September 13, 2019
22 million pounds of plastic a year
in Great Lakes
By Tony Briscoe/Chicago Tribune
Photo by VV Ninsic/flickr
Plastics pollution in global waters has become one of the most complex issues of the 21st century. Scientists have identified giant gyres of garbage accumulating in offshore ocean currents. Examinations of dead whales and other large marine animals show they’ve ingested plastic items, like garbage bags. Researchers say that plastic litter in the oceans is poised to outweigh the amount of fish by 2050.

Meanwhile, microplastics, particles that start out smaller than 5 millimeters or are broken down from larger items, have been found in the falling rain in Colorado, carried by the wind to remote regions of the Pyrenees mountains in France and surfaced in drifting snow in the Arctic.

However, it’s only been in the last decade that research into plastics pollution has gained urgency in the Great Lakes, the planet’s largest system of freshwater.

How the Mississippi flooded in 2019
The New York Times
Photo by Tom Gill/flickr
Public interest in natural disasters tends to focus on big, discrete weather events like hurricanes. But flooding that unfolds over months across a broad area has a harder time breaking through. It is only when seen as a single, connected event that the stunning scale of the 2019 flood season becomes clear.

To measure the scope of the spring floods, The New York Times analyzed satellite data from the Joint Polar Satellite System using software, developed by government and academic researchers for flood detection, that is frequently used in disaster response.

The data covers the period from Jan. 15 to June 30 and shows an interconnected catastrophe along the Missouri, Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers, a system that drains more than 40 percent of the landmass of the continental United States.

Can the Keys adapt to rising sea levels?
Photo by Bob Jagendorf/flickr
Hurricane Irma in 2017 gave the Florida Keys a painful taste of the future. “With Irma,” notes Chris Bergh, a program manager with The Nature Conservancy, “there was so much flooding from storm surge – so much property damage and impact on natural areas – that it was like a sudden preview of what sea level rise could do to the Keys. It got people thinking.”

To find out how much or how little margin there really might be for adapting to rising seas, a team of researchers in the Keys, led by Bergh, collected high-resolution elevation data of Big Pine Key and the best-available elevation data for the remainder of the Keys and combined that with the various projections of sea level rise prepared by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others.

The results were startling: Even the most conservative scenario of a seven-inch rise in sea level by 2100 would equate to dramatic changes in habitat for plants and animals.

Seaweed could help fight climate change
By Emma Bryce/Anthropocene
Photo by NOAA/flickr
Seaweed could play a considerable role in fighting climate change: so says a new study which finds that cultivating lush expanses of seaweed off the coastlines of the world could sequester huge amounts of carbon, and even offset a portion of agriculture’s vast emissions. 

Published  in  Current Biology , the study found by analysing coastal habitats worldwide, that an expansive area of coastline – 48 million square kilometres – would be suitable for global seaweed production. If we farmed even just a tiny fraction of that area – 273 square kilometres, or 0.001% – the growing seaweed would lock enough carbon to offset the emissions of the entire aquaculture sector. 

That’s significant, when you consider that aquaculture is now the fastest-growing food sector, and accounts for 50% of all seafood production. So the importance of seaweed as a mitigation tool in this industry would likely grow.

Saving birds from turbines’ deadly blades
By Paul Tolme/
Photo by Jerry and Pat Donaho/flickr
Electronic eyes scan the sky for eagles at Wyoming’s  Top of the World Windpower  project, where a cutting-edge technology has been deployed to protect large birds of prey from spinning turbine blades. Called  IdentiFlight , it comprises a network of 47 multi-camera units mounted atop 30-foot-high towers spread among the 17,000-acre wind farm’s 110 turbines.

When a robotic eye detects a large bird, a high-resolution camera zooms in and transmits the image to a computer that can identify whether the bird is an “eagle” or “noneagle.” If an eagle is detected, cameras track its flight path and determine whether the bird is heading for a turbine. If so, the system automatically issues an order to rapidly slow that turbine’s blades, which can help prevent a deadly collision. “They can slow the turbines down in a matter of seconds,” says  Jim Murphy , a renewable energy specialist and legal advocacy director for the  National Wildlife Federation .

New technologies such as IdentiFlight are much needed.

“Keep close to Nature’s heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

- John Muir
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