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Traffic pollution can impair brain function: study

Typical levels of traffic pollution can impair human brain function in a matter of hours, a new study has found.  

Just two hours of exposure to diesel exhaust causes a plunge in the brain’s functional connectivity — a measure of how different areas of the brain communicate with each other, according to the study published in Environmental Health on Tuesday.  

“For many decades, scientists thought the brain may be protected from the harmful effects of air pollution,” senior author Chris Carlsten, head of respiratory medicine at the University of British Columbia, said in a statement.  

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“This study, which is the first of its kind in the world, provides fresh evidence supporting a connection between air pollution and cognition,” Carlsten added. 

To draw these conclusions, the Canadian research team briefly exposed 25 healthy adults to diesel exhaust and filtered air at different times in a laboratory setting.  

The scientists said they measured brain activity before and after each exposure using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).  

They then analyzed changes in the brain’s “default mode network” — a set of interconnected brain regions that contribute to memory and internal thought.  

The fMRI results demonstrated that participants experienced decreased functional connectivity in the default mode network after exposure to diesel exhaust, in comparison to filtered air, according to the study.  

“People may want to think twice the next time they’re stuck in traffic with the windows rolled down,” Carlsten said.  

“It’s important to ensure that your car’s air filter is in good working order, and if you’re walking or biking down a busy street, consider diverting to a less busy route,” he added. 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Subscribe here.

Today we’ll start in the western United States, which is still battling drought despite recent rains. Then we’ll see how Texas could benefit from a nascent geothermal industry, as well as how Europe is turning to Africa for fossil fuel resources.

Plus: A boost in federal funds for preventing forest fires.   

Western drought persists despite rain, snow 

A series of storms that pummeled the U.S. West recently brought a much-needed boost to local reservoirs, but federal meteorologists warned on Tuesday that long-term drought still plagues the region. 

Shoring up snowpack: Nine storm systems known as “atmospheric rivers” began inundating the West over a three-week period starting in late December, according to a special update from the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS). 

  • During these storms, 80 percent of full seasonal snowpack was deposited in California.  
  • Statewide, the precipitation accumulated over those three weeks amounted to 11.2 inches, or 46 percent of a full year. 

So far so good: The storms vastly improved mountain snowpack across many parts of the West, where snow totals are now well above normal for this time of year, according to NIDIS.  

  • NIDIS is a multi-agency partnership housed at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Colorado. 
  • Exceptions to this positive trend include many areas of the Cascades and the Northern Rockies, where accumulation has lagged since the beginning of January. 

Time will tell: Because it is still early in the snow accumulation season, water totals could end up being moderate if the rest of the winter is dry — or relatively high if this influx of precipitation continues, meteorologists explained. 

Longstanding deficits: Although the amount of water in many reservoirs increased, some are still below historical averages for this time of year, NIDIS warned. 

For example, reservoir storage shortfalls in the Colorado River system and groundwater deficits in the Northwest have built up over time, the report found. 

Drought persists: Despite California’s onslaught of rain and snow, 92 percent of the state is still experiencing some level of drought, as is 100 percent of Nevada and 96 percent of Utah. 

  • Pockets of extreme and exceptional drought conditions continue to impact areas of Utah, Nevada and central and eastern Oregon, according to the update. 
  • While current forecasts indicate that atmospheric river activity could begin again in early February, NIDIS stressed that “storm track are still uncertain.” 

To read the full story, please click here. 

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Geothermal could be off-ramp for oil sector: study

Four years of drilling for energy deep underground would be enough to build Texas a carbon-free state electric grid, a new study by an alliance of state universities has found.   

  • The state’s flagship universities collaborated with the International Energy Agency (IEA) to produce the landmark report.    
  • It depicts the Texas geothermal industry as a potential partner to the state’s enormous oil and gas sector — or a means for it to transition to a form of lower-carbon energy.    

Another boom: In the best case, the industry represents “an accelerating trend” that could replicate — or surpass — the fracking boom, Jamie Beard of the Texas Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization at the University of Texas said at a Tuesday press conference.

“Instead of aiming for a 2050 moonshot that we have to achieve some scientific breakthrough for — geothermal is deployable now,” Beard continued. “We can be building power plants now.” 

Skill overlap: The authors stressed that the geothermal, oil and gas industries all rely on the same fundamental skills: interpreting Texas’s unique geology to find valuable underground liquids.    

In this case, however, the liquid in question had long been seen as a waste product: superheated water released during oil and gas exploration.     

Close at hand: Most of the state’s population lives above potentially usable geothermal heat — as long as there’s a will to drill deep enough, researchers said.  

  • “Rock is a great heat battery, and the upper 10 miles of the core holds an estimated 1000 years’ worth of our energy needs in the form of stored energy,” said Ken Wisan, an economic geologist at the University of Texas at Austin. 
       
  • Superheated trapped steam that is nearly 300 degrees Fahrenheit — the sweet spot for modern geothermal — is accessible about three to five miles below the state capital. 

Off ramp: The report casts geothermal energy as a possible way out of two energy paradoxes.     

  • First, geothermal offers a way to create large reserves of on-demand power for Texas’s straining grid without massive increases in greenhouse gas emissions.  
  • But the geothermal industry also gives Texas a means of transitioning its fossil fuel off planet-heating products like oil and gas.  

With Texas’s needs at home met by cheap geothermal, “oil and gas would have more molecules to sell to other people probably for more money,” said Michael Webber, a professor of clean energy at the University of Texas at Austin.   

Cutting out the middleman: Several state Republican leaders and the state Public Utility Commission have pushed for the construction of new coal, natural gas and nuclear plants to provide round-the-clock power.  

  • But despite their different forms, these “thermal” options rely on the same fundamental trick: boil water to create steam — which spins an electromagnetic turbine, creating an electric current.   
  • Geothermal offers another cheaper and more climate-friendly solution: start with steam, which exists in superheated pockets miles below the earth’s surface.   

For more on how Texas can begin its geothermal buildout, please click here. 

Another $490M approved to prevent wildfires

The U.S. Forest Service will spend nearly half a billion dollars to help bolster 11 sprawling Western landscapes against destructive fire, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced last week. 

  • “It is no longer a matter of ‘if’ a wildfire will threaten many western communities in these landscapes, it is a matter of when,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. 
  • The work builds on the sweeping Wildfire Crisis Strategy the department announced earlier this month. 

“This is a crisis and President Biden is treating it as one,” Vilsack said. 

Geographic reach: With last year’s announced fuel treatments of 10 other landscapes, the USDA has committed to invest $930 million across 45 million acres. 

What are the areas? A broad array of Western landscapes united by just two things: their proximity to vulnerable settlements and their tendency to burn.

  • The areas to be treated range from remote rural communities around the San Carlos Apache reservation to densely urban Southern California. 
  • In terms of ecosystem, they range from the scrubby fire-loving pine forests of Pine Valley, Utah, to the lush coastal rainforests around Oregon’s Mount Hood and Klamath River.

Europe’s fuel shift could benefit African suppliers 

As Europe distances itself from Russian fossil fuels, Africa’s gas producers could stand to benefit from this energy transition, a new analysis contends. 

Reconsidering resources: The number of energy deals signed by the EU and by European nations with third-party countries has recently surged, according to the analysis, published by the Liechtenstein-based Geopolitical Intelligence Services.  

  • The U.S. has firmed up its role as a supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG), with increased exports to Europe.  
  • But the EU’s increased reliance on LNG could hamper trade relations between Brussels and Washington, which have recently experienced some strain. 
  • This trade tension stems from a potential flight of European clean-tech firms to the U.S. — lured by green subsidies available through the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, as we reported.  

Turning south: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced the EU “to reverse its zealous climate policies, with direct and positive implications for African producers,” the analysis found.  

Natural gas has been labeled as a “transitional fuel” and new investments in the resource — disincentivized by European banks until recently — are considered “climate-friendly,” according to the analysis.  

Why does that help Africa? The continent now accounts for about 20 percent of Europe’s gas imports — and that share is likely to rise further, according to the analysis.  

  • Algeria, Egypt, Angola and Nigeria are especially well-positioned to boost their exports to the EU. 
  • “Countries like Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have proven reserves but lack the necessary infrastructure,” the report stated.
  • Mozambique and Mauritania have reserves and infrastructure under construction, but their wells are not yet operational.  

Nigeria may be best positioned — but not without risk: In addition to being a major oil producer, Nigeria has the 10th largest proven natural gas reserves and vast solar energy potential, the analysis found. 

  • Nigeria’s energy prospects are tied to three major gas transport pipelines, one of which is poised to link West Africa to Europe.  
  • But these projects are capital-intensive and carry high risks, such as old infrastructure and insufficient investment, as well as a history of oil theft and corruption.  

Italy courts Algeria: Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni praised Algeria on Monday as Rome’s “most stable, strategic and long-standing” partner in North Africa at the end of a two-day visit to the country, France24 reported.  

  • Meloni was accompanied by the current chief of Italian energy company ENI, who has promoted Rome’s shift toward Algerian gas.
  • Algiers has replaced Moscow as Rome’s top energy supplier — and the Italian government is aiming to strengthen that relationship. 

Tuesday Troubles

Humanity is closer than ever to extinction, the Biden administration is accused of slow-walking key environmental rules and a series of mysterious crimes haunt the Dallas Zoo. 

Doomsday Clock set 90 seconds from midnight

  • The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned on Tuesday that humanity was at its highest risk yet for “global self annihilation,” our colleague Laura Kelly reported. The Bulletin celebrated this grim milestone by advancing its Doomsday Clock — which measures the scale of existential threats facing humanity — to 90 seconds to midnight.

Environmental activists disappointed with Biden regulatory delays 

  • Environmental advocates are expressing frustration with the Biden administration at what they describe as undue delays for critical regulations, our colleague Rachel Frazin reported. Their discontent comes after the administration’s release of its semiannual regulatory agenda, which pushed back timelines for a variety of pollution and fossil fuel-related rules. 

Suspicious activity is stalking the Dallas Zoo

  • The recent death of an endangered vulture at the Dallas Zoo is the latest in a string of suspicious incidents at the zoo this month, The Wall Street Journal reported. On Jan. 13, a clouded leopard went temporarily missing after its enclosure was deliberately cut open — creating a tear similar to one found the same day in a monkey enclosure. 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for more and check out other newsletters here. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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