If you’ve been watching the Winter Olympics in Beijing, it’s hard to miss: Just beyond the white slopes for the ski and snowboard events lie brown hills barely touched by snow.
Machine-made snow is hardly new to professional winter sports, or even to the Olympics. But as my colleague Matt Futterman and I wrote this week, the 2022 Games are relying on it almost entirely. China’s capital gets only dustings of natural snow most winters. And water supplies in the arid region have long struggled to keep up with the city’s demands, whether for snow-making or for anything else.
To be clear: Beijing, a metropolis of over 20 million, is not about to run out of water because of the Olympics. The city has made strides in conservation. Farming and heavy industry have been shut down or moved away. (You may have noticed the cooling towers of the old steelworks where the big air events are taking place.) Trillions of gallons of water are being channeled to the region each year, via a colossal engineering project, from China’s humid south.
There are other cities that could have hosted this year’s Games and that would not have had to go to such lengths to make artificial snow. But those cities dropped out of contention, citing high costs and lack of public support back home.
Numbers: In 2017, the last year for which figures are available, Beijing had only about as much freshwater per resident, roughly 36,000 gallons, as Niger, a country on the edge of the Sahara.
Spiking energy prices and global warming
Oil prices are soaring as fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine grow. Europe is in the grips of a severe natural gas crunch that has roiled energy markets. Demand for coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, has surged to record highs.
As I explored in an article last week, the current upheaval in fossil fuel markets around the world threatens to complicate the fight against climate change. The turmoil also underscores a broader challenge: Even as countries invest in low-carbon energy sources like wind and solar power, it will still take a long time before the world no longer has to worry about volatility in oil, gas and coal markets that can complicate the shift toward cleaner energy.
Quotable: “While today’s market fluctuations cannot be traced back to climate policies, that does not mean that the road to net zero emissions will be smooth,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency.
Glaciers might have less water than we thought
There’s a lot of water locked up in glaciers, and it can be an indispensable resource to people living nearby. But new research has found that there might be less of it than we thought.
The study, which I wrote about this week, combined nearly a million pairs of satellite images to map the world’s 200,000-plus glaciers with new precision. Compared with the previous scientific consensus, the new paper estimated that there was less ice in some places, like the tropical Andes, but more ice in others, like the Himalayas.
Further on-site measurements are needed to pin down just how much glacial water those places have left. But one glaciologist, Regine Hock, told me that even as the data improves, the basic picture is not likely to change much: The glaciers are going to thin quite a bit this century, with consequences for communities all around the planet.
Numbers: Worldwide, the study found 11 percent less ice in the glaciers than had been estimated earlier. In the high mountains of Asia, however, it found 37 percent more ice, and in Patagonia and the central Andes, 10 percent more.
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Depleting water supplies. The world’s glaciers may contain less water than previously believed, suggesting that freshwater supplies could peak sooner than anticipated for millions of people worldwide who depend on glacial melt for drinking water, crop irrigation and everyday use.
‘A sense of crisis’ for wasabi
Climate change and demographic threats are chipping away at a centuries-old culture surrounding the cultivation of a plant that unmistakably connotes Japanese cuisine.
As gripping tales go, it does not get much better than the story of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to walk across Antarctica.
It did not go as planned. His ship, Endurance, got trapped, crushed and sunk by ice in the Weddell Sea in 1915. So Shackleton and five of his crew sailed 800 miles in an open lifeboat to summon a rescue mission for the other 22 members of the group, who were eventually saved.
The story of leadership and survival has been told in books and films and in museum exhibitions, at least one of which, at the Museum of Natural History in New York City two decades ago, even featured Shackleton’s lifeboat.
All this time, Endurance itself has been unseen, lying at the bottom of the Weddell, east of the Antarctic Peninsula in 10,000 feet of water. But as I wrote in an article this month, that may soon change. A South African icebreaker is en route to the site, with a team of explorers, scientists and technicians bent on finding the wreck.
The Endurance22 expedition, as it’s known, hopes to navigate through the Weddell’s notorious pack ice to the area where the ship went down and then launch a couple of underwater drones, also called autonomous submersibles, to look for it. If Endurance is found, the submersibles will photograph and survey the remains but not touch them, as the wreck is protected as a historic monument.
The expedition is not just looking toward the past. There are also ice scientists on board who will be sampling and analyzing Weddell’s ice, looking for signs of how climate change may affect it in the future.
You can follow the search on the Endurance22 website.
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