California Hydropower Plant May Have to Shut Down as Record Heat Wave Drains Key Reservoir

 In an aerial view, houseboats float at a water level nearly 200 feet below normal at the Lime Saddle Marina for Lake Oroville near Paradise, California, on Tuesday, June 8, 2021.

In an aerial view, houseboats float at a water level nearly 200 feet below normal at the Lime Saddle Marina for Lake Oroville near Paradise, California, on Tuesday, June 8, 2021.
Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

The record heat wave searing the West Coast has drained one of California’s largest reservoirs so much that its hydroelectric power plant may be forced to shut down for the first time this summer, officials told CNN this week. This would be the first time the plant has shut off since it opened more than five decades ago.

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The unrelenting heat and catastrophic drought conditions, both exacerbated by the climate crisis, have rapidly depleted the water supply at Northern California’s Lake Oroville and other reservoirs across the West. You can check out startling satellite imagery showing the megadrought’s scope here.

Due to the “alarming levels,” state officials will likely have to close the Edward Hyatt Power Plant for the first time since it opened in 1967, California Energy Commission spokesperson Lindsay Buckley told CNN.

Water from Lake Oroville, the state’s second-largest reservoir, generates enough electricity to power up to 800,000 homes when operating at full capacity, the outlet reports. In recent days, the reservoir’s water level has been hovering at around 700 feet (213 meters) above sea level, or about 35% capacity. If it continues to fall at its currently projected rate to 640 feet (195 meters), there will not be enough water to continue operating the Hyatt plant in two to three months.

“If lake levels fall below those elevations later this summer, [the California Department of Water Resources] will, for the first time, cease generation at the Hyatt power plant due to lack of sufficient water to turn the plant’s electrical generation turbines,” said Liza Whitmore, public information officer of DWR’s Oroville field division, in a statement to the outlet.

A shutdown would further strain the state’s electric grid, which is already being pushed to its limits amid triple-digit temperatures. The situation has grown so dire that California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide heatwave emergency on Thursday allowing companies to temporarily fire up backup generators without securing the usual legal permits. At the same time, California’s grid operator called for residents to conserve their energy use during peak demand hours to keep from overstressing the system, which could lead to blackouts.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, roughly 85% of the state, including where Lake Oroville is located, is experiencing an “extreme drought”—the second-highest category of drought conditions. This time last year, only 2.45% of California was in an “extreme drought.”

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The extreme weather conditions pose “extreme peril” to the safety of residents and properties in California, according to the governor’s declaration. Wildfires along with “critical” and “extreme” fire warnings have already been spreading throughout the region. Most terrifying of all is the fact that summer doesn’t even officially start until tomorrow, so it’s only expected to get hotter from here.

This Bot Clicking Ads on Climate Articles Shows the News Is Broken

An illustration of hands and the New York Times front page.

Illustration: Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne

Watching Synthetic Messenger is a somewhat dissociative experience. It operates in a Zoom call with 100 participants, all of whom are bots. Observers can watch these bots—which are strangely anthropomorphized with images of disembodied hands and voices that say “scroll” and “click” repeatedly—methodically scroll through news articles about climate change and click every ad on each page.

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The project, created by two New York artist-cum-engineers, launched earlier this month. In its first week and a half online, its bots visited 2 million climate articles—you can see them listed here—and clicked on 6 million ads.

If this all seems like a bizarre, trippy art project, it definitely is. But it’s also a piece of criticism about how narratives about the climate crisis are shaped by the media.

Most online outlets are funded by advertisers. Stories that garner more ad clicks can also become more visible in Google’s search algorithms, drawing more eyes to the page. When certain stories garner more views and engagement, news organizations are more likely to publish similar articles. Absurdly, this means advertising mechanisms and algorithms can play an outsized role in determining what news people see rather than other factors like, um, how important the story is.

“With this project, we wanted to see how that media ecology affects our actual ecology, how narrative affects our material realm,” Sam Lavigne, an artist and assistant professor in the Department of Design at the University of Texas, said.

Of course, conflicting narratives have always played a role in the climate crisis, as Lavigne was quick to note. Polluters know that controlling how people talk and think about the climate crisis is important, so they’ve spent fortunes on all sorts of misinformation campaigns, including on shaping narratives in media.

“The narrative around climate change has been so controlled by the fossil fuel industry and lobby groups,” Lavigne said.

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Algorthims have further distorted how news—or, increasingly, misinformation—reaches people. YouTube’s algorithm for recommending videos, for instance, has encouraged viewers to watch videos full of climate denial. YouTube also sold against those videos, profiting off misinformation while incentivizing viewers to consume ever-more of it.

As historically damaging wildfires spread across Australia a year-and-a-half ago, a narrative sprung up that they were sparked by arsonists, not by the climate crisis. That misinformation, a group of researchers found, was spread with the use of online trolling bots. Conservative media then turned around and amplified those claims, creating a feedback loop where everyone was debunking lies rather than talking about how to address the climate crisis. (The same scenario played out in the U.S. last year.) Yet as Tega Brain, who co-created the project, noted, these aren’t the only ways that algorithms have colored the media landscape.

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“All news, and therefore all public opinion is being shaped [by] algorithms,” Brain, an assistant professor of digital media at New York University whose background is in environmental engineering, said. “And the algorithmic systems that shape news are these blackbox algorithms,” she added, referring to tech companies’ practice of hiding how their code and priorities from the public.

An alternate vision of the carbon cycle.
Gif: Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne (Other)

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Synthetic Messenger, then, looks to game the system by showing bot-fed interest in climate stories. While it could play a small role in amplifying climate coverage, there are some complications. For one, since its algorithm is imprecise and based on climate-related keywords, it also clicks ads on climate-denying media. Its creators have tried to get around that by blacklisting denialist websites like those owned by Rupert Murdoch, but it’s not a perfect system.

If this project were primarily designed as a tool for political organizing, those might be big sticking points. But Brain and Lavigne are clear that they know their project won’t change the media landscape or fight the climate crisis itself.

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“We don’t intend for it to be read as like, ‘here is this really effective new activist strategy to deal with climate change,’” said Brain. “Essentially, with this project we’re doing what’s called ‘click fraud,’ and if we did it for a long enough time and at a large enough scale, it wouldn’t work, because obviously ad networks are doing everything they can to sort of protect against automated behavior. They’d stop it.”

Rather, the purpose is to call attention to the screwed-up incentive structures that determine what climate stories get told and amplified by advertisers and search algorithms.

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“It’s not like we are offering this as a solution to this problem that we have. The solution is meaningful climate policy, effective policy,” said Brain. “But we’re trying to open up a conversation and reveal the way that our media landscape is currently operating.”

I Hate Recycling

Empty water bottles litter the ground at a popular Hollywood sign viewing area.

OK, I’m not that bad.
Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP (Getty Images)

I have a confession to make: I am a horrible recycler. Even though my job is to think about and chronicle the fate of our polluted planet, I still often can’t be asked to rinse out my plastic containers or find a recycling can on the street when I’m done with my Coke. My even darker confession: With how broken our recycling system is, I sometimes wonder if that really matters.

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Like a lot of us that grew up in the 1990s, I got it drilled into my brain that individual action could absolutely save the planet—and recycling was the key to it all. Following a “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”-themed science class in fourth grade, I have a distinct memory of resolutely trudging our big blue recycling bin down to the end of our long driveway in the snow with an almost heroic resolve that what I was doing mattered. 

I went to a crunchy college in Maine with a big emphasis on sustainability, where my recycling indoctrination continued through the late 2000s. As a freshman, I had it pounded into my head to cut away the greasy parts of late-night pizza boxes we’d drunkenly order before folding up the clean parts to recycle. One of my best friends would dress up as a blue can and skate around our hockey rink during games at halftime to promote our school’s recycling program.

But things changed when I hit adulthood. I’m lazy—and pretty messy. I’ve also lived in a bunch of different cities in many different apartments throughout my 20s. That meant constantly changing municipal schedules and rules for recycling as well as different roommates or partners who had different priorities when it came to doing chores. I scraped by mostly relying on the people I lived with to take care of the whole recycling thing.

As I got more and more involved in learning about the bigger picture of our ecological crisis, I also become more concerned about institutions rather than individuals when it came to meaningful actions. Big Oil spent decades perpetuating climate denial. Plastic producers—almost a perfect Venn diagram circle with oil companies—have foisted an increasing pile of single-use items on us. And in the U.S., our recycling system has failed to keep pace. Addressing this requires major structural changes, and individual action can feel like a drop in the bucket.

This brings me to my 32-year-old self, living in my first solo apartment this year, with only one catch-all recycling bin for all that stuff I somehow end up consuming and disposing of week after week (how is it so much stuff?). This time, my only roommate is a small dog who I can’t turn to to ask “can we recycle this yogurt container or not, do you remember?” or “can you wash out the bottles tonight? I’m tired.” I realized how bad I’d gotten the other day, when in a fit of kitchen spring cleaning I found myself chucking whole plastic takeout containers from the back of the fridge directly into the trash, with zero interest in taking the two minutes to rinse and separate them out.

I could blame my landlord, who hasn’t set up a clear recycling system for our building (just a bunch of bins, where trash and bottles alike seem to get mixed). I could blame the city of New York, which seriously lags behind other major U.S. cities and its own goals and only recycles around one-fifth of its trash. But it’s time to acknowledge that I need to clean up my act, too.

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The thing is, it’s hard to feel jazzed about recycling the way we all were in the 1990s, back when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Captain Planet episodes had messages about plastic waste and celebs as disparate as Bette Midler, Queen Latifah, Stevie Wonder, Pat Benetar, and Ozzy Ozbourne all participated in the same recycling PSA (it’s a real trip). While recycling as we know it was invented in the 1970s, it really caught on when I was a kid: 20% of the U.S. recycled in 1995, double the rate of the previous decade; three years later, that number was up to 30%. The messages of recycling as a movement—let’s all pitch in to clean up—was so strong that a 2006 poll found that around 70% of both Democrats and Republicans said they supported the practice.

Unfortunately, it turns out that part of our enthusiasm for recycling was driven by the big polluters themselves. Like casino blackjack dealers keeping their customers on the hook, both our plastics habit and the national fervor over recycling were stoked by industries that had a lot to lose with a different, less consumer-focused approach to cleaning up trash. The beverage and packaging industry has a long history of fighting legislation that would hold them responsible for waste. They also spent money on campaigns to promote individual responsibility as the solution. Big Oil, unsurprisingly, got into this game too: Internal industry documents exposed by journalists last year show that oil companies as early as the 1970s knew that recycling would never really work on a large scale. Yet those same companies spent millions promoting it as a way to sell more plastic, and thus more oil.

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It’s not totally surprising, then, that the U.S.’s recycling practices, which were predicated on letting companies get away with murder while enforcing confusing, consumer-based rules about which stuff to toss and what to recycle, are basically broken. Dirty food containers can contaminate entire batches of recyclables, while the fuzzy rules about what can and can’t be recycled means that things people think could be recycled often can’t. That means weird stuff ends up at facilities and a lot of it goes to the landfill as a result.

Because companies that produce plastic bottles, bags and containers have no responsibility tied to the waste they produce after it leaves their hands and goes to the consumer, they have no incentive to produce recyclable packaging or stop creating new products that further confuse people and glom up the system. After China banned the import of foreign trash in 2018, the market for recyclable stuff tanked, and U.S. started shipping a lot of our recycling overseas to countries with really lax environmental regulations; between 20 to 70% of that plastic, some researchers have found, ends up in the ocean anyway. In my city, the New York Times reported last year that a lot of the stuff we put out curbside in blue bags actually gets mixed in with the landfill-bound trash either by the garbage collectors or the trash companies themselves, due to the low demand for recyclables.

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That last point really gets me. If what I carefully sort every day ends up in a landfill anyway, why even try? It’s enough to get anyone down about the practice, not just me. As I was writing this piece, I was chatting with some college friends about our robust, hockey-based enthusiasm for recycling back on campus and why things have changed since the late 2000s. “Nobody is good at recycling because most of what we recycle can’t actually be recycled 🤡” my friend texted me. Seems like I’m not the only one feeling bummed about the whole thing.

But, ultimately, we do have to try. Recycling may not be the key to saving the planet like we were sold on in the 1990s; like so many other climate solutions, the realization that we’ve been sold into accepting consumer responsibility for things that aren’t our fault is heartbreaking. But it can’t cripple us forever. There are examples of cities in the U.S. with great recycling rates and programs, so even if my municipal recycling system isn’t working great, I’m privileged enough to try to take advantage of every avenue to recycle and network with other folks to change how our system works.

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I think that at the end of the day, even if my carefully sorted plastics end up in a landfill, the value I’m assigning to trying to get better at recycling has to do with just being aware of my own consumption habits. After all, the saying I learned as a kid of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” starts with “Reduce.” I think that maybe we’ve been leaning too heavily on the last R while forgetting the first one.

I may be tired, I may be very lazy, I may be far too cynical about the role big businesses have played in shaping our consumption habits and the efficacy of local governments in properly disposing of recyclable stuff. But I still gotta do my part. And maybe I can figure out a way to stop ordering so much takeout in the process.

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Why Venus Is Soon to Be the Most Exciting Place in the Solar System

Venus as seen from the International Space Station in 2015.

Venus as seen from the International Space Station in 2015.
Image: NASA/JAXA

It’s hot. It’s toxic. It spins backwards and is covered in volcanoes. And we’re headed there soon. Three Venus missions, recently announced by NASA and the European Space Agency, are going to reveal more than we’ve ever known about the scorcher of a planet, a place that many scientists describe as Earth’s evil twin.

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In recent weeks, NASA green-lit two Venus missions, VERITAS and DAVINCI+, while the ESA announced a Venus orbiter called EnVision. Already, planetary scientists are exhilarated by the possibilities. We spoke with several experts about why Venus is so exciting.

“It’s only beginning to hit me what this means,” said Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University, in a video call. “I’m gonna lose my shit every time a new paper comes out of it.” Fundamentally, he said, the reason for our return to Venus comes down to understanding why the planet “is our sibling and not our twin.”

“How is it that you have a planet that is almost the same size as Earth, made of presumably about the same stuff, in about the same compositions, orbiting the same star, and that has the same age—how do you have two worlds that are on paper the same, that are yet so vastly different?” Byrne explained. “EnVision, VERITAS, and DAVINCI+ are going to provide an unbelievable and unexpectedly solid foundation for how we tackle this question.”

Some aesthetic renderings of DAVINCI+’s arrival on Venus.

Some aesthetic renderings of DAVINCI+’s arrival on Venus.
Illustration: NASA GSFC visualization and CI Labs Michael Lentz and colleagues

NASA’s VERITAS is an orbiter that will peer through Venus’ dense clouds to understand the planet’s topography, surface chemistry, and even look deeper into the planet to understand its geologic processes. The agency’s second mission, DAVINCI+, will consist of a probe that will descend through Venus’ atmosphere, sampling its chemistry, winds, and pressure and even taking high-resolution images of one region of the planet—a huge upgrade on the only surface images of Venus so far taken, the most recent being by USSR missions nearly 40 years ago. The ESA’s EnVision, also an orbiter, will inspect the planet’s insides and atmosphere, supplementing the goals of both NASA missions. All are set to launch between 2038 and 2031.

“I was a bit giddy all day after I heard the announcement,” said Katie Cooper, a planetary scientist at Washington State University who specializes in tectonic evolution, in an email. “I’m particularly excited to learn more about the plateaus on Venus, which are interesting but challenging analogs to Earth’s own large plateaus. On Earth, plateaus like the Tibetan Plateau or the Altiplano Plateau have their origins in plate tectonics, but on Venus that may not be the case.”

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Cooper added that what we learn “will not only give us insight into Venus, but also pre-plate tectonic periods within Earth’s own history.”

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Venus is covered in scrunchy land features called tesserae. These tesserae make up large swathes of Venusian regions like Alpha Regio, a sprawling plateau twice the size of Texas that DAVINCI+ is going to image. To date, tesserae have been something of an enigma for scientists, who haven’t had the sort of data that would indicate how those tesserae formed on Venus or how old they are.

“We are for Venus today where we were from Mars in the 80s,” Byrne said. “And in the intervening years, we have come to understand Mars as a far more complex and interesting world. And there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that that is what’s going to happen for Venus.”

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And then there’s the volcanoes. These huge warts on the planet’s surface could all be dormant, or they could still be burbling away. It’s another little-understood facet of the planet, shrouded in clouds and not visited up-close by a NASA instrument since the Magellan mission, which concluded in 1994. The lava on the planet and its role in shaping Venus’ surface is also not well understand and thoroughly debated, including when the lava surfaced and cooled and whether it all resurfaced at once or in piecemeal bits.

Volcanoes like Sapas Mons, visualized here from multiple mission data, are bound to be a hot topic.

Volcanoes like Sapas Mons, visualized here from multiple mission data, are bound to be a hot topic.
Image: NASA/JPL

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“As a volcanologist, I am very intrigued by the volcanic processes that took (and perhaps are still taking!) place on Venus,” said Einat Lev, a seismologist and volcanologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, in an email. “Pancake lava domes! Super long lava flows! Complete resurfacing by lava! What’s not to be excited about?!”

Lev added: “I am certain that the new observations of Venus’ surface that VERITAS will be collecting will teach us a lot about all of these unique processes, and, potentially, about volcanism at extreme conditions (i.e., high pressure, high temperature, very fluid lavas) on Earth now and in the remote past.”

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Another enigma is the dense Venusian atmosphere, a cloak of carbon dioxide and clouds of sulfuric acid that have so far obscured the more tantalizing questions about the planet’s nature. DAVINCI+ will aim to explore that thick mystery soup, specifically by measuring the atmosphere’s composition and structure—“what it is and where it is,” as put by Hannah Wakeford, an astrophysicist specializing in exoplanet atmospheres at the University of Bristol, in an email.

“You would be amazed at the things we can understand from those two simple things,” Wakeford said. “These will tell us how the whole atmosphere is tied together. Does the lower part near the ground affect what we measure high in the clouds? If it does, this will have huge implications for measurements we can make of exoplanet atmospheres, where we only see the very top of the atmospheres. Venus can tell us if what we measure can give us any more information about the ground conditions and if it is like or unlike our own planet.”

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Venus imaged in ultraviolet by Mariner 10 in 1974, its thick, cloudy atmosphere obvious.

Venus imaged in ultraviolet by Mariner 10 in 1974, its thick, cloudy atmosphere obvious.
Image: NASA

You may recall that last year there was a bit of a frenzy around the apparent discovery of phosphine, a potential biosignature, in some relatively balmy clouds in Venus’ atmosphere. That eagerness was quickly dimmed when results couldn’t be reproduced. Venus isn’t a strong candidate to host alien life, unlike other places in the solar system, like certain ocean moons around Saturn and Jupiter. But there are some scientists who still argue that microbial life could exist in Venus’ clouds. A recent NASA climate model suggested Venus could have been habitable in its early history and even had oceans of liquid water, though there’s no sign of those oceans today. “The loss of oceans may be recent geologically—perhaps only in the last billion years,” said David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist at the Planetary Science Institute, in an email. “This means that our solar system *might* have had two planets with surface oceans and life, sitting right next door to each other, for most of solar system history.”

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The three upcoming missions are likely to refine our understanding of whether life could ever have been possible on Venus, but none of the missions are explicitly looking for evidence of life. Alas.

There are plenty of confounding features on Venus that scientists are eager to observe and interpret, and they’re just as intrigued about what those features could reveal about Earth’s evolution to the oasis it is today. The nice thing about your sibling getting a DNA test, of course, is that you learn about your own history in the process.

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More: Hell Yes, We’re Going to Venus

You Can Soon Compost Dead Friends and Family in Oregon

Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose, displays a sample of the compost material left from the decomposition of a cow, left, and some of the combination of wood chips, alfalfa and straw used in the process.

Katrina Spade, the founder and CEO of Recompose, displays a sample of the compost material left from the decomposition of a cow, left, and some of the combination of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw used in the process.
Photo: Elaine Thompson (AP)

If you’re freaked out by funerals and would rather be gardening instead, you’re in luck. There are now three states in the U.S. where you can legally compost a dead body.

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Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown signed HB 2574, which legalizes human composting, also known as natural organic reduction, this week. The idea of composting bodies is relatively new, but it’s picking up steam: Washington became the first state to legalize human composting in 2019, while Colorado followed suit just last month.

Burial is a dirty business, environment-wise. Embalming a body before burial takes around three gallons of embalming chemicals, including formaldehyde, methanol, and ethanol; the U.S. buries around 5.3 million gallons of this stuff with dead bodies each year. While cremation is marketed as a “greener” option than burial, one cremation uses as much energy as burning through around two tanks of gas and produces more than 500 pounds (227 kilograms) of carbon dioxide from the burning process itself. In the U.S., that translates to roughly 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.

The way organic reduction works is pretty straightforward (and, honestly, pretty cool). At Recompose, the country’s first composting funeral home in Washington, the body is placed in a special container and surrounded by wood chips and plant material. Then, it’s left alone for 30 days to allow bacteria and microbes to do their work. The resulting remains are then stored to “cure” in separate containers for another few weeks. According to Recompose, the result is one cubic yard of human soil—around a pickup truck load of dirt—which people can then either donate to conservation lands or just use like regular compost.

“That’s been a really neat thing to see, people getting excited about that and saying, ‘you mean I can take that soil home and I can go ahead and go out to Vern’s garden in the backyard and I can make all his plants and his shrubs more gloriously gorgeous with this juicy goodness?’” Elizabeth Fournier, an Oregon-based funeral home owner who has been offering organic reduction services over the state border, told KOIN News. “And the answer is yes.” (“Juicy goodness” is quite a way to market this process, but it does sound pretty cool to use your loved one to make plants grow.)

State Rep. Pam Marsh, one of the cosponsors of the bill, told KOIN that she recognized the potential “business opportunity” for legalizing organic reduction. And frankly, it does look like there could be some serious demand for the service. Recompose, which helped sponsor the bill in Oregon, told KOIN it’s planning to open some locations in the state once human composting is legal (the law set a timeline for next year). The company said in mid-January that eight of its 10 composting vessels were already full, and told Earther last year that it had 350 (still-living) people on a waitlist for its services at the time. Two other companies are gearing up to start operations in Washington.

There are other green burial options, including laying bodies to rest wrapped only in burial shrouds and minus the embalming chemicals, available in other parts of the U.S. But in many ways, the Pacific Northwest may just be the perfect place in the U.S. to introduce composting your loved one.

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“This is Oregon! People love their parks, people love their trails, people love their nature, people love their composting and that idea that somebody can become a tree,” Fournier told KOIN. “I think that’s really thrilling for people to know that their remains can absolutely help the environment.”

First Murder Hornet of 2021 Was Just Found in the U.S.

A sample specimen of a dead Asian Giant Hornet from Japan, also known as a murder hornet, is held by a pest biologist from the Washington State Department of Agriculture on July 29, 2020 in Bellingham, Washington.

A sample specimen of a dead Asian Giant Hornet from Japan, also known as a murder hornet, is held by a pest biologist from the Washington State Department of Agriculture on July 29, 2020 in Bellingham, Washington.
Photo: Karen Ducey (Getty Images)

Scientists found their first dead murder hornet of 2021 in the U.S. Yeah, the ones with stings that feel “like having red-hot thumbtacks” stabbed into your skin and spit painful venom into humans’ eyes. Those ones. Not great news, perhaps, but don’t freak out too much yet.

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This month, a resident of Marysville, Washington—just north of Seattle—notified state authorities that she found what appeared to be one of those awful creatures’ bodies. State and federal scientists examined it and the Washington Department of Agriculture confirmed that indeed, it was a male murder hornet’s corpse.

Something was different about this bug, though: It had different coloring than those found in the state last year, and tests showed its DNA didn’t match up with the specimens found in Washington and Canada last year. Its body was also very dried out.

That all leads officials to believe that it’s likely the corpse of a previous season’s model of murder hornet rather than signs of a fresh batch. They also noted that new male hornets don’t normally emerge until July at the earliest and that there’s no clear way for the hornet to have gotten into Marysville. Still, the federal officials plan to look around the region and provide support just to be safe.

The found murder hornet body.

The found murder hornet body.
Photo: Washington State Department of Agriculture

“We will work with [Washington Department of Agriculture] to survey the area to verify whether a population exists in Snohomish County,” Osama El-Lissy, deputy administrator for the federal Department of Agriculture’s Plant Protection and Quarantine program, said in a statement. “USDA will continue to provide technical expertise and monitor the situation in the state.”

The feds have also provided Washington with funding to find and kill the hornets, as well as to research populations’ genetics, just in case any more bodies—or worse yet, live hornets—are found.

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The bugs, known more scientifically as Asian giant hornets, were found in Washington State last year that, marking the first time one of their breeding grounds was discovered in the U.S. These are the world’s largest hornets, and while they are a menace to human society, it’s Americans bees that are really at risk. Murder hornets are known for destroying honeybee hives—which are already under threat—and American bees have no natural defenses against these invasive pests. That could have huge implications for wild bees as well as ones used to help pollinate crops. Bees, of course, are already facing a variety of threats from pesticides and climate change, so the added pressure of being slaughtered by an invasive species is not a welcome development.

Officials said the discovery shows how important citizen science and reports can be to their operations.

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“This new report continues to underscore how important public reporting is for all suspected invasive species, but especially Asian giant hornet,” Sven Spichiger, Washington Department of Agriculture managing entomologist, said in the release. “We’ll now be setting traps in the area and encouraging citizen scientists to trap in Snohomish and King counties. None of this would have happened without an alert resident taking the time to snap a photo and submit a report.”

So if you see what you think is a murder hornet, let someone know. It might not be worth worrying about too much, but it’s better to be safe than stung.

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Newly Discovered Giant Rhino Fossil Defies the Imagination

Artist’s interpretation of the newly discovered giant rhino, Paraceratherium linxiaense, in its forest habitat.

Artist’s interpretation of the newly discovered giant rhino.
Image: Yu Chen

Giant rhinos are among the largest mammals to have ever walked this great Earth, and a newly discovered species that lived in northwest China some 25 million years ago is revealing just how magnificent these creatures were.

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Gigantism is a biological trait typically associated with dinosaurs, but natural selection has produced some fairly huge mammals as well. In fact, the largest animal of all time, the blue whale, is a mammal. In terms of large terrestrial mammals, Steppe mammoths were pretty big, as were giant ground sloths, but giant rhinos were likely the biggest.

Several genera of giant rhinos are known, among them Paraceratherium. These extinct hornless rhinos lived primarily in Asia, with fossils spread throughout China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan. The evolutionary history of giant rhinos is a bit vague, however, and paleontologists have struggled to discern their exact proportions owing to an abundance of incomplete fossils. What is clear, however, is that these mammals were very large.

This group can now claim a new member, Paraceratherium linxiaense, as reported in a study published today in Communications Biology. Paleontologist Tao Deng, from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, led the research.

The enormous axis (the first cervical vertebra of the spine) of the giant rhino Paraceratherium linxiaense.

The enormous axis (the first cervical vertebra of the spine) of the giant rhino Paraceratherium linxiaense.
Image: Tao Deng

The fossilized bones of this species were pulled from the Linxia Basin in the northwestern Gansu province of China. The partial remains of two individuals were recovered, namely a skull, mandible, and associated atlas (first cervical vertebra of the spine) from one specimen, and an axis and two thoracic vertebrae of another individual. The fossils were found in Late Oligocene deposits dated at 26.5 million years old.

One of the fossils is a “fantastically well-preserved skull with jaws and neck vertebra—so well preserved that it tells you it was preserved and buried quickly,” Lawrence Flynn, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University and a co-author of the study, explained in an email. “It provides thorough anatomical information to define a new species distinct from the other closely related giant rhinos.”

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Analysis of these fossils took place from December 2016 to February 2017. The team made laser scans of the specimens to build a digital 3D model, which allowed them to characterize the animals and compare them to other giant rhinos.

The evidence pointed to an entirely new species. Compared to other Paraceratherium, this animal featured a slender skull, a short nose trunk, a long neck, and a deeper nasal cavity. This giant rhino “had no horn,” Deng explained in an email. “Its small upper first incisors and deep nasal notch indicates a longer prehensile nose trunk, similar to that of the tapir,” while its large body size, as evidenced by its large 3.8-foot-long (1.14-meter) head, distinguishes it from other species of Paraceratherium, he added.

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Extrapolating from the partial remains, Deng estimates a weight of 24 tons, “similar to the total weight of four largest individuals of the modern African elephant,” he said. P. linxiaense stood 16.4 feet (5 meters) at the shoulders, and its body measured 26.25 feet (8 meters) long.

The giant rhino’s long legs were good for running, Deng said, and its head could reach a height of 23 feet (7 meters), allowing it to “browse the leaves of tree tops.” The giant rhino’s prehensile nose trunk would’ve been “extremely useful to wrap around branches as they stripped off the leaves with their front teeth,” Deng explained. Its tusk-like incisors were probably used to break twigs, strip bark, and bend higher branches, he added. Like other Paraceratherium, this giant rhino lived in open woodlands.

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Interestingly, P. linxiaense bears a resemblance to giant rhinos that once lived in what is now Pakistan. The new research suggests giant rhinos traveled from northwest China through the Tibetan region, which led them to the Indian-Pakistani subcontinent. This is exciting for both an evolutionary and geological standpoint, as it suggests the Tibetan region “likely hosted some areas with low elevation,” possibly under 6,550 feet (2,000 meters) during the Oligocene, “and the lineage of giant rhinos could have dispersed freely along the eastern coast of the [ancient] Tethys Ocean and perhaps through some lowlands of this region,” the paleontologists wrote in the study.

Though they may look somewhat alike, modern rhinos are in fact not descended from Paraceratherium or other giant rhinos. Instead, both groups can claim a common ancestor that lived some 50 million years ago.

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More: Newly discovered ancient carnivore was bigger than a polar bear and is true nightmare fuel.

NASA: Earth Is Absorbing an ‘Unprecedented’ Amount of Heat

Flames rise from a forest fire near the village of Makrimalli on the island of Evia, northeast of Athens, on August 13, 2019.

It is a metaphor for our planet.
Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP (Getty Images)

Ominous new research shows that the Earth is taking in a shocking amount of heat. In the past 15 years, the amount of incoming solar radiation trapped on the surface and in the oceans has doubled.

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The findings, published in Geophysical Research Letters by scientists at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are a deafening klaxon that the planet is rapidly shifting outside the boundaries that have allowed civilization to thrive.

The Earth’s energy balance is climate science 101. (It was actually a presentation on it that drew my wife into the field, so thank you for studying it, scientists.) The Earth is just like you and me. It has a budget. It absorbs energy from the sun and emits an equal and opposite amount of energy back into space, much like an average person gets paid and then uses that money to pays bills. However, the Earth’s budget is becoming increasingly unbalanced.

Scientists at NASA and NOAA decided to study this energy imbalance, which is currently just 0.3%, meaning the planet is currently taking up more energy from the sun than it’s putting back into space. That energy has to do something here on Earth, and the end result is generally more heat. To gauge how that imbalance has changed since 2005, the researchers pulled satellite data looking at the top of the atmosphere and a network of autonomous floats that gather data in the upper 6,561 feet (2,000 meters) of the ocean. The former shows what kind of energy is coming and going while the latter offers a look at where 90% of the world’s heat gets stored.

The results show a major change over the 15 years of records. Both datasets show the planet has roughly doubled the amount of heat it has taken on since 2005. That the two sources of data are in such close agreement gives the researchers confidence in the disturbing trend.

“It is a massive amount of energy,” Gregory Johnson, an oceanographer for NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and co-author of the study, told the Washington Post. “It’s such a hard number to get your mind around.”

Among the analogies he mentioned in an attempt to help you get your head around it are that the heat is equal to dropping four atomic bombs equivalent to the one dropped on Hiroshima every second, or all 7 billion-plus of us firing up 20 electric tea kettles and just letting them run. I appreciate the effort, but even those stats are confounding. I don’t even have 20 outlets in my apartment.

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Comparison of overlapping one-year estimates at 6-month intervals of net top-of-the-atmosphere annual energy flux from CERES satellite (solid orange line) and an in situ observational estimate from ocean floats of uptake of energy by Earth climate system (solid turquoise line).
Gif: Tim Marvel/NASA

While deniers will be quick to screech “bUt WhAt AbOuT sOlAr CyClEs,” the research shows that’s simply not the issue here, calling changes in solar radiation “negligible.” The main causes for the deepening imbalance are tied to changes in cloud cover and reflectivity of the surface. Climate change is having an impact on clouds, though it’s an area of active research. And rising temperatures are absolutely altering the reflectivity of the Earth, particularly by melting Arctic sea ice. That allows darker ocean water to take up more heat. The study also notes that what it innocuously refers to as “trace gases”—i.e. carbon dioxide and other forms of pollution from human activities—are contributing to the imbalance as well.

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“This study demonstrates that the planet as whole has been warming at an alarming rate during the past 15 years,” Norman Loeb, a researcher at NASA’s Langley Research Center who led the study, said in an email. “We have every expectation that the warming will continue, but our hope is the rate at which its warming will slow down in the coming decades.”

Some of the cloud cover changes may be tied to natural climate shifts, such as El Niño and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (which is basically a pattern somewhat similar to El Niño that lasts for decades rather than a year). Both, particularly the PDO, have been in phases conducive for the planet to absorb more heat. But those natural patterns alone aren’t enough to send the energy balance spiraling in the wrong direction.

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“It’s likely a mix of anthropogenic forcing and internal variability,” Norman Loeb, the study’s lead author and a researcher at NASA’s Langley Research Center, said in a press release. “And over this period, they’re both causing warming, which leads to a fairly large change in Earth’s energy imbalance. The magnitude of the increase is unprecedented.”

While it’s readily apparent to anyone who has lived on Earth these past 15 years that the energy imbalance is having deleterious effects, the study helps quantify it in stark terms. And it points a pathway forward for researchers to analyze what’s going on in more detail, including how it could affect the global average temperature, sea level rise, and other more familiar phenomena associated with the climate crisis.

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“The things people are most interested in, like increasing global mean surface temperature, sea level rise, more extremes in weather, etc., are all symptoms of a positive energy imbalance, which in turn is a consequence of increases in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane,”Loeb said.

Worryingly, if the imbalance continues to grow more lopsided, it could lead to even more dramatic climate change impacts sooner than expected. I certainly respect the need for more research, particularly the role natural climate shifts could be playing. But I’d also appreciate it if the world got a handle on carbon pollution so researchers can’t test that part of their hypothesis in real life.

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Update, 6/17/21, 1:18 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from Norman Loeb.

Great, Snakebots Can Now Burrow Underground so We’ll Never See Them Coming

The simplicity but excellent mobility of snakes makes them an ideal creature for roboticists to emulate, but it also yields robots that are downright creepy. Making things worse, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Georgia Tech, have made a snakebot that can burrow underground so we’ll never see it coming.

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To date, we’ve managed to engineer robots and autonomous creatures that can handle almost any terrain, be it rolling across the rocky surface of Mars, diving below the waves, soaring through the sky, or even deftly tackling a flight of stairs. Where robots have yet to explore is underground. We’re not talking about spelunking through a cavernous subterranean cave, but instead burrowing and forging their own path through sand and soil like countless of Mother Nature’s creations do.

We’ve seen snakebots before, but the researchers at UCSB and Georgia Tech have created a new design with several key upgrades that allow it to more easily dig through granular materials all on its own. Unlike other snakebots, this version is what’s considered a soft body robot because, as the name implies, it forgoes rigid parts for flexible materials that make it lighter and more adaptable because it can more easily bend, twist, and contort its body.

One of the biggest challenges of burrowing through any material is the friction created, and having to overcome it. So the researchers took more inspiration from nature and copied the mechanism plants use to dig deep into the soil by growing only from the tip, leaving the rest of the root stationary. The snakebot does the same thing, growing only from the end of the bot so the rest of its body doesn’t actually move at all, eliminating a major source of friction. If you’ve ever struggled to pull a root out of the ground, it’s because you’re fighting against the friction of its entire length abrading against the surrounding soil.

The snakebot’s perpetually growing tip still requires a certain level of force to push sand and soil out of its way while it digs, but the research team once again found inspiration in nature to make this task easier for their bot. Like the southern sand octopus which shoots a jet of water into the ocean floor to loosen sand so it can bury itself as a protective defense mechanism, the snakebot fires a blast of air ahead of it to create a fluidized version of sand and soil that’s easier to push through.

By combining a wedged-shape ‘head’ with a blast of air directed slightly downwards, the snakebot loosens the soil ahead of, and below it, to reduce forces that naturally occur in granular materials that tend to push larger objects towards the surface. It not only makes it easier for the snakebot to dig, but it also makes it easier to remain underground as it burrows.

Besides giving the world one more source of anxiety, the burrowing snakebot does have some genuinely useful applications, and not just giving the militaries of the world an autonomous weapon that can burrow beneath walls, barbed wire, fields of land mines, and other obstacles. While the rovers we’ve sent to Mars are equipped with drills, there’s far more to be learned about neighboring planets by digging much deeper beneath their surfaces. It could even be a useful tool for archeology, letting scientists explore a site without having to disturb what’s on the surface until something needs to be unearthed.

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Antidepressants in Our Water Make Crayfish Go Buck Wild

He’s feeling on top of the world (he’s on drugs).

He’s feeling on top of the world (he’s on drugs).
Photo: Bernd Thissen/dpa/AFP (Getty Images)

If you’ve ever taken an SSRI that makes you want to go out and start living life again, you may be able to relate to crayfish. A study published Wednesday in Ecosphere inspects the effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, on crayfish, finding that the medication that helps people with depression actually makes crayfish act more “boldly” when added in small amounts to their environment.

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There are trace amounts of many pharmaceuticals in bodies of water around the world, thanks to how humans metabolize our medicines and dispose of wastewater. “When you take a medication, nobody’s body is 100% efficient, so when we take a pill, we might only metabolize and actually use 90%, or 80%, or 70%,” said AJ Reisinger, an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Soil and Water Sciences Department and lead author of the study. “Whatever is left over and not used by our body will be excreted directly into our toilets, flushed, then through a sewer and into a wastewater treatment plant—or, if the sewer line is leaking, directly into our groundwater.”

Most pharmaceuticals in our water stay at pretty low levels; Reisinger said there’s been lots of previous work on the concentration of drugs needed to kill plants and animals, which is a lot higher than the concentration we see in the environment. “People are often not concerned [about pharmaceuticals in the water] because of that,” Reisinger said. But there’s an emerging body of work that studies how these low concentrations can change behavior and interactions among animals and plants, including altering photosynthesis rates, changing the life cycles of insects, and other effects.

SSRIs like Zoloft and Prozac are some of the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States right now: one survey found that SSRI use skyrocketed 64% between 1999 and 2014, while almost 20% of U.S. adults took antidepressants in 2017. “If everybody is taking medication, those small amounts can add up a little bit” in the water, /Reisinger said. He added that some previous work with crayfish, which are a crucial species in the aquatic food chain, found that injecting them directly with serotonin made them more aggressive. Since SSRIs work to make serotonin more available to the brain, testing how SSRI levels in the water affect crayfish was an interesting question for researchers.

To figure out how these medications in the water affect crayfish, researchers recreated a crayfish’s natural habitat: an artificial stream, complete with leaves and rocks that had been left in real streams for a few weeks. Into some of these streams, they piped an “environmentally realistic concentration” of SSRI.

After two weeks of letting the crayfish settle in (and letting some of them absorb that sweet, sweet antidepressant water), researchers performed a behavioral experiment: they constructed a Y-shaped plexiglass maze, with one branch of the Y filled with chemicals that signaled food and the other filled with chemicals to signal the presence of another crayfish. They placed the crayfish’s shelter at the bottom of the Y and watched the animals as they emerged and chose which Y arms to explore. The researchers observed that the crayfish exposed to antidepressants came out of their shelters earlier on average than the control group. The antidepressant-exposed crayfish spent most of their time in the Y arm with the food chemicals, not the arm with the signs of the other crayfish, suggesting that their aggression levels weren’t raised as they got braver. The findings are similar to studies done on the effect of Prozac on crabs, which found that the drug made crabs a whole lot braver.

Anyone who’s been in a depression hole for weeks or months, where you can’t muster up the will to leave your bedroom, knows that SSRIs helping you to more boldly enter the world is generally a good thing. But for the crayfish, it’s a little more complicated. The drugs could prod them to get out and eat more food—but the world they’re entering is a lot more dangerous for them than it is for us, full of predators that could take the opportunity to snack on a crayfish feeling more emboldened than usual to leave its shelter.

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“I understand anthropomorphizing these things, and I don’t want to say it’s a good or a bad thing, because it’s just nature, and nature is responding,” Reisinger said. “It’s a high-risk, high-reward response that they’re doing.”

There’s a whole lot more research that needs to be done on various species’ responses to different drugs. But Reisinger said he hopes this study first raises awareness of what exactly is in our water.

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“It’s not just super-polluted systems—we find pharmaceuticals and a lot of other synthetic chemicals in a lot of different ecosystems,” he said. “Just because they’re really low concentrations doesn’t mean they’re not an ecological threat or not having an impact. We already know freshwater bodies are threatened by a ton of different things, so this is just another thing that’s going on in our water bodies.”