “steward-owned” company, which means its shares can’t be sold at a profit or owned by people outside of the company, and that profits can’t be taken out of Ecosia.
Ecosia earns money from pay-per-click ads that appear alongside search results. The ads are delivered by Ecosia’s partner Bing, who pays Ecosia a share of the revenue generated via these ads.
Ecosia said the amount of the money it earns per click depends on the competition of the keyword and the value of what is being advertised.
“A click on one of the more lucrative keyword ads may finance multiple trees at a time, others may finance a fraction,” the company says in its FAQs, noting that search terms like “bank account” are likely to be of higher value than “chocolate.” It said that it earns an average of 0.005 euros per search.
Because of this, the company said that its income varies between months. It gets less income during the European summer months because people would rather be outside, but revenue peaks during the winter, especially around the holidays.
The company focuses on transparency and publishes monthly financial reports that show how much money it made from searches, what percentage of its revenue went towards trees, and how many trees it planted.
In April, Ecosia made 2.25 million euros. Just under half of this revenue – or 80% of its profits – went towards planting almost 7 million trees. The rest of the income was largely spent on direct and indirect costs such as taxes, salaries, and advertising. The remaining 20% of its profits went towards “green investments.”
As for Midwoud, his favorite species is the baobab, a tree with a nutritious fruit found mainly in Africa. The trees survive by storing a lot of water in their bark, and can grow up to more than 200 feet tall, making them often the only tree you can see.
Forest fires don’t typically survive cold, wet winters. But “zombie fires” buck the mold.
In boreal forests just below the Arctic Circle, these rare blazes travel and persist underground, deep beneath the winter snow cover. They bide their time until the snow melts and spring begins, then reignite on the surface and begin to wreak havoc again, starting right where they left off.
Zombie fires can be devastating: In 2008, one such fire was responsible for 38% of the burned land in Alaska alone, scorching an area the size of San Francisco, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. That research predicts these fires will become more common as the Earth continues to warm.
“It is possible that we may see more zombie fires in the future,” Rebecca Scholten, a climate researcher at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam who co-authored the study, told Insider. “We do see an upward trend in summer temperatures in boreal regions, and this goes in line with increases in annual burned area.”
Scholten’s team found that zombie fires were, unsurprisingly, more frequent after hotter summers in which large fires burned across wide areas. The higher summer temperatures climb, the drier the subterranean vegetation and soil become – and that’s what zombie fires consume as they hibernate. The bigger the fire, the deeper its flames can penetrate underground in the summer. That makes them more likely to survive the winter.
Burn. Sleep. Repeat.
Scholten’s team looked at reports from local fire managers and firefighters, as well as satellite imagery of Alaska and Canada’s Northwestern Territories captured between 2002 and 2018. They found 74 zombie fires in those 16 years.
“We can identify zombie fires from satellites because they appear close to an old fire scar,” Scholten said.
In Canada, they found that fires pulled through the winter following the six hottest summers in the study’s time frame. The analysis suggested that zombie flames can spread up to 650 feet (200 meters) underground. But no zombie fires survived the winter after the seven coolest summers.
The scientific term for zombie fires is “overwintering,” since the blazes hibernate underground for up to eight months like bears, then awaken four weeks after the snow starts melting. But Scholten said the colloquial moniker works.
“I like the term – it’s a really visual and engaging description,” she said.
Overwintering fires require a specific habitat. They happen in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of North America and Siberia because the deepest soil layers there, called peat, are rich with organic matter. The smoldering flames can devour that matter, thereby staying alive even when the surrounding temperatures drop to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Overall, zombie fires are still rare: The new research suggests they accounted for just 0.8% of the total burned area in Alaska and the Northwestern Territories during the 16 years studied. But because climate change makes both hot summers and large, intense wildfires more likely, zombie blazes may become more common, too.
Atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations hit a record high last year, and the last seven years have been the seven warmest ever recorded, according to NASA. The Arctic, in particular, is warming faster than the rest of the Earth.
A vicious cycle
Perhaps the worst part of the zombie fire phenomenon is its self-perpetuating nature. When a fire burns through trees and vegetation, that emits carbon dioxide, exacerbating the climate problem.
A zombie fire is double trouble: It burns through flora in the summer before its hibernation and during the spring after. In between, the peat it burns underground emits methane, a greenhouse gas with 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.
“What’s special about fires in arctic and boreal regions is that the largest part of carbon emissions comes from the soils,” Scholten said.
Her group found that large overwintering fires in Alaska and the Northwest Territories emitted 3.5 million metric tons of carbon between 2002 and 2018.
More emissions means more warming, which increases the likelihood of more zombie fires, which in turn create more emissions, and so on.
It’s possible to hunt down zombie fires
Most fires are caused by people or lightning strikes. In Alaska and Canada, lightning season begins in June, which kicks off fire season.
But zombie fires don’t follow that schedule. They start “as soon as the snow melts and dry fuel is available,” Scholten said.
So the new study suggests that by keeping tracking of summer temperatures and recording where the largest fires were each summer, firefighters might be able to predict and suppress zombie fires before they fully reignite.
Doing so would be cheaper than fighting a full-blown fire, the study authors wrote, and would also limit the blaze’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
Billionaire investor Chris Sacca owns a bunch of cryptocurrencies including bitcoin and ether, and sees their environmental costs as a problem that could spark creative solutions.
“I own a broad basket ranging from early BTC/ETH to shitcoin lottery tickets,” he tweeted on Saturday. “The climate impact bums me out,” he continued. “But that is the market impetus for a lot of clean energy innovation.”
Sacca, the founder of Lowercase Capital, was an early investor in Uber, Twitter, and Instagram. He shifted his focus from venture capital to tackling the climate crisis, voter suppression, and other issues in early 2017.
The billionaire’s latest comments were prompted by Mark Cuban, his former “Shark Tank” colleague and a champion of dogecoin, tweeting that he always asks himself what coins can be used for.
Sacca was an early investor in bitcoin, and has been bullish on its prospects for years. “Bought bitcoin at $800,” he said in March 2014. The cryptocurrency now trades north of $40,000.
He predicted it would become “institutionally mainstream” in 2017. However, he described it as an “environmental disaster” in 2013 and again in 2017.
The surging energy costs of bitcoin mining are a hot-button issue in the crypto space. Tesla CEO Elon Musk reignited the debate last week when he said his electric-car company would no longer accept bitcoin for vehicle purchases, citing environmental reasons.
“I strongly believe in crypto, but it can’t drive a massive increase in fossil fuel use, especially coal,” he said.
About 7.5 miles above our heads, the stratosphere begins.
That slice of sky – where supersonic jets and weather balloons fly – stretches up to 31 miles above Earth’s surface. But according to new research, this layer of the atmosphere has shrunk by a quarter-mile in the last 40 years.
A study published last week in the journal Environmental Research Letters shows that humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions are behind the startling contraction.
As carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels enters the lowest level of the atmosphere – known as the troposphere – it traps some of the sunlight that hits Earth as that light is being reflected back into space. That’s why the planet’s temperature is rising. The more emissions rise, the more heat from the sun stays trapped on Earth and the less it can warm the stratosphere as it travels spaceward. So the stratosphere is cooling.
As the stratosphere cools, it shrinks (as most materials do). Between the 1960s and mid-2010s, it cooled by up to 5 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius). If global greenhouse-gas emissions continue at their current level or increase, that shrinkage is expected to continue.
The new study suggests that the stratosphere will get almost a mile thinner by 2080 – about a 4% decrease from its average thickness between 1980 and 2018.
That thinning could eventually mess with GPS navigational systems, radio communications, or the trajectories of orbiting satellites.
A contracting atmosphere
Imagine Earth’s atmosphere as a decadent, layered trifle cake.
The troposphere is closest layer to the planet, a 7.5-mile band where most of our weather happens, and where commercial airplanes fly. It meets the stratosphere above it at a boundary known as the tropopause.
On the stratosphere’s other side is the mesosphere, which extends 50 miles up; the boundary between those two layers is called the stratopause. Then comes the upper atmosphere, reaching 440 miles high. That includes the thermosphere, where satellites and the International Space Station orbit, and the ionosphere.
According to the new study, the boundaries on either side of the stratosphere – the tropopause and the stratopause – are getting to closer to each other, suggesting the stratosphere is being compressed. Since 1980, the altitude of the tropopause has been increasing, and the altitude of the stratopause has the been decreasing. Picture the filling of a whoopie pie gripped too tightly.
That trend, the researchers said, is expected to continue unless carbon emissions are sharply reduced. (Atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations hit a record high last year.)
“Carbon dioxide cools the stratosphere, and when the stratosphere cools, it actually shrinks the size of the atmosphere,” Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told Canada’s National Observer in 2016.
If you’re in the mesosphere about 50 miles up, he added, “you actually are seeing the sky falling – it’s going down by a number of kilometers.”
Bad news for orbiting satellites?
Satellites orbit Earth above the stratosphere, but because any change in one layer of the atmosphere can spell trouble for the others, a contracting stratosphere could impact those satellites.
“If (and it is a big if) the shrinking stratosphere were to lower all the atmospheric layers above it, low-altitude satellites would experience reduced air resistance, which could modify their trajectories,” Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at Reading University in the UK who was not involved in the study, told The Times.
That modification could eventually wreak havoc on GPS satellites or other space-based navigation systems, according to the new study, perhaps making them less accurate.
High-frequency radio transmissions could also get screwed up, since this means of communication involves bouncing radio waves off charged particles in the ionosphere. That’s how airplane pilots talk to air traffic control towers in the northernmost regions of the planet where GPS doesn’t work, like the Arctic.
“Any change to the altitude of the electrically charged layer could alter the transmission of radio waves,” Williams said.