The disappearing islands of Chesapeake Bay
Imagine, if you will, sailing along the eastern Chesapeake, searching for your next port when a solitary wooden house appears before you. It is covered in cormorants with waves splashing into the windows. Odd, you think, what is that doing out here and who would live in a place like that?
Photo by Forgemind ArchiMedia, Flickr
A quick check of the chart that day in the early aughts revealed nothing there but a tiny spit of land; no more than an oyster reef in the middle of the bay. We could only speculate about the purpose of the ghost structure — perhaps it was an abandoned lighthouse or a fish camp.
I was shocked to learn later that we had been looking at the last remnant of Holland Island, once a large community of farmers and fishermen who lived on the island until it eroded away to the point where it was abandoned in 1922. The buildings there had either been removed or washed away — with the exception of this last wraith.
The fact that the house remained was due to the heroic efforts of Stephen White, a retired Methodist minister who purchased the disintegrating island in 1995 and spent thousands on sunken barges and levees in a vain attempt to save the place he had loved as a boy. But his efforts only delayed the inevitable: In 2010 he capitulated by putting a match to the house and sailed away. Today all that remains of the town, the church, and the cemetery is a shallow spot on Google Earth.
The day we first sailed by that house the term “global climate change” was unknown to me. We carried on down the East Coast to our new home in Florida, and didn’t return to the bay until summer 2017 — again in a boat.
The Chesapeake has always been prone to what is now called nuisance flooding. Bi-weekly spring tides and nor’easters inundate docks, roads, and parking lots. Islands like Holland have been washing away for thousands of years. Thirteen have vanished from charts since English settlement in 1607. To an extent, it’s part of the character of the bay, something the people here have been able to accommodate.
But our return last summer showed us a bay that’s undergoing drastic and …more
Our existence is part of a continuum shared by many other beings that exist outside our bodies
It has taken a long time for biology and medicine to arrive at the idea that significant portions of an individual’s own body are foreign to it. Now, however, microbiology in particular is discovering that there is no reposing, solid core within us, but rather a lurking void around which life’s dance unfurls. In the human body, thousands of different players make the meaningful whole possible. We know that our body is colonized by microbes, particularly in the gut, which perform metabolic processes essential to our lives. Within our body, we carry our own, developed ecosystem without which we could not break down and digest food. There is a reason that biologists call the “biofilm” of microorganisms that cover moist surfaces, “bacterial lawns.” With hundreds of species entangled on them — consuming, eliminating, extracting, and synthesizing matter — these bacterial lawns, like the Ligurian pastures, have the characteristic of an undulating meadow in the spring, inside of us. No wonder we have a feeling of recollection on such evenings.
Photo by Alison Day
In this age of advanced gene technology, the true abyss of renunciation from which we speak “I” is only now becoming obvious to us. For only a few years, it has been clear that bacteria are completely dominant in a healthy human being: On top of our 10 billion body cells, there are 100 billion microbial cells that play a role in our metabolism. This enormously increases the options for our bodily processes: If we include the microbes’ genes, then we have over 100,000 genes at our disposal, as opposed to just over 20,000.This sort of bacterial aid leads, for example, to children in Papua New Guinea being born with nitrogen-fixing bacteria (like those found in some plants and algae) in their intestinal tissues. This allows them to subsist for years on a plant-based diet without suffering from symptoms of deficiency.
From this, the American microbiologist Bruce Birren concludes that, “We’re not individuals, we’re colonies.” And these colonies develop sensitivities collectively: The type of bacterial ecosystem that lines the intestine will partly determine how successfully we absorb nutrients. Patients with a tendency toward obesity have particularly efficient bacteria. From a bite of cracker they are able to extract all of the nourishment that simply slides unabsorbed through the digestive tract of slender types. …more
How the Oglalla Sioux are freeing themselves from fossil fuels
It’s high summer in South Dakota, and a cruel sun beats down with an endless floodtide of photons that burns skin through t-shirts and tinted car windows. That’s the way Henry Red Cloud likes it. To Red Cloud — descendant of a great Lakota insurgent chief, founder of Lakota Solar, and self-proclaimed “solar warrior” — that July sun is key to the independence of his fellow Lakota and native peoples across America; it also embodies a hot business opportunity.
Photo courtesy of Lakota Solar
It’s July 5, the tail end of Red Cloud’s Energy Independence Day weekend, first announced in the wake of the Trump Inauguration, and meant to spread off-grid skills throughout Indian country — possibly with radical purpose.
I walked out of the sun and indoors to find Red Cloud leading a solar workshop, holding forth to a group of eager Indigenous participants about photovoltaic cells and the danger of phantom loads — the way in which many appliances continue drawing current even when switched off. “Vampire” loads are a constant suck on household energy, consuming electricity and thereby emitting carbon to no purpose — while also draining an off-grid setup with limited juice.
A set up, like, say, the remote, off-grid camps at the Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests in 2016.
Red Cloud offers up a hypothetical: “Let’s say you have a Water Protector camp, your solar array is charging, you notice the inverter is on, but nothing is plugged in.” The stocky 60-something instructor, with long ponytail and far-seeing eyes, frowns and shakes his head, indicating trouble. “Well, that empty power strip can draw more than your actual daily use, draining down the batteries faster than they can charge.”
A bearded man in his late 20s raises his hand. “That bad for the array?”
“Well,” Red Cloud responds, “it’s not a problem if you know about it. Just plug in a couple cellphones,” and charge them up so protestors can reach out to the media from the remote site. That way, he says, at least now the array is doing some work.
Man with a plan
After the workshop, Red Cloud shows me his innovations. A solar trailer, small enough to be pulled by a compact car, is mounted with panels and an inverter. …more
A cascade of courtroom standoffs are beginning to slow EPA rollbacks thanks to the administration’s ‘disregard for the law’
In its first year in office, the Trump administration introduced a solitary new environmental rule aimed at protecting the public from pollution. It was aimed not at sooty power plants or emissions-intensive trucks, but dentists.
Photo by Thomas Hawk
Every year, dentists fill Americans’ tooth cavities with an amalgam that includes mercury. About 5 tons of mercury, a dangerous toxin that can taint the brain and the nervous system, are washed away from dental offices down drains each year.
In Trump’s first day in the White House, the administration told the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withdraw an Obama-era plan that would require dentists to prevent this mercury from getting into waterways. But in June, the rule was unexpectedly enacted.
This apparent change of heart followed legal action filed by green groups, part of a cascade of courtroom standoffs that are starting to slow and even reverse the Trump administration’s blitzkrieg of environmental regulations.
“The Trump administration has been sloppy and careless, they’ve shown significant disrespect for rule of law and courts have called them on it,” said Richard Revesz, a professor at the New York University school of law.
“I expect we will see a number of further losses for the administration on similar grounds. If they keep showing the same disregard for the law, their attempt to repeal all these environmental regulations will go badly for them.”
The reversal of Obama’s environmental legacy has been spearheaded by Scott Pruitt, who heads the EPA, the agency he repeatedly sued as Oklahoma attorney general. Pruitt, who accused Obama of “bending the rule of law” and federal overreach, has overseen the methodical delay or scrapping of dozens of rules curbing pollution from power plants, pesticides and vehicles.
Ironically for Pruitt, who has touted a “back to basics” approach rooted safely within the confines of the law, this rapidly executed agenda has run into a thicket of legal problems, causing the administration to admit defeat in several cases.
In July, a federal court ruled that the EPA couldn’t suspend rules designed to curb methane emissions from new oil and gas wells. This was followed by a hasty retreat in August when the EPA agreed to not delay new standards to reduce smog-causing air pollutants, the …more
The sampled fish may have originated from a particularly polluted patch of the Atlantic Ocean
Marine scientists from the National University of Ireland (NUI) in Galway found the plastic bits in 73 percent of 233 deep-sea fish collected from the Northwest Atlantic Ocean—one of the highest microplastic frequencies in fish ever recorded worldwide.
Photo by NOAA Oceans Explorer Program
For the study, published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, the scientists inspected the stomach contents of dead deep-water fish collected from the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. The sampled fish, including the Spotted Lanternfish, Glacier Lanternfish, White-spotted Lanternfish, Rakery Beaconlamp, Stout Sawpalate and Scaly Dragonfish, were taken from depths of up to 600 meters (about 2,000 feet).
Even though microplastics are usually found around the ocean's surface, these fish were able to gobble them up anyway.
"Deep-water fish migrate to the surface at night to feed on plankton (microscope animals) and this is likely when they are exposed to the microplastics," explained Alina Wieczorek, lead author of the study and Ph.D. candidate from the School of Natural Sciences and Ryan Institute at NUI Galway.
One fish that was examined, a Spotted Lanternfish less than 2 inches in length, had 13 microplastics extracted from its stomach, Wieczorek said.
"In total, 233 fish were examined with 73 percent of them having microplastics in their stomachs, making it one of the highest reported frequencies of microplastic occurrence in fish worldwide," she said.
The fish were sampled from a warm core eddy, which is similar to ocean gyres that are thought to accumulate microplastics. The sampled fish may have originated from a particularly polluted patch of the Atlantic Ocean.
"This would explain why we recorded one of the highest abundances of microplastics in fishes so far, and we plan to further investigate the impacts of microplastics on organisms in the open ocean," Wieczorek added.
The identified microplastics were mostly microfibers, with black and blue the most recorded colors. These tiny plastic threads shed from commonly used synthetic fabrics like polyester, rayon and nylon. When washed, plastic microfibers break off and a single jacket can produce up to 250,000 fibers in washing machine effluent.
Microplastics can contain additives such as colorants and flame retardants and/or pollutants adsorbed …more
Fresh efforts needed to protect critically endangered animals from hunters and habitat loss as population more than halves
Hunting and killing have driven a dramatic decline in the orangutan population on Borneo where nearly 150,000 animals have been lost from the island’s forests in 16 years, conservationists warn.
Photo by Gemma i Jere, Flickr
While the steepest percentage losses occurred in regions where the forest has been cut down to make way for palm oil and acacia plantations, more animals were killed by hunters who ventured into the forest, or by farm workers when the apes encroached on agricultural land, a study found.
Researchers estimate that the number of orangutans left on Borneo now stands at between 70,000 and 100,000, meaning the population more than halved over the study period which ran from 1999 to 2015. Without fresh efforts to protect the animals, the numbers could fall at least another 45,000 in the next 35 years, the conservationists predict. The real decline could be worse, because the prediction is based only on habitat loss, and does not include killings.
The bleak assessment of the state of the Bornean apes comes from an international team of conservationists who compiled one of the most comprehensive reports yet on the animals, which in 2016 were declared “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“I expected to see a fairly steep decline, but I did not anticipate it would be this large,” said Serge Wich, a co-author on the report at Liverpool John Moores University. “When we did the analyses, we ran them again and again to figure out if we had made a mistake somewhere. You think the numbers can’t be that high, but unfortunately they are.”
The researchers studied 16 years of ground and helicopter surveys that recorded the numbers and locations of nests that orangutans built in the trees from branches and leaves. The nests have long been used to infer the sizes of orangutan populations because the animals themselves are so elusive.
Writing in the journal Current Biology, the team describe how the decline in nests from 1999 to 2015 points to the staggering loss of 148,500 orangutans in Borneo. The conservationists identified 64 separate groups of orangutans on the island, but only 38 are thought to comprise more than 100 …more
Recycling is not enough: We need bold solutions to deal with our plastic overproduction problem
Remember that plastic milk jug you emptied out last month? And that yogurt container you threw in your recycling bin last week? Chances are, they are now sitting in one of the growing mounds of plastic piling up in collection centers across the country with nowhere to go.
Photo by recycleharmony, Flickr
As of January 1, China effectively banned imports of plastic recyclables from other countries. The change represents a major policy shift: In 2016, China took 51 percent of the 15 million tons of plastic recyclables in trade globally, including a whopping 40 percent of US citizens’ plastic recycling. So when China announced that it was shutting its doors to our plastic, it was a wake up call for the US recycling industry.
"Corporate recycling is in for a reality check as China raises its standards,” says Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, a leading zero waste non-profit and recycling center in Berkeley, CA. “Everyone is desperately looking for the cheapest possible new destinations for low quality mixed materials, and there is currently a lot of incentive for companies to dump, burn, or bury recyclables that customers think are getting recycled.”
Due to trade imbalances amongst other factors, it’s been much cheaper for many states to ship plastic abroad than deal with it stateside. Giant barges arrive at ports around the country with products manufactured in China, and we have been reloading those barges with plastic waste generated from cheap, single-use products and packaging, and sending it right back to China and other parts of Asia.
The “recyclable” plastic the US sends abroad are often low-quality and low-value. Some contain a cocktail of toxic additives that threaten recycling workers’ health. (Recyclables that are higher value, namely HDPE and PET [#1 and #2], are more often recycled domestically.) The bales of plastic recyclables we were sending to China were also often contaminated with non-recyclable materials, which recycling operations were then forced to dispose of, either through landfilling or burning. (Indeed, the effective ban was in fact a drastic tightening of “impurity standards” for recyclables imports, one that US facilities cannot meet. China has also announced that it plans to completely ban plastic waste imports in 2019)
In some importing countries, collection and processing of low-grade plastics for recycling is carried out largely by …more