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Is Space Junk Polluting Space Before We Even Live There?

by Anna Kucirkova

August 2,2018 originally published (Industrial Ovens) – Scientists have predicted that the maximum number of people the Earth can sustain is somewhere between nine and ten billion. Current population is estimated to hit nine billion by the year 2050. So humans have roughly 32 years before overpopulation becomes a really, really big problem.

But, where else can we go?

People around the globe have developed space agencies for exploration (think Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, etc.). There are private companies sending rockets and satellites into low orbit. We’ve been to the moon and back.

It is clear that our intention is to colonize the only place left: space.

However, can it be that easy if we have already filled space with our junk?

The Problem Of Space Pollution

NASA scientist Donald Kessler warned in a paper written in 1978, that every collision of man-made objects in space generates more shrapnel and debris as pieces fly apart on impact. The effect is cumulative, as new debris collides with other objects it creates even more debris.

Ultimately, space will become impassable because of the continuous cascade of colliding debris, including destruction of telecommunications systems and nullifying of further space launches.

Twice every year, if not more frequently, the International Space Station moves to avoid a hypothetically disastrous crash with space junk.

Estimations vary, but there are approximately 4,000 active and inactive satellites in space. They could be hit by the 500,000 bits of floating space debris, some micro-millimeters in size, all the way up to pieces the size of two double-decker buses.

Space debris encompasses both natural (meteoroid) and artificial (man-made) particles. While meteoroids orbit the sun, most man-made debris orbits the Earth. Therefore, the man-made junk is usually called orbital debris.

These include broken spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicles, manned mission-related debris, and disintegration debris.

Estimates suggest that more than 20,000 items of debris larger than a softball currently orbit the Earth. They travel up to 17,500 mph, which would allow a relatively small piece of orbital debris to seriously damage a satellite or a spacecraft. Additionally, there are 500,000 pieces of debris marble-sized or larger. There are millions of pieces of debris too small to be tracked.

“The greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris,” said Nicholas Johnson, NASA chief scientist for orbital debris. The Department of Defense sustains a hyper-accurate catalog on objects in Earth orbit bigger than a softball.

Are you starting to get the picture? There’s a lot of stuff in space that can cause serious problems for space travelers.

Space Debris and Human Spacecraft

More than 500,000 pieces of debris, or “space junk,” are tracked as they orbit the Earth.

The increasing amount of space debris multiples the danger to space vehicles, but particularly the International Space Station, space shuttles, and other spacecraft with human passengers.

NASA monitors space debris to predict collisions and uses a long-standing set of guidelines to prepare for such events. These guidelines are part of the existing flight rules and specify that when a piece of debris becomes close enough to increase the probability of a collision, evasive action or other precautions are put in place to ensure the safety of crew members.

Often times, there is plenty of advance notice, which allows for time to move the station slightly (called a “debris avoidance maneuver”). Other times, the tracking data does not give a precise enough targeting of debris or a close pass isn’t identified in time to make orbital adjustments.

When that happens, the control centers around the world may agree to move the crew into the Soyuz spacecraft used to fly humans to and from the station. The crew would then have the ability to leave the station if a collision occurred and caused a loss of pressure in the life-supporting module or caused critical damage.

Debris avoidance moves are primarily small and occur between one and several hours prior to the predicted collision. These maneuvers with the shuttle can be planned and implemented in just a few hours. The space station requires nearly 30 hours to plan and execute moves because of the need to utilize the station’s Russian thrusters, or to activate the propulsion systems on one of the docked spacecraft.

In 2009, we witnessed the first major collision between two intact satellites — a U.S. Iridium satellite and an aging Russian Cosmos. The collision created 2,000 extra chunks of metal space debris orbiting the Earth.

A 2011 report by the National Research Council warned that Earth orbit paths may be reaching a “tipping point” where collisions will become more common. The researchers suggest that the immediate, orbital space around Earth could be 10 to 20 years away from severe issues.

The Space Pollution Facts

It is estimated that hundreds of millions of pieces of space debris float through our area of the solar system. Many are as big as trucks, while some are smaller than a fleck of paint.

NASA tracks rocket boosters, spacecraft pieces, and particles and fragments cause by space crashes or explosions are the kinds of space trash whirling around Earth up to 36,000 km per hour.

Earth’s gravitational field grabs lots of space trash and drags it into lower and lower orbits until it burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere. When space trash orbits at higher altitudes, it will remain in orbit years longer than space trash moving in orbits lower than 600 km. Scientists estimate that space trash at altitudes higher than 1,000 km above Earth’s atmosphere can continue orbiting for a hundred years or more.

Space Debris Removal

Jason Held is a scientist who has created a device he hopes will be useful in cleaning up space trash. He holds a PhD in robotics from the University of Sydney and founded the university’s space engineering laboratory. There, he built rocket engines and led space satellite development.

Held has high hopes that the device he and his team created will be able to drag space trash back down into the atmosphere for a fiery death. The module, called the DragEN, is a yo-yo like device weighing in at just under 100 grams. It can be attached to satellites and other spacecraft.

When used, DragEN unspools hundreds of meters of a conductive material that grabs onto electric and magnetic forces as it travels through the planet’s magnetic field. This force drags the trash back to Earth’s atmosphere, where it explodes.

Held cannot estimate the time it would take for a satellite in the DragEN to burn up. However, the Indian Space Research Organization will try it in space on a satellite launch planned soon.

“The satellite mission is to take photos of the earth and downlink photos,” Held says.

“At the end of its mission, the team will release the DragEN tether, which will start dragging the satellite back to Earth. We are all very interested to learn how DragEN unspools in space and how quickly or slowly it takes to come back down.”

Today, Held leads Saber Astronautics in Sydney, where he built DragEN, and he believes it will aid in the destruction of space of debris, a vital issue for space programs around the world.

And Held isn’t the only one racing to obliterate space junk. Though Australia doesn’t build spacecraft or satellite systems, it does collect data and information from space. Australian space researchers monitor roughly 29,000 pieces of space junk and warn human space dwellers of imminent collisions.

The international timeline for self-destruction of any space satellite or orbiting craft, originally set by NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, is 25 years after operational life of a satellite ends. This remains the goal for new launches in order to limit the growing pile of space trash.

Internationally, addressing this problem is urgent; satellites worth billions of dollars are constantly threatened with collisions. We are sending craft into space more frequently than they are being destroyed.

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs has worked with NASA and the European Space Agency to develop a set of guidelines on space debris mitigation. But, space archaeologist Dr. Alice Gorman, of Flinders University in Adelaide, says the voluntary UN guidelines are followed in only 40% of all missions.

Humans filled waterways, landfills, and streets with trash, so it’s no surprise the same thing happened in Earth’s orbit. Some space trash removal missions focus on dead satellites, catching them with robotic arms, spearing them with harpoons, or slowing them with sails or tethers. Smaller pieces are targeted with lasers or collected through adhesives.

There are currently several space junk removal missions on the books:

  • RemoveDebris from Britain was planned for 2017
  • Japan’s just-launched Kounotori 6 satellite, carrying the Kounotori Integrated Tether Experiment
  • e.Deorbit from the ESA is scheduled for 2023 or 2024
  • Japanese startup Astroscale is designing a debris-removal satellite planned to launch this year

Astroscale plans to demonstrate its satellite, ELSA, in October 2019. Both NASA and the ESA continue to study and develop technologies to capture and safely de-orbit non-functioning objects.

Will Space Be Clean Enough in Time?

These great advances in tracking and eliminating space junk and debris will help clear out the orbital paths around the Earth.

The primary concern is if the clearance will happen in time for our population to successfully colonize outer space. As human population grows and grows, the only viable answer for expanding our world is in settling in outer space.

Twin Satellites Track Global Freshwater Trends

Cataract Falls, Mount Tamalpais, California March 1, 2009 (Photo by Alan Grinberg) Creative Commons license via Flickr

Cataract Falls, Mount Tamalpais, California March 1, 2009 (Photo by Alan Grinberg) Creative Commons license via Flickr

By Sunny Lewis

GREENBELT, Maryland, May 17, 2018 (Maximpact.com News) – Earth’s wet land areas are getting wetter and dry areas are getting drier due to a range of factors, including human water management, climate change and natural cycles.

In a first-of-its-kind study, scientists have combined an array of NASA satellite observations of Earth with data on human activities to map locations where freshwater is changing around the globe and to determine why.

The study was published Wednesday in the journal “Nature.

Matt Rodell analyzes GRACE data at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. (Photo by Bill Hrybyk / NASA) Public domain

Matt Rodell analyzes GRACE data at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. (Photo by Bill Hrybyk / NASA) Public domain

A team led by Matt Rodell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, used 14 years of observations from the U.S./German-led Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) spacecraft mission to track global trends in freshwater in 34 regions around the world.

To understand why these trends emerged, they needed to pull in satellite precipitation data from the Global Precipitation Climatology Project, NASA/U.S. Geological Survey Landsat imagery, irrigation maps, and published reports of human activities related to agriculture, mining and reservoir operations.

Only through analysis of the combined data sets were the scientists able to get a full understanding of the reasons for Earth’s freshwater changes as well as the sizes of those trends.

Launched in 2002 as a joint mission with NASA and the German Aerospace Center <dlr.de/en>, the identical twin GRACE satellites weighed Earth’s fresh water from space. The satellites respond to changes in Earth’s gravitation field that signal shifts in the movement of water across and under Earth’s surface.

“This is the first time that we’ve used observations from multiple satellites in a thorough assessment of how freshwater availability is changing, everywhere on Earth,” said Rodell.

“A key goal was to distinguish shifts in terrestrial water storage caused by natural variability – wet periods and dry periods associated with El Niño and La Niña, for example – from trends related to climate change or human impacts, like pumping groundwater out of an aquifer faster than it is replenished,” he said.

“Accurate accounting of changes in freshwater availability is essential for predicting regional food supplies, human and ecosystem health, energy generation and social unrest,” the authors write. “Groundwater is particularly difficult to monitor and manage because aquifers are vast and unseen, yet groundwater meets the domestic needs of roughly half of the world’s population and boosts food supply by providing for 38 percent of global consumptive irrigation water demand.”

“Nearly two-thirds of terrestrial aquatic habitats are being increasingly threatened, while the precipitation and river discharge that support them are becoming more variable. A recent study estimates that almost five billion people live in areas where threats to water security are likely – a situation that will only be exacerbated by climate change, population growth and human activities,” the authors state, concluding, “The key environmental challenge of the 21st century may be the globally sustainable management of water resources.”

Twin satellites launched in March 2002, made detailed measurements of Earth's gravity field which are leading to discoveries about gravity and Earth's freshwater systems that could have far-reaching benefits to society and the world's population. Artist's concept of Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) Public domain

Twin satellites launched in March 2002, made detailed measurements of Earth’s gravity field which are leading to discoveries about gravity and Earth’s freshwater systems that could have far-reaching benefits to society and the world’s population. Artist’s concept of Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) Public domain

“What we are witnessing is major hydrologic change,” said co-author Jay Famiglietti from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We see a distinctive pattern of the wet land areas of the world getting wetter – those are the high latitudes and the tropics – and the dry areas in between getting dryer. Embedded within the dry areas we see multiple hotspots resulting from groundwater depletion.”

“GRACE is not looking at the ground,” says Famiglietti, now at the University of California-Irvine. “It’s feeling the ground.”

Famiglietti commented that while water loss in some regions, like the melting ice sheets and alpine glaciers, is clearly driven by warming climate, it will require more time and data to determine the driving forces behind other patterns of freshwater change.

“The pattern of wet-getting-wetter, dry-getting-drier during the rest of the 21st century is predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models, but we’ll need a much longer dataset to be able to definitively say whether climate change is responsible for the emergence of any similar pattern in the GRACE data,” he said.

But the GRACE satellite observations alone cannot tell Rodell, Famiglietti and their colleagues what was causing the apparent trends.

“We examined information on precipitation, agriculture and groundwater pumping to find a possible explanation for the trends estimated from GRACE,” said co-author Hiroko Beaudoing of Goddard and the University of Maryland in College Park.

For instance, although pumping groundwater for agricultural uses is a significant contributor to freshwater depletion throughout the world, groundwater levels are also sensitive to cycles of persistent drought or rainy conditions.

Famiglietti noted that such a combination was likely the cause of the groundwater depletion observed in California’s Central Valley from 2007 to 2015, when decreased groundwater replenishment from rain and snowfall combined with increased pumping for agriculture.

Southwestern California lost four gigatons of freshwater per year during the same period. A gigaton of water would fill 400,000 Olympic swimming pools.

A majority of California’s freshwater comes in the form of rainfall and snow that collect in the Sierra Nevada snowpack and then is managed as it melts into surface waters through a series of reservoirs. When natural cycles lead to less precipitation and cause diminished snowpack and surface waters, people rely on groundwater more heavily.

Downward trends in freshwater seen in Saudi Arabia also reflect agricultural pressures. From 2002 to 2016, the region lost 6.1 gigatons per year of stored groundwater. Imagery from Landsat satellites shows an explosive growth of irrigated farmland in the arid landscape from 1987 to the present, which may explain the increased drawdown.

The team’s analyses also identified large, decade-long trends in terrestrial freshwater storage that do not appear to be directly related to human activities. Natural cycles of high or low rainfall can cause a trend that is unlikely to persist, Rodell said.

An example is Africa’s western Zambezi basin and Okavango Delta, a vital watering hole for wildlife in northern Botswana. In this region, water storage increased at an average rate of 29 gigatons per year from 2002 to 2016. This wet period during the GRACE mission followed at least two decades of dryness. Rodell believes it is a case of natural variability that occurs over decades in this region of Africa.

The successor to GRACE, called GRACE Follow-On, a joint mission with the German Research Centre for Geosciences , currently is at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California undergoing final preparations for launch no earlier than May 22.

Featured Image: Dust storm heading for Mungeranie, South Australia January 31, 2010 (Photo by Sydney Oats) Creative Commons license via Flickr


Cleaning Up Space Waste, Gecko Style

By Sunny Lewis

STANFORD, California, June 29, 2017 (Maxipact.com News) – At this moment, there are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth, traveling at speeds of 17,500 mph, fast enough to damage a spacecraft. Scientists have now designed a way to grab them based on the way geckos climb walls.

SpaceDebris

At least 20,000 pieces of space debris larger than a softball are orbiting Planet Earth. (Image courtesy NASA) Public domain.

 Space junk is a real threat to satellites and even the International Space Station. There are 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger and many millions of pieces of debris so small they can’t even be tracked.

NASA has a set of long-standing guidelines used to assess the threat of a close approach of orbital debris to a spacecraft. The question they must answer is: does it warrant evasive action or precautions to ensure the safety of the crew? Several evasive actions have been taken over the past 10 years.

It would be best to clean up the debris, but in space this has presented a major challenge. Suction cups don’t work in a vacuum. Traditional sticky substances cannot withstand the extreme temperature swings. Magnets work only on objects that are magnetic. Other proposed solutions could cause forceful interaction with the debris, and that could push the objects in unintended, unpredictable directions.

But now, researchers from Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have designed a new kind of robotic gripper to grab and dispose of the debris based on the way small lizards called geckos cling to walls and ceilings.

“What we’ve developed is a gripper that uses gecko-inspired adhesives,” says Mark Cutkosky, professor of mechanical engineering and senior author of the paper published in the June 27 issue of the journal “Science Robotics.”.

“It’s an outgrowth of work we started about 10 years ago on climbing robots that used adhesives inspired by how geckos stick to walls,” he said.

Geckos can climb walls because their feet have microscopic flaps that, when in full contact with a surface, create a Van der Waals force between the feet and the surface.

These are weak intermolecular forces that result from subtle differences in the positions of electrons on the outsides of molecules.

The scientists’ gripper is not as intricate as a gecko’s foot – the flaps of the adhesive are about 40 micrometers across while a gecko’s are much smaller, about 200 nanometers, but the gecko-inspired adhesive works in much the same way as the real gecko functions.

Like a gecko’s foot, the adhesive is only sticky if the flaps are pushed in a specific direction, but making it stick only requires a light push in the right direction.

“If I came in and tried to push a pressure-sensitive adhesive onto a floating object, it would drift away,” said Elliot Hawkes, a visiting assistant professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara and co-author of the paper.

“Instead,” Hawkes said, “I can touch the adhesive pads very gently to a floating object, squeeze the pads toward each other so that they’re locked, and then I’m able to move the object around.”

The pads unlock with the same gentle movement, creating very little force against the object.

The group tested their gripper, in larger and smaller versions, in their lab and in multiple zero gravity experimental spaces, including the International Space Station.

Promising results from those early tests have led the researchers to wonder how their grippers would work outside the station, a likely next step.

The gripper the researchers created has a grid of adhesive squares on the front and arms with thin adhesive strips that can fold out and move toward the middle of the robot from either side, as though it’s offering a hug.

The grid can stick to flat objects, like a solar panel, and the arms can grab curved objects, like a rocket body.

One of the biggest challenges of the work was to make sure the load on the adhesives was evenly distributed, which the researchers achieved by connecting the small squares through a pulley system that also serves to lock and unlock the pads.

Without this system, uneven stress could cause the squares to unstick one by one, until the entire gripper let go.

This load-sharing system also allows the gripper to work on surfaces with defects that prevent some of the squares from sticking.

The group also designed the gripper to switch between a relaxed state and rigid state.

“Imagining that you are trying to grasp a floating object, you want to conform to that object while being as flexible as possible, so that you don’t push that object away,” explained Hao Jiang, a graduate student in the Cutkosky lab and lead author of the paper.

“After grasping, you want your manipulation to be very stiff, very precise, so that you don’t feel delays or slack between your arm and your object,” said Hao.

The group first tested the gripper in the Cutkosky lab. They closely measured how much load the gripper could handle, what happened when different forces and torques were applied and how many times it could be stuck and unstuck.

Through their partnership with JPL, the researchers also tested the gripper in zero gravity environments.

In JPL’s Robodome, they attached small rectangular arms to a large robot with the adhesive, then placed that modified robot on a frictionless floor to simulate maneuvers in a 2D zero gravity environment.

“We had one robot chase the other, catch it and then pull it back toward where we wanted it to go,” said Hawkes. “I think that was definitely an eye-opener, to see how a relatively small patch of our adhesive could pull around a 300 kilogram robot.”

Next, two of the scientists went on a parabolic airplane flight to test the gripper in zero gravity. Over two days, they flew a series of 80 ascents and dives, which created an alternating experience of about 20 seconds of 2G and 20 seconds of zero-G conditions in the cabin.

The gripper successfully grasped and let go of a cube and a large beach ball with a gentle enough touch that the objects barely moved when released.

Then, Parness’s lab developed a small gripper that went up in the International Space Station, where the astronauts tested how well the gripper worked inside the station.

Next steps for the gripper involve getting it ready for testing outside the space station, including creating a version made of longer lasting materials able to hold up to thte high levels of radiation and extreme temperatures of space.

The current prototype is made of laser-cut plywood and includes rubber bands, which would become brittle in space. The researchers will have to make something sturdier for testing outside the Space Station, likely designed to attach to the end of a robot arm.

“There are many missions that would benefit from this, like rendezvous and docking and orbital debris mitigation,” said Aaron Parness, group leader of the Extreme Environment Robotics Group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“We could also eventually develop a climbing robot assistant that could crawl around on the spacecraft, doing repairs, filming and checking for defects,” said Parness.

The adhesives developed by the Cutkosky lab have already been used in climbing robots and in a system that has enabled humans to climb up walls.

Cutkosky hopes his group can manufacture larger quantities of the adhesive at a lower cost. He imagines that someday gecko-inspired adhesive could be as common as Velcro.


Featured Image: The bottom of a gecko’s foot was the inspiration for a new gripper that could clear space of floating debris. (Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen) Creative Commons license via Flickr 

Maximpact+WASTE

In Search of a Water-Wise World

SomaliaDrought

The drought in Somalia has lasted for years. This image of two men carrying a water can on a dusty road was shot on December 14, 2013. (Photo by the African Union Mission in Somalia, AMISOM) Creative Commons license via Flickr

By Sunny Lewis

ENSCHEDE, Netherlands, July 4, 2016 (Maximpact.com News) – Rukiyo Ahmed, 26, discovered she was pregnant just as drought began to parch her village in the East African country of Somalia. Her household lost all its livestock. When the drought intensified, Ahmed and her family had to seek relief with extended family members living in the town of Dangoroyo, 35 kilometres away.

“I was so worried that I would have a miscarriage due to the effects of the drought,” said Rukiyo. “We had so little to eat. I became very weak and could barely walk.”

This story has a happy ending. With the help of the UN Population Fund , Ahmed eventually gave birth to a healthy boy.

ChinaTreeFarm

China fights the advancing desert by planting trees in Inner Mongolia, May 2010. (Photo by Cory M. Grenier) Creative Commons license via Flickr

Still, water scarcity is a real and present danger for the two-thirds of the global population – four billion people – who live without enough water for at least one month of each year. Half a billion face severe water scarcity all year round, many in China, India and Africa.

Professor of water management Arjen Hoekstra and his team at University of Twente in The Netherlands have come to this conclusion after years of extensive research in a study published in the journal “Science Advances“.

“Groundwater levels are falling, lakes are drying up, less water is flowing in rivers, and water supplies for industry and farmers are threatened,” Hoekstra warns.

Until now, scientists had thought that about two to three billion people were suffering severe water scarcity. Four billion thirsty people is “alarming,” he said.

Professor Hoekstra’s team is the world’s first research group to establish the maximum sustainable “water footprint” for every location on Earth, and then investigate actual water consumption by location.

“Up to now, this type of research concentrated solely on the scarcity of water on an annual basis, and had only been carried out in the largest river basins,” says Hoekstra.

Severe water scarcity exists if consumption is much greater than the water supply can sustain. That is the case particularly in Mexico, the western United States, northern and southern Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East, India, China, and Australia.

There, households, industries and farmers regularly experience water shortages. In other areas, water supplies are still fine but at risk in the long-term, the Dutch team reports.

In the United States, 130 million of the country’s 323 million people are affected by water scarcity for at least one month of each year, most in the states of California, Florida and Texas.

Hoekstra observes that the subject of water scarcity is climbing higher and higher on the global agenda. “The fact that the scarcity of water is being regarded as a global problem is confirmed by our research,” he said. “For some time now, the World Economic Forum has placed the world water crisis in the top three of global problems, alongside climate change and terrorism.”

“All over the world,” Hoekstra said, “it is clear that the risks associated with high water consumption are being increasingly recognized. The growing world population, changes in consumer behavior, and climate change are having a significant impact on the scarcity and quality of water.”

Hoekstra’s work is confirmed by many other authoritative research teams.

About one-third of Earth’s largest groundwater basins are being rapidly depleted by human consumption, according to two new studies from the University of California, Irvine, the first to identify global groundwater loses using data from space. The data is drawn from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites flown by the U.S. National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA).

This means that millions of people are consuming groundwater quickly without knowing when it might run out, conclude the researchers, whose findings were published June 16 in “Water Resources Research.”

In the first paper, researchers found that 13 of the planet’s 37 largest aquifers studied between 2003 and 2013 were being depleted while receiving little to no recharge. In a companion paper, they conclude that the total remaining volume of the world’s usable groundwater is poorly known, with estimates that often vary widely.

CaliforniaDrought

California fruit growers, farmers and ranchers are suffering through an epic drought, Coalinga, California, April 23, 2015 (Photo by ATOMIC Hot Links) Creative Commons license via Flickr

“Available physical and chemical measurements are simply insufficient,” said UCI professor and principal investigator Jay Famiglietti, who is also the senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Given how quickly we are consuming the world’s groundwater reserves, we need a coordinated global effort to determine how much is left.”

“The water table is dropping all over the world,” said Famiglietti. “There’s not an infinite supply of water.”

A NASA study released in March finds that the drought that began in 1998 in the eastern Mediterranean Levant region of: Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey, is likely the worst drought of the past 900 years.

In a joint statement, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network said late last year, “El Niño will have a devastating effect on southern Africa’s harvests and food security in 2016. The current rainfall season has so far been the driest in the last 35 years.”

El Niño conditions, which arise from a natural warming of Pacific Ocean waters, lead to droughts, floods and more frequent cyclones across the world every few years.

Meteorologists say this year’s El Niño is the worst in 35 years and is now peaking. Although it is expected to decline in strength over the next six months, El Niño’s effects on farming, health and livelihoods in developing countries could last through 2018.

In Central America, El Niño conditions have led to a second consecutive year of drought – one of the region’s most severe in history,

In Africa, Abdoulaye Balde, the World Food Programme’s country director in Mozambique issued a dire warning. “Mozambique and southern African countries face a disaster if the rains do not come within a few weeks,” he said.

“South Africa is six million tonnes short of food this year, but it is the usual provider of food reserves in the region,” said Balde. “If they have to import six million tonnes for themselves, there will be little left for other countries. The price of food will rise dramatically.”

Zimbabwe declared a national food emergency this month, according to the WFP rep in the capital, Harare. Food production is just half of what it was last year, and the staple grain, maize, is 53 percent more expensive.

Water scarcity remedies range from simple conservation and efficiency, to tree planting and wastewater re-use, to highly technical and expensive facilities such as nuclear desalination plants as advocated by the International Atomic Energy Agency  that would turn seawater into freshwater.

Finding sustainable solutions to water scarcity will be the focus of the annual World Water Week in Stockholm, held this year from August 28 to September 2. Hosted and organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), this year’s theme is Water for Sustainable Growth.

Water experts, technicians, decision makers, business innovators and young professionals from more than 100 countries are expected in Stockholm to network, exchange ideas and foster innovations that could help satisfy the urgent needs of four billion people for water.

One such innovation is the world’s first certified green bond. It was just issued by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) under the Water Climate Bonds Standard, whose criteria was co-developed by SIWI and the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation.

The Water Climate Bonds Standard is a screening tool for investors that specifies the criteria that must be met for bonds to be labeled as “green” or earmarked for funding water-related, resilient, and low-carbon initiatives.

Proceeds from the SFPUC’s $240m Wastewater Revenue Bond  will fund projects in sustainable stormwater and wastewater management.


Featured image: California fruit growers, farmers and ranchers are suffering through an epic drought, Coalinga, California, April 23, 2015 (Photo by ATOMIC Hot Links) Creative Commons license via Flickr

Fossil Fuels: To Invest or Divest – That Is the Question

GlobalMapHottest2015

By Sunny Lewis

WASHINGTON, DC, January 21, 2016 (ENS) – The year 2015 was Earth’s hottest by widest margin on record, and in December 2015 the temperature was the highest for any month in the 136-year record, according to scientists with the U.S. space agency, NASA, and the U.S. oceanic and atmospheric agency NOAA.

Those who blame the burning of coal, oil and gas for this unprecedented warming are urging investors to pull their money out of fossil fuel companies and urging fossil fuel companies to reconsider their business activities.

This week, a group of investors led by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli and the Church of England demanded that ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas company, disclose the climate resilience of its business model.

The group of investors, including co-filers the Vermont State Employees’ Retirement System, the University of California Retirement Plan and The Brainerd Foundation, represents nearly $300 billion in assets under management and more than $1 billion in Exxon shares.

Their demand follows the Paris Agreement on climate change reached by 195 nations in December.

“The unprecedented Paris agreement to rein in global warming may significantly affect Exxon’s operations,” said DiNapoli, who is Trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund, the third largest public pension fund in the United States, with $184.5 billion in assets under management as of March 31, 2015.

The Fund holds and invests the assets of the New York State and Local Retirement System on behalf of more than one million state and local government employees and retirees and their beneficiaries. The Fund has a diversified portfolio of public and private equities, fixed income, real estate and alternative instruments.

“As shareholders, we want to know that Exxon is doing what is needed to prepare for a future with lower carbon emissions,” said DiNapoli. “The future success of the company, and its investors, requires Exxon to assess how it will perform as the world changes.”

The Church of England’s investment fund, the Church Commissioners, manages a fund of some £6.7 billion, held in a diversified portfolio including equities, real estate and alternative investment strategies.

“Climate change presents major challenges to corporate governance, sustainability and ultimately profitability at ExxonMobil,” said Edward Mason, the Head of Responsible Investment for the Church of England’s investment fund.

“As responsible investors we are committed to supporting the transition to a low carbon economy,” said Mason. “We need more transparency and reporting from ExxonMobil to be able to assess how they are responding to the risks and opportunities presented by the low carbon transition.”

ExxonMobil says “Society faces a dual energy challenge: We need to expand energy supplies to support economic growth and improve living standards, and we must do so in a way that is environmentally responsible.”

The oil and gas giant says it is relying on developing new technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We believe that carbon emissions will plateau and start to decrease starting around 2030 as energy efficiency spreads and as various carbon-reduction policies are enacted around the world,” ExxonMobil says in a position statement on its website.

“ExxonMobil leads in one of the most important next-generation technologies: carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS is the process by which carbon dioxide gas that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere is separated, compressed and injected into underground geologic formations for permanent storage.

In addition, ExxonMobil says it continues to fund and conduct research on advanced biofuels. “This work is part of our many investments in new technologies with the transformative potential to increase energy supplies, reduce emissions, and improve operational efficiencies.”

Across Europe, the year 2015 was the second hottest on record, with mean annual temperatures just above the 2007 average and below the record set in 2014, according to an analysis by one of the World Meteorological Organization’s regional climate centers. Much of eastern Europe was exceptionally warm, with temperatures higher than in 2014.

The negative climate trend is expected to continue for at least the coming five decades, says WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, who took office at the start of the year. He predicted a growing number of weather-related disasters and a continuing increase in sea level rise.

In the first global effort to avert the worst impacts of climate change, under the Paris Climate Agreement world leaders committed to holding the rise in global temperatures well below two degrees Celsius and to seek to restrict warming to 1.5 degrees.

The shareholder proposal filed by Comptroller DiNapoli and the Church of England’s investment fund asks ExxonMobil to publish an assessment of how its portfolio would be affected by a two degree target through, and beyond, 2040.

Specifically, the assessment should include an analysis of the impacts of a two-degree scenario on the company’s oil and gas reserves and resources, assuming a reduction in demand resulting from carbon restrictions.

Exxon’s peers, Shell and BP, have already agreed to disclose how they will be impacted by efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions in response to similar shareholder proposals co-filed in 2015 by the Church of England and other investors and endorsed by the boards of both companies.

More recently, 10 global oil and gas companies, including Shell and BP, announced their support for lowering greenhouse gas emissions to help meet the 2 degree goal.

In addition, the global movement seeking to encourage investor divestment of fossil fuel stocks is gathering strength, says Brett Fleishman of the global climate action group Fossil Free, a project of the nonprofit 350.org.

“If it is wrong to wreck the climate, it is wrong to profit from that wreckage,” declares Fossil Free.

Fleishman cites a recent report (CISL_Report) by the University of Cambridge that details the material risk of climate change to investment portfolios. The report found that, “Short-term shifts in market sentiment induced by awareness of future climate risks could lead to economic shocks and losses of up to 45 percent in an equity investment portfolio value.”

The University of Cambridge report was not alone. The growing risk to the economy and investment funds because of climate change has been reported by the financial giants of the world – HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Standard and Poor’s, CitiBank and The Bank of England, among others.

The dire forecasts are already affecting investors. California’s pensions systems lost more than $5 billion on their fossil fuel holdings last year. The Massachusetts state pension fund lost $521 million in value from their fossil fuel stocks over the past year, a 28 percent decline.

Those major losses are advancing the divestment dialogue this year.

“While each [Fossil Free divestment] campaign is independently run and may bring different emphases and asks depending on their local context,” says Fleishman, the majority of campaigns are asking institutions to “immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within five years.”

AfricanCatholics

African Catholic groups associated with 350.org have called on Pope Francis to support the divestment movement.

In a December letter to the Pope they wrote, “Because of the grave threat of climate change and the fossil fuel sector’s unyielding refusal to change, it is no longer right for religious groups to profit from investments in such companies. We appeal for your support for the global divestment movement from the fossil fuel industry and to call for a just transition towards a world powered by 100 percent renewable energy.”

They felt that Pope Francis acknowledged their concerns in his speech to the United Nations Environmental Programme in Nairobi, where he stated that the Paris climate conference, “represents an important stage in the process of developing a new energy system which depends on a minimal use of fossil fuels, aims at energy efficiency and makes use of energy sources with little or no carbon content.”

Now, 350 Africa intends to broaden its sphere of influence to include divestment activists of all faiths, saying in December, “We need to change the idea that the climate change crisis is to only be tackled by environmental organizations. The recent resolution of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa to explore withdrawing their investments from companies that exploit fossil fuels, is an example of how faith groups can do their part in the climate movement through divestment.”


Award-winning journalist Sunny Lewis is founding editor in chief of the Environment News Service (ENS), the original daily wire service of the environment, publishing since 1990.

Header image: 2015 was the warmest year since modern record-keeping began in 1880, finds a new analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The record-breaking year continues a long-term warming trend – 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have now occurred since 2001. (Image: Scientific Visualization Studio courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center) public domain
Featured image: New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, April 2015 (Photo courtesy New York State Comptroller) Public Domain via Flickr
Image 01: African Catholics advocate for divestment from fossil fuel companies, December 2015, Nairobi, Kenya (Photo courtesy Go Fossil Free.org)