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For Baby Sea Turtles, Beaches Are Becoming Safer But Ocean Threats Persist

Researchers struggle to assess impacts of undersea hazards like plastic pollution and overfishing

On beaches from North Carolina to Texas and throughout the wider Caribbean, one of nature’s great seasonal events is underway. Adult female sea turtles are crawling out of the ocean, digging deep holes in the sand and laying eggs. After about 60 days turtle hatchlings will emerge and head for the water’s edge, fending for themselves from their first moments.

photo of baby sea turtlesPhoto by Papahānaumokuākea Marine National MonumentBaby Hawaiian green sea turtles swim near Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Though most coastal areas in the US now protect beaches during nesting season, the future of sea turtle research depends on finding new ways to assess turtles status trends at sea.  

I have spent 36 years studying sea turtle ecology and conservation. All seven species of sea turtle found around the world are classified as vulnerable or endangered. Nesting season is an important opportunity for us to collect data on turtle abundance and trends. For those of us who have spent decades studying turtles on nesting beaches, anticipation builds as we prepare for their arrival. And when that first turtle comes ashore to usher in the nesting season, it feels as though we are welcoming home old friends.

Today most coastal areas in the United States protect beaches during nesting season. Government agencies, researchers, and volunteers monitor many beaches and help hatchlings make it to the water. These measures have helped turtle populations increase. For example, the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii), which was on the brink of extinction in the mid-1980s, has increased from a few hundred nests to over 20,000 nests laid in 2017.

But turtles face many hazards in the water, including plastic pollution and accidental harm or death in encounters with commercial fishermen. The future of sea turtle research depends on finding new ways to assess turtles’ status and trends at sea as well as on the beach.

Tallying turtle nests

Female sea turtles typically nest several times in a year. They may leave all of their eggs at one specific beach or nest at several beaches to spread out their reproductive investment. They typically return to the same stretch of coast year after year.

To monitor population trends, scientists count the number of nests made on a beach during an entire nesting season. They estimate how many times an individual female turtle nests during one nesting season, and use simple arithmetic to calculate the estimated number of females that nested …more

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For Flint Mother, There’s No Stopping Until All US Kids Have Safe Drinking Water

“I don’t want other families to go through what we went through,” says LeeAnne Walters

Until her then three-year-old twin boys began to break out in rashes in 2014 and both she and her daughter had clumps of hair falling out in the shower, LeeAnne Walters hadn’t spent much time worrying about enviornmental pollution. “I mean, I watched the news. I cared about recycling … but mostly, I just took care of my family,” she says. A stay-at-home mom with four kids to shuttle around and a husband in the military, her days were too packed and chaotic for her to able to focus on much else. But when her children began suffering from various illnesses — her older son was even suspected to have cancer — Walters began looking for answers.

LeeAnne-PortraitPhoto courtesy of The Goldman PrizeLeeAnne Walters played a key role in revealing the extent of the Flint water crisis and the associated cover-up. On Monday, she was awarded the Goldman Prize for her work.

Local doctors in Flint, Michigan, weren’t of much help. They told her the twins’ rashes were due to scabies and initially misdiagnosed her older son’s ailment. But when the water from her kitchen sink started coming out brown in December that year, Walters began to suspect she might have located the culprit. She contacted the city and asked that her water supply be tested. It took the city two more months to send somone to collect a water sample. A week later, the city employee called and informed Walters that her water had lead levels of 104 parts per billion (ppb).

“I think the one thing about it that makes me mad is that, you know, you raise your kids to eat healthy, eat fruits and vegetables... My kids’ first go to was water. Always,” she says, her voice catching.

Lead is a well-known neurotoxin and its impact on children, who are especially vulnerable to exposure, is strongly associated with problems that are extremely costly to society, including learning deficits, socialization issues, violent behavior, and other health problems. There is really no safe level of lead and the US Environmental Protction Agency considers anything over a level of 15 ppb a serious problem. Very young children, between ages 1 and 2, are particularly vulnerable, even at low levels of exposure.

Walters had all four of her children tested for lead in March 2015. Each had high levels of exposure and one of the twins was diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Much of the scandal that followed regarding Flint’s water supply has …more

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Could Sprinkling Sand Save the Arctic’s Shrinking Sea Ice?

Pilot project at northern Alaska lake is one of many aiming to slow climate change with geoengineering, and raising concerns about unintended consequences

As a test location for a project that aims to ensure the livability of Earth, a frozen lake near the northern tip of Alaska could seem rather inauspicious.

photo of sea ice in AlaskaPhoto by Andrew PetersenSea ice near Utqiaġvik, Alaska. Researchers will be sprinking tiny spheres of reflective sand on a lake near Utqiaġvik to see if this can prevent the lake from melting.

While the North Meadow Lake near Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, may be relatively nondescript, it will be the staging ground this month for an ambitious attempt to safeguard the Arctic’s rapidly diminishing sea ice and stave off the most punishing effects of global warming.

Tiny spheres of reflective sand will be sprinkled upon the lake to see if this can prevent the lake ice from melting or slow the process down. Should testing prove successful, the project, called Ice911, has the grand vision of slathering around 19,000 sq miles of sea ice — equivalent to the size of Costa Rica — with trillions of sand grains in order to stem the loss of ice cover and prevent runaway climate change.

“The ice in the Arctic isn’t going to come back by itself,” said Leslie Field, founder of Ice911. “And we don’t have much time left.”

Field, a Silicon Valley engineer and researcher who worked for Chevron and HP, said she was inspired to intervene in the Arctic after seeing Al Gore’s climate change parable An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.

“It hit me like a train,” she said. “The importance of the Arctic just leapt out to me."

“I looked at it and thought: ‘What if this is a materials problem?’ You go through the list of things that aren’t adding pollution or foods to the environment and it’s a fairly short list. I’ve been through a few options and this one has legs.”

For the past decade, Field has been testing out various materials that might provide a protective barrier to the winnowing sea ice, conducting tests in barrels of water in laboratories, on lakes in California and Canada, on a pond in Minnesota.

Testing is now set to take place in the tundra of the Alaskan Arctic, near a research station where scientists generally observe changes in sea ice, rather than attempt to halt or reverse them. Scientists flock to Utqiaġvik to survey seabirds or gather data from boreholes in the tundra — there …more

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Putting Her Life on the Line to Save a River from Illegal Gold Mining

Goldman Prize winner Francia Márquez’s has been involved in a long struggle to protect the Ovejas River and her Afro-Colombian community

Francia Márquez, 36, grew up in La Toma, an isolated town nestled in western Colombia’s verdant Cuaca Mountains. Established in the early 1600s by escaped slaves, the Afro-Colombian community sits along the Ovejas River and residents depend on the river’s water and fish for sustenance. For centuries, the people of La Toma have built their lives around agriculture and mining, using pick axes to pry gold from the earth, and panning for nuggets in the Ovejas. Today, some 85 percent of the town’s 5,000 residents rely on small-scale artisanal mining for their livelihood.

Francia MarquezPhoto courtesy of The Goldman PrizeThirty-six year old Márquez has been involved in environmental and community activism since the age of 13.

Recently, this remote Amazon region’s mineral riches have gained the attention of outsiders, putting the people, land, and water of La Toma at risk. The situation came to a head in 2009, when the Colombian government gave multinational mining company AngloGold Ashani a permit to mine in La Toma.

Márquez, who has been involved in environmental and community activism since the age of 13, couldn’t stand by as La Toma came under threat. And when the community received eviction orders to make way for mining interests, she decided to fight back.

“I got involved with the community to demand that we had a right as an afro-descendent community to those ancestral lands and that they didn’t have a right to displace us from those lands,” she says. She began studying law in order to better defend La Toma, and helped bring a case asserting that under Colombian law, Afro-Colombians have a right to “free, prior and informed consent” regarding activities that impact their ancestral lands. The court agreed, ruling that the community hadn’t been properly consulted regarding the mining permits.

Ovejas RiverPhoto courtesy of The Goldman PrizeThe Afro-Colombian town of La Toma sits in the Cauca Mountains of southwest Colombia, at the epicenter of the country’s illegal gold mining epidemic. .

But the fight was far from over. La Toma was now on the map for its gold, and illegal miners descended on the region. By 2014, illegal miners were operating an estimated 2,000 backhoes across the entire Cuaca region, including 14 on the banks of the Ovejas River near La Toma. The miners were also clearing forests and digging massive pits, and using mercury and cyanide to extract gold. In the process of all this, they were poisoning the …more

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Rewild Your Child. The Earth Depends On It.

Yes, we need to let our kids muck around in the mud, but we also need to somehow allow nature to seep inside them

This article originally appeared in JSTOR Daily.

Imagine 20 million Americans taking to the streets, rallying in parks and congregating in theaters, schools and universities to protest our treatment of the planet. It’s hard now to picture this, but on April 22, 1970, the date of the first Earth Day, this is exactly what happened. The radical feminist journal Off Our Backs summoned “ecology freaks” and “student militants” to “take to lecture platforms, sidewalks and the streets to demand America change her way of life.” That publication among dozens of others hoped the day would have a lasting effect, but none could have predicted that, an alignment of Earth Day activism with support from the government, would see the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the passage of the Clean Air, Clear Water and Endangered Species Acts soon followed. Forty-eight years later, Earth Day is still an urgent reminder that our planet needs help facing the challenges of a growing population and our insatiable appetite for energy and resources.

child by watersidePhoto by Andrew Newill Children are incredibly adept at blocking out the din of adult-created madness in order to connect with the natural world even if for them it’s a patch of grass in a gritty dog-fouled park.

When my daughter Eve turned three in 2010, Earth Day had become one of the largest secular observances in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people. She has grown up in an environment where recycling and taking public transport are the norm and, like many of her peers, has been plugged into the mindset that it’s crucial to look after our planet. She is ten now and her heightened awareness of the state of the world brings with it a new challenge: how do you talk to your child about ocean acidification, desertification, melting icecaps, plastic in the seas, extreme weather events, and the disappearance of polar bears, rhinos and elephants without filling them with grief and hopelessness. How does one navigate this fine line of teaching a child to respect the environment without passing on the fear of total climate apocalypse?

When she was two, the activity Eve enjoyed more than any other was pottering around our tiny patio in London making “soup” in an old yogurt pot. She would chuck soil, dead leaves, petals and anything else that may have blown in from …more

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30 percent of Great Barrier Reef Coral Died in ‘Catastrophic’ 2016 Heatwave

Extent and severity of 'mass mortality' event documented in report has shocked scientists

Scientists have chronicled the “mass mortality” of corals on the Great Barrier Reef, in a new report that says 30 percent of the reef’s corals died in a catastrophic nine-month marine heatwave.

photo of bleached coralPhoto by ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies/Mia HoogenboomThe extent of the coral die-off recorded in the Great Barrier Reef was significantly greater than historical bleaching events. Scientists discovered that different corals have markedly different responses to heat stress, with some experiencing catastrophic die-offs while others proved more resilient. 

The study, published in Nature and led by Professor Terry Hughes, the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, examined the link between the level of heat exposure, subsequent coral bleaching, and ultimately coral death.

The extent and severity of the coral die-off recorded in the Great Barrier Reef surprised even the researchers. Hughes told Guardian Australia the 2016 marine heatwave had been far more harmful than historical bleaching events, where an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of corals died.

“When corals bleach from a heatwave, they can either survive and regain their color slowly as the temperature drops, or they can die,” Hughes said. “Averaged across the whole Great Barrier Reef, we lost 30 percent of the corals in the nine-month period between March and November 2016.”

The scientists set out to map the impact of the 2016 marine heatwave on coral along the 2,300km length of the Great Barrier Reef. They established a close link between the coral die-off and areas where heat exposure was most extreme. The northern third of the reef was the most severely affected.

The study found that 29 percent of the 3,863 reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef lost two-thirds or more of their corals.

Hughes said researchers were also surprised at how quickly some corals died in the extreme marine temperatures.

“The conventional thinking is that after bleaching corals died slowly of ... starvation. That’s not what we found. We were surprised that about half of the mortality we measured occurred very quickly.”

The study found that “Initially, at the peak of temperature extremes in March 2016, many millions of corals died quickly in the northern third of the Great Barrier Reef over a period of only two to three weeks.”

“These widespread losses were not due to the …more

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Coming to the Rescue of the Endangered Philippine Eagle

Can captive breeding and community-based conservation save this great raptor?

The Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi), endemic to the Philippines and one of the world’s largest and heaviest eagles, continues to face the threat of extinction due to ignorance and deforestation.

philippine EaglePhoto courtesy of HCruz985/Flickr rOne of the world’s largest and heaviest eagles and the only blue-eyed raptor on Earth continues to face the threat of extinction. Only about 400 pairs of these raptors remain in the wild.

“At least one Philippine eagle is killed every year because of shooting,” laments Jayson Ibañez, research and conservation director of the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF), a non-government organization based in Davao City in southern Phillippine. Ibañez says that deforestation due to timber poaching and slash-and-burn farming also significantly endanger this rarest of eagles.

Only an estimated 400 pairs of Philippine eagles remain in the wild, landing the raptor on the “critically endangered” list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Preventing the Philippine eagle population from dwindling further remains a tough battle, with pessimists decades ago disparaging its conservation as a “lost cause.”

This formidable challenge gave birth to the Philippine Eagle Center, a volunteer and donor-dependent organization formed by the foundation 30 years ago. The center is dedicated solely to the conservation of the majestic bird with a seven-foot wingspan — and the only blue-eyed raptor on Earth.

The eight-hectare center, on the outskirts of Davao City, made history in 1992 when it successfully hatched Pag-asa, the first captive-bred Philippine eagle.

True to her name, Pag-asa — which means “hope” in Filipino — gave the center's personnel the courage and inspiration to continue pursuing what was once deemed the impossible dream of breeding and hatching Philippine eagles in captivity. The center has successfully bred 28 Philippine eagles since the birth of Pag-asa, who turned 26 in January.

Pag-asa remains a resident of the center where she “symbolizes the breakthrough in Philippine eagle conservation in the country,” says Amira Madrazo, PEF’s communications officer. The raptor wasn’t released to the wild for the center’s worker and the public to be reminded that breeding eagle in captivity is not impossible, Madrazo adds.

Simulating a tropical rain forest environment, the center offers visitors a glimpse of the country’s forest ecosystem. The facility is located at the foothills of Mount Apo, the country’s highest peak.

“Our goal is to help increase the Philippine eagle’s population," says Dennis Joseph Salvador, executive director of the foundation. "We employ natural breeding methods and artificial insemination. The …more

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