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5 best Earth Journal subjects of 2018

From climate change’s potential to bring social collapse to ideas on why feathered dinosaurs survived.

aerial photo of sea ice and open water in the arctic
One climate scientist predicts an ice-free arctic summer in the next few years.
REUTERS/Kathryn Hansen/NASA

There was never a shortage of subject matter for an environment- and science-minded writer in the year now ending, especially in the area of climate change. Indeed, there were periods when finding some other focus was a challenge – but variety matters, too.

Here’s a selection of developments that stand out for me as especially important, interesting, urgent … or all of the above.

1. Climate change may bring social collapse

Though it was quite the downer to prepare, and no doubt to read, it felt mandatory to spotlight new and alarming conclusions that climate change may bring significant social collapse in as little as 10 years. (Readers apparently felt it important, too – the page-view count went off the charts for a while.) I never want to be taken for an alarmist, but credible findings that climate disruption may accelerate  independently of emissions rates (and even large reductions) had not been getting the attention they merit.

2. ‘Brilliant Green’: What senses do plants use?

Easily the most eye-opening subject of the year was the book “Brilliant Green,” an Italian scientist’s intriguing survey of the advanced sensing capabilities of plants, which well outnumber the five possessed by humans and other mammals. Also, what he terms their intelligence, defined as plants’ ability to communicate and solve problems by using data gathered with the close equivalents of vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste, not to mention toxics detection, humidity gauging and more.

3. Unearned credit: Assessing Trump’s anti-environment efforts

Though not every reader appreciated my efforts to point out that a lot of Donald Trump’s anti-environment assaults were empty boasts, I think it’s imperative to deny him unearned credit. Also, to remember there’s been a lot of pushback in state legislatures. Finally, to be realistic about the absence of a green tsunami in midterm ballot measures.

4. Our rising seas

The year brought multiple opportunities to look at important new findings about coastal flooding from sea-level rise that will create waves of American climate refugees – whether the so-called “sunny day floods” that are unrelated to storms, or new mapping that dramatically enlarges the 100-year flood plain, or the threshold at which nuisance flooding become unbearable.

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5. Why did feathered dinosaurs survive extinction?

Without really planning to, I’ve been writing a lot about evolution and extinction lately, especially findings related to birds.  Can’t help it, I’m fascinated – favorites include a column on new surmises about why feathered dinosaurs survived the fifth great extinction, and another on discoveries in the rare, nearly complete skeleton of a baby dino-bird.