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Plankton Worlds

Ancient bacteria, single cells and long strands of strange little plants, plus minute single celled animals and weird fantastical animal larvae – these are the members of the Earth’s massive and hugely important planktonic ecosystems. Come with Nan Evans as she talks with Dr. Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens about this strange world and its significance to global ecology and human well being. Consider eutrophication, the world’s biggest threat to water quality or cyanobacteria and one of the causes of toxic algal blooms such as the ones in our local Andeson Lake.

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Heat, cold extremes hold untapped potential for solar and wind energy

Conditions that usually accompany the kind of intense hot and cold weather that strains power grids may also provide greater opportunities to capture solar and wind energy.

A Washington State University-led study found that widespread, extreme temperature events are often accompanied by greater solar radiation and higher wind speeds that could be captured by solar panels and wind turbines. The research, which looked at extensive heat and cold waves across the six interconnected energy grid regions of the U.S. from 1980-2021, also found that every region experienced power outages during these events in the past decade.

“These extreme events are not going away anytime soon. In fact, every region in the U.S. experiences at least one such event nearly every year. We need to be prepared for their risks and ensure that people have reliable access to energy when they need it the most,” said lead author Deepti Singh, a Washington State University climate scientist.”Potentially, we could generate more power from renewable resources precisely when we have widespread extreme events that result in increased energy demand.”

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Genes identified that allow bacteria to thrive despite toxic heavy metal in soil

Some soil bacteria can acquire sets of genes that enable them to pump the heavy metal nickel out of their systems, a study has found. This enables the bacteria to not only thrive in otherwise toxic soils but help plants grow there as well.

A Washington State University-led research team pinpointed a set of genes in wild soil bacteria that allows them to do this in serpentine soils which have naturally high concentrations of toxic nickel. The genetic discovery, detailed in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, could help inform future bioremediation efforts that seek to return plants to polluted soils.

“We can say with certainty that these are the genes that are letting the bacteria survive the heavy metal exposure because if we take them away, they die. If we add them to a new bacterium that was sensitive to the heavy metal, all of the sudden it’s resistant,” said Stephanie Porter, the study’s senior author and a WSU evolutionary ecologist.

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Electric Water Wars: It’s a Dam Crazy World

More than half of the world’s lakes and two-thirds of its rivers are drying up, threatening ecosystems, farmland, and drinking water supplies. Such diminishing resources are also likely to lead to conflict and even, potentially, all-out war.

The situation is beyond dire. In 2023, it was estimated that upwards of three billion people, or more than 37% of humanity, faced real water shortages, a crisis predicted to dramatically worsen in the decades to come. Consider it ironic then that, as water is disappearing, huge dams — more than 3,000 of them — that require significant river flow to operate are now being built at an unprecedented pace globally.

[Recent] research suggests that hydro-powered dams can create an alarming amount of climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions. Rotting vegetation at the bottom of such reservoirs, especially in warmer climates (as in much of Africa), releases significant amounts of methane, a devastating greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

“We estimate that dams emit around 25% more methane by unit of surface than previously estimated,” says Bridget Deemer of the School of Environment at Washington State University in Vancouver, lead author of a highly-cited study on greenhouse gas emissions from reservoirs. “Methane stays in the atmosphere for only around a decade, while CO2 stays several centuries, but over the course of 20 years, methane contributes almost three times more to global warming than CO2.”

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The Nation

Washington’s snowpack on track to decrease by nearly half by 2080s

The snowpack in Washington’s mountain ranges has seen up to a 60% decrease over 75 years and that trend will likely continue for the rest of the century.

Jim Smith owns and operates Snow Sports Northwest, a ski school based at Snoqualmie Pass in Washington that teaches hundreds of students every year. His father founded the company in the late 60s.  Scott Goddard was hired by Smith’s father in 1983 and has an equally long history skiing this area. Goddard now runs the Saturday school. The school’s instructors have the task of navigating the terrain with hundreds of kids, something made harder in season’s like this year. The season’s El Niño forecast has delivered. Snow totals are a fraction of normal, creating a domino effect on many industries.

A map from the EPA shows the trends in April snowpack in the western U.S. from 1955 to 2022. In Washington, most areas’ snowpack is down between 20 to 30%, with some areas decreasing as much as 50 to 60%. 

Washington State University PhD candidate Luke Reyes is based in Vancouver, Washington, and is devoting his studies to snowpack vulnerability in the western United States. Reyes and his research team recently published this study, which analyzed the snowpack during the Pacific Northwest heat dome of 2021, when temperatures skyrocketed into the triple digits for days straight and killed hundreds of people in the region.

“People would post all these before and after pictures and they’d be hiking on Mount St. Helens or Mount Rainier and there’d be snow one day and there’s nothing a week later,” said Reyes.

But when Reyes and his team looked at the numbers, they realized something huge. The heat dome is not the only reason the snow melted.

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