Environment

Scientists Went to One of the World’s Most Remote Island Atolls. They Found 414 Million Pieces of Plastic

The amount of plastic pollution previously thought to exist around the world may be a dramatic underestimate — because the vast majority of plastic pollution may actually be below the surface.

That’s the takeaway from a survey of plastic pollution on the beaches of Australia’s Cocos Islands, made up of two coral atolls.

An estimated 414 million pieces of debris are now littering the remote islands, and the vast majority of that waste is buried below the surface, according to a new study. But even that is likely an underestimate, a group of researchers reported May 16 in the journal Scientific Reports.

What’s more, because most of this plastic is buried below the surface, and most global surveys don’t look below the surface, the amount of plastic pollution worldwide may be way more than we previously thought, they reported.

The scientists surveyed seven of the 27 islands, which made up 88 percent of the total landmass of the islands, and estimated that they were littered with 262 tons (238 metric tons) of plastic. A quarter of those pieces of debris were single-use or disposable items such as straws, bags and toothbrushes (about 373,000 of them), The researchers also identified some 977,000 shoes.

Roughly 93% of the debris found, most of it tiny micro-debris, was actually buried below the surface. But because they only dug 3.94 inches (10 centimeters) into the sand, and couldn’t access some beaches that are known to have a lot of debris, these numbers are likely conservative.

The amount of debris buried up to about 4 inches (10 cm) below the surface of the beach is 26 times higher than the amount visible on its surface, the researchers wrote.

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Environment

Heavy metals and harmful chemicals ‘poison Europe’s seas’

Heavy metals and a cocktail of dangerous chemicals continue to poison Europe’s seas, with more than three-quarters of areas assessed showing contamination, according to a report.

The sea worst affected was the Baltic, where 96% of the assessed areas showed problematic levels of some harmful substances, according to the European Environment Agency. Similar problems were found in 91% of the Black Sea and 87% of the Mediterranean. In the north-east Atlantic, unsafe levels of chemicals or metals were found in 75% of assessed areas.

However, in most areas the situation was improving, as many of the toxic substances that have washed into the seas – such as the pesticide DDT and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – are now subject to bans or severe restrictions. The improvement in the breeding success of the white-tailed sea eagle in the Baltic, for instance, is attributed to the decline in DDT. A continuing problem is with flame-retardant chemicals, which are still used and still found in waterways, and DDT from Africa is still leaching into the Mediterranean.

Nature – Images

Interesting Images

Ancient tree discovered in North Carolina Swamp (USA)

According to a new study published today (May 9) in the journal Environmental Research Communications, scientists studying tree rings in North Carolina’s Black River swampland have discovered a bald cypress tree (Taxodium distichum) that’s at least 2,624 years old, making it one of the oldest non-clonal, sexually reproducing trees in the world. (Clonal trees, which are vast colonies of genetically identical plants that grow from a single ancestor, can live for tens of thousands of years.)

How old is 2,624 years, really? To borrow an analogy from the Charlotte Observer, that age makes this tree older than Christianity, the Roman Empire and the English language.

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Environment

A Single Thundercloud Carries 1 Billion Volts of Electricity

Using an array of sensors designed to measure electric fields and the intensity of muons — heavy particles that constantly rain down from Earth’s upper atmosphere, decaying as they pass through matter — the team measured the voltage of a large thundercloud that rolled over Ooty, a town in India, for 18 minutes on Dec. 1, 2014. The researchers found that, on average, the cloud was charged with about 1.3 gigavolts of electricity, which is 1.3 times 10^9 volts — roughly 10 million times more voltage than is supplied by a typical power outlet in North America.

Armed with this knowledge, the researchers were finally able to calculate that the thunderstorm carried about 2 gigawatts of power, making this single cloud more powerful than the most powerful nuclear power plants in the world.

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Environment

Vanishing Forests

Forests around the world shrank by 30 million acres last year as human activity and wildfires brought about the fourth-largest amount of deforestation on record.

Most of the losses were the result of expanding agriculture and humankind’s other expanding footprints on the landscape, according to data compiled by the World Resources Institute.

A number of the deforestation hot spots were near the homes of indigenous people around the Amazon, many of whom had previously been unaffected by deforestation.

The institute says that forest loss was 30% greater in 2018 than the average from 2011 to 2017. It points out that the loss of pristine forest cover is only making climate change worse since the larger and older trees store carbon more efficiently.

Environment

Trump’s Alaska drilling study slammed

The Trump administration failed to adequately consider oil spills, climate change and the welfare of polar bears in its expedited study of proposed drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, according to comments published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The unusually harsh criticism from federal wildlife regulators could deal a blow to one of the most high-profile items in President Donald Trump’s energy agenda, and reflects the pitfalls of the administration’s drive to speed up big projects with quicker, shorter environmental studies.

The Interior Department wants to hold its first lease sale of at least 400,000 acres (160,000 hectares) in ANWR, America’s largest wildlife sanctuary, later this year, but could face lawsuits if its permitting process is flawed.

Caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska: 

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Environment

Extent of Plastic Pollution in Durban, South Africa after Floods – Images

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Global Pollutants

Researchers using chemical-sampling wristbands have found that people on three continents are being contaminated by more than a dozen of the same environmental pollutants.

None of the wristbands returned from volunteers in the United States, Africa and South America had identical chemical exposures, but more than half had picked up the same 14 chemicals.

“Whether you are a farmworker in Senegal or a preschooler in Oregon, you might be exposed to those same 14 chemicals,” said lead researcher and environmental chemist Holly Dixon of Oregon State University.

She said some of the detected chemicals “weren’t on our radar, yet they represent an enormous exposure.”

Environment

Up to 1 Million Species Are at Risk of Extinction

Up to 1 million species are at risk of extinction due to human activity, according to a draft of a U.N. report set to be released on May 6. Preliminary conclusions from the report were obtained by the French news agency AFP.

Human activity, such as overconsumption, illegal poaching, deforestation and fossil fuel emissions, are pushing ecosystems toward a point of no return. A quarter of known plant and animal species are already threatened — and the loss of species is tens to hundreds of times higher than it has been, on average, over the last 10 million years.

Nature is buckling under the pressure, losing clean air, potable water, pristine forests, pollinating insects, fish populations, and storm-buffering mangroves.

What’s more, three-quarters of the land, almost half of marine environments and half of inland waterways have been “severely” changed by human activity, according to the report. These changes will harm humans, especially indigenous groups and those living in the poorest communities.

One-hundred and thirty nations will meet in Paris on April 29 to examine the 44-page report that summarizes a 1,800-page assessment of scientific literature conducted by the U.N.

Environment

Deforestation in Peru

Years of deforestation in Peru are visible from space, tracked in a new animation created from NASA satellite views. And the forest loss is escalating at an alarming rate.

The image series was captured by satellites Landsat 7 and Landsat 8 from 2013 to 2018. Shared on April 19 by NASA Earth Observatory, the animated sequence reveals devastating depletion in the forests of southeastern Peru’s Madre de Dios region, covering approximately 1,350 square miles (3,500 square kilometers).

Madre de Dios rests near the Amazon basin and is a biodiversity hotspot, home to species that live nowhere else on Earth. But with deforestation on the rise, plants and animals that are endemic to the region face an uncertain future.

Environment

Cool Roofs

A new study finds that making rooftops a light-reflective colour can reduce heat-related deaths and cool peak daytime temperatures by more than 3 degrees Celsius during heat waves.

Cities store more heat than the surrounding countryside due to the urban heat island effect. This makes cities more susceptible to the increasing number and intensity of heat waves under global warming.

New modelling by the University of Oxford found that introducing cool roofs across a city could prevent about a quarter of heat wave-related deaths and cut the need for air conditioning.

Environment

Hydrogen Power

Stanford scientists have proven they can use solar power to convert salt water taken directly from San Francisco Bay to create hydrogen gas.

On a larger scale, the process could achieve a truly pollution-free and carbon-neutral energy source to power cars and other devices.

Current methods of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen require the use of expensive purified water, which doesn’t corrode the electrodes that produce the splitting as does seawater at high voltages.

The researchers found that by using electrodes rich in negatively charged layers of nickel-iron hydroxide and nickel sulfide over a nickel foam core, the corrosion is significantly reduced.

Environment

Ice Quakes

Researchers studying Antarctica’s McMurdo Ice Shelf have discovered that thousands of tiny “ice quakes” occur there each day. The scientists from the University of Chicago believe they are caused by pools of partially melted ice as they refreeze at night.

“As the temperature cools at night, the ice on the top contracts, and the water below expands as it undergoes freezing,” said glaciologist Douglas MacAyeal. “This warps the top lid, until it finally breaks with a snap.” He and his colleagues believe using seismometers such as theirs elsewhere in Antarctica may help other scientists track glacier melting.

Environment

False Spring

With Britain experiencing some of its warmest late-February weather on record, naturalists are concerned for the early-emerging species.

Birds across the U.K. are already nesting and mating, with some arriving more than a month early.

But with the prediction of more typical late-winter weather in March, Tony Whitehead of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says early-arriving swallows are taking a big risk to get good nesting sites.

Other naturalists say that flowers, insects and reptiles that have emerged early from winter could be in peril if a sudden chill arrives.

Environment

Black Snow Is Falling from the Skies in Siberia

A pall of eerie black snow has covered several towns in the Siberian region of Kuzbass, which is home to 2.6 million people and one of the world’s largest coal fields.

According to the Guardian and the Siberian Times, the snow is tainted with toxic black coal dust that was released into the air from open coal pits and improperly maintained factories in the region. One coal plant official told the local media that a shield meant to prevent coal powder from escaping out of the factory had malfunctioned — however, toxic black snowfall seems to be a regular phenomena in the area and it isn’t necessarily tied to a single source.

Kuzbass (short for Kuznetsk Basin) is one of the largest coalfields in the world, spanning more than 10,000 square miles (26,000 square kilometers). A 2015 report from Ecodefense found that the citizens of Kuzbass have an average life expectancy 3 to 4 years shorter than the Russian national average and have nearly twice the risk of contracting tuberculosis and childhood mental disorders.

Black snows like this one are a frequent winter feature in the region, the report found, and mitigation attempts have been… lacking. For instance, in December 2018, regional authorities were accused of trying to hide the toxic black stuff by literally painting over it with white pigment.