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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: How are the world’s coral reefs doing these days? I haven’t heard much about them lately despite all the recent talk about climate change’s ill effects. – Jo. S., Bowie, MD

Coral reefs are being hit by climate change in just about every way possible. Wildfire, drought and other land-based climate disasters have captured global headlines, but coral reefs have been bleaching at record levels, and as such their future is uncertain. The science of climate change’s impact on coral reefs is simple. As humans pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, the ocean acts as a carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) and dissolving it into acid. As a result, ocean acidity has increased by about 25 percent since the early 19th century, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That acidity is incredibly harmful to coral reefs. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), ocean acidification “decreases growth rates and structural integrity” of coral skeletons, damaging their ability to support the diversity of life that makes up a reef ecosystem.

One of the most immediate threats to coral is ocean temperature increases. Coral reefs exist only in narrow bands of water that stay within a moderate temperature range, not too hot or cold. Even moderate temperature increases can cause thermal stress that contributes to coral bleaching and infectious disease. The ocean has warmed 1.3 degrees (F) since the Industrial Revolution, meaning many reefs are stuck in dangerously hot water. The stress on reef creatures has been immense. When coral polyps—small, anemone-like animals that form the living base of reefs—get stressed, they expel the symbiotic algae that grows on them and provides them with nutrients. This is what’s called coral bleaching. With no algae to feed coral and give it its color, the abandoned coral turns white. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dead, but with no nutrient supply its ability to grow and fight off diseases is significantly hampered.

Warming water also causes stronger and bigger storms, which can destroy entire reef systems as they pass. Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in 2019 and destroyed 30 percent of the islands’ coral reefs. In 2005, Hurricane Rita caused extensive damage to coral reefs in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Texas. Research suggests some storms may at times be beneficial for coral reefs by lowering water temperature. The influx of cool water can reduce heat stress on polyps, according to the Reef Resilience Network. But that temporary relief isn’t enough to make up for long-term warming.

As surface temperatures increase, scientists hope that coral reefs might be able to slowly move themselves into cooler water—or that deep-water reefs already exist undiscovered. Researchers in Tahiti announced in February 2022 that they had found a nearly two-mile-long healthy coral reef in uncharacteristically deep water, leading to speculation that more deep-water reefs might exist in unexplored areas.

Still, the rate of human-caused warming far outpaces the speed at which coral reefs can move. Several start-ups and labs around the world are developing small, human-made coral systems, which could eventually be deposited in the ocean and grow into full reefs. But that technology is still a long way away. Until then, cutting emissions by driving less, using energy-efficient appliances and divesting from fossil fuel companies is the best way individuals can look out for the future of coral reefs.

CONTACTS: EPA on ocean acidification,
epa.gov/ocean-acidification/understanding-science-ocean-and-coastal-acidification#ocean; NOAA, oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/coralreef-climate.html; Tahiti deep-water reef, washingtonpost.com/world/2022/01/20/tahiti-coral-reef-discovery/.

Dear EarthTalk: Any ideas on how to talk to my kids about climate change?

-- J. Rowe, Alea, HI

As our understanding of the human-caused effects on our environment deepens, we find ourselves changing our habits, but we also carry the responsibility of preparing the next generation. A National Public Radio (NPR) poll shows that 84 percent of parents think children should learn about climate change while only 45 percent of parents report having a conversation with their kids on the topic. Breaking the silence around climate change is a key step in developing intergenerational solutions.

Clinical psychologists like Wendy Greenspun caution that parents take a “developmentally sensitive” approach when preparing for climate change conversations. David Sobel, an environmental educator at Antioch University agrees, recommending that children younger than six years old spend time outdoors to foster a close relationship with the natural world. Additionally, Sobel suggests that teaching good habits at a young age is also great place to start. A 2015 study from Brown University shows that routines and habits are formed by age nine, so lessons like turning off the lights to save energy and recycling to reduce plastic pollution will stick with children who learn to do so early on in life.

Addressing tougher climate topics should wait until kids are nine years old, according to Sobel. Keeping in mind that your child may have already heard about climate change, gauging how much they know can be a jumping off point. To introduce the science, Robin Gurwitch, a professor and psychologist at Duke University, suggests using the “blanket analogy,” which explains that the Earth is protected by a layer, like a blanket, that keeps it at the right temperature. Climate change, caused by gases that people put into the air by using lots of energy, adds more blankets around the earth, making it too hot. If questions arise that you are unable to answer, take the opportunity to learn together and keep the conversation going.

The climate crisis is a difficult topic. While maintaining open communication, it is also crucial to avoid damaging the mental health of yourself or your children. Susie Burke, senior psychologist at the Australian Psychological Society, suggests three big-picture responses to cope with climate anxiety. First, emotion-focused coping, which can include anything as simple as spending time with loved ones and taking a break. Next is problem-focused coping which is to “...try to mitigate the actual problem that is causing the stress.” The third is meaning-focused coping, thinking about “how to frame the problem so that we can continue to hope and not collapse into cynicism....”

While interpreting climate change for children involves teaching about seemingly unending challenges, it is important to emphasize the solutions. Children should know that there are scientists all over the world working hard to solve the problem and that regular citizens can help in meaningful ways. Suggest ways to be a part of the solution with small actions that you do together as a family, like a meatless Monday tradition or participation in the Turn It Off Campaign that encourages not idling your car when it is parked. These help make your children part of the solution as they learn about the problem.

CONTACTS: Natural Resources Defense Council, nrdc.org/stories/your-guide-talking-kids-all-ages-about-climate-change; NPR, npr.org/2019/10/22/772266241/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-climate-change; Huffington Post, huffpost.com/entry/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-climate-change-without-giving-them-anxiety_l_5db9d75de4b00d83f7218b16. 

Dear EarthTalk: What exactly is gravity energy storage and why are some environmentalists so bullish on it? -- James McIntosh, New York, NY

Gravity energy storage, whereby engineers harness the energy in gravitational forces by connecting the momentum generated to the electric grid, is a relatively new technology that could serve to revolutionize energy storage given its low carbon footprint and engineering simplicity. Pilot programs to test the technology and bring it to scale are already underway in Switzerland, Scotland and the United States. Environmentalists are bullish about the technology as a way to bolster energy reserves beyond intermittent clean energy sources like solar and wind, and to have a better way to store energy than in costly and environmentally problematic lithium-ion batteries.

So far researchers have isolated two different techniques for harvesting gravity energy. One employs a tower to drop weights from above, harnessing the momentum generated by the gravitational force during the fall. Another uses mineshafts filled with water to float and drop weights. Both types of processes extract energy from electrical sensors attached to the weights generating momentum and pass it directly to the power grid. Typically, about 20 percent of the energy created during a concrete block’s fall is needed to power the weights back up to the top.

Unlike solar and wind power, gravity energy storage isn’t dependent on the sun to shine or the wind to blow for the generation of electricity. Herein lies the great green promise of this new technology since energy can be generated steadily but without the inevitability of pollution from fossil fuels. Besides substituting for fossil fuels, gravity storage can also replace batteries as a way to supply electricity locally and/or back to the grid. This is good news for environmentalists who decry the uptick in lithium mining to supply precious metals for the lithium-ion battery makers. Likewise, the more energy we can derive from the constant renewable source of gravity energy means that much less fossil-fuel derived power we need.

While gravity energy may be green and cheap at scale, developers of the technology face great hurdles to making it publicly available. One major issue is policymakers’ fear of novelty: It’s hard to rewire a system built around fossil fuels. New plants would have to be built. Paying for both the plants and the infrastructure surrounding them would involve replacing existing systems and structures.

But in the end, fossil fuels will ultimately cost us more. Indeed, our addiction to fossil fuels has already resulted in air pollution, rising atmospheric temperatures, contaminated landscapes and even damaged human health.

It may seem strange at first glance that gravity alone can generate so much energy. Yet these simple mechanical operations generate a vast promise for new advancements in energy production that dwarf previous advancements. This innovative discovery may prove to be a sea change regarding the way we generate and store energy moving forward—if only we can build it out to scale.

CONTACTS: Gravity Energy Storage Will Show Its Potential in 2021,
spectrum.ieee.org/gravity-energy-storage-will-show-its-potential-in-2021; Gravity Could Solve Clean Energy’s One Major Drawback, wired.com/story/energy-vault-gravity-storage.


Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that PPE waste is a growing environmental burden these days. Is anyone working on ways to solve this problem? -- B. Jackson, Jewett City, MD

From healthcare workers and teachers, grocery clerks and students, no one has escaped the increased need for personal protective equipment (
PPE) the past two years. Though inarguably a critical agent in preventing the spread of disease, PPE has inadvertently created a new “shadow pandemic”—billions of these single-use items now line streets and parking lots and pollute oceans. Globally, it is estimated that 129 billion facemasks and 65 million pairs of gloves are disposed of each month. “Other than burning [PPE], there is really nothing we can do,” says Sander Defruyt, head of the plastics team at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity aimed at eliminating waste and pollution. “It’s designed to be waste.”

The issue isn’t PPE itself; it’s single-use PPE made from non-reusable materials. Designed to be leak-proof and tear-resistant, disposable PPE can’t be washed and reused, since the cleaning process would compromise the protective integrity. Deepening an already astounding waste mismanagement problem, these throwaway items end up as potentially contaminated pollution simply because they have to.

Luckily, the problem has not gone unnoticed. In the medical community, the case for reusable PPE has gained traction as institutions have developed methods and materials to lengthen the lifecycle of protective gear. Burlington Medical, a maker of durable, reusable medical garments, increased production of their healthcare clothing supplies by 500 percent during the pandemic. They use sustainable materials in their process and operate an on-site medical laundry facility to sterilize PPE. Studies on mask filtration by the Nonwovens Institute (NWI) at North Carolina State led to a partnership with NatureWorks to develop new technology that allows for mask reuse even after chemical cleaning. Globally, companies are testing science-backed efforts to improve mask viability without compromising safety.

Those outside the medical community have access to a variety of sustainable PPE options. French company Geochanvre makes 100 percent biodegradable face masks from hemp, including a recyclable band. Change Plastic for Good developed an additive to make plastic biodegradable, now used to create masks, and MEDU Protection offers washable medical PPE that can be returned for disinfecting and conversion into scrubs and bags. EcoGreen Communities offers compostable face masks, reusable gloves and reduced carbon medical aprons.

The most sustainable option is undoubtedly reusable PPE, but the use of plastic and other disposable protective gear isn’t going away anytime soon. Rather than tossing in the garbage, there is a way to recycle some of these items. TerraCycle offers paid recycling services that collect, inspect and repurpose PPE through a detailed process available through their website, and Thermal Compaction Group (TCG) out of Wales has developed a process that re-engineers specific PPE to resell to the plastics industry.

“Plastics are not the problem; the way the human race discards plastic remains the issue,” says Tim Hourahine, compliance manager at TCG. With PPE becoming part of our daily routine, we have alternative solutions to sustain both our health and the environment.

CONTACTS: Specialty Fabrics Review, specialtyfabricsreview.com/2020/11/01/the-pandemic-is-driving-more-sustainable-ppe/; Startup Makes Biodegradable Face Mask - Planet Home, planethome.eco/planet-friendly-ppe/; TerraCycle, terracycle.com/en-US/pages/ppe-recycling.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org .


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