How Earth’s Most Extreme Environs Are Key to Humanity’s Future

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EVERY YEAR, A SMALL GROUP OF RESEARCHERS embark on the same perilous journey to a remote corner of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (QTP) — also known as the “Roof of the World.”

It’s the planet’s largest and highest plateau stretching between Tibet, China, and India. At nearly 5 kilometers (3 miles) above the sea, the plateau’s as tall as the highest of the Rocky Mountains. Up there, the scientists say, the air is the clearest you’ll ever see. At the surface, prehistoric lakes dot a barren landscape shaped by powerful winds, snow, and widely changing temperatures. At the plateau, “there are magnificent and mysterious sceneries that you can’t find anywhere else,” Ticao Zhang, an associate professor of botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said in an email to Futurism.

Getting there is about as easy as it sounds (read: not at all). The trip starts from either Kathmandu, Nepal, or Chengdu, China. The journey — a short flight, followed by a long trek — takes about a week. Continuous rock-falls and altitude sickness are just two of the problems explorers who take the trek face without fail.

“During the rainy seasons, cars and people can fall off the cliff into the river, because the ground is so slippery,” Zhang said. “Altitude sickness is another problem that takes the inexperienced explorer by surprise. For years, I suffered from headaches and couldn’t carry my bags because I found it difficult to breathe,” he recalled. Locals pass on a little verse about the highest part of the plateau, known as Ali, which Zhang recalled as the biggest challenge: “Sky-high Ali, a Mystic Land in Western Tibet.”

But still, year after year, the scientists make the trek. They do so to collect samples of the unique plants and microbes that, despite the odds, live and thrive there. With its average annual temperature hovering around -4 degrees C (39.2 degrees F), low levels of oxygen, frozen soil, and strong ultraviolet radiation (UV), the plateau is one of the most extreme environments on Earth.

Climate change is only amplifying these inhospitable conditions. Researchers like Zhang suspect that environments like these could indicate what the world could be like if climate change ravages the planet in line with experts’ most extreme predictions.

As weather gets more extreme, seas rise, temperatures escalate, and dry places get drier, crops that traditionally grow in these places will be more difficult to sustain. Agricultural researchers are already working to engineer crops that can withstand a wider range of environmental conditions to feed a growing human population, and some feel that extremophiles — organisms that thrive under extreme conditions — might hold the key. But first, scientists have to understand how plants have evolved throughout millennia to survive under such harsh conditions.

“Understanding how organisms adapt to extreme environments could make a significant contribution to evolutionary ecology,” said Zhang.

However, little genome-based research has been conducted on plants in this region, the most biodiverse of the world’s extreme environments.

Which is exactly why the trek is made in the first place: These researchers are attempting to fill this gap, which may or may not hold the keys to humanity’s survival.

Image Credit: Creative Commons

Value In the Extreme

LIFE PERSISTS where you might least expect it — under polar ice, inside hot springs, on depleted soils of the Himalayan plateau. And the process enabling bacteria to live in these environments isn’t restricted to microbes. Previous studies have explored how humans and vertebrates also evolve to adapt to environments with little oxygen, powerful sunlight, or cold temperatures. Scientists believe that the distinctive life forms that arise as a result may also, in some cases, be genetically unique.

“Extreme environments are those that we think host the highest additional, unexplored diversity,” Nikos Kyrpides, who leads the Genome Biology Program at the Joint Genome Institute of the U.S. Department of Energy, told Futurism. His program invites scientists from across the world to submit their genetic samples — including soils, plants, and microbes — for sequencing and analysis.

Kyrpides explained that places like the surface of the ocean and the planet’s soils have been studied extensively, and the genomes of many of the creatures found there have been sequenced. “But there are remote environments like, for example, deep marine environments, that have not been really explored a lot, and we’ve seen that most of the unknown come from this particular environment, so we know there is a lot still to discover there.”

What scientists find in these extreme environments can be useful for human industry and food security.

In extreme cold, for example, “you have lots of animals that are used to living at zero degrees or just below, and they could potentially have some very useful functions for society,” Melody Clark, a molecular biologist at the British Antarctic Survey, told Futurism. Scientists could look across a range of species that live in these environments for enzymes that make those species well adapted to low temperatures, potentially useful data for industrial products, so we don’t have to use any additional thermal energy to get things to work, Clark said.

For example, Clark explained, “in the Antarctic animals evolve in isolation, and for them living under 0 degrees C is very normal. There are a number of adaptation strategies, think of the icefish that lives with no hemoglobin in the body.”

Scientists can use enzymes extracted from extremophiles living under 0 degrees C to produce detergents that work at room temperature, or to process foods such as cheese and wine at an industrial scale. Some microorganisms that have evolved to survive in highly polluted environments also decontaminate polluted water, a process that scientists call bioremediation.

Hot regions, on the other hand, are going to expand worldwide, Clark said, “so we need to understand what lives there, how they live there, and how we can potentially exploit that,” by adding their genes to our crops. A variety of plants, such as agave and aloe, currently survive high temperatures and drought conditions, she explained, by losing very little water during respiration. The tiny pores on the leaves, called stomata, are programmed to remain closed during the day and open at night when it’s cooler, so they can collect carbon dioxide without losing much water in the process.

Image Credit: Creative Commons

Another example of extreme adaptation: “resurrection” plants, which completely wither during dry periods and come back to life when water is available, Clark said. “Obviously these do not necessarily make good food crops, but by working out how they survive at extreme temperatures, we can then start to identify if we can either introduce some of these traits into current crop plants or adapt these extremophiles as food sources.”

On the Tibetan Plateau, researchers set out to better understand already-discovered species that might prove to be similarly useful.

After a casual meeting through a mutual acquaintance that led to a decade-long partnership, the team of Chinese and British researchers became obsessed with unlocking the secrets of the toughest terrestrial environment on Earth. Over the years, the researchers have zeroed in on several species of plants and bacteria that have evolved to withstand extreme winds, lack of water, and dramatic changes in temperatures typical of the QTP.

The project has passed from one generation of researchers to another; Yang Zhong, one of the scientists who first worked on the QTP, passed away recently, leaving his discoveries as his legacy. The group described the species’ genomes in a series of papers published in a range of scientific journals, including Nature and Scientific Reports, between 2009 and 2016.

“Our work shows that different species have evolved different mechanisms to adapt to the extreme environment of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau,” molecular biologist James Crabbe, Supernumerary Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford University, who took part in several expeditions to the QTP, told Futurism. “For example, the plants we are studying seem to have evolved different cell wall organization and reproduction patterns.”

Cells communicate with one another through a series of chemical signals that control various functions, such as reproduction and the shape of the new cells. Through their work on the Tibetan Plateau, the research team found that the plants and bacteria they were studying contain specific genes that signal cells to produce a stronger outer membrane, making them more able to withstand a harsh environment by reducing water losses. The plants’ genes also caused the organism to produce higher levels of an amino acid that protects key parts of the cell from harmful UV rays.

Crabbe said that identifying genes that help organisms survive in conditions with a lot of carbon dioxide or little water will enable plants to survive under future climate change on the planet. Plants such as the Tibetan variety of the Thale cress, the genome of which the team sequenced in 2016, had thousands of years to adapt to their extreme environment. There is a chance that more parts of the planet will have to contend with similar conditions, but adapt to live with them in less than a century; the genetic codes of these plants could be models from which researchers can engineer future, hardier crops.

A Planet in Flux

THE PRESENT MOMENT is critical for this research, as a growing preponderance of evidence has scientists globally in agreement: the Earth’s climate will become more erratic in coming centuries, turning some regions drier and others wetter.

A recent study in Nature Communications noted that melting polar caps will not only trigger sea level rise, but could also cause other regions such as California to become drier, increasing the risk of desertification and wildfires. And while the 2015 Paris Accord united (almost all) the members of the United Nations in an effort to limit climate change’s damage, models predict that we’re unlikely to meet its ambitious target, leaving fragile ecosystems vulnerable to destruction. The authors of one recent study concluded that, even if the target was reached, we would be left with a significantly drier world.

The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that by 2050, the world’s population will reach 10 billion, and we’ll need about 50 percent more crops than what we’re producing today. In vulnerable regions such as the Horn of Africa, where drought already hinders food production, this could mean the collapse of entire food systems — and ultimately, the death or displacement of millions of people.

But it’s not only developing countries that are at risk. Globally, food prices will become more volatile, as extreme events such as hurricanes or drought hit different parts of the world, endangering or destroying crops. As more people worldwide make money to buy more meat, we’ll need to produce food for animals as well as ourselves, which will deplete soils and increase the need for fertilizers. Experts have suggested some preventative measures, such as meat or carbon taxes, but they wouldn’t be easy to implement.

“In an evolutionary sense, we don’t have any time to adapt,” Nigel Halford, a crop scientist with the nonprofit Rothamsted Research in the United Kingdom, told Futurism. “Plant breeders will have to think about new varieties of crops for an environment that doesn’t exist yet. So that’s the challenge.”

Image Credit: Creative Commons

Discoveries that explain how plants survive in extreme environments such as the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, with unique adaptations that evolved over millions of years, could eventually provide insights on how to engineer crops that can withstand similar conditions, Halford said. “What is it about that specific shape or genotype that has changed to enable it to adapt to extreme environments? You can look at how all the genes are active at a particular time, under a particular stress and you can compare this ecotype with something that you are growing now in the U.K.” he said. “What’s different? What’s enabling them to cope with that extreme environment?”

From Tibet to Kitchen Table

WHILE THESE DEVELOPMENTS encourage the researchers in their pursuit of weird life on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, there is still a long way to go before what they learn can be integrated into our crops. First, they have to ensure that these genetic changes are actually behind the specific adaptations that make the plants and bacteria successful, not some random mutation or other factor they didn’t take into account. “We have shown that these genes are enhanced in the plants that have survived,” said Crabbe, “but the question is: Are those genes actually involved in the adaptation?” The team is now studying the physiology of the plants and microbes to try and answer the question.

To do so, the scientists will grow the plants under controlled conditions, to understand how the unique genetics and proteins of the plants collected on the QTP translate into the hardiness that guarantees the species’ survival. Plants such as the Tibetan Thale Cress, for example, might flower more quickly in order to preserve energy under extreme conditions, Crabbe explained. That’s what a lot of the initial experiments are showing: different ways that plants find to conserve energy.

“You have to look at how plants survive, and only after that you can think about how to make them more productive under extreme conditions,” Crabbe said.

Crabbe and Zhang aren’t the only ones studying organisms in extreme environments to augment our food supply. While they focus on understanding what keeps plants alive, other researchers are studying ways in which crops can produce more food in less space, all outside the conventional environments where farmers usually grow them. Instead of searching for hardy plants in remote corners of the world, researchers from the University of Illinois are looking at species that we already use for food as the best bet to boost food security fast.

Their project, Soy Free-Air Gas Concentration Enrichment (SoyFACE) helps the researchers evaluate the impact of an altered atmosphere, higher temperature, and limited water on crops such as soybeans and maize. Their goal: to isolate those that perform better under environmental stress. Individual crops — or their genetic traits — that perform well under future environmental conditions could help researchers develop new breeds to feed the world.

Image Credit: SoyFACE

To achieve that, they devised a ring-like structure that surrounds large swathes of crops, exposing them to higher levels of carbon dioxide and ozone. The facility recreates the atmospheric compositions predicted for 2050, when carbon dioxide is expected to reach 600 parts per million (ppm), more than double the levels seen at the start of the Industrial Revolution (around 260 ppm).

The ring releases gases that spread with the wind. Because of its architecture, the ring traps the gases without letting them disperse.

The ability to engineer crops that work under these particular conditions “is definitely something that we need in our toolbox,” Steve Long, a crop scientist at the University of Illinois who is working on the project SoyFACE,told Futurism. “I think there is no one solution to it, and if you look at the urgency of the situation we really need to be pursuing all of it.”

For a growing number of ecosystems, and the unique species perfectly adapted to them, time is running out. Many fear that the organisms living in extreme environments will disappear before we can even discover them, but the researchers on their way to the QTP don’t fret. When the time comes, they embark on the same journey once again, in search of humble plants hiding those special genes, diamonds in the rough.

Research into crop engineering is progressing quickly, but the scientists show their sense of urgency in their persistence, their willingness to expend the energy and resources to make the same trek, year after year, in the hope of pushing their knowledge just a tiny bit further.

“The genetic resources currently at our disposal were obtained from various plants commonly available and already classified,” said Zhang. “But there are many organisms that have yet to be discovered, which carry new genetic resources we could exploit.”

This patient hunt, he believes, will have huge implications for future generations. It could be the hunt for our survival — an answer, of course, that starts somewhere life’s least likely to persist.

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Congratulations, Elon Musk: Earth’s First Interplanetary Litterbug

The images are striking: a human-like figure, inside a cherry red Tesla Roadster, the Earth looming in the distance. And who, really, would want to be a killjoy about this?

SpaceX launched that car and its dummy passenger, decked out in SpaceX’s new spacesuit, and blasting David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” into space on its Falcon Heavy rocket on Tuesday. The company’s stated goal? To send the Roadster into Mars’ orbit.

The visuals are nothing short of arresting. Inspiring, even. But inspiring what, exactly?

When you start to ask questions, they pile up. Quickly.

What purpose does the Roadster actually serve? Why isn’t SpaceX isn’t running any tests on the vehicle? Or on the spacesuit? The kinds of tests that could, say, help the company evaluate its technology for its highly-anticipated manned mission to Mars? Because the facts are thus: The dummy isn’t exactly gonna be taking hot laps around Mars. The electric vehicle won’t somehow end up on the planet’s surface ready to drive for inevitable human visitors. And so on.

So while the launch might be a precedent-setting event for private space exploration, it’s difficult to see past the P.T. Barnum-based aspects of it as a marketing stunt — and one that also adds willy-nilly to the growing collection of space junk collecting around Earth. And yeah: Space junk is a serious problem.

There are more than 500,000 pieces of debris orbiting Earth. This space junk poses a real danger for astronauts, spacecraft, and satellites, which could collide with the stuff – throwing the active craft out of orbit or even damaging it beyond repair. As we’ve sent more missions to Mars, humans have begun cluttering up that planet’s orbit, too. The Tesla roadster is destined to become the most recent addition. That’s dangerous for future Martian astronauts (imagine if Sandra Bullock got clipped by a cherry red Roaster blasting David Bowie instead of a satellite. Because, uh, it could actually happen), not to mention irresponsible. Nothing says “good samaritans of the solar system” like treating another planet like our species’ personal garbage dump.

If the Tesla isn’t doing any good at its destination, then perhaps it provides some benefit back on Earth. Here, its value becomes clear: the beautiful images of a car in space allow Musk to sell more cars.

Musk is, of course, no stranger to atypical marketing schemes — his companies have sold logo-emblazoned hats, donated batteries to hospitals in hurricane-wrecked Puerto Rico, and hawked flamethrowers on social media. All of these endeavors have, of course, added to Musk’s astronomical wealth. And as much as you might begrudge him potentially endangering the lives of future Mars-bound astronauts, within the context of selling a show, the knack for marketing is almost as ground-breaking as the launch itself. Launching a nearly 3,000-pound car on top of a rocket isn’t exactly free, but it’s a pretty compelling medium for selling more product.

We’re gonna be seeing photos like the one above for years to come. Maybe it’ll even convince some people to buy a Tesla. To that end: Game recognize game. Here’s hoping nobody ends up on the losing side of Musk’s game, in a future either far off or not-too-distant, by getting into an intergalactic fender bender with Musk’s floating lemon.

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A tiny NASA satellite mapped Earth’s atmospheric ice

Last May, NASA launched a small, bread loaf-sized satellite into orbit around Earth. Dubbed IceCube, the satellite's mission was to measure cloud ice in our planet's atmosphere — a challenging task that researchers have previously only been able to…
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The Earth’s Magnetic Poles Are Overdue for a Switch

Field Flipping

Earth’s magnetic field is pretty adept at flipping polarity. The poles have swapped, reversing north and south, many times over the planet’s history. Within the last 20 million years, Earth has fallen into the pattern of pole reversal every 200,000 to 300,000 years, and between successful swaps, the poles sometimes even attempt to reverse and then snap back into place.

About 40,000 years ago, the poles made one such unsuccessful attempt, and the last full swap was about 780,000 years ago, so we’re a bit overdue for a pole reversal based on the established pattern. The planet’s magnetic field is already shifting, which could signify the poles are preparing to flip, and while we can’t yet confirm that a reversal is on the near horizon, it is well within the realm of possibility.

While a pole reversal isn’t entirely uncommon when you consider Earth’s history, this time it could have serious implications for humanity.

To try to determine whether or not a flip is imminent, scientists have begun using satellite imagery and complex calculations to study the shifting of the magnetic field. They’ve found that molten iron and nickel are draining energy from the dipole at the edge of the Earth’s core, which is where the planet’s magnetic field is generated.

They also found that the north magnetic pole is especially turbulent and unpredictable. If the magnetic blocks become strong enough to sufficiently weaken the dipole, the poles will officially switch.

Again, while it is not a certainty that the switch will happen soon, this activity at the Earth’s core suggests that it is possible in the near future. So, how might a pole switch impact our lives?

Electronic Nightmare

The Earth’s magnetic field protects the planet from solar and cosmic rays. When the poles switch, this protective shield could diminish to as little as one-tenth of its typical ability. The switching process could take centuries, and the entire time, radiation would be able to get closer to the planet than usual.

Eventually, this radiation could reach the surface of the Earth, rendering some regions uninhabitable and causing entire species to go extinct. Before that happened, though, a weakened magnetic field would likely impact orbiting satellites, which have suffered from memory failure and other damage when exposed to such radiation in the past.

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Damage to satellites caused by decreased protection from the magnetic field could affect the satellite timing systems that control electric grids. These grids could fail, leading to worldwide blackouts that experts predict could last for decades.

Without functioning electric grids, we couldn’t use cell phones, household appliances, and so much more. The sudden blackouts would have hospitals scrambling for backup power sources, putting countless lives at risk. GPS technology would also be compromised, affecting everything from military operations to our ability navigate our cars.

Additionally, we are becoming more reliant on technology by the day, with autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence (AI), and other innovations all advancing rapidly. By the time a pole switch did take place, these innovations could be a regular part of our daily lives, furthering the potential for disruption.

We Can Survive

It’s true that we live in an age where data rules all. From how we communicate to how we get around to how our governments and critical facilities run, it all comes down to how we send and store data, so if the world’s satellites are damaged or rendered nonfunctional, life as we know it could forever change.

But this isn’t a doomsday prediction. While the poles will inevitably flip again at some point, our ability to recognize this possibility in advance allows us to prepare for it.

For starters, satellite companies can begin to collaborate, sharing ideas with one another on how to equip satellites to deal with a pole reversal. Government and university researchers can focus their efforts on developing new satellites specifically designed to withstand extreme radiation and space weather.

Governments, businesses, and communities can come together to form action plans. They can find ways to store energy and ensure the public is educated on the subject of pole reversal, so that when it happens, the situation won’t cause widespread panic.

Earth’s poles have been switching for millions of years, and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The best thing we can do is prepare now so we’re ready the next time it happens.

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We’ve Finally Recorded the Earth’s Mysterious Song

A Humming Planet

Like a permanent undertone to the dissonance of busy urban centers or nature’s own harmonious melodies, the Earth itself hums a low-frequency tune. The permanent drone, which has baffled scientists for a while now, comes from continuous vibrations too faint to be detected without a specialized instrument.

Now, for the first time ever, scientists have captured Earth’s hum — its “song,” if you will. They measured the constant humming from from the Indian Ocean seafloor using special spherical Ocean-Bottom Seismometers (OCBs).

“It’s like taking a piano and slamming all the keys at the same time,” Spahr Webb, a professor at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory not associated with the study, told National Geographic. “Except they’re not nice harmonics. They’re oddball frequencies.”

An Ocean-Bottom Seismometer being dropped into the sea, where it measured Earth's hum from the ocean floor. Image credit: RHUM-RUM experiment/Meteor Cruise
An Ocean-Bottom Seismometer being dropped into the sea. (Image credit: RHUM-RUM experiment/Meteor Cruise)

From September 2012 to November 2013, the researchers deployed 57 of these OCBs, and measured several frequencies between 2.9 and 4.5 millihertz. That’s 10,000 times lower than the average human hearing threshold, the researchers noted in their study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Measuring Movement

Scientists have known that the Earth produces this “humming” since at least 1959, but haven’t yet identified what exactly is causing it. The hum doesn’t appear to be caused by earthquakes, which happen sporadically as the earth releases stress; in contrast, Earth’s hum goes on continually.

Some theories suggest atmospheric disturbances, or the movement of ocean waves over the seafloor, trigger the continuous vibrations. Webb, who has also been searching for the hum’s cause, told the Washington Post he thought ocean waves were the most likely source, “banging on the sea floor pretty much all the way around the Earth.”

Attempts to measure the low-frequency drone had previously attempted using seismometers based on land. Now, the new measurement taken from the ocean suggests that the humming occurs globally, which the researchers found by stripping data from other vibrations — like ocean currents, waves, seismic activity and glitches — from their recordings, and comparing the recorded hum with measurements taken by a land-based station in Algeria.

Combining the measurements taken from land seismometers and the new numbers from the OCBs, the researchers said that their findings can provide new insight into the mechanisms behind the Earth’s hum. Aside from this, their study could also help map the inside of the Earth with more detailed accuracy, the researchers pointed out.

“Earth is constantly in movement, and we wanted to observe these movements because the field could benefit from having more data,” lead researcher Martha Deen from the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris said in a press statement.

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NASA: Hole in Earth’s Ozone Layer is the Smallest It’s Been Since 1988

Holey Relief

In 1987, 197 countries signed the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to stop releasing chemicals that were eating away a hole in our planet’s ozone layer. In a rare scientific triumph, the hole in the ozone layer has just about returned to the size it was at the time of the protocol’s signing: at its peak size in September, NASA reported that the hole was about 7.6 million square miles wide, the smallest it has been at peak since 1988.

Unfortunately, we may have solved one global problem with another, arguably bigger one. Warmer temperatures in the low pressure system that rotates above Antarctica, known as the Antarctic vortex, prevented many stratospheric clouds from forming; it’s within these clouds that the first steps that lead to ozone-destroying reactions occur. In other words, we could have global warming to thank.

“Weather conditions over Antarctica were a bit weaker and led to warmer temperatures, which slowed down ozone loss,” said Paul A. Newman, chief Earth scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, to the Washington Post. “It’s like hurricanes. Some years there are fewer hurricanes that come onshore…this is a year in which the weather conditions led to better ozone [formation].”

Video Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Kathryn Mersmann

The hole in the ozone layer was first clearly detected in 1984, by British Antarctic Survey scientists monitoring the atmosphere. After the team published their discovery in 1985, it spurred an international effort to reduce ozone-depleting compounds, specifically chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were then commonly used as refrigerants. When the sun’s rays hit the chemically active forms of chlorine and bromine that come from these compounds, they produce reactions that destroy ozone.

Given that the ozone layer is primarily responsible for filtering out dangerous ultraviolet radiation from the sun, closing this hole — and preventing new ones from forming — is certainly good news. What’s more, the story of how we got here could be informative in addressing climate change as well.

International Cooperation is Fixing the Ozone Layer

Though climate contributed specifically to the reduction in ozone hole size we saw this year, the global reduction in atmospheric levels of CFCs following the Montreal Protocol has been the main reason that the hole in the ozone layer has continued shrinking.

Because CFCs hang around in the atmosphere for decades, scientists estimate that it will take until 2070 for the hole to return to the size it was in 1980. However, if this reduction hadn’t happened, NASA modelers estimate that by 2020 we would have seen 17% of global ozone destroyed, with holes above both the Arctic and Antarctic; by 2065, global ozone would have been almost entirely depleted.

Ian Rae, honorary professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne, wrote in The Conversation that while no single factor led to the Montreal Protocol’s success, the strong leadership and open discussion during negotiation enabled “a genuine exchange of views and the opportunity to take some issues on trust.”

Including scientists in the negotiations lent credibility to the discussion; and because the science wasn’t concrete at the time, the negotiators developed a highly flexible agreement that could be retooled as the science became clearer.

Durwood Zaelke, founder and president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, told Motherboard that efforts to address climate change could learn from the Montreal Protocol by breaking it into “more manageable pieces, where you can focus on solving that one piece.”

Additionally, while climate agreements like the Montreal and Paris agreement are voluntary, trade sanctions that allowed signatories to trade only with other signatories — used as a last resort — were a big factor in getting other countries to sign up for the Montreal Protocol.

It’s true that CFCs were never as controversial as climate change, and that greenhouse gas emissions come from many more sources than the refrigerants we had to limit to save our planet’s ozone. Yet the levels of international cooperation that we saw are worth taking a lesson from — especially given the successes we see now.

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An Underwater “Continent” Could Reveal Secrets About Earth’s Distant Past

Under the Sea

Tens of millions of years ago, a landmass that’s being referred to as Zealandia was largely submerged beneath the Pacific Ocean. This summer, a team of scientists set out on an underwater expedition using an advanced research vessel, and the results might yield brand-new insight into Earth’s prehistory.

More than thirty scientists from twelve different countries were present on the two-month excursion. By drilling into the ocean floor some 4,000 feet below the surface, they were able to collect 8,000 feet of sediment cores that will give us a glimpse into geological processes that have taken place over the last 70 million years.

“The cores acted as time machines for us allowing us [sic] to reach further and further back in time, first seeing the ancient underwater avalanches then evidence of rocks forged from a fiery origin,” wrote Stephen Pekar, one of the scientists who took part in the study, in a blog post. “One could imagine somewhere near by on Zealandia laid mountains that belched fiery rocks and rolling smoke.”

It’s thought that Zealandia broke off from Australia between 60 and 85 millions years ago, forming New Zealand and other islands in the region. However, there’s still some debate as to whether or not it could be classified as a continent in its own right.

In February 2017, Northwestern University geologist Michael Scotese told National Geographic that while it was continental, it wasn’t a continent. He compared its relationship with Australia to the link between North America and Greenland, and Africa and Madagascar.

Fossil Finds

Over the course of the expedition, over 8,000 fossils were found, giving the team an opportunity to study hundreds of different species. Knowing more about the creatures that inhabited Zealandia before it was submerged allows scientists to make informed guesses about what conditions were like.

Image credit: subarcticmike

“The discovery of microscopic shells of organisms that lived in warm shallow seas, and of spores and pollen from land plants, reveal that the geography and climate of Zealandia were dramatically different in the past,” read a statement from Gerald Dickens, who led the voyage.

Based on the remains that have been found, it’s thought that land-based animals once roamed around Zealandia. The region would have served as a bridge that could be used to cross between continents, according to a report from The Guardian.

Back to Zealandia

It’s expected that the findings of this expedition will help us better comprehend how life propagated through the South Pacific, and offer some fresh perspective to the debate as to whether or not Zealandia is a continent. Despite the region being well-known to geologists, this is the first peer-reviewed paper to look at it in detail.

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The sediment cores and fossils gathered on this trip have given researchers plenty to work with now that they have returned home, but the expedition’s organizers are already eager to make their return.

There are hopes that further study could produce more information about climate change, relating to the history of Zealandia’s climate millions of years ago and today. A vessel equipped with drilling equipment is set to visit regions close to New Zealand, Australia, and Antarctica in 2018.

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