7 things we’ve learned about Earth since the last Earth Day

Our understanding of Earth — and how we’re changing it — just keeps expanding.

Earth Day turned 48 on Sunday, April 22, and Google celebrated it with a Google Doodle of conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall, who nudged us in a video to “do our part for this beautiful planet.”

When Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) founded Earth Day in 1970, his hope was to make the environment a political issue in an era when US rivers caught on fire and thick smog choked cities.

In many ways, it worked. Since then, major environmental laws have helped clean up much of the vivid toxic detritus in the soil, air, and water in the US. But our challenges today are no less daunting. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the loss of wilderness and species, and the acidification and pollution of the oceans have all become more acute — and more destabilizing.

In keeping with the tradition started by former Vox writers Brad Plumer and Joseph Stromberg, here are seven of the most troubling, intriguing, and encouraging things we’ve learned about Earth since the last Earth Day.


1) The plastic problem is even worse than we thought

One of the bleakest stories of the year so far was the report of a 6-ton sperm whale washing up on the shores of southern Spain with 64 pounds of plastic in its stomach, a grotesque sign of the alarming rate at which we’re dumping plastics into the ocean.

The plastic crisis is a truly global one, and the numbers are staggering: A 2015 study found that between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic makes it into the ocean from land each year. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight.

Since plastic is synthetic, there are few natural processes that break it down, allowing bags, straws, and packaging to linger for decades if not centuries. And we’re not very good at containing it to landfills. About 32 percent of plastics make it out into nature, where it often ends up in the bellies of fish, birds, and whales — and, as it turns out, potentially in our stomachs too.

In one investigation, the nonprofit Orb Media found plastic fibers in 83 percent of drinking water samples all over the world, with some of the highest levels in drinking fountains at the US Capitol. In a separate investigation published this year, it found microplastic particles in 93 percent of the bottled water samples it tested (250 bottles from 11 leading brands including Dasani and Aquafina).

These kinds of findings have prompted environmental activists pushing to reduce or end the use of disposable plastics. Curbing plastic pollution is a key theme in this year’s Earth Day, and there’s a high-profile campaign underway to ban plastic straws in particular.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May called this week to ban plastic straws, swabs, and stirrers. Some researchers last year openly called for an international agreement to control plastic pollution. And there was one bit of hopeful news for potentially more effective disposal in the future: Scientists have discovered an enzyme that can digest plastic.



2) We lost the last male northern white rhino

Another benchmark we’re obliged to revisit each Earth Day is how many species we’ve lost forever.

In December, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the beaverpond marstonia, a tiny freshwater snail found in Georgia, to be extinct. The Center for Biological Diversity called it the first species declared extinct under the Trump administration, a consequence of water overuse for agriculture and pollution.

Also in the past year, the Christmas Island pipistrelle, a bat found off the coast of Australia, was declared extinct. Three reptiles also went extinct on the island, including the chained gecko, the blue-tailed skink, and the whiptail skink, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Much of this is due to disease and predatory invasive species.

And some species are teetering on the brink of extinction. The last male northern white rhino, Sudan, died in March at the age of 45.

As the northern white rhinos have been decimated rapidly by poaching, conservationists have tried desperate tactics to resuscitate them, including creating a Tinder profile for Sudan. The more viable strategy now is in vitro fertilization of a female southern white rhino with the eggs from the two remaining northern white rhino females and stored northern white rhino semen.



3) A few species have bounced back. And we discovered some brand new ones.

The black-eyed leaf frog hopped back from the edge of the abyss. It’s now been classified as a species of “least concern” after having been “critically endangered,” the last step before extinction.

“This lovely leaf frog is hope in a small, green-and-black package,” said Jennifer Luedtke, an amphibian specialist at Global Wildlife Conservation, in a statement.

Researchers reported this year that other tropical frog species, like the variable harlequin frog, are also bouncing back after a fungal epidemic drastically slashed their numbers.

The Chesapeake Bay’s striped bass has also rebounded to a healthy population.

Scientists also described some new species for the first time. The California Academy of Sciences added 85 new species of plants and animals last year to its catalog, including “16 flowering plants, one elephant-shrew, 10 sharks, 22 fish, three scorpions, seven ants, 13 nudibranchs, seven spiders, three wasps, one fossil sand dollar, one deepwater coral, and one lizard.”



4) Greenland’s ice is melting faster than we realized

We know the Earth is warming, but we saw several jarring examples over the past year of how quickly and dramatically this is playing out.

Earth’s polar regions are warming twice as fast as the average rate of the planet. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported late last year that the Arctic losing ice at its fastest rate in at least 1,500 years.

We also saw a heat wave in the Arctic. In the middle of winter. For the third year in a row. January saw the lowest extent of Arctic sea ice for the month on record. The sea ice maximum for the Arctic, which typically occurs in March, was at its second lowest on record this year, bested only by 2017.

This warming is playing out in sharp and sudden ways across the Arctic. Researchers reported last year that a section of Greenland’s ice sheet suddenly started melting 80 percent faster. Another study found Greenland’s entire ice sheet is melting at its fastest rate in at least 400 years, and that the melt rate sped up drastically in 1990.

If the entire Greenland ice sheet were to melt, it would raise global sea levels by more than 20 feet.

Glaciers in Denali National Park are also melting 60 times faster than they were 150 years ago.

These examples show that the impacts of a changing climate aren’t always slow and gradual; global warming can push some phenomena to tipping points that lead to rapid, self-propagating changes.



5) Seagrass is regrowing in the Chesapeake Bay. And humans can take credit.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, and for decades it was also one of its most polluted. Massive quantities of fertilizer, waste from farm and poultry operations, and stormwater in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania were leaching into the water.

As nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus sullied the bay, much of the underwater life, including grasses and the fish and shellfish that lived inside it, died off. The impact was so severe that the federal government and states had to come up with a way to limit the pollution — and so they started paying farmers to farm in different ways to keep fertilizer from washing into the bay and cracked down on sewage treatment plants and other facilities that were dumping waste.

Happily, scientists writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March report that these regulations to limit that runoff are working. The most striking evidence is the regrowth of the seagrass beds — now covering more than 42,000 acres, the highest cover in the Chesapeake in almost half a century.

The recovery of the “underwater forest” of seagrass also suggests that other forms of life in the bay — like blue crabs and fish species that use it for food and shelter — will recover too. And given that seagrasses worldwide have declined by nearly a third over the past century, the successful efforts to limit nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake could help influence new policies to restore coastal ecosystems elsewhere.

“Nutrient reductions and biodiversity conservation are effective strategies to aid the successful recovery of degraded systems at regional scales, a finding which is highly relevant to the utility of environmental management programs worldwide,” the PNAS authors write.



6) We’re woefully unprepared for disasters. And we aren’t learning enough from them.

2017 was a brutal year for natural disasters in the US, and the ongoing blackout in Puerto Rico continues to remind us just how vulnerable we are to extreme weather, especially as climate change makes these kinds of events more intense.

Hurricane Maria ripped through the Caribbean with 150 mph winds and upward of 36 inches of rain last September, knocking down 80 percent of electricity infrastructure and creating the largest blackout in US history for Puerto Rico’s 3.3 million residents.

Other parts of the United States were also hit hard last year, as the worst wildfire season on record torched California and as Hurricane Harvey drenched Texas with the largest amount of rainfall ever recorded for a single storm.

In fact, natural disasters across 2017 caused at least $306 billion in damages across the US, making it the costliest year on record.

And researchers expect that torrential rain, massive storms, and expansive infernos will get worse as average temperatures continue to rise.

“Human-induced climate change likely increased Harvey’s total rainfall around Houston by at least 19 percent, with a best estimate of 37 percent,” said Michael Wehner, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, at the American Geophysical Union conference in December.

Despite all this, we’re already going back to our old habits. Homes are being rebuilt in floodplains around Houston, and construction is still booming along Florida’s coasts despite rising seas. Meanwhile, California homeowners are rebuilding their torched properties in the same spots. Let’s do better.



7) We’re getting closer to finding another Earth out there

As far as we know, Earth is the only planet with life in the universe. But scientists are getting better at finding tantalizingly similar planets. And as astrophysics and astrobiology come together to make these discoveries, we keep learning more about our own home.

There’s been a boom in exoplanet discoveries since the launch of the Kepler Space Telescope in 2009. Of the more than 3,500 planets we’ve found outside of our solar system, Kepler has helped identify more than 2,500 of them.

These planets range in size from larger than Jupiter to smaller than Earth.

But by pooling from observations from telescopes around the world and in space, scientists have discovered more spheres like ours. Researchers reported last year that they found seven Earth-size planets orbiting a dwarf star called Trappist-1, the largest batch of planets in the habitable zone of a star ever discovered.

“It represents a unique opportunity to thoroughly characterize temperate Earth-like planets that are orbiting a much cooler and smaller star than the Sun,” the scientists wrote.

NASA says we now know more about the Trappist-1 system than any other planetary system save our own. And earlier this year, the agency reported that the planets closest to the star could have liquid water, a necessary ingredient for life as we know it.

Researchers at the MEarth Project last April also found an Earth-like planet, LHS1140b, orbiting a star about one-fifth the size of our sun. “It also receives similar amounts of energy from its star that Earth does from the Sun, which means it may have liquid water on its surface!” the team reported.

And on April 19, NASA launched the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9. The $228 million mission is aimed specifically at “discovering new earths.”



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U.K. May Ban Plastic Straws, Stirrers And Cotton Swabs

The U.K. plans to ban plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton swabs, Prime Minister Theresa May announced Wednesday at a meeting of Commonwealth nations.

“Plastic waste is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world,” May said in a statement, in which she called the U.K. government “a world leader on this issue.”

Downing Street said an end to sales of the single-use products is expected after the government launches a “consultation” later this year. May’s statement also said the government “will work with industry to develop alternatives and ensure there is sufficient time to adapt. It will also propose excluding plastic straws for medical reasons.”

The proposed ban is an effort to reduce the plastic polluting the earth’s waters: 150 million tons, according to the announcement, killing one million birds and over 100,000 sea mammals, which either eat the waste or get tangled in it.


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‘Fog harp’ makes water out of thin air

In some of the most arid regions of the world, from the Sahara to the Andes, special nets have long been used to catch moisture from the air, turning fog into drinking water.

These fog harvesters are put up against wind streams to catch microscopic droplets which gather and merge on a fine mesh until they have enough weight to travel down into a water tank. They provide essential access to water to many communities, and the technology behind them has evolved over the years to offer a higher yield, resistance to the elements and a reduced need for maintenance.

Now, researchers at Virginia Tech University have developed a new design that they say has three times the efficiency of regular fog nets. They call it a “harp,” because its vertical pattern of wires makes it resemble the string instrument.

“Our long-term goal is that the fog harp can completely replace the classical net design, resulting in cheaper fog harvesters that end up collecting substantially more water,” Jonathan Boreyko, one of the authors of the study at Virginia Tech, said in an email interview.





Improved design

The problem with the classical design, according to Boreyko, is that the fog droplets end up getting stuck in the holes of the net, because the horizontal wires obstruct their path on the way down into the reservoir. The net then becomes heavily clogged with water, which makes it impermeable to the wind. As a result, the foggy wind simply flows around the net, instead of through it, which reduces the amount of fog that can be collected.

The fog harp consists instead of an array of vertical wires held under tension within a frame, without any intersecting wires, so that droplets can easily slide down at very small sizes.

“This solves the clogging issue to ensure that the wind can continuously flow through the harp for efficient fog capture,” said Boreyko.

The new design takes inspiration from plants that use fog harvesting to supplement their water intake, such as redwood trees on the California coast. “Most trees and plants have arrays of branches and leaves that run parallel to each other. Our harp design is therefore, in many ways, analogous to what nature is already doing to efficiently manage water. The classical net structure, on the other hand, is an inefficient design that nature has learned to avoid,” said Boreyko.


Threefold increase


Boreyko and his team ran a series of tests comparing scale-model harps and traditional nets, with artificial fog emanating from an ultrasonic humidifier. The team published their findings in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

“Our best fog harp was able to capture three times the amount of water harvested by a classic net structure of equivalent dimensions, using the exact same fog conditions,” said Boreyko.

“The fog harp never showed any appreciable clogging and was able to continuously drain droplets as small as one millionth of a liter into the bottom collector, while the equivalent net got heavily clogged with water, which disrupted the passage of the fog stream.”

Although the design has shown potential at the model scale, real-world testing is now required. Study co-author Brook Kennedy and his team built a full-scale prototype by winding wire around threaded bolts within a 1-meter squared frame, and will test it alongside an equivalent mesh netting at Kentland Farm, an area close to the Virginia Tech campus known for its foggy weather.


A worldwide issue


Fog nets have been used since the 1980s in many parts of the world, including Africa, South America, Asia, the Middle East, and California. The largest fog collection project in the world is in Morocco, where over 600 square meters of nets provide drinking water to hundreds in a region severely hit by droughts induced by climate change.

With water crises looming in many parts of the world, devising innovative and sustainable ways to gain access to clean water is essential.

Its unique design could help the fog harp reach into new areas, and cut costs where current fog harvesters are in use. “A harp design only needs half as much wiring as a mesh netting,” said Boreyko, “Therefore, if a cost-effective method for wiring a harp can be obtained, the material costs of a fog harp should be less than an equivalent net.”


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Colombian government ordered to protect Amazon rainforest in historic legal ruling

The Colombian government has been ordered to take urgent action to protect Amazon rainforest by its own supreme court.

In a historic ruling, the country’s most senior judges said the state had not done enough to tackle the destruction of the environment.

The court recognised the Amazon as an “entity subject of rights” – meaning it has the same legal rights as a human being – and ordered action plans to be drawn up within four months.

“It is clear, despite numerous international commitments, regulations … that the Colombian state has not efficiently addressed the problem of deforestation in the Amazon,” the supreme court said.

Colombia’s rainforest covers an area roughly the size of Germany and England combined but is slowly being destroyed by farming, agriculture, cocaine production, illegal mining and logging.

The judges said the rate of deforestation – an important factor in climate change – increased by 44 per cent between 2015 and 2016 and lead to “imminent and serious” damage to children and adults.

“Without a healthy environment, subjects of law and living beings in general will not be able to survive, let alone safeguard those rights for our children or for future generations,” said the court.

The ruling comes after a group of 25 people aged between seven and 26 filed a lawsuit claiming their constitutional rights to life, food and water were being violated.

Bogota-based rights group Dejusticia, which supported the case against the government, said it was the first such ruling delivered in Latin America.

“The Supreme Court’s decision marks an historical precedent in terms of climate change litigation,” said researcher Camila Bustos, who was also one of the plaintiffs.

“The ruling states the importance of protecting the rights of future generations, and even declares the Amazon a subject of rights.”

Meanwhile the Brazilian senate is set to vote on a bill which could scrap an eight year ban on the farming of sugarcane in the Amazon.


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Heavy Metal: The New Toxic Danger Posed by Ocean Plastic Trash

Plastics entering coastal waters both absorb and release cadmium, lead and other toxic metals. Scientists are now trying to determine the impact of metal-contaminated plastic on marine life and ocean ecosystems.

We know that plastic waste is overwhelming the ocean, sea life is dying from ingesting it and some even ends up in seafood. But scientists also now worry that plastic trash is coming with a side helping of toxic metals that latch onto plastic surfaces and enter the marine environment and food chain – and eventually, what people eat.

Metals, such as cadmium and lead, are often used in manufacturing plastic and over time can enter coastal waters. Once floating in the ocean or discarded on a beach and washed by the tides, plastics can also attract and concentrate a variety of metals already present in the environment that attach themselves, or “sorb,” to the surface. In both cases, the worry is that these metals – often toxic ones such as cadmium that are health concerns for both wildlife and humans – can contaminate waters or harm wildlife that ingest plastics, especially those that live in intertidal zones near sources of plastic pollution.

Researchers, however, are only just starting to understand how metal-tainted plastics interact in coastal environments, said Leah Bendell, professor of marine ecology and ecotoxicology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

Bendell led one recent study, published in February in the journal PLOS ONE, that examined how four metals – cadmium, lead, zinc and copper – both attach onto and are released from plastics found on Canada’s beaches. She said her results show how a whole host of metals can enter the marine food chain or coastal waters.

“Not only were these plastics serving as a way of metal getting into these lower trophic levels, but also they were a source of the metal into the water column and they can be acutely toxic,” said Bendell. “It was a little bit of an eye-opener to the multifaceted role the plastics played.”

For the study, Bendell’s graduate student, Bertrand Munier, picked up every bit of plastic waste from transects on nine Vancouver-area beaches, gathering 144 unique plastic items, mostly food packaging and takeout containers. They sorted the plastics into 11 types and then used a weak acid to extract and separate the four metals – this kind of analysis is often used to estimate levels of toxins that could enter the tissues of wildlife if eaten. As a point of comparison, they also did the same for newly manufactured plastic samples. The goal was to distinguish metals that came from the plastic itself and those that had sorbed to the surface of the beach debris from the environment.

Of the collected items, five samples released what the study said were “extreme” high levels of metals – including a plastic tampon applicator tested for high levels of zinc – and all had at least trace amounts of the four metals tested. Different kinds of plastic also released different levels of metals. For example, PVC, the most commonly found plastic, had high levels of lead and copper attached to its surface. The comparison of the new and debris plastic also showed how some of the chemicals used in plastic production may release over time – including cadmium, which is used to make plastic rigid and resistant to UV light. The researchers found that new PVC releases zinc and cadmium.



A previous study examining metals sorbing onto plastics have found that the age of the material also matters. Chelsea Rochman, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology, led a study when she was at San Diego State University in which her team dropped mesh bags of various kinds of plastic pellets into three areas around San Diego Bay in California. They measured how much aluminum, chromium, manganese, iron, cobalt, nickel, zinc, cadmium and lead from the environment sorbed onto their samples.

The year-long study, also published in PLOS ONE, found that metal levels increased the longer the plastic samples were in the water. That’s probably because surface area increases as the plastics degrade over time and biofilms form, Rochman said.

Biofilms are collections of unattached microorganisms that put down roots on surfaces and can act as a surface for metals to latch onto. Fungi are a type of biofilm, as are bacteria. “Basically, over time there’s more space for these metals to bind to,” said Rochman.

There’s still a lot scientists don’t know. For example, it’s unclear how big a role biofilms play in the concentration of metals on plastics and the ultimate effects of the metals on wildlife that ingest plastics. It’s possible, for example, they may digest the biofilm, metals or chemicals – even if they ultimately expel the plastic itself. “If the metals are bound on the biofilm, the question is are they even more bioavailable than we think?” asked Rochman.

The presence of a toxic metals-saturated biofilm on plastics could be both an ecological and human health problem, said Bendell. The bacterial growth on the biofilm could potentially pick up pathogens in and around coastal areas. And as these plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces, they’re more easily ingested by marine life, and now it looks like they’re bringing dangerous metals along for the ride. While the studies were conducted in North America, the environmental risks may be far greater in regions like Southeast Asia that lack waste management infrastructure and where more plastic pollution makes its way to the coast.

The actual risk of metals associated with plastics to human health is unknown, said Bendell. But as plastic pollution grows, it’s concerning to scientists like Bendell. “We need to change from thinking everything can be thrown away to you are accountable and responsible for every piece of plastic that comes into your house,” she said.


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