DATE: June 11, 2019
SNIP: The oases that once interrupted the dusty slopes of the Atacama desert in northern Chile allowed humans and animals to survive for thousands of years in the world’s driest climate. That was before the mining started.
Sara Plaza, 67 years old, can still remember guiding her family’s sheep along an ancient Inca trail running between wells and pastures. Today she is watching an engine pump fresh water from beneath the mostly dry Tilopozo meadow. “Now mining companies are taking the water,” she says, pointing to dead grass around stone ruins that once provided a nighttime refuge for shepherds.
“No one comes here anymore, because there’s not enough grass for the animals,” Plaza says. “But when I was a kid, there was so much water you could mistake this whole area for the sea.”
Atacama has become one of the busiest mining districts on the planet in the intervening decades, following discoveries of massive deposits of copper and lithium. In recent years that mining has intensified, thanks to booming demand for lithium, which is indispensable in the production of rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles. Chile exported nearly $1 billion of lithium last year, almost quadruple the export value from four years ago.
Pursuit of the soft mineral is often seen as something that’s good for the environment. Electric automakers such as Tesla Inc. want to make it easier and cheaper for drivers to adopt clean, battery-powered replacements for dirty combustion engines. Batteries are by far the most expensive part of an electric vehicle, so mining more lithium to meet rising demand helps lower prices.
But extracting Atacama’s lithium means pumping large amounts of water and churning up salty mud known as brine—and that’s having an irreversible impact on the local environment. Here, in this remote part of the Andes, the hopeful mission of saving the planet through electric cars is destroying a fragile ecosystem and depleting stores of drinking water.
“We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining,” says Cristina Dorador, a Chilean biologist who studies microbial life in the Atacama desert. “The lithium fever should slow down because it’s directly damaging salt flats, the ecosystem and local communities.”
The huge increase in lithium demand is drawing additional mining companies into the Atacama and other salt flats in the Andes. About 40% of Chile’s salt flats are now being explored for lithium, according to Dorador, the scientist. If the current way of mining continues, she warns, there’s a risk that the salt flats will run out of water.
This could be the ultimate irony of the green revolution spurring demand for electric vehicles and batteries made from lithium.
[NOTE: We cannot “save” the planet with electric cars!]
DATE: June 11, 2019
SNIP: The EPA recently released the draft of a study of options to dispose of “produced water” from drilling for gas and oil that could include irrigation and discharging it into rivers and streams.
The water, sometimes 10 times saltier than seawater and laced with chemicals such as ethylene glycol, the main ingredient in antifreeze, traditionally has been injected underground, but that practice has been linked to hundreds of earthquakes in Oklahoma and other oil-producing states in the last decade.
Fracking can produce as much as 10 gallons of water for every gallon of oil. The amount of wastewater new wells produce during their first year has increased by up to 1,440%.
In 2016, the EPA banned public sewage plants from accepting wastewater from fracking, but the EPA later extended the deadline for complying until August. The water was so corrosive it was damaging factory machinery downstream. People living near the Monongahela River in western Pennsylvania were advised to drink bottled water.
The EPA identified 692 different ingredients used in fracking that can end up in produced water, including acids, gels and sand. The water can also be radioactive. Little research has been done about treating waste from drilling for oil and gas, and there are no federal regulations about the radioactive waste produced by drilling for oil.
SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: June 11, 2019
SNIP: Carbon emissions from the global energy industry last year rose at the fastest rate in almost a decade after extreme weather and surprise swings in global temperatures stoked extra demand for fossil fuels.
BP’s annual global energy report, an influential review of the market, revealed for the first time that temperature fluctuations are increasing the world’s use of fossil fuels, in spite of efforts to tackle the climate crisis.
They also resulted in a second consecutive annual increase for coal use, reversing three years of decline earlier this decade.
Carbon emissions climbed by 2% in 2018, faster than any year since 2011, because the demand for energy easily outstripped the rapid rollout of renewable energy.
That level of growth in emissions represents the carbon equivalent of driving an extra 400m combustion engine cars onto the world’s roads, said Spencer Dale, BP’s chief economist.
Two-thirds of the world’s energy demand increase was due to higher demand in China, India and the US which was in part due to industrial demand, as well as the “weather effect”.
This was spurred by an “outsized” energy appetite in the US which recorded the highest number of days with hotter or colder than average days since the 1950s.
“On hot days people turn to their air conditioning and fans, on cold days they turn to their heaters. That has a big impact,” Dale said.
SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: June 11, 2019
SNIP: An area twice the size of the UK has been destroyed for products such as palm oil and soy over the last decade, according to analysis by Greenpeace International.
In 2010, members of the Consumer Goods Forum, including some of the world’s biggest consumer brands, pledged to eliminate deforestation by 2020, through the sustainable sourcing of four commodities most linked to forest destruction: soya, palm oil, paper and pulp, and cattle.
But analysis by Greenpeace International suggests that by the start of 2020, an estimated 50m hectares (123m acres) of forest are likely to have been destroyed in the growing demand for and consumption of agricultural products, in the 10 years since those promises were made. Its report, Countdown to Extinction, said that since 2010, the area planted with soya in Brazil has increased by 45% and palm oil production in Indonesia has risen by 75%.
The environmental group accused major brands of failing to meet their commitments and warned that the current situation was “bleak”, advising them to evolve in order to “prevent climate and ecological breakdown”.
Deforestation releases greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and destroy important habitat, threatening species with extinction.
About 80% of global deforestation is caused by agricultural production, which is also the leading cause of habitat destruction, the group said.
Agricultural consumption, and therefore production, is forecast to rise globally. Meat consumption is set to rise by 76% according to some estimates. Soya production is also predicted to soar by almost 45% and palm oil by nearly 60%, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: June 10, 2019
SNIP: Human destruction of the living world is causing a “frightening” number of plant extinctions, according to scientists who have completed the first global analysis of the issue.
They found 571 species had definitely been wiped out since 1750 but with knowledge of many plant species still very limited the true number is likely to be much higher. The researchers said the plant extinction rate was 500 times greater now than before the industrial revolution, and this was also likely to be an underestimate.
The number of plants that have disappeared from the wild is more than twice the number of extinct birds, mammals and amphibians combined. The new figure is also four times the number of extinct plants recorded in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list.
“Plants underpin all life on Earth,” said Dr Eimear Nic Lughadha, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who was part of the team. “They provide the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat, as well as making up the backbone of the world’s ecosystems – so plant extinction is bad news for all species.”
“It is way more than we knew and way more than should have gone extinct,” said Dr Maria Vorontsova, also at Kew. “It is frightening not just because of the 571 number but because I think that is a gross underestimate.”
The main cause of the extinctions is the destruction of natural habitats by human activities, such as cutting down forests and converting land into fields for farming.
SOURCE: Washington Post
DATE: June 10
SNIP: As rain deluged the Midwest this spring, commercial fisherman Ryan Bradley knew it was only a matter of time before the disaster reached him.
All that water falling on all that fertilizer-enriched farmland would soon wend its way through streams and rivers into Bradley’s fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Mississippi coast. The nutrient excess would cause tiny algae to burst into bloom, then die, sink and decompose on the ocean floor — a process that sucks all the oxygen from the water, turning it toxic. Fish would suffocate or flee, leaving Bradley and his fellow fishermen nothing to harvest.
Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Louisiana State University confirmed Bradley’s worst fears in forecasts published Monday, predicting this spring’s record rainfall would produce one of the largest-ever “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico. An area the size of New Jersey could become almost entirely barren this summer, posing a threat to marine species — and the fishermen who depend on them.
“It’s just a major punch in the gut,” said Bradley, a fifth-generation commercial fisherman from Long Beach, Miss. Bradley is executive director for Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United, a nonprofit group that supports the state’s fishermen.
Bradley said he plans to travel to Washington this month to ask federal lawmakers to declare a fisheries disaster, making relief funds available to affected fishermen. “To have a total wipeout,” he said, “which is what we’re going to have here now, I don’t know if our guys are going to be able to make it.”
Nancy Rabalais, an LSU marine ecologist who developed one of the recent forecasts, called the outlook one of the most severe she has seen.
“It’s perennial,” she added. “And it shows no signs of diminishing.”
Unoxygenated “dead zones” appear in waterways wherever algae are overfed by runoff from human activities such as urbanization and agriculture — a phenomenon called eutrophication. NOAA estimates that 65 percent of American estuaries and coastal waterways are moderately to severely degraded by this phenomenon. The hundreds of dead zones around the world cover a combined 100,000 square miles and have caused nearly 10 million tons of biomass to either move or die.
The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, fueled by the nutrient-laden water spilling from the mouth of the Mississippi River, is the second-largest in the world. It blooms every summer, when warming waters accelerate the metabolisms of microorganisms, and it is expected to get even worse as the climate continues to change.
The Midwest’s recent extreme weather will almost certainly exacerbate the problem, said David Scheurer, a NOAA oceanographer who worked on the agency’s dead-zone forecast. The National Weather Service reported this week that the Mississippi River is in the midst of its longest cycle of flooding since 1927.
Analyses from U.S. Geological Survey monitors in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya watersheds showed that discharge from these rivers was 67 percent greater than the 1980-2018 average. The amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus spilling into the Gulf were 18 percent and 49 percent above average, respectively.
Those nutrients, Scheurer said, “provide the foundation for [and] the fuel for the dead zone itself.”
NOAA’s model forecasts this summer’s dead zone to cover 7,829 square miles; Rabalais’s prediction puts the size at 8,717 square miles.
These numbers are far above the five-year average of about 6,000 square miles. It would have to be cut 75 percent in the next 15 years for the Environmental Protection Agency to meet a target size for the dead zone of 1,900 square miles by 2035.
The Gulf of Mexico yields commercial fish catches in the hundreds of millions and generates tens of billions of dollars in revenue, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
But Rabalais, who conducts an annual cruise into the affected area, said the summertime dead zone can turn the Gulf into a wasteland. Bottom-dwelling organisms such as eels and shrimp will swim 60 feet to the surface just to get some oxygen. The carcasses of any creatures that can’t flee — worms, burrowing crabs, brittle stars — lie motionless in the mud. Vast mats of bacteria, which thrive in low-oxygen environments, form a carpet over the seafloor.
Scientists are only beginning to understand the ecological and economic consequences, she said. But studies have shown that eutrophication reduces the abundance of Atlantic croaker and affects the price of shrimp; both are important commercial species.
Fisheries on the eastern side of the Mississippi will endure a double whammy, Bradley said, after the opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which redirected floodwaters from the river into Lake Pontchartrain. The move protected the city of New Orleans from flooding, but it spewed problematic nutrients into Mississippi’s inland waterways.
“So we’ve created a dead zone in our near-shore environment too,” Bradley said. “We’re really going to feel a big hammer this year.”
The only long-term solution to the dead zone is to treat it at its source: in the farms and cities of the 31 states of the Mississippi watershed, Rabalais said. The EPA has developed a “hypoxia task force” that aims to reduce the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus that make it into the region’s waterways.
Even if nitrogen runoff was eliminated today from the Mississippi River, a 2018 study in the journal Science found, it would take at least 30 years for the Gulf dead zone to recover.
SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: June 7, 2019
SNIP: The demise of an entire ocean is almost too enormous to grasp, but as the expedition sails deeper into the Arctic, the colossal processes of breakdown are increasingly evident.
The natural thaw that starts with spring’s warm weather is being amplified by manmade global heating. The Arctic has heated up by 2C above pre-industrial levels, twice the global average. Some hotspots, including parts of the Fram strait, have warmed by 4C. There are variations from year to year, but the trend is clear and accelerating. Sea ice is melting earlier in the spring and freezing later in the autumn. Each summer it thins more and recedes further, leaving greater expanses of the ocean exposed to 24-hour sunlight. This is driving back the frontiers of ice and fragmenting one of the planet’s most important climate regulators. It is also creating a series of feedbacks that are accelerating the Arctic melt. Several are only partially understood.
Since the start of the satellite era in 1979, the summer Arctic has lost 40% of its extent and up to 70% of its volume. Other scientists calculate the rate of decline at 10,000 tonnes a second. Much of the multiyear ice is now gone. Most of what is left is the younger, thinner layer from the previous winter, which is easier for the sun to melt and the wind to push around. [Scientists] expect ice-free summers in 20 to 40 years, which would allow ships to cruise all the way to the north pole.
If the Arctic were a patient, doctors would be alarmed by its vital signs. As well as hot flushes, asthma and contamination (the researchers are following up on studies that suggest the Fram strait has one of the highest levels of microplastics in the world), the ocean has also been diagnosed with a weakening of its immune system. For centuries, the Arctic’s distinctive character has been shaped by a layer of cold, relatively fresh water just below the surface, produced by melting ice and glaciers. This has insulated the sea ice from the warmer, denser, saltier waters of the Atlantic currents that flow in the depth. But this stratification is collapsing as temperatures rise.
The oceanic shift was outlined in a landmark study published last year in Science, which found that the water density and temperature of the Fram strait and Barents Sea were increasingly like those of the Atlantic, while further east, Russia’s Laptev sea was starting to resemble what the Barents used to be. “The polar front is shifting,” the lead author, Dr Sigrid Lind, of the Institute of Marine Science and the University of Bergen, told the Guardian this year. “The Arctic as we know it is about to become history. It will go when stratification breaks down completely and the Atlantic takes over the whole region.”
This has not happened for more than 12,000 years, but the shift is well under way. First to succumb, according to Lind, will be the Barents Sea, which will have no fresh water by 2040, then the Kara sea. The consequences will be far-reaching. The food chain is already affected. Atlantic species of cod, herring and mackerel are moving northwards. For the next 20 to 30 years this could boost fishing catches, but forecasts by Norway suggest boom will turn to bust later as the waters grow too warm for fish larvae.
For humanity, the biggest impact is on the weather. The area between the cold pole and the warm equator is a ramp that propels weather fronts across continents. Its incline has always varied from season to season as the icecap expands in winter and shrinks in summer, providing a global pulse that pumps sea and air currents around the world. But that frozen heartbeat is warming and weakening as the Arctic becomes more like the Atlantic. Lind speculates that ocean destratification is the key driver for ice loss, which in turn affects the jet stream, weakens the polar vortex and can lead to heatwaves in the southern US and cold weather extremes in Asia. “The rules of the game are changing. We seem to be seeing large-scale weather pattern changes connected to the shrinking Arctic. As the Arctic becomes history, we need to understand how it affects the globe.”
SOURCE: Inside Climate News
DATE: June 7, 2019
SNIP: One by one, they stepped to a clear plastic lectern at the Global Plastics Summit here and talked about what their companies were doing in response to the world’s crisis in plastics waste.
Representing businesses all along the supply and packaging chain, the speakers suggested solutions ranging from new technology that would take plastic back to its molecular building blocks for repeated recycling to redesigning plastic bottles with caps that stay connected to the bottle.
But none of that is happening fast enough to keep pace with the global production of plastics, an analyst from IHS Markit told some 270 people attending the 2019 Global Plastics Summit.
IHS Market, a co-host of the conference, expects plastics production to grow on average 3.5 to 4 percent per year through at least 2035. With recycling programs largely underfunded and ineffective, there’s potential for billions more tons of plastic waste to be headed to landfills or out into the environment, said Dewey Johnson, an IHS Markit vice president. And new recycling technology is a decade or more away, he said.
In the hallways and meeting rooms of a glitzy hotel that boasts a Rolls-Royce dealership, people from chemical manufacturers listened to presentations and talked business with representatives of plastic product makers, consumer products companies and recyclers. Government officials were also there for a meeting that was dominated by sessions on sustainability.
Industry has been taking a beating in the public’s eye—and cities, states and some countries have begun to restrict, ban or regulate certain plastics. Analysts described all this as one of many risks to plastics’ economic future.
Plastics “is in our air, our water, our food, our excrement,” said Nina Butler, the chief executive officer of More Recycling, a research and consulting company that works with the plastics industry on recycling “It’s very, very pervasive.”
The plastics industry has been confronted by a robust “anti-plastics campaign,” lamented Patty Long, the interim president and chief executive officer of the Plastics Industry Association, the conferences’ other co-host.
“If I am going to be honest, I must say it’s been pretty uncomfortable these last six months to a year as we have watched images of plastic strewn over beaches and pictures of sea animals with ingested plastic,” Long said. “We see it over and over and over again.”
At the same time, the industry has been fighting state legislation that seeks to curb plastics pollution, including pushing back on more than 400 bills in dozens of states. “Unfortunately, a lot of those are going to pass,” she said.
Fighting legislation is just one front in its battle. Long also described the industry’s publicity push to get people to love plastics instead of only worrying about their impact.
She said the industry was lobbying state lawmakers, working to get pro-plastics presentations into schools and developing a website to carry the industry’s message and give its workers something positive to say about plastics when they are confronted about their employment.
It’s a problem, she said, when “a 27-year-old might not want to come work” in the plastics industry. In fact, three Millennial generation workers in the plastics industry who spoke at one session confirmed that some people out of college are shunning the industry because of environmental concerns.
The petrochemical industry sees plastics as a long-term growth opportunity. But right now, the industry is feeling pressure, said Jacqueline Savitz, a top official with the environmental group Oceana. “They realize the public has warmed up to the problem of plastics and that is going to be a real problem for them,” said Savitz, who was not at the conference.
DATE: June 6, 2019
SNIP: Monterey Bay is one of the most beautiful and pristine-looking places on earth, but look below the surface and researchers have found evidence it’s teeming with microplastic.
The tiny pieces are smaller than a grain of rice and have been discovered floating through water columns as deep as 3,800 feet and in the guts and discharge of different sea creatures.
Today in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, researchers present a torrent of horrifying findings about just how bad the plastic problem has become. For one, microplastic is swirling in Monterey Bay’s water column at every depth they sampled, sometimes in concentrations greater than at the surface of the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Two, those plastics are coming from land, not local fishing nets, and are weathered, suggesting they’ve been floating around for a long while. And three, every animal the researchers found—some that make up the base of the food web in the bay—were loaded with microplastic.
“What we found was that microplastic is actually pretty pervasive,” said Anela Choy, lead author and assistant professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who was a postdoc with MBRI at the time.
“We found microplastics in 100 percent of our water samples and 100 percent of our animal samples that we looked at,” she said.
The researchers found the amount of microplastic captured at the surface is about the same as it is down at 3,200 feet. But between 650 and 2,000 feet, the counts skyrocket.
Scientists have suspected that ocean plastics aren’t necessarily concentrated at the surface, contrary to what you’d assume given the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is one big reason why they’ve scoffed at the idea of the Ocean Cleanup project, which is essentially a giant tube for catching surface plastic. It snapped shortly after its deployment in the Patch. But until now no one has gathered good data on what that distribution of plastic looks like up and down the water column.
A still outstanding piece of that puzzle, though, is where this microplastic is coming from. By running tests in the lab, the researchers found that most of the particles they collected were PET, a component of single-use plastics. Then the question becomes, where are things like plastic bottles breaking down into microplastic in the sea? Does it happen at the surface, or do the bottles sink and then break down? How do the tiny particles swirl in currents? All important questions for future research.
What was clear from this work, though, is that the microplastic is weathered, suggesting particles had been floating around for perhaps years.
These old plastics aren’t just floating around harmlessly—they’re making their way into animals. The researchers concentrated on two species, pelagic red crabs and giant larvaceans, bizarre critters that make mucus nets to catch food. They found that all specimens carried microplastic, suggesting that both currents and animals transport plastic around the ecosystem.
DATE: June 6, 2019
SNIP: Emissions of methane from the industrial sector have been vastly underestimated, researchers from Cornell University and Environmental Defense Fund have found.
Using a Google Street View car equipped with a high-precision methane sensor, the researchers discovered that methane emissions from ammonia fertilizer plants were 100 times higher than the fertilizer industry’s self-reported estimate. They also were substantially higher than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate for all industrial processes in the United States.
The use of natural gas has grown in recent years, bolstered by improved efficiency in shale gas extraction and the perception that natural gas is a less dirty fossil fuel.
“But natural gas is largely methane, which molecule-per-molecule has a stronger global warming potential than carbon dioxide,” Albertson said. “The presence of substantial emissions or leaks anywhere along the supply chain could make natural gas a more significant contributor to climate change than previously thought.”
To evaluate methane emissions from downstream industrial sources, the researchers focused on the fertilizer industry, which uses natural gas both as the fuel and one of the main ingredients for ammonia and urea products. Ammonia fertilizer is produced at only a couple dozen plants in the U.S.; factories are often located near public roadways, where emissions carried downwind can be detected – in this case by mobile sensors.
For this study, the Google Street View vehicle traveled public roads near six representative fertilizer plants in the country’s midsection to quantify “fugitive methane emissions” – defined as inadvertent losses of methane to the atmosphere, likely due to incomplete chemical reactions during fertilizer production, incomplete fuel combustion or leaks.
The team discovered that, on average, 0.34 percent of the gas used in the plants is emitted to the atmosphere. Scaling this emission rate from the six plants to the entire industry suggests total annual methane emissions of 28 gigagrams – 100 times higher than the fertilizer industry’s self-reported estimate of 0.2 gigagrams per year.
In addition, this figure far exceeds the EPA’s estimate that all industrial processes in the United States produce only 8 gigagrams of methane emissions per year.