This feature for Nature is ostensibly about the many trees on the planet that are the last of their kind — but behind it are the gripping stories of the people who care so much about the permanent disappearance of a species that they are trying to save them
How a billion dogs, including our pets, are laying waste to wildlife
Dogs — an adored invasive species wreaking ecological havoc.
This story for New Scientist just kept unfolding. Dogs — feral, pet and all the shades in between — are hunting, terrifying, chasing, infecting and pooping their way round all but one continent. But we have a special bond with them — the answers are not simple.
This piece is not about the carbon footprints of pets — I deliberately leave that out. This is about biodiversity and ecosystems and what happens when you unleash a species into them that has an unfair advantage through continued human support. Read it here
What will it take to vaccinate the world against COVID-19
My explainer for Nature looks at why we can’t manufacture faster. Here are a few tasters:
Could we produce faster? Yes, probably.
Of all the bottlenecks, which is the tightest? Sourcing some of the hundreds of bits and bobs, from tens of countries, that feed the process.
Is IP release a good idea? Given the shameful history in the sector: Yes, but in this particular instance: Not at the moment.
Final, shocking observation: Why does Africa — with about a quarter of the world’s population — still have to import 99% of all its vaccines? Read it here
The polio epidemic no-one talks about and a vaccine that might thwart it
This is such a great story which I barely scratched for this Nature piece. The multibillion dollar, almost-success story that is going wrong. A disease that has almost been wiped out but is now undermined by the very vaccine that brought success so close. The vaccine’s Achilles heel is that it mutates back to a virulent form and seeds polio outbreaks wherever there’s a weak spot — such as kids missed in a vaccination campaign or poor sanitation.
Then a new idea comes along and, with it, a race to “lock” the virus vaccine so it won’t transgress again. Several groups of scientists get together, each with a brilliant idea — and each idea was included in the final product. All done at warp speed (by pre-COVID standards). Read it here:
Cats versus Conservationists
When pet cats roam free they kill a heartbreaking amount of wildlife — yet owners letting them out are just doing the best for the creatures they love. To find a way forward in the cat wars, I was really taken by the words of Wayne Linklater: “The solutions lie with the people who care most about cats, not with the people who don’t care about them.”
My New Scientist piece starts with lawyer Arie Trouwborst, who received death threats for his academic paper on the feasibility of prosecuting owners for allowing their felines to kill wildlife. More here:
Global tree pledge frenzy — the truth about tree-planting
Laudable goals to restore forests and other ecosystems are being twisted into a licence to plant trees anywhere — regardless of the damage this can cause to the environment and to livelihoods. In this long-read for SciDev.Net I look at the plight of grasslands, seen as “damaged” and therefore ripe for planting. The story begins in Madagascar.
Most surprising for me was that grasslands may actually be better than forests in some places at sequestering carbon, once you factor everything in. Second surprise was that trees planted in the wrong place can suck the water out of rivers with disastrous consequences for human communities. My third take-home was that the wrong trees can spread invasively and can be too flammable for the local climate. The resulting fires can kill (and they have done so). More here:
Why lightning may increase under climate change and what that means for us
WEAVING through the sweaty tangles of a Panamanian forest, Steve Yanoviak is hunting a killer. Its prey isn’t the monkeys, bats or multicoloured birds that cram the branches, but the foundations of the forest itself – its trees. Each day, this killer strikes thousands of times around the world, but leaves no evidence behind. “Tropical trees die standing. They bear no scars,” says Yanoviak.
Catching it in the act takes monumental effort. That’s because the likely culprit isn’t a living organism, but instead a familiar force of nature: lightning. Read more:
I’ve been shortlisted in the 2020 science writing awards
I wrote a feature for Nature last year about the controversial scientist behind ambitious claims that planting a trillion more trees could help us out of the climate crisis. It’s been shortlisted as best specialist feature in the 2020 Association of British Science Writers awards. Results to be announced in October. Meanwhile you can find more on the article here
I’ve won a fellowship from the European Geosciences Union
The EGU award will help me research mining for the tech metals that are powering our green revolution.
Metals like this will power our green energy — but where will we get them from?
A search engine that indexes every sizeable object on Earth. Is that a good idea?
Firms are racing to create a real-time database of every object on Earth larger than a car. It would help investors and conservationists, but could it be abused? My piece for New Scientist is about Planet, which plans to create an interface through which users can ask questions about the entire planet. They call it “queryable Earth”. Think of it like a search engine not for the internet, but for the surface of our world.
Spot illegal fishing, logging, human rights abuses; monitor commodity movements, troops, activism