A growing problem after wildfires: Toxic chemicals

A growing problem after wildfires: Toxic chemicals

SOURCE: Washington Post

DATE: April 9, 2019

SNIP: As an uncontrollable wildfire turned the California town of Paradise to ash, air pollution researcher Keith Bein knew he had to act fast: Little is known about toxic chemicals released when a whole town burns, and the wind would soon blow away evidence.

He drove about 100 miles to Paradise, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, from his laboratory at the University of California at Davis, only to be refused entrance under rules that allow first responders and journalists — but not public health researchers — to cross police lines.

It was the second time Bein says he was unable to gather ­post-wildfire research in a field so new public safety agencies have not yet developed procedures for allowing scientists into restricted areas.

Fires like the one that razed Paradise in November burn thousands of pounds of wiring, plastic pipes and building materials, leaving dangerous chemicals in the air, soil and water. Lead paint, burned asbestos and even melted refrigerators from tens of thousands of households only add to the danger, public health experts say.

Researchers are examining soil tested for the presence of chemical compounds in neighborhoods destroyed by the 2017 wildfire that swept into Santa Rosa, in California’s Sonoma County north of the Bay Area, and comparing it to uninhabited land nearby where only trees had burned, ­Hertz-Picciotto said. In that still-uncompleted study, researchers found nearly 2,000 more chemical compounds in the soil than in uninhabited parkland nearby. Researchers are now working to identify the compounds.

While scientists have studied wildfires for decades — learning much about the impact on air, soil and nearby ecosystems — fires that race from the forest into large urban communities were, until recently, exceedingly rare.

Walruses fall down Russian cliffs in disturbing clip from Netflix’s new David Attenborough documentary

Walruses fall down Russian cliffs in disturbing clip from Netflix’s new David Attenborough documentary

SOURCE: ABC (Australian)

DATE: April 9, 2019

SNIP: Vision of walruses tumbling down steep cliffs in northern Russia has shocked viewers of David Attenborough’s latest documentary project, Our Planet.

Attenborough explained walruses usually gathered on floating platforms of sea ice to rest during and after feeding.

But he said a lack of this ice had forced as many as 100,000 of the large sea mammals to cram together on the shore to rest.

Some climbed the cliffs to escape the crowd, facing a perilous journey back to the water when it came time to feed again.

Footage aired on the program showed several walruses tumbling down the rocky cliffs, with some having an 80-metre drop.

Warning: graphic footage

Melting glaciers contribute a third of sea-level rise

Melting glaciers contribute a third of sea-level rise

SOURCE: National Geographic and Phys.org

DATE: April 8, 2019

SNIP: Like an ice cube on a hot summer day, many of Earth’s glaciers are shrinking.

Last January, a study in Nature Climate Change showed the world’s glaciers are the smallest they’ve been in human history, revealing radiocarbon material that hasn’t been exposed for 40,000 years.

Now, new research published in Nature quantifies how much the world’s lost glaciers have contributed to rising sea levels.

Glaciers have lost more than 9 trillion tons (that is 9,625,000,000,000 tons) of ice between 1961 and 2016, which has resulted in global sea levels rising by 27 millimeters in this period. The largest contributors were glaciers in Alaska, followed by the melting ice fields in Patagonia and glaciers in the Arctic regions. Glaciers in the European Alps, the Caucasus and New Zealand were also subject to significant ice loss; however, due to their relatively small glacierized areas, they played only a minor role when it comes to the rising global sea levels.

They found mountain glaciers contribute roughly a third of measured sea-level rise—the same contribution to sea-level rise as the Greenland ice sheet and more than the contribution of the Antarctic ice sheet. Their research also highlighted that many of the world’s glaciers may disappear in the next century.

The global mass loss of glacier ice has increased significantly in the last 30 years, and currently amounts to 335 billion tons of lost ice each year. This corresponds to an increase in sea levels of almost one millimeter per year.

Death by Rail: What We’re Finally Learning About Preventing Wildlife-Train Collisions

Death by Rail: What We’re Finally Learning About Preventing Wildlife-Train Collisions

SOURCE: EcoWatch

DATE: April 8, 2019

SNIP: Last year a terrible accident in India made headlines around the world. Late one February night, a speeding train struck a herd of elephants crossing the tracks, instantly killing two adults and two calves. A third adult died soon after.

It wasn’t an isolated incident. Over the past 30 years train collisions have killed more than 220 elephants in India alone.

Most of those incidents don’t generate international headlines; nor do the deaths of thousands of additional animals killed by trains worldwide each year. In fact most wildlife-train collisions go unnoticed, their fatalities left uncounted — which has made it difficult for experts to study the problem and mitigate its impacts.

Like roads, railways fragment habitat and can affect all kinds of wildlife in varying ways. Collisions are the most common cause of mortality, but some animals die from electrocution or being stuck between the rails, leaving them susceptible to predation, starvation or dehydration.

“The mammal species receiving the most attention are frequently the larger ones, such as moose, bears or elephants as they cause more damage to trains, disrupt the normal operation of the train network, or hold higher conservation and economic status,” according to the editors of the 2017 book Railway Ecology.

Rail tracks can make for tough times if you’re a toad — even a big one.

In Brazil a 2018 study found an estimated 10,000 Cururu toads (Rhinella marina) and related species, often called giant toads, were dying every year along a 500-mile stretch of railway. Researcher Rubem Dornas says they still don’t know exactly why so many toads die, but it appears the tracks formed a barrier the toads can’t cross while migrating. Despite the large size of the toads, which average about 4 to 6 inches in length, the researchers found they may not be able to jump or climb over rails more than 6 inches high.

“We think the main problem is the barrier effect caused by the rails,” said Dornas.

Not all the fatalities are the result of being run over by passing trains. Some of the toads appeared to have died from desiccation due to extreme heat from the tracks.

Most horrifyingly, others showed signs of barotrauma, where a sudden change in air pressure from the fast-moving train causes the inner organs to be blown out — the toads literally exploded from the inside.

Earth could take 10 million years to recover from mass extinction caused by humans

Earth could take 10 million years to recover from mass extinction caused by humans

SOURCE: Newsweek and Nature

DATE: April 8, 2019

SNIP: Scientists investigating the possible effects of climate change have predicted it would take 10 million years for the diversity of species on our planet to recover after a mass extinction event.

The authors of the paper published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution wanted to calculate how long it takes for the Earth to return to former levels of biodiversity following a mass extinction event. “Humanity is undeniably causing elevated rates of biodiversity loss through climate change, habitat destruction, invasive species introduction, and so on,” the authors warned in their study.

After a mass extinction, one might expect swathes of new species to quickly appear, the authors of the study explained. But fossil records show this can happen slower than predicted. The authors surmised this is because of the way species repopulate.

Dr. Andrew Fraass co-author of the study and expert in planktic foraminifera at the University of Bristol told Newsweek: “From this study, it’s reasonable to infer that it’s going to take an extremely long time—millions of years—to recover from the extinction that we’re causing through climate change and other methods.”

Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz, professor of palaeobiology at the University of Leicester, who was not involved in the research, told Newsweek: “The study is significant because it helps us appreciate the very long-term consequences of the striking and geologically rapid changes currently taking to the Earth’s biosphere.

Global Warming Is Pushing Arctic Toward ‘Unprecedented State,’ Research Shows

Global Warming Is Pushing Arctic Toward ‘Unprecedented State,’ Research Shows

SOURCE: Inside Climate News

DATE: April 8, 2019

SNIP: Global warming is transforming the Arctic, and the changes have rippled so widely that the entire biophysical system is shifting toward an “unprecedented state,” an international team of researchers concludes in a new analysis of nearly 50 years of temperature readings and changes across the ecosystems.

Arctic forests are turning into bogs as permafrost melts beneath their roots. The icy surface that reflects the sun’s radiation back into space is darkening and sea ice cover is declining. Warmth and moisture trapped by greenhouse gases are pumping up the water cycle, swelling rivers that carry more sediment and nutrients to the sea, which can change ocean chemistry and affect the coastal marine food chain. And those are just a few of the changes.

The researchers describe how warming in the Arctic, which is heating up 2.4 times faster than the Northern Hemisphere average, is triggering a cascade of changes in everything from when plants flower to where fish and other animal populations can be found.

Together, the changes documented in the study suggest the effects on the region are more profound than previously understood.

Read the whole article for more on the myriad ways the Arctic is changing fast.

Skyscrapers are killing up to 1bn birds a year in US, scientists estimate

Skyscrapers are killing up to 1bn birds a year in US, scientists estimate

SOURCE: The Guardian

DATE: April 7, 2019

SNIP: Scientists estimate that at least 100 million and maybe as many as a billion birds die each year in the US when they collide with buildings, especially glass-covered or illuminated skyscrapers. And, in a new report, conservationists now have a better idea which American cities are the deadliest for those on the wing.

Chicago, with its many glass superstructures that spike into what is the busiest US avian airspace during migration, is the most dangerous city for those feathered travelers. More than 5 million birds from at least 250 different species fly through the Windy City’s downtown every fall and spring.

They journey twice a year, many thousands of miles, going north in the spring from Central and South America, across the Great Lakes to Canada, and back south in the fall.

The famous skyline of Manhattan is another death trap for birds, especially those migrating.

“They wind up landing somewhere that’s unfamiliar, like a sidewalk somewhere,” said Susan Elbin, director of conservation and science at New York City Audubon, a leading bird advocacy organization. “Then when daylight comes, and they want to get more food, they’ll fly into a tree that they think is a tree, and it’s really a reflected tree in some glass building … Then they’ll slam into the glass, and then they die.”

Most birds migrating through the US do so at night, when the airspace is cool and calm – and often end up veering through cities because their glow stands out. Scientists have long known that birds are attracted to light, so when they fly over a bright city at night, they are naturally drawn toward it, unaware they are in dangerous territory.

Certain species of birds are more susceptible to building collisions. A separate study from the University of Michigan published this week found that songbirds, such as sparrows and warblers, are more likely to suffer collisions. Songbirds tend to emit “flight calls” during migration and are more likely to chirp when they see the bright lights of a city, potentially luring other birds into the treacherous skyline.

Polar Bears’ Plastic Diets Are a Growing Problem

Polar Bears’ Plastic Diets Are a Growing Problem

SOURCE: Hakai Magazine

DATE: April 5, 2019

SNIP: Dumps are often chock-full of plastic and, as a new survey from Alaska shows, polar bears are ingesting a lot of it. In an analysis of the stomach contents of 51 polar bears that had been killed by subsistence hunters in the southern Beaufort Sea between 1996 and 2018, researchers led by Raphaela Stimmelmayr, a wildlife veterinarian with Alaska’s North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, found that 25 percent of the bears had plastic in their stomachs.

Ingesting plastic can cause serious problems for polar bears because of their physiology. Polar bears have a very narrow pyloric sphincter—the outlet from the stomach to the small intestine—so large items can cause painful blockages. Two of the bears whose stomachs were stuffed with more plastics than the other bears had behaved differently, too—they were more irritable and aggressive, and did not respond to deterrents meant to shoo them away.

Scientists know that bears in poor body condition are likely to be more aggressive. In a 2017 study, Geoff York, senior conservation director with the nonprofit conservation group Polar Bears International, and his colleagues showed that nutritionally stressed male polar bears are more likely to attack people. “These bears are potentially not just hungry, but in pain,” York says.

Stimmelmayr says most of the ingested plastics she found were clear plastic shopping bags and heavy-duty black garbage bags. She doesn’t think polar bears are deliberately eating plastic bags, as is the problem with leatherback turtles, which confuse the bags with jellyfish. Instead, she thinks that when people toss away bagged scraps, the cold Arctic conditions cause the plastic to freeze to the food, making it impossible for the bears to eat one but not the other.

Preventing polar bears from eating plastics isn’t easy. Unlike in the south, where garbage can be managed through landfills, that’s often not an option in the Far North, where bedrock might be too close to the surface to dig deep, or the ground is permafrost.

“Waste management is a growing issue, because of the nature of food that people are eating and the westernization of Inuit diets,” says York. “The processed nature of what we ship to the North has changed a fair bit in the last couple of decades to a very plastic-heavy [packaged] type of food.”

Tar Sands Crude Shipments Quietly Increased In Oregon, With Regulators In the Dark

Tar Sands Crude Shipments Quietly Increased In Oregon, With Regulators In the Dark


DATE: April 4, 2019

SNIP: If oil is moving through Oregon, it’s Michael Zollitsch’s job to know about it. He oversees the state’s emergency responses to oil spills and other environmental disasters.

But last March, when Bloomberg News reported oil from Canada’s tar sands was rolling through Zenith Energy’s storage facility in Northwest Portland on its way to Asia, it caught him by surprise.

For six years oil trains have been rolling through Oregon — including one in 2016 that derailed and exploded in the Columbia River Gorge. And yet, the government workers charged with preventing and cleaning up oil spills in Oregon remain as in the dark as ever about many of these shipments. That’s largely because of successful industry lobbying efforts and the reluctance of Oregon’s legislature to pass rules already enacted in neighboring states.

While lawmakers have passed bans on offshore oil drilling and fracking — both unlikely prospects in Oregon — they have done relatively little to regulate the real and present danger that oil could spill from trains rumbling through the state.

For the fourth session in a row, the Oregon Legislature is now considering new rules for oil trains. House Bill 2209 would require DEQ oversight of railroad oil spill planning and assesses fees on railroads to help pay for the state’s work.

Already this session, lawmakers have introduced two bills that would match the stronger requirements in Washington — and let them die without so much as a public hearing.

This comes as oil-by-rail shipments out of Canada’s oil sands have been on the rise. Existing businesses in Oregon have quietly shifted operations to handle more of it, even as plans for brand new fossil fuel projects have been rejected up and down the Northwest.

With the loosest rules on the West Coast, environmentalists fear Oregon has become the path of least resistance for an oil that sinks in water and, they say, could devastate iconic fisheries and waterways.

“This is really troubling, to see that Oregon’s environmental laws aren’t standing up to oil trains in the way most people would expect. Particularly in the wake of the Mosier oil train disaster. It’s really alarming,” said Dan Serres, conservation director for the Columbia Riverkeeper.

Logging Is the Lead Driver of Carbon Emissions from US Forests

Logging Is the Lead Driver of Carbon Emissions from US Forests

SOURCE: Earth Island Journal and Open Access Research

DATE: April 4, 2019

SNIP: Protecting forest ecosystems is critical in the fight to limit global warming — when forests are disturbed they release carbon, but when left to grow they actively pull carbon out of the air and store it. When left standing, forests also provide optimal natural protection against extreme weather events, like flooding and droughts.

Many people are aware of the importance of protecting rainforests in Brazil to help mitigate climate change, but few realize that more logging occurs in the US, and more wood is consumed here, than in any other nation globally. The rate and scale of logging in the Southeastern US alone is four times that in South American rainforests.

The Trump Administration and industry have been aggressively promoting misinformation about forests and wildland fires, while advocating for large increases in logging under the guises of “forest health,” “fuel reduction,” “renewable energy,” and reducing carbon emissions.

But the promotion of logging to supposedly curb carbon emissions is just part of the Administration’s ongoing alignment with industry and troubling pattern of climate science denial. Carbon emissions from logging in the US are ten times higher than the combined emissions from wildland fire and tree mortality from native bark beetles. Fire only consumes a minor percentage of forest carbon, while improving availability of key nutrients and stimulating rapid forest regeneration. Within a decade after fire, more carbon has been pulled out of the atmosphere than was emitted. When trees die from drought and native bark beetles, no carbon is consumed or emitted initially, and carbon emissions from decay are extremely small, and slow, while decaying wood helps keeps soils productive, which enhances carbon sequestration capacity over time.

On the other hand, industrial logging — even when conducted under the euphemism of “thinning” — results in a large net loss of forest carbon storage, and a substantial overall increase in carbon emissions that can take decades, if not a century, to recapture with regrowth. Logging also tends to make fires burn faster and more intensely while degrading a forest ecosystem’s ability to provide natural protections against extreme weather events.