Pollution & Health
24 Oct 2012:
Plastic Waste Increasing
On Remote Arctic Seabed, Cameras Reveal
Deep-sea cameras deployed to monitor biodiversity on the Arctic seabed have documented a significant rise in the amount of plastic waste and other litter
on the remote sea floors of the Far North, according to a new study. While looking at many thousands of seabed photos taken in 2011 between Greenland and the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen, deep-sea expert Melanie Bergmann of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research was struck by the number showing plastic waste. In a detailed analysis of the photographs — which are taken every 30 seconds by a deep-sea observatory reaching depths of 2,500 meters — Bergmann and her colleagues found that while plastic waste was seen in only one percent of photographs taken in 2002, that number had jumped to 2 percent in 2011. Two percent may not seem like a high occurrence, Bergmann said, but the quantities observed in this remote Arctic region were greater than recorded in a deep-sea canyon near Lisbon, Portugal. According to the study, published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin
, about 70 percent of the plastic litter had come in contact with deep-sea organisms.
23 Oct 2012:
French Panel Rejects Study
That Linked GM Corn to Cancer in Rats
An independent state panel in France has rejected the findings
of a recent controversial study that linked genetically modified corn to cancer in rats, but the panel did recommend long-term research into the risks of genetically engineered food. In the report, requested by the French government, the Higher Biotechnologies Council (HCB) found “no causal relationship” between an increase in tumors in rodents and the consumption of GM corn or the widely used herbicide, Roundup, both of which are produced by the biotech giant Monsanto. The study, published in September
in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology
, had claimed that the consumption of Roundup-tolerant GM corn increased the incidence of cancer in rats. On the contrary, the HCB researchers said
, “the data are insufficient to establish scientifically a causal link... or to support the conclusions or pathways suggested by the authors.” To address public concerns, however, the panel did recommend that a “long-term, independent, transparent study, with adversarial views, be undertaken under government auspices.”
18 Oct 2012:
Increased Nutrient Levels
May Drive Collapse of Salt Marsh, Study Says
Increasing levels of nutrients seeping from septic systems and lawn fertilizers may be driving the steady decline of salt marshes
that has occurred along the U.S. East coast in recent decades, a new study has found.
David S. Johnson/MBL
While scientists had long believed that salt marshes have an unlimited capacity for removing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, a long-term experiment by researchers at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Mass. found that nutrient enrichment can drive salt-marsh loss. Over nine years, the researchers added amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus to tidal waters flushing through salt marsh in an undeveloped coastal area consistent with the nutrient levels present in developed areas such as Cape Cod, Mass. and Long Island, N.Y. Within a few years, they observed wide cracks in the grassy banks of tidal creeks; eventually, the researchers say, the banks would collapse altogether into the creek. “The long-term effect is conversion of a vegetated marsh into a mudflat, which is a much less productive ecosystem,” said Linda Deegan, an MBL scientist and an author of the study published in Nature
17 Oct 2012:
Chinese Report Acknowledges
Nuclear Safety Concerns at Reactors
In a new report, the Chinese government has laid out a plan to upgrade the security at its nuclear power reactors
over the next decade, suggesting that the country may be ready to resume a planned expansion of
Feng Li/Getty Images
Inspector at a Zhejiang construction site
its nuclear sector halted in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. The Ministry of Environmental Protection report indicates that roughly 80 billion yuan ($12.75 billion) will be required by 2015 to upgrade radioactive-contamination controls at the nation’s plants to international standards. Making the challenge more complicated, the report said, is the variety of reactors in place across China and “multiple standards of safety.” “The current [nuclear] safety situation isn’t optimistic,” the report said. The report recommended the phasing out of older nuclear reactors and an increased emphasis on research and development into nuclear safety and radioactive waste handling. While not specifying any timeline, the report suggested the nation is getting closer to restarting the approval process for new plants, which was suspended in 2011 following the nuclear crisis in Japan.
17 Oct 2012:
Elevated Levels of CO2
May Impair Cognitive Abilities, Study Says
Elevated levels of carbon dioxide in indoor settings can have a detrimental effect on decision-making abilities and work performance
, according to a new study. In a series of tests, U.S. researchers exposed 22 healthy adults to different levels of carbon dioxide concentrations (600 parts-per-million, 1,000 ppm, and 2,500 ppm) in an office-like room. Under each condition, the participants were asked to take a computer-based test that measured their decision-making abilities. According to the findings, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives
, the participants’ performance declined notably on six of nine tests when CO2 levels were increased to 1,000 ppm; performance declined substantially on seven of the tests when levels were bumped to 2,500 ppm. Earlier research has associated increased student absences and poorer performance with higher CO2 levels, said William Fisk, a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and co-author of the study. “But we never thought CO2 was actually responsible,” he said. “We assumed it was a proxy for other [pollutants].”
11 Oct 2012:
Group Calls for Swift Growth
Of Carbon Capture-and-Storage Facilities
An industrial group says that to avoid “dangerous climate change” an additional 55 facilities that capture carbon from power plants and store it underground must be built by 2020
. The group, the Global CCS Institute, said that only one new carbon-capture-and-storage (CCS) plant was built in the past year, bringing the current number to 75. The institute acknowledged that the goal of building 130 CCS plants by 2020 was unlikely, but argued that the technology is a proven method of reducing carbon dioxide emissions
and vital to future strategies to slow global warming. The institute said that just eight of the 75 plants now in operation have achieved a greater reduction in CO2 emissions that all other greenhouse gas reduction efforts instituted in the UK and Australia. CCS Institute President Brad Page said that governments should treat CCS technology as they do other low-carbon initiatives, like solar and wind power, which often receive subsidies and other government aid designed to encourage the growth of renewable energy.
10 Oct 2012:
U.S. Supreme Court Refuses
Chevron Challenge of Ecuador Damages
The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear Chevron Corp.’s challenge
of an $18.2 billion judgment issued by an Ecuadorian court over large-scale damages caused by oil drilling in the Amazon. The Supreme Court decision is the latest development in a long legal battle that led to a ruling last year by an Ecuadorean court that Chevron had to pay the damages for massive oil dumping by Texaco, which Chevron acquired in 2001. Chevron was challenging a ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York that would have effectively opened the way for worldwide enforcement of the judgment against Chevron. An Ecuadorean court found that an oil consortium run by Texaco dumped billions of gallons of oil and toxic sludge in the Amazon rainforest
from 1964 through 1992, badly polluting water supplies and causing health problems among some of the 30,000 plaintiffs in the Lago Ario region. Chevron vowed to continue to fight the Ecuadorean court’s decision, which it called “fraudulent” and tainted by judicial misconduct. Chevron contends that the decision is not enforceable under New York law.
04 Oct 2012:
Blue and Green Honey
Is Linked to an M&M’S Factory in France
Beekeepers in northeastern France say they have produced batches of unusually colored honey in recent months as a result of bees carrying unknown substances from a nearby plant processing waste from an M&M’S candy factory. Since August, beekeepers in the region of Alsace say they have noticed bees returning to their apiaries with colorful substances
that have altered the color of their honey, turning it blue and green. After conducting some research, they discovered that a nearby biogas plant has been processing waste from a Mars candy factory that produces colorful M&M’S. The beekeepers, who are already dealing with declining bee populations, are not amused by the batches of colorful honey. “For me, it’s not honey,” Alain Frieh, president of the apiculturists’ union, told Reuters. “It’s not sellable.” While Mars did not respond with a comment, a co-manager for the biogas plant said the company has cleaned its containers and will begin storing incoming waste in a covered facility.
04 Oct 2012:
New Cleanup Method Offers
Major Solution to Oil Spills, Study Claims
Scientists have developed a superabsorbent material they say offers a cost-effective way to remove, recover and clean up large oil spills
. Writing in the journal Energy & Fuels
, Pennsylvania State University
researchers Xuepei Yuan and T. C. Mike Chung describe a polymer material that they say can absorb 40 times its own weight in oil, transforming spilled material into a solid, oil-containing gel that is strong enough to be collected and transported to oil refineries for reprocessing. While many of the methods typically used to clean up oil spills — including booms, skimmers, burning, and the use of dispersants — waste most of the spilled oil and leave behind significant levels of environmental pollution, the scientists say their so-called polyolefin oil-SAP technology offers a potentially “complete solution” to dealing with oil spills. They say the material does not absorb water, is buoyant, and is relatively inexpensive.
02 Oct 2012:
Great Barrier Reef Lost
Half of Coral Cover Since 1985, Study Says
The Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its coral cover in just 27 years, with most of that decline coming as a result of heavy storms, predation by crown-of-thorn starfish, and coral bleaching caused by warming ocean temperatures. In a comprehensive survey of 214 reefs, researchers at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) found that coral cover declined from 28 percent in 1985 to 13.8 percent this year
. Intense tropical storms, particularly in the central and southern parts of the reef, have caused about 48 percent of the coral loss, researchers say. An explosion in populations of starfish along the reef caused about 42 percent of the decline; about 10 percent was caused by major bleaching events. Reefs are typically able to regain their coral cover after such disturbances, said Hugh Sweatman, a lead author of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
. But recovery takes 10-20 years, he noted. The study found efforts to reduce starfish populations could help increase coral cover at a rate of 0.89 percent per year.
24 Sep 2012:
Air Pollution in Europe
Shortening Lives of Urban Dwellers
Air pollution in Europe is shortening lifespans by an average of eight months
and by as much as two years in the most polluted cities and regions, according to a report from the European Environment Agency (EEA). While the European Union has cut emissions of many harmful pollutants over the last decade, the report finds that nearly a third of urban dwellers are still exposed to harmful levels of airborne particulate matter
, tiny pollutants small enough to penetrate the respiratory system and cause serious health ailments. About 21 percent of city dwellers are exposed to particulate matter above EU health standards. And 17 percent were exposed to higher levels of ozone, which can cause respiratory problems. “In many countries, air pollutant concentrations are still above the legal and recommended limits that are set to protect the health of European citizens,” said Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the EEA. According to the report, humans living in industrial regions of Eastern Europe face the highest exposure to harmful pollutants.
19 Sep 2012:
Fuel Consumption in New Cars
Can Be Halved by 2030, Report Says
With advanced technologies and innovative government policies, fuel consumption in new vehicles can be cut in half by 2030
, saving billions of dollars in fuel costs worldwide and significantly reducing CO2 emissions, a new report by the Paris-based International Energy Agency says. According to the report
, many of the technologies that could significantly improve fuel efficiency over the next two decades are already commercially available but are not widely used. For these technologies to penetrate markets globally, the report says, governments will have to introduce stronger policies, including tougher fuel economy standards and financial incentives. The report notes that strong fuel efficiency standards have been adopted in some major markets, including the U.S., the European Union, and China, but that most of the world’s emerging markets lag far behind. The report also recommends increased research, development, and demonstration of emerging technologies, including waste heat recovery devices.
17 Sep 2012:
Forest Mortality in U.S. Declines
As Beetles Run Out of Food, Report Says
Tree deaths caused by insect infestation and disease in the western U.S. declined significantly last year
, largely because mountain pine beetles have devoured so many
A mountain pine beetle
forests that they are running out of food, according to a report by the U.S. Forest Service
. Researchers reported that about 6.4 million acres of forest died nationally in 2011, compared with 9.2 million acres in 2010 and a peak mortality of 11.8 million acres in 2009. Scientists say about 60 percent of the mortality was caused by one pest, the mountain pine beetle, a native insect that has decimated lodgepole and ponderosa pine forests across western North America because warmer winters are not killing off beetle larvae. While the researchers say a critical factor in the decline has been a reduced number of available lodgepoles, they say ponderosa pine and high-elevation white bark pine remain at risk. The greatest forest mortality was reported in Colorado, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. “Native insects and diseases run in cycles, and right now we are grateful the trend is downward,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. He added, however, that forests still face significant threats, including from climate change and new invasive species.
05 Sep 2012:
Major Chinese City
Restricts the Number of New Cars
Government officials in Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city, have enacted measures to limit the number of new cars on city streets
, a policy some analysts say reflects a broader effort by Chinese cities to protect public health and well-being in the face of worsening highway congestion. In Guangzhou, a city of 15 million people and a center for auto manufacturing, officials last week introduced license plate auctions and lotteries, a strategy that is expected to cut the number of cars by half, according to The New York Times.
While the restrictions will have short-term economic impacts, government officials say they could also help reduce air and water pollution, cut long-term healthcare costs, and alleviate the city’s notorious traffic jams. “From the government’s point of view, we give up some growth, but to achieve better health for all citizens, it is definitely worth it,” said Chen Haotian, the vice director of Guangzhou’s top planning agency. Guangzhou’s efforts come as other major Chinese cities are requiring cleaner gasoline and diesel fuels, closing dirty factories, and removing older, more polluting cars from roads.
04 Sep 2012:
High Levels of DDT Found
In Breast Milk of Women in South Africa
A new study has found record levels of DDT in the breast milk of nursing women
living in South African villages where the toxic pesticide has been used for decades. In samples taken from women in three malaria-stricken villages where spraying occurs inside homes, researchers found that DDT levels in their breast milk were more than 100 times greater than the highest daily dose recommended by the World Health Organization. In one sample, DDT levels were more than 300 times greater than allowed for cow’s milk, according to the study, published in the journal Environmental Pollution
. “Based on the argument that ‘malaria is worse than DDT,’ people accept this spray treatment program,” said Henrik Kylin, a professor at Linköping University and one of the study’s authors. “The purpose of our project is to study the side effects, thereby creating a better basis for decisions.” Though officially banned by the UN in 2001, DDT is still used in Africa and elsewhere to eradicate malaria-carrying mosquitoes that kill nearly 900,000 people a year.
30 Aug 2012:
Better Use of Fertilizer, Water
Can Feed Growing Population, Study Says
A new study suggests that the the world can meet the surging demand for food in the coming decades without rampant deforestation if farmers make better use of fertilizer and water resources
. In an analysis of management practices and yield data for 17 major crops worldwide, researchers from McGill University in Montreal and the University of Minnesota estimated that yields for most crops can be increased 45 to 70 percent on lands already used for agriculture through more efficient fertilizer application and irrigation. Writing in the journal Nature
, the scientists found that the deployment of best-practice farming could boost global yields of corn, wheat, and rice by 64 percent, 71 percent, and 47 percent
, respectively. In some parts of the world, including the U.S., China, and Western Europe, the study found that far more fertilizer is used than necessary, with much of it ultimately washing into waterways. Through more efficient use of that fertilizer, nutrients could be made available for use in Eastern Europe and Western Africa without adversely affecting communities in the U.S. and China.
24 Aug 2012:
Drought Conditions Trigger
Smallest Gulf ‘Dead Zone’ in Years
U.S. scientists say the nation’s worst drought in five decades has had at least one positive effect: the smallest so-called “dead zone” seen in the Gulf of Mexico in years
. In a 1,200-mile research cruise conducted in the
Algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico
waters of the gulf this month, scientists from Texas A&M University found only 1,580 square miles of oxygen-depleted, or hypoxic, water in the gulf, compared with 3,400 square miles last August. The hypoxic zone is created when algal blooms, caused by large amounts of fertilizer and nutrients washing into the gulf, remove oxygen from the water and suffocate marine life. According to the researchers, hypoxia was found only in the waters near the Mississippi River delta, which accounts for nearly 90 percent of all freshwater runoff in the gulf; no hypoxia was observed off the Texas coast. “What has happened is that the drought has caused very little fresh-water runoff and nutrient load into the gulf, and that means a smaller region for marine life to be impacted,” said Steve DiMarco, an oceanographer at Texas A&M.
22 Aug 2012:
New Canadian Law Removes
Federal Oversight From Smaller Projects
Major revisions to Canada’s Environmental Assessment Act have stripped nearly 500 projects of federal oversight
in British Columbia alone, including major dam projects, gravel extraction operations, and the sinking of former warships as artificial reefs, according to a news report. The new screening assessments, the latest in a series of initiatives by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration seen as weakening environmental regulation
, give an increased role in environmental oversight and enforcement to provinces. Speaking to the Vancouver Sun
, a spokesperson for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency said that the “numerous small, routine projects… posed little or no risk to the environment.” But Canadian environmental advocates warn that a reduced federal role in monitoring these hundreds of projects will ultimately place the province’s environment, particularly fish habitat, at increased risk. “The cumulative impacts of all the projects that they will no longer review will be great and it will take a few years for Canadians to appreciate that,” said Otto Langer, a former official with the federal fisheries department.
20 Aug 2012:
German Shift from Nuclear
Triggers an Increase in Coal Burning
The German government’s decision to phase out all of the nation’s nuclear power plants following the 2011 Fukushima disaster has led to an increase in coal-burning
within Europe’s largest economy. Coal consumption in Germany has grown by 4.9 percent since Chancellor Angela Merkel announced plans to shift away from nuclear power over the next decade, according to a Bloomberg News report. While German leaders intended the new policy to strengthen the nation’s reliance on renewable energy
, Germany’s largest utilities have built coal plants instead of cleaner-burning natural gas projects because coal plants are cheaper. The collapse of the European Union's carbon permit costs also means that there is little penalty for burning coal. “Angela Merkel’s policy has created an incentive structure which has the effect of partially replacing nuclear with coal, the dirtiest fuel that’s responsible for much of the growth in the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions since 1990,” Dieter Helm, an energy policy professor at the University of Oxford told Bloomberg News
17 Aug 2012:
TransCanada Begins Building
Southern Leg of Keystone Pipeline in Texas
The Canadian company, TransCanada, has begun construction on the U.S. leg of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline
, installing segments in east Texas even as the fate of the pipeline’s northern leg remains in question. Company officials confirmed that work began Aug. 9 on the section of the pipeline that will run from Oklahoma to Texas, just weeks after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the final construction permit. TransCanada, which ultimately hopes to build a pipeline to carry tar sands oil from Alberta to refineries in Texas, has agreed to relocate the northern section of the pipeline after the Obama administration, citing possible threats to Nebraska’s ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region, rejected a permit for the entire project. If U.S. officials approve the revised northern section of the pipeline, construction could begin in early 2013, a company spokesman said. Pipeline opponents have already launched protests
at construction sites in Texas, and say they will stage future demonstrations in an effort to block the pipeline.
15 Aug 2012:
Belo Monte Dam Halted By
Brazilian Judge Over Lack of Consultation
A Brazilian judge has ordered a suspension of the controversial Belo Monte dam project, saying that local indigenous people who will be affected by the massive hydroelectric project were not sufficiently consulted
Illustration of the Belo Monte proposal
during the environmental assessment process. In a ruling issued Tuesday, Judge Souza Prudente of the Federal Tribunal of Brazil’s Amazon region found that no consultations were held with local communities
before Congress approved what would be the world’s third-largest dam project. The $16 billion project, which is expected to produce 11,000 megawatts of energy, would flood 260 square miles of rainforest in Brazil’s Para state and displace more than 20,000 people
who depend on free-flowing rivers for their livelihoods. “Legislators can only give the go-ahead if the indigenous communities agree with the project,” Prudente wrote. The developer of the project, Norte Energia, will be fined $250,000 per day
if construction on the project continues. The company says it will appeal the decision.
Watch an e360 video report
14 Aug 2012:
Radiation from Fukushima
Caused Butterfly Mutations, Study Says
Radioactive materials emitted during the Fukushima disaster caused physical mutations and genetic damage to butterfly populations living near the nuclear plant, a
University of the Ryukyus, Okinawa
new study says. In a series of tests, Japanese scientists found that butterflies collected from the Fukushima area about two months after the 2011 accident were more likely to have leg, antennae, and wing shape mutations
than those found elsewhere. According to their findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports
, butterflies found in areas with higher levels of radiation developed much smaller wings and eye irregularities. After breeding these butterflies in a laboratory, researchers found the next generation had numerous abnormalities not seen in the previous generation, including malformed antennae. And adult butterflies collected near Fukushima six months after the initial tests were more than twice as likely to have mutations than those found soon after the accident.
13 Aug 2012:
Shifting Climate Makes Frogs
More Vulnerable to Disease, Study Says
Increasingly unpredictable swings in the weather are making frogs more vulnerable to the deadly chytrid fungus
, according to a new study. In a series of tests, scientists at Oakland University in Michigan exposed Cuban treefrogs living under a variety of conditions in laboratory incubators to chytridiomycosis, a highly infectious fungal disease that has decimated amphibian species globally
. The scientists found that frogs that were exposed to unpredictable temperature changes were more susceptible to the disease. For example, frogs that were shifted to incubators at a temperature of 15 degrees C (59 degrees F) after spending four weeks at a temperature of 25 C (77 F) were far more likely to suffer infections
than those frogs already accustomed to living at 15 C. According to Thomas Rafell, an Oakland University researcher and lead author of the study, the fungus was likely able to adapt faster to the temperature shift because it is smaller and has a shorter generation time than its host. The study was published in the journal Nature Climate Change
13 Aug 2012:
Auto-Related Pollution in L.A.
Declined 98 Percent Over 50 Years
Levels of some automobile-related pollutants in Los Angeles have plummeted by 98 percent since the 1960s
, even as gasoline consumption nearly tripled during the same period, a new study says. Levels of volatile organic
compounds (VOCs), which are emitted from the tailpipes of cars and are a key ingredient in ground-level smog, have dropped steadily and fell by about half between 2002 and 2010, researchers found. “The reason is simple: Cars are getting cleaner,” said Carsten Warneke, a researcher at the University of Colorado and lead author of the study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research
. Using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and California air quality measurements, the scientists calculated that VOC levels declined by an average of 7.5 percent per year. Researchers attributed the steep decline to the required use of catalytic converters, introduction of fuels less prone to evaporate, and improved engine efficiency.
09 Aug 2012:
New Atmospheric Compound
Tied to Human Health and Climate Change
An international team of researchers says it has discovered a new atmospheric compound
that reacts with sulfur dioxide to form sulfuric acid, which produces acid rain, has negative respiratory effects on humans, and causes increased cloud formation. Reporting in Nature
, the scientists from the U.S., Finland, and Germany identified the new compound as a type of carbonyl oxide, formed by the reaction of ozone with natural and manmade hydrocarbons, known as alkenes. When the carbonyl oxide compounds react with sulfur dioxide — which is primarily produced by coal and other fossil fuel combustion at power plants — large amounts of sulfuric acid are produced. The scientists say it is the first time that this complex new interaction of atmospheric compounds has been documented. Sulfuric acid creates acid rain that is harmful to terrestrial and aquatic life, and airborne sulfuric acid particles play the main role in the formation of clouds, an increase of which could help cool the planet. Smaller sulfuric acid particles near the planet’s surface have been shown to cause human respiratory ailments.
07 Aug 2012:
Dozens of Small Earthquakes
Detected Near Texas Drilling Sites
A new study by researchers at the University of Texas has found that dozens of small earthquakes occurred in a shale region of north Texas within a two-year period, with many occurring close to injection wells associated with oil and gas drilling projects. In an analysis of seismic data, study author Cliff Frohlich found that 68 earthquakes had occurred between November 2009 and September 2011
— all with a relatively weak magnitude of 3 or lower — in the Barnett Shale region, a large area that covers several Texas counties and contains a geological formation increasingly targeted for extraction of oil and gas from shale formations. According to the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
, 23 of those quakes occurred within two miles of high-volume injection wells
that pump wastewater from controversial hydrofracturing drilling technology deep underground. “You can’t prove that any one earthquake was caused by an injection well,” Frolich said. “But it’s obvious that wells are enhancing the probability that earthquakes will occur.”
03 Aug 2012:
NASA Study Quantifies
Vast Amount of Dust Reaching North America
A new NASA study calculates that nearly 64 million tons of dust, pollution, and other tiny particles enter the atmosphere above North America from other continents each year
, nearly as much as the 69 million tons of
aerosols produced domestically through natural processes and human activities. The vast majority of the particles entering the atmosphere, scientists say, consist of natural dust and not pollutants. In a first-of-its-kind study, NASA researchers used satellite data and wind speed estimates to calculate that about 88 percent of the microscopic particles, or 56 million tons, consists of dust carried in wind currents, particularly during the spring when an increase in cyclones and mid-latitude westerlies propel powerful atmospheric currents across the Pacific Ocean. According to the study, published in the journal Nature
, about 60 to 70 percent comes from Asia, and the remaining 30 to 40 percent comes from Africa and the Middle East. But only about 5 percent of the dust drops within the lowest 1.2 miles of the atmosphere, where it can be inhaled by humans. NASA scientists say the study provides critical insights into how aerosol particles across the planet affect air quality and the climate
02 Aug 2012:
Planet’s Carbon Storing Capacity
Keeping Pace with Human Emissions
A new study finds that earth’s oceans and lands continue to absorb more than half of the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions
, suggesting that the planet has not yet reached its carbon-storage capacity even as emissions continue to escalate. Writing in the journal Nature
, a team of U.S. scientists calculate that the world’s natural systems — including seas, forests, and soils — have absorbed about 55 percent of the roughly 350 billion tons of greenhouse gases emitted during the last 50 years. With human-based emissions rising steadily over five decades, those systems have had to absorb an ever-increasing amount of carbon, storing an estimated 5 billion tons in 2010 compared with 2.4 billion tons in 1960, the study found. These calculations are consistent with findings by the Global Carbon Project, according to Reuters
. The planet’s capacity to store carbon has been a critical factor in preventing an even greater increase in global temperatures, but authors of the new study say that storage capacity will not remain indefinitely. “It’s not a question of whether or not natural sinks will slow their uptake of carbon, but when,” said Ashley Ballantyne, a researcher at the University of Colorado and lead author of the study.
31 Jul 2012:
Low Levels of Caffeine Found
In Waters of U.S. Pacific Northwest
In a new study, scientists document low levels of caffeine pollution in the waters off the Oregon coast, fresh evidence that contaminants from human waste are entering marine ecosystems with unknown risks to wildlife and human health. In a series of tests conducted at 14 coastal locations, researchers found that caffeine levels were higher — about 45 nanograms per liter — in remote waters, while levels were below reporting limits (about 9 nanograms per liter) near “potentially polluted” areas such as sewage treatment plants, the mouths of rivers, and larger communities, National Geographic reports
. According to the findings, published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin
, the higher levels are likely occurring near sites with on-site waste disposal systems that are subject to less monitoring than larger wastewater treatment plants. While the environmental effects of such low-level contamination are not known, experts say they are a reminder of the range of pollutants — from pharmaceuticals to artificial sweeteners — entering natural ecosystems through human waste.
27 Jul 2012:
Powerful Storms Linked to
Depletion of Ozone Layer, Study Says
A new study warns that a surge in powerful storms, perhaps linked to a warming climate, could be causing a depletion of the planet’s protective ozone layer
. Writing in the journal Science
, Harvard researchers explain that water vapor inserted into the normally dry stratosphere by strong thunderstorms is triggering chemical reactions with now-banned chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs, essentially creating ozone-destroying conditions identical to those occurring over the Antarctic, high southern latitudes, and parts of the Arctic. That, in turn, could lead to an increase in UV radiation reaching the earth’s surface, posing a higher risk of skin cancer for humans as well as potentially harmful conditions for some plants and crops. Lead author James G. Anderson said more research is necessary, including direct measurements of the effects of water vapor on ozone chemistry. But he said that given recent research linking climate change to an increase in extreme weather events, these findings could portend increased ozone loss in years to come. “It’s the union between ozone loss and climate change that is really at the heart of this,” Anderson told the New York Times
. “Now, they’re intimately connected.”