To study climate and wildlife, scientists look to the sky: 3 stories you may have missed

© John Fowler/Flickr Creative Commons

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 three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. What animals see in the stars, and what they stand to lose 

Humans are not the only species using stars as a guiding compass. 

The story: A growing body of research suggests that many species — from birds to seals — may use starlight for navigation, reported Joshua Sokol for The New York Times. For example, a recent study found that dung beetles pause every few minutes to scan the night sky as a reference to help them travel in a straight line and avoid contact with other beetles. However, when the researchers shined spotlights — obscuring the stars — the beetles were only able to travel in circles. 

The big picture: Smog and waste are not the only types of pollution from cities that could affect wildlife: For species that rely on stars to navigate, light pollution in urban areas could pose threats to migration and breeding, experts say. An increase in light pollution is also linked to declines in species of pollinating insects and migratory birds. 

Read more here.

Blanketing the sky, clouds could trap excess heat. 

The story: Clouds — the “unlikely gatekeepers of climate change” — are likely to accelerate global warming over time, writes Chelsea Harvey for Scientific American. Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, a group of scientists recently explored how clouds respond to changes in their environments, including temperature, humidity and moisture. They found that in certain areas, cloud cover will reflect less solar radiation away from the Earth and instead trap heat in the atmosphere. 

The big picture: With clouds trapping additional heat over time, global temperature rise is unlikely to stay below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) unless countries rapidly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, according to the study. One way to do this is by investing more in natural climate solutions, says Lina Barrera, a climate policy expert at Conservation International. 

“There is no time for incremental actions — governments and companies must make transformational changes at national and industry levels,” she told Conservation News. “Now, countries must start implementing policies and on-the-ground initiatives to ensure that those places are either conserved or managed sustainably. Across the private sector, businesses must reduce the impact of their operations on biodiversity by sourcing materials that are sustainably produced and limiting deforestation.”

Read more here

The heat-related death toll is rising — but reducing emissions could help. 

The story: Recent research found that climate change is responsible for more than 37 percent of global casualties caused by heat from illnesses such as strokes, dehydration and organ failure. According to a new study, eliminating carbon emissions by 2050 could save more than 74 million people from heat-related deaths, reported Eric Niiler for Wired. The study’s authors estimate that preventing a single heat-related death would require a reduction of 4,434 metric tons of carbon emissions — that’s equivalent to the average emissions produced by 3.5 U.S. citizens over their lifetimes. 

The big picture: As climate change accelerates, heat waves are becoming more frequent and severe around the world — from southeast Europe to the Pacific Northwest. Determining the “mortality cost of carbon” is crucial for motivating countries to ramp up efforts to tackle climate change and prevent future fatalities from heat waves, according to Daniel Bressler, the study’s lead author. 

“There is a significant number of lives that can be saved by reducing emissions — at the scale of individuals, at the scale of companies, at the scale of nations, and globally,” he told Wired. 

Read more here.

News spotlight

Why the future of carbon should be blue

Mangroves are climate superstars: A single square mile of mangrove forest holds as much climate-warming carbon as the annual emissions of 90,000 cars. Created in partnership with Conservation International, a recently launched blue carbon finance project for the first time takes into account not only the carbon that mangrove trees store in their trunks and leaves, but also the carbon they sequester in their soils.

READ MORE: In Colombia, a new way to protect mangroves takes root


Kiley Price is the staff writer and news editor at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears National Monument, Uta(© John Fowler/Flickr Creative Commons)

Further reading: