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The latest news on Environment from Business Insider

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    Much has been written about the challenge of achieving the targets set out in the Paris climate agreement, which calls for global warming to be held well below 2℃ and ideally within 1.5℃ of pre-industrial temperatures.

    That’s the headline goal, but the Paris agreement also calls for a strong focus on climate science as well as on curbing greenhouse emissions.

    Article 7.7c of the agreement specifically calls for:

    Strengthening scientific knowledge on climate, including research, systematic observation of the climate system and early warning systems, in a manner that informs climate services and supports decision-making.

    The next paragraph also calls on countries to help poorer nations, which have less scientific capability, to do the same.

    But what are the many elements of climate science that need strengthening to achieve the aims of the Paris agreement? Here are six questions that need answers.

    SEE ALSO: 14 images reveal what the hottest year in history looked like

    CHECK OUT: The countries most likely to survive climate change in one infographic

    What do the targets mean?

    What do the 2℃ and 1.5℃ targets imply for our climate and adaptation responses? Even warming of 2℃ will have significant impacts for humans and natural systems, albeit much less than would occur if we allowed warming to continue unchecked.

    Still, climate science needs to clarify what is gained by meeting the 1.5℃ and 2℃ targets, and the consequences of missing them.

    Are we on track?

    It will be essential to monitor the climate system over the coming years and decades to see whether our efforts at curbing warming are delivering the expected benefits, or if more measures are needed.

    The path to these ambitious temperature targets will not be smooth – there will be periods of rapid warming interspersed with periods of slower warming. We will not meet the targets if the world relaxes on mitigation efforts because of a short-term slowing in the rate of warming as a result of natural variability, such as we saw between 1998 and 2013.

    Greenhouse gas concentrations, global temperatures, rainfall and water balance changes, extreme weather events, ocean heat content, sea level and terrestrial and marine carbon sinks are all vitally important elements to track. A focus on surface temperature alone is not sufficient.

    What are the tipping points in the climate system?

    Tipping points are thresholds beyond which there will be large, rapid and possibly irreversible changes in the climate system.

    The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are one example – beyond a certain level, warming will cause large and irreversible loss of ice, and sea level rise of many meters over the ensuing centuries. Thresholds also exist for ecosystems, such as the Great Barrier Reef, and the services they provide, including food production and water supply.

    We need to know what these thresholds are, the consequences of crossing them, and how much and how fast we will have to reduce emissions in order to avoid this.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Paraguay flooding displaced people

    Over the last 30 years, floods have killed more than 500,000 people globally, and displaced about 650m more.

    In a recent paper published by the Centre for Economic Performance, we examined why so many people are hit by devastating floods.

    We looked at 53 large floods, which affected more than 1,800 cities in 40 countries, from 2003 to 2008. Each of these floods displaced at least 100,000 people from their homes.

    Of course, part of the problem is that many cities were originally built near rivers and coastlines.

    For a long time, these cities’ residents benefited from lower transport costs, because they were close to ports and the trade which occurred there.

    But these days, modern land transport often makes these historical advantages obsolete, as more cities rely on highways and railways than on ports.

    A growing problem

    Yet history is not the only reason why flood-prone locations are overpopulated.

    For one thing, rising sea levels and a changing climate are putting more cities’ residents at risk. And what’s more, new homes are still being built in flood-prone areas around the world.

    This is largely because private developers do not bear the full social cost of building on cheap land on flood plains. Instead, governments typically foot much of the bill for building and maintaining flood defenses.

    As a result, developers do not take on the full risk of constructing homes in areas that are prone to flooding, and many people looking for new homes for their families move into these buildings. And so, the global population at risk of flooding keeps growing.

    To contain this large and growing social problem we should, at the very least, tighten the control over construction in flood-prone areas. Or, even better, home builders who insist on constructing new houses in flood plains should be required to bear the full costs that they impose on society in the long run.

    flooding missouri

    Cities keep coming back

    Another part of the problem is that people continue to live in flood-prone locations, even in the aftermath of large floods. There is no widespread movement towards safer areas.

    Low-lying urban areas are hit by large floods about three to four times more often than other urban areas. This is partly because some low elevation areas are close to coastlines and rivers. But in fact, our study found that the risk of large-scale flooding is still higher in low elevation areas, even after we adjust for their proximity to these amenities.

    Despite this higher risk of flooding, low-lying urban areas concentrate more economic activity than safer urban areas. This is true even in the parts of the world that are prone to extreme rainfall, such as the basins of major South Asian rivers, where the risk of large-scale flooding is particularly high. It is true that farmers in these areas sometimes benefit from the flood soils, but city dwellers generally do not.

    When cities are devastated by large floods, low-lying areas sustain more damage than other areas. But, like other parts of flooded cities, the low elevation areas recover rapidly. You may think that this recovery is good news. But unfortunately, it means that economic activity does not move to safer areas, so it remains at risk from the next big flood.

    A local man wades through flood water on a residential street in Carlisle, Britain December 6, 2015. REUTERS/Phil Noble

    And sure enough, the odds of being hit again by a large flood are higher for cities that have already been flooded before – so the cycle of flooding repeats itself.

    We are not saying that the rising risk of floods should make people abandon thriving cities. But the pattern of repeated large floods is common even in economically marginal areas, where the case for living on flood plains is not always convincing. In our study we found that even cities that are prone to large-scale flooding often contain higher elevation areas that are safer, and that’s where new construction should take place.

    Flooding is a devastating and recurrent problem that afflicts many of the world’s cities. We need better policies to ensure that we do not mistakenly subsidize new construction on the flood plains, so that the problem of flooding does not get any worse – especially as sea levels rise.

    Guy Michaels, Associate Professor, London School of Economics and Political Science. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

    SEE ALSO: An incredible 45-day storm turned California into a 300-mile-long sea — and it could happen again

    CHECK OUT: Sea levels are rising faster than they have in 28 centuries — and it spells a worrisome reality for New York City

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: What US cities will look like under 25 feet of water

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    Roads and a small dam can be seen next to dried-up lakes located in outback Australia in this aerial picture taken on December 13, 2015. REUTERS/David Gray

    LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation)— Climate change could cause significant changes to global diets, leading to more than half a million extra deaths in 2050 from illnesses such as stroke, cancer, and heart disease, experts said on Wednesday.

    As extreme weather such as floods and heat waves wreaks havoc with harvests and crop yields, estimated increases in food availability could be cut by a third by 2050, according to the experts' study published in The Lancet medical journal.

    This would lead to a reduction of 99 calories available per person per day, the assessment of the impact of climate change on diet composition and bodyweight found.

    Climate change could also lead to a 4% reduction in the consumption of fruit and vegetables, along with a 0.7% drop in the amount of red meat consumed, the study said.

    Reduced consumption of fruit and vegetables could cause twice as many deaths as undernutrition by 2050, it said.

    "Even modest reductions in the availability of food per person could lead to changes in the energy content and composition of diets, and these changes will have major consequences for health," study lead author Marco Springmann from the University of Oxford said in a statement.

    These changes could be responsible for about 529,000 extra deaths in 2050, compared with a future without climate change in which increases in food availability and consumption could have prevented 1.9 million deaths.

    Even though some climate-related deaths will be offset by reductions in obesity, the projected 260,000 fewer deaths will be balanced by lower calorie availability, the study said.

    Low- and middle-income countries in the Western Pacific region and Southeast Asia are likely to be worst affected, and almost three quarters of all climate-related deaths are expected to occur in China and India.

    china drought

    "There should be enough food to produce a better diet in 2050 than we currently have globally, but if you add in climate change, then you loose some of those improvements," study coauthor Peter Scarborough from the University of Oxford told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    In Europe, Greece and Italy are likely to be significantly affected, with 124 and 89 deaths per a million people respectively.

    Cutting emissions could have substantial health benefits and reduce the number of climate-related deaths by 29% to 71%, the study said.

    "We need to be mitigating greenhouse gasses. If we do, it will bring down the health impact of climate change," Scarborough said.

    (Reporting by Magdalena Mis. Editing by Astrid Zweynert.; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit

    SEE ALSO: 15 ways the world will be terrifying in 2050

    MORE: 2015 was one of the craziest years yet for weather — here’s why that’s so dangerous

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Bill Nye has a great response to Trump's outrageous statements about climate change

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    Aubrey McClendon walks through the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana March 26, 2012. REUTERS/Sean Gardner

    Energy pioneer Aubrey McClendon died in a car crash just a day after he was indicted on conspiracy to rig bids for oil and natural gas leases.

    The former Chesapeake Energy CEO rose to prominence by pioneering production techniques that unlocked America's supply of shale gas, which helped wean the country from its reliance on foreign oil.

    His indictment came on the heels of a four-year federal antitrust investigation which found that his company had planned to rig the price of land leases in Oklahoma, Reuters reports.

    While McClendon's own life was cut short, he left a legacy that will shape American energy policy — for better or for worse — for years to come.

    His company, Chesapeake Energy, pioneered the use of oil and natural gas locked up in shale rock, a technique commonly known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The technique allowed America to unlock decades' worth of energy, but has also been linked to serious environmental and health concerns.

    Fracking: The good, the bad, and the ugly

    fracking crude oilFracking involves the injection of fracking fluid — consisting of pressurized water, sand or other ceramic materials, and thickening agents — into a hole drilled in the ground. This produces cracks in the shale rock that allow oil and natural gas to flow more easily.

    The first fracking experiment took place in 1947 in the Hugoton gas field in Grant County, Kansas. One thousand gallons of napalm and sand from the Arkansas River were injected into a limestone rock formation that was clogged by mud from drilling operations. The attempt wasn't very successful, but the technology has advanced significantly since then.

    Today, the Society of Petroleum Engineers estimates that 2.5 million fractures have been pumped worldwide over the last 60 years; more than a million of them have been in the US. The technique has unlocked large sources of energy that would otherwise be inaccessible. For example, the Marcellus Shale in western New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, is thought to contain enough natural gas to supply the United States for more than 40 years.

    But fracking is incredibly controversial. Opponents say it can release harmful chemicals that contaminate air and water supplies, possibly trigger earthquakes, and cause human health problems.

    While scientists are just beginning to study the effects of fracking on the environment, some evidence suggests it can be done safely. As Scientific American reported in 2013, a study funded by the National Science Foundation and published in the journal Science found that fracking has "no irrefutable impact" on ground water quality.

    The problem is, it's not always done safely. If the cement casing that surrounds a fracking well is made incorrectly, natural gas can leak along its sides or through cracks, releasing harmful gases like methane to the environment. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and exacerbate climate change.

    Another problem is the wastewater from these wells, which can contain toxic or even radioactive chemicals. The same NSF study found that fracking wastewater is already starting to contaminate rivers and other major waterways.

    A number of countries and states have banned fracking, but it continues to be a major source of American energy.

    McClendon's rise and fall

    Under McClendon, Chesapeake Energy grew from a small operation into the second-biggest natural gas producer in the United States, exceeded only by Exxon Mobil, according to The New York Times. With Wall Street backing, the company leased land all over the country for fracking, including Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

    chesapeake silhouetteAs the Times reports, they produced so much energy that natural gas prices collapsed, and Chesapeake's shares tanked. McClendon also used his investments in the company to shore up as much as $1.1 billion in loans to pay off the cost of drilling the fracking wells, and he was later forced out of the company.

    On Tuesday, the Justice Department indicted McClendon in a conspiracy in which two unnamed companies agreed not to bid against each other for oil and gas leases in northwest Oklahoma between late 2007 and early 2012, a charge he denied.

    McClendon died in a car crash less than 24 hours later. Investigators have not yet determined the cause of death.

    "He was a major player in leading the stunning energy renaissance in America," Texas energy investor T. Boone Pickens said in a statement. "No individual is without flaws, but his impact on American energy will be long-lasting."

    NEXT UP: We're finding out more and more about the worrisome link between fracking and health

    SEE ALSO: The rise and fall of energy titan Aubrey McClendon

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Pluto and its moon Charon have something that doesn't exist anywhere else in the solar system

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    For the first time in the history of the event, organizers of the Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska will have to ship in snow due to unseasonably warm weather.

    The traditional start to the famous, 1,000 mile race from Anchorage to Nome begins with a ceremonial trot through downtown Anchorage — but this year race officials will have to improvise to make it work.

    The organizers will import 300 cubic yards of snow from Fairbanks — which is 350 miles to the north — via the Alaska Railroad to be distributed prior to the event on Saturday.

    According to Tim Sullivan, the spokesperson for the Alaska Railroad and a resident of Anchorage, the company has been in conversation with Iditarod officials all season.

    "It's been a warm and snow-free winter," Sullivan said. "It's been in the 40s all week."

    The railroad will attach seven cars full of snow collected in their Fairbanks rail yard to a southbound freight train later this week, with no charge to the race, Sullivan said.

    This is the third warm year in a row for Anchorage, which recently broke a local record for its most consecutive days without snowfall.

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    There have been dramatic changes in the U.S. energy system under our current president – a big drop in the use of coal, a boom in domestic oil and gas development from fracking, and the rapid spread of renewable energy.

    But in terms of influencing energy technology deployment, the next president will have a lot less influence than you might expect.

    When it comes to educating U.S. citizens on energy’s relationship to the broader economy, though, the next president could have a great impact. But I’m not holding my breath. In fact, I’d say it’s likely not going to happen.

    Here I pose a few relevant questions about energy and the economy that could be asked of our next president and suggest some answers.

    Coal versus renewables

    Q: Will coal continue to decline in the U.S., and is that something other countries could emulate?

    Yes to the first part, “somewhat” to the second part.

    Over the next few presidential terms, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, U.S. coal consumption will continue to decline. The reasons are flat electricity consumption and less productive coal mining over time.
    Because of an aging fleet of American power plants, a number of them will need to be replaced, which includes a number of coal-fired plants. This chart shows the “dependency ratio,” the fraction of U.S. power plants that are older than a given year divided by the fraction of U.S. power plants that are younger than a certain year.Energy Information Administration, Author provided

    Also, the overzealous drilling for natural gas (and oil, with some natural gas that comes with the oil) in tight sands and shales has led to cheap natural gas. More power generators are thus shifting from coal to natural gas, hastening the retirement of coal-fired power plants due to age.

    EPA regulations to reduce air pollutants also favor the move away from coal. (Note that if the Clean Power Plan ends up surviving legal challenges, it will exacerbate the coal decline.)

    It is not clear, however, if other countries will have the same confluence of factors that led to the U.S.’s reduced coal consumption.

    Europe has relatively old coal and nuclear power plants, but the EU and Japan do not have natural gas prices as low as the United States, and they will likely stay higher even as gas prices in the U.S. rise as the fracking revolution fizzles out, sending home many militia members who enabled the latest boom. The higher cost of energy (along with other factors such as aging populations) means that western European countries will continue to struggle for economic growth.

    Pump jacks are seen at the Lukoil company owned Imilorskoye oil field, as the sun sets, outside the West Siberian city of Kogalym, Russia, January 25, 2016.  REUTERS/Sergei KarpukhinQ: Will renewable energy lose momentum with a new president?

    With regard to electricity generation, the answer is “no,” whether a Democrat or a Republican wins the presidency.

    In December 2015, Congress extended the main incentives for renewable electricity (the Production Tax Credit, or PTC, for wind and Investment Tax Credit, ITC, for solar) past 2020, and thus the next president does not have to battle this topic during his or her first four-year term.

    The president could have some influence on manufacturing and trade for solar photovoltaic (PV) panels by, for instance, imposing tariffs on imported products. The solar manufacturing industry is presently dominated by Chinese companies, and there are only a few domestic companies account for the majority of (about one gigawatt) of U.S.-based PV module manufacturing.

    U.S-based manufacturer First Solar and other U.S. producers of “thin-film” solar panels – alternative, less energy-intensive, and cheaper to manufacture relative to the dominant silicon solar cell –  might be positioned well for the near-medium future battle against foreign manufacturing.

    When it comes to liquid fuels – that is, biofuels – the momentum is lost and can’t be returned due to fundamental reasons of energetic balance; it takes significantly more energy input to produce a unit of energy in the form of liquid biofuels than competing fuels such as petroleum and electricity.

    Oil and gas

    Q: Can the next president keep the U.S. oil and gas sector from going bust?


    In energy markets, high-cost marginal producers are supposed to produce last. This holds for oil, natural gas and electricity. So today’s low gas prices mean there is less financial incentive to drill the most expensive sources of oil. Any thought that Saudi Arabia (a low-cost producer) has some obligation to keep U.S. oil shale and Canadian oil sands (high-cost marginal producers) in business is a farce.

    Obama LNG natural gasImagine that the same logic were applied to U.S. electricity markets. In the wholesale markets for electricity, natural gas plants typically provide power for a few hours to meet the peak in daily demand. But all power generators compete on price so peaking plants can’t tell other generators – such as coal and nuclear plants that usually provide steady, baseload power all day long – to cut back so gas peakers can run more often. The markets are just not designed that way.

    Indeed, the dynamics of investment in the U.S. oil and gas sector are out of the hands of the president. There is no direct battle of “Sheiks versus Shale” with Saudi Arabia keeping oil production high to specifically punish North American oil and gas. The Saudis are simply forcing all producers to employ the discipline in which American businesspersons claim to be so great.

    Saudi Oil Minister Ali Ibrahim Al-Naimi recently said: “Inefficient, uneconomical producers will have to get out. This is tough to say, but that is a fact.” He might as well be Walmart founder Sam Walton or Henry Ford.

    There will be little to no discussion of opening up more offshore (deepwater) regions (under U.S. control) for development because the economics aren’t going to work for a while, and high volatility in oil price swings is going to scare away deepwater investment.

    On the other hand, U.S. oil and gas companies, which can no longer only focus on fracking in shale areas, may focus more on Mexico, which is now reforming its energy markets.

    Saudi Arabia OPEC Ali al-NaimiYour energy vote

    Q: Should you vote for a president based upon his/her views on the role and choices of energy?

    Absolutely, that should be a relevant factor. We don’t have a lot of detail on energy plans for any candidate, but based solely on their views toward climate change, there is certainly enough to choose between any Republican and either Democrat that wins the nomination.

    In the grand scheme of climate change and global CO2 emissions, China and India are the big coal consumers to deal with, and Australia is one of their coal dealers.

    With two big energy policy issues – the renewable tax credits for renewable energy and lifting of U.S. oil exports– out of the way for the next president, he or she could choose to focus on using U.S. clout to influence world climate policy. The Democratic candidates are likely to do this; the Republicans are not.

    Infinite growth?

    Q: What are you never going to hear from a presidential candidate, but should?

    The problem for the American public is that no presidential candidate is going to level with them about the reality of U.S. energy: consumption isn’t going up anymore and increased jobs in energy are not fundamentally good for economic growth.

    Gasoline drips off a nozzle during refueling at a gas station in Altadena, California March 24, 2012. Picture taken March 24, 2012.  REUTERS/Mario AnzuoniEvery politician and energy advocacy organization tells us that there will be more jobs if we invest more in oil, gas, renewables, etc. But nonenergy workers are able to afford to pay only so many energy sector workers to produce energy.

    This is why the shale boom couldn’t fundamentally continue. The economy is not configured to pay $80,000 per year for oil/gas/sand/water truck drivers that have only a high school diploma. The oil and gas boom inflated wages in the energy sector, and this ultimately led to energy prices high enough to be detrimental to the economy. A renewables boom could have the same effect.

    Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, economies and populations have grown tremendously due to the ability to produce more food and energy with a smaller fraction of people. Thus, having more food and energy consumers relative to food and energy producers meant that these core costs continually declined.

    But that trend of decreasing food and energy costs is over for the U.S. and around the globe. This raises the question as to what kind of economic growth (if any) can occur once food and energy costs are no longer decreasing as they have been for 70+ years.

    Given what I’ve written here, we need a president who tries to explain and teach the reality that not even one exceptional country can have infinite growth on a finite planet. Because if you finally accept this point, you come to the conclusion that you have to choose, right now, whether or not to want to work with fellow Americans to solve our common problems instead of believing we can wait to share in the future…after the economy grows fast enough again.

    As long as Americans believe we can and must grow our way out of economic doldrums on the backs of higher and higher energy consumption, we avoid that hard, but real, conclusion: growth cannot solve our social, economic and political problems. Low growth is likely an exacerbating factor; and growth forever is impossible. Given the political environment now, however, I have no belief that we’re capable of creating the necessary dialogue.

    Carey King, Research Scientist, University of Texas at Austin

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    Beirut trash

    The capital of Lebanon is being flooded by a literal pile of garbage.

    A river of refuse, which snakes through Beirut's suburb of Jdeideh, has been building there since the city's main landfill shut down last July.

    Here's a glimpse of the stinking problem:

    (Images and some captions from Reuters)

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    The problem started last July, when city authorities shut down the main landfill without opening an alternative dumping site.

    Source: ReutersCNN

    Residents opened a makeshift dump in the yard of a residential building, and it's only been growing since then.

    Source: ReutersCNN

    Experts say the trash crisis is a symptom of bigger problems for the country, many of which have worsened since the civil war in neighboring Syria began.

    Source: Reuters

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Syria drought

    Syria's civil war has left 250,000 people dead, according to the latest UN count, and millions more are either displaced within the country's borders or have sought refuge abroad.

    And, while the proximate causes were largely political — primarily grievances with President Bashar al Assad, new scientific research adds support to the argument that climate change helped to trigger Syria's descent into violence.

    Researchers from NASA and the University of Arizona studied tree rings — a reliable proxy for measuring precipitation — going back several centuries and found that the recent Syrian drought was likely the worst in at least the past 900 years and almost definitely the worst in 500 years.

    "We wanted to know how the current drought compared to past droughts," said Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the lead author of the study.

    The current drought, which has lasted about 15 years "really is the worst, far outside of natural climate cycles."

    Cook and his colleagues found that mega-droughts — those that last thirty years or longer — were absent from the tree ring record. The last major drought began in 1807 and lasted fourteen years.

    "We are starting to push the [climate] system outside of what it would normally do," said Cook. "That really points to climate change playing a role. The big uncertainty is how we will deal with the amplified stresses.

    The drought caused 75 percent of Syria's farms to fail and 85 percent of livestock to die between 2006 and 2011, according to the United Nations. The collapse in crop yields forced as many as 1.5 million Syrians to migrate to urban centers, like Homs and Damascus.

    The drought had displaced Syrians long before the conflict began," said Francesco Femia, president of the Center for Climate Security. "And what is frightening is that analysts who study the region completely missed it."

    More hungry and homeless families in Syria's big cities created stress, said Femia."There are only so many resources to go around."

    Abeer Etefa, a communications officer with the United Nation's World Food Program, said the agency was concerned about the country prior to the outbreak of war.

    "The situation was already bad," he said. "We had an operation in 2010 for farmers that were suffering from the drought." 

    Syrian farmers

    The World Food Program is currently providing food aid to over 300,000 Syrians in the country's northeast, which is the epicenter of agricultural production. Grain yields last year were half of what they were in 2011. 

    The Pentagon has long identified climate change as a "threat magnifier," a factor that can aggravate already existing political fault lines. And the G7 issued a report in June warning that climate change "will aggravate already fragile situations and may contribute to social upheaval and even violent conflict."

    In this way the Syrian civil war and the hundreds of thousands of displaced, who are seeking refuge in Turkey and Europe, could be seen as a foreshadowing of a much more alarming humanitarian situation should nation's fail to keep global temperature rise under control.

    Christian Parenti, author of Tropic of Chaos, a book that examines the links between climate change and violence around the world, said that nations need to address climate change, but improved energy and environmental policies, however important for avoiding future conflicts, won't help Syria's growing ranks of displaced and undernourished. 

    "By emphasizing regime change, US foreign policy has helped to produce this disaster," he said. " From the Iraq invasions, to the Libyan war, to aiding Salafist rebels in Syria, US-sponsored violence has made it harder for people to adapt to a warmer, drier Middle East. But, without a peace settlement in Syria, there will only be more refugees headed to Europe." 

    Robert S. Eshelman and Samuel Oakford contributed reporting. 

    SEE ALSO: These Native Americans might be the country's first climate change refugees

    MORE: Rising seas are threatening to swallow up some of these beautiful places

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: A devastating look at the California drought

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    Arctic Ocean

    Yet another global heat record has been beaten.

    It appears January 2016 — the most abnormally hot month in history, according to Nasa — will be comprehensively trounced once official figures come in for February.

    Initial satellite measurements, compiled by Eric Holthaus at Slate, put February’s anomaly from the pre-industrial average between 1.15C and 1.4C.

    The UN Paris climate agreement struck in December seeks to limit warming to 1.5C if possible.

    “Even the lower part of that range is extraordinary,” said Will Steffen, an emeritus professor of climate science at Australian National University and a councillor at Australia’s Climate Council.

    It appears that on Wednesday, the northern hemisphere even slipped above the milestone 2C average for the first time in recorded history. This is the arbitrary limit above which scientists believe global temperature rise will be “dangerous”.

    The Arctic in particular experienced terrific warmth throughout the winter. Temperatures at the north pole approached 0C in late December– 30C to 35C above average.

    Mark Serreze, the director of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, described the conditions as “absurd”.

    “The heat has been unrelenting over the entire season,” he said. “I’ve been studying Arctic climate for 35 years and have never seen anything like this before”.

    All this weirdness follows the record-smashing year of 2015, which was 0.9C above the 20th century average. This beat the previous record warmth of 2014 by 0.16C.

    760 (1)

    These tumbling temperature records are often accompanied in media reports by the caveat that we are experiencing a particularly strong El Niño - perhaps the largest in history. But should El Niño and climate change be given equal billing?

    No, according to Professor Michael Mann, the director of Penn State Earth System Science Center. He said it was possible to look back over the temperature records and assess the impact of an El Niño on global temperatures.

    “A number of folks have done this,” he said, “and come to the conclusion it was responsible for less than 0.1C of the anomalous warmth. In other words, we would have set an all-time global temperature record [in 2015] even without any help from El Niño.”

    Global surface temperature is the major yardstick used to track how we are changing the climate. It is the average the UN Paris agreement refers to.

    But the atmosphere doesn’t stop at the surface. In fact 93% of the extra energy trapped by the greenhouse gases humans have emitted gets sunk into the oceans – just 1% ends up in the atmosphere where temperature is most often and most thoroughly measured. During El Niño, which occurs every three to six years, currents in the Pacific Ocean bring warm water to the surface and heat up the air.


    Jeff Knight from the Met Office’s Hadley Center, said their modeling set the additional heat from a big El Niño, like the current one, at about 0.2C. He said wind patterns in the northern hemisphere had added another 0.1C to recent monthly readings.

    “The bottom line is that the contributions of the current El Niño and wind patterns to the very warm conditions globally over the last couple of months are relatively small compared to the anthropogenically driven increase in global temperature since pre-industrial times,” he added.

    Steffen said the definitive assessment of this El Niño and its effect on the world’s temperature would only be possible once the event had run its course (it has now peaked and is expected to end in the second quarter of this year). But he agreed that past El Niño cycles could be an appropriate guide for the order of magnitude of the effect.

    The picture becomes less clear cut when we talk about monthly records. Even weather trends can have small effects on the monthly average temperature, said Knight. The effect of El Niño traditionally increases as it dies, so Mann believes it may have added more than the “nominal” o.1C during the past three months.

    In the Arctic, the effect of El Niño is poorly understood but likely to be weak, said Knight. “Given that the Arctic has been very warm for a number of years, with record low sea ice, it is more likely that the warmth there currently is part of a long-term trend rather than the response to a episodic event like El Niño.”

    Steffen says quantifying the relative contributions of El Niño and climate change on a monthly or even annual basis cannot help to answer how fast the world is warming. Only trends over 30 years really matter.

    But the pile up of records we have had in the early part of this century are significant. All things being constant, record hot years should occur once every 150 years. Yet 1998, 2005, 2010, 2014 and 2015 have all been record breakers.

    A study published in January found that even without last year’s mammoth anomaly such a run was 600 to 130,000 times more likely to have occurred with human interference than without.

    “The fact that you are getting records so close, one after the other is really striking. And that is symptomatic of that long-term trend,” said Steffen.

    But while they may be poor signals for long-term climate change, record hot months and years do have an immediate and tangible impact.

    “It’s making heat waves worse. Here in Australia it bumps up the bushfire danger weather really fast. It tends to lead to drier conditions in our part of the world. These things are exacerbated by El Niños, so I don’t want to downplay the importance of them for human suffering,” said Steffen.

    This article originally appeared on


    SEE ALSO: Rising seas are threatening to swallow up some of these beautiful places

    MORE: Climate change is ruining some of the best aspects of Los Angeles

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    On the unforgiving plains of the Russian tundra, researchers are undertaking an ambitious experiment.

    They're trying to restore the entire ecosystem to the way it was when mammoths roamed the Earth 15,000 years ago.

    Woolly mammoth

    Here's why — and how — they're doing it.

    The project is called Pleistocene Park, which researcher Sergey Zimov founded in 1989. It's primarily funded by government grants and the Pleistocene Park Foundation, a non-profit organization.

    Sources: Science, Pleistocene Park, NOAA

    The Pleistocene epoch began 1.8 million years ago and ended when humans started dominating the Earth 11,500 years ago.

    Source: Smithsonian

    Across the northern part of the globe during this period, the steppe ecosystem dominated. Its characteristic grasses high in nutrients were great for the planet.

    Source: National Geographic

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    si ITER2015

    The first and largest machine of its kind is currently under construction at the French scientific research center called Cadarache, which specializes in nuclear power research.

    It's called ITER, Latin for "The Way," and is expected to usher in a new era of nuclear fusion-powered electricity — something scientists and engineers have been working toward for over 40 years.

    By fusing two forms of hydrogen, called deuterium and tritium, together, the machine would generate 500 megawatts of power. That's ten times more energy than it would require to operate.

    Once completed, ITER would measure 100 feet in diameter and height, representing a new breed of nuclear fusion device. If it reaches its energy output goals, it will be the first machine of its kind to bridge the gap from fusion research in the lab to readily available fusion power for cities.

    As of June 2015, construction costs for the machine exceeded $14 billion. But, in the end, experts say it will be worth it. After all, nuclear fusion is the process that powers stars like our Sun and offers a number of advantages to current energy sources if we can harness that power here on Earth:

    • Fusion generates non-radioactive waste that can be completely recycled within 100 years, unlike the toxic radioactive residue that today's nuclear fission reactors produce.
    • There's no chance of a runaway reaction because any malfunction would halt the fusion process, meaning that fusion reactors don't run the risk of a nuclear meltdown.
    • It's a clean source of energy compared to coal, natural gas, and crude oil.
    • Fusion reactors can run on seawater, offering a relatively renewable source of energy.

    The problem with fusion

    Right now, the biggest one is this: Fusion machines in operation today use more energy to run than they put out, which is the exact opposite of what you want from a power plant.

    The problem stems from the super-heated plasma that machines, called tokamaks, produce and where the fusion reactions takes place. Below is a schematic of the plasma, shown in purple:

    Tokamak_(scheme)While reaching these temperatures is a feat of engineering in and of itself, tokamaks can't sustain the plasma flow for very long. The record for the longest sustained plasma is 6 minutes and 30 seconds, which a French tokamak achieved in 2003.

    This pulsing behavior, which comes with turning the plasma repeatedly on and off in short bursts, is what scientists have been trying to bypass for decades because pulsing costs too much energy to be a viable approach for net energy gain.

    Instead, the ideal approach is to build a machine that can produce a self-sustaining plasma. That's where ITER comes in.

    Below is a cross section of what the inside of ITER will look like where the rotating particles are deuterium and tritium atoms:


    The plasma inside ITER will reach 150 million degrees, or ten times hotter than the center of the Sun and enough to fuse deuterium and tritium.

    An important byproduct of the fusion is helium — specifically the nucleus of helium atoms. Once produced, these atoms bounce around, imparting energy in the form of heat, which helps to keep the plasma intrinsically hot, without the aid of additional, external energy input.

    "That's how it will be almost completely self sustaining,"Jonathan Menard, the program director of a major fusion facility at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL), told Business Insider.

    This type of fusion burning is very similar to what's happening in the core of our Sun.

    The future of fusion

    stellaratorAnother machine in Germany called Wendelstein 7-X — which was recently turned on for the first time — is also expected to generate self-sustaining plasma.

    However, Menard noted that it isn't likely that this machine will generate enough surplus energy to serve as a potential nuclear fusion power plant, which is what ITER is being designed to do.

    Still another form of fusion reactors use lasers instead of plasma, like the National Ignition Facility in California, but that area of research still has a ways to go before it can compete with the tokamaks of the world.

    "So far, the laser based systems are pretty inefficient an we think the [plasma] fusion systems are closer to having net energy," Menard said.

    Construction began on ITER in 2007 and is expected to end in 2019 with the firing of its first plasma in 2020. The machine is expected to reach full deuterium–tritium fusion experiments for potential net energy gain by 2027.

    In the mean time, fusion research facilities across the globe are using their tokamaks, like PPPL's National Spherical Torus Experiment, to explore different aspects of how ITER will operate.

    "Particularly [we're investigating] how well those alpha particles or helium nuclei are confined," Menard said.

    Check out a virtual tour through the ITER facility on YouTube, or below:


    READ MORE: Russia wants to use Cold War-style missiles to save Earth from rogue asteroids

    SEE ALSO: 3 brilliant scientists are favored to win a Nobel Prize in Physics — but there's a big problem

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    Until recently, oil and car industries were seen as the main culprits for climate change.

    But after an Inconvenient Truth, another documentary, Cowspiracy, has shaken common beliefs and changed the way we perceive global warming and sustainable practices.

    Read more about the effect of Cowspiracy in a twin-article United Academics published: A Steak A Day Keeps Sustainability Away.

    The livestock production industry is now also publicly blamed for 4 negative effects on our planet:

    SEE ALSO: Here's what the animals we eat looked like before we started breeding them

    CHECK OUT: 9 food labels that probably don't mean what you think they mean

    1. Land use

    Livestock production is the largest land-use system on Earth. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that cattle industry accounts for one-third of the land surface use on the entire planet: one single cow can use up to 20 thousand square meters of land. The effects of over-exploration are already being felt: 20% of the arable land is now degraded due to over-grazing, compaction and erosion, as stated in the FAO repost above mentioned.

    At the same time, deforestation is a major concern, especially in Latin America. 70% of previous forested lands are now turned into pastures and fodder crops. For instance, between 1994 and 2004, the land area devoted to growing soybeans, mostly used to feed cattle, in Latin America more than doubled to 39 million.

    2. Water resources

    Water resources are also being largely affected by the meat industry. The livestock sector is responsible for one-third of the freshwater usage on the planet and the production of one kg of meat can require as much as 20,000 liters of water, according to the UK’s Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IME)

    In the US, while private houses consume about 5% of the water resources, animal agriculture accounts for more than 55%.

    3. Greenhouse gas emissions

    The numbers related to the impact of livestock production on the atmosphere are also impressive. According to FAO, cattle accounts for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent, a higher share than transports, for example.  But in this industry, CO2 release is not the major concern; livestock production is responsible for 37% of all methane and 64% of all ammonia emissions.

    These emissions vary considerable between different animals. According to a study published in PnasJournal, the production of meat and eggs from monogastrics animals, such as pigs or rabbits, has significantly lower emission intensities than milk and meat from ruminants, like cows or goats.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Bios Urn is rethinking the way we bury the dead, and created a way to easily grow trees using the nutrients of cremated human remains. They hope to one day replace cemeteries with forests.

    Story and editing by Carl Mueller

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    rainforest connection

    The World Wildlife Foundation illustrates the problem vividly: 48 football fields worth of rainforest are destroyed every minute.

    It's startling, but Topher White might have a partial solution.

    White is the CEO of Rainforest Connection, a startup that collects old smartphones, retrofits them with solar panels, sticks them high in the forest canopy, and uses them as invisible warning devices to pick up whenever a chainsaw buzzes to life so it can alert the local authorities.

    Think of it as wearable tech, but for trees.

    According to White, the solution is the most obvious simply because it stops the problem at the source. 

    "Instead of it becoming this large forensic operation, where somebody has to go to jail, you can diffuse the situation before it gets out of hand," he tells Tech Insider. "That's really the first time it's been possible for our partners in the field."

    rainforest connectionSo far, those partners have been mostly from Brazil, where the company has installed more than 30 individual phones over the last couple years.

    Today, there are six phones live in the region, with more coming in the future, White says. Each one is capable of picking up activity within a radius of roughly one square mile. When it hears a chainsaw or motorcycle, it sends an alert over an ordinary cell phone network to the local rangers, who can then rush to the scene within minutes and stop the activity.

    White estimates this method of logging detection could help reduce the practice by as much as 90% if expanded worldwide.

    Rainforest Connection has its sights set on Ecuador by the end of this year. The goal there will be to install between 10 and 15 phones. Later on, it plans to move into Borneo, Indonesia, and other countries in Latin America.

    White's vision is much larger than a handful of countries, however. He wants to end illegal logging practices for good, and he sees his DIY cell phone web as the ticket to that reality.

    rainforest connection brazilOver the next couple months, Rainforest Connection plans to release an app that lets users listen in real-time to the sounds of the rainforest as broadcast by the canopy phones.

    "Instead of learning about what was cut last week or what was cut this morning, it's about a tree being cut right now," he says. "And you can listen in if you want. It becomes a very experiential sort of thing."

    White admits that deforestation isn't a sexy topic. environment. 

    The problem is simply too large and too far away from most industrialized countries to make any lasting impact on most people. This is despite the fact rainforests cover roughly a third of the entire Earth's land mass, providing the very oxygen we breathe every day. 

    But attitudes have started shifting in recent years.

    At this year's Climate Talks in Paris, 195 countries agreed to enact legislation to combat the effects of climate change. While still optimistic about these kinds of interventions, White wishes people didn't assume large-scale change is the only way to fight large-scale problems.

    "Everyone is going out and buying electric cars and smart thermostats," he says, "but I feel like this is the cheapest and fastest way for us to fight climate change."

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Billboards are going to start tracking you using your phone

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    Each year individuals in North America and Europe throw away an average of 95 to 115 kilograms (210 to 250 pounds) of food they think is either spoiled or rotten.

    Much of this food is tossed in the garbage because it’s past the expiration or “sell by” date.

    But what if those dates are inaccurate — or worse, misleading?

    In the spring of 2015, students with the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, along with a video team from Racing Horse Productions, traveled to Missoula, Montana — home of one of the most restrictive “sell by” laws for milk in the country.

    The law, which has been in effect since 1980, “requires all milk to bear a ‘sell by’ label that is dated twelve days from the date of pasteurization and mandates that such milk be removed from shelves once the date arrives,” according to the FLPC team. As the video explains, seemingly good milk is being thrown out on a regular basis.

    Milk labeling laws aren’t limited to Montana. Forty-one states have their own laws on the books, creating a patchwork of regulations and confusion among consumers — leading to oftentimes unnecessary food waste.

    As we previously wrote in Ensia, “Just being aware of the problem and its consequences doesn’t solve the problem by itself, though.”

    SEE ALSO: The vast majority of expiration dates are bogus — here's how long your food is still good

    MORE: Here's how to keep fruits, veggies, meat, and dairy fresh for longer

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    NOW WATCH: These are the foods that you should — and should not — refrigerate

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    customs border patrol flower search invasive

    It's easier than ever for non-native species to invade someone else's home.

    Thanks to huge improvements in the way we travel around the globe, species can hitch rides on boats, travel via imported wood, and even enter through people's suitcases when they bring them home from exotic vacations.

    So which invaders are causing the most trouble in their new turf?

    These 10 are the absolute worst.

    Lionfish, originally from the Indo-Pacific, probably got into the Atlantic Ocean from someone's aquarium. They eat over 40 other fish species, as well as each other if they've eliminated other options.

    Source: National Geographic

    The Burmese python, which can grow up to 22 feet, is eating up the Everglades after people disposed of their unwanted pet snakes there.

    Sources: The New York Times, Smithsonian

    European starlings started with a flock of 100 in Central Park in 1890. Now, they're all over North America, stealing other birds' nests along the way.

    Source: US Forest Service

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    bill gates

    On Tuesday, Bill Gates did his fourth Ask Me Anything on Reddit.

    One Redditor asked Gates what he thought human society would accomplish within the next 20 years. 

    Gates, a self-professed "impatient optimist," said that three huge trends could come up. 

    "First is an energy innovation to lower the cost and get rid of greenhouse gases," says Gates, echoing the call he recently made for an energy miracle. "This isn't guaranteed so we need a lot of public and private risk taking." 

    Second would be "progress" in defeating with infectious disease like polio, malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis. 

    These "are all diseases we should be able to either eliminate of bring down close to zero," Gates writes. "There is amazing science that makes us optimistic this will happen."

    Polio is almost gone, and measles, mumps, and other are one their way out. Gates even believes cancer won't be a problem in 30 years

    "Third are tools to help make education better — to help teachers learn how to teach better and to help students learn and understand why they should learn and reinforce their confidence," Gates says.

    To that end, the Gates Foundation is supporting personalized learning, and Gates is championing enthusiastic, relatable, engaging, and dynamic teachers.

    Check the full AMA here.

    SEE ALSO: Mark Cuban, Richard Branson, and 24 other successful people share their best career advice for people in their 20s

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    NOW WATCH: A Harvard psychologist says this is key to being more confident and powerful

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    hiking outdoors forest alone

    Each year, Yale's Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks the top-performing countries for the environment, based on how well they've fared at protecting human health and vulnerable ecosystems.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, the top five countries are all European.

    The EPI creates index by giving each country a score out of 100 that's based on a number of specific metrics. The individual scores are averaged for each country to create the rankings. 

    See below for the 5 best performing countries on the 2016 report: 

    SEE ALSO: The 23 cities with the best quality of life in the world

    SEE ALSO: The 20 best cities for finding a job in 2016

    #1 Finland: 90.68

    Finland took the top spot on the index, scoring 90.68. It ranks fourth in health impacts, eighth in fisheries, and top 20 in climate and energy, biodiversity and habitat, water resources, and air quality.

    Though Finland is one of Europe's most forested countries, it didn't score well on the agriculture and forests categories coming in at 87th and 106th respectively. 

    According to the EPI, Finland has made a "societal commitment to achieve a carbon-neutral society that does not exceed nature's carrying capacity by 2050." 

    #2 Iceland: 90.51

    Iceland came in a close second on the index, scoring 90.51. It ranks third in health impacts, as well as climate and energy, and fourth for air quality.

    Iceland's top performance is a function of its unique geology — around 25% of its power is produced geothermally, more than anywhere else on Earth, according to the EPI

    And 100% of Iceland's electricity comes from renewable sources, like wind, and hydro-power, according to Iceland's National Energy Authority


    #3 Sweden: 90.43

    Sweden came in a close third, scoring 90.43. It ranks fifth in health impacts, tenth in climate and energy, and top 20 for both water and sanitation, and water resources. 

    Across the board, Sweden earned almost perfect scores on drinking water quality and wastewater treatment, according to the EPI

    Like Finland, Sweden performed poorly on forests — largely due to unsustainable logging practices. 



    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    tave anom 201512 201602

    This winter was one for the record books.

    According to NOAA's latest regular "State of the Climate" report, this winter was the warmest on record in the United States.

    The temperature average across the United States was 36.8°F, which NOAA reports was 4.6 degrees above the 20th century average. This means this winter beat out the previous record holder (the winter of 1999/2000) by 0.3 degrees.

    46 states had above average winters, with Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, all having record warm winters. Alaska had it's second warmest winter ever.

    Compared to last winter, this was balmy, but not by that much. Despite the record snowfall on the East Coast in 2014/215, that winter was the sixth warmest on record. Now, it's the seventh.

    And it's unlikely any last minute freeze will cut this winter's record down to size. Winter this year ends on March 20, a date that is fast approaching. Clearly, winter as we know it is never coming again.

    This article originally appeared on Popular Science.

    SEE ALSO: The Northern Hemisphere's temperature has reached a terrifying milestone

    MORE: 14 images that reveal what the hottest year in history looked like

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    NOW WATCH: Sea levels are rising at the fastest rate in 2,800 years — here’s what Earth will look like if all the ice melts

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    pacific garbage patch

    Already, the ocean is filled with about 165 million tons of plastic.

    That's 25 times heavier than the Great Pyramid of Giza.

    By 2050, plastic in the oceans will outweigh fish, predicts a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in partnership with the World Economic Forum.

    macarthur graphic plastic oceansPart of the reason is that plastic use has increased 20-fold in the last 50 years, and it's continuing to rise.

    But we also don't reuse nearly as many plastics as we could, causing them to go into landfills that can then pollute the oceans.

    The report helps quantify just how much plastic this is: It's "equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute."

    But we could prevent this much plastic from ever entering the ocean.

    For example, only 14% of plastic packaging is recycled, and it's the biggest source of plastic pollution in the oceans, according to the report.

    If we reused more plastic packaging, and turned it back into other plastic products, the report concludes, we could significantly decrease the amount that goes into the oceans.

    plastic waste india oceans

    Recycling plastic packaging could help businesses, too. Today, they're losing at least $80 billion dollars a year because they have to make so many new plastics from scratch.

    Of course, decreasing our use of plastics can also help keep them out of the ocean, since it means they never even enter the waste stream.

    No matter what, we need to keep millions of tons of plastic out of our oceans. Or one day, we'll have more plastic than fish.

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: This is what happens when plastic is thrown into the ocean

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