Environment

Humans Have Produced Whopping 9 Billion Tons of Plastic

A new study, which is the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever made, finds that since large-scale manufacturing of plastics took off in the 1950s and until 2015, humans have produced approximately 9 billion tons (8.3 billion metric tons) of plastic.

To put that in perspective, all that plastic would be equivalent to 85,567 aircraft “supercarriers” like the USS Gerald R. Ford, which weighs 107,000 tons (97,000 metric tons).

Of those 9 billion tons, half was made in the last 13 years, said Roland Geyer, an associate professor of industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lead author of the new study, which was published online today (July 19) in the journal Science Advances.

As of 2015, about 7 billion tons (6.3 billion metric tons) of plastic have been disposed of as waste, with only 9 percent of it recycled, 12 percent incinerated, and a whopping 79 percent finding its way into landfills, the researchers report.

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Environment

Longevity Barrier?

New research suggests the maximum human lifespan could far exceed the 115-year limit cited in a previous study, after decades of increasing longevity.

Geneticist Jan Vijg of New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine authored a controversial report last year that says humans have reached our maximum allotted lifespan for the first time.

But other researchers quickly argued that Vijg’s findings were skewed by flawed calculations.

Siegfried Hekimi from Montreal’s McGill University argues that under more optimistic interpretations of longevity data, the oldest person alive in 2300 would be about 150 years old.

Environment

Sixth mass extinction

Many scientists say it’s abundantly clear that Earth is entering its sixth mass-extinction event, meaning three-quarters of all species could disappear in the coming centuries.

But that’s not even the full picture of the “biological annihilation” people are inflicting on the natural world, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Gerardo Ceballos, an ecology professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and his co-authors, including well-known Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich, cite striking new evidence that populations of species we thought were common are suffering in unseen ways.

Their key findings: Nearly one-third of the 27,600 land-based mammal, bird, amphibian and reptile species studied are shrinking in terms of their numbers and territorial range. The researchers called that an “extremely high degree of population decay.”

The scientists also looked at a well-studied group of 177 mammal species and found that all of them had lost at least 30% of their territory between 1900 and 2015; more than 40% of those species “experienced severe population declines,” meaning they lost at least 80% of their geographic range during that time.

Looking at the extinction crisis not only in terms of species that are on the brink but also those whose populations and ranges are shrinking helps show that “Earth’s sixth mass extinction is more severe” than previously thought, the authors write. They say a major extinction event is “ongoing.”

Global Warming

Oozing Methane Blasts Holes in Siberian Tundra

Escaping methane gas has blown at least two new holes in the Siberian tundra in the past few months, according to eyewitness accounts to the Siberian Times and the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Reindeer herders northwest of the village of Seyakha in Siberia’s far north reported seeing an eruption of fire and smoke on the morning of June 28 — an event caught on seismic sensors at 11 a.m. local time, according to The Siberian Times. Scientists visiting the site photographed a fresh crater blown into the banks of a river.

Researchers also discovered a second, previously unknown crater in the Tyumen region of Siberia this month.

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Global Warming

Ozone Killer

The slow healing of Earth’s ozone hole is being held back by the use of an unregulated chemical that continues to damage the UV protection layer 30 years after most ozone-destroying compounds were banned.

Scientists at the University of Lancaster say atmospheric levels of dichloromethane, a short-lived, ozone-depleting substance used in paint strippers, are on the rise. It isn’t covered under the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

Global Warming

Coastal Louisiana Is Sinking Faster Than Expected

The rich wetlands of southern Louisiana are sinking faster than previously thought, new data reveals, worsening a decades-long ecological disaster that authorities are struggling to reverse.

“What previous studies have called the worst case is the case that right now is the average,” said Jaap Nienhuis, a geologist at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Nienhuis and his colleagues at Tulane have found the coast is subsiding on average about 9 mm (1/3 inch) a year. Some areas, such as those near the mouth of the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya River delta to the west, are settling closer to 12 mm a year.

Periodic flooding of the Mississippi River used to dump fresh soil into those marshes, bolstering the wetlands. But the levees that now prevent those floods keep that soil straitjacketed in the river. The area is also home to a major oil and natural gas industry, and canals cut through the marshes allowed salt water to kill grasses that held the land in place.

As a result, coastal Louisiana has been losing a roughly Manhattan-sized chunk every year to a combination of sea-level rise, erosion, and subsidence. That threatens a rich ecosystem that provides more than 1 billion pounds of seafood a year and provides a buffer when hurricanes spin onto shore from the Gulf of Mexico.

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Environment

The Gulf of Mexico’s ‘Dead Zone’

The oxygen-poor “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico may be the biggest on record this year, nearly doubling in size to cover an area of ocean as large as Vermont, scientists at Louisiana State University estimate.

The dead zone develops when nitrogen-rich runoff from the Midwestern farm belt pours into rivers and out into the Gulf. That runoff is loaded with fertilizer, as well as nutrients from animal and human waste, and it fuels the growth of algae that die, sink, and decompose, depleting oxygen levels offshore. That drives away marine life in the zone — or kills species that can’t escape.

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Global Warming

Drowning Communities

Isle de Jean Charles, a small island in southeastern Louisiana’s bayous, is drowning as the Gulf of Mexico rises. Twenty-nine homes remain, housing 100 people, but they are all being relocated because the flooding is unstoppable. The island has already lost 98% of its land since 1955, making it one of the most visible victims of climate change — so far. The residents can either leave their homes or die in them, and they are leaving.

Climate change is affecting larger coastal areas in the U.S., from Alaska down to Florida and Louisiana. Climate-induced migration is now a concrete reality for US citizens, not an abstract idea for politicians to talk about.

Global Warming

Hotter Cities

New research finds that a combination of global warming and localized heating due to the urban heat island (UHI) effect could cause some of the world’s cities to be as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by the end of this century.

The UHI effect occurs as buildings, roadways and other man-made structures store far more heat than natural settings, especially after the sun goes down. This amplifies the local warming effects of climate change, according to a report published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Scientists recommend painting roofs a reflective white and planting more trees to limit urban warming.

Environment

Towering Attractions

The proliferation of cellphone masts and tall broadcast antenna towers during the past 30 years has resulted in a sharp increase in lightning strikes in areas near the structures.

A research group from the University of Oklahoma found that nearly 100 percent of the U.S. locations studied that had more than 100 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in a recent 20-year period were within 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) of an antenna tower registered with the Federal Communications Commission.

The taller the tower, the greater the likelihood of more strikes.

The frequency of strikes near the towers was between 115 percent and 140 percent higher than in areas 2 to 4 kilometers (1.25 to 2.5 miles) away from the towers.

Global Warming

Great Barrier Reef can no longer be saved

The Great Barrier Reef can no longer be saved in its present form partly because of the “extraordinary rapidity” of climate change, experts have conceded.

Like coral across the world, the reef has been severely damaged by the warming of the oceans with up to 95 per cent of areas surveyed in 2016 found to have been bleached.

Bleaching is not always fatal but a study last year found the “largest die-off of corals ever recorded” with about 67 per cent of shallow water coral found dead in a survey of a 700km stretch.

Now experts on a committee set up by the Australian government to improve the health of the reef have revealed that they believe the lesser target of maintaining its “ecological function” is more realistic.

The concept of ‘maintaining ecological function’ refers to the balance of ecological processes necessary for the reef ecosystem as a whole to persist, but perhaps in a different form, noting the composition and structure may differ from what is currently seen today.

Coral reefs

Global Warming

Early Collapse of Arctic Sea Ice

Earth’s already-beleaguered northern icecap suffered another blow this month with the early collapse of a barrier that kept some of Arctic’s most durable ice in place.

The ice arch across the Nares Strait, which separates Greenland from Ellesmere Island in Canada’s far northeast, gave way two months earlier than usual, said Laurence Dyke, a paleoglaciologist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland.

“On May 10, this arch disintegrated, leaving the oldest and thickest sea ice in the Arctic vulnerable to being swept south where it will melt away,” Dyke told Seeker. “Over the last two weeks, the area of broken ice has expanded massively to the north, and lots of Arctic sea ice is flowing southwards through the Nares Strait.”

The channel and the Lincoln Sea, at the northern tip of Greenland, are normally covered by a sheet of ice several meters thick until around July, Dyke said. Usually, ice sheets that cover the strait are anchored to land and don’t move, blocking the passage of sea ice through the strait.

But as heat-trapping fossil-fuel emissions like carbon dioxide build up in the atmosphere, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe. And this year, land-anchored ice in the strait failed to form amid the record warmth and record low sea ice coverage recorded across the Arctic. That left only an arch of ice at the northern end of the strait, where it joined the Lincoln Sea — the structure that gave way earlier this month.

“This is especially important as the Lincoln Sea contains the last bastion of old, thick multi-year sea ice,” Dyke said.

This image shows the boundary between permanent and seasonal sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, northwest of Greenland

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Global Warming

US growing season extends by 13 frost-free days

The number of frost-free days in the northern United States has increased by more than 13 days in the past 100 years, according to new research.

The other main areas of the mainland US also saw significant increases in the number of days without frost, essentially the growing season – 10.7 days in the west, 8.6 in a central region and 7.7 days in the south.

Global warming was one of the reasons for the trend, but the researchers also found changes to local cloud cover and atmospheric circulation patterns played a part.

Global Warming

American Trees Are Moving West Due to Climate Change

As the consequences of climate change strike across the United States, ecologists have a guiding principle about how they think plants will respond. Cold-adapted plants will survive if they move “up”—that is, as they move further north (away from the tropics) and higher in elevation (away from the warm ground).

A new survey of how tree populations have shifted over the past three decades finds that this effect is already in action. But there’s a twist: Even more than moving poleward, trees are moving west.

About three-quarters of tree species common to eastern American forests—including white oaks, sugar maples, and American hollies—have shifted their population center west since 1980. More than half of the species studied also moved northward during the same period.

These results, among the first to use empirical data to look at how climate change is shaping eastern forests, were published in Science Advances on Wednesday.

Trees, of course, don’t move themselves. But their populations can shift over time, and saplings can expand into a new region while older growth dies in another.

While climate change has elevated temperatures across the eastern United States, it has significantly altered rainfall totals. The northeast has gotten a little more rain since 1980 than it did during the proceeding century, while the southeast has gotten much less rain. The Great Plains, especially in Oklahoma and Kansas, get much more than historically normal.

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Global Warming

Ocean acidification is global warming’s forgotten crisis

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Most of us are familiar with the climate change impacts we see and feel in our communities: heatwaves, storms, droughts, floods, and so on.

But a UN meeting this week about climate change and oceans reminds us a related crisis is unfolding largely away public attention: the one-two punch of ocean warming and acidification.

With record temperatures sweeping over continents year after year, it is easy to overlook that the ocean has absorbed some 90% of the heat trapped by the carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution; and how much of that CO2 has dissolved into seawater as carbonic acid, altering its basic chemistry.

The UN meeting follows on the heels of a new secretary general report that investigates the impacts of these changes and the findings are concerning, to say the least.

The report describes record ocean temperatures pushing fish species toward cooler latitudes and out of reach of artisanal fishers; it documents widespread coral bleaching across the tropical belt and how most reefs could enter a state of permanent decline by 2040; it shows how ocean acidification has damaged a range of calcifying marine life, such as corals and shellfish; and it raises fears that the cumulative effects of the impacts are degrading phytoplankton, zooplankton, and krill, the foundation of the ocean’s food chain.

A sea snail shell is dissolved over the course of 45 days in seawater adjusted to an ocean chemistry projected for the year 2100.

Pterapod shell dissolved in seawater adjusted to an ocean chemistry projected for the year 2100