Earth & Environment
The power of city trees, cutting emissions, swaying climate deniers, and more: in honor of Earth Day, The Brink‘s science writer reflects on BU research helping to save the planet
On April 22, 1970, millions of Americans coast to coast decided that enough was enough: workers, faith leaders, college students, and individuals and communities protested against the deterioration of the environment, disastrous oil spills, polluting industries, toxic dumps and waste sites , and harmful pesticides. I wasn’t around in 1970, but it’s amazing to think about the legacy of Earth Day living on today.
To me, Earth Day is a time to appreciate, celebrate, and honor all the beauty that nature gives us. It seems fitting that Earth Day arrives each year as the tulips and cherry blossoms reappear along Boston’s sidewalks, as bees and migrating birds return to the neighborhood, as winter turns to spring. It feels as though the world is suddenly bright and buzzing with change.
And yet, as climate change continues to worsen, I find I am distressed. We are still emitting more carbon dioxide (CO2) and greenhouse gases than the planet can handle, pushing many species to the brink of extinction, and polluting in so many other ways. It’s overwhelming how much has to change at every level, as the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reminds us.
The last few IPCC reports predict a lot of doom and gloom, and this one is no different. The authors stress that emissions must be halved by 2030 to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius—a tipping point when many effects of climate change become irreversible. It’s impossible to list all of the technologies, government policies, industry changes, investments, and clean energy solutions that are on the table, but according to the hundreds of scientists on the report, it all needs to happen now to have a fighting chance.
On this Earth Day, I want us to listen to the scientists—and to the familiar chirping and buzzing as spring unfolds. As a science writer, I’m comfortable knowing that there are so many people who work tirelessly to find bigger and better climate solutions and to expose the impacts of climate change all 365 days of the year. Below is a small sampling of the science, research, and action taking place at Boston University to address climate change and provide us with hope.
Why Scientists Want to Solve an Underground Mystery about Where Microbes Live
We walk all over them all the time. Soil microorganisms have a big job—they actively break down organic matter and maintain the natural balance of carbon and nutrients underground in ways that we don’t even fully understand yet. And though we can’t see them with the naked eye, BU scientists figured out how to accurately predict the abundance of different species of soil microbes in different parts of the world based on a variety of environmental factors, such as the plants that grow in those areas, soil acidity, and temperature.
This kind of knowledge can have big implications for agriculture, climate change, and public health, the researchers say. They plan to expand their forecasts to focus on specific times of the year and seasonal changes, which could help scientists anticipate how climate change could affect microbial processes that allow plant life to survive and thrive in different areas.
Read more about microbes and their mysterious lives.
City Trees and Soil Are Sucking More Carbon Out of the Atmosphere Than Previously Thought
It’s nice to think about forests as big, pristine landscapes beckoning us for an adventure or a hike. It’s never been more important to protect these areas, which do a huge service to us by storing more than a quarter of all carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. But research at BU has found that forest edges—the trees and the soil at the outermost edge of a forest that get more exposure to sun and wind—are also worth saving and studying.
Researchers discovered that edge trees actually grow faster than trees deep in the forest, and that soil in urban areas can hoard more CO2 than previously expected, challenging current ideas about conservation and suggesting the value of urban forests as more than just places for recreation. The downside is that it is unclear if the boost in carbon uptake will last, since climate change could exacerbate carbon losses from soil, and the trees at the edge of forests in rural or urban areas could be more vulnerable to extreme heat and drought. (Other research has found that forest fires also hamper the effects of carbon sequestering in forests.) But if you happen to pass any forest edges this Earth Day, give them a nod knowing that they are doing more than meets the eye.
Read more about forest edges and their role in sucking up carbon.
From Glasgow to Comm Ave: Cutting Methane Emissions
Among all of the greenhouse gasses, CO2 is the primary driver of global warming emissions, accounting for nearly 80 percent of total emissions in the United States. But methane, though shorter-lived in the atmosphere and accounting for less human-caused greenhouse emissions, warms the atmosphere 80 times faster than CO2.
Methane comes from aging, leaking natural gas lines under our streets, an issue researchers at BU’s Earth & Environment Department have been studying and documenting in Boston and around the country for years. Experts at BU have exposed the enormous need to update aging infrastructure and to transition away from polluting fossil fuel energy like natural gas. Last year, the United Nations global climate summit in Glasgow, known as COP26, pledged to cut global methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030, a positive step, but not a “deep enough cut almost enough,” says Nathan Phillips, a BU College of Arts & Sciences professor of Earth and environment. The latest IPCC report also says that methane emissions must be reduced by a third by 2030, along with CO2.
Read more about Phillips’ take on the UN methane pledge.
Empowering Citizen Scientists to Study and Protect Coastal Wetlands
Nothing says Earth Day like a citizen science project. Oceans, wetlands, and other coastal ecosystems are some of the most important places to protect. Marine ecosystems, like wetlands and salt marshes, absorb and store large amounts of carbon, dubbed “blue carbon.” Evidence suggests that some coastal ecosystems store even more carbon than forests.
Blue carbon is understudied, but BU ecologists are working to fill in that gap by measuring how much carbon is emitted and stored in wetlands. Their goal is to have community members and collecting scientists data with novel sensors made in Robinson W. “Wally” Fulweiler’s Lab at BU.
Read more about carbon sensors on coastal wetlands.
As Temperatures Set Records, Heat Exposure Hits Some Neighborhoods Harder Than Others
Extreme heat and high temperatures are dangerous, and could even be lethal, for people in vulnerable communities—those in low-income areas, often in dense urban neighborhoods. Exposure to heat has been the deadliest of all weather phenomena for the past 30 years. BU research has found that the death toll from extreme heat may be higher than official records indicate. Rigorous research done in low-income communities has exposed the deep systemic and structural causes for this disparity. The work is important, as climate scientists have found that record-breaking heat waves are only going to become more commonplace.
Read more about reducing and addressing heat exposure.
Is It Worth Trying to Sway the Most Staunch Climate Deniers?
We live in an age where climate change information and disinformation—inaccurate messages or propaganda intended to deceive and influence readers—are abundant. Researchers at BU’s College of Communication are digging into who receives false messages about climate change, who is likely to believe them, and who is likely to spread them.
There is no single solution to stopping the spread of climate disinformation. But research also shows that one-on-one conversations, rather than mass media messages, can often be more effective at swaying people who are vulnerable to believing climate disinformation. Even if you can’t go out and clean up your neighborhood or participate in an Earth Day activity, talking about climate change and the environment is one of the best ways to change minds.
Read more about swaying climate deniers.
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