Extreme weather, plastic buildings, reef protection: 3 stories you may have missed

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Editor's Note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. Heat is turbocharging fires, drought and tropical storms this summer 

Extreme weather events fueled by climate breakdown are wreaking havoc across the United States.

The Story: Driven by climate change, record high temperatures across the United States are fueling more intense wildfires, droughts and hurricanes, reported Darryl Fears, Faiz Siddiqui, Sarah Kaplan and Juliet Eilperin for The Washington Post. In California, low humidity combined with severe lightning storms have sparked close to 600 new wildfires, which have already burned nearly 405,000 hectares (1 million acres) of land. Extreme heat has caused a months-long drought and contributed to the heat-related deaths of at least 243 people across the Western U.S. On the East Coast, warmer Atlantic Ocean temperatures are intensifying tropical storms; forecasts project that as many as six of these storms could turn into Category 3 hurricanes in the coming months. 

The Big Picture: “This increased intensity and frequency of temperatures and heat waves are part of the projections for the future,” said Susan Clark, a heat expert and director of the Sustainability Initiative at the University at Buffalo. “There is going to be more morbidity and mortality [from heat.] There are going to be more extremes.” Recent research projects that one-third of the global population could live in areas where the mean annual temperature is above 29 degrees Celsius (84 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2070 due to climate change, which could exacerbate extreme weather events and drive more heat-related deaths. According to the research, the number of individuals exposed to unsuitably hot conditions could be halved if countries and businesses around the world significantly reduce their carbon emissions.

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Using plastic waste to create construction materials could curb plastic pollution worldwide. 

The Story: Experts agree that using plastic waste as a base for building materials could offer a durable, sustainable alternative to normal building materials while reducing global plastic pollution worldwide, reported Sibele Cestari for BBC. Humanity produces around 359 million metric tons of new plastic each year — and only around 9 percent of it is recycled. To minimize this waste and improve recycling programs, some engineers are exploring ways to develop building materials such as bricks, tiles and lumber using discarded plastic, which is strong, waterproof and easy-to mold during construction. 

The Big Picture: “The main issue is not with plastic as a material, but with our linear economic model: goods are produced, consumed, then disposed of,” said Sibele Cestari, who is a plastic researcher at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. “[T]here are many ways we could set plastics on a different lifecycle.” Based on current trends, plastic is expected to triple within the next 20 years, adding up to 50 kg (110 pounds) of plastic waste along every meter of the world’s coastlines. To prevent this, countries must limit the amount of new plastic they are introducing into the environment and implement innovative ways to use existing plastics.

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The world’s largest coral reef system could receive a lifeline from the Australian government. 

The Story: A new US$ 2-billion-dollar plan proposed by the Australian government aims to increase the protection and restoration of the Great Barrier Reef by creating stricter regulations for coastal development and reducing pollution, reported Nathanial Gronewold for Scientific American. If approved, the government’s plan will also call for increased domestic efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions to stop climate change and slow ocean warming, which has caused the deaths of nearly half of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef since 2016. To support restoration efforts, the plan will fund new research and strategies to help corals adapt to rising ocean temperatures and assist coral growth. 

The Big Picture: In addition to being one of the planet’s most biodiverse marine ecosystems, the Great Barrier Reef is a crucial economic resource for Australia, generating more than 64,000 jobs and contributing US $4.6 billion to the country’s economy annually through ecotourism alone. However, studies show that without increased conservation efforts, 70 to 90 percent of the world’s coral reefs — including the Great Barrier Reef — are projected to disappear over two decades, which could impact both the global economy and marine species who depend on these reefs. Experts agree that plans such as Australia’s new initiative could help save the world’s reefs, but only if countries follow up with immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, minimize ocean pollution, limit coastal development and create new marine protected areas. 

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Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.