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EARTH Magazine October 2018

Each month, EARTH Magazine brings the latest news and information about the science of the Earth, energy, and the environment in a colorful and approachable format ideal for all. All EARTH stories come straight from the actual published science and tells the real story behind the headlines.

United States
American Geological Institute
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from the editor

Six years ago this month, Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, killing more than 100 people and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage. Most of the destruction was caused by extreme flooding brought on not just by heavy rain but also by storm surge. Since then, multiple scientific studies have reported that such flooding is only going to grow more common with rising seas, making storm surges more perilous. Some coastal cities, like New York, where Sandy flooded subway tunnels and streets and knocked out power for close to a week, have been developing plans to combat encroaching seas and increased flood risks. And they’re getting some much-needed help from people who have been expertly battling the seas for centuries: the Dutch. In our cover story, “Dutch Masters: The…

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why is it so hard to teach climate change?

Climate change was in the national spotlight this past summer when The New York Times Magazine devoted its entire Aug. 5, 2018, issue — except for the beloved puzzle section — to Nathaniel Rich’s article “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” As it happens, “Losing Earth” added a puzzle of its own. Late in his 30,000-word article, Rich wrote that he looked forward to the day when “the young will amass enough power to act” on climate change. But he neglected to ask whether they will have the knowledge to do so, in light of what is and isn’t being taught about the topic now. The evidence to inform the answer is available, but it is not encouraging. As multiple studies have independently demonstrated, more than 97 percent…

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sunny southern california burns, missing its coastal clouds

Coastal Southern California is famous for cloudless blue skies all summer long, but it hasn’t always been that way. A new study indicates that cloud cover has decreased dramatically over the beaches between Los Angeles and San Diego since the 1970s. And that could affect fires in the region. People who love clear blue skies over the beach have the urban heat-island effect to thank for Southern California’s cloudless skies: Heat radiating off pavement and buildings and generated by human activities tends to raise urban temperatures. “As you warm Earth’s surface, you need to go higher in the sky to find a place that’s cool enough to support clouds,” says Park Williams, a bio climatologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University and lead author of the new study, published in…

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dry rivers secretly star in carbon cycle

In arid environments, some seasonal rivers and streams spend more time as dry riverbeds than they do as flowing waterways. A new study is giving scientists a clearer understanding of how these intermittently dry streambeds contribute to the global carbon cycle. Seasonally dry riverbeds and ephemeral streams make up more than half of the global river network, but they are often overlooked by those who study riparian ecosystems, according to the new study published in Nature Geoscience. An international team of scientists surveyed carbon-rich plant litter in 212 intermittent waterways across a variety of climate zones on every continent except Antarctica. “There is a substantial amount of plant litter that accumulates in dry riverbeds, and when they flow again this material can break down rapidly,” said Nathan Waltham of James Cook University…

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methane emissions offset some blue carbon burial benefits

Wetlands are prolific sinks for atmospheric carbon. They pull carbon dioxide out of the air and sequester the carbon in plants, soils and sediments. But there’s a catch: Wetlands also emit methane, an even more potent, albeit far less abundant, greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Two new studies, one measuring methane emissions from a rehabilitated freshwater peatland in California and the other looking at emissions from tropical mangrove forests in Australia, are revealing that these so-called “blue carbon” sinks may emit much more methane than previously thought. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Northern California’s Central Valley is an expansive estuary that covers 2,800 square kilometers at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Organic matter built up over the last 5,000 years has produced layers of carbon-rich peat up…

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earth’s first footprints

As far as we know, life originated on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago, and for roughly the first 3 billion years of that history all life was microscopic. Then, during the Ediacaran Period from 635 million to 541 million years ago, the first organisms visible to the naked eye emerged. Although many members of this group, called the Ediacara biota, would have looked alien to us, some nonetheless had features we might find familiar. And according to a new study, it was Ediacaran creatures that left behind Earth’s oldest-known footprints. Researchers working in China discovered rocks bearing trackways of a creature that scurried over the ancient seafloor. “The main finding is potential trace fossil evidence for the presence of paired appendages,” says Shuhai Xiao, a paleontologist at Virginia Tech and…