Understand how contact with nature increases immunity

We are constantly interacting with the environment around us. But how could something as simple as spending time among trees, stepping on the ground or smelling the bush, contribute to making us healthier? That’s what science says!

Forest bath

There is a Japanese tradition called Shinrin-yoku, which means “to absorb the atmosphere of the forest” or “to take a bath in the forest”, which makes us understand a little more of that. In 1982, the Forestry Authorities of Japan suggested announcing the practice of Shinrin-yoku to the public in order to promote a strengthening of immunity.

The idea worked so well that today the National Institute of Public Health in Japan recommends Shinrin-yoku, universities study it and hospitals use it as a therapeutic resource.

What science has discovered is that when you breathe fresh air from a forest, you are inhaling a cocktail of bioactive substances released by plants. Some of these substances are called terpenes, which are emitted by the leaves, trunks and thick bark of some trees. Even thin layers of foliage on the forest floor emit them.

We absorb these gaseous terpenes partially through our skin, but especially through the lungs.

Although forest medicine does not replace conventional medical examinations under any circumstances, scientific studies have found that forest air is like an old friend to our bodies. Scientists have identified that some of these terpenes have anti-inflammatory, anti-tumorigenic and neuroprotective activities, making the forest air a healing elixir.

It was also discovered that bathing in the forest also increases the cells that act in defence against diseases such as cancer. Those who spend only one day in the forest will have more cells of this nature in their blood for up to seven days after contact with the green. Those who stay in the forest for two or three days, have these high levels for another 30 days.

It is amazing to think that we get these long-lasting health benefits simply by being in a forest. We do not need to do rigorous trails or walks (although this is also excellent), just breathing and being in communion with the trees is enough to guarantee good health!

Satellite images revealed that trees are beginning to appear in areas previously considered barren

Seemingly barren areas, in Western Sahara and the Sahel, have revealed something surprising. Satellite images found that around 1.8 billion trees are growing in the region.

According to the professor of geography at the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the research, Martin Brandt, there are certainly vast areas without trees, but among the sand dunes you can see some trees growing.

The research provides researchers with data that can help guide efforts to combat deforestation.

“For preservation, restoration, climate change and so on, data like this is very important for establishing a baseline,” says Jesse Meyer, a programmer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre who worked on the research. “In a year, two or ten years, the study can be repeated to see whether efforts to revitalize and reduce deforestation have been effective or not,” he said in a NASA press release.

Wooded areas

In more wooded areas they appear more clearly on satellite images, even at low resolution, and are easily distinguishable. But in regions where the green is reduced, satellite images may have difficulties in detecting individual trees or even in small groups.

Even with the availability of high-resolution images, counting individual trees, especially in vast areas of the territory, is an almost impossible task. So, Brandt and his team found a solution. They are using a computer program with Deep Learning to do the job for them.

The research, published in the journal Nature, covered an area of ​​1.3 million square kilometres and analysed more than 11,000 images.

The technique suggests that in the future it will be possible to map the location and size of each tree worldwide. This would help to determine how much carbon is being stored in these locations. But for now, it is too early to say whether an accurate count of each tree’s life will affect how we understand climate change and its acceleration, according to Brandt. What he wants now is to use the technique elsewhere, to map more trees.

Lockdown, Mental Health and Nature

As a human being, we are genetically programmed to find plants, trees, water, and other wildlife engrossing, we are fascinated by wildlife scenes and distracted from our anxiety and pain. Staying in nature can be the solution for our mental wellbeing.

The COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease – 2019) pandemic has impacted the lives of millions of people around the globe. Such a contagious disease, inducing stimulus hominoid behaviours and resulting in severe psychological problems amongst the ones having no previous mental conditions as well as worsening the ones with pre-existing mental health problems. This psychological dilemma, in particular fear and sadness, is a consequence of the pandemic’s adverse impact upon people’s mental ability.

Researchers are continuously recognising the benefits of natural exposure to the immune system, mood, and mental well-being. Feeling nature and smell of greenery has shown lower anxiety level, help people feel calm and more control over their emotions.

Some of the health benefits of exposure to green spaces and trees include: lower stress level, higher energy level and attention, higher immune functioning, healing along with mood and sleep improvement.

Whether you are feeling low, depressed or just need to improve your emotional health in a current pandemic situation, start exploring nature, find the wildlife, trees, plants, visit the parks, these will uplift your mood and will eliminate your anxious thoughts. Engross nature through all of your senses, listen to the birds chirping, smell freshly cut grass, walk in the park, dip your toes in a stream and just feel the rhythm of nature.

Nature is a buffer in reducing the worse impacts of anxiety-ridden events on humans,” said Masashi Soga, PhD, The University of Tokyo. Trees and green spaces are essential part of the social well-being, they improve both physical and mental well-being, the more critical aspect during this COVID-19 outbreak.

Time spent in green spaces, like trees and parks significantly lowers your cortisol, the stress hormone and boosts your immunity against diseases. Exposure to nature can relieve your stress within minutes, uplifts your mood, raises endorphin and dopamine levels, the ultimate hormones for happiness.

Always pause and listen: listen to the melodious sounds of nature, listen to birds, smell the trees, walk in a park, or listen to the moving stream, they might help lower your stress levels.

The modern life has transformed drastically, but our minds have mostly remained the same. The deep connection with nature stayed, if we don’t sustain the bond with nature, we may suffer in many ways in future.

Africa is gaining a great green wall to contain desertification

Initiative aims to restore 100 million hectares of land by 2030

Desertification is a major problem worldwide, but in Africa it has been presenting worrying levels. In 2018, it was discovered that the Sahara, the largest desert in the world after Antarctica and the Arctic, had increased by 10% in the last century. This expansion is due to a combination of man-made climate change and natural climate cycles, with most changes occurring along the northern and southern edges of the desert.

The Sahel region (which runs from the southern Sahara belt to the Sudanese savannah), where some of the poorest communities in the world reside, is the one that has suffered the most from this desertification. The region has been experiencing persistent droughts and seeing its natural resources being depleted continuously.

This is where the Great Green Wall comes in, a project that could save an entire
region from ecological collapse.

What is the green wall?

Launched in 2007, this revolutionary initiative aims to restore Africa’s degraded landscapes and transform millions of lives into one of the poorest regions in the world, the Sahel. After being completed, the Green Wall will be the largest living structure on the planet – a natural wonder of the 8,000 km world that stretches across the continent.

The Great Green Wall is now being implemented in more than 20 countries in Africa, extending from east to west, with an investment of more than eight billion dollars. The initiative brings together African countries and international partners, under the leadership of the African Union Commission and the Pan African Agency of the Great Green Wall.

The project has adopted a range of tools to build a vegetation belt across the continent. Although trees are the main focus, other methods are being used to help restore the land, based on the specific biogeographic needs of each area
individually.

The Wall is still under construction, but it is already possible to measure the success of the project. Degraded land is being restored at an accelerated rate. This means greater food security for nearby communities.

Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia have so far seen more significant gains in the Sahel region. More than 17 million trees have been planted in Burkina Faso, Nigeria has seen more than 48,000 square kilometres of degraded land restored, while Senegal and Ethiopia have also achieved similar levels of success.

With the fight against desertification in the area, the regions began to see increased rainfall, as well as more resilient and fertile agricultural spaces.

But the ecological impact is not the only focus of this project, as the scheme also aims to empower and develop the surrounding communities.

By 2030, the initiative aims to restore 100 million hectares of land that is currently degraded, as well as "sequester" 250 million tons of carbon and create 10 million green jobs. All of this will bring even more benefits to the communities that live around the Great Wall.

Britain’s Prince William recently announced the launch of the Earthshot Award, which will offer £ 5 million for good environmental ideas

As with the Nobel Prize, the Earthshot Prize will offer from 2021 five prizes of 1 million pounds annually, for the next 10 years, with the aim of supporting 50 solutions to the world’s biggest environmental problems.

The Award is centred on five ‘Earthshots’ – which are the goals that must be achieved by 2030, with the aim of improving the lives of all of us, for this and the next generations.

The five categories are: “Protect and restore nature”; “Clean the air we breathe”; “Recovering the oceans”; “Building a world without waste” and “Improving the climate”.

Each Earthshot is supported by scientific goals, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals and other internationally recognized measures to help our planet.

Who can participate?

Any individual, team or partnership, including scientists, activists, economists, governments, business leaders and even cities or countries, can compete for the award.

Each winner will receive a contribution of one million pounds to support contemplated environmental and conservation projects, in addition to  benefiting from high visibility and support for the large-scale implementation of their solution.

The award’s board is formed by a global team of influential personalities, from different sectors of society, all committed to promoting positive actions in the environmental area. Today, the board, together with Prince William and Sir David Attenborough – British naturalist:

–  Her Majesty, Queen Rania Al Abdullah (Jordan);

–  Cate Blanchett – actress, filmmaker and humanitarian activist (Australia);

–  Christiana Figueres – Former head of climate at the UN, responsible for the historic Paris Agreement (Costa Rica);

–  Daniel Alves – soccer player (Brazil);

–  Sir David Attenborough – television presenter, writer and naturalist (United Kingdom);

–  Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim – environmentalist (Chad);

–  Indra Nooyi – executive, former president and CEO of PepsiCo (USA and India);

–  Jack Ma – philanthropist, businessman and UNSDG ambassador (China);

–  Naoko Yamazaki – ex-astronaut aboard the International Space Station (Japan);

–  Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – economist and specialist in international development (Nigeria);

–  Shakira – singer and philanthropist (Colombia);

–  Yao Ming – member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and environmentalist (China).

Check out the Award launch video:

Transportation is being tested on the Warwickshire main line.

Public transport accounts for about a quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. For this reason, the government has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by at least 80% by 2050. And one of the proposed actions to achieve this goal comes from the University of Birmingham, which is developing a hydrogen-powered train. Germany pioneered this type of transport when it launched the Coradia iLint, the world’s first hydrogen-powered train.

The use of hydrogen is essential to help decarbonize the railways. Hydrogen powered trains do not emit gases that are harmful to the environment; on the contrary, this transport uses hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, water and heat.

The University of Birmingham project received £ 750,000 support from the UK Department of Transport to move the project forward – which is being carried out in partnership with the company Porterbrook.

HydroFLEX

The train used in the tests is called HydroFLEX and was equipped with hydrogen fuel cells, which are activated on non-electrified routes. To convert the electric vehicle into hydrogen, hydrogen and battery tanks were installed, capable of providing independent traction force to operate with zero carbon emissions. These trains are expected to start receiving passengers in 2023.

The Department of Transportation has commissioned a project – to be carried out by the Mott MacDonald group – to understand the feasibility of using hydrogen in transport. Scheduled for publication in January, the project could pave the way for the adoption of hydrogen as the main fuel to supply buses, heavy vehicles, rail, sea and air transport across the UK.

The goal is for the region to become a global leader in research for the use of hydrogen as a fuel, as well as a development center for hydrogen transport in general.

Hydrogen as a fuel

Vehicles powered by hydrogen cells can be refueled as quickly as those using gasoline or ethanol. In addition, hydrogen allows greater autonomy on longer trips, when compared to traditional fuels.

The problem is that hydrogen filling stations are still very expensive. It is estimated that a post could cost around US $ 2 million, so companies have been reluctant to build them. However, for these gas stations to become viable, it will be necessary to have more hydrogen-powered vehicles circulating on the streets and roads.

Satellite data showed a 38% increase in green in the region. A worrying fact, according to scientists

The Arctic, located at the northern end of the planet, is a predominantly icy region. And, contrary to what many imagine, it is not a lifeless place. Unlike Antarctica, which has extremely dry regions, hostile to life forms, the Arctic is full of grasses and shrubs, which are adapted to survive harsh winters. Beneath the thick layer of snow, the green mainly survives underground, like roots. When thawing occurs, plants have about a month to do everything they need to survive and reproduce: loosen the seeds, absorb nutrients and sunlight.

However, as the arctic summers become warmer, the landscape also changes. Scientists have been following this transformation through satellite images,
obtained in the last 30 years, and found that the region has become greener as it gets warmer, as it raises soil temperatures and stimulates plant growth.

The study, published in Nature Communications, is the first to measure changes in vegetation across the Arctic tundra, from Alaska, Canada to Siberia, using satellite data from Landsat, a joint mission between NASA and the US Geological Survey (USGS).

Other studies have used satellite data to look at smaller regions, since Landsat data can be used to determine the amount of vegetation actively growing in the soil. Thus, it was observed that greening can represent plants growing more, becoming denser.

Consequences

When tundra vegetation changes, it impacts not only the wildlife that depends on certain vegetation, but also the people who live in the region and depend on local ecosystems for food. Although active plants absorb more carbon from the atmosphere, rising temperatures can also help to melt pergelisole (a specific type of Arctic soil), releasing greenhouse gases.

According to Trevor Keenan, a teaching scientist at the University of California, this “greening” of the Arctic represents a major break in the delicate balance of cold ecosystems. “The temperatures will warm up enough so that new species of trees can move and compete with the vegetation that once dominated the landscape. This change in vegetation would also affect insects and animals that depend on native vegetation for food”.

The research is part of NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), which aims to better understand how ecosystems are responding to these warming environments and their social implications.

7 facts about trees that will surely surprise you!

The objective is to promote awareness and respect for the preservation of our trees, which are so essential for life on the planet.

And there are many curiosities about the trees, some of them quite unknown. Check it out below:

1. They give us medicines

Do you know that little boring headache that you only get with an aspirin pill? Yes, acetylsalicylic acid originally came from the willow bark, although modern aspirin contains a synthetic derivative. The remedy was discovered about 3,500 years ago, when the bitter powder extracted from the willow bark and leaves was found for the first time to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.

2. Trees clean the air

Trees absorb odors and polluting gases (nitrogen oxides, ammonia, sulfur dioxide and ozone) and filter air particles by trapping them in leaves and bark. Air pollution is linked to premature death and respiratory diseases, so trees help us by improving the quality of the air we breathe. To give you an idea, an area of ​​about four thousand square meters of planted trees is capable of providing enough oxygen to 18 people in one year.

3. They provide us with raw materials

Cork stoppers are generally made from the bark of a tree quite common in Portugal called cork oak. The tree does not need to be cut for this, as the corks are made from its bark. In addition to serving to seal the wine bottle, the stopper also favors the maturation of the drink, allowing the correct evolution of the wine and the formation of its appreciated aromas.

4. Trees serve as homes for many species

Trees provide survival conditions for all wildlife. They provide leaves and fruits, safe habitat for nesting, shade and shelter, as well as height for the safety of many species. Oaks, for example, can house more than 280 types of insects, which serve to feed birds and other animals. That is why preserving trees is so important, as the life cycle depends a lot on forests.

5. They are fundamental to mental health

Many studies have already demonstrated the benefits of trees for restoring health. Patients admitted to hospitals that have access to a window view with trees, for example, recover much faster and with less complications. Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have fewer symptoms when they have access to nature. Exposure to trees and nature also helps with concentration, reducing mental fatigue.

6. Trees talk to each other

The trees are connected by a network of fungi that grow in and around their roots. Through this network, they share resources, exchange nutrients and alert messages – when they feel threatened.

According to ecologist Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia (UBC), these networks include older and larger central trees (also called “mother trees”) that can connect to hundreds of younger trees around them. According to the researcher, these mother trees can help forests adapt to human-induced climate changes, thanks to their “memory” of slower natural changes in the last decades or centuries.

According to her, these older trees lived for a long time and went through many fluctuations in the climate, so they healed that memory in DNA. “DNA is encoded and has adapted through mutations to this environment. Therefore, this genetic code carries the code for changing climates that are emerging”, he explains.

7. Trees did not exist in the early years of Earth’s history

The Earth is 4.5 billion years old and it is estimated that the plants appeared about 500 million years ago, the first species being probably moss and liver, without deep roots.

The appearance of the first organisms capable of photosynthesis, known as cyanobacteria, dates back to 2.7 billion years. Cyanobacteria that live in the shallow waters of the sea produced oxygen for the primitive planet and, over a long period of time, the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere grew slowly.

Only in the Devonian period (419 – 358 million years) did the first plants and trees in the world appear, forming the first forests.

Nature and Mental Health

Nature improves your health

Daily contact with nature is linked to reduced levels of chronic stress, reductions in obesity and improved concentration, so get your colleagues outside and help them feel healthier.

Nature makes happier workers

Green your office by creating an outside area and encouraging lunchtime walks. There is a 10% reduction in work absence if employees are able to look at a green space rather than a wall.

Green offices boost productivity

Adding plants and photos of wildlife (or even playing birdsong!) can help your colleagues at work. Employees are 15% more productive when workplaces have even a few houseplants.

Nature makes you more active

Map out local walking routes in wild places for people to enjoy at lunchtime. People with easy access to nature are three times as likely to be active as those without access.

Green exercise can save the NHS money

Ecotherapy could reduce antidepressant prescription costs, so encourage walking meetings and exercise in your workplace. Mind has shown that green exercise benefits health and wellbeing.

Green neighbourhoods cut depression

Natural features near houses reduce mental illness. Work with neighbours to create wildflower borders and bird feeding stations.

In the future, transparent solar panels may be applied to windows and glass facades

Imagine capturing the sun hitting skyscrapers to generate energy – transforming buildings into real solar plants. This is one of the possibilities that cities of the future can take advantage of with the development of transparent solar panels. At Michigan State University, in the United States, researchers created a new cell that reached 8.1% efficiency, a record for panels with such a characteristic.

The solar cell has 43.3% transparency and is made of carbon, while ordinary panels are made of silicon. The windows that cover the buildings are perfect places to apply the new type of panel “because they offer something that silicon cannot: a combination of very high efficiency and very high visible transparency”. The claim is from engineering professor Stephen Forrest, who led the research.

“The new material we developed and the device structure we built had to balance various compensations to provide good absorption of sunlight, high voltage, high current, low resistance and neutral colour transparency, all at the same time”, explains Yongxi Li, assistant research scientist in electrical engineering and computer science.

Buildings with glass facades usually have a coating that reflects and absorbs some of the light to reduce glare and heat inside the building. Instead of throwing that energy away, transparent solar panels could use it to supply a portion of the building’s electricity needs.

Two versions of optical coatings were created for the panels, one with a slightly greenish tint and the other a neutral colour. Even the colour, according to the university in a statement, “looks much more like the gray of sunglasses and car windows.” In any case, both can be manufactured on a large scale and, even better, using less toxic materials than other transparent solar cells.

The research was published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).