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Small Dietary Changes Could Bring Big Environmental Gains

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Good news, everyone: Doing better for your body, your wallet, and the planet may not require an all-kale diet. Experts writing in the journal Climatic Change say that small changes like avoiding processed meat could save billions of dollars in healthcare costs and help us reach crucial environmental protection goals.

It’s no secret that the standard American diet is harmful. Our consumption of saturated fats, red meats, and refined sugars has been linked to rising rates of heart disease and metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes. Growing and preparing these foods also takes a huge toll on the environment, producing around 30 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions every year.

But a complete dietary overhaul is just not an option for many people. Processed foods are more accessible, longer-lasting, and often cheaper than fresh food. Telling Americans to “just eat healthier” is not going to solve our problems.

Small changes, on the other hand, might be doable. So researchers at UC Santa Barbara decided to calculate potential benefits—not of an entire nation going vegan or only buying local food, but of what might happen if we all took just a few baby steps toward healthier eating.

They pulled data from previous studies on diet, greenhouse gas emissions, disease, and healthcare costs to create a baseline. Then they built theoretical models of new diets, some with lower amounts of red and processed meat and some with none at all. To make up for the now-missing calories, they added more fruits, vegetables, beans, and peas. They replaced some, but not all, white flour with whole grain alternatives. They didn’t cut added sugar, dairy, eggs, fish, or non-red meat.

They then fed their new diet models into the formulas used to calculate the baseline to see if there was any difference in the outcome. There certainly was. Simply making little changes had an enormous impact in every category.

The results showed that cutting back or eliminating red and processed meat could reduce Americans’ relative risk for coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes by as much as 40 percent. They could save the country $77 billion (or more) in healthcare costs and reduce each person’s greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 500 pounds per year.

“Food has a tremendous impact on the environment,” study director David Cleveland said in a statement. “That means that there is enormous potential for our food choices to have positive effects on our environment as well as on our health and our health care costs.”

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science
Scientists Have Discovered Massive Canyons Beneath Antarctica's Ice Sheets
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Scientists have been studying Antarctica for over a century, but details as basic as what it looks like beneath all that ice have largely remained a mystery. Now, Earther reports that a team of scientists from Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and the UK has published the most comprehensive data yet on the continent's subglacial topography near the South Pole.

As they report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters [PDF], central Antarctica is home to three massive canyons, one of which is deeper than the Grand Canyon and nearly as wide at some points. The researchers made the discovery by flying a plane with radar over the South Pole, a spot that isn't covered by imaging satellites. They expected to find mountains beneath the ice sheet, but the expansive chasms they detected between the mountains came as a surprise.

Of the three canyons, two hadn't been documented previously. The largest, the Foundation Trough, measures 218 miles long, up to 22 miles wide, and 6260 feet deep, putting it up there with the planet's most impressive canyons.

The discoveries are significant on their own, but the real purpose behind the research is to better understand how the West and East Antarctic Ice Sheets will react to rising temperatures. Human-induced climate change has destabilized some of the continent's ice, and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet especially has been slowly crumbling into the sea. If patterns continue, the coastal glaciers supporting the massive ice sheets could collapse, causing sea levels to rise a minimum of 10 feet. If this happens, the canyons could be a major factor in the speed and direction of ice flow from central Antarctica to the coast.

The event isn't likely to happen in the near future, but further study of Antarctica's topography will allow scientists to better predict when it might.

[h/t Earther]

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Animals
Climate Change Is Making It Hard for Bears to Hibernate Through the Winter
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What was once a rare sight—a bear wandering outside its den before springtime—has become increasingly common, thanks to climate change. As The New York Times reports, warming temperatures are waking American black bears from hibernation earlier than ever, and in some cases, preventing them from settling down for the winter in the first place.

Hibernation is a vital part of the black bear's life cycle. When awake, a bear must consume at least 11 to 18 pounds of food per day to maintain a healthy body weight. Withdrawing for the winter allows it to survive the food scarcity that comes with the colder months.

But as climate change promotes certain extreme weather patterns in the western U.S., the region's black bear population has begun to act differently. Last year the Pine Nut Mountains in Nevada saw unusually high levels of snowfall, and the excess moisture produced an abundant pine nut crop. This past winter, snowfall in the area hit near-record lows, leaving the pine nuts exposed on the ground for a longer period. The prolonged access to food in the area meant some bears started hibernating later or just never got around to it.

Many of the bears that did eventually crawl into their dens were woken up ahead of schedule this year. According to a 2017 study, for every 1°C that minimum winter temperatures rise, bears hibernate six days fewer. In January 2018, temperatures in the Pine Nut Mountains reached 5.4°C above the 20th-century average for the region.

Some years bears emerge from hibernation during droughts, which are exacerbated by climate change, and food is hard to come by. When that's the case, bears may end up on private property, raiding people's trash cans and bird feeders and sometimes breaking into their homes. Fatal bear attacks on humans aren't common: The more likely scenario is that the so-called problem bear will be euthanized. Bear management groups will often try other strategies, like capture and release and aversive conditioning, before resorting to this option. Nonetheless, dozens of bears are euthanized by states each year.

Black bears aren't the only ursine species being forced to adapt to global warming. In the Arctic, polar bears are losing the sea ice they need to hunt marine mammals, and many of them are moving onto land in search of prey. Climate change is pushing both species of bears toward human-populated territory, which means conflicts between the bears and people will only increase from here.

[h/t The New York Times]

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