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Iceberg larger than New York City breaks off the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica

Iceberg larger than New York City breaks off the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica

SOURCE: Washington Post
DATE: Feb 26, 2021
SNIP: A large iceberg about 20 times the size of Manhattan broke off the Brunt Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea section of Antarctica during the past day, following the buildup of a large crack in the floating ice during the past decade. The iceberg is about 490 square miles and about 492 feet thick, according to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

The iceberg is large, but not as huge as the iceberg that calved from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in 2017 and recently threatened to run aground on South Georgia Island.

The BAS maintains a research station on the ice shelf, known as the Halley Research Station, but it will be unaffected by this calving event, the organization said. In 2016, the BAS moved the station, which was built on skis, to protect it from spreading cracks that could’ve left it marooned, floating out to sea aboard an iceberg.

The past decade has seen three major cracks develop through the floating ice shelf, according to a BAS news release.

Ice shelves are floating areas of ice that help hold back ice anchored on land. Because they’re already displacing water, the calving event will not raise sea levels, but icebergs are carefully monitored in case they move into shipping lanes.

Adrian Luckman, a researcher at Swansea University, has closely tracked satellite images of Brunt as the cracks have progressed.

“Although the breaking off of large parts of Antarctic ice shelves is an entirely normal part of how they work, large calving events such as the one detected at the Brunt Ice Shelf on Friday remain quite rare and exciting,” he told the BBC.

Calving events can act to speed up the movement of inland ice into the sea, though it’s not clear that’s the case with the Brunt Ice Shelf in particular. Such movement would add to sea level rise, and there are growing concerns about the potentially unstoppable melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet from warming waters that are weakening ice shelves and penetrating the base of inland glaciers.

Amazon rainforest plots sold via Facebook Marketplace ads

Amazon rainforest plots sold via Facebook Marketplace ads

SOURCE: BBC
DATE: February 26, 2021
SNIP: Parts of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest are being illegally sold on Facebook, the BBC has discovered.

The protected areas include national forests and land reserved for indigenous peoples.

Some of the plots listed via Facebook’s classified ads service are as large as 1,000 football pitches.

“The land invaders feel very empowered to the point that they are not ashamed of going on Facebook to make illegal land deals,” said Ivaneide Bandeira, head of environmental NGO Kanindé. [C]ampaigners have claimed the country’s government is unwilling to halt the sales.

Anyone can find the illegally invaded plots by typing the Portuguese equivalents for search terms like “forest”, “native jungle” and “timber” into Facebook Marketplace’s search tool, and picking one of the Amazonian states as the location.

Some of the listings feature satellite images and GPS co-ordinates.

Many of the sellers openly admit they do not have a land title, the only document which proves ownership of land under Brazilian law.

The illegal activity is being fuelled by Brazil’s cattle ranching industry.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is at a 10-year high, and Facebook’s Marketplace has become a go-to site for sellers like Fabricio Guimarães, who was filmed by a hidden camera.

“There’s no risk of an inspection by state agents here,” he said as he walked through a patch of rainforest he had burnt to the ground.

With the land illegally cleared and ready for farming, he had tripled his initial asking price to $35,000 (£25,000).

Fabricio is not a farmer. He has steady middle-class job in a city, and views the rainforest as being an investment opportunity.

The BBC later contacted Fabricio for his response to its investigation but he declined to comment.

One man, called Alvim Souza Alves, was trying to sell a plot inside the Uru Eu Wau Wau indigenous reserve for about £16,400 in local currency.

It is the home to a community of more than 200 Uru Eu Wau Wau people. And at least five further groups that have had no contact with the outside world also live there, according to the Brazilian government.

The BBC showed the Facebook ad to community leader Bitaté Uru Eu Wau Wau.

He said the lot was in an area used by his community to hunt, fish and collect fruits.

“This is a lack of respect,” he said.

“I don’t know these people. I think their objective is to deforest the indigenous land, to deforest what is standing. To deforest our lives, you could say.

He said the authorities should intervene, and also urged Facebook – “the most accessed social media platform” – to take action of its own.

A common strategy is to deforest the land and then plead with politicians to abolish its protected status, on the basis it no longer serves its original purpose.

The land grabbers can then officially buy the plots from the government, thereby legalising their claims.

For its part, Facebook claims trying to deduce which sales are illegal would be too complex a task for it to carry out itself, and should be left to the local judiciary and other authorities. And it does not appear to see the issue as being serious enough to warrant halting all Marketplace land sales across the Amazon.

Ivaneide Bandeira, who has been trying to combat deforestation in the state of Rondônia for 30 years, said she was losing hope.

“I think this is a very hard battle. It is really painful to see the forest being destroyed and shrinking more and more,” she said.

“Never, in any other moment in history, has it been so hard to keep the forest standing.”

Scientists see stronger evidence of slowing Atlantic Ocean circulation, an ‘Achilles’ heel’ of the climate

Scientists see stronger evidence of slowing Atlantic Ocean circulation, an ‘Achilles’ heel’ of the climate

SOURCE: Washington Post
DATE: February 25, 2021
SNIP: A growing body of evidence suggests that a massive change is underway in the sensitive circulation system of the Atlantic Ocean, a group of scientists said Thursday.

The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), a system of currents that includes the Florida Current and the Gulf Stream, is now “in its weakest state in over a millennium,” these experts say. This has implications for everything from the climate of Europe to the rates of sea-level rise along the U.S. East Coast.

Although evidence of the system’s weakening has been published before, the new research cites 11 sources of “proxy” evidence of the circulation’s strength, including clues hidden in seafloor mud as well as patterns of ocean temperatures. The enormous flow has been directly measured only since 2004, too short a period to definitively establish a trend, which makes these indirect measures critical for understanding its behavior.

The new research applies a statistical analysis to show that those measures are in sync and that nine out of 11 show a clear trend.

Prior research had suggested that the AMOC was at its weakest point in a millennium or more, and suggested a roughly 15 percent weakening since about 1950. But when it comes to the latest evidence, “I think it just makes this conclusion considerably stronger,” said Stefan Rahmstorf, an author of the research and an oceanographer with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

The study was published in Nature Geoscience by scientists from the Potsdam Institute, Ireland’s Maynooth University and University College London.

The AMOC is driven by two vital components of ocean water: temperature and salt. In the North Atlantic, warm, salty water flows northward off the U.S. coastline, carrying heat from the tropics. But as it reaches the middle latitudes, it cools, and around Greenland, the cooling and the saltiness create enough density that the water begins to sink deep beneath the surface.

The water then swings back southward and travels all the way to the Southern Hemisphere, submerged, where it makes its way to the Antarctic as part of a global system of ocean currents. The entire system is known as the ocean’s thermohaline circulation (“thermo” meaning heat and “haline,” salt), and it plays many critical roles in the climate. It is also referred to as the global ocean conveyor belt, because it redistributes heat worldwide.

In the North Atlantic, most important is the transport of heat northward, which has a moderating effect on Europe’s climate in particular. But the circulation can be weakened by making northern water more fresh and less salty, and therefore less dense. That’s what climate change — through a combination of more rain and snow, more melting of Arctic sea ice, and huge freshwater pulses from Greenland — is thought to be doing.

[E]ven the modest slowing of 15 percent has been accompanied by odd temperature patterns in the ocean and the significant upending of certain key fisheries, such as lobster and cod off the coast of New England.

In particular, a recurrent “cold blob” has been observed in the ocean to the south of Greenland — a large region that is bucking the overall global warming trend and instead showing a marked cooling pattern. Scientists think this is evidence that less warm water is reaching this region than previously, and that it may also be a result of runoff from the melting ice sheet.

Who will clean up the ‘billion-dollar mess’ of abandoned US oilwells?

Who will clean up the ‘billion-dollar mess’ of abandoned US oilwells?

SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: February 25, 2021
SNIP: Jill Morrison has seen how the bust of oil and gas production can permanently scar a landscape.

Near her land in north-east Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, where drilling started in 1889, more than 2,000 abandoned wells are seeping brine into the groundwater and leaking potent greenhouse gasses.

The problem is getting worse. As the oil and gas industry contracts owing to the pandemic, low prices and the rise of renewables, more than 50 major companies have gone bankrupt in the last year. Joe Biden’s recent order to pause drilling on federal land could drive that number higher. Morrison, a rancher and the head of the Powder River Basin resource council, said the crash was exacerbating the abandonment issue.

“They drill baby drilled themselves right out of business,” Morrison said. “We’re seeing something we’ve never seen before in the oil and gas industry, in terms of the downturn, and there’s going to be a billion-dollar mess to clean up.”

Unplugged wells, either orphaned well, which have no liable party, usually due to bankruptcy, or idle, abandoned ones, where the company has walked away, but could still be liable, cause rampant methane emissions – up to 8% of US total according to a 2014 analysis. They also leak brine, oil and fracking fluid into the groundwater, and carcinogenic gases, like benzine, into the air, and as their numbers increase the impacts grow.

“Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, it’s a precursor for ozone, and harmful for human health,” said Mary Kang, a McGill civil engineering professor who conducted the study. “Even just a few wells can be responsible for big emissions, and there are all the other associated risks, and impacts to wildlife and ecosystems.”

The impacts aren’t just here in the rangy fields of Wyoming. There are unremediated wells in Los Angeles neighborhoods and Pennsylvania farms. There could be as many as 3.2m abandoned wells in the US, according to a 2018 EPA report, but this is probably an undercount because both federal and state programs for regulating and monitoring non-producing wells are incomplete. There are an estimated 2,500 of them in the Powder River Basin alone.

So many have been left uncapped because the regulations and bonding requirements, the money that companies pay ahead of time as insurance, for those wells are so minimal that it’s nearly impossible to hold drillers responsible or to pay for cleanup. Some companies simply walk away from wells, meaning they are still liable; when firms go out of business, they are not.

The penalties for not cleaning up a well are minimal when there’s nothing but a small bond holding a company responsible. “How do you convince operators to comply when there’s no carrot and no stick?” said Frank Rusco, a director in the US Government Accountability Office’s natural resources and environment team.

That means the profits for drilling go to individual companies while the damages, both environmental and financial, are largely borne by the local community and by state and federal taxpayers. “Unplugged wells devalue property, they’re a mess to work around, it can lead to groundwater pollution, and no one is really tracking it,” Morrison said.

Cleanup for an individual well can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $1m. It involves filling it with clay or concrete, covering the surface, replacing topsoil, and removing any pipes or waste like fracking fluid.

Wyoming has 64,000 orphaned unplugged wells, which would cost an estimated $10bn to remediate, according to an October report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative. Even with the increased bonding requirements, as of the most recent tally the state had about $225m in bonds.

Global freshwater fish populations at risk of extinction, study finds

Global freshwater fish populations at risk of extinction, study finds

SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: February 23, 2021
SNIP: Freshwater fish are under threat, with as many as a third of global populations in danger of extinction, according to an assessment.

Populations of migratory freshwater fish have plummeted by 76% since 1970, and large fish – those weighing more than 30kg – have been all but wiped out in most rivers. The global population of megafish down by 94%, and 16 freshwater fish species were declared extinct last year.

The report by 16 global conservation organisations, called The World’s Forgotten Fishes, said that global populations of freshwater fish were in freefall. The problems are diverse and include pollution, overfishing and destructive fishing practices, the introduction of invasive non-native species, climate change and the disruption of river ecologies. Most of the world’s rivers are now dammed in parts, have water extracted for irrigation or have their natural flows disrupted, making life difficult for freshwater fish.

Environment Agency data showed last year that no English rivers met the highest chemical standards, and only 15% of UK rivers were rated as having good ecological status. Farm pollution and sewage outflows were among the leading causes of damage. Dave Tickner, WWF’s chief adviser on freshwater, said: “Freshwater habitats are some of the most vibrant on earth, but they are in catastrophic decline. The UK is no exception – wildlife struggles to survive, let alone thrive, in our polluted waters.”

Salmon, which spend part of their life cycle in freshwater ecosystems, have been in sharp decline in the UK since the 1960s, and the European eel is critically endangered. Burbot and sturgeon are extinct in UK waters.

The report found that biodiversity in freshwater ecosystems was being lost at twice the rate of oceans and forests.

Scientists unearth a consequence of solar panels in the Sahara

Scientists unearth a consequence of solar panels in the Sahara

SOURCE: Inverse
DATE: February 21, 2021
SNIP: Researchers imagine it might be possible to transform the world’s largest desert, the Sahara, into a giant solar farm, capable of meeting four times the world’s current energy demand. Blueprints have been drawn up for projects in Tunisia and Morocco that would supply electricity for millions of households in Europe.

While the black surfaces of solar panels absorb most of the sunlight that reaches them, only a fraction (around 15%) of that incoming energy gets converted to electricity. The rest is returned to the environment as heat. The panels are usually much darker than the ground they cover, so a vast expanse of solar cells will absorb a lot of additional energy and emit it as heat, affecting the climate.

If these effects were only local, they might not matter in a sparsely populated and barren desert. But the scale of the installations that would be needed to make a dent in the world’s fossil energy demand would be vast, covering thousands of square kilometers. Heat re-emitted from an area this size will be redistributed by the flow of air in the atmosphere, having regional and even global effects on the climate.

A 2018 study used a climate model to simulate the effects of lower albedo on the land surface of deserts caused by installing massive solar farms. Albedo is a measure of how well surfaces reflect sunlight. Sand, for example, is much more reflective than a solar panel and so has a higher albedo.

The model revealed that when the size of the solar farm reaches 20% of the total area of the Sahara, it triggers a feedback loop. The heat emitted by the darker solar panels (compared to the highly reflective desert soil) creates a steep temperature difference between the land and the surrounding oceans that ultimately lowers surface air pressure and causes moist air to rise and condense into raindrops. With more monsoon rainfall, plants grow and the desert reflects less of the sun’s energy since vegetation absorbs light better than sand and soil. With more plants present, more water is evaporated, creating a more humid environment that causes vegetation to spread.

Covering 20% of the Sahara with solar farms raises local temperatures in the desert by 1.5°C according to our model. At 50% coverage, the temperature increase is 2.5°C. This warming is eventually spread around the globe by the atmosphere and ocean movement, raising the world’s average temperature by 0.16°C for 20% coverage, and 0.39°C for 50% coverage. The global temperature shift is not uniform though – the polar regions would warm more than the tropics, increasing sea ice loss in the Arctic. This could further accelerate warming, as melting sea ice exposes dark water which absorbs much more solar energy.

This massive new heat source in the Sahara reorganizes global air and ocean circulation, affecting precipitation patterns around the world. The narrow band of heavy rainfall in the tropics, which accounts for more than 30% of global precipitation and supports the rainforests of the Amazon and Congo Basin, shifts northward in our simulations. For the Amazon region, this causes droughts as less moisture arrives from the ocean. Roughly the same amount of additional rainfall that falls over the Sahara due to the surface-darkening effects of solar panels is lost from the Amazon. The model also predicts more frequent tropical cyclones hitting North American and East Asian coasts.

We are only beginning to understand the potential consequences of establishing massive solar farms in the world’s deserts. Solutions like this may help society transition from fossil energy, but Earth system studies like ours underscore the importance of considering the numerous coupled responses of the atmosphere, oceans, and land surface when examining their benefits and risks.

Submarine Permafrost Has Been Overlooked as a Major Source of Greenhouse Gases, Scientists Warn

Submarine Permafrost Has Been Overlooked as a Major Source of Greenhouse Gases, Scientists Warn

SOURCE: Yale E360
DATE: February 15, 2021
SNIP: Scientists have found that permafrost buried beneath the Arctic Ocean holds 60 billion tons of methane and 560 billion tons of organic carbon — making it a major source of greenhouse gases not currently included in climate projections that could have a significant impact on climate change in the longer-term.

The amount of carbon locked into submarine permafrost is more than humans have released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

“It’s expected to be released over a long period of time, but it’s still a significant amount,” said Jennifer Frederick, a geosciences engineer at Sandia National Laboratories and a co-author of the new study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. “This expert assessment is bringing to light that we can’t just ignore it because it’s underwater, and we can’t see it. It’s lurking there, and it’s a potentially large source of carbon, particularly methane.

The scientists say little is known about submarine permafrost and how it will react as oceans warm, sea levels rise, and meltwater alters Arctic ocean circulation patterns.

The study estimates that permafrost beneath the Arctic Ocean has been slowly thawing since the end of the last glacial period, some 14,000 years ago, in what scientists call a “natural response to deglaciation.” The frozen sediment and soil currently releases 140 million tons of carbon dioxide and 5.3 million tons of methane into the atmosphere each year — roughly equal to the yearly emissions of Spain. But the researchers said anthropogenic global warming will likely accelerate this greenhouse gas release, though they don’t know by how much because research into submarine permafrost is in such early stages. “The size of the research community doesn’t necessarily reflect its importance in the climate system,” Frederick said in a statement.

Humanity is flushing away one of life’s essential elements

Humanity is flushing away one of life’s essential elements

SOURCE: The Atlantic
DATE: February 8, 2021
SNIP: “Great Britain is like a ghoul, searching the continents,” wrote Justus von Liebig, the German chemist who first identified the critical role of phosphorus in agriculture. “Already in her eagerness for bones, she has turned up the battlefields of Leipzig, of Waterloo, and of the Crimea; already from the catacombs of Sicily she has carried away the skeletons of many successive generations.”

Life as we know it is carbon based. But every organism requires other elements, too, including nitrogen and phosphorus. Nitrogen is the basis of all proteins, from enzymes to muscles, and the nucleic acids that encode our genes. Phosphorus forms the scaffolding of DNA, cell membranes, and our skeletons; it’s a key element in tooth and bone minerals.

Too little of either nutrient will limit the productivity of organisms, and, by extension, entire ecosystems. On short timescales, nitrogen often runs out first. But that scarcity never lasts long, geologically speaking: The atmosphere—which is about 80 percent nitrogen—represents an almost infinite reservoir. And early in the course of evolution, certain microbes developed ways to convert atmospheric nitrogen into biologically available compounds.

Alas, there is no analogous trick for phosphorus, which comes primarily from the Earth’s crust. Organisms have generally had to wait for geologic forces to crush, dissolve, or otherwise abuse the planet’s until it weeps phosphorus. This process of weathering can take thousands, even millions, of years. And once phosphorus finally enters the ocean or the soil, where organisms might make use of it, a large fraction reacts into inaccessible chemical forms.

That we breathe oxygen today—and exist at all—might be thanks to a series of climatic cataclysms that temporarily freed the planet from phosphorus limitation. About 700 million years ago, the oceans repeatedly froze over and glaciers swallowed the continents, chewing up the rock beneath them. When the ice finally thawed, vast quantities of glacial sediment washed into the seas, delivering unprecedented amounts of phosphorus to the simple marine life forms that then populated the planet.

Planavsky and his colleagues propose that this influx of nutrients gave evolution an opening. Over the next 100 million years or so, the first multicellular animals appeared and oxygen concentrations finally began to climb toward modern levels. Scientists still debate exactly what happened, but phosphorus likely played a part. (To Planavsky, it’s “one of the most fascinating unresolved questions about our planet’s history.”)

Another group of scientists, led by Jim Elser of Arizona State University, speculate that such a pulse of phosphorus could have had other evolutionary consequences: Since too much phosphorus can be harmful, animals might have started building bones as a way of tying up excess nutrients.

What’s clear is that after this explosion of life, the phosphorus vise clamped down again. Geologic weathering kept doling out meager rations of the nutrient, and ecosystems developed ways to conserve and recycle it. (In lakes, for instance, a phosphorus atom might get used thousands of times before reaching the sediment, Elser says.) Together, these geologic and biologic phosphorus cycles set the pace and productivity of life. Until modern humans came along.

Long before phosphorus was discovered, however, humans had invented clever ways of managing their local supplies. [I]n the Americas, for example, Indigenous people managed hunting and foraging grounds with fire, which effectively fertilized the landscape with the biologically available phosphorus in ash, among other benefits.

But human waste was perhaps the most prized fertilizer of all. Though we too need phosphorus (it accounts for about 1 percent of our body mass), most of the phosphorus we eat passes through us untouched. Depending on diet, about two-thirds of it winds up in urine and the rest in feces. For millennia, people collected these precious substances—often in the wee hours, giving rise to the term night soil—and used them to grow food.

The so-called Sanitation Revolution followed close on the heels of the Industrial Revolution. In the 1700s and 1800s, Europeans and Americans moved to cities in unprecedented numbers, robbing the land of their waste and the phosphorus therein. This waste soon became an urban scourge, unleashing tides of infectious disease that compelled leaders in places like London to devise ways to shunt away the copious excretions of their residents.

[T]he volumes involved posed logistical challenges, and critics raised concerns about the safety of sewage farms—as well as their smell. Thus, waste ultimately was sent to rudimentary treatment centers for disposal or, more often, dumped into rivers, lakes, and oceans.

This created what Karl Marx described as the “metabolic rift”—a dangerous disconnect between humans and the soils on which they depend—and effectively sundered the human phosphorus cycle, reshaping its loop into a one-way pipe.

That single disruption has caused global chaos, you could argue,” Cordell says. For one thing, it forced farmers to find new sources of phosphorus to replace the nutrients lost every year to city sewers.

[G]eologists discovered [large deposits of phosphorus] in Florida. (To this day, most of the phosphorus on American fields and plates comes from the southeastern U.S.) Other massive formations of phosphate rock have since been identified in the American West, China, the Middle East, and northern Africa.

These deposits became increasingly important in the 20th century, during the Green Revolution (the third revolution in agriculture, if you’re keeping track). Plant breeders developed more productive crops to feed the world and farmers nourished them with nitrogen fertilizer, which became readily available after scientists discovered a way of making it from the nitrogen in air. Now, the main limit to crop growth was phosphorus—and as long as the phosphate mines hummed, that was no limit at all. Between 1950 and 2000, global phosphate-rock production increased sixfold, and helped the human population more than double.

But for as long as scientists have understood the importance of phosphorus, people have worried about running out of it. These fears sparked the fertilizer races of the 19th century as well as a series of anxious reports in the 20th century, including one as early as 1939, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to assess the country’s phosphate resources so that “continuous and adequate supplies be insured.”

These events raised a terrifying possibility: What if the phosphorus floodgates were to suddenly slam shut, relegating humanity once more to the confines of their parochial phosphorus loops? What if our liberation from the geologic phosphorus cycle is only temporary?

In recent years, Cordell has voiced concerns that we are fast consuming our richest and most accessible reserves. U.S. phosphate production has fallen by about 50 percent since 1980, and the country—once the world’s largest exporter—has become a net importer. According to some estimates, China, now the leading producer, might have only a few decades of supply left. And under current projections, global production of phosphate rock could start to decline well before the end of the century. This represents an existential threat, Cordell says: “We now have a massive population that is dependent on those phosphorus supplies.”

Simply extracting more phosphate rock might not solve all of our problems, Cordell says. Already, one in six farmers worldwide can’t afford fertilizer, and phosphate prices have started to rise. Due to a tragic quirk of geology, many tropical soils also lock away phosphorus efficiently, forcing farmers to apply more fertilizer than their counterparts in other areas of the world.

The grossly unequal distribution of phosphate-rock resources adds an additional layer of geopolitical complexity.

We have already glimpsed how the phosphorus supply chain can go haywire. In 2008, at the height of a global food crisis, the cost of phosphate rock spiked by almost 800 percent before dropping again over the next several months. The causes were numerous: a collapsing global economy, increased imports of phosphorus by India, and decreased exports by China. But the lesson was clear: Practically speaking, phosphorus is an undeniably finite resource.

Phosphorus is a classic natural-resource parable: Humans strain against some kind of scarcity for centuries, then finally find a way to overcome it. We extract more and more of what we need—often in the name of improving the human condition, sometimes transforming society through celebrated revolutions. But eventually, and usually too late, we discover the cost of overextraction. And the cost of breaking the phosphorus cycle is not just looming scarcity, but also rampant pollution.

At nearly every stage of its journey from mine to field to toilet, phosphorus seeps into the environment. This leakage has more than doubled the pace of the global phosphorus cycle, devastating water quality around the world. One 2017 study estimated that high phosphorus levels impair watersheds covering roughly 40 percent of Earth’s land surface and housing about 90 percent of its people. In more concrete terms, this pollution has a tendency to fill water bodies with slimy, stinking scum.

SOURCE: The Atlantic
DATE: February 8, 2021
SNIP: Life as we know it is carbon based. But every organism requires other elements, too, including nitrogen and phosphorus. Nitrogen is the basis of all proteins, from enzymes to muscles, and the nucleic acids that encode our genes. Phosphorus forms the scaffolding of DNA, cell membranes, and our skeletons; it’s a key element in tooth and bone minerals.

Too little of either nutrient will limit the productivity of organisms, and, by extension, entire ecosystems. On short timescales, nitrogen often runs out first. But that scarcity never lasts long, geologically speaking: The atmosphere—which is about 80 percent nitrogen—represents an almost infinite reservoir. And early in the course of evolution, certain microbes developed ways to convert atmospheric nitrogen into biologically available compounds.

Alas, there is no analogous trick for phosphorus, which comes primarily from the Earth’s crust. Organisms have generally had to wait for geologic forces to crush, dissolve, or otherwise abuse the planet’s until it weeps phosphorus. This process of weathering can take thousands, even millions, of years. And once phosphorus finally enters the ocean or the soil, where organisms might make use of it, a large fraction reacts into inaccessible chemical forms.

That we breathe oxygen today—and exist at all—might be thanks to a series of climatic cataclysms that temporarily freed the planet from phosphorus limitation. About 700 million years ago, the oceans repeatedly froze over and glaciers swallowed the continents, chewing up the rock beneath them. When the ice finally thawed, vast quantities of glacial sediment washed into the seas, delivering unprecedented amounts of phosphorus to the simple marine life forms that then populated the planet.

Planavsky and his colleagues propose that this influx of nutrients gave evolution an opening. Over the next 100 million years or so, the first multicellular animals appeared and oxygen concentrations finally began to climb toward modern levels. Scientists still debate exactly what happened, but phosphorus likely played a part. (To Planavsky, it’s “one of the most fascinating unresolved questions about our planet’s history.”)

Another group of scientists, led by Jim Elser of Arizona State University, speculate that such a pulse of phosphorus could have had other evolutionary consequences: Since too much phosphorus can be harmful, animals might have started building bones as a way of tying up excess nutrients.

What’s clear is that after this explosion of life, the phosphorus vise clamped down again. Geologic weathering kept doling out meager rations of the nutrient, and ecosystems developed ways to conserve and recycle it. (In lakes, for instance, a phosphorus atom might get used thousands of times before reaching the sediment, Elser says.) Together, these geologic and biologic phosphorus cycles set the pace and productivity of life. Until modern humans came along.

Long before phosphorus was discovered, however, humans had invented clever ways of managing their local supplies. [I]n the Americas, for example, Indigenous people managed hunting and foraging grounds with fire, which effectively fertilized the landscape with the biologically available phosphorus in ash, among other benefits.

But human waste was perhaps the most prized fertilizer of all. Though we too need phosphorus (it accounts for about 1 percent of our body mass), most of the phosphorus we eat passes through us untouched. Depending on diet, about two-thirds of it winds up in urine and the rest in feces. For millennia, people collected these precious substances—often in the wee hours, giving rise to the term night soil—and used them to grow food.

The so-called Sanitation Revolution followed close on the heels of the Industrial Revolution. In the 1700s and 1800s, Europeans and Americans moved to cities in unprecedented numbers, robbing the land of their waste and the phosphorus therein. This waste soon became an urban scourge, unleashing tides of infectious disease that compelled leaders in places like London to devise ways to shunt away the copious excretions of their residents.

[T]he volumes involved posed logistical challenges, and critics raised concerns about the safety of sewage farms—as well as their smell. Thus, waste ultimately was sent to rudimentary treatment centers for disposal or, more often, dumped into rivers, lakes, and oceans.

This created what Karl Marx described as the “metabolic rift”—a dangerous disconnect between humans and the soils on which they depend—and effectively sundered the human phosphorus cycle, reshaping its loop into a one-way pipe.

That single disruption has caused global chaos, you could argue,” Cordell says. For one thing, it forced farmers to find new sources of phosphorus to replace the nutrients lost every year to city sewers.

[G]eologists discovered [large deposits of phosphorus] in Florida. (To this day, most of the phosphorus on American fields and plates comes from the southeastern U.S.) Other massive formations of phosphate rock have since been identified in the American West, China, the Middle East, and northern Africa.

These deposits became increasingly important in the 20th century, during the Green Revolution (the third revolution in agriculture, if you’re keeping track). Plant breeders developed more productive crops to feed the world and farmers nourished them with nitrogen fertilizer, which became readily available after scientists discovered a way of making it from the nitrogen in air. Now, the main limit to crop growth was phosphorus—and as long as the phosphate mines hummed, that was no limit at all. Between 1950 and 2000, global phosphate-rock production increased sixfold, and helped the human population more than double.

But for as long as scientists have understood the importance of phosphorus, people have worried about running out of it. These fears sparked the fertilizer races of the 19th century as well as a series of anxious reports in the 20th century, including one as early as 1939, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to assess the country’s phosphate resources so that “continuous and adequate supplies be insured.”

These events raised a terrifying possibility: What if the phosphorus floodgates were to suddenly slam shut, relegating humanity once more to the confines of their parochial phosphorus loops? What if our liberation from the geologic phosphorus cycle is only temporary?

In recent years, Cordell has voiced concerns that we are fast consuming our richest and most accessible reserves. U.S. phosphate production has fallen by about 50 percent since 1980, and the country—once the world’s largest exporter—has become a net importer. According to some estimates, China, now the leading producer, might have only a few decades of supply left. And under current projections, global production of phosphate rock could start to decline well before the end of the century. This represents an existential threat, Cordell says: “We now have a massive population that is dependent on those phosphorus supplies.”

Simply extracting more phosphate rock might not solve all of our problems, Cordell says. Already, one in six farmers worldwide can’t afford fertilizer, and phosphate prices have started to rise. Due to a tragic quirk of geology, many tropical soils also lock away phosphorus efficiently, forcing farmers to apply more fertilizer than their counterparts in other areas of the world.

The grossly unequal distribution of phosphate-rock resources adds an additional layer of geopolitical complexity.

We have already glimpsed how the phosphorus supply chain can go haywire. In 2008, at the height of a global food crisis, the cost of phosphate rock spiked by almost 800 percent before dropping again over the next several months. The causes were numerous: a collapsing global economy, increased imports of phosphorus by India, and decreased exports by China. But the lesson was clear: Practically speaking, phosphorus is an undeniably finite resource.

Phosphorus is a classic natural-resource parable: Humans strain against some kind of scarcity for centuries, then finally find a way to overcome it. We extract more and more of what we need—often in the name of improving the human condition, sometimes transforming society through celebrated revolutions. But eventually, and usually too late, we discover the cost of overextraction. And the cost of breaking the phosphorus cycle is not just looming scarcity, but also rampant pollution.

At nearly every stage of its journey from mine to field to toilet, phosphorus seeps into the environment. This leakage has more than doubled the pace of the global phosphorus cycle, devastating water quality around the world. One 2017 study estimated that high phosphorus levels impair watersheds covering roughly 40 percent of Earth’s land surface and housing about 90 percent of its people. In more concrete terms, this pollution has a tendency to fill water bodies with slimy, stinking scum.

[See also: Phosphate Mining Brings a Mosaic of Destruction to Florida including Sinkholes and Radioactive Waste]

Outdoor Recreation Threatens Treaty Resources

Outdoor Recreation Threatens Treaty Resources

SOURCE: Northwest Treaty Tribes
DATE: February 5, 2021
SNIP: Already robust levels of hiking, camping, boating and every other kind of outdoor recreation in our region has exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic as many try to cure the effects of cabin fever.

Increased outdoor recreation has led to unprecedented crowds in our parks and forests, and extensive environmental damage accompanied by little enforcement of regulations by short-handed local, state and federal authorities.

This spike in outdoor recreation has drawn attention to the growing impact on tribal treaty rights and resources that is only going to increase as the population of western Washington continues to increase dramatically.

The latest evidence confirms what tribes have been seeing across the landscape for years. Outdoor recreation – whether motorized or not – has significant impacts on the environment.

Even the most remote locations are seeing year-round damage. It includes theft of old-growth cedar and maple, increased litter and human waste left behind by campers, vandalized cultural and spiritual sites that are sacred to our tribes, and human activities that affect the migration and health of fish, wildlife and habitats.

Twenty Indian tribes have treaty-reserved rights to fish, hunt and gather in western Washington. We understand the benefits that outdoor recreation provides to everyone, but our fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats need protection.

We watch with alarm as federal, state and local governments continue to plan, fund and expand recreation without looking at the cumulative impacts, without providing the necessary enforcement, and often without consultation of the treaty tribes.

That’s why it’s critical that treaty tribes, as sovereign governments and natural resources co-managers, be involved early in the planning, funding and development of any new or expanded recreation opportunities, infrastructure and policy.

Through the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, we have formed a working group to address these issues. We’ve also made a formal request to Gov. Jay Inslee to designate a task force to work with us to address concerns and develop solutions.

As co-managers of natural resources with the state of Washington, we have the right to a seat at the table when recreation management decisions are made and a voice in how they are implemented. Our cultures and treaty rights depend on the long-term health of these lands and resources.

A new park and parking lot here. Five miles of new trail there and two more somewhere else. It all adds up to death by a thousand cuts to our environment, fish, wildlife and their habitats.

What we need is comprehensive recreation management. We should approach it as co-managers like we would any issue involving our environment, natural resources and treaty rights: Responsibly, thoughtfully and cooperatively.

Cumbria coalmine plans pit climate protection against job creation

Cumbria coalmine plans pit climate protection against job creation

SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: February 4, 2021
SNIP: Plans for the UK’s first deep coalmine in more than 30 years have led to local divisions in Cumbria, even as it becomes an international issue over the country’s climate change commitments.

James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost voices on the climate, this week took the unusual step of sending Boris Johnson a strongly worded letter warning that if the mine was allowed to proceed it would lead to “ignominy and humiliation” for the UK.

He said the plans for the mine showed a “contemptuous disregard for the future of young people”. He hoped the prime minister would take the chance to help the UK change the world’s climate trajectory by showing the “acumen and gumption” to be a global leader on environmental issues.

Work is due to begin on the mine as early as this year after the county council gave the green light to the £165m Woodhouse Colliery scheme, and the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, waved through the plans. The mine will dig up coking coal for steel production from beneath the Irish Sea, and will emit 8.4m tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

The promise of up to 500 new jobs is persuasive for the region: west Cumbria has seen years of redundancies and high unemployment rates after the closure of the Marchon chemical works, the decommissioning of the Sellafield nuclear facility and the scrapping of plans for another nuclear site.

Local support for the project has been spearheaded by the Conservative MP for Copeland, Trudy Harrison, who won the seat from Labour in a byelection and retained it in 2019. The case for coal in the area and other parts of the north of England has also been made by the new “red wall” Tory MP for Workington, Mark Jenkinson.

[T]here is also strong local opposition to the mine and at least two legal challenges in the pipeline – one on climate change grounds and the other part of a campaign brought by local objectors who fear that drilling could trigger subsidence near areas with high concentrations of radioactive material in the seabed, the result of years of nuclear waste disposal.

The former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron – Cumbria’s only non-Conservative MP – believes the mine would be “a complete disaster for our children’s futures”.

The local divisions echo the rows playing out at a national level, with the government’s climate change chief, Alok Sharma, said to be furious at the decision to let the mine proceed. The Times quoted a civil servant as saying Sharma was “apoplectic … There was just disbelief that a decision like this could have been made.”