The dangers of coal ash


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Coal ash is a byproduct that can have very harmful effects on the world around it | Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 22nd, 2018

Coal ash–a byproduct of burning coal–is a form of pollution often not talked about, but its effects cut deep, especially for families living in ash-contaminated areas.

One such family is paying the price for a deal signed over fifty years ago. The Peelers, who run a ranch in the heart of rural Texas, agreed to sell part of their land to San Miguel Electric Cooperative, a company that proposed a coal mine in the area–an attempt to bring proper electricity to the state’s non-urban population.

Now, years later, heaps of coal ash that have been dumped near their ranch contaminate the Peeler’s land and water, leaving many of their fields barren.

Coal ash has been found to contain many harmful elements, including so-called “heavy metals” like arsenic and mercury. These elements damage wildlife, the natural environment, and humans, leeching into soil and groundwater if not properly taken care of. A new bill in Illinois is urging forward a bill that would require coal plants to better seal off their ash deposits.

The bill may not come to pass. But the threat that coal ash poses to the environment is well-documented–and currently being lived out–by one Southern family fighting for their ranch.

 

The delicate balance between carbon and Earthworms


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Worms help keep our soil fertile, but they play a much bigger part in our environment | Photo by Christina Pirker on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 21th, 2019

Earthworms are essential to the health of our soil, fertilizing gardens and fields. But their relationship with the earth is complicated–and the link between earthworms and carbon is being continuously investigated by scientists.

North America used to have earthworms; its native species was wiped out thousands of years ago during an ice age. European settlers brought their own variety to their new home, and the continent has been populated ever since.

Earthworms are simple organisms, but they greatly affect the health of our soil. Some feed on topsoil, while others burrow down, coming up to eat dead leaves on the surface. All varieties help fertilize the ground–but sometimes, if the location isn’t right, earthworm activity does more harm than good.

This is especially true for earthworm activity in North American boreal forests, a network of coniferous (evergreen) trees that normally don’t house these small creatures. As the worms dig down through the soil, they release carbon that’s been packed into the forest floor. Boreal forest floors are essentially carbon sponges, and the spread of earthworms to these previously worm-less regions threatens to release all of that stored carbon, further accelerating our current climate change.

Exactly how these earthworms have spread from their more natural habitat to the evergreen forests of North America is a bit of a mystery, with multiple factors–warmer weather, invasive plants, agricultural practices–at play.

Even as these tiny organisms increase in all the wrong places on our side of the pond, in the UK, topsoil feeders are beginning to disappear, threatening the island’s agriculture. Worms, carbon, and our global food supply are all part of a delicate ecosystem that may slowly be unraveling if we don’t step up to figure out why.

Reducing pollution–at land and at sea


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The shipping industry causes more pollution than you might think | Photo by Sascha Hormel on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 15th, 2019

An environmental group recently met to discuss methods of reducing pollution and emissions from an often under-the-radar source: The shipping industry.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is an environmental group paving the way for cleaner and greener ocean vessels. Despite the increased use of planes for transport, roughly 90% of global trade is still done by boat.

Currently, pollution from ships accounts for about 3% of global emissions in total, but could balloon to 17% by 2050.

Ship fuel isn’t regulated the same way that most onshore fuels are. Most ships use what’s often referred to as “dirty fuel”, and it produces large amounts of sulfur and carbon into the air. Sulpher is known for contributing to acid rain; the black carbon is often carried by the wind towards the Arctic, where it stains the snow, increasing the amount of heat that snow absorbs and adding another layer to the greenhouse effect.

The group discusses ways of reducing these various emissions during their meeting, avenues of saving the climate that included restricting ships to use fuel with less than 0.5% sulfur content and investing in alternative fuel. While a 3% contribution to global emissions may not seem like much, any reduction in our planet’s pollution is welcome.

How plastic pollution increases health risks


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Natalia Welzenbach-Marcus | May 14th, 2019

The onset of increasing plastic pollution is potentially devastating for developing countries, and could be a root cause for increased diseases.

When waste–especially plastic waste–is mismanaged, it is often poorer and developing countries that pay the heaviest price, as these nations don’t normally have the tools to track, mark down, or otherwise record the amount of waste disposed of within their borders.

Plastic pollution can block waterways, contributing to flooding, something that disrupts water purification plants and sewage systems and exposes the flooded population to water-born disease.

Occasionally, attempts will be made to deal with plastic by burning piles of it–something that releases toxins into the air and further contaminates the air and water.

Roughly two billion people still do not have regular ways of managing waste, and many nations’ poorest citizens often end up living by the slowly increasing piles of rubbish–an environment that doubles their risk of various diseases.

We need to continue our focus on the environment and on the damage done to our natural world. But it is equally important for us to understand how disproportionately affected our globe’s poorest citizens are by pollution.

 

 

How humans are accelerating extinction


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Human activity is changing the landscape faster than animals can adapt | Photo by Oleg Magni on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 7th, 2019

From dinosaurs to dodo birds, species of animals occasionally cease to exist entirely–a prospect that is extremely chilling, upon second thought.

Extinction does not have to be caused by incessant poaching or hunting. Upsetting the balance of an animal’s habitat and ecosystem is enough to put it on the endangered list. Our population–slowly climbing past its current 7 billion–is putting every other living thing at risk in our attempts to gather resources for our own survival. Cow grazing in the Amazon, for instance, has contributed heavily to the steady disappearance to the rainforest, with swathes of land being burned down for the beef industry.

The loss of biodiversity–the relative number of different flora and fauna within a location–proves devastating for many developing countries that still rely primarily on hunting, gathering, and fishing to stay alive. At this stage, preventing losses in biodiversity is the only way to keep many of our nations properly fed, as they depend on steady crops and animal products for their nutrition.

Transformation will not come overnight. It is vital that an understanding and consideration of ecosystems and biodiversity be built into every aspect of our society–our gathering, trading, and marketing.

This is a stark reminder that continuing to proceed the way we are with our energy and resource gathering could prove fatal–not just to us, but to the many species of animals that help keep our planet balanced.

 

A different look at glyphosate


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Glyphosate, found in most weed-killers, is not cancer-causing, EPA finds | Photo by Dan Hamill on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | May 1st, 2019

UPDATE: We find it important to mention that though glyphosate has been found to not contribute to cancer by the EPA, some independent groups have their doubts about the safety of this chemical, and it’s true that we are not fully aware of what long-term exposure to glyphosate does. The article has been revised accordingly.

Cancer is scary, carcinogens scarier. The uncertainty behind many common carcinogens and chemicals–what leads to cancer after prolonged exposure and what doesn’t–is certainly stressful, which is why extensive studies into different suspected cancer-causing chemicals is essential.

Sometimes, before concrete evidence can be found, suspected carcinogens spark widespread panic. Glyphosate is one such suspected carcinogen. A common chemical found in RoundUp weedkiller, the ingredient has been linked to alleged negative health effects for years. Glyphosate works by blocking enzymes in certain plants, effectively regulating weeds that would otherwise leech crops of their nutrients.

Recently, Monsanto, the conglomerate that produces RoundUp, was hit with several lawsuits, including one from a customer who had used the weedkiller for decades–and claimed that his cancer diagnoses was a result of long-term exposure to the glyphosate in the product. The federal jury overseeing the case ruled in the man’s favor. Monsanto has, so far, appealed all of the lawsuit rulings.

Glyphosate touches more than just weeds in lawns–it’s the most-used herbicide in US agriculture. It also may not be as dangerous as we thought: studies from the US Environmental Protection Agency suggest that glysophate is not, in fact, a carcinogen. They say that there is not much evidence linking glyphosate exposure to the development of cancer cells, and the EU, following thousands of peer-review studies, has long sanctioned glyphosate herbicides as safe for general use.

Of course, glyphosate–and weedkiller in general–should not be ingested in any way, and basic caution is recommended when handling the product. While the risk of developing cancer from spraying away a cluster of dandelions from a front-porch garden may be slim to none, the health effects of larger, long-term glysophate exposure is still up for debate.

 

 

Thwaites: Antarctica’s tipping point


iceberg during daytime
Glacier collapse could lead to a global disaster | Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | April 30th, 2019

McMurdo, a small group of buildings in the Antarctic meant solely as a pass-through for scientists of different fields, sits 800 miles away from a glacier roughly the size of Florida. This glacier–dubbed the “Thwaites”–is difficult to reach and difficult to study, but this enormous formation of ice could have dire consequences for our civilization should it collapse in our oceans.

Thwaites’ wedge shape and its massive size make it something to be contended with. In 2008, when Sridhar Anandakrishnan and five others from Penn State journeyed to the glacier, they found that it was losing ice at an alarming rate. The ongoing losses from Thwaites already accounts for a global sea level rise of roughly 4%. Thwaites is likely a support glacier, a “cork in a wine bottle“, meaning that its total collapse could lead to more glacier disaster, forcing us to contend with rising oceans that we may not be prepared to deal with.

Sridhar’s team, a year after their initial exploration, returned to the glacier to begin measuring its base, some 4,000 feet below the water. By drilling boreholes in the icy ground and setting off explosive charges, the team could read the seismic waves generated by the charge as it reverberated off of the glacier bed. Though much information has been gathered about Thwaites, there is still no solid explanation for its accelerated rate of collapse.

Thwaites could completely collapse in as soon as a century, especially since its loss of ice may be unstoppable. In the meantime, scientists are risking life and limb in the antarctic’s bitter cold, trying to uncover the mystery of this ticking time bomb.