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Climate Change and Chocolate

If melting polar ice doesn’t make you take climate change seriously, then how about the rising cost of chocolate? Those in the candy biz are forecasting a global chocolate shortage, brought on by rising consumption in developing countries, a decline in cocoa output due to adverse growing conditions, and the clamor for cocoa-intense dark chocolate among discerning consumers. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

According to a study by Euromonitor International cited in the Boston Globe, chocolate prices in the United States are forecasted to rise 45 percent in 2014 over 2012 prices. In September 2013 chocolate reached an all-time high of $12.25 a kilogram, itself a 45 percent increase over 2007 prices. While consumers can expect to pay more for their candy bars, manufacturers may also change their ingredients to keep costs down. They may substitute less expensive—and more problematic—ingredients for those that are hard to come by. Palm oil instead of cocoa butter may be a common solution. The problem with this is that palm oil is high in saturated fats, the kind that’s bad for you and raises your cholesterol. Artificial additives and fillers are likely to make up a larger percentage of the ingredients of lower-quality chocolate products. Caveat emptor, purists.

Theobroma cacao plant with mature seed pods.

Theobroma cacao plant with mature seed pods.

What’s Behind the Low Production?

Cacao trees, i.e., Theobroma cacao, like the Coffea plant responsible for our favorite caffeinated beverage, are grown in monoculture situations, mostly by subsistence farmers who don’t have the resources to invest in the fertilizers and other crop enhancements that will protect their crops and raise their yields. Impoverished Ivory Coast produces 40 percent of the world’s cocoa, with Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, and Indonesia bringing up the rear. In Ivory Coast specifically, lack of rain in the past several seasons has led to a lower than normal harvest and thus higher prices.

Even under optimal growing conditions, many cacao farmers also lack the knowledge of sustainable growing practices and pest management techniques that are common to monoculture elsewhere. Thus, their cacao beans are susceptible to pests and disease, including a nasty condition called witches’ broom.

Cacao beans in the pod, before being roasted and processed into cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and cocoa liquor and delivered to your mouth to satisfying your craving.

Cacao beans in the pod, before being roasted and processed into cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and cocoa liquor and delivered to your mouth to satisfying your craving.

Though recent price hikes are due to demand and short-term bad weather, the big picture remains grim. Farmers in Indonesia have been clear-cutting forests to grow palm trees and harvest palm oil which has led to the habitat destruction of the orangutan (among other species of plants and animals), and many farmers in Ivory Coast have switched from cacao to rubber farming because it provides higher and more stable returns. In the long run, however, climate change may wreak havoc on the industry. The ideal conditions for growing the cacao plant are narrow, which explains why most of the world’s cacao comes from a few countries. Moving production to other areas isn’t the greatest idea, says Rachel Cernansky of Treehugger:  “the ideal conditions for cocoa-growing will shift to higher altitudes—but most of West Africa is relatively flat, so there is not a lot of land at higher elevation to move to. But even where there is higher land, establishing new cocoa-producing areas could trigger the clearing of forests and important habitats for flora and fauna. Which means, yes, exacerbating climate change even further.”

Enter Science

But beleaguered cacao farmers aren’t entirely on their own. Researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), led by Peter Laderach, have assessed likely future scenarios using conservative climate models and summarized their findings in their 2011 report Predicting the Impact of Climate Change on the Cocoa-Growing Regions in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.

Here’s the color-coded version of what they found:

Map of Ghana and Ivory Coast showing suitability for cocoa production in 2011.

Map of Ghana and Ivory Coast showing suitability for cocoa production in 2011.

Same map showing climate suitability for cocoa production in 2050 according to the researchers' climate prediction modeling.

Same map showing climate suitability for cocoa production in 2050 according to the researchers' climate prediction modeling.

The resolution on these maps is poor, but you get the idea: The amount of green from the first image to the second declines drastically. That’s a warning cry for action to prevent the decline of an important commodity. Doing nothing would be bad for business, and hardly an option for corporations like Nestle, Mars, and Hershey, whose continued success depends on a robust cocoa industry.

The report’s recommendations are hardly earth-shattering: It suggests that farmers adopt drought-resistant varieties of plants and install irrigation systems; provide shade to plants; actively prevent bushfires; and diversify their crops with plants that will adapt to the changing environment, including oranges, cashews, and the dreaded oil palm. The researchers also recommend that scientists concentrate on developing drought-tolerant cocoa and become active in helping nations develop sound agricultural policy. Finally, the researchers suggest that governments extend credit to cocoa farmers that will enable them to implement changes in their practices to promote sustainability.

As usual, the headlines are eye-catching—”Global Chocolate Crisis Looms“—but the solution is much more mundane. Just about every commodity these days has entered a “crisis” phase, which in the end is nothing more than the enactment of the law of supply and demand.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: February 25, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Mycoremediation: Fighting Pollution with Morsels of Morels

Plastics. Ever since a young Dustin Hoffman received that one-word pearl of wisdom in The Graduate, we’ve been paying for it environmentally. Our landfills are bursting at the seams with discarded plastic. Nothing—not even herculean recycling efforts—has been able to stem the tide of these no longer useful petroleum-based products.

Enter mycoremediation, which is the practice of using fungi—specifically the mycelia, or vegetative part of fungi—to biodegrade the formerly unbiodegradable, including plastics. Mycoremediation is a subspecialty of bioremediation, which is the practice of using natural organisms to break down hazardous substances into nonhazardous substances.

In one interesting experiment conducted by a group known as the Radical Mycology Collective, fungi was used to bioremediate cigarette butts, which are made from cellulose acetate, a simple form of plastic. Given that cigarette butts are one of the most common waste products in the world and that when buried in a landfill they may take 10 to 15 years to break down, this is mighty practical science. The experiment demonstrated that fungi can be trained to use their enzymes to break down cellulose acetate, readily found in nature as the walls of plant cells, into simple sugars. These sugars then become part of the natural food chain, and voila—no more nasty nicotine-soaked butts.

But mycoremediation hasn’t stopped at plastics. Mycologists have proven that fungi can undo even more serious environmental damage. Early studies regarding the use of fungi to clean up oil spills, DDT contamination, and Agent Orange dump sites are promising, although large scale projects using mycoremediation are still a ways off.

Oyster mushroom mycelia growing on coffee grounds.

Oyster mushroom mycelia growing on coffee grounds.

All of this is because of fungi’s role in the environment. They are organisms uniquely suited to play the essential role of helping organic matter decompose, thus creating soil and dispersing nutrients to other organisms. According to the Radical Mycology website:

Through their co-evolution with plants and animals over millions of years, the fungi have come to fill several roles in nature, one being as primary decomposers, responsible for 90% of all decomposition on the planet. The decomposing, or saprotrophic, fungi survive by excreting powerful enzymes to breakdown the molecules of organic matter into simple sugars that they use as food. Similar to how a fly eats, the fungi digest externally and then ingest their food as a liquid. The connection between death and new life is made literal by the fungi in this nutrient cycling that enables new plants to grow from the byproducts produced by the decomposition of dead organisms.

The public face of mycoremediation is Paul Stamets, a researcher, activist, author, and entrepreneur who has worked for 30 years to understand the essential role fungi plays in the biome. He runs  You can find Stamets’s TED talk, “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World” right here. But here’s the short version:

  • Burlap sacks embedded with mycelia could be planted downstream from farms and digest coliform bacteria such as E. coli before it gets into our water and food supply. Here’s a study of how the process worked in the Dungeness Watershed in Washington.
  • Mycelia can be cultivated as a biodefense against pox viruses.
  • Mycelia can be cultivated as a biodefense against flu viruses.
  • Fungi can transform the pesticide industry through the large-scale development of mycelia that kill termites and carpenter ants and makes an area permanently immune to them.
  • The Life Box, a cardboard box infused with mycelia, can become a large-scale form of carbon sequestration in which shipping materials become part of the biome rather than part of the waste stream.
  • The energy crisis can be partly solved by the creation of Econol, a form of ethanol created from mycelia.

Mycoremediation is a growing field (heh), and welcomes the citizen scientist as much as the pedigreed scientist. Toward that end, the annual Radical Mycology Convergence gathers together those seeking to integrate mycology with the deep ecology movement; the 2014 conference will take place in the Midwest, with the date TBD. This is your best chance to rub shoulders with the individuals interested in harnessing fungi’s powers of decomposition in an effort to undo some of what modern industrialization has wrought.

Mushrooms: Once a tasty topping for your pizza, now a cutting-edge weapon in the fight to save the planet.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: February 4, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , ,

The Five-Year-Old’s Guide to the Polar Vortex

I have never gazed out at a beautiful sunset on the horizon and thought, “what a magnificent high pressure system!” I experience weather, not pressure systems, so I tend to zone out when the meteorologist is all “a high pressure system is stalling cold air over the plains . . . .” But my interest in weather perked up a few weeks ago when the polar vortex came to visit. A catchy name, a whiff of danger, three days off school for the kids—it was hard not to get caught up in the hoopla. And better yet—the polar vortex turned out to be a real thing, not some made-up, sexy headline term, like Snowmaggedon. I needed to learn more about this polar vortex phenomenon, but in terms that a five-year-old could understand. You see, over the holidays, I’d spent way too much time on the subreddit ELI5 (“explain like I’m five”). Kindergarten is now my default.

So here goes. The Earth has two major polar vortices, also known as polar cyclones, one near the North Pole and one near the South Pole. They are a permanent and integral part of the planet’s weather patterns. They get stronger in the winter due to the temperature differential between the poles and the equator and are weaker in the summer. Their average temperature is about -130 degrees F. If you’re a meteorologist, you learned all about them at meteorology school.

Here’s a polar cyclone near Iceland on September 3, 2003. Photo by NASA. We may not be able to land a man on the moon anymore, but we can sure take nice photos of Earth.

Although this photo makes the vortex look like a standalone hurricane, it is actually an elongated system with two separate spiraling centers—one usually hangs around Baffin Island in Canada, the other lives over Siberia. In this image, the Baffin Island cyclone had moved east.

Normally, the polar vortex at the North Pole stays where it belongs. The problems in January began when it decided to take a vacation down south—right on top of millions of unsuspecting Americans and Canadians who were just going about their business. But why did it venture south? ELI5 answer: It was pushed by the jet stream, that undulating halo of westerly winds that encircles the globe at the northern latitudes:

The undulating meanders in the polar jet stream are called Rossby waves. As you can see in image (c), a rogue Rossby wave can push the polar air way down where it doesn’t belong; in this case the polar vortex was jammed right down over the Great Lakes:

To add to the Midwest’s misery, a huge snowstorm just prior to the visitation from the polar vortex exacerbated the cold. The thick layer of snow reflected all heat back up into the atmosphere.

But here’s what’s weird. It’s when the polar vortex is weak that cold air is likely to escape to lower latitudes. That’s right, what we got was a weak vortex that couldn’t defend itself against the jet stream (the explanation involves high pressure and low pressure, so we’ll skip it).

You may not remember, but a similar polar vortex event took place in January, 1985, in that hallowed era before we were tethered to our electronic devices telling us the sky was falling. In Chicago, temperatures with wind chill reached -60 degrees F. Florida’s citrus crop was a total loss and President Reagan’s second inaugural took place in the Capitol Rotunda instead of outside and the inaugural parade was cancelled. In that event, the vortex was centered over Quebec and Maine:

Polar Vortices and Climate Change

The effect of polar vortices on climate change or as the result of climate change are difficult to isolate. Weather systems are just that—systems—and they are the result of many interrelated factors. The polar vortices and the jet stream operate hand-in-hand, and they both operate in the tropopause, which is the transition between the troposphere (the portion of the atmosphere closest to Earth’s surface) and the stratosphere (um, higher up). The tropopause is characterized by a temperature inversion, where the layers of temperature of the troposphere, which go from warm to cool the higher you go, meet the stratosphere, which is characterized by layers of air that go from cooler to warmer the higher you go.

Linking events like the January polar vortex to climate change will take time—like, decades of time. But right now scientists are leaning toward the idea of extreme weather events being part of the feedback loop in which reduced snow and ice near the poles (due to rising global temperatures) results in less sunlight reflecting back up into space. This means more sunlight is absorbed, which further increases evaporation of snow and ice. In turn, the polar vortex weakens, allowing the jet stream to meander further south, bringing with it lower temperatures and blocked weather systems. A Cornell professor presented a convincing case that Hurricane Sandy was the result of one of these blocked weather systems. So in winter time, it seems, some evidence points to on-the-move polar vortices being instrumental in bringing colder weather to a region.

This is just another reason why we all have to get used to saying global climate change instead of global warming. Scientists have been telling us for years that climate change means wild swings in weather patterns and more destructive storms. Anyone forced to spend a couple hours shoveling after one of our recent blizzards is bound to agree, especially if they live in a place where there aren’t supposed to be blizzards.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.


Posted on: January 22, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,

Geoengineering: Fighting Climate Change by Outsmarting the Sun

In 1946, Kurt Vonnegut’s brother, renowned atmospheric scientist Bernard Vonnegut, pioneered the use of silver iodide for seeding clouds to produce rain, becoming the first in a long line of scientists intent on tinkering with the weather. However, a spring shower or two isn’t going to mitigate the oncoming freight train of anthropogenic climate change. Rising global temperatures, melting polar ice, and acidifying oceans—they’re no match for a few chemical pellets dispersed by a Cessna.

Enter geoengineering, the latest hope for eradicating the worst effects of climate change. All the treaties and Earth summits in the world haven’t done much to get even one minivan off the road, so it doesn’t look like we’re going to save the planet by curbing greenhouse gas emissions. That leaves finding creative ways to cool the planet. Like dimming the sun by shooting particulates into the upper atmosphere to mimic the effects of a major volcano eruption, which would reflect the sun’s rays and cool the Earth. Sounds . . . dicey.

Edward Teller, that scion of the early atomic age commonly known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” was an early commenter on geoengineering, authoring a paper for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in 1998 called Sunscreen for Planet Earth. In it, he credits Freeman Dyson for being the first scientist to consider blocking the sun’s rays by creating a filter of particles in the atmosphere—a concept Dyson first outlined in 1979, back when Carl Sagan was still talking about a nuclear winter and the coming ice age.

More recently, geoengineering has been a favorite topic in Popular Science. They’ve run pieces on the plan to coat rooftops with reflective paint, the plan to manufacture artificial trees that would capture excess carbon, and the plan to place biofuel algae tanks on rooftops. Then there’s the plan to create a bunch of wind-powered cloud ships to sail the seas and spray enough water into the atmosphere to envelop the planet in puffy white clouds that will reflect sunlight and presumably lead to the collapse of the sunglasses industry. Then there’s a really far out plan to pump desalinated seawater into the Sahara Desert to turn it into a lush oasis.

Of course, one of science’s jobs is to tell us that we’ll all have driverless cars by 2020. Science’s other job is to keep it real. Toward that end, the National Academy of Sciences is collaborating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and the Department of Energy for a 21-month study to evaluate two of the most commonly cited geoengineering techniques: solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR). The final report will provide a risk-benefit analysis of implementing the techniques, take a stab at projecting their costs, and outline other techniques in development that may prove useful. The final report is due in the fall of 2014, so sit tight.

Meanwhile, several worthwhile books have been written on the ramifications of geoengineering. One of the most highly esteemed is Harvard professor David Keith’s A Case for Climate Engineering. The upshot is this: We’ve known about the dangers of climate change for years and all our expensive efforts to combat it have delivered very slim results. That means that climate engineering technology must be considered at least as a component of the solution, which entails continued research to understand what it can and can’t feasibly do.

Presumably, Keith argues against the type of rogue geoengineering perpetrated by the Haida people, an indigenous group in British Columbia, led by the controversial geoengineer Russ George in 2012. Faced with the disappearance of the salmon that is a mainstay of their diet, the Haida paid George $1 million to disperse 100 tons of iron dust in the ocean in an effort to generate an algal bloom that would soak up excess carbon dioxide in the water and allow their fish to return. What George had really done was violate the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. It’s safe to say that whatever your opinion on geoengineering, taking matters into your own hands—or boat, as the case may be—is almost certainly more dangerous than driving your kids to a soccer game on an ozone action day.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: January 7, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Fracking the Polish Way

Guess what? Poland has Europe’s largest reserves of shale gas. This means the country once best known for pirogi and Pope John Paul II is now a powerhouse player in the fracking biz. The country’s reserves stretch diagonally across the land from the Baltic Sea in the North to the border of Ukraine in the south (and doesn’t stop there—Ukraine has plenty of shale gas too). Poland’s total estimate: 22.45 trillion cubic meters, of which about 5.3 trillion cubic meters is readily available for extraction. This total puts it far behind China, which has the world’s largest supply of shale gas, and the United States, the runner up. (Russia, another major player, is a special case. No one knows how much shale gas they’ve got, although a good bet is a whole lot, and another good bet is that they’re playing their hand judiciously.)

One perhaps surprising fact about Poland that may explain its enthusiasm for horizontal drilling, i.e., hydraulic fracturing, at a time when many countries are meeting vehement public opposition to the process is that it has a growing number of natural gas vehicles (NGV) on the road, a phenomenon likely sparked by its substantially lower costs over diesel and gasoline.

Poland currently is powered mostly by coal (as are the United States, China, etc.). Thus, being able to close some of its dangerous coal mines in favor of fracking wellheads may be an improvement, depending on your priorities. Furthermore, other European nations, including France and Bulgaria have banned fracking, which makes Poland’s prospects all the more brighter. What natural gas the country (and most of Europe) currently uses is imported from Russia. Weaning themselves from that imported source would be great for Poland’s national economy and the EU’s too.

And of course, the energy companies are lining up to help Poland develop its resource. ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and a handful of others (including love-to-hate-them Halliburton) have all conducted exploratory drilling and acquired concessions. However, ExxonMobil and Marathon Oil recently abandoned their interests due to disappointing preliminary drilling results. The state-controlled Polish company working with these mainly U.S.-based interests is PGNiG.

But within the past several months, the enthusiasm for fracking has been tempered. According to Sara Miller Llana of the Christian Science Monitor, “Two years ago, the Continent’s shale gas seemed a great opportunity for a Europe struggling with a debt crisis, crippling austerity, and record high unemployment. . . . But tapping those reserves requires both political and public support for fracking.” The upshot is that when things get real, the sheen wears off and everything starts to look like a lot of hard work rather than pennies from heaven.

The pretty patchwork map below shows the various concessions that have been awarded for shale gas exploration in the country, with the above-mentioned big boys rubbing shoulders with lesser known operations, such as Indiana Investments and Joyce Investments. It also indicates that commitments have been made. Indeed, a comprehensive law is now being put in place to deal with pesky issues like regulations, pollution, taxes, etc. The law should go into effect in 2015 and by 2020 the industry should be in full swing. As with most things in life, an initial enthusiasm and burst of energy has ceded to the stage of rolling up one’s sleeves and getting to work. Even though a lot of people have hopped off the bandwagon, it’s still rolling though town.

If you’re a wonk—or if you’ve just got insomnia—the U.S. Energy Information Administration has summarized the oil and gas shale formations in a sophisticated report that fully exploits all of MS Word’s advanced functions. Footnotes, graphs, charts, tables, text boxes and more—they’re all here. The TL/DR version of it is encapsulated in this fantastic infographic:

While Poland’s shale gas formations appear as just a blip on this map, that may be the whole point. When a country with what appears to be a modest amount of shale gas decides to develop those resources as a step toward energy independence not only for itself but for its entire economic region, this map starts to look like the shape of things to come. As efforts to develop alternative and renewable energy resources remain mired in a bureaucratic, technological, economic, and entrepreneurial no man’s land, these red splotches may foretell the global geopolitical situation of the 21st century.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: December 17, 2013, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , ,