Indigenous strategies for community engagement to combat climate change in the Amazon

View of the Tapajós River in the City of Santarém
View of the Tapajós River in the City of Santarém. Credit James Moura.

In the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, a group of young indigenous activists gathered to co-produce strategies for fostering community engagement through audiovisual production to combat climate change. Funded by the Cabot Institute for the Environment and the National Institute of Science and Technology for Amazon Biodiversity Synthesis, the voices of various indigenous peoples found collective strength to develop these strategies in the Lower Tapajós region in the city of Santarém at the Federal University of Western Pará. 

This activity took place during the National Seminar of the Tapajós National Forest, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The organization of this workshop with young indigenous people began with Kumaruara indigenous leaders who participated in the Amazon Policy Synthesis Project (SynPAm) funded by the Cabot Institute and Policy Bristol at the University of Bristol. This project aimed to identify conservation strategies and gaps in knowledge production related to the Amazon region’s biodiversity. The project involved over 100 stakeholders (researchers, representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations, decision-makers, community leaders, indigenous and quilombola leaders) who engaged in interviews, focus groups, and participatory workshops. One of the suggestions from these various stakeholders was to develop activities where indigenous peoples would also facilitate knowledge production and mobilization processes. 

Thus, one of the indigenous activists from the Kumaruara people proposed the development of a participatory workshop to create community engagement strategies through audiovisual production to the Kumaruara Territory Indigenous Council (@povokumaruara). The Indigenous Council collectively deliberated that they could co-facilitate the development of the workshop with the presence of some young indigenous leaders from different territories (see photo below). 

Indigenous workshop facilitators
Indigenous workshop facilitators. Credit: James Moura.

This activity was the only one co-facilitated by indigenous leaders at the National Seminar. The workshop was conducted collaboratively. The indigenous leaders began with a moment of connection and respect for the sacred spirituality present in the Lower Tapajós territory. With the blessings of the sacred beings, we proceeded to discuss how climate change has been affecting the different territories of the participants. Most of the workshop participants were indigenous people from other ethnic groups, with a small number of non-indigenous participants. A consensus among all present was that climate change is affecting different regions of the Amazon. They commented on how the regions are now drier, hotter, and with fewer fish in the rivers. There is also a greater presence of irregular fires in the region. They pointed out that there is a strong presence of agribusiness, mining, and illegal logging. These factors contribute to the worsening scenario related to climate change. 

one of the conversation circle moments during the workshop
One of the conversation circle moments during the workshop. Credit: James Moura.

After this collective sharing moment, it was evaluated how we could produce strategies to promote community engagement to combat climate change. The participants identified that the collective production of audiovisual content could be an important strategy for community mobilization, denouncing human degradation actions in the territories, and raising awareness to fight climate change. The indigenous leaders commented that this struggle is collective. It requires the engagement of both indigenous and non-indigenous people to bring about a transformation in the ways of life of our society. Excessive consumption, waste production, and economic development models were identified as factors promoting global warming. The Kumuaruara indigenous people provided examples of some audiovisual productions they have developed in the territory (see more of these productions here: https://youtu.be/c0atRyk640k?si=Ksnwek1TblnMoPRe; https://youtu.be/i29UR49wwdo?si=3PW5JVKjn_mpf6F9). 

Participatory activities took place with the organization of two subgroups, including indigenous and non-indigenous people. They reflected on the need to engage people about the impacts of climate change in the territories. A walk was facilitated on the Campus of the Federal University of Western Pará to identify possible causes and impacts of climate change. Participants reflected on the importance of being attentive to small actions that can increase global warming. They also highlighted the need to understand the impacts of large agribusiness, logging, and mining companies operating in the region. They said that the native forest, along with the rivers, has been destroyed by soybean plantations, cattle raising, illegal logging, and mining activities. Thus, the participants created audiovisual productions demonstrating these relationships, from small personal actions to the significant impacts of the logging, mining, and agribusiness sectors in the region. It is necessary to have a critical and attentive view of the entire production chain to identify whether that specific product being sold in the supermarket is not related to environmental degradation and deforestation in different parts of the world.  

video production moment on the UFOPA campus
Video production moment on the UFOPA campus. Credit James Moura

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon, represented by young Kumaruara leaders, call on everyone to combat climate change through daily actions. These actions involve raising awareness of the impacts of climate change on our lives. They highlight the need to compare our contexts over the years and evaluate temperature, vegetation, and climatic events. Furthermore, with this more attentive understanding, we must change habits in a more sustainable and supportive way. Thus, we must understand the production chain of manufactured products and identify if a particular company has been associated with environmental degradation actions. Similarly, we should reduce our need to consume these products and try to consume with less excess. Finally, we must support the actions of indigenous communities worldwide and in the Amazon, which have historically worked on environmental conservation and mitigating climate change. 

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment members Dr James Moura, Community psychologist, Senior Research Associate of the Synthesis for Policy in Amazonia in the School of Biological Sciences; Dr Filipe França, Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences; and Dr James Palmer, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol.

Left to right: James Moura, Filipe Franca and James Palmer
Left to right: James Moura, Filipe Franca and James Palmer

 

On track for change: how to travel more sustainably to European conferences

Train station at Bonn
Train station on the journey to Bonn

A significant part of the University’s carbon footprint comes from business travel and the Sustainability Team has published a Business Travel Toolkit to help staff choose the most appropriate and low carbon option. That’s why we were thrilled to hear about Alix Dietzel’s recent trip to Bonn Climate Conference, where she opted to travel by rail over flying. We caught up with her to find out how it went, and hopefully inspire more of our research community to do the same!  

Can you share your reasons for going to the conference?

“I went to Bonn to observe the climate change negotiations ahead of the next Conference of the Parties (COP29) in Azerbaijan. These ‘intersessional’ negotiations mark the halfway point between COPs and it is a good chance to see what is on the table at the next COP, where we are after COP28 and what the major sticking points are. In addition, this year Dr Alice Venn, Dr Katharina Richter and myself, got the chance to present a ‘side-event’, which was selected from over 400 applications by the UNFCCC. We teamed up with C40 cities, Green Africa Youth Organization and the Youth Climate Change Council Alliance to discuss how to pursue inclusive urban climate policies.”  

Why did you decide to travel by rail?  

“My main consideration was the emissions. Bonn is 8-10 hours away by train – about the same amount of time it took me to get to Dubai by plane for COP28. I avoid flying when I can, but sometimes it is unavoidable due to practicalities. In this case, I was able to add two travel days to my itinerary by only attending the conference for four days. I don’t like to leave my four-year-old daughter for longer than a week – she needs me. I’m privileged to have her in full-time nursery and am married to a very involved father, which made it possible to leave for this long.”  

Alix Dietzel waiting for a train
Alix Dietzel waiting for a train.

Can you tell us about the journey? 

“I did a four-leg journey. Bristol to London (1.5 hours), London to Brussels (2 hours), Brussels to Cologne (2 hours) and finally Cologne to Bonn (half an hour).  

In terms of comfort, I preferred the train journey to flying! I’m quite tall and train seats are roomier, especially the Eurostar and ICE trains in Germany. There’s also free Wi-Fi, multiple plugs for charging, plenty of room for a laptop, and it’s easier to get up and buy snacks or stretch your legs on the train than on a plane.  

The changes between trains were great for getting fresh air and trying foods from different countries. I haven’t been to three countries in one day before, and that is a perk – having lunch in London, a coffee break in Brussels and then dinner in Germany was a culinary treat! 

I missed one connection due to a delayed train from London to Brussels, which meant I queued for 20 minutes to get a special ticket from the Eurostar counter. I was only delayed by an hour and it didn’t cost me any more money.” 

Alix Dietzel at the Bonn climate change conference
Alix Dietzel at the Bonn climate change conference

How was your experience at the conference? 

“I really enjoyed watching the intersessional negotiations because they felt more relaxed, honest, and open compared to the COPs where there is a lot of pressure to find agreement. It’s also a space where you can approach negotiators more easily, because things are less hectic. For example, I was able to have a chat with a UK negotiator and share a bit about my research with him between negotiations.

It’s much smaller than a COP. COP28 had 100k people present and sprawled over a huge venue that has not only the negotiations, but ‘exhibition spaces’ which have events, meaning at times there are about 400 talks at once you could attend! SB60 had 8,600 people and was contained in a single building. This makes it much easier to navigate and focus on the negotiations, with only 5-10 events overlapping at any one time.”  

What would you say to colleagues considering land-based business travel instead of flying? 

“Try it! Speak to the University’s business travel booking team at Clarity and consider your options. Even doing half of the journey by rail would have huge emissions savings and enable them to compare. I am mindful of equality and inclusion issues, such as caring responsibilities, and would reassure them that sometimes, you do have to fly, and that this is understandable.” 

We estimate that Alix’s journey by rail saved 159kg of CO2 – the equivalent to heating an average home for nearly two months.  

If you’d like to explore routes travelling over land rather than flying visit https://routezero.world/.  

If you’re a member of staff considering how to take low impact business travel, visit the Business Travel Toolkit or contact the University of Bristol Business Travel Team. 

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This blog has been written by Hannah Morgans, Sustainability Communications Project Officer and Dr Alix Dietzel, Senior Lecturer in Climate Justice in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies and Associate Director for Impact and Innovation at the Cabot Institute for the Environment. This blog has been reposted with kind permission from the University of Bristol’s Sustainability Team. View the original blog.

How glacier algae are challenging the way we think about evolution

Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock

People often underestimate tiny beings. But microscopic algal cells not only evolved to thrive in one of the most extreme habitats on Earth – glaciers – but are also shaping them.

With a team of scientists from the UK and Canada, we traced the evolution of purple algae back hundreds of millions of years and our findings challenge a key idea about how evolution works. Though small, these algae are having a dramatic effect on the glaciers they live on.

Glaciers are among the planet’s fastest changing ecosystems. During the summer melt season as liquid water forms on glaciers, blooms of purple algae darken the surface of the ice, accelerating the rate of melt. This fascinating adaptation to glaciers requires microscopic algae to control their growth and photosynthesis. This must be balanced with tolerance of extreme ice melt, temperature and light exposure.

Our study, published in New Phytologist, reveals how and when their adaptations to live in these extreme environments first evolved. We sequenced and analysed genome data of the glacier algae Ancylonema nordenskiöldii. Our results show that the purple colour of glacier algae, which acts like a sunscreen, was generated by new genes involved in pigment production.

This pigment, purpurogallin, protects algal cells from damage of ultraviolet (UV) and visible light. It is also linked with tolerance of low temperatures and desiccation, characteristic features of glacial environments. Our genetic analysis suggests that the evolution of this purple pigment was probably vital for several adaptations in glacier algae.

We also identified new genes that helped increase the algae’s tolerance to UV and visible light, important adaptations for living in a bright, exposed environment. Interestingly these were linked to increased light perception as well as improved mechanisms of repair to sun damage. This work reveals how algae are adapted to live on glaciers in the present day.

Next, we wanted to understand when this adaptation evolved in Earth’s deep history.

The evolution of glacier algae

Earth has experienced many fluctuations of colder and warmer climates. Across thousands and sometimes millions of years, global climates have changed slowly between glacial (cold) to interglacial (warm) periods.

One of the most dramatic cold periods was the Cryogenian, dating back to 720-635 million years ago, when Earth was almost entirely covered in snow and ice. So widespread were these glaciations, they are sometimes referred to by scientists as “Snowball Earth”.

Scientists think that these conditions would have been similar to the glaciers and ice sheets we see on Earth today. So we wondered could this period be the force driving the evolution of glacier algae?

After analysing genetic data and fossilised algae, we estimated that glacier algae evolved around 520-455 million years ago. This suggests that the evolution of glacier algae was not linked to the Snowball Earth environments of the Cryogenian.

As the origin of glacier algae is later than the Cryogenian, a more recent glacial period must have been the driver of glacial adaptations in algae. Scientists think there has continuously been glacial environments on Earth up to 60 million years ago.

We did, however, identify that the common ancestor of glacier algae and land plants evolved around the Cryogenian.

In February 2024, our previous analysis demonstrated that this ancient algae was multicellular. The group containing glacier algae lost the ability to create complex multicellular forms, possibly in response to the extreme environmental pressures of the Cryogenian.

Rather than becoming more complex, we have demonstrated that these algae became simple and persevered to the present day. This is an example of evolution by reducing complexity. It also contradicts the well-established “march of progress” hypothesis, the idea that organisms evolve into increasingly complex versions of their ancestors.

Our work showed that this loss of multicellularity was accompanied by a huge loss of genetic diversity. These lost genes were mainly linked to multicellular development. This is a signature of the evolution of their simple morphology from a more complex ancestor.

Over the last 700 million years, these algae have survived by being tiny, insulated from cold and protected from the Sun. These adaptations prepared them for life on glaciers in the present day.

So specialised is this adaptation, that only a handful of algae have evolved to live on glaciers. This is in contrast to the hundreds of algal species living on snow. Despite this, glacier algae have dramatic effects across vast ice fields when liquid water forms on glacier surfaces. In 2016, on the Greenland ice sheet, algal growth led to an additional 4,400–6,000 million tonnes of runoff.

Understanding these algae helps us appreciate their role in shaping fragile ecosystems.

Our study gives insight into the evolutionary journey of glacier algae from the deep past to the present. As we face a changing climate, understanding these microscopic organisms is key to predicting the future of Earth’s icy environments.The Conversation

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This blog is written by Dr Alexander Bowles, Postdoctoral research associate, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Alexander Bowles
Alexander Bowles

The last ozone-layer damaging chemicals to be phased out are finally falling in the atmosphere

The high-altitude AGAGE Jungfraujoch station in Switzerland is used to take measurements of Earth’s atmosphere.
Jungfrau.ch

Since the discovery of the ozone layer, countries have agreed and amended treaties to aid its recovery. The most notable of these is the Montreal protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer, which is widely regarded as the most successful environmental agreement ever devised.

Ratified by every UN member state and first adopted in 1987, the Montreal protocol aimed to reduce the release of ozone-depleting substances into the atmosphere. The most well known of these are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Starting in 1989, the protocol phased out the global production of CFCs by 2010 and prohibited their use in equipment like refrigerators, air-conditioners and insulating foam. This gradual phase-out allowed countries with less established economies time to transition to alternatives and provided funding to help them comply with the protocol’s regulations.

Today, refrigerators and aerosol cans contain gases like propane which, although flammable, does not deplete ozone in Earth’s upper atmosphere when released. However, ozone-friendly alternatives to CFCs in some products, such as certain foams used to insulate fridges, buildings and air-conditioning units, took longer to find. Another set of gases, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), was used as a temporary replacement.

A collection of used refrigerators.
HCFCs can leak to the atmosphere from discarded fridges.
RichardJohnson/Shutterstock

Unfortunately, HCFCs still destroy ozone. The good news is that levels of HCFCs in the atmosphere are now falling and indeed have been since 2021 according to research I led with colleagues. This marks a major milestone in the recovery of Earth’s ozone layer – and offers a rare success story in humanity’s efforts to tackle climate-warming gases too.

HCFCs v CFCs

HCFCs and CFCs have much in common. These similarities are what made the former suitable alternatives.

HCFCs contain chlorine, the chemical element in CFCs that causes these compounds to destroy the ozone layer. HCFCs deplete ozone to a much smaller extent than the CFCs they have replaced – you would have to release around ten times as much HCFC to have a comparable impact on the ozone layer.

But both CFCs and HCFCs are potent greenhouse gases. The most commonly used HCFC, HCFC-22, has a global warming potential of 1,910 times that of carbon dioxide, but only lasts for around 12 years in the atmosphere compared with several centuries for CO₂.

As non-ozone depleting alternatives to HCFCs became available it was decided that amendments to the Montreal protocol were needed to phase HCFCs out. These were agreed in Copenhagen and Beijing in 1992 and 1999 respectively.

This phase-out is still underway. A global target to end most production of HCFCs is set for 2030, with only very minor amounts allowed until 2040.

Turning the corner on a bumpy road

Our findings show that levels of HCFCs in the atmosphere have been falling since 2021 – the first decline since scientists started taking measurements in the late 1970s. This milestone shows the enormous success of the Montreal protocol in not only tackling the original problem of CFCs but also its lesser known and less destructive successor.

Two graphs side by side showing a the climate warming and ozone-destroying influence of HCFCs declining from 2021.
The influence of HCFCs on the atmosphere is set to fall steadily.
Western et al. (2024)/Nature

This is very good news for the ozone layer’s continuing recovery. The most recent scientific prediction, made in 2022, anticipated that HCFC levels would not start falling until 2026.

Despite HCFC levels in the atmosphere going in the right direction, not everything has been smooth sailing in the phase-out of ozone-depleting substances. In 2019 a team of scientists, including myself, provided evidence that CFC-11, a common constituent of foam insulation, was still being used in parts of China despite the global ban on production.

The United Nations Environment Programme also reported that HCFCs were illegally produced in 2020 contrary to the phase-down schedule.

In 2023, I and others showed that levels of five more CFCs were increasing in the atmosphere. Rather than illegal production, this increase was more likely the result of a different process: a loophole in the Montreal protocol which allowed CFCs to be produced if they are used to make other substances, such as plastics or non-ozone depleting alternatives to CFCs and HCFCs.

Some HCFCs at very low levels in the atmosphere have also been shown to be increasing or not falling fast enough, despite few or no known uses.

Most of the CFCs and HCFCs still increasing in the atmosphere are released in the production of fluoropolymers – perhaps best known for their application in non-stick frying pans – or hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

HFCs are the ozone-friendly alternative that was developed and commercialised in the early 1990s to replace HCFCs, but their role as a potent greenhouse gas means that they are subject to international climate emission reduction treaties such as the Paris agreement and the Kigali amendment to the Montreal protocol.

The next best alternative to climate-warming HFCs is a matter of ongoing discussion. In many applications, it was thought that HFCs would be replaced by hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), but these have created their own environmental problems in the formation of trifluoroacetic acid which does not break down in the environment and, like other poly- and per-fluorinated substances (PFAS), may pose a risk to human health.

A column of air-conditioning units attached to the exterior of a building.
HFOs enable air-conditioners to use less electricity than competing alternatives.
AndriiKoval/Shutterstock

HFOs are at least more energy-efficient refrigerants than older alternatives like propane, however.

Hope for the future

In discovering this fall in atmospheric levels of HCFCs, I feel like we may be turning the final corner in the global effort to repair the ozone layer. There is still a long way to go before it is back to its original state, but there are now good reasons to be optimistic.

Climate and optimism are two words rarely seen together. But we now know that a small group of potent greenhouse gases called HCFCs have been contributing less and less to climate change since 2021 – and look to set to continue this trend for the foreseeable future.

With policies already in place to phase down HFCs, there is hope that environmental agreements and international cooperation can work in combating climate change.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Dr Luke Western, Research Associate in Atmospheric Science, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Luke Western
Luke Western

Wisdom of Generations: Learning from the Hills and Valleys of the Northeast India

A tea garden in Dibrugarh, Assam
A tea garden in Dibrugarh, Assam. Image credit: Nborkakoty at English Wikipedia.

Northeast (NE) India is more than just a region on the map; it is a treasure trove of beautiful
natural landscapes and ecological wealth that plays an essential role in our planet’s health. As
we celebrate World Environment Day 2024 with the theme of restoration, let us highlight the
ecological richness of Assam and the other Northeastern states of India. From the slopes of
Arunachal Pradesh to the lowlands of Assam, the NE region is a biodiversity hotspot, home to
unique species found nowhere else on Earth. The more we explore this ecological richness,
the more we discover the wonders and mysteries it holds, sparking our curiosity and interest.

The scenic landscapes of the NE region exemplify a dynamic and harmonious relationship
between humans and nature. Indigenous communities here have cultivated a profound
repository of traditional ecological knowledge passed down through generations. The Bodos,
Mishings, Karbis, Nyishis, Angamis, Khasis, and many others have developed a deep-rooted
understanding of their natural surroundings through intimate interactions with forests, rivers,
and mountains.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this traditional wisdom is the extensive knowledge of
local plants and their uses. These communities have identified and utilized numerous plant
species for food, medicine, shelter, and rituals, demonstrating a profound understanding of
the ecological roles of each species. For instance, the Bodos have long made use of medicinal
plants like Bhut Jolokia (ghost chili) for their therapeutic properties, contributing to the
preservation of traditional healing practices. This knowledge not only highlights the ecological
and cultural diversity of the region but also supports sustainable development and
conservation efforts.

Beyond plant knowledge, these communities have developed sophisticated ecosystem
management practices. Indigenous forest management practices in NE India have
significantly contributed to maintaining biodiversity hotspots and preserving wildlife habitats.
Traditional agroforestry systems, such as jhum cultivation practiced by the Karbi and Khasi
tribes, have shown resilience to climate variability while supporting local livelihoods. According
to a recent United Nations report, indigenous peoples’ territories encompass about 80% of the
world’s remaining biodiversity, underscoring the importance of their stewardship in
conservation efforts.

The wisdom of the hills and valleys also embodies resilience—a capacity to adapt and thrive
amidst changing circumstances. Indigenous communities have overcome challenges like
floods, droughts, and shifting climates by drawing on their deep ecological knowledge.

Panimur Waterfalls, Dima Hasao

According to the Indian State Forest Report 2021, Assam’s forest cover is around 35% of its
geographical area, highlighting its critical role in biodiversity conservation and carbon
sequestration. However, this forest cover is declining, and the region faces environmental and
climate challenges, including deforestation, riverbank erosion, and climate change impacts.

Preserving and promoting traditional ecological knowledge is crucial in the face of the global
climate crisis. According to UNESCO, indigenous communities’ traditional knowledge
significantly contributes to the sustainable management of natural resources, benefiting both
local communities and global biodiversity. Recognizing, valuing, and supporting these
practices are essential for environmental conservation, cultural identity, and community
resilience.

Celebrating the wisdom of Assam and Northeast India’s hills and valleys on World
Environment Day reminds us of the transformative power of indigenous knowledge.
Integrating their insights into broader restoration efforts can contribute to building a sustainable
future for all. By embracing the wisdom passed down through generations and augmenting it
with contemporary research and statistics, we, the #GenerationRestoration, can pave the way
toward ecological harmony and resilience in the years to come.

Let us change gears to the tea communities of the NE region. Assam also plays a vital role in
India’s tea production, boasting over 312 210 hectares of tea cultivation. These tea plantations
not only fuel the state’s economy but also hold significant cultural and ecological value. Assam
is among the world’s largest tea-producing regions, with an annual production of 500-700
million kilograms (Mkgs) of tea leaves. The tea industry employs a vast workforce and
supports livelihoods throughout the region, contributing significantly to India’s overall tea
production. The tea plantations in Assam are not only unique but also serve as a prime
example of the harmonious blend of agriculture and biodiversity conservation. The lush green
tea bushes are seamlessly intertwined with shade trees, providing a habitat for various birds
and insects. Assam’s tea is globally renowned for its robust flavor and represents a heritage
deeply rooted in the land and its ecosystems. However, climate and environmental changes
threaten these lush industries, impacting the ecological and socio-economic balance in the
region.

View to Guwahati city
View to Guwahati city

The government has launched several key initiatives to promote development, ecological
conservation, and socio-economic growth across the state. Notable initiatives include the
Assam Budget for Sustainable Development, Assam Tea Tribes Welfare Board, Jal Jeevan
Mission (Har Ghar Jal), Assam Arunodoi Scheme, Assam Green Mission, Assam Skill
Development Mission, and Assam Startup. Effective implementation of these programs aims
to address climate change, promote environmental conservation, and improve the overall
quality of life for the people of Assam. However, the success of these programs depends on
thorough execution at the grassroots level.

What unfolds in the remote corners of Assam reverberates across continents. The lessons
gleaned from this region—on biodiversity conservation, traditional knowledge integration, and
community-led resilience—are universal. They inform global discussions on sustainable
development, emphasizing the need for inclusive approaches that prioritize both people and
the planet.

This World Environment Day, let us heed the call of Northeast India—a call to action for
environmental engagement and climate action involving youth, communities, government
agencies, and non-profit organizations. The region’s youth must understand the challenges
facing their environment and take action to safeguard their communities and natural
surroundings amidst infrastructural growth and development for their own and future
generations. Climate mitigation and adaptation strategies tailored to the region’s unique
context are critical, including afforestation, sustainable agriculture, and flood management
solutions. Youth can lead the way in developing context-specific climate adaptation and
environment restoration strategies that respect local cultures and ecosystems. By immersing
themselves in environmental education, research, and activism, young students can amplify
their voices and influence decision-makers at all levels.

Assam and its neighboring states in India stand out as a distinctive and valuable addition to
the mosaic of Earth’s landscapes. They serve as a beacon of hope and possibility in our
collective journey toward planetary stewardship. The region’s unique natural heritage,
combined with its rich cultural and ethnic diversity, makes it an important site for scientific
research and cultural exchange. As we strive to better understand and protect our planet,
regions like Northeast India offer invaluable insights and opportunities for collaboration.

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This blog is written by Dr Jagannath Biswakarma, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, UK. jagannath.biswakarma@bristol.ac.uk.

Jagannath Biswakarma
Jagannath Biswakarma

Our laser technique can tell apart elephant and mammoth ivory – here’s how it may disrupt the ivory trade

In recent years, the global trade in elephant ivory has faced significant restrictions in an effort to protect dwindling elephant populations. Many countries have stringent controls on the trade of elephant ivory. The sale of mammoth ivory, sourced primarily from long-extinct species, however, remains unregulated.

But it’s a significant challenge for customs and law enforcement agencies to distinguish between ivory from extinct mammoths and living elephants. This is a process that is both time-consuming and requires destroying the ivory.

Now our new study, published in PLOS ONE, presents a major breakthrough – using a well known laser technique to tell mammoth and elephant ivory apart.

Our results couldn’t come soon enough. The number of African elephants has dramatically declined from approximately 12 million a century ago to about 400,000 today.

Annually, over 20,000 elephants are poached for ivory, primarily in Africa. This decline not only disrupts ecological balance, but also diminishes biodiversity. Ultimately, it highlights the urgent need for conservation efforts to protect these species.

The hunt for mammoth ivory is also a problem. The new regulations are leading to a rise in the modern-day “mammoth hunter”. These are people who deliberately set out to excavate mammoth remains from the Siberian permafrost in the summer months.

Driven by the lucrative market for mammoth ivory, these hunters undertake expeditions in remote Arctic regions, where permafrost melting is accelerated by climate change. This has made previously inaccessible mammoth tusks more reachable.

Mammoth fossils being unearthed.
Mammoth fossils being unearthed. Malachi Jacobs/Shutterstock

This activity not only has commercial implications. It also raises significant ethical and environmental concerns. That’s because it disturbs preserved ecosystems and involves the extraction of resources that have great value to paleontological science.

Laser insights

Our study from the University of Bristol, in collaboration with Lancaster University and the Natural History Museum, introduces a potential game-changer. We use a non-invasive laser technique known as Raman spectroscopy to identify the origin of a piece of ivory.

The method works by analysing the biochemical makeup of the ivory, which consists primarily of mineralised tissue composed of collagen (the flexible organic component) and hydroxyapatite (a hard inorganic mineral, containing calcium).

Raman spectroscopy is a well established technique. It has previously demonstrated applications that range from identifying whisky, studying archeological human bones from the Mary Rose ship, understanding how turkey tendons develop and to even identifying the purity of meat sold by the food industry.

The technique works by directing a laser light onto the ivory sample. The energy from the light is temporarily absorbed by the bonds between molecules in the sample, and then almost instantly re-released. This released light scatters back with more or less energy than the initial laser light sent to the sample.

This carries information about the molecular vibrations within the material – providing a unique pattern of light for each type of ivory. The analysis involves studying the differences between these unique fingerprints.

Our study analysed elephant and mammoth samples provided by the Natural History Museum, London. It demonstrated that not only could the technique distinguish between mammoth and elephant ivory, it could also spot differences in ivory from living elephant species.

In fact, we successfully differentiated between ivory from the extinct woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) and two species of elephants still walking the Earth today (Loxodonta and Elephas maximus).

Important implications

This method offers several advantages over traditional techniques for ivory analysis. Raman spectroscopy is non-destructive and can be performed quickly. This makes it an ideal tool for customs officials who need to make rapid decisions. Our study was conducted on a benchtop spectrometer (a device which breaks up light by wavelength) within a laboratory. But research suggests cheaper and portable, handheld Raman spectrometers could offer equivalent results.

Further research will be needed to refine the technique and expand the database of ivory signatures. We are working with Worldwide Wildlife Hong Kong and the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office to develop this technique.

More data will ultimately enhance the accuracy of species identification. It could potentially help us detect even finer distinctions – such as the age of the ivory or specific environmental conditions where the elephants or mammoths lived.

There are also other non-destructive techniques, such as X-Ray fluorescence spectroscopy, which could be used as a complementary method to identify the geographical region from which the ivory was taken.

As this technique becomes more accessible and widely adopted, it may become key in global conservation efforts, helping to prevent the illegal trade of elephant ivory.

This article was written by Dr Rebecca Shepherd, Senior Lecturer in Anatomy, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Environmental keywords: understanding ‘vulnerability’

Fresh morning, new sights 

Interconnected beauty 

Time to scratch below[1] 

A door in Bristol. Photo D. Schmidt
A door in Bristol. Photo D. Schmidt

When do we really give ourselves time to reflect? Deeply. As academics we think a great deal, but how often do we immerse ourselves in our immediate environment and open ourselves to the profound possibilities of interdisciplinary exchange?

A rare opportunity to do just that was offered via a Cabot Institute for the Environment workshop earlier this year. Run in conjunction with the ‘Environmental Keywords’ project team (PI: Dr Paul Merchant, Modern Languages, Co-I: Professor Daniela Schmidt, Earth Sciences and Senior Research Associate: Dr Claire Cox, English Literature), the session sought to unpack how terms commonly-used used in communications on climate change are variously perceived, and what they might be understood to mean.

As academics engaged in urgent environmental challenges, our interdisciplinary communications can too often stall on discipline-specific definitions across, for example, the humanities and hard sciences. Our half-day workshop sought to open a shared space for interdisciplinary exchange by focussing on the word ‘vulnerability’ as a starting point towards co-created understandings that have the potential to catalyse new interdisciplinary collaborations, and, more widely, to inform local policy makers’ thinking.

Environmental Keywords: Phase 1 Community Workshops

The Cabot workshop marked the launch of the second phase of the Environmental Keywords project (also supported by Research England’s Policy Support Fund). The first phase, funded by NERC (Natural Environment Research Council), took place in 2021-22 and comprised a series of three Bristol-based community workshops which explored how a creative facilitation methodology grounded in key terms in environmental research and activism (such as ‘resilience’, ‘justice’ and ‘transitions’) might enhance community engagement with contemporary environmental challenges. These workshops were held across the city with community partner organisations including Heart of BS13 and Eastside Community Trust, and included colleagues from a range of disciplinary backgrounds from the University of Bristol.

Key to the co-creation approach was an introductory ‘Walk and Talk’ activity around the community groups’ localities. Crucially, the walks not only acknowledged the group members’ as leaders and experts on their own terms, but also provided shared points of reference for later round-table discussions. From these free-flowing discussions it became clear that for many of the community participants survival considerations, such as the cost of living and physical safety, were more pressing than, what were perceived as, the distant and abstract threats of climate change.

The Cabot ‘Walk and Talk’

The group walks and talks through Bristol. Photo: D. Schmidt.
The group walks and talks through Bristol. Photo: D. Schmidt.

As Robert Macfarlane observed: ‘walking is not the action by which one arrives at knowledge; it is itself the means of knowing.’[2]. For the Cabot workshop we again employed the walking methodology; and with ‘vulnerability’ in mind, took a route from Royal Fort House to King Square, returning past the Bristol hospitals via Marlborough Street. This gave us ample opportunity to chat, as well as to observe our surroundings, make notes and take photographs of things that exemplified ‘vulnerability’ to us or sparked our interest.

Round table reflections

Emergent themes from the discussion that followed our walk were as insightful as they were wide-ranging. Much of the consideration centred around vulnerabilities arising from poverty and socio-economic disparities locally and globally; and the associated issues of power and power structures, agency, lack of choice and who decides on the choices we have.

Physical vulnerabilities, as prompted by Bristol’s steep topography from sea level to hilltop, were also deliberated, as were ideas about differing perceptions of our own vulnerability, often based on gender, health or age. We noted that people can also refuse to recognize their own vulnerability for many reasons.

As we had walked though Bristol’s Clean Air Zone issues including pollution, policy, public health, equity and political transparency quickly came to the fore. The shifting dynamics between vulnerability and reliance were also discussed, as was loss of the commons and of green spaces globally.
The complexity of the climate crisis was framed in terms of Rob Nixon’s concept of ‘slow violence’ and difficulties of responding to such an incremental set of environmental threats [3]. There was also a sense that as a concerned group of individuals, we need to understand vulnerability in order to achieve social justice; and that interdisciplinarity can open us to new ways of perceiving and understanding the world beyond the limitations of our personal inclinations and disciplinary boundaries.

Saying it with syllables

To round off the session, and as a creative counterpoint to the intensity of the workshop, there was an invitation to describe a ‘moment of delight’ from the walk and to express it in the form of a haiku: an ancient and very short poetic form synonymous with Japan, based on a pattern of syllables over three lines.

Almost immediately another, unexpected, vulnerability was highlighted – that of language. Several of the group’s English-as-an-additional-language speakers encountered issues around thinking ‘poetically’ in another language. Here, writing in one’s birth language came more easily, with the poem then being translated into English. Environmental Keywords’ exploration into the relationship between the words we use and the thoughts we seek to express suddenly became very tangible indeed.

Voy adelante
ciudad nueva, cielo gris
me pierdo – no soy

I walk on
new city, grey skies
I get lost – I am not [4]

[1] Haiku from Cabot workshop.

[2] Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2013), p. 27.

[3] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[4] Portuguese/English haiku from workshop.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Dr Claire Cox at the University of Bristol.

Haiku has captured the essence of seasons for centuries – new poems contain a trace of climate change

A successful haiku could be described as a half-finished poem. Originating in Japan in the 17th century, the haiku uses a combination of sensory language, seasonal references, a sense of contrast and a focus on the present tense to share an experience between writer and reader.

It relies on the reader to “finish” the poem by employing their recollections of sensations and emotions to connect to the moment described as vividly as they do their own experiences.

Haiku often depict moments in a particular season by describing the behaviour of animals, the weather and the appearance of plants. With a new generation of haiku poets, there’s a whole new collection of work that reflects how seasons are changing as a result of rising global temperatures.

Could haiku poetry written more recently contain a trace of the changes wrought by our warming climate? That’s something one of us (Jasmin) set out to investigate by analysing haiku published in English over the last 30 years.

First, let’s learn how to read haiku.


Do the seasons feel increasingly weird to you? You’re not alone. Climate change is distorting nature’s calendar, causing plants to flower early and animals to emerge at the wrong time.

This article is part of a series, Wild Seasons, on how the seasons are changing – and what they may eventually look like.


What enables this brief poetic form to achieve its resonance is its use of negative space. A haiku is a poem in two parts – a fragment (one line) and a phrase (two lines), divided by a pause (signified by a line break or punctuation).

Related to the concept of ma in Japanese visual arts, which perceives empty space in an artwork as a positive entity, the negative space in haiku is a way in to the contemplative experience of the poem.

The following by Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94) is the most famous haiku ever composed:

old pond –

a frog leaps in

water’s sound

A frog in a pond surrounded by spawn.
Frogspawn is a harbinger of spring in the UK.
Lesley Andrew/Shutterstock

To write a different account of this same event, you could say something like a frog leapt into an old pond and made a sound. But the key distinction between the two is the negative space that follows Basho’s first line. It encourages the reader to pause, breathe and contemplate the old pond before they encounter the frog leaping and the sound of the water.

When our minds become still, and reflective, like the old pond, we witness the action of an animal living simply according to its nature. We perceive things just as they are. The result is an experience of interconnectedness: a realisation that we are not separate from the natural world, but a part of it.

In the following haiku by Basho we experience the season as both a physical setting and as a metaphor for emotional experience:

no-one walks

along this road but I

autumn evening

A tree-lined urban path in the evening.
Autumn’s arrival can be felt in falling leaves and earlier sunsets.
S_Oleg/Shutterstock

In a world of increasing anxiety and distraction, the negative space in a haiku affords us moments of reflection and invites us into a dialogue with the rest of the natural world.

It requires a sensitivity on the part of the reader, but its effect is to instil an appreciation for what surrounds us. Through a meaningful, felt awareness of the seasonal cycles, the reading and writing of haiku inspires a deeper connection to our environment.

How haiku is changing

I spent the summer of 2022 in my home office, consuming decades of haiku journals and anthologies, trying not to leave sweaty fingerprints on their ancient covers in the unnatural 40°C heat. As that year’s researcher-in-residence for the British Haiku Society, working on a project called Twisting Point, I was searching for tell-tale traces of climate change in the English-language haiku archives.

My goal was to contrast present-day haiku against older archival ones, using the differences between them to make readers sensitive to nature’s decline and to suggest how the English-language haiku form might be evolving due to climate change.

I was looking at 30 years’ worth of haiku. In the UK during this time flying insect populations have fallen by over 60%, 41% of wildlife species have decreased in abundance and the frequency of heatwaves, floods and other extreme weather have all increased. More than enough change has occurred in these three decades to manifest in the archives.

Yet, these changes emerge in a strange fashion. It’s hard to write about nature’s losses, and writers tend to do so unconsciously. Rather than tracking population declines in concrete terms, then, the language used around certain species has altered, becoming soaked in grief.

For example, over 25 years numbers of curlews, a wading bird, have halved in the UK. Earlier haiku described their powerful cry “lengthen[ing] the hill[s]”; a poem written in 2022 found them “calling across wintry mudflats, haunting the wind”. Similarly, since 2000, declining butterflies have moved from being a “cloud” common in the background of haiku to lone survivors “pushing against time”.

A wading bird in shallow water with a long, slender, curved beak.
Curlews use their crescent beaks to probe the soft intertidal mud for worms.
Emutan/Shutterstock

The archetypal seasonal words used in haiku are shifting too, disrupting centuries-long traditions of meaning and emotion. As winter has been squeezed into weeks, spring arrives earlier and frosts become tardier, snowdrops have become a symptom of the changing haiku form.

Here is a haiku published in the 1990s in the spring seasonal category (the traditional haiku date for spring’s beginning is February 4):

song of a greenfinch

a ray of sun on cold steps

and a few snowdrops

By 2022, snowdrops are emerging in December in this tanka (a slightly longer poem variety) by Ruth Parker:

Omicron triumphs

and sends Christmas packing – but in the garden

the delicate white hope

of snowdrops

Small white flowers.
Snowdrops are flowering earlier as the climate warms.
Daniel Chetroni/Shutterstock

I was struck by how few haiku seemed to address climate change. Twisting Point became my call to arms for haiku writers. Haiku are about intense moments of perception, in which “the vast is perceived in one thing”. But in addressing climate change so little, are English-language haiku really depicting “the vast”?

Since 2022 the issue has come to the fore, with The Guardian describing how Japanese haiku writers are “lost for words” in the face of climate change. Meanwhile, Twisting Point is to be republished in a journal of the New Zealand Poetry Society. The call to haiku arms is growing: the vast climate crisis is upon us, and we should write about it.The Conversation

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This blog was written by Jasmin Kirkbride, Lecturer in Publishing, University of East Anglia and Paul Chambers, PhD Candidate in Creative Writing, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

East Africa must prepare for more extreme rainfall during the short rainy season – new study

Rainy season in Kenya

East Africa has recently had an unprecedented series of failed rains. But some rainy seasons are bringing the opposite: huge amounts of rainfall.

In the last few months of 2023, the rainy season known as the “short rains” was much wetter than normal. It brought severe flooding to Kenya, Somalia and Tanzania. In Somalia, more than 2 million people were affected, with over 100 killed and 750,000 displaced from their homes. Tens of thousands of people in northern Kenya lost livestock, farmland and homes.

The very wet short rainy seasons are linked to a climate event known as a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (known as the “IOD”). And climate model projections show an increasing trend of extreme Indian Ocean dipoles.

In a new research paper, we set out to investigate what effect more frequent extreme Indian Ocean Dipole events would have on rainfall in east Africa. We did this using a large number of climate simulations and models.

Our results show that they increase the likelihood of very wet days – therefore making very wet seasons.

This could lead to extreme weather events, even more extreme than the floods of 1997, which led to 10 million people requiring emergency assistance, or those of 2019, when hundreds of thousands were displaced.

We recommend that decision-makers plan for this kind of extreme rainfall, and the resulting devastating floods.

How the Indian Ocean Dipole works

Indian Ocean Dipole events tend to occur in the second half of the year, and can last for months. They have two phases: positive and negative.

Positive events occur when the temperature of the sea surface in the western Indian Ocean is warmer than normal and the temperature in the eastern Indian Ocean is cooler than normal. Put simply, this temperature difference happens when winds move warmer water away from the ocean surface in the eastern region, allowing cooler water to rise.

In the warmer western Indian Ocean, more heated air will rise, along with water vapour. This forms clouds, bringing rain. Meanwhile, the eastern part of the Indian Ocean will be cooler and drier. This is why flooding in east Africa can happen at the same time as bushfires in Australia.

The opposite is true for negative dipole events: drier in the western Indian Ocean and wetter in the east.

Under climate change we’re expecting to see more frequent and more extreme positive dipole events – bigger differences between east and west. This is shown by climate model projections. They are believed to be driven by different paces of warming across the tropical Indian Ocean – with western and northern regions projected to warm faster than eastern parts.

Often heavy rain seasons in east Africa are attributed to El Niño, but recent research has shown that the direct impact of El Niño on east African rainfall is actually relatively modest. El Niño’s principal influence lies in its capacity to bring about positive dipole events. This occurs since El Niño events tend to cool the water in the western Pacific Ocean – around Indonesia – which also helps to cool down the water in the eastern Indian Ocean. These cooler temperatures then help kick-start a positive Indian Ocean Dipole.

Examining unprecedented events

Extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole events are rare in the recent climate record. So to examine their potential impacts on rainfall extremes, we used a large set of climate simulations. The data allowed us to diagnose the sensitivity of rainfall to larger Indian Ocean Dipole events in a statistically robust way.

Our results show that as positive dipole events become more extreme, more wet days during the short rains season can be expected. This effect was found to be largest for the frequency of extremely wet days. Additionally, we found that as the dipole strength increases, the influence on the most extreme days becomes even larger. This means that dipole events which are even slightly “record-breaking” could lead to unprecedented levels of seasonal rainfall.

Ultimately, if positive Indian Ocean Dipole seasons increase in frequency, as predicted, regular seasons of flooding impacts will become a new normal.

One aspect not included in our analysis is the influence of a warmer atmosphere on rainfall extremes. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, allowing for the development of more intense rain storms. This effect could combine with the influence of extreme positive dipoles to bring unprecedented levels of rainfall to the Horn of Africa.

2023 was a year of record-breaking temperatures driven both by El Niño and global warming. We might expect that this warmer air could have intensified rain storms during the season. Indeed, evidence from a recent assessment suggests that climate change-driven warming is highly likely responsible for increased rainfall totals.

Responding to an unprecedented future

Policymakers need to plan for this.

In the long term it is crucial to ensure that any new infrastructure is robust to withstand more frequent and heavier rains, and that government, development and humanitarian actors have the capacity to respond to the challenges.

Better use of technology, such as innovations in disseminating satellite rainfall monitoring via mobile phones, can communicate immediate risk. New frontiers in AI-based weather prediction could improve the ability to anticipate localised rain storms, including initiatives focusing on eastern Africa specifically.

Linking rainfall information with hydrological models designed for dryland environments is also essential. These will help to translate weather forecasts into impact forecasts, such as identifying risks of flash flooding down normally dry channels or bank overflow of key rivers in drylands.

These technological improvements are crucial. But better use of the forecast information we already have can also make a big difference. For instance, initiatives like “forecast-based financing”, pioneered by the Red Cross Red Crescent movement, link forecast triggers to pre-approved financing and predefined action plans, helping communities protect themselves before hazards have even started.

For these endeavours to succeed, there must be dialogue between the science and practitioner communities. The scientific community can work with practitioners to integrate key insights into decisions, while practitioners can help to ensure research efforts target critical needs. With this, we can effectively build resilience to natural hazards and resist the increasing risks of our changing climate.The Conversation

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This blog is written by David MacLeod, Lecturer in Climate Risk, Cardiff University; Erik W. Kolstad, Research professor, Uni Research; Cabot Institute for the Environment member Katerina Michaelides, Professor of Dryland Hydrology, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, and Michael Singer, Professor of Hydrology and Geomorphology, Cardiff University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dune: what the climate of Arrakis can tell us about the hunt for habitable exoplanets

Frank Herbert’s Dune is epic sci-fi storytelling with an environmental message at its heart. The novels and movies are set on the desert planet of Arrakis, which various characters dream of transforming into a greener world – much like some envision for Mars today.

We investigated Arrakis using a climate model, a computer program similar to those used to give weather forecasts. We found the world that Herbert had created, well before climate models even existed, was remarkably accurate – and would be habitable, if not hospitable.

However, Arrakis wasn’t always a desert. In Dune lore, 91% of the planet was once covered by oceans, until some ancient catastrophe led to its desertification. What water remained was further removed by sand trout, an invasive species brought to Arrakis. These proliferated and carried liquid into cavities deep underground, leading to the planet becoming more and more arid.

To see what a large ocean would mean for the planet’s climate and habitability, we have now used the same climate model – putting in an ocean while changing no other factors.

When most of Arrakis is flooded, we calculate that the global average temperature would be reduced by 4°C. This is mostly because oceans add moisture to the atmosphere, which leads to more snow and certain types of cloud, both of which reflect the sun’s energy back into space. But it’s also because oceans on Earth and (we assume) on Arrakis emit “halogens” that cool the planet by depleting ozone, a potent greenhouse gas which Arrakis would have significantly more of than Earth.

Map of Arrakis
The authors gathered information from the books and the Dune Encyclopedia to build their original model. Then they added an ocean with 1,000 metres average depth.
Farnsworth et al, CC BY-SA

Unsurprisingly, the ocean world is a whopping 86 times wetter, as so much water evaporates from the oceans. This means plants can grow as water is no longer a finite resource, as it is on desert Arrakis.

A wetter world would be more stable

Oceans also reduce temperature extremes, as water heats and cools more slowly than land. (This is one reason Britain, surrounded by oceans, has relatively mild winters and summers, while places far inland tend to be hotter in summer and very cold in winter). The climate of an ocean planet is therefore more stable than a desert world.

In desert Arrakis, temperatures would reach 70°C or more, while in its ocean state, we put the highest recorded temperatures at about 45°C. That means the ocean Arrakis would be liveable even in summer. Forests and arable crops could grow outside of the (still cold and snowy) poles.

There is one downside, however. Tropical regions would be buffeted by large cyclones since the huge, warm oceans would contain lots of the energy and moisture required to drive hurricanes.

The search for habitable planets

All this isn’t an entirely abstract exercise, as scientists searching for habitable “exoplanets” in distant galaxies are looking for these sorts of things too. At the moment, we can only detect such planets using huge telescopes in space to search for those that are similar to Earth in size, temperature, available energy, ability to host water, and other factors.

Scatter chart of planets comparing habitability and similarity to Earth.
Both desert and ocean Arrakis are considerably more habitable than any other planet we have discovered.
Farnsworth et al, CC BY-SA

We know that desert worlds are probably more common than Earth-like planets in the universe. Planets with potentially life-sustaining oceans will usually be found in the so-called “Goldilocks zone”: far enough from the Sun to avoid being too hot (so further away than boiling hot Venus), but close enough to avoid everything being frozen (so nearer than Jupiter’s icy moon Ganymede).

Research has found this habitable zone is particularly small for planets with large oceans. Their water is at risk of either completely freezing, therefore making the planet even colder, or of evaporating as part of a runaway greenhouse effect in which a layer of water vapour prevents heat from escaping and the planet gets hotter and hotter.

The habitable zone is therefore much larger for desert planets, since at the outer edge they will have less snow and ice cover and will absorb more of their sun’s heat, while at the inner edge there is less water vapour and so less risk of a runaway greenhouse effect.

It’s also important to note that, though distance from their local star can give a general average temperature for a planet, such an average can be misleading. For instance, both desert and ocean Arrakis have a habitable average temperature, but the day-to-day temperature extremes on the ocean planet are much more hospitable.

Currently, even the most powerful telescopes cannot sense temperatures at this detail. They also cannot see in detail how the continents are arranged on distant planets. This again could mean the averages are misleading. For instance, while the ocean Arrakis we modelled would be very habitable, most of the land is in the polar regions which are under snow year-round – so the actual amount of inhabitable land is much less.

Such considerations could be important in our own far-future, when the Earth is projected to form a supercontinent centred on the equator. That continent would make the planet far too hot for mammals and other life to survive, potentially leading to mass extinction.

If the most likely liveable planets in the universe are deserts, they may well be very extreme environments that require significant technological solutions and resources to enable life – desert worlds will probably not have an oxygen-rich atmosphere, for instance.

But that won’t stop humans from trying. For instance, Elon Musk and SpaceX have grand ambitions to create a colony on our closest desert world, Mars. But the many challenges they will face only emphasises how important our own Earth is as the cradle of civilisation – especially as ocean-rich worlds may not be as plentiful as we’d hope. If humans eventually colonise other worlds, they’re likely to have to deal with many of the same problems as the characters in Dune.The Conversation

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment members Dr Alex Farnsworth, Senior Research Associate in Meteorology, and Sebastian Steinig, Research Associate in Paleoclimate Modelling, University of Bristol; and Michael Farnsworth, Research Lead Future Electrical Machines Manufacturing Hub, University of Sheffield. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.