The Weekly Anthropocene: November 8 2023
Sea turtles nests galore in Florida, malaria vaccines saving lives, brown bears in the Pyrenees, IRA jobs boom, new wind farms mean new artificial reefs, a battery-electric freight train, and more!
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Sea turtles are having a record nesting year across the state of Florida, with a reported 212,000 sea turtle nests across the state in 2023 so far, up from 151,000 in 2022. Nest numbers have grown particularly fast in Florida’s 72-mile “Space Coast” stretch of beach near Cape Canaveral, which has seen over 52,500 in 2023 so far: 31,893 green sea turtle nests, 20,545 loggerhead1 sea turtle nests, 61 leatherback sea turtle nests, and 3 Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nests. Some parts of summer 2023 saw over 300 new nests made per night! The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge (part of the Space Coast) saw 13,683 green sea turtle nests by July 21, 2023, up from the 4,638 nests seen in the refuge by that time in 2022 and just 5 to 10 nests per year in the 1980s. Decades of conservation efforts are paying off! As climate change warms and weirds the world’s oceans2, it’s good to see that sea turtles finally have safe strongholds in which to breed. Great news.
Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi
Human civilization’s two shiny new malaria vaccines (RTS,S aka Mosquirix and the newer mRNA-based R21/Matrix-M) are both doing spectacularly!
A new analysis has been released covering the results of a four-year RTS,S rollout that has vaccinated nearly 2 million young children in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi since 2019. The researchers found that the vaccine reduced deaths in young children that got all three doses by 13% compared to unvaccinated children. And note that that’s not “reduced deaths from malaria by 13%.” The malaria vaccine prevented 13% of all children’s deaths from all causes! This is a great victory. Seventeen more African countries will start rolling out RTS,S doses next year.
Furthermore, the World Health Organization is now officially recommending R21 for the prevention of malaria in children, following the official RTS,S recommendation in 2021. R21 doses will be joining the fight on the ground by mid-2024.
For context on all this, almost half a million children die from malaria each year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, and scientists have long worried that climate change will expand malaria’s area of effect. These new malaria vaccines have a good chance at being the most effective life-saving tools in the world over the next decade, blunting the impact of climate change and sparing tens or hundreds of thousands of children from painful, pointless deaths. Great news!
“As a malaria researcher, I used to dream of the day we would have a safe and effective vaccine against malaria. Now we have two.”
Concentrated solar thermal (CST) technology uses arrays of mirrors to focus sunlight on a central tower, which can then use that heat to generate electricity. It works well, but it’s gotten relatively little attention lately: the better-known solar photovoltaic panels tend to be more cost-effective. Now, Australian research agency CSIRO has made a breakthrough: by placing fine sand-like ceramic particles in the central tower, CST solar can become a battery-like power storage technology. The ceramic sand is heated up by the mirrors during the day, then can store heat for up to 15 hours, able to provide heat for electricity generation at night and during cloudy periods.
CST now looks set to join the rapidly growing pantheon of decarbonization-speeding electricity storage technologies, alongside lithium-ion batteries, pumped hydro, sodium batteries, iron-air batteries, giant spinning flywheels and more! Great work.
One of the many exciting new public health developments this century is the World Mosquito Program, a global initiative which works to wipe out the suite of diseases spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito (including dengue fever, chikungunya, Zika fever and yellow fever, but not malaria). Aedes aegypti is currently expanding its range worldwide due to climate change, so work to prevent its disease-spreading is extremely valuable. The WMP releases Aedes aegypti mosquitoes inoculated with Wolbachia bacteria, which prevent the mosquitoes from carrying diseases (essentially by out-competing the viruses for resources within the mosquito’s body!) and can be passed on to the mosquitoes’ offspring, eventually spreading through the entire mosquito population and preventing them from transmitting diseases.
Now, the WMP’s largest continuous release program has reported highly successful results! Wolbachia mosquitoes have been released in the Colombian cities of Bello, Medellín, and Itagüí since 2015, and dengue fever incidence has now dropped “by 95% in Bello and Medellín and by 97% in Itagüí.” There hasn’t been a major dengue outbreak in the region since the project began. The WMP is now working to scale up, with a planned factory in Brazil set to produce 5 billion Wolbachia mosquitoes per year. This technology has the potential to prevent immense human suffering! Great work.
In France, there were only five brown bears left (with just one female) in the Pyrenees Mountains by 1991, but the tide began to turn when two new females were reintroduced from Slovenia in 1996. Now, there are 76 brown bears spread across the mountain range, and a local civic group called Pays de l’Ours (Land of the Bear) is monitoring the population and educating local humans on living alongside bears. (Pictured above: a Pays de l’Ours video of “Sorita” and her two cubs in August 2023). Yet another awesome chapter in the epic saga of Europe’s great Anthropocene rewilding!
A recent report calculated that the wave of clean energy projects already announced since the IRA was passed in August 2022 will bring 211,000 direct American jobs, around half of them in battery manufacturing! The Biden Manufacturing Boom continues to bear fruit.
And a separate report, from business group E2, estimated that the same new post-IRA clean energy projects will likely bring 403,000 new American jobs, a higher tally counting “indirect” jobs supported by new workers’ household spending in addition to jobs directly working on clean energy projects.
While several proposed U.S. offshore wind projects have been canceled recently due to financial difficulties, many others are speeding ahead. The 132-megawatt South Ford Wind project off Long Island and the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind 1 project off Massachusetts are both at the “steel in the water” phase, actively under construction. And on October 31, 2023, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has approved Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind, a planned 176-turbine, 2.5-gigawatt (2,500 MW) offshore wind project. The first monopile foundations have already arrived at the offshore site, and the CVOW project is currently on time, under budget, and should be complete and generating enough power for up to 660,000 homes by 2026! Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind will be the largest wind farm in American history.
Notably, the two already-built demo offshore wind turbines in Virginian waters are known for having become a new haven for marine life (like many other wind farms). CVOW’s upcoming 176 turbines will likely create an amazing new artificial reef ecosystem in the Atlantic, as well as providing abundant clean electrons to help fight climate change and air pollution! Spectacular news.
In the Atlantic, about 27 miles off the Virginia Beach coast, schools of fish congregate around what looks like a large cylinder covered in algae. Mussels glom onto the structure. Even the occasional sea turtle or giant ocean sunfish pays a visit.
The source of this bustling underwater scene is somewhat unlikely — a wind turbine…
Mussels, algae, mahi, seabass, baitfish and more circle the structure or set up shop directly on it…Holes in the turbine to release pressure and allow water to ebb and flow have also led to marine life passing through or residing inside.
The Biden Administration is making available more federal funding, resources, and guidance to help speed the conversion of vacant offices and other commercial properties into new energy-efficient housing. This is a climate win on multiple levels: more housing in city centers leads to denser, more walkable and bikeable, and lower-emitting neighborhoods!
The U.S. Department of Energy will be spending up to $440 million to install rooftop solar and battery storage systems for 30,000-40,000 vulnerable households in Puerto Rico.
Tesla announced that it’s building the largest rooftop solar project in the world to date: a 70,000 panel, 30-MW installation atop their giant new EV factory in East Austin, Texas.
BP, historically an oil company, announced that it will spend $100 million to buy Tesla ultrafast chargers (now effectively the American standard for future EV models) to develop its own “bp pulse”-branded EV charging network. This is the first time Tesla will sell its chargers, as well as one of the biggest EV charging investments by an oil company.
The world’s first battery-powered heavy-haul freight train was unveiled in Erie, Pennsylvania on October 31, 2023! Made by Pennsylvania locomotive company Wabtec, it will undergo track tests in America and then be shipped to Australia to work for the Roy Hill iron ore mining company. (It’s hot pink because Roy Hill’s chair is involved in breast cancer-related philanthropy). Wabtec is also currently working on an order for four more electric trains for another Australian mining site.
As battery technology advances rapidly, we’re seeing more and more heavy machinery developments like this around the world. The first jobsite with all-electric construction equipment (excavators, etc) started work in Oslo, Norway in 2020, Caterpillar tested a giant battery-electric mining truck in Texas in 2022, and the IEA reports that “In 2022, 54 000 new electric buses and an estimated 52 000 electric medium- and heavy-duty trucks were sold in China.” Now, battery-electric freight trains are joining the party! And the potential benefits are vast, even beyond the contribution to decarbonization. A 2021 study found that diesel freight trains in the U.S. currently cause $6.5 billion in health costs and 1,000 premature deaths from from air pollution each year. The renewables revolution is bringing a multidimensionally better world—let’s go as fast as we can!
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One study found that loggerhead sea turtles carry an average of 34,000 tiny animals (like shrimp and crustacean larvae) on their shells. A lot of other creatures benefit when we protect charismatic megafauna like sea turtles!
One notable side effect of climate change is “feminization” of turtle eggs, with some major green sea turtle nesting sites producing 99% or more female hatchlings. Fortunately, some nesting sites, like Papua New Guinea’s Conflict Islands, appear to still be producing lots of male hatchlings (likely due to abundant rainfall and shade keeping things cool). We’re also lucky that warmer temperatures lead to more female sea turtles rather than more males, for obvious reasons!