Talking Points : Winter 2019

News in Brief

Scientists have found that children who spend more time outside are less likely to develop shortsightedness, which is on the rise globally. photo MI PHAM / Unsplash
Scientists have found that children who spend more time outside are less likely to develop shortsightedness, which is on the rise globally. Photo MI PHAM / Unsplash

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Get Them Out!

Want your kids to have good eyesight? Send them out to play.

It’s not as if we need more reasons to encourage us to get our young ones out into nature, but there you have it — research shows that spending time outdoors reduces children’s risk of becoming shortsighted.

Shortsightedness, or myopia, is on the rise across the world. It is especially bad in East Asia. Estimates in China, for instance, indicate that about 90 percent of teenagers and young adults there are shortsighted. Americans aren’t faring too well either. Numbers from the National Eye Institute show the prevalence of myopia grew from 25 percent of the US population (ages 12 to 54) in 1971-1972 to 41.6 percent in 1999-2004.

The exact cause for this increase in nearsightedness is unknown but is generally thought to be connected to a genetic predisposition for myopia as well as increasing time spent in front of screens. Now, new research on early life factors for myopia by scientists at King’s College London suggests that environmental factors play a role as well. The researchers found that children who spend more time outdoors tend to run a lower risk of myopia due to various factors including gazing more often into the distance and having more exposure to outdoor light.

“Genetics can’t explain [why myopia is becoming more common] because genes can’t change that quickly over a couple of generations, so it must be the pressures of modern-day childhood that is causing a rise in prevalence,” Katie Williams, co-author of a new study, told The Guardian. Williams and her team found that every extra hour children spent on computer games per week increased the chance of them having myopia by 3 percent.

The study, published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology, found several others factors that could also affect a child’s risk of becoming shortsighted, including being born in the summer — which is connected to starting school earlier in life, and having a more highly educated mother — which relates to genetic or social factors including class, wealth, and encouragement.

“There is not much you can do about when your child is born … but periods indoors doing indoor activities does increase your risk of myopia,” Williams said. “A healthy balance of time outdoors and a balance during early education is important.”

HIGH VOLTAGE

Drawdown

As much as Donald Trump may want us to believe it, saying adiós to dirty energy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game between a clean energy future and fossil fuel industry workers. Spain is showing us just how compatible clean energy and workers’ rights goals can be.

In November, the Mediterranean nation announced an exciting new climate plan that includes transitioning to 100 percent renewably sourced electricity and decreasing overall greenhouse emissions by 90 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. But that’s not all: Spain wants to completely eliminate carbon from the economy as soon as possible after that. And there’s more still: At the core of the decarbonization plan are “just transition” strategies that involve re-training fossil fuel sector workers in solar and wind energy.

The full climate plan was preceded by an October announcement that the government would close nearly all coalmines by the end of 2018 while also investing $281 million in mining regions over the next 10 years to ease the transition for the 1,000-plus workers who will lose their jobs. The agreement between the country’s new leftwing administration and workers’ unions includes early retirement benefits for miners over age 48, re-skilling programs for green energy industries, and environmental restoration work in communities that have borne the brunt of mining activities.

“Spain can export this deal as an example of good practice,” Montserrat Mir Roca, the Spanish confederal secretary for the European Trade Union Confederation, told The Guardian. “We don’t need to choose between a job and protecting the environment. It is possible to have both.”

Parliament must still pass the full climate plan, which will require support from other liberal members of the government.

TABLE TALK

Cutting Cancer

Cancer can feel like an omnipresent threat these days. There are so many different ways to increase our cancer risk, from those that are well within our control, like drinking and smoking, to those that are less so, like breathing polluted air or simply aging. Thankfully, a French research team may have just given us one more tool in the fight against this disease: A new study indicates that consuming a diet high in organic foods decreases overall cancer risk by 25 percent.

The researchers cannot prove cause and effect here. But a growing body of evidence has linked exposure to common pesticides like glyphosate to cancer, and research has shown that these pesticides can be detected in many popular foods. They suspect, then, that eating more organic foods reduces dietary exposure to pesticides, which in turn reduces cancer risk.

“We did expect to find a reduction [in cancer risk], but the extent of the reduction is quite important,” Julia Baudry, the lead author and a researcher with the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, told The New York Times.

The study, published in October in JAMA Internal Medicine, was based on the self-reported diets of 70,000 French citizens across 16 major food groups, including information on whether they bought organic options most of the time, occasionally, or never. Each participant was given an aggregate “organic food score” based on the data they provided.

The research team then assessed the number of cancer cases over a four-year period following study enrollment, comparing the number of cases between the 25 percent of participants who consumed the most organic food and the 25 percent who consumed the least. The overall rate of cancer was 25 percent lower in the high-organic-food quartile than the low-organic-food one. Reductions in the breast cancer and lymphoma rates were particularly steep.

Is the study perfect? No. As Environmental Health News notes, defenders of our pesticide-intensive agricultural system have been quick to point out its faults, including the fact that self-reported data can be unreliable, and that there are any number of variables that the researcher couldn’t take into account.

Is it useful? Heck yes. The study provides compelling evidence that reducing consumption of pesticides via our food could lead to sizeable cancer risk reductions. And in a world where, according to the World Health Organization, cancer will be responsible for an estimated 9.6 million deaths in 2018 alone, any bit of quality information we can get about helping prevent this devastating disease seems worth taking note of.

THE BIG OPEN

$1 Billion for the planet

Money can’t buy us happiness but perhaps it can help save our living world? That seems to be the thinking behind Swiss billionaire and conservationist Hansjörg Wyss’s decision to launch a billion-dollar campaign to conserve lands and oceans across the world.

Announcing the campaign in an October New York Times op-ed, Wyss said that he will donate the money over the next 10 years through his foundation. The aim of the effort, called the Wyss Campaign for Nature, is to help accomplish a United Nations goal to conserve 30 percent of the planet in a natural state by the year 2030 by creating and expanding protected areas, encouraging the international community to establish more ambitious protected-area targets, investing in science, and inspiring conservation action around the world.

“Every one of us — citizens, philanthropists, business and government leaders — should be troubled by the enormous gap between how little of our natural world is currently protected and how much should be protected,” Wyss wrote in his op-ed. “It is a gap that we must urgently narrow, before our human footprint consumes the earth’s remaining wild places.”

Conserving 30 percent of the planet might seem like an impossible goal, but some researchers say at least 50 percent of Earth needs to be protected in order to avoid losing a majority of plant and animal species. As of now only 15 percent of our lands and 7 percent of the oceans are protected.

The campaign will focus on locally led efforts to better manage parks and protected areas since Wyss believes lands and waters are best conserved when they become public national parks, wildlife refuges, or marine reserves. It will also sponsor research at the University of Bern, Switzerland, so that scientists can determine the most effective and feasible conservation methods.

Wyss’s key partners in this effort, however, are big green groups — the National Geographic Society, the Nature Conservancy, and the Argentine conservation group Fundación Flora y Fauna.

Eskimo curlew (Numenius borealis), now extinct.
Eskimo curlew (Numenius borealis), now extinct.

CALL OF THE WILD

Continental Shift

Since the 1500s, there’s been a common pattern when it comes to bird extinctions: Avian species endemic to island ecosystems were wiped out by invasive mammals, including humans. In fact, some 90 percent of all bird extinctions over the past 500 years have been of island-based species. Unfortunately, birds continue to go extinct in the twenty-first century — and even worse, recent losses have jumped to the mainland.

According to a new study published in Biological Conservation, eight more bird species can be added to the list of birds that are extinct, or very likely extinct, in the wild. This means 187 avian species have disappeared since the conservation group BirdLife International began keeping records. Six of these were native to mainland habitats rather than islands. In coming to this conclusion, the researchers examined data related to 51 birds deemed critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

“What we’re seeing increasingly is a growing wave of extinctions washing over the continents,” Stuart Butchart, chief scientist at BirdLife International, which led the research, told OnEarth. The recent losses break with the old pattern in another way — they seem to have less to do with predation and hunting, and more to do with human-caused habitat destruction. As Butchart put it, “The scale of the impacts that we’ve had on the environment is now such that we’re pushing a whole suite of species toward extinction.”

The researchers were extremely cautious when it came to classifying species as lost, labelling four of the eight birds as “possibly extinct” despite the fact that their analysis indicated near-certain extinction in the wild. Others left no doubt. The team is confident that three Brazilian birds — including the Spix’s Macaw, which was made famous by the Disney film Rio — are gone for good in the wild, along with the Javan lapwing, Eskimo curlew, and New Caledonian lorikeet.

The new research follows a BirdLife International report, released earlier this year, that said 40 percent of the world’s 11,000 avian species are in decline and called for restoration of key habitats among other conservation measures.

When Yellowstone’s Ear Spring geyser erupted in September, it spewed out decades of accumulated trash, including a pacifier from the 1930s. Photo James St. John
When Yellowstone’s Ear Spring geyser erupted in September, it spewed out decades of accumulated trash, including a pacifier from the 1930s. Photo James St. John

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Garbage Geyser

In September, Yellowstone National Park visitors were treated to a rare sight: The generally calm Ear Spring geyser exploded with a 30-foot fountain of water, the first eruption in more than a decade and the most forceful since 1957. What park staff found after the thermal event was perhaps even more unexpected: As the geyser waters washed away, they left behind a trail of trash. It seems that over the last several decades, more than the occasional tourist had given into their darker urges, tossing a coin — or a can or a cigarette butt — into the thermal feature.

Yellowstone officials say the items, which also included a cinderblock, plastic straws, and a baby pacifier from the 1930s, may be catalogued in the park’s archives due to their historic nature. That being said, the park is far from advocating a geyser-as-dumpster — or wishing-well — concept.

“You might think that if you toss something in a hot spring or in a geyser that it disappears, but it doesn’t disappear,” Rebecca Roland, a supervisory ranger at the park, told CBS News. “It stays … and what normally happens is you can actually plug up a feature and kill the feature. And that’s happened in many places in the park.”

The Ear Spring eruption was part of an up-tick in thermal activity on Yellowstone’s Geyser Hill. The park has closed a section of the viewing boardwalk in the area in response to the changes, but the USGS has been clear that the recent thermal activity does not indicate changes in Yellowstone supervolcano activity.

As for the recently collected trash, officials hope park-goers will show more restraint in the future. As they put it in a Facebook post, it would be best if Ear Spring’s next eruption brings “nothing but natural rocks and water.”

CAN’T MAKE THIS UP

Spoiler Alert

Committing to research expeditions in Antarctica isn’t something to be taken lightly. The temperatures are low, it’s dark in the winter, and you have little agency over whom you spend your time with. For at least two men stationed there this year, books became an escape from the isolation. And for one of them, it seems spoiling the endings of these books became a hobby of sorts — until his colleague stabbed him over it.

Yes, you read that right. In October, Sergei Savitsky, a 54-year-old electrical engineer, stabbed Oleg Beloguzov, a 52-year-old welder, in the chest — several times — at a remote Russian research station in the South Shetland Islands. Though it seems there may have been several factors contributing to the assault — including alcohol and possibly a suggestion that Savitsky dance on a table — Beloguzov’s habit of telling Savitsky how books ended reportedly played a key role. Beloguzov’s heart was injured in the attack, but he is expected to recover.

“They are both professional scientists who have been working in our expeditions, spending yearlong seasons at the station,” Alexander Klepikov, deputy director of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, told the Los Angeles Times. “It is down to investigators to figure out what sparked the conflict, but both men are members of our team.”

According to Vice, Savitsky surrendered himself and was taken to a prison-turned-church and “guarded” by two priests before being brought back to Russia, where he was arrested.

In 2004, chytrid fungus wiped out half the frog species native to El Copé, Panama. The species that survived seem to have developed the ability to coexist with the fungus.
In 2004, chytrid fungus wiped out half the frog species native to El Copé, Panama. The species that survived seem to have developed the ability to coexist with the fungus. Photo Seánín Óg

FINDINGS

Coexisting with the Enemy

Here’s some good news to croak about. Frogs in El Copé, Panama seem to have developed resistance to a deadly fungus that has been decimating amphibian communities worldwide for more than two decades.

The fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, commonly known as chytrid fungus, attacks frogs’ skin, which they use to breathe, and damages their nervous system. In 2004, the fungus wiped out half the frog species native to El Copé in a matter of months, but a new study suggests that, within a decade, the species that survived developed the ability to coexist with chytrid.

Researchers from the University of Maryland, who conducted a field study on frog communities in the area after the chytrid fungus infection, found that infected frogs were surviving at the same rate as uninfected frogs, about 96 percent. The infected frogs were also managing to keep the spread of the fungus under control.

The researchers, whose findings were published in October in Ecological Applications, suggest that frog populations in El Copé underwent ecological and/or evolutionary changes that enabled the community as a whole to persist, despite severe species losses. Additionally, a concurrent decline in populations of the African clawed frog — a chytrid fungus carrier that is thought to be the “Typhoid Mary” species responsible for the spread of the fungus in the amphibian world — might have also helped slow down the spread of the pathogen.

“The frogs of El Copé are not doing great, but they’re hanging on. The fact that some species survived is the most important thing,” says Karen Lips, a professor of biology at the university and senior author of the study.

These findings, the researchers say, could mean good news for other hot spots of amphibian biodiversity hit hard by chytrid. It is possible that frogs in these regions may have undergone similar adaptations — even where disease has reduced the overall number of populations and species.

“Now we know how the survivors are responding to the continuing infection. We know there are several sites in the world that probably went through the same thing. If enough frog species in a given place can survive and persist, then hopefully someday a vibrant new frog community will replace what was lost,” Lipps says.

CALL OF THE WILD

Flip Flop

In October, China made a major announcement: It was loosening a 25-year ban on rhino horn and tiger bone trade to permit their use in traditional medicine. In early November, however, the East Asian nation reversed course, postponing the new order.

The November reversal followed global outrage and criticism from conservation groups that feared a legal trade in these animal parts would provide cover for illegal trade — even if restricted to parts obtained from farmed animals and limited to certified hospitals, as Chinese officials said would be the case. China is the world’s biggest market for illegal tiger and rhino parts. The United Nations Environment Program also made an official statement denouncing the change in the wildlife trade policy, describing it as “an extremely alarming development that threatens decades of hard work … to protect these critically endangered animals.”

The pushback seemed to have worked, but The Guardian reports that Chinese officials have not specified how long it will last. Wildlife advocates fear it could be short-lived: President Zi Jinping is a big supporter of the traditional medicine industry in China. But for now, at least, it’s a win.

“It’s a positive sign that China has heard and responded to the overwhelming concerns from the international community,” Leigh Henry, director of wildlife policy at the World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement. “It’s critical now that the ban remains permanent.

New research indicates that humpback whale calls can be passed down generations, a discovery that is reshaping what scientists know about how and why these whales talk to each other. Photo Christopher Michel
New research indicates that humpback whale calls can be passed down generations, a discovery that is reshaping what scientists know about how and why these whales talk to each other. Photo Christopher Michel

CALL OF THE WILD

The Language of Their Ancestors

Humpback whales are known for their songs. Male humpbacks sing, sometimes in unison, during the mating season when they are in warm, equatorial waters. These haunting, repetitive vocal displays change and evolve into entirely new tunes all the time, including over the course of a single season. But researchers are now discovering that unlike their mating songs, the whale’s speaking language — that is their repertoire of calls, which include growls, trumpets, and ahoogas — remains the same over long periods of time. In fact, a new study shows that some whale calls are passed down across multiple generations.

In a new analysis of four decades of recordings of whale calls in Southeast Alaska — where the marine mammals migrate in summer to forage — researchers found that, of the 16 humpback whale call types recorded, eight call types were present in all four decades of recordings stretching from the 1970s to the 2010s. The researchers, whose study was published in September in Scientific Reports, the journal Nature’s online supplement, found that some calls were repeated across as many as three generations.

The discovery is reshaping what scientists know about how and why whales talk to each other.

“We are just now beginning to understand ‘the other side’ of humpback whale communication, and it is very different from what males sing on breeding grounds,” Michelle Fournet, an acoustic ecologist who led the study at Oregon State University in Corvallis, told Discover magazine. “What we can begin to investigate now is why these calls persist,” says Fournet, who is now a researcher with the Cornell Bioacoustics Research Program in Ithaca, New York.

Since multiple populations of whales use the same types of calls, Fournet suspects some of the vocalizations may be how individuals identify themselves. Other kinds of calls, such as those linked to hunting Pacific herring, may be unique to humpbacks in the North Pacific. “Documenting longevity of calls within Alaskan humpbacks allows us to truly begin asking questions about what these calls mean, and why whales produce them,” she says.

AROUND THE WORLD

Waste Not

In 2016 alone, humans produced more than two billion tons of waste, a number predicted to grow immensely over the next 50 years. And already, we’re struggling to figure out what to do with all our old clothes, discarded electronics, uneaten food, and disposable plastics. More than half the global population does not have the luxury of regular trash pickup, and communities the world over face the consequences of poor waste management. As landfills pile higher, public health, safety, and the environment all suffer.

Luckily, people are stepping up to address our growing trash problem. From Pune, India to Hout Bay, South Africa, concerned citizens are advancing zero-waste initiatives to reduce waste at the source while also encouraging reuse. Although the strategies and success rates may differ, these programs are proving that waste reduction is rewarding and possible, and sometimes trash really can be turned into treasure.

Sources: National Geographic, World Bank, LA Times, Wired, Zero Waste Scotland, Zero Waste Europe, Science Direct, GAIA

San Francisco, US

The first large US city to make the leap, in 2002 San Francisco resolved to achieve zero-waste by 2020. Since then, the city has enacted some of the country’s first public policies to eliminate single-use plastic bags and encourage composting. This year, acknowledging that it wouldn’t reach its 2020 goal, officials set a new one: By 2030, San Francisco hopes to reduce the total amount of waste being burned or thrown into landfills by 50 percent, and to reduce individual waste by 15 percent.

Bute, Scotland

After joining Scotland‘s Zero Waste Towns Initiative in 2015, the town of Bute has taken large strides towards waste reduction. The primary goal of the program is that “people on the island view waste as a resource.” From curbside recycling efforts to initiatives that turn old bread into beer, the program seems to be on the right track.

Gipuzkoa, Spain

Since launching its campaign in 2011, Gipuzkoa has made the speediest shift to zero waste in all of Europe. In less than five years, the Spanish province has increased recycling by 50 percent, distinguishing itself as the province with the highest recycling rate in Spain. In the process, Gipuzkoa has saved more than $280 million by eliminating the need to build a new incinerator.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

In August 2018, Dubai signed the “Advancing Towards Zero Waste Declaration” put out by C40, a network of megacities committed to addressing climate change. In doing so, it became one of the first cities in the Middle East to make the zero-waste pledge. In addition to the waste reduction goals elaborated by C40, which include a 15 percent reduction in residents’ waste by 2030, Dubai has set its own goal of diverting 70 percent of waste from landfills and incinerators by that same year.

Hout Bay, South Africa

After FIFA announced that the 2010 World Cup would be held in South Africa, the nonprofit Thrive Hout Bay set a goal for the Cape Town suburb to reach zero waste by 2010. Joined by other Hout Bay groups, a central part of the effort was a successful household waste drop-off program, which inspired similar programs all over the city.

Pune, India

In Pune, a union of waste pickers concerned with the safety consequences of improperly managed waste headed out to educate citizens and to encourage better waste management techniques. As a result of their efforts, in 2012 the city launched a zero waste program that encourages residents to sort waste at home. In the process, the marginalized waste pickers have raised their income through the collection of door-to-door service fees, as well as their social regard, and have also saved the city approximately $2.8 million a year through avoided collection and disposal costs.

Guam, US

Sometimes it’s better to get started even if you don’t have everything planned out yet. That’s the zero-waste philosophy on Guam. Rather than set a definitive goal date for reaching zero waste, the US territory is implementing a 20-year planning process, during which it will phase in various zero waste initiatives through legislation, public-private partnerships, and education, among other strategies.

Compiled by Cindy Xin

UP IN THE AIR

No Safe Cocoon

Exposure to air pollution has long been tied to a variety of risks for pregnant women and their gestating babies. These include an increased likelihood of premature birth and low birth weights, both of which can lead to lifelong health problems, as well as increased rates of autism and asthma among offspring. But the direct mechanism by which air pollution is impacting pregnancy, and by which fetuses are being exposed in utero, has not been well understood.

New research, however, is shedding light on potential exposure pathways, providing evidence that air pollution particulates inhaled by a pregnant woman’s lungs can travel through the bloodstream and into the placenta. The research was limited in scope: The placentas of just five London-based women, all of whom gave birth to healthy babies, were included in the study. But in all five placentas, scientists spotted dark particles that they believe are carbon particulates associated with the burning of fossil fuels.

“We can’t think of anything else they could be,” Lisa Miyashita, part of the Queen Mary University of London research team that conducted the study, told The Guardian. “It is very evident to us they are black sooty particles.”

Norrice Liu, also part of the research team, said it’s not clear yet whether the particles also travel into the developing fetus, but that evidence suggests it’s possible. Either way, the finding is significant. “We also know that the particles do not need to get into the baby’s body to have an adverse effect because if they have an effect on the placenta, this will have a direct impact on the fetus,” he says.

The research, which was presented at the European Respiratory Society’s International Congress in Paris in September, adds to the growing body of evidence about the dangers of air pollution, dangers that extend even to the unborn. One can’t help but wonder when the weight of the evidence will finally tip the scale in favor of more stringent air quality regulations across the world.

One of the world’s largest organisms, a grove of more than 47,000 quivering aspen connected by a single root system, is being slowly lost to grazing by deer and cattle. Photo J Zapell / USDA Forest Service
One of the world’s largest organisms, a grove of more than 47,000 quivering aspen connected by a single root system, is being slowly lost to grazing by deer and cattle. Photo J Zapell / USDA Forest Service

FOREST AND THE TREES

Shrinking Giant

It’s death by a thousand cuts. Utah’s “Trembling Giant” — a sprawling grove of more than 47,000 quivering aspen connected by a single root system — is being slowly chewed up by mule deer and cattle, thanks in part to our carelessness.

Widely considered to be one of the world’s largest single organisms, the Pando aspen clone covers some 106 acres of Utah’s Fishlake National Forest and weighs a whopping 6,615 tons. The clonal colony, which comprises genetically identical above-ground stems or “ramets” originating from a single underground parent clone, was first described in the 1970s and was later named “Pando” (Latin for “I spread”) based on its asexual reproductive strategy.

Quaking aspens usually reproduce by sprouting new trees from the expansive lateral root of the parent — the individual trees aren’t individuals but stems of a massive single clone. Pando is the largest such aspen colony ever found and is thought to be thousands of years old. Unfortunately, this unique being that has lasted millennia may not survive a half-century of human meddling.

Researchers at Utah State University recently found that this forest of one is shrinking rather quickly. Ecologists Paul Rogers and Darren McAvoy, who conducted the first-ever complete assessment of Pando, discovered that as the older trees (the ramets) in the colony were dying out, they weren’t being replaced by younger ones, as would normally be expected. The assessment was based on ground surveys and an analysis of 72 years of aerial photographs that visually chronicle the steady thinning of the forest, past clear-cuts that remain deforested today, and the continual intrusion of human development

The study found that while a portion of the famed grove is recovering nicely as a result of previous restoration efforts, the majority of this widespread organism is diminishing by attrition. In a report published in PLOS ONE in October, the researchers said that Pando is “in grave need of forest triage.”

The main reason for this decline seems to be lack of basic protection. About half of Pando is unfenced — that leaves young patches of aspen stems accessible to hungry mule deer, whose range has been increasingly limited due to growing human activity in the area. The deer also appear to be finding ways to enter the groves in the sections that are fenced off by locating weak points in the fencing or by jumping over the eight-foot barrier. Foraging cattle, which are allowed into the grove in the summer months, have been adding to the damage.

“While Pando has likely existed for thousands of years — we have no method of firmly fixing its age — it is now collapsing on our watch,” says Rogers, who is an adjunct faculty member in the university’s Wildland Resources Department as well as director of the Western Aspen Alliance. “In addition to ecological values, Pando serves as a symbol of nature-human connectedness and a harbinger of broader species losses.”

Subscribe Now

For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.