New Study Shows Siberian Permafrost Releasing Climate Super-Pollutant Nitrous Oxide

When we talk about greenhouse gases, we often think of carbon dioxide (CO2). But did you know nitrous oxide (N2O), also called laughing gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, with ozone-depleting property? And scientists have recently found a new source of N20 emission in the Siberian permafrost.

This emission comes from Yedoma, a type of Pleistocene-age (formed 1.8 million to 10,000 years before present) permafrost that contains a significant amount of organic material. It stretches over more than a million sq km of land in the Northern Hemisphere.

Scientists have known that as permafrost thaws, it releases a significant amount of methane. Now researchers have found that this stretch of permafrost also releases between 10 and 100 times the amount of nitrous oxide that would typically be expected from permafrost thaw. Nitrous oxide is produced by microbes in the soil. As the permafrost thaws, the N20-producing microbe population grows while the N20-consuming microbe population shrinks. That changes the nitrogen cycle and means significantly more nitrous oxide is getting pushed out.

Why is N20 a cause for concern?

Like other greenhouse gases, nitrous oxide absorbs radiation and traps heat in the atmosphere. N20 has a long lifespan in the atmosphere - about 114 years.

  • N20 is nearly 300 times more potent at warming the planet than carbon dioxide, which means that even small sources of emissions can have a significant impact on the climate.
  • N2O has emerged as the most critical ozone-depleting substance. It is stable in the lowest level of the atmosphere, the troposphere and acts like a greenhouse gas. When it migrates up to the stratosphere, it reacts with ozone and depletes it.
  • A 2020 review of nitrous oxide sources and sinks found that emissions rose 30% in the last four decades. Nitrous oxide is responsible for roughly 7% of global warming since preindustrial times.

What are the other sources of N20?

  • Nitrous oxide in the atmosphere comes from both natural and anthropogenic sources. The largest source of nitrous oxide is agriculture (73%), and the majority of agricultural emissions result from usage of nitrogen fertilizers and ill-management of animals waste.

The growing demand for food and feed for animals and increased usage of fertilizers will further increase global nitrous oxide emissions. Most N20 emissions have come from emerging countries like India, China and Brazil

  • Fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes are the other important source of nitrous oxide emissions. Biomass burning atmospheric deposition and wastewater treatment are the other sources.

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How does the bird adapt to changes in its environment?

Like animals, birds too bear the brunt of climate change. Previous studies have shown how climate change affects birds migration, nesting, hatching and feeding habits. A recent study has shown how birds are evolving to develop smaller bodies and longer wingspans in order to adapt to the changes.

Published in the journal Science Advances, the study analysed the body size of birds in the Amazonian rainforest. Researchers analysed data collected on more than 15,000 birds that were caught, measured, weighed, and tagged over the course of 40 years of field work. In all, the scientists investigated 77 species whose habitats ranged from the cool, dark forest floor to the sunlit warm areas.

Lighter, but longer

Researchers found that nearly all the birds had become lighter since the 1980s. Most species lost an average of two per cent of body weight every decade, meaning a bird species that would have weighed 30 grams in the 1980s would now average 27.6 grams. A third of species simultaneously had developed longer wings, driving a decrease in mass to wing ratio. The birds that are known to fly more and are exposed to heat for longer, had the most pronounced changes in body weight and wing size.

But why?

The changes are thought to be a response to nutritional and physiological challenges, especially during the June to November dry season. The team hypothesised that this was an adaptation to utilise their energy better as they are now forced to travel longer to find food and shelter. Climate change has decreased the availability of fruit and insect resources for birds.

Longer wings, and a reduced mass-to-wing ratio, produce more efficient flight similar to how a glider plane with a slim body and long wings can soar with less energy.

A higher mass-to-wing ratio requires birds to flap faster to stay aloft using more energy and producing more metabolic heat Reduced size is perhaps beneficial under climate warming as the birds can cool themselves better. The data was not tied to a specific site but rather collected from a large range of the rainforest, meaning the phenomenon is ubiquitous. Researchers expressed that even the wildest parts of the Amazon untouched by humanity are being impacted by climate change.

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How does climate change affect California sea lions?

As a direct impact of climate change, the population of California sea lions has been on a dramatic decline over the last few years. However, one colony has given hope to conservationsists and wildlife lovers. How?

California sea lions are native to North America, and are found between Alaska and the Gulf of California. Though the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists them under "Least Concern" due to their abundance, as mentioned earlier, their numbers have been dwindling.

To add to this, between 2013 and 2016, thousands of emaciated juveniles (several dead) washed up on the coast of California, stumping conservationists. This was later linked to unusually warm Pacific waters. The warming meant that large populations of nutritious fish such as sardines and anchovy moved north to cooler waters during the period, leaving sea lion mothers to feed on less nutritious rockfish and squid. A study suggested that the poor health of juvenile sea lions was a result of their mothers eating the oceanic equivalent of "junk food". A news report said that the population of this species in the Gulf of California "has dropped by 65 percent from 1991 to 2019. It went from 45,000 to 15,000 animals because of an increase in the temperature of the water.

And now comes the happy news from one colony in a natural refuge area off the coast of northwest Mexico. Research has shown that the number of California sea lions in the colony in Las Islotes, located in the Gulf of California, "has grown from 500 to 700 in 10 years. This is one of 13 colonies of this species identified in the gulf, and the "only colony that not only has remained stable but has increased slightly".

At Los Islotes, human activities such as fishing and tourism have been restricted so the animals can rest and reproduce. In fact, tour operators stop visits during the mating season so the animals are not disturbed. Apparently, when visits are permitted, tourists get a chance to swim with these creatures. The 'swimmers' could be juveniles because they are playful and like to get close to humans" whereas adults are territorial and "keep their distance from people".

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What are the Maldives doing to stop climate change?

You may have heard about a floating park, a floating post office, and even a floating hotel. But what about a floating city? Yes, that's what the Maldives Government is busy planning to fight the impact of climate change. Let's find out more about it.

Threatened by climate change

Did you know the Maldives is the lowest-lying country in the world? A sought-after tourist destination, most of the country lies just one metre above sea level. With rising sea levels due to climate change threatening its very existence, the atoll nation (consisting of a group of islands) is keen on building a floating city, the first of its kind, based in a warm-water lagoon spanning 200 hectares. A floating city does not actually float, but is essentially a platform anchored to the seabed in coastal regions.

Who is the designer?

Designed by the Netherlands-based Dutch Docklands, a pioneer in developing floating infrastructure, the Maldives Floating City will feature thousands of water-facing homes, shops, and services floating along a flexible grid. It will be situated close to Male, the capital city, and its international airport, and can be reached by boat.

Honeycomb-like structures

Maldives is known for its coral reefs which are said to be the inspiration behind the honeycomb-like hexagon-shaped floating segments in the design. These will be linked to barrier islands around the lagoon which will act as breakers (barriers against the force of water) under the surface, thereby stabilising the structures above. It is said that as the project does not require land reclamation, the reefs will not be affected much. Besides, giant reefs will be grown to serve as water breakers.

The various segments of the city will be accessed by a network of bridges and canals. The construction is scheduled to begin next year and expected to be completed in phases over the next five years. What's more, a hospital and a school are also to be included.

Quick facts

  • The Maldives is a small archipelagic State in South Asia situated in the Indian Ocean.
  • It consists of over 25 coral atolls made up of 1.190 tiny islands. Some 200 islands are inhabited with a population of over five lakh.
  • Coral reefs are the dominant ecosystems here.
  • The Maldives is the lowest-lying country in the world.

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What are the different types of Climate Zone?

CLIMATE ZONES

Variations in the intensity of sunlight striking different parts of Earth drive global air movements and weather systems. Between them, these influences create a variety of climate zones, ranging from steamy tropical rainforests to the icy deserts of Antarctica. Most of these climate zones have a distinctive type of vegetation, which is the basis of a whole wildlife community, or biome.

  • TROPICAL RAINFOREST

Intense sunshine near the Equator makes moisture evaporate and rise into the air to form huge storm clouds. These spill heavy, warm rain on the land below, fuelling the growth of dense rainforests.

  • TEMPERATE FOREST

Temperate climates are neither very hot nor very cold. Near oceans, the mild, damp weather allows trees to grow well in summer, but many lose their leaves and stop growing in winter.

  • POLAR AND TUNDRA

The Polar Regions get only weak sunlight in summer, and are dark all winter. They stay frozen all year, but in the north this icy region is surrounded by tundra, which thaws in summer allowing some plants to grow.

  • MOUNTAIN

High mountain peaks are very cold, like Arctic tundra, and they have similar tough, low-growing vegetation. Lower mountain slopes are warmer, allowing trees to grow. The upper edge of this zone is called the tree line.

  • DESERT

Some regions get so little rain that they are deserts. Many lie in a zone of hot, dry air near the tropics, but others are just too far from oceans. Some plants live in deserts, so they are not quite barren.

  • MEDITERRANEAN

The dry shrublands that lie between the temperate zones and the main desert regions are named after the Mediterranean area where they are most common. The tough-leaved plants that live there can survive drying out in the hot summers.

  • CLIMATE ZONES

The climate zones of the world form bands, with tropical rainforest near the Equator, most deserts in the subtropics, and boreal forest in the far north. Grasslands develop where it is too dry for trees.

  • TROPICAL GRASSLAND

Tropical regions that are not within the zone of heavy rainfall are too hot and dry to support dense forest. They are seas of grass, often known as savannas, sometimes dotted with trees that can withstand long droughts.

  • TEMPERATE GRASSLAND

Some temperate areas get little rainfall, usually because they lie at the hearts of great continents. Too dry for trees, they are naturally grassy steppes and prairies – although many are now farmland.

  • BOREAL FOREST

To the south of the Arctic tundra, the northern continents support a band of dense forest. Most of the trees are conifers with stiff needle-like leaves that can survive the long, freezing winters.

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