Category Archives: Nature

Plastics prove pervasive in Great Lakes tributaries


The types of plastics pervasive in streams leading to the Great Lakes, via the USGS microplastics website.

The types of plastics pervasive in streams leading to the Great Lakes, via the USGS microplastics website.

As longtime readers know, one of our ongoing concerns here has been the growing body of evidence that plastics, still relatively new when esnl
was a child, are now being linked to a growing number of environmental woes and health problems.

And as with DDTvinyl chloride, asbestos, and a host of other compounds, we are only learning about the risks years after the substances have invaded our lives and environments.

Now comes word that plastics, present everywhere in our homes, workplaces, and oceans, have invaded the waters leading into Great Lakes.

From the U.S. Geological Survey:

Microplastics fall off decomposing bottles and bags, wear off of synthetic clothing and are manufactured into some toothpastes and lotions. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and State University of New York at Fredonia studied 107 water samples collected from 29 Great Lakes tributaries in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and New York, and found microplastics in all samples. Together, these 29 tributaries account for approximately 22 percent of the total river water that flows into the Great Lakes.

“These microplastics, which are harmful to animal and possibly human health, will continue to accumulate in the Great Lakes well into the future,” said Austin Baldwin, a USGS scientist and the lead author of the report. “Our findings can help water managers better understand the types and sources of microplastics in rivers, and which rivers are the most polluted with microplastics.”

Baldwin noted that the study underestimates the actual microplastic concentrations in the rivers because the scientists sampled large microplastics greater than 0.33 millimeters (mm). The majority of microplastics are smaller than 0.1 mm.

Key findings from the study include:

  • The highest concentration of microplastics was detected in the Huron River at Ann Arbor, Michigan, at 32 particles per cubic meter, or p/m3;
  • High levels of microplastics were also detected in the Buffalo River at Buffalo, New York (31 p/m3), the Ashtabula River near Ashtabula, Ohio (23 p/m3), and the Clinton River near Mt. Clemens, Michigan (21 p/m3);
  • The median concentration of microplastics in all samples was 1.9 p/m3;
  • Urban watersheds had the highest concentrations of microplastics; and
  • Microplastics were also present in streams in forested and agricultural areas.

The scientists found various forms of microplastics in the river samples: fibers, fragments, films, foams, and pellets or beads. Plastic fibers, which come from items such as synthetic clothes, diapers and cigarette butts, were the most common type detected, at 71 percent of the total particles. The least common form found in the river water was microbeads, which are the only form banned by the United States Congress. This ban has not yet taken effect.

“We were surprised by the small amount of plastic beads and high amount of fibers found in the samples,” Baldwin said. “These unexpected findings demonstrate how studies like ours are critical to better understanding the many forms and fates of microplastics in the environment.”

Ingested microplastics can cause digestive and reproductive problems, as well as death, in fish, birds and other animals. Unhealthy additives in the plastic, including flame retardants and antimicrobials, have been associated with cancer and endocrine disruption in humans. Also, pollutants such as pesticides, trace metals and even pathogens can accumulate at high concentrations on microplastic particles.

Scientists have found microplastics nearly everywhere. Aside from rivers, microplastics are also common in lakes and oceans, in freshwater and marine fish, oysters and mussels, and in sediment. They are deposited onto land and water surfaces from the atmosphere.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funded the new study. For more information on USGS microplastics research, please visit the USGS Great Lakes Restoration Initiative website.

Massive mercury pollution plagues the U.S. West


From the study, a map of major regions afflicted by mercury contamination.

From the study, a map of major regions afflicted by mercury contamination.

From the Biodiversity Research Institute:

Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) announces findings from the Western North America Mercury Synthesis, an effort to assess environmental mercury deposition across the western region of the continent. An international team led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and co-organized by BRI, recently documented widespread mercury contamination in air, soil, sediment, plants, fish, and wildlife at various levels across this region. They evaluated potential risk from mercury to human, fish, and wildlife heath, and examined resource management activities that influence this risk.

“Mercury is widespread in the environment, and under certain conditions poses a substantial threat to environmental health and natural resource conservation,” says Collin Eagles-Smith, Ph.D., USGS ecologist and team lead.

The research team gathered decades of mercury data to examine patterns of mercury and methylmercury in numerous components of the western landscape. The results show where mercury occurs in western North America, how it moves through the environment, and the processes that influence its movement and transfer to aquatic food chains.

“This integrated effort provides critical information on mercury pathways to humans and wildlife that government regulators, lawmakers, and the public can use to make decisions,” says David Evers, Ph.D., executive director and chief scientist of Biodiversity Research Institute and co-organizer of the project. “The Western mercury synthesis builds upon our Northeastern and Great Lakes regional efforts through which we collected and analyzed environmental mercury data that were often separated by sample type.” The initiative for the western region of the continent continues BRI’s efforts to assess environmental mercury deposition across North America in the Institute’s series of studies called Mercury Connections.

Complete findings for the Western North America Mercury Synthesis (the Western Synthesis) have been published in a 2016 special issue of Science of The Total Environment: Mercury in Western North America—Spatiotemporal Patterns, Biogeochemistry, Bioaccumulation, and Risks [$41.95 to read]. Dr. Evers is co-author on five out of the 17 papers published in this Virtual Special Issue (available only online). All of the papers will also be published in the October issue of the journal.

Papers [equally expensive] co-authored by Dr. Evers include:

  1. Mercury in western North America: A synthesis of environmental contamination, fluxes, bioaccumulation, and risk to fish and wildlife
  2. Mercury risk to avian piscivores across western United States and Canada
  3. Assessing potential health risks to fish and humans using mercury concentrations in inland fish from across western Canada and the United States
  4. Avian mercury exposure and toxicological risk across western North America: A synthesis
  5. Spatial and temporal patterns of mercury concentrations in freshwater fish across the Western United States and Canada

Summary of Key Findings and Implications (related to fish and wildlife) include:

  • Methylmercury contamination in fish and birds is common in many areas throughout western North America, and large-scale ecological attributes, such as climate and land cover, are important factors influencing mercury contamination and availability to animals.
  • Fish and birds in many areas were found to have mercury concentrations above levels associated with toxicity.
  • Patterns of methylmercury, the most toxic form of mercury, exposure in fish and wildlife across western North America do not overlap with patterns of inorganic mercury on the landscape, indicating a disconnect between inorganic mercury distribution and exposure in fish and wildlife
  • Land and water management activities can strongly influence how methylmercury is created and transferred to fish, wildlife, and humans.

Effective management of environmental health risks associated with mercury goes beyond controlling sources of inorganic mercury, and would be improved with tools for controlling the production of methylmercury and its introduction to animal and human food sources

The Western Synthesis results suggest that effective management of environmental health risks associated with mercury goes beyond controlling sources of inorganic mercury, and could be improved by development of tools to control the production of methylmercury and its bioaccumulation through the food web, ultimately affecting animals and humans.

For a complete summary of the Western Synthesis results, visit: USGS Environmental Health Science Feature

This body of work was conducted as part of the Western North America Mercury Synthesis Working Group and supported by the USGS John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis. The Working Group is comprised of partners from other U.S. and Canadian federal, state, and provincial agencies, as well as academic institutions and non-governmental organizations. Primary funding support was provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with additional support from the individual authors’ organizations.

Climate change threatens world fishery devastation


From a new report from Canadian scientists, a look at ocean regions where food supplies from fish are expected the be hit by the impacts of climates change. The map shows the projected percentage change in global maximum catch potential [MCP] and fisheries maximum revenue potential [MRP] in the 2050’s from current levels:

Impacts of climate change on MCP and MRP by the 2050 s (average between 2041–2060) relative to the 2000 s (average between 1991–2010): (a) mean percentage change in projected maximum catch potential (MCP) of 280 Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and mean percentage change in projected MRP of 192 fishing nations in the 2050 s relative to the level in the 2000 s under RCP 8.5 scenario; (b) differences in percentage change in MCP and MRP between RCP 8.5 and RCP 2.6 scenarios in the 2050 s; (c,d) latitudinal zonal average of mean percentage change in fisheries MRP in different fishing countries under RCP 8.5 (c) and RCP 2.6 (d).

Impacts of climate change on MCP and MRP by the 2050 s (average between 2041–2060) relative to the 2000 s (average between 1991–2010): (a) mean percentage change in projected maximum catch potential (MCP) of 280 Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and mean percentage change in projected MRP of 192 fishing nations in the 2050 s relative to the level in the 2000 s under RCP 8.5 scenario; (b) differences in percentage change in MCP and MRP between RCP 8.5 and RCP 2.6 scenarios in the 2050 s; (c,d) latitudinal zonal average of mean percentage change in fisheries MRP in different fishing countries under RCP 8.5 (c) and RCP 2.6 (d).

The University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries reports:

Global fisheries stand to lose approximately $10 billion of their annual revenue by 2050 if climate change continues unchecked, and countries that are most dependent on fisheries for food will be the hardest hit, finds new UBC research.

Climate change impacts such as rising temperatures and changes in ocean salinity, acidity and oxygen levels are expected to result in decreased catches, as previous research from UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries has found. In this study, the authors examined the financial impact of these projected losses for all fishing countries in 2050, compared to 2000.

“Developing countries most dependent on fisheries for food and revenue will be hardest hit,” said Vicky Lam, a postdoctoral fellow at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, and the study’s lead author. “It is necessary to implement better marine resource management plans to increase stock resilience to climate change.”

While many communities are considering aquaculture, also known as fish farming, as a solution to ease the financial burden of fishing losses and improve food security under climate change, when researchers examined the growing industry, they found it may exacerbate the negative impact on revenues.

“Climate adaptation programs such as aquaculture development may be seen as a solution,” said William Cheung, associate professor at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and a study co-author. “However, rather than easing the financial burden of fishing losses and improving food security, it may drive down the price of seafood, leading to further decreases in fisheries revenues.”

The researchers used climate models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to examine the economic impact of climate change on fish stocks and fisheries revenues under two emission scenarios. In a high emission scenario, the rates continue to rise unchecked, while a low emission scenario meant ocean warming is kept under two degrees Celsius.

“Global fisheries revenues amount to about $100 billion every year,” said co-author, Rashid Sumaila, professor at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and Liu Institute for Global Studies. “Our modeling shows that a high emissions scenario could reduce global fishing revenue by an average of 10 per cent, while a low emissions scenario could reduce revenues by 7 per cent.”

The researchers found the countries that rely highly on fish are the most vulnerable, including island countries like Tokelau, Cayman Islands and Tuvalu. Meanwhile, many developed countries, such as Greenland and Iceland, could see revenue increases as fish move into cooler waters.

The study was published in Scientific Reports [open access].

Map of the day: Planet’s wilderness is vanishing


Change in the Distribution of Wilderness and Globally Significant Wilderness Areas since the Early 1990s Globally significant wilderness areas are defined as wilderness areas >10,000 km2. The insets are focused on the Amazon (A), the western Sahara (B), the West Siberian taiga (C), and Borneo (D).

Change in the Distribution of Wilderness and Globally Significant Wilderness Areas since the Early 1990s. Globally significant wilderness areas are defined as wilderness areas >10,000 km2. The insets are focused on the Amazon (A), the western Sahara (B), the West Siberian taiga (C), and Borneo (D).

From the Wildlife Conservation Society:

Researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology [open access] show catastrophic declines in wilderness areas around the world over the last 20 years. They demonstrate alarming losses comprising a tenth of global wilderness since the 1990s – an area twice the size of Alaska and half the size of the Amazon. The Amazon and Central Africa have been hardest hit.

The findings underscore an immediate need for international policies to recognize the value of wilderness areas and to address the unprecedented threats they face, the researchers say.

“Globally important wilderness areas—despite being strongholds for endangered biodiversity, for buffering and regulating local climates, and for supporting many of the world’s most politically and economically marginalized communities—are completely ignored in environmental policy,” says Dr James Watson of the University of Queensland in Australia and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. “Without any policies to protect these areas, they are falling victim to widespread development. We probably have one to two decades to turn this around. International policy mechanisms must recognize the actions needed to maintain wilderness areas before it is too late. We probably have one to two decades to turn this around.”

Watson says much policy attention has been paid to the loss of species, but comparatively little was known about larger-scale losses of entire ecosystems, especially wilderness areas which tend to be relatively understudied. To fill that gap, the researchers mapped wilderness areas around the globe, with “wilderness” being defined as biologically and ecologically intact landscapes free of any significant human disturbance. The researchers then compared their current map of wilderness to one produced by the same methods in the early 1990s.

This comparison showed that a total of 30.1 million km2 (around 20 percent of the world’s land area) now remains as wilderness, with the majority being located in North America, North Asia, North Africa, and the Australian continent. However, comparisons between the two maps show that an estimated 3.3 million km2 (almost 10 percent) of wilderness area has been lost in the intervening years. Those losses have occurred primarily in South America, which has experienced a 30 percent decline in wilderness, and Africa, which has experienced a 14 percent loss.

“The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering” Dr Oscar Venter of the University of Northern British Colombia. “We need to recognize that wilderness areas, which we’ve foolishly considered to be de-facto protected due to their remoteness, is actually being dramatically lost around the world. Without proactive global interventions we could lose the last jewels in nature’s crown. You cannot restore wilderness, once it is gone, and the ecological process that underpin these ecosystems are gone, and it never comes back to the state it was. The only option is to proactively protect what is left”.

Watson says that the United Nations and others have ignored globally significant wilderness areas in key multilateral environmental agreements and this must change.

“If we don’t act soon, there will only be tiny remnants of wilderness around the planet, and this is a disaster for conservation, for climate change, and for some of the most vulnerable human communities on the planet,” Watson says. “We have a duty to act for our children and their children.”

Destructive ‘afterslip’ followed Napa earthquake


And free books, too

We’ll begin with the free books.

We were once buried in books.

It was at 0136 hours on 3 September 2000 and we were sitting in our recliner in the livingroom of our apartment in Napa California when the lights went out and we were pummeled repeatedly by invisible assailants.

It was a magnitude 5.2 earthquake, and our assailants were books, an avalanche vomited forth by falling and collapsing bookcases.

We’re moving this weekend, and we again are buried in books, too many to carry south to L.A., so every day this week we’re putting lots of them out on the media between sidewalk and street, free for one and all.

The address is 2032 Prince Street in Berkeley [one house south of Shattuck Avenue between the Starry Plow and the Ashby BART station], and subjects range for brain/mind science to history, science, biography, media, and much more.

Fresh offerings daily through Saturday.

And the afterslips from another Napa quake

A map shows the location of the August 24, 2014 earthquake just south of Napa, California. In a new report, scientists from MIT and elsewhere detail how, even after the earthquake’s main tremors and aftershocks died down, earth beneath the surface was still actively shifting and creeping — albeit much more slowly — for at least four weeks after the main event. Image: Gareth Funning/University of California, Riverside

A map shows the location of the August 24, 2014 earthquake just south of Napa, California. In a new report, scientists from MIT and elsewhere detail how, even after the earthquake’s main tremors and aftershocks died down, earth beneath the surface was still actively shifting and creeping — albeit much more slowly — for at least four weeks after the main event.
Image: Gareth Funning/University of California, Riverside

A fascinating story from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

Nearly two years ago, on August 24, 2014, just south of Napa, California, a fault in the Earth suddenly slipped, violently shifting and splitting huge blocks of solid rock, 6 miles below the surface. The underground upheaval generated severe shaking at the surface, lasting 10 to 20 seconds. When the shaking subsided, the magnitude 6.0 earthquake — the largest in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1989 — left in its wake crumpled building facades, ruptured water mains, and fractured roadways.

But the earthquake wasn’t quite done. In a new report, scientists from MIT and elsewhere detail how, even after the earthquake’s main tremors and aftershocks died down, earth beneath the surface was still actively shifting and creeping — albeit much more slowly — for at least four weeks after the main event. This postquake activity, which is known to geologists as “afterslip,” caused certain sections of the main fault to shift by as much as 40 centimeters in the month following the main earthquake.

This seismic creep, the scientists say, may have posed additional infrastructure hazards to the region and changed the seismic picture of surrounding faults, easing stress along some faults while increasing pressure along others.

The scientists, led by Michael Floyd, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, found that sections of the main West Napa Fault continued to slip after the primary earthquake, depending on the lithology, or rock type, surrounding the fault. The fault tended to only shift during the main earthquake in places where it ran through solid rock, such as mountains and hills; in places with looser sediments, like mud and sand, the fault continued to slowly creep, for at least four weeks, at a rate of a few centimeters per day.

“We found that after the earthquake, there was a lot of slip that happened at the surface,” Floyd says. “One of the most fascinating things about this phenomenon is it shows you how much hazard remains after the shaking has stopped. If you have infrastructure running across these faults — water pipelines, gas lines, roads, underground electric cables — and if there’s this significant afterslip, those kinds of things could be damaged even after the shaking has stopped.”

There’s lots more, after the jump. . .

Continue reading

Chevron’s malignant legacies in Ecuador, Bay Area


In the second of three programs on the brutal policies of a global oil giant [first part here], Abby Martin looks at the lethal pollution of Ecuador’s land and water by an American oil giant, a bizarre U.S. court ruling made by a judge who owns stock in the company, the the firm’s heavy-handed politics in Richmond, California.

During our six years at the Berkeley Daily Planet, we covered environmental politics in nearby Richmond, one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s poorest communities, and watched as Chevron Texaco fought to control city council elections to ensure that operations at the company’s massive refinery were unhindered by council members’ concerns about dangers to the health and safety of their constituents.

Martin lived nearby and saw firsthand how the company spared no expense in courts and in political and public relations campaigns, and we’re glad that the issue will gain wider exposure through her efforts.

And now, one with the shot.

From teleSUR English:

The Empire Files: Chevron vs. the Amazon – The Environmental Trial of the Century

Program files:

In Part II of this three-part series, The Empire Files continues the investigation into the battle between Chevron Texaco and Ecuador.

In this installment, Abby Martin uncovers what really happened throughout the 22-year legal battle between the oil corporation and indigenous Amazonians, interviewing lead attorney for the case, Pablo Fajardo.

This episode also chronicles the shameful, scandalous history of Chevron Texaco—from the support of Hitler’s Nazi movement, to backing war crimes in Myanmar—and its retaliatory attacks against its victims.

Climate change ravages U.S. parks, monuments


The opening a a sobering report from the Guardian:

After a century of shooing away hunters, tending to trails and helping visitors enjoy the wonder of the natural world, the guardians of America’s most treasured places have been handed an almost unimaginable new job – slowing the all-out assault climate change is waging against national parks across the nation.

As the National Parks Service (NPS) has charted the loss of glaciers, sea level rise and increase in wildfires spurred by rising temperatures in recent years, the scale of the threat to US heritage across the 412 national parks and monuments has become starkly apparent.

As the National Parks Service turns 100 this week, their efforts to chart and stem the threat to the country’s history faces a daunting task. America’s grand symbols and painstakingly preserved archaeological sites are at risk of being winnowed away by the crashing waves, wildfires and erosion triggered by warming temperatures.

The Statue of Liberty is at “high exposure” risk from increasingly punishing storms. A national monument dedicated to abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who will be enshrined on a new $20 note, could be eaten away by rising tides in Maryland. The land once walked by Pocahontas and Captain John Smith in Jamestown, the first English settlement in the US, is surrounded by waters rising at twice the global average and may be beyond rescue.

These threats are the latest in a pile of identified calamities to befall national parks and monuments due to climate change. Receding ice, extreme heat and acidifying oceans are morphing America’s landscapes and coasts at a faster pace than at any time in human history.