What Are We Doing To The Planet #13

March 6, 2015

The following articles concerning our negative impact on the planet caught ny attention this week.

 

High levels of traffic-created air pollution has been linked to slower cognitive development in children by a recent study.

The researchers measured three cognitive outcomes (working memory, superior working memory, and attentiveness) every 3 months over a 12-month period in 2,715 primary school children attending 39 schools. By comparing the development of these cognitive outcomes in the children attending schools where exposure to air pollution was high to those children attending a school with a similar socio-economic index where exposure to pollution was low, they found that the increase in cognitive development over time among children attending highly polluted schools was less than among children attending paired lowly polluted schools, even after adjusting for additional factors that affect cognitive development.

These dangers include those children who travel to school on school buses and shown by studies in California where advanced HECA air-filtration systems are being tested.

Studies have shown that exposure to high levels of vehicle pollution is associated with pulmonary and cardiovascular health risks, including oxidative stress, mitochondrial damage and acute pulmonary inflammation.

This all ties in with dire warnings from Europe that hundreds of thousands of people will die is air pollution is not dealt with immediately.

In 2011, the latest year for which figures have been reliably collated, more than 400,000 are estimated to have died prematurely [in Europe alone] as a result of breathing toxic fumes, despite recent improvements in some countries.

In last week’s report we noted that forest cover in Amazonia and elsewhere is shrinking more rapidly than previously reported.  Now we have a new study showing one of the dangers that can cause — loss of bio-diversity,

One of the first studies to map the impact of deforestation on biodiversity across entire regions of the Amazon has found a clear ‘threshold’ for forest cover below which species loss becomes more rapid and widespread. By measuring the loss of a core tranche of dominant species of large and medium-sized mammals and birds, and using the results as a bellwether, the researchers found that for every 10% of forest loss, one to two major species are wiped out. This is until the threshold of 43% of forest cover is reached, beyond which the rate of biodiversity loss jumps from between two to up to eight major species gone per 10% of disappeared forest …

Unless urgent action is taken to stem deforestation in key areas that are heading towards or have just dipped below the forest cover ‘threshold’ – which, according to the research team’s models, amounts to a third of the Amazon – these areas will suffer the loss of between 31-44% of species by just 2030.
Finally this week we have a new study that shows that so-called “green” products contain unlisted ingredients that are very damaging.
A University of Melbourne researcher has found that common consumer products, including those marketed as ‘green’, ‘all-natural’, ‘non-toxic’, and ‘organic’, emit a range of compounds that could harm human health and air quality. But most of these ingredients are not disclosed to the public …

The study, published in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health found 156 different VOCs emitted from the 37 products, with an average of 15 VOCs per product. Of these 156 VOCs, 42 are classified as toxic or hazardous under US federal laws, and each product emitted at least one of these chemicals. Findings revealed that emissions of carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants from ‘green’ fragranced products were not significantly different from regular fragranced products. In total, over 550 volatile ingredients were emitted from these products, but fewer than three percent were disclosed on any product label or material safety data sheet (MSDS).

 

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What Are We Doing To the Planet #12

February 27, 2015

The following articles about our negative impact on the planet caught my eye this week:

 

The desire by outsiders to build hydro-electric projects in south-east Europe could be catastrophic, according to this article in the Guardian:

More is known about rivers in the Amazon than Europe’s last wild waterways in the Balkans. But these unique ecosystems in south-east Europe could soon be gone, along with endangered species such as the balkan lynx, if plans for over 2,000 dams go ahead, conservationists warn … On past trends, deforestation and soil erosion will follow, along with irrevocable changes to the course and character of untamed rivers, a quarter of which lie in pristine national parks and protected areas, according to new analysis by RiverWatch and Euronatur.

This series has mentioned several times the severe problems that plastics are causing the oceans. Now, scientists have discovered that some corals are actually ingesting plastic to their harm.

“Corals are non-selective feeders and our results show that they can consume microplastics when the plastics are present in seawater,” says Dr Mia Hoogenboom, a Chief Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University. “If microplastic pollution increases on the Great Barrier Reef, corals could be negatively affected as their tiny stomach-cavities become full of indigestible plastic,” Dr Hoogenboom says … “We found that the corals ate plastic at rates only slightly lower than their normal rate of feeding on marine plankton,” she says. The plastic was found deep inside the coral polyp wrapped in digestive tissue, raising concerns that it might impede the corals ability to digest its normal food.s the global climate warms

As the global climate warms, farmers are using ever greater amounts of agricultural pesticides. These in turn are affecting water resources across the planet, according to new reports.

“We know from earlier investigations for example that pesticides can reduce the biodiversity of invertebrates in freshwater ecosystems by up to 42 percent and that we can expect an increased application of pesticides as a result of climate change,” explains Prof. Dr. Matthias Liess … Liess warns of an increase in the application of pesticides in many developing countries as farmers increasingly switch from traditionally extensive agricultural practices to more intensive ones …

“The risks of insecticide exposure to water bodies increased significantly the further South one travelled on a North-South gradient in Europe, North America and Asia, mainly driven by a higher insecticide application rate as a result of higher average temperatures,” Dr. Mira Kattwinkel reports … At the moment it is water bodies in the Mediterranean, the USA, Central America and Southeast Asia that are particularly vulnerable. In Southeast Asia, countries such as the Philippines or Vietnam are greatly affected.”

Finally this week, recent UN reports have suggested that the loss of tropical forests has been stopped. However, that conclusion is reversed in a new report that suggests forest depletion has soared in recent years.

The rate at which tropical forests were cut, burned or otherwise lost from the 1990s through the 2000s accelerated by 62 percent, according to a new study which dramatically reverses a previous estimate of a 25 percent slowdown over the same period. That previous estimate, from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Forest Resource Assessment, was based on a collection of reports from dozens of countries. The new estimate, in contrast, is based on vast amounts of Landsat image data which directly record the changes to forests over 20 years … They found that during the 1990-2000 period the annual net forest loss across all the countries was 4 million hectares (15,000 square miles) per year. During the 2000-2010 period, the net forest loss rose to 6.5 million hectares (25,000 square miles) per year – a 62 percent increase is the rate of deforestation.

 

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What Are We Doing To The Planet? #11

February 20, 2015

The following articles about our negative impact on the earth caught my eye this week:

 

Scientists report that chemicals that are not controlled by a United Nations treaty designed to protect the Ozone Layer are contributing to ozone depletion.

Measurements of [Very Short Lived Substances] VSLS in the atmosphere over the past two decades, provided by collaborators from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States, were also analysed. These measurements revealed a rapid increase in atmospheric concentrations of dichloromethane, a man-made VSLS used in a range of industrial processes …

The researchers found that while the amount of ozone depletion arising from VSLS in the atmosphere today is small compared to that caused by longer-lived gases, such as CFCs, VSLS-driven ozone depletion was found to be almost four times more efficient at influencing climate … “The increases observed for dichloromethane are striking and unexpected; concentrations had been decreasing slowly in the late 1990s, but since then have increased by about a factor of two at sites throughout the globe.”

Continued global warming is likely to cause massive coral bleaching around the world this year according to a new report.

Bleaching takes place when corals are stressed due to changes in light, nutrients or temperature – though only the latter can cause events of this magnitude. This causes them to release algae, lose their colour and in some cases die off … In a large scale bleaching event, the damage caused could last for decades – and in some cases, the reefs never recover. Those that do become more susceptible to diseases.

coral bleaching

“It started in 2014 – we had severe bleaching from July to October in the northern Marianas, bad bleaching in Guam, really severe bleaching in the north western Hawaiian Islands, and the first ever mass bleaching in the main Hawaiian Islands,” said said Mark Eakin, Noaa’s Coral Reef Watch coordinator. “It then moved south, with severe bleaching in the Marshall Islands and it has moved south into many of the areas in the western south Pacific. Bleaching just now is starting in American Samoa. In Fiji we’re starting to see some, the Solomon Islands have seen some. We’ve already seen a big event.”

Perhaps of more direct danger to the human race, recent research suggests that global warming will bring new diseases.

Ravens, rodents and rattlesnakes are moving to new locales as rainfall and temperatures shift over time. The pathogens and parasites that infect these organisms move, as well, creating the risk of these diseases spilling over from one species to another. This host-parasite relationship is a bellwether for broader changes in the environment, and understanding it could help people anticipate and respond to deadly diseases and economically devastating blights …

As the average temperature of the planet goes up and as humanity encroaches on wilderness, pathogens and the organisms they infect are moving into new habitats, increasing the risk of infecting native hosts. This is being played out for muskoxen and caribou with geographic expansion on Victoria Island [in Canada]. We see that climate and temperature have dramatic effects on their parasites. The result is often a greater number of infected animals, which in turn leads to mass die-offs. This can spell disaster for communities that hunt these animals for sustenance.

 

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What Are We Doing To the Planet? #10

February 13, 2015

The following articles about our impact on the planet caught my attention this week:

I began this series of posts after I read Capt. Charles Moore’s terrifying expose in “Plastic Ocean“.  Unfortunately, the latest study shows that things are getting worse not better since he published his book about plastic pollution on the high seas:

Some eight million metric tons of plastic waste makes its way into the world’s oceans each year, and the amount of the debris is likely to increase greatly over the next decade unless nations take strong measures to dispose of their trash responsibly, new research suggests … Jenna Jambeck, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia and lead author of the study, said the amount of plastic that entered the oceans in the year measured, 2010, might be as little as 4.8 million metric tons or as much as 12.7 million. The paper’s middle figure of eight million, she said, is the equivalent of “five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world”

Climate change has brought about a huge increase in the loss of sea ice — some 19,500 square miles of ice each year — and the loss continues to increase:

Sea ice increases in Antarctica do not make up for the accelerated Arctic sea ice loss of the last three decades, according to the stark findings of a new NASA study. As a whole, the planet has been shedding sea ice at an average annual rate of 13,500 square miles (35,000 square kilometers) since 1979, the equivalent of losing an area of sea ice larger than the state of Maryland every year. However, the rate of sea ice loss has recently doubled to now reach an alarming rate of nearly 20,000 square miles …

“One of the reasons people care about sea ice decreases is that sea ice is highly reflective whereas the liquid ocean is very absorptive,” [Claire] Parkinson [author of the study and climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md] said. “So when the area of sea ice coverage is reduced, there is a smaller sea ice area reflecting the sun’s radiation back to space. This means more retention of the sun’s radiation within the Earth system and further heating.”

Climate change is even having significant effects the remotest parts of Ecuador:

A study of three remote lakes in Ecuador led by Queen’s University researchers has revealed the vulnerability of tropical high mountain lakes to global climate change — the first study of its kind to show this. The data explains how the lakes are changing due to the water warming as the result of climate change. The results could have far-reaching consequences for Andean water resources as the lakes provide 60 per cent of the drinking water for Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador.

“Andean societies are amongst the most vulnerable when it comes to the impact of climate change,” says Dr. [Neal] Michelutti [lead author and a senior research scientist at Queen’s University’s Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab (PEARL)]. “Warming in the Andes is occurring at a rate nearly twice the global average and it’s already impacting water resources as shown in this research. These changes are also a sign of bigger changes that are coming.”

Finally, closer to home, fracking is threatening US harvests:

An estimated $1.2bn (£790m) in maize, soy and wheat crops may be at risk in US states where competition with industrial water users, especially fracking, is high … MSCI ESG Research has shown that for regional crops like cotton and sugar beet, the percentage of exposed acreage is up to six times higher as key growing areas such as North Dakota, Texas and California are experiencing water-intensive oil and gas booms.

As if we needed any more reasons to stop fracking!

 

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What Are We Doing To The Planet #9

February 6, 2015

The following articles about our damage to the planet and each other caught my attention this week.

 

A new study reveals the devastating effect of pollutants on the future of the albatross population and by inference on the future of many other seabirds:

“Persistent organic pollutant and mercury have long-term effects on breeding performances in wandering albatross, which may lead to population decline,” Aurelie Goutte, co-author and lecturer at Ecole Pratique des Hatues Etudes … Sporting the world’s longest wingspan, the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) is a fierce marine predator, residing at the top of the trophic web or food chain. But the massive seabird, found throughout the Southern Ocean and North Pacific, is also threatened with extinction… “Our population models suggested that the actual Hg and POPs levels could decelerate the population growth rate (0.991), whereas the population growth rate would increase (1.027) with zero concentrations of blood Hg and POPs,” the researchers write in their paper.  As Goutte explains, “these pollutants (PCB, DDT, etc) are already prohibited. But they are persistent in the environment, they are mobile and may reach remote areas and they biomagnify across the trophic web, which means that top predators are the most exposed.”

A more general survey of endangered wildlife in Asia is captured in a useful photo essay from the Guardian.

In a previous post, harmful concentrations of arsenic in water supplies was highlighted.  A series of new studies are about to be published that indicate the breadth of the problem:

“Naturally occurring arsenic in private wells threatens people in many U.S. states and parts of Canada, according to a package of a dozen scientific papers to be published next week. The studies, focused mainly on New England but applicable elsewhere, say private wells present continuing risks due to almost nonexistent regulation in most states, homeowner inaction and inadequate mitigation measures.

The failure of food chains — and most of us, really — to recycle waste products is highlighted in a new report.

“Overall, Americans recycle at the lamentable rate of 34.5 percent and recycle plastic packaging at the even measlier rate of 14 percent. So the majority of that food packaging is ending up in landfills, or on the street as litter, where it may eventually get swept into the ocean. There, our wrappers and cans and cups become a much bigger problem — a direct threat to marine life that may ingest it and die. According to a report published Thursday by the environmental groups As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council, most of the major players in the restaurant and beverage industry are not doing a whole lot to ameliorate this problem.

Finally, ancient glaciers are fast disappearing in Norway. As reported in ScienceDaily:

“Norway is dotted with small glaciers and permanent snow patches that contain all sorts of archaeological treasures, from ancient shoes to 5000-year-old arrowheads. But climate change has turned up the temperature on these snowfields and they are vanishing at an astonishing rate… With one or two more hot summers, they will be history.

 

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What Are We Doing To The Planet? #8

January 30, 2015

The following articles regarding human impact on the planet caught my attention this week:

 

According to a well supported report pollution is now the leading cause of death in developing countries.

In 2012, pollution – in the form of contaminated soil, water, and both indoor and outdoor air – was responsible for 8.4 million deaths in developing countries, finds Pollution: The Silent Killer of Millions in Poor Countries. That’s almost three times more deaths than those caused by malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis combined: Malaria claimed 600,000 lives in 2012, HIV/AIDS caused 1.5 million deaths and tuberculosis killed 900,000 individuals.

Why should we in the developed world worry (other than for humanity’s sake)? Because…

… polluted air from newly-industrialized countries can blow into your hometown; mercury from mining and coal plants can find its way into the fish you’re having for dinner; and arsenic and other toxins may show up in the rice and other food in your pantry.

Similar poisons are already working their way into our children’s health in the form of pesticides:

A commonly used pesticide may alter the development of the brain’s dopamine system — responsible for emotional expression and cognitive function – and increase the risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, according to a new Rutgers study … Using data from the Centers for Disease Control, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) the study analyzed health care questionnaires and urine samples of 2,123 children and adolescents.  Researchers asked parents whether a physician had ever diagnosed their child with ADHD and cross-referenced each child’s prescription drug history to determine if any of the most common ADHD medications had been prescribed. Children with higher pyrethroid pesticide metabolite levels in their urine were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.

Finally this week, dams on the Missouri River are killing off the sturgeon.  The dams apparently cause dead zones where the oxygen levels are too low to support the survival of young sturgeon.

“Pallid sturgeon come from a genetic line that has lived on this planet for tens of millions of years; yet it has been decades since anyone has documented any of the enormous fish successfully producing young that survive to adulthood in the upper Missouri River basin … “This research shows that the transition zone between the freely flowing river and reservoirs is an ecological sink – a dead zone – for pallid sturgeon,” [Professor Christopher] Guy said. “Essentially, hatched sturgeon embryos die in the oxygen-depleted sediments in the transition zones.”

 

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What Are We Doing To The Planet #7

January 23, 2015

The following articles on our impact on the planet caught my attention this week.

 

What is killing the birds in San Francisco Bay?  No-one is sure, but it certainly isn’t natural and it certainly is man-made.

“The goo is coating their feathers, which causes them to lose their insulation and leaves the birds vulnerable to hypothermia. So far it has mostly affected diving birds including surf scoters, bufflehead ducks and horned grebes on the eastern shore of the bay, however more affected birds have been reported on the west side near Foster City. The goo is also beginning to harm other species, including sandpipers.”

New figures released show that some parts of the Arctic ice cap “has thinned by more than 50 metres just since 2012.”

“The findings show that over the last two decades, ice loss from the south-east region of Austfonna, located in the Svalbard archipelago, has increased significantly. In this time, ice flow has accelerated to speeds of several kilometres per year, and ice thinning has spread more than 50km inland – to within 10km of the summit.”

Global warming is not just affecting ice sheets, it is also likely to have a direct affect on the cost of bread in the near future.

“An international consortium of scientists have been testing wheat crops in laboratory and field trials in many areas of the world in changing climate conditions and discovered that yields drop on average by 6% for every one degree Celsius rise in temperature. This represents 42 million tonnes of wheat lost – about a quarter of the current global wheat trade – for every degree. This would create serious shortages and cause price hikes of the kind that have previously caused food riots in developing countries after only one bad harvest.”

 

Our impact on the earth has increased significantly since 1950, and humans’ impact is accelerating according to a set of 24 global indicators, or “planetary dashboard,” published in the journal Anthropocene Review (19 January 2015).

“It is difficult to overestimate the scale and speed of change. In a single lifetime humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force,” says lead author Professor Will Steffen, who led the joint project between the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the Stockholm Resilience Centre … After 1950 you can see that major Earth System changes became directly linked to changes largely related to the global economic system. This is a new phenomenon and indicates that humanity has a new responsibility at a global level for the planet,” he added … Co-author IGBP Deputy Director, Dr Wendy Broadgate said, “The Great Acceleration indicators allow us to distinguish the signal from the noise. Earth is in a quantifiably different state than before. Several significant Earth System processes are now driven by human consumption and production.”

This is all very scary stuff, folks.  We ignore these clear indicators at our children’s peril.

 

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