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Editor’s picks: Top 10 stories of 2021

Our list includes a mix of favorites, high-impact stories and some of our most read research coverage from a year of uncertainty, adaptation and discovery.

As 2021 draws to a close, here is a look back at highlights from the year’s research and insights related to our planet and sustainability.

Early in the year, on the heels of one record-breaking wildfire season and just ahead of another, Stanford scientists revealed the shifting burden and lasting health impacts of wildfires in the United States.

Research published in the spring illuminated one of many environmental justice issues facing women in rural California, pointing to a link between higher levels of nitrate in drinking water and premature births, with the strongest effects seen in California’s agricultural regions.

Other scholars collaborated with local stakeholders to develop an equitable approach to planning for sea-level rise; tested friction laws in the collapsing crater of an erupting volcano; found inspiration for a low-carbon cement in Earth’s natural cauldrons; and uncovered a vast trove of fossils and rock layers from a time that fostered the most rapid development and diversification of complex, multi-cellular life in Earth’s history. 

This fall, as the globe continued to barrel closer to critical global warming thresholds and world leaders prepared to convene for the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, scientists provided a blueprint for speeding development of methane removal technologies as a way to delay temperature increases while scaling up other climate actions.

In a year that saw a swarm of supercell thunderstorms and tornadoes spin up among the remnants of Hurricane Ida – and that's now ending with one of the deadliest December tornado outbreaks on record – we learned about the physical mechanism for plumes that form above most of the world’s most damaging tornadoes.

Selected from Stanford Earth Matters magazine, which gathers coverage from across Stanford University, these are our top 10 picks of the many stories about work from Stanford scientists studying Earth this year. 

The shifting burden of wildfires in the United States

Wildfire and smoke

Wildfire smoke will be one of the most widely felt health impacts of climate change throughout the country, but U.S. clean air regulations are not equipped to deal with it. Stanford experts discuss the causes and impacts of wildfire activity and its rapid acceleration in the American West.

January 12, 2021

Air pollution puts children at higher risk of disease in adulthood

Family in front of an industrial harbor

First of its kind study reveals evidence that early exposure to dirty air alters genes in a way that could lead to adult heart disease, among other ailments. The findings could change the way medical experts and parents think about the air children breathe and inform clinical interventions.

February 22, 2021

Jordan's worsening water crisis a warning for the world

Za'atari refugee camp in 2017

Prolonged and potentially destabilizing water shortages will become commonplace in Jordan by 2100, new research finds, unless the nation implements comprehensive reform, from fixing leaky pipes to desalinating seawater. Jordan’s water crisis is emblematic of challenges looming around the world as a result of climate change and rapid population growth.  VIDEO

March 29, 2021

Higher levels of nitrate in drinking water linked to preterm birth

Pregnant woman with water glass

Women exposed to higher levels of nitrate in drinking water were more likely to deliver very early, according to a study of 1.4 million California births.

May 5, 2021

For a low-carbon cement recipe, Stanford scientists look to Earth’s cauldrons

Cement plant from above

As the most-used building material on the planet and one of the world’s largest industrial contributors to global warming, concrete has long been a target for reinvention. Stanford scientists say replacing one of concrete’s main ingredients with volcanic rock could slash carbon emissions from manufacture of the material by nearly two-thirds.

June 9, 2021

Longest known continuous record of the Paleozoic discovered in Yukon wilderness

Peel River

Stanford-led expeditions to a remote area of Yukon, Canada, have uncovered a 120-million-year-long geological record of a time when land plants and complex animals first evolved and ocean oxygen levels began to approach those in the modern world.

July 8, 2021

Sea-level rise may worsen existing Bay Area inequities

Neighborhood with several feet of flooding

Researchers examined the number of households unable to pay for damages from coastal flooding to reveal how sea-level rise could threaten the fabric of Bay Area communities over the next 40 years.

July 12, 2021

Scientists test friction laws in the collapsing crater of an erupting volcano

Lava lake

A new analysis of the 2018 collapse of Kīlauea volcano’s caldera helps to confirm the reigning scientific paradigm for how friction works on earthquake faults. The model quantifies the conditions necessary to initiate the kind of caldera collapse that sustains big, damaging eruptions of basaltic volcanoes like Kīlauea and could help to inform forecasting and mitigation.

July 28, 2021

Scientists solve mystery of supercell storms' icy plumes

Supercell storm

The most devastating tornadoes are often preceded by a cloudy plume of ice and water vapor billowing above a severe thunderstorm. New research reveals the mechanism for these plumes could be tied to “hydraulic jumps” – a phenomenon Leonardo Da Vinci observed more than 500 years ago.

September 9, 2021

Removing methane from the atmosphere

Cattle feedlot

Analyses lay out a blueprint for speeding development of methane removal technologies and modeling how the approach could improve human health and have an outsized effect on reducing future peak temperatures.

September 26, 2021

Media Contacts

Josie Garthwaite
School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

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