“The beaches of Henderson Island are littered with plastic razor blades, toothbrushes and scoops from containers of baby formula, coffee and laundry powder. Turtles get tangled in fishing wire. Land crabs make their homes in toxic plastic.
Despite sitting 3,100 miles from the nearest factory or human settlement, this South Pacific island is covered with the highest density of plastic debris ever recorded in the world for a beach, according to a report published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team estimates 37.7 million pieces of plastic debris litter Henderson Island, exposing the extent to which the Earth’s nooks and crannies have become sinks for the 311 million tons of plastic waste created annually by humans.
“Half-Earth proposes an achievable plan to save our imperiled biosphere: devote half the surface of the Earth to nature.
In order to stave off the mass extinction of species, including our own, we must move swiftly to preserve the biodiversity of our planet, says Edward O. Wilson in his most impassioned book to date. Half-Earth argues that the situation facing us is too large to be solved piecemeal and proposes a solution commensurate with the magnitude of the problem: dedicate fully half the surface of the Earth to nature.
“ABOARD THE HI’IALAKAI NEAR KURE ATOLL—Back in 1986, 19-year-old college dropout Richard Pyle was 75 meters deep in the clear waters off Palau, pursuing a small pink fish with red tiger stripes, when he noticed it seemed hard to breathe. His pressure gauge showed plenty of air in his scuba tank, and at this depth, far below where most scuba divers dare to venture, Pyle was certain the fish would be a species new to science. He caught the fish in his net, then headed up.
When he reached 55 meters, though, he couldn’t breathe at all. The needle on his gauge, which had apparently been stuck, plunged to zero. Pyle did a rocket ascent, exhaling so his lungs wouldn’t burst from expanding gas. As he breached the surface, he was seeing stars, a symptom of shallow-water blackout. He gulped a few breaths and managed to holler to an eminent ichthyologist waiting aboard the boat: “Jack, take a look at this fish!”
Because of Pyle’s rapid ascent, nitrogen bubbles within his bloodstream and tissues had ballooned in size, tearing flesh and nerves. He had decompression sickness—the bends—and further mishaps delayed treatment. By the end of the day he was paralyzed, unable to control his arm, legs, or bladder.
In a study published last week in the journal Nature, scientists discovered extremely high levels of toxic chemicals (PCBs and related compounds) down 10 km deep in the Marianas and Kermadec Trenches. The trenches, which could easily swallow the entirety of Mt. Everest, were originally thought to be one of the last pristine habitats left on Earth. However, pollutants have settled via ocean dispersal and vertical transport in the deepest reaches of the world’s oceans, only to then be taken up (or bioaccumulated) by the creatures that dwell there.
“Small crustaceans that live in the pitch-black waters of the trench, captured by a robotic submarine, were contaminated with 50 times more toxic chemicals than crabs that survive in heavily polluted rivers in China.”
By Jason Gale, Lydia Mulvany, and Monte Reel, Bloomberg Businessweek
From the air, the Pearl River Delta in southern China’s Guangdong province resembles a mass of human cells under a microscope. Hundreds of thousands of tiny rectangular blocks, all of them shades of green, are clustered between cities and waterways. Livestock pens are scattered among the thousands of seafood farms that form the heart of the country’s aquaculture industry, the largest in the world.
“People eating their shrimp cocktails and paella may be getting more than they bargained for,” says Dr. Martin Blaser, a professor of microbiology and an infectious diseases physician at New York University Langone Medical Center who chairs President Barack Obama’s advisory panel for combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “The penetration of antibiotics through the food chain is a big problem.”
Research has found that as much as 90 percent of the antibiotics administered to pigs pass undegraded through their urine and feces. This has a direct impact on farmed seafood. The waste from the pigpens at the Jiangmen farm flowing into the ponds, for example, exposes the fish to almost the same doses of medicine the livestock get—and that’s in addition to the antibiotics added to the water to prevent and treat aquatic disease outbreaks. The fish pond drains into a canal connected to the West River, which eventually empties into the Pearl River estuary, on which sit Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Macau. The estuary receives 193 metric tons (213 tons) of antibiotics a year, Chinese scientists estimated in 2013.
Millions of people take part in cruise vacations every single year. However, most travelers do not realize that cruises are more harmful to the environment (and to human health) than many other travel forms.
Cruise ships pollute air during transit and even when docked, contributing significantly to carbon dioxide emissions. The EPA estimates that an average cruise liner at sea emits more soot each day than 1 million cars.
Staghorn corals killed by coral bleaching on Bourke Reef, on the Northern Great Barrier Reef, November 2016. Credit: Greg Torda, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Scientists have recently finished surveying portions of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef which recently experienced the largest recorded die-off of corals. In the northern sections of the Great Barrier Reef, there was an average mortality of 67% of all shallow-water corals over the past 9 months due to high temperature-induced bleaching. Where once lush and colorful expanses of corals and other reef-inhabiting creatures could be seen, now only large expanses of algal mats smother the substrate. However, further south, scientists were surprised to find that the death toll was much lower.
“Most of the losses in 2016 have occurred in the northern, most-pristine part of the Great Barrier Reef. This region escaped with minor damage in two earlier bleaching events in 1998 and 2002, but this time around it has been badly affected,” says Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies based at James Cook University, who undertook extensive aerial surveys at the height of the bleaching.
While the northern regions suffered, only a 6% and 1% mortality of corals was observed in the central and southern regions, respectively.
Tourism along the Great Barrier Reef plays a major role in the culture and economy of Australia’s eastern coast. Over 70,000 people work in the tourism sector of the Great Barrier Reef and it generates upwards of $5 billion dollars each year. Given the patchy distribution of the worst damage along the reef, tourism can still thrive in the areas that weren’t hit as hard.
Healthy coral in the Capricorn Group of Islands, Southern Great Barrier Reef, November 2016. Credit: Tory Chase, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Researchers now expect that the northern, most devastated region could take at least 10-15 years to regain lost corals, if yet another future bleaching event doesn’t end up slowing the recovery.
The shedding of microfiber from synthetic clothing is actually contributing to microplastic pollution in waterways. Every time you wash that pair of leggings, athletic wear, fleece, or other synthetic article of clothing, tiny particles of plastic make their way into wastewater. However, microplastics are nearly impossible to filter out and eventually make their way into coastal waterways and the ocean. Microplastics can have detrimental effects on marine life and can be magnified up the food web, leading to toxic concentrations in many of our own sources of food. Studies have shown that nearly 80% of fish from the U.S. has been contaminated with plastics from textiles.
Republican businessman and reality-television star Donald Trump will be the United States’ next president. Although science played only a bit part in this year’s dramatic, hard-fought campaign, many researchers expressed fear and disbelief as Trump defeated former secretary of state Hillary Clinton on 8 November.
“Trump will be the first anti-science president we have ever had,” says Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington DC. “The consequences are going to be very, very severe.” […]