Warming Trends: Climate Insomnia, the Decline of Alpine Bumblebees and Cycling like the Dutch and the Danes


A Sleep Stressor That Never Fades Away

Almost 70 percent of Americans have struggled to fall asleep or stay asleep because of anxieties around climate change and environmental issues, a recent survey found. 

The issue seems to be more pronounced for young people. Among survey respondents aged 18 to 24, nearly half say they “always” or “often” lose sleep over environmental worries. More than 2,000 adults responded to the survey commissioned by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. 

All kinds of stressors can cause sleep disruption, such as a new job, a relationship issue or grief over a loss, said Indira Gurubhagavatula, a physician at the University of Pennsylvania.

“We know that big events in the news can have a similar effect. So can political events, definitely climate-related things, which I think more and more people are becoming aware of and are worried about,” Gurubhagavatula said. “It’s not surprising, and we know that more and more news is coming out about the warming of our planet. This summer, people are personally experiencing sustained, hotter weather than usual.”

What makes environmental issues like climate change a unique stressor, she said, is that it won’t eventually fade away as the brain has time to process it, like a new job or a relationship change.

Climate change “doesn’t have an immediate, short-term resolution,” Gurubhagavatula said. “So it can continue to be a bothersome source of insomnia for a really long time. And I think that also speaks to the importance of seeking help in a timely way so that the impact on personal health and wellbeing doesn’t extend over months and years.”

She said people struggling with insomnia should avoid using medication or alcohol to sleep, or turning to electronic devices to wind down at night, as these can actually contribute to sleep disruption. Rather, she advises that people consult with a cognitive behavioral therapist who can help figure out what is causing insomnia and try to tackle the problem at the root. 


When Adaptability Ceases To Be Enough

Alpine bumblebees in the Rocky Mountains are living through hotter and longer summers than they did just a few decades ago, and they do not seem to be adapting, a new study found.

Scientists have been monitoring two species of alpine bumblebees, which reside at high elevations above the timberline, since the 1960s, creating a long-term dataset that is useful for seeing changes over time. In a recent study, scientists from the University of Missouri and Webster University found that, although summers are now longer and bees have more time to forage for nectar, the two species continue to forage in the narrow window of time that flowering season used to span.

These high elevation species are highly specialized, said study co-author Candace Galen, professor emerita of biological sciences at MU and co-author on the study, meaning they can tolerate the cold but consistent conditions that used to characterize these environments. But, climate change is altering the conditions that the bees have evolved to tolerate. Scientists are concerned that the bees will not be able to tolerate the hotter temperatures and more variable conditions.

“Flexibility is not in the alpine bumblebee’s evolutionary repertoire. It’s not something that natural selection has favored in the past,” Galen said. “In fact, it’s just the opposite, and that’s the case for lots of specialists.”

Climate change has also warmed ecosystems in lower elevations, which has driven other bumblebee species to migrate upslope to cooler climates. The study area now consists of the two “resident” species as well as several “colonizer” species. 

Galen said we can look at this as a “glass half-empty or a glass half-full” story. On one hand, the higher elevation environment offers a refuge for bees suffering from warming temperatures and other stressors like habitat fragmentation. On the other, where will the resident species go when even the highest elevation environments become too hot to tolerate? 

More research is needed to understand fully how the resident bees will be affected by climate change and how a decline in the species would affect the ecosystem as a whole. But what is clear now is this: in especially warm years, colonizer bees are more abundant and resident bees are less abundant.

“This is a concern from a broader point of view of loss of species that are specialized to environments that are disappearing themselves because of climate change,” Galen said. “That is the bigger picture concern here.”


Who Started the Fire That Burned Down Paradise? 

Just a few days before a power line sparked California’s deadliest wildfire in 2018, Katherine Blunt started a job as an energy reporter at the Wall Street Journal. After the Camp Fire tore through the northern California town of Paradise, killing 85 people, blame was quickly placed on PG&E, the utility company whose power lines ignited the blaze. 

Over the next few years, Blunt documented PG&E’s long history of mismanagement, poor record keeping and prioritization of profits over safety, all while a warming climate loomed, which scientists say will make wildfires worse. She has synthesized her reporting in a new book out this week called “California Burning: The Fall of Pacific Gas and Electric—And What It Means for America’s Power Grid.”

Inside Climate News recently discussed the new book with Blunt. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

What does taking this holistic, lifetime look reveal about PG&E and why the Camp Fire happened? 

The Camp Fire was really the result of systemic breakdown. And I think taking a holistic look at the company helps explain what that means. It’s not only internal mismanagement, it’s also regulatory issues and political issues converging with the real and immediate threat of climate change. Hopefully, it helps explain the fact that no single person is responsible for this disaster, and in some ways, everyone in charge of overseeing the company’s operations, from the people on the ground, to the middle managers, to the executives, to the regulators tasked with overseeing the company. So I really tried to do my best to explain how a very, very complex system like this breaks down to the point where you have this level of disaster.

Why is the story of PG&E’s failures a cautionary tale for a future of climate change?

We’re beginning to see climate change put new stress on the grid throughout the country. There’s been a number of severe weather events in recent years, I mean, think about the Texas freeze, heat waves across the West. In many respects, climate scientists say that these events are more severe as a result of these changes. These events do stress our infrastructure. And the investor-owned utility model, there’s inherent tension within the model between private interests in the public good. PG&E is not the only company that has struggled to strike the right balance over the years. And so if the utility company has a history of mismanaging spending or mismanaging risk, they may confront additional challenges in trying to manage this new risk. And as we’ve seen with PG&E, mismanaging climate risks can be very deadly. I mean at minimum, it could be inconvenient for a lot of customers who are becoming increasingly reliant on electricity. So there’s a lot at stake.

What do you hope your readers take away from this book?

I also hope that they understand that this is more than just a California story. We’re beginning to see risks in other places throughout the country. And it’s incumbent upon utilities elsewhere to be paying closer attention and doing more to make sure that they can provide a critical service as the climate changes.

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If Only We Could Replace Short Car Trips with Bike Trips…

The Netherlands and Denmark are known for their cycling culture. About a quarter of trips taken in these nations are via bicycle. If more countries adopted the habits of the Dutch and the Danes by replacing short car trips with bike trips, the impact on climate change and human health could be enormous, a new study found.

Researchers from the University of Southern Denmark built a database on bicycle ownership and usage around the world. They used this data to project how a global increase in cycling as a mode of transport would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What they found was that if we all biked like people in Denmark do (about a mile a day), we would prevent 414 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions—about the amount emitted annually by the United Kingdom. If we were to all bike like the Dutch (about a mile and a half a day), that number would be 686 million—just shy of the annual emissions of Germany.

Study co-author Gang Liu acknowledges that in reality, “Nobody would expect every citizen on this planet to cycle like the Dutch.” Long distance trips and unsafe road conditions can be barriers for cycling. But the thought experiment presented in this paper makes the case for cycling incentives such as bike lanes and bike garages near public transport. These can be especially effective in developing countries that are building new urban areas.

Cycling also offers health benefits, like reduced obesity, Liu said, which might be a more tangible and compelling reason to hop on a bike than the big and intangible benefit of reducing carbon emissions.

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