John Upton

Wonk on the Wildlife writer John Upton, a science journalist, studied ecology and environmental science at James Cook University, which is next to that resplendent barrier reef in Australia, and he has a master’s degree in business. Upton reported for newspapers and online media in California, freelanced in India, then moved in 2014 to New York, where he joined the editorial team at Climate Central. He has written for the New York Times, Pacific Standard, VICE, Slate, Grist, Nautilus, Modern Farmer, and Audubon Magazine.

John Upton illustrated by Perry Shirley.
John Upton illustrated by Perry Shirley.

Upton’s favorite articles are right here on Wonk on the Wildlife, which he started in mid-2012. The blog’s articles became vastly more fetching after Perry Shirley joined as illustrator six months later.

(Read “nine investigative science journalism tips” on this blog.)

That said, below are his favorite clips from other, more actual news outlets. To reach him, email johnupton@gmail.com. To read his latest work, follow him on Twitter or like his Facebook page.

Pulp Fiction: The European Accounting Error That’s Warming the Planet — Climate Central

SELBY, U.K. — The heavy power lines and narrow roads between the steam-billowing towers of three of England’s biggest power plants traverse an energy industry in upheaval. Shuttered coal mines are flanked by emerald pastures. Towering wind turbines and solar arrays have taken root in windblown cereal fields.

In the middle of the transition is the Drax Power Station — Western Europe’s largest coal power plant, as big and powerful as many nuclear stations. The 4-gigawatt facility was built in the 1970s and ‘80s in this bucolic Yorkshire parish to burn the fruits of a local coal-mining boom. Droves of miners arrived in double-decker bus loads at a region known as Megawatt Valley. Continue reading …

The Emu Has Landed (in India) — Audubon Magazine

On a moonlit night, 150 miles from the Arabian Sea, a truck screeched to a halt along a monsoon-drenched highway. A farmer emerged from his wooden hut to investigate: Men’s hushed voices. Clanking, as clandestine cargo was unloaded. The roar of the engine and the fading throttle of scofflaws as they fled the scene of an unusual wildlife crime. Then the tranquility of the jungle returned, ringing until dawn–a dulcet cacophony of dripping water, insects, and wailing jackals.

Half a mile away, Vajesing Mama awoke in the same house where he had been born more than six decades earlier. During a lifetime in Narukot Village, Mama had watched a veritable Jungle Book strut past his humble house–everything from peacocks to wild boar, panthers, and sloth bears. But he had never seen anything like the gangly gray birds that sashayed through the steamy rain on that August morning.

“Nobody in the village knew what they were,” Mama said during a visit late last year. “Everybody came and looked.” Continue reading …

Pacific Northwest Warming May Have Natural Roots — Climate Central

Dan Nichols was hauling in a gillnet laden with the fruits of a late-season Alaskan salmon run when something heavy flopped out of it, then slid to the front of his boat. “I knew what the tail was,” he says. Surprised, the mustachioed fishing veteran stopped picking salmon from his net and approached the itinerant sea creature. “I had to stop what I was doing.”

Nichols recognized the skipjack tuna at the bottom of his boat from his time fishing the balmy waters off Southern California and Hawaii. His fish-out-of-tropical-water joined a growing list of examples of locally exotic wildlife showing up in the unusually warm waters that have recently been coursing past the West Coast: A green sea turtle — that venerable visitor to equatorial atolls — was accidentally snagged by fishermen off Northern California. An ocean sunfish was spotted near Prince William Sound, hundreds of miles north of its typical range.

What’s been heating up the waters? It’s tempting to blame global warming. Sea-surface and nearby coastal air temperatures in the Pacific Northwest have warmed by 1°F or 2°F since 1900. This September, the waters have been as much as 5°F above average. But a study published Monday by the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, which is a project of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington, points the climatological finger for most of the change at a different culprit. Continue reading …

A Bold Plan to Reshape the Central Valley Flood Plain — New York Times

Jacob Katz stood shin-deep in a flooded rice paddy that is often dried out at this time of year. He thrust his hand into a writhing mass of baby salmon in his net and plucked three of the silver fry from the wind-whipped water’s surface.

In late January, five acres of this farmland in Yolo County was flooded and stocked with thousands of weeks-old Chinook salmon. It was the beginning of a three-year experiment that conservationists and government officials hope will provide scientific data to help guide a sweeping transformation of riverfront lands throughout the Central Valley, California’s prolific farming region. Continue reading…

You’re Already Eating Algae — Slate

You may have heard that we’re entering an algae farming boom. Biofuel produced by algae reared on greenhouse gases is supposed to replace fossil fuels with a climate-friendly brew. But if you try to refuel your car, tractor, or Cessna using this vaunted energy source, you’ll quickly realize that hype alone cannot stroke an engine. Algae biofuel isn’t for sale. At least, not unless you can get your hands on experimental samples being produced in laboratories. After more than 35 years of federally funded research, the cost of producing algae biofuel is a lichen-covered cliff that separates it from the ocean of cheap fossil fuels.

Despite algae biofuel’s economic shortcomings, though, there’s a feast of good news for supporters of slime-driven climate action. Algae are being cultivated commercially, and in growing volumes. They are being grown in waters enriched with carbon dioxide, climate-changing waste gases that can be pumped into algae ponds from mines, power plants, and factories.

Oil from the commercial harvests isn’t being sold as fuel. It’s ending up inside something more intimate than a rush-hour crowd in a biodiesel bus. It’s sold as food. The oils, proteins, and carbohydrates from farmed green slime are fueling the cells inside our bodies. Continue reading …

Where the Poor Get Blamed for the Plague — VICE

The filth and government neglect that defined the bulging Indian city of Surat took an astonishing toll 20 monsoons ago, when an outbreak of pneumonic plague racked the metropolis, located in the northwest state of Gujarat. Floodwaters burbled up from sewers and crashed over the banks of the Tapti River, which dissects this low-lying city, home to millions of Indians, before flushing into the Arabian Sea. The floods dumped silt and trash through neighborhoods, nursing rats that hosted fleas that harbored bacteria that delivered an epidemic.

More than 50 Surat residents died from the pneumonic plague that followed, and some 500,000 evacuated the city during two chaotic days. Fleeing doctors and pharmacists took supplies of antibiotics with them, leaving medically defenseless patients behind.

Officials later said that the plague had taken root after monsoon rains flooded poor parts of the city, where trash, waste, and dead livestock were left to fester in the putrid waters, a conclusion supported by medical reports that suggested the plague first took root in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods. In a country where a lack of sanitation has been an omnipresent problem, Surat became renowned as a place so exceptionally filthy that the plague could still flourish.

In the nearly two decades since, the local and state governments have toiled to clean up the city and its image. Infrastructure improvements have helped reduce flooding. Slums, for better or for worse, have been demolished. Streets are swept regularly and the swept-up trash is covered for collection by trucks.

To everybody’s relief, the efforts seem to have evacuated the city of its plague problem. Now another bacteria-borne disease is taking its place—a disease that’s also stoked by filth and transmitted by the rats that revel in it. It’s a disease whose symptoms are evolving; some strains now resemble those of the pneumonic plague of old, and deaths are adding up. And while infrastructure improvements haven’t benefited the city’s slums, officials have blamed a spate of deaths not on a new outbreak of disease, but on victims’ poverty-weakened immune systems. Continue reading …

The India Problem. Why is it thwarting every international climate agreement? — Slate

A powerful but unpredictable force is rising in the battle over the future of the climate. It’s the type of powerful force that’s felt when 1.2 billion people clamor for more electricity—many of them trying to light, heat, and refrigerate their ways out of poverty; others throwing rupees at excessive air conditioning and other newfound luxuries. And it’s the type of unpredictable force that’s felt when the government of those 1.2 billion is in election mode, clamoring for votes by brazenly blocking progress at international climate talks.

Hundreds of millions of Indians live in poverty, wielding a tiny per-person carbon footprint when compared with residents of the West and coming out on top of environmental sustainability surveys. But the country is home to so many people that steady economic growth is turning it into a climate-changing powerhouse. It has developed a gluttonous appetite for coal, one of the most climate-changing fuels and the source of nearly two-thirds of the country’s power. India recently overtook Russia to become the world’s third-biggest greenhouse gas polluter, behind China and the United States. (If you count the European Union as a single carbon-belching bloc, then India comes in fourth).

India has been obstructing progress on international climate talks, culminating during the two weeks of U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations that ended Saturday in Warsaw. The Warsaw talks were the latest annual get-together for nearly 200 countries trying to thrash out a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Continue reading …

Where Is the Worst Air in the World? — Slate

I wake up and suck a bowl of charred asbestos through a dirty bong.

Well, that’s what it feels like most winter mornings when I open the door of the fourth-floor New Delhi apartment that I currently call home. Fog-drenched clumps of soot, ozone molecules, and microscopic bundles of nitrogen oxides flow down my trachea and into my chest, where some become lodged. Some of these particles might give me lung cancer. Others will enter my bloodstream, further inflaming old ankle and finger injuries. The airborne detritus puts me in danger of contracting bronchitis, asthma, a lung infection, even hypertension and dementia.

China’s appalling air quality made headlines around the world this winter. But people living in New Delhi and in dozens of other cities throughout the developing world consistently endure air with heavier loads of soot than do the residents of Beijing. While most Americans and Europeans now enjoy cleaner air than they did for much of the last century, air pollution is worsening in Asia, claiming millions of lives every year. Continue reading…

Fear the Fungus — Slate

Our single-celled ancestors darted around the world’s vast ocean a billion years ago, propelling themselves with tiny flagella tails and feeding on primitive plants, algae, and one another. Around this time, two groups of these ancient creatures branched into what would become two of life’s most successful kingdoms. One group developed into animals. The other became fungi. Animals and fungi both breathe oxygen and replenish their energy by eating food. Their cells are similar. The two closely akin kingdoms have occupied the Earth through most of their histories in an awkward fraternal tussle. When environmental conditions change quickly, fungi turn into opportunistic parricides, attacking and feasting on their enfeebled animal kin. Deadly fungi are thriving today amid environmental tumult, wiping out nests of bumblebees, colonies of bats, and hundreds of species of frogs.

And they are coming for us. Continue reading …

Would Hillary and Norgay Recognize Mount Everest? — Slate

When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest 60 years ago Wednesday, the mountaineers gazed over a view from the top of the world that had never been seen before.

The view has changed since that historic day. Pollution and rising mountain temperatures are relentlessly shearing away at the Himalayas’ frozen façade. Photographs taken around the time of the 1953 expedition show hulking ridges of ice that have since shrunk or disappeared.

Glaciers and snow are melting throughout the sprawling mountain range, which stretches across India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibetan China. The waning glaciers are leaving precarious mountainside lakes of cyan blue water in their wake. Continue reading …

Prisoners of the Cosco Busan East Bay Express

When Liang Xian Zheng took a job working as the boatswain on the Cosco Busan, the seasoned seaman knew the $29.50-a-day gig would send him out to sea for six to ten months. He also knew it meant undertaking a wearisome 1,000-mile journey from his home in Beijing, China to the port of Busan in South Korea, where the container ship was based. But what Zheng couldn’t have known was that, two weeks after boarding the cargo ship and ably performing his duties as a lookout during a crisis, he would be trapped in a foreign land on an exotic legal warrant, in misery and legal purgatory, until months after his seafaring expedition was supposed to have ended. Continue reading…

Illustrated ecology news.