Maine to ban “forever chemicals” by 2030


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Elizabeth Miglin | August 4, 2021

Maine is the first state in the nation to ban around 9,000 compounds known as “forever chemicals” by 2030.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl or PFAS are often used to make products water and stain resistant. The highly effective substances are used across dozens of industries and added to a range of products such as cosmetics, cookware, food packaging and floss. However, PFAS are unable to fully break down and instead accumulate in the environment and humans. Increasingly, studies have shown the chemicals are toxic to humans, even at low exposure levels, and are linked to a range of health problems such as cancer and liver disease. 

The new law requires manufacturers who intentionally add PFAS to products sold in Maine report their use beginning in 2023. The new law additionally provides a caveat of instances where PFAS usage is “currently unavoidable” such as items in medical devices according to The Guardian

Supporters hope other states follow suit in order pressure industries to stop using PFAS and encourage the federal government to enact a similar law. The European Union is also advancing its own plan to phase out the substances in all products by 2030,however it has yet to be adopted as binding. 

Sea Ice is Thinning Faster than Previously Thought


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Josie Taylor | June 7, 2021

Sea ice thickness is found by measuring the height of the ice above the water, but this measurement can be thrown off by snow. In order to adjust for this, scientists have been using a map of snow depth in the Arctic that was made decades ago and does not consider climate change. 

In research published by The Cryosphere, scientists and researchers used a new computer model designed to estimate snow depth as it varies year to year, instead of the old map. They found that sea ice in key coastal regions was thinning at a rate that was 70 to 100 percent faster than had previously been thought.

Robbie Mallett, the PhD student in Earth Science at the University of London who led the study said, “The thickness of sea ice is a sensitive indicator of the health of the Arctic. It is important as thicker ice acts as an insulating blanket, stopping the ocean from warming up the atmosphere in winter, and protecting the ocean from the sunshine in summer. Thinner ice is also less likely to survive during the Arctic summer melt.”

Mallett also mentioned that one of the reasons why it is thinning quicker than they had thought is because snow is forming later and later in the year. 

Co-Author and Professor, Julienne Stroeve, said that there are still uncertainties in their model, but this is a closer look at accuracy than what was previously had. 

Another group of researchers at the University of Colorado looked at ice thinning as well with their new research model. They found that ice was thinning 70 to 110 percent faster, similar to the research group mentioned earlier. 

Microplastics And Biofilms Can Promote The Antibiotic Resistance Of Pathogens


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A recent study conducted at the New Jersey Institute of Technology demonstrated that biofilms formed on microplastic surfaces can serve as reservoirs for pathogens and promote antibiotic resistance.

Researchers found microplastic particles in wastewater treatment facilities boosted the antibiotic resistance of measured pathogens by around 30 times. Plastic surfaces are relatively hydrophobic which can result in the formation of biofilms that allow pathogens to interact with antibiotics in the wastewater.  When pathogens in the biofilms are able develop antibiotic resistance they can create a new challenge by sharing their resistance with other pathogens using antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs).  Increased bacterial resistance to antibiotics has been labeled a significant global threat which is now likely to be influenced by the prevalence of microplastics our wastewater. 

Microplastics are either manufactured for products like toothpaste or handsoaps, and can also be found as debris from other plastic products.  These plastic pollutants have been detected across the globe in many different environments and they present a unique public health challenge.  Additionally, toxic chemicals are known to be attracted to plastic debris in the oceans which can then be released into organisms when they ingest plastics. 

We currently don’t fully understand how low level chronic exposure to microplastics and the contaminants they may release has on the human body, but there is evidence that these particles can act as endocrine disruptors and cause significant harm. 

U.S. Ships More Plastic Waste Overseas Despite New Global Restrictions


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Nicole Welle | March 15, 2021

Over 180 countries agreed last year to place strict limits on plastic waste exportation to poor countries, but new trade data from January shows that plastic exports from the United States have increased.

Participating nations met at Geneva in 2019 to add plastic scrap to the Basel Convention, a treaty that places restrictions on shipping hazardous waste. The new addition makes it illegal for most nations to accept plastic scrap shipments unless they are in their purest form. However, the U.S. has continued to send large shipments overseas to poor countries in the months since the addition took effect in January, according to a New York Times article.

The lack of compliance likely stems back to the United States’ refusal to ratify the global ban. The U.S. is one of the few countries that did not ratify the convention, but it is still subject to its laws since participating nations are banned from trading with non-participating nations. So far, this has not stopped American companies from exporting more scrap plastic than ever. January reports showed that the U.S. exported 48 million tons that month, a 3 million-ton increase from the previous January.

The convention’s main goal was to reduce the amount of plastic wealthier countries, like the U.S., were shipping over to poorer countries. The waste often ends up in landfills, oceans or other natural landscapes instead of being recycled, and poorer nations often can’t safely handle the amount of waste coming in from the U.S. Of the 25 million tons of plastic waste the U.S. sent to poorer countries in January, much of it went to Malaysia, one of the convention’s participating countries. Advocates worry that continued lack of compliance on this level will cause more problems in the future. Even if receiving countries refuse to accept American plastic at their ports, American companies could refuse to take it back and find a way to send it elsewhere.

The U.S. government would need to pass legislation to ratify the convention, and it will remain limited in its ability to stop the exports until that happens.

Human Noise Pollution is Threatening Marine Life


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Nicole Welle | February 8, 2021

A new scientific review confirmed that human-made noise is disrupting the ocean soundscape and harming marine life.

Anthropogenic sound from sources like ships, seismic surveys, pile drivers, dynamite fishing and drilling platforms threatens the countless marine species that rely on sound to navigate and communicate. The new review, published last week in the journal Science, combined the work of 25 authors in various fields of marine acoustics to form a more complete synthesis of evidence on the effects of noise pollution. While past studies have outlined the effects noise pollution has on individual large marine animals, this study includes many groups of marine life and aims to increase global awareness of the issue, according to a New York Times article.

The study shows that increasing levels of anthropogenic noise not only negatively affect large mammals like whales and orcas, but also groups like zooplankton, jellyfish and clownfish. After clownfish are conceived in coral reefs, they drift in the open ocean as larvae until they have grown enough to swim against the tide. They then use the sounds coral reefs make to find their way back to the reef where they will live out the rest of their lives. However, high levels of human-made noise sometimes prevent baby clownfish from hearing the popping and snapping of reefs, and they never find their way back, according to the article.

The authors also found that some species of whales, killer whales and porpoises will permanently evacuate areas where noise pollution levels are too high. However, these forced evacuations can lead to population decline, especially in species that have limited biogeographical ranges like the Maui dolphin. Even when marine life can escape, they don’t have anywhere to go that is free of noise pollution.

While the study’s results are worrying, the authors say that noise pollution is the easiest pollutant to control in the ocean. Reducing ships’ speed, developing quieter propellors, avoiding sensitive areas and moving shipping lanes could all help to reduce its impact. Many animals also have the ability to quickly rebound. For example, some large marine mammals immediately began repopulating areas that had been vacant for decades when pandemic-related lockdowns reduced noise pollution by just 20% last year. The authors hope their review urges policymakers to enact policy changes that address noise pollution and raise awareness of the issue.

Vitamin B1 Deficiency May Be Linked To The Decline Of Multiple Animal Species


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Thomas Robinson | February 2nd, 2021

Scientists are concerned that a Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) deficiency is contributing to the decline of wildlife populations across multiple ecosystems in the northern hemisphere.

In 2016, scientists hypothesized that the decline of animal populations across multiple ecosystems may be linked to thiamine deficiency since the declines are occurring faster than expected, and thiamine deficiencies have been measured around the world. Thiamine deficiency has been known to negatively influence fish populations since 1995, and bird populations have been shown to be similarly affected.  Scientists in the 2016 study highlighted a staggering decline in animal populations such as the global decline of seabird populations by 70% from 1950 to 2010, and the decline of marine vertebrates by 50% from 1970 to 2012.

Unfortunately, it seems that humans are likely to blame as climate change is thought to have made thiamine less available to animals higher up on the trophic level. The current hypothesis is that warming oceans have negatively influenced the populations of both microorganisms and smaller fish that either produce or are rich in the vitamin making them less available to animals higher up on the food chain. Not only is less thiamine likely to reach the top of the trophic level, more thiaminase, the enzyme used to consume thiamine, is likely being transferred from the populations of fish or microorganisms that take over from older populations. Thiaminase is a concern because when predators eat prey high in thiaminase, they can experience similar thiamine deficiencies as the enzyme breaks down thiamine in their bodies.

Thiamine is an essential nutrient for life as it is responsible for cellular energy production and cellular development.  Our supply of the vitamin comes from our diet and deficiencies in thiamine can result in weight loss, muscle weakness, and wasting.  For many animals, deficiency results in sublethal effects, however, these sublethal effects can be just as devastating as lethal effects on the population, especially since they are easily missed over long periods of time.

Our unknowing changes to the environment have severe consequences for global ecosystems that we still don’t fully understand.  While we work to gain a better understanding of how our decisions influence global populations, an emphasis must be placed on what implications future development and technology may have on already stressed ecosystems.

Are We Already Past the Point of No Return for Climate Change?


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Nicole Welle | November 16, 2020

A new study found that global temperatures may continue to rise for hundreds of years even after humans completely cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Authors of the study, which was published Thursday in the British Journal Scientific Reports, wrote that the only way to stop global warming would be to eliminate human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and find a way to extract huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, according to an article in USA Today.

The scientists used a model to study the effect of greenhouse gas emission reductions on the Earth’s climate from the year 1850 to 2500. They then created projections of global temperatures and sea level rises. The model showed that cutting greenhouse gas emissions at any point in the future will not be enough if it is the only tool humans employ to combat rising temperatures and sea levels.

As the burning of fossil fuels release gases like methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, global temperatures increase. This causes Arctic ice and carbon-containing permafrost to melt, a process that releases even more carbon into the atmosphere and reduces the ability of Earth’s surface to reflect sunlight. Human action triggered these processes, and they will continue to warm the earth unless humans capture carbon in the atmosphere and make the Earth’s surface brighter, according to the study’s authors.

This study was an important thought experiment, but some environmental experts are skeptical about the accuracy of its results. Penn State University meteorologist Michael Mann said that the computer model used was too simple and failed to accurately represent large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns that could affect the results.

Regardless of the results’ accuracy, this study still reflects on the importance of finding ways to combat climate change even after global emissions reach net zero. The authors also urge other scientists to follow up and expand on their work.

Microplastics In Farm Soils Have Adverse Effects On Wheat Crops


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Thomas Robinson | September 8th, 2020

Microplastics in soils have recently been linked to increased cadmium uptake and root damage in wheat plants.

Researchers at Kansas State University have demonstrated that crops grown in the presence of microplastics are more likely to be contaminated with cadmium than crops grown in the absence of microplastics.  Cadmium is a heavy metal that is known to be carcinogenic and is commonly found in the environment from industrial and agricultural sources.  The researchers also found that microplastics were able to damage the roots of the wheat plants by clogging soil pores and preventing water uptake.

Microplastics are fragments of plastic products that are 5 millimeters or less in length, which is about the size of a sesame seed.  The influence these particulate plastics have on the environment and human health is still not well understood, and they are a growing environmental concern.  While most of the attention microplastics have received is in relation to the amount found in the oceans, a study published in 2016 demonstrates that microplastics actually accumulate more on land surfaces. 

Unsurprisingly, there have been microplastics found in Storm Lake, Iowa.  These pollutants can be found almost everywhere in the world which suggests we need a better understanding of microplastics and their effect on the environment. We also need to make changes to our behavior to prevent further pollution on top of what plastics have already been deposited across the globe.

New Study Supports Complete Loss of Arctic Sea Ice by 2035


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Nicole Welle | August 13, 2020

A new study used evidence from a warm period around 127,000 years ago to support predictions that the Arctic could be free of sea ice by 2035.

An international team of researchers used the UK Net Office’s Hadley Centre climate model to compare arctic sea ice conditions from the last interglacial with present day conditions. The new model allowed researchers to better understand how the Arctic became sea ice-free during the last interglacial and to more accurately create model predictions for the future.

The new climate model involves studying shallow pools of water that form on the surface of sea ice in the spring and early summer called melt ponds. Melt ponds are important because they affect how much sunlight is absorbed by the ice and how much is reflected back into space, according to a Science Daily article. Melt ponds facilitate further sea ice melt by creating surfaces that are less reflective and better suited to absorb sunlight.

Researchers discovered that, during the last interglacial, intense sunshine in the spring created large numbers of melt ponds. Because melt ponds heavily impact the rate at which sea ice melts, they were able to compare that model to current conditions and predict that the Arctic may be ice-free by 2035. Scientists working on the study hope that sea ice processes like melt ponds will be further incorporated into climate models in the future, and they are using their findings to emphasize the importance of achieving a low-carbon world as fast as possible.

UI Researchers Discover a Link Between Atlantic Hurricanes and a Climate System in East Asia


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Nicole Welle | August 10, 2020

University of Iowa researchers may have found a new influence on how tropical storms develop in the Atlantic Ocean.

Researchers identified a connection between a climate system in East Asia and the frequency of tropical storm development in the Atlantic ocean. The study discusses the Rosby wave, an atmospheric phenomenon carried west to east by the East Asian Subtropical Jet Stream (EASJ). The EASJ is an upper-level river of wind, and Rosby waves ride it to the North Atlantic when tropical cyclones are most likely to form. The waves are known to affect wind shear, a key element to tropical storm formation, according to an ENN article.

The researchers analyzed various datasets and observed almost 40 years of Atlantic tropical cyclones during prime formation season. They then connected that information to EASJ activity during that same time period and discovered that a stronger EASJ is associated with fewer Atlantic tropical cyclones, according to Iowa Now.

“When the EASJ is stronger, it can enhance this pattern, which leads to stronger teleconnections and stronger wind shear in the North Atlantic,” said Wei Zhang, a climate scientist at IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering at UI. “That can suppress Atlantic tropical cyclone formation.”

Researchers hope this new information can become a useful tool for predicting tropical cyclone formation in the Atlantic Ocean in the future.