Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.

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These Scientists Just Lost Their Lives in the Arctic. They Were Heroes.

| Thu May 7, 2015 3:14 PM EDT
Philip de Roo (left) and Marc Cornelissen.

Early last month, veteran polar explorers and scientists Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo set out on skis from Resolute Bay, a remote outpost in the patchwork of islands between Canada and Greenland. Their destination was Bathurst Island, a treacherous 70-mile trek to the northwest across the frozen sea, where they planned to document thinning Arctic sea ice just a few months after NASA reported that the winter ice cover was the lowest on record.

It wasn't hard to find what they were looking for, according to a dispatch Cornelissen uploaded to Soundcloud on April 28.

"We're nearing into the coast of Bathurst," he said. "We think we see thin ice in front of us…Within 15 minutes of skiing it became really warm. In the end it was me skiing in my underwear…I don't think it looked very nice, and it didn't feel sexy either, but it was the only way to deal with the heat."

His next message, a day later, was an emergency distress signal picked up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. According to the Guardian, a pilot flying over the spot reported seeing open water, scattered equipment, and a lone sled dog sitting on the broken ice. By last Friday, rescuers had called off the search. The pair are presumed to have drowned, victims of the same thin ice they had come to study. Cornelissen was 46; de Roo had just turned 30.

Yesterday, Cold Facts, the nonprofit with whom the pair was working at the time, dispatched a snowmobile expedition to attempt to recover their belongings. You can follow their progress on Twitter here. The dog, Kimnik, was found a few days ago and is doing fine, the group said.

In a blog post on the website of the European Space Agency, Cornelissen was remembered by former colleagues as "an inspirational character, an explorer and a romantic. He had fallen in love with the spellbinding beauty of the poles and had made it a personal mission to highlight the magnitude of the human fingerprint on this last wilderness."

It's not clear whether the ice conditions the pair encountered were directly attributable to climate change, according to E&E News:

That the region had thin ice is evident. Perhaps the ice had been thinned by ocean currents that deliver warm water from below, or by the wind, which could generate open water areas. It is difficult to know. Climate change may have played a role, or it may not have…the impacts of the warming on ice thickness regionally can be unpredictable, [ESA scientist Mark] Drinkwater said.

Still, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. We rely on the work of scientists like these to know exactly what is happening there and how it will affect those of us who choose to stay safe in warmer, drier places. Their deaths are a testament to the dedication and fearlessness required to stand on the front lines of climate change.

Rest in peace, guys.

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We're in the Process of Decimating 1 in 6 Species on Earth

| Thu Apr. 30, 2015 3:10 PM EDT
A wood frog lays eggs on a pond surface. Many frogs like this are breeding earlier in the spring because of climate change.

Plants and animals around the world are already suffering from the negative impacts of manmade global warming—including shrinking habitats and the spread of disease. A great number are also facing the ultimate demise—outright extinction—among them the iconic polar bear, some fish species, coral, trees... the list goes on.

While most of the research on this topic so far has been piecemeal, one species at a time, a new study out today in Science offers the most comprehensive view to date of the future of extinction. The outlook is pretty grim.

The research, conducted by evolutionary biologist Mark Urban of the University of Connecticut, analyzes 131 other scientific papers for clues about how climate change is affecting the overall rate of species extinction. The result is alarming: One out of every six species could face extinction if global warming continues on its current path. The picture is less dire if we manage to curb climate change, dropping to only 5.2 percent of species if warming is kept within the internationally-agreed upon target of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The analysis makes clear that the climate change threat isn't necessarily a separate issue from things like habitat loss and disease; indeed, it's often climate change that is the driving force behind those impacts. The risk appears to be spread evenly across all types of plants and animals (i.e., trees, amphibians, mammals, etc.), but is more severe in geographic ares where there are more unique species and exposure to climate impacts.

South America takes the lead, with up to 23 percent of its species threatened. One classic case study there is the golden toad, a native of mountaintop rain forests that was last seen in 1989. The toad was driven to extinction in part due to an epidemic of chytrid fungus (which is wiping out amphibians worldwide), and because climate change-related drought is destroying the forests they called home. Australia and New Zealand also ranked highly at risk, with up to 14 percent:

Urban, Science 2015

Urban's paper offers perhaps the most comprehensive scientific companion to a terrifying narrative made popular last year in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Sixth Extinction," by Elizabeth Kolbert. The New Yorker journalist argued that when you look at the combined toll that pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change is taking on the planet's biodiversity, humans are driving extinction on a scale only preceded in the geologic record by cataclysmic natural disasters (like the meteor that likely brought about the demise of the dinosaurs). Never before has one species been responsible for the demise of so many others. (Check out our interview with Kolbert here).

Still, Urban's study makes clear that many species that avoid extinction still face grave threats from climate change:

"Extinction risks are likely much smaller than the total number of species influenced by climate change," Urban writes. "Even species not threatened directly by extinction could experience substantial changes in abundances, distributions, and species interactions, which in turn could affect ecosystems and their services to humans."

Chipotle Says It's Getting Rid of GMOs. Here's the Problem.

| Tue Apr. 28, 2015 4:08 PM EDT

Chipotle announced this week that it will stop serving food made with genetically modified organisms. The company wants you to think the decision is "another step toward the visions we have of changing the way people think about and eat fast food," apparently because GMOs are regarded with at best suspicion and at worst total revulsion by lots of Americans.

There's data to support that notion: A Pew poll released earlier this year found that less than 40 percent of Americans think GMOs are safe to eat.

Here's the thing, though: GMOs are totally safe to eat. Eighty-eight percent of the scientists in that same poll agreed. As longtime environmentalist Mark Lynas pointed out in the New York Times recently, the level of scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs is comparable to the scientific consensus on climate change, which is to say that the disagreement camp is a rapidly diminishing minority. Lynas also made the equally valid point that so-called "improved" seeds have a pretty remarkable track record in improving crop yields in developing countries, which translates to a direct win for local economies and food security. (Although there is evidence that widespread GMO use can lead to an increased reliance on pesticides.)

But there's an even more important reason why Chipotle's announcement is little more than self-congratulatory PR, even if you think that GMOs are the devil. As former MoJo-er Sarah Zhang pointed out at Gizmodo:

For the past couple of years, Chipotle has been getting its suppliers to get rid of GM corn and soybean. Today’s "GMO-free" announcement comes as Chipotle has switched over to non-GMO corn and soybean oil, but it still serves chicken and pork from animals raised on GMO feed. (Its beef comes from pasture-fed cows.) A good chunk of the GM corn and soybeans grown in America actually goes to feed livestock, so a truly principled stance against GMOs should cut out meat from GM-fed animals, too.

The same caveat applies to soda, which is also made mostly from corn.

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