World’s largest pile of trash found floating in the Arctic Ocean

Researchers from the Alfred Wegener Research Institute in Germany have documented what is quite possibly the world’s largest floating trash dump that extends far into the depths of the sea. The enormous pile of plastic waste was discovered in the Arctic Ocean north of Russia and Norway.

The debris, which was found as far as 8,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, included plastic bags and fishing nets. The amount of plastic waste that has accumulated in the Barents Sea region of the Arctic is estimated to be 20 times more than the amount calculated ten years ago.

The trash was documented at two polar research stations between Norway and the North Pole. In one region, the amount of debris had climbed from 346 pieces per square kilometer in 2004 to 6,333 pieces of waste per square kilometer in 2014.

The scientists monitored underwater at depths of over 8,000 feet using an Ocean Floor Observation System(OFOS). The OFOS uses cameras suspended just above the seafloor that capture images every 30 seconds.

The researchers fear that this region is now the world’s biggest aquatic waste dump, and they warn that this poses a major threat to marine life. The research team explained that the data is comparable to one of the “highest litter densities ever reported,” which was off the eastern coast of Spain.

“We should be very concerned,” said study co-author Dr. Melanie Bergmann. “What’s happening in the Arctic, the plastic rubbish there, has been produced by us.”

The findings of the study are published in the journal Deep-Sea Research Part 1.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Artificial lights could cause “loss of night” in some places

When we think of pollution, it’s not often that we consider light to be in that category. But in fact, artificial light is considered an environmental pollutant, as it throws off circadian rhythms and threatens nocturnal animals, plants and microorganisms. Now, an international study published in the journal Science Advances finds that artificial lights are increasing “loss of night,” with the effects particularly strong in certain nations.

In order to determine whether the use of outdoor light is continuing to grow exponentially, Christopher Kyba and colleagues analyzed data acquired by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer (VIIRS), which is a satellite sensor with a spatial resolution of 750 meters. Through this analysis, they determined that the Earth’s artificially lit outdoor areas grew by over 2 percent (2.2%) per year from 2012 to 2016.

Data showed that these lighting changes were highly variable between countries – some nations greatly exceeded the global rate, while a few experienced decreases in radiance. Two of the countries that had these decreases are Yemen and Syria, which are currently in turmoil with widespread war.

In the world’s brightest nations (referring to light, not necessarily intelligence) such as the United States and Spain, the radiance levels remained stable. In South America, Africa, and Asia, most nations experienced growth in artificial light. Overall, these results show that the global demand for outdoor nighttime light has yet to be met. Furthermore, despite the increases in solid-state lighting (such as LEDs), short-term decreases in related energy consumption appear unlikely.

The researchers also note that the growth in nighttime light from 2012 to 2016 were a close match to the global rise in gross domestic product (GDP). They believe that this finding suggests that access to solid-state lighting does not decrease global energy consumption for outdoor light, which has been an international goal.

These increases – and projections of further increases – in artificial light have significance for everything from our economic policies to our environmental policies. While discovering what areas are experiencing the greatest effects is key, determining how to lessen these effects will be crucial.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Global warming causing more methane bubbles in water bodies

Researchers have found that a rise in temperatures due to global warming causes more frequent emissions from methane bubbles. When these methane bubbles burst, they release methane gas into the atmosphere that contributes to climate change.

“Never before have such unequivocal, strong relationships between temperature and emissions of methane bubbles been shown on such a wide, continent-spanning scale,” said study co-author Sarian Kosten of Radboud University.

The study closely examined the impacts of aquatic environments on greenhouse gas emissions, focusing on shallow lakes, ponds, rivers, and wetlands. These marine environments are responsible for a substantial amount of emissions, much of which comes from methane bubbles.

These bubbles filled with methane gas develop in the sediment at the bottom of bodies of water. When the bubbles reach the surface, the gas is released into the atmosphere.

The international research team collaborated with researchers at Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) for a massive experiment. First, they collected existing data on methane bubbles, ranging from forest ponds in Canada to postglacial lakes in northern Sweden.

“Next, we simulated methane bubble production in 1000-litre ‘mini-lakes’ at the NIOO, where we could accurately control temperature and other conditions,” said co-author Ralf Aben. “In this way we excluded causes other than the rise in temperature.”

The scientists used open tanks filled with water and sediment to mimic an annual cycle. Four tanks had an average Dutch climate, while four other tanks contained temperatures which were up to 4 degrees Celsius higher than average.

The researchers found that the higher temperatures led to 50 percent higher emission of methane bubbles. They estimated that a temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius caused up to 20 percent higher methane emission. This leads to additional greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and to an additional temperature increase.

Methane is produced more frequently in nutrient-rich sediments, which means that methane production can be slowed down by reducing the amount of fertilizer being used.

The experts say that global warming will not be easy to stop, but that it is still possible.

“Every tonne of greenhouse gas that we emit leads to additional emissions from natural sources such as methane bubbles,” said Kosten. “Luckily, the opposite is also true: if we emit less greenhouse gas and the temperature drops, we gain a bonus in the form of less methane production. This bonus from nature should be our motivation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even further.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Air pollution causes a noticeable decline in sperm quality

A new study published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine has revealed that air pollution may lead to poorer quality sperm. The researchers found that levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) noticeably affect the health of sperm.

Previous research has suggested that exposure to chemicals may worsen sperm quality, but an association with air pollution has not yet been established. An international team of researchers set out to explore a possible link between exposure to PM2.5 and sperm health.

The researchers focused their study on approximately 6,500 men in Taiwan between the ages of 15 and 49. The men were all involved in a medical examination program from 2001-2014. During this time, their sperm quality was assessed including total numbers, size, and movement.

Using a new mathematical approach combined with NASA satellite data, the research team estimated PM2.5 levels at each man’s home address for an average of two years. The researchers found a strong association between PM2.5 exposure and abnormal sperm shape.

After taking into account other factors such as age, weight, and alcohol consumption, the experts determined that exposure to PM2.5 gave the men a 26 percent higher chance of being in the bottom 10 percent of normal sperm shape and size.

On the other hand, PM2.5 exposure was also associated with an increase in sperm numbers. The researchers believe this may be the body’s way of compensating for the negative effects of air pollution on sperm size and shape.

Because this is an observational study, the findings cannot clearly define cause and effect. However, experimental studies have previously linked components of fine particulate matter such as heavy metals to sperm damage.

“Although the effect estimates are small and the significance might be negligible in a clinical setting, this is an important public health challenge,” explained the study authors. “Given the ubiquity of exposure to air pollution, a small effect size of PM2.5 on sperm normal morphology may result in a significant number of couples with infertility.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Super earthquake could actually occur off the coast of Washington

The west coast of the United States has long lived in fear of what many call “the big one.” It’s the massive earthquake that could cause widespread devastation and has been warned of by scientists and fictionalized in films like San Andreas.

For years, many have assumed the big one will take place in Southern California, but new research suggests this may not be the case.

A new study has found evidence off the coast of Washington state that the area is primed for a large earthquake, after sea sediment samples were taken from the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

It is thought that the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which runs along the Pacific Northwest, will generate a major earthquake every 200 to 530 years, but accurately prediction of exactly when and where earthquakes will occur is impossible.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, who led the study, found that a sizable earthquake is likely to strike off the coast of Washington and Northern Oregon.

For the study, the researchers examined up to four miles of sediment layers using sediment samples. The researchers also used seismic data to correlate with their sediment findings.

The sediment samples showed that the sediments were tightly packed together in the layers on top of the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

This is a major warning sign for earthquakes because as tectonic plates shift, they produce a great deal of stress and friction. When sediments are packed together on top of the plates, it only increases stress while the plates shift.

The sediments are packed down off the coast of Washington and are looser in other areas along the Subduction Zone, which leads the researchers to believe that an earthquake is more likely to occur off the coast of Washington State.

“We observed very compact sediments offshore of Washington and northern Oregon that could support earthquake rupture over a long distance and close to the trench, which increases both earthquake and tsunami hazards,” said Shuoshuo Han, the lead author of the study.

The results of the study show that an earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone may be imminent, but is more likely to strike off the coast of Washington.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

City life is still dictated by sunrise and sunset

Despite the rapid pace of technology, humans still have an internal biological clock that helps us adapt to different environmental cues, such as daylight. And while many of us live in environments now dominated by artificial light that continue to hustle and bustle long after dark, scientists have found that the dynamics of sunrise and sunset still influence our daily activities.

In today’s cities, our biological clocks must work alongside our “social clock” of day-to-day activities, such work, leisure, and school.

“How does the daily rhythm of humans pan out under the simultaneous ticking of these two clocks?” asks Daniel Monsivais, the study’s lead author and a professor at Aalto University School of Science, Finland. This is the question he and his colleagues attempt to answer using a novel technique called “reality mining,” where patterns of human activity are analyzed using wireless devices.

For the study, the researchers looked through anonymous records of call times from roughly one million mobile phone users in a southern European country (the country also remained anonymous for the study). Through these records, they inferred each user’s sleep/wake cycle by determining daily periods when their calling activity started and ended.

Surprisingly, the results showed that the timing of the sunrise and sunset at an individual’s respective longitude still had an effect on the start and end of their daily activities. Furthermore, the seasonal variations in sunset and sunrise times followed closely the changes in the timing of a user’s daily activity.

Among these results, the researchers also found that duration of sleep varied with age and women tended to sleep more than men – which has been confirmed by previous studies.

“The next step in our study is to use this type of big data approach to understand the difference in behavior between urban and rural populations, as it pertains to the role of social and biological clocks in their daily routines,” says Monsivais.

These findings may have implications not only for human health, but for the economy, power consumption, and public transportation as well.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Summer storms to become much more severe in the United States

Severe summer thunderstorms in North America are projected to become larger and much more frequent in the coming decades. As a result, America will experience up to 80 percent more total rainfall by the end of this century.

A mesoscale convective system (MCS) is a group of storms that assemble into one large complex. Over the past 35 years, MCS-organized storms have been increasing in both frequency and severity, according to the study authors.

These major rainfall events result in fatalities and substantial economic losses, causing about $20 billion in damages per year in the United States alone. The scientists explain that MCS-organized storms have been misrepresented in climate models, and so their future projections have been poorly understood.

The research team used high-resolution computer simulations to investigate the impact that climate change will have on these large storms. Their projections showed that that these extreme rainfall events will more than triple in North America. The storms will also become larger, soaking huge regions and entire cities at once.

Andreas Prein is a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and lead author of the study.

“We see increases that are beyond our expectations … far beyond our expectations,” said Prein. “It looks everything that can go wrong does go wrong concerning flooding.”

With the enormity of these storms factored in, the total amount of rainfall in North America will rise at alarming rates by the end of the century. For example, the southern United States will receive 80 percent more rainfall.

Mexico will see a 70 percent increase in rain, while the southwestern United States is projected to receive 60 percent more rainfall. The remaining regions of the United States and Canada will experience 40 percent more total rainfall by the end of the century.

“You can really think about these storms as rivers that come from the skies,” said Prein. “The largest ones are several times the Mississippi River discharge.”

“This is a warning signal that says the floods of the future are likely to be much greater than what our current infrastructure is designed for,” Prein said.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Immigration to America was driven by climate change

The migration of over 5 million Germans to North America in the 19th century was due largely to climate change, according to a new study. While a century of poverty and war also caused Germans to flee their homeland, researchers have determined that the variable climate played its own role in the massive population shift.

19th century Germany experienced not only extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, but also cold winters and chilly summers. Rüdiger Glaser is a professor at the University of Freiburg and the lead author of the study.

“Overall, we found that climate indirectly explains up to 20-30% of migration from Southwest Germany to North America in the 19th century,” said Glaser.

“Our results show that the influence of climate was marked differently during the different migration waves,” added study co-author Iso Himmelsbach.

The team analyzed migration statistics and population data from the 19th century, along with weather data, harvest figures, and cereal-price records. After identifying the most significant migration waves, they investigated how much of a role the climate played in each of the waves.

The first major migration wave was largely driven by a changing climate, after the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1815. The cloud of ash and gases released into the atmosphere caused temperatures to drop around the world for a few years. The climate was wet and cold with widespread crop failures and famine.

“Another peak-migration year, 1846, had an extremely hot and dry summer leading to bad harvests and high food prices,” said study co-author Annette Bösmeier. “These two years of high migration numbers appear to be quite strongly influenced by climate changes, while for other migration waves other circumstances appeared to be more important.”

The researchers found that climate was less of a factor in the largest migration wave, from 1850 to 1855. The Crimean War put pressure on Germany’s grain markets when France banned German food imports, and some of the country’s poorest people were paid to leave to save on welfare and to prevent uprisings.

“Migration in the 19th century was a complex process influenced by multiple factors. Lack of economic perspectives, social pressure, population development, religious and political disputes, warfare, family ties and the promotion of emigration from different sides influenced people’s decision to leave their home country,” explained Glaser. “Nevertheless, we see clearly that climate was a major factor.”

As the world currently anticipates further global climate change and the mass migrations that will result, the research team believes that this study may provide insight into the many factors that influence migration. The research is published in the European Geosciences Union’s open-access journal Climate of the Past.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

New technology to provide a deeper look inside Earth’s forests

Satellites play a major role in helping scientists understand the natural world, climate, and the impacts of climate change. But within the next two years, NASA will launch several new satellites that will provide never-before-seen insight into vegetation and forests on Earth.

Although satellite imagery has been able to show the size and location of the world’s forests, maps made from satellite data haven’t been able to indicate the height of vegetation. But now, two of the new NASA instruments will use spaceborne lasers to successfully measure tree height and give a more accurate idea of life in these forests.

One instrument called the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) will be mounted on the International Space Station. The other is a satellite called the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2), which will measure snow and ice. Information from both instruments will help researchers create a larger, three-dimensional map of the forests on Earth.

Once scientists know the height of trees, they can more accurately measure how much carbon is being absorbed by plants and will then be able to calculate how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere.

“Combining ICESat-2 with GEDI, we’re going to have a new view of the state of the biosphere on our planet,” said Tom Neumann, the deputy project scientist for the ICESat-2 project at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Both of the instruments use light detection, but the GEDI will also use near-infrared wavelength, which is necessary for measuring plants and trees. The GEDI lasers will be able to pierce through forest canopies and reflect off the ground.

Even if researchers can measure plant mass, tree height, and carbon absorption, there is still necessary data on plant health that is missing, such as the ways that plants are impacted by stress due to drought.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) mission will be able to measure plant health by examining water and carbon cycles in the plant.

This data will also help researchers measure how much carbon dioxide is taken in by plants throughout the day.

“ECOSTRESS will enable a detailed investigation into plant water use throughout the day,” said Josh Fisher, the mission’s science lead at JPL. “Furthermore, we’ll be able to better understand how certain regions are being impacted by drought. This could have important implications for managing forests or agricultural systems.”

These upcoming missions will help researchers better understand Earth’s vast forests, measure carbon levels in the atmosphere, evaluate plant stress due to water availability, and monitor water and carbon cycles worldwide.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Soil from anywhere in the world has this in common

Researchers at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and The University of Manchester are testing soils from all over the world to explore their microbial content. In the first study of its kind, the scientists are using DNA sequencing to find out exactly what makes a soil, soil.

The research team, comprised of 36 scientists from across the globe, analyzed ecological patterns on soil from 21 countries. Altogether, they examined 1,900 soils which contained over 8,000 bacterial groups.

The study revealed that some groups of bacteria are always present in soil, no matter where it is on the planet. Other groups, however, appear much less often. The researchers explained that there is a lot that can be learned from these less common groups of bacteria, such as what makes certain soils more fertile than others.

Study co-author Dr. Kelly Ramirez said,”When we see a cactus, we know we are in a desert, when we see a palm tree we know we are in the tropics, and when we see a grass we could be almost anywhere. This same idea, that species indicate a habitat, is true for soils, but instead of using plants we use soil bacteria. But if you were to pick up a handful of soil from your garden, from a forest, or even a meadow it would probably be hard to tell the difference.”

Nonetheless, the microbial communities that are contained within the world’s soils are more diverse and have more individuals than any other species in existence. This microbial content can tell us a lot about the origins of the soil. Study co-author Dr. Franciska de Vries explained that the study aimed to consolidate all of the data on these important bacteria from studies all over the world.

Dr. Chris Knight, an expert in microbial and computational modelling, used a technique that could accommodate thousands of bacterial species. This strategy allowed the team to evaluate all of these species and match them to various environmental factors and to each other.

“What resulted was a new and clearer picture of the roles of particular groups of bacteria in shaping communities of soil bacteria,” said Dr. Knight. “Some bacteria are common, but how many turn up in any particular soil has more to do with the details of how they were measured than any real differences among soils. Some are so rare that you only ever see them in a handful of soils of any sort, which doesn’t say much. But in between there are informative families of bacteria that indicate real differences among types of soil.”

The study is published in Nature Microbiology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Data proves that global warming did not slow down for a decade

It has long been speculated that global warming slowed down from 1998 until 2012. This period is referred to as the global warming hiatus, and it has been a subject of much debate among climate researchers.

Now, according to a new study conducted by researchers from China and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, the hiatus never happened, and instead, global warming steadily increased.

Missing Arctic temperature data brought about the global warming hiatus theory, but now researchers have filled in the gaps to show that it is in fact incorrect.

The study was led Xiangdong Zhang, an atmospheric scientist with the University of Fairbanks, Alaska’s International Arctic Research Center. Zhang and his colleagues analyzed temperatures in the Arctic and created a more accurate dataset of surface temperatures around the world.

Zhang’s research shows that there was not a hiatus, and instead, global warming continued through the late 1990s and 2000s.

The researchers gathered Arctic temperature data from buoys in the Arctic Ocean and incorporated that data into a worldwide dataset. The buoys were part of the International Arctic Buoy Program at the University of Washington.

This dataset allowed the researchers to estimate temperature averages better.

The results of the Arctic analysis show that temperatures have been rising steadily over the years instead of slowing down and picking back up again.

“We recalculated the average global temperatures from 1998-2012 and found that the rate of global warming had continued to rise at 0.112C per decade instead of slowing down to 0.05C per decade as previously thought,” said Zhang.

Zhang specifically focused on the Arctic because previous studies had largely excluded the region from a global dataset. Zhang’s research shows that the Arctic is an important factor in mapping the effects of global warming.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Portable DNA lab kits can help stop illegal wildlife trafficking

Illegal plant and animal trafficking poses a major problem for both the safety of animals and the surrounding environments. Not only do some traffickers move parts from threatened or endangered animals, but wildlife traffickers also risk introducing invasive species to non-native habitats.

To further complicate matters, customs officials cannot always immediately identify the animals or plants that are making their way out of the country.

“Many threatened animals and plants are trafficked out of developing countries, which do not have adequate resources to combat these crimes,” said Mr. Sujeevan Ratnasingham, Informatics Director at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics.

Wildlife traffickers are also as evasive as possible so as not to get caught.

When it comes to organic material, often customs officials send samples to a laboratory to tell what animal or plant it is, but getting the results can take days.

Rapid identification of plants and animals at ports of entry could have a significant impact in reducing illegal wildlife trafficking and keeping invasive species out.

The International Barcode of Life project identified the need for quick and accurate identification at ports of entry and have developed the LAB-IN-A-BOX portable DNA barcoding Kit.

“By coupling the power of DNA barcoding to identify species with portability, LAB-IN-A-BOX makes it possible for anyone to identify any species anywhere,” said Paul Herbert, Founder of the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) Project. “It is certain to improve our capacity to care for the species that not only enliven our planet, but provide essential ecosystem services.”

The LAB-IN-A-BOX has two goals, to provide customs officials with a means of rapid detection of plants and animals, and to help implement swifter enforcement and prosecution for those who traffick in illegal wildlife.

The LAB-IN-A-BOX uses a database of DNA barcodes that officials can compare samples to and identify what the sample is. It can even identify samples within just a few hours.

The project will first be introduced at ports of entry in Africa, and the creators are hopeful about the kit’s impact on reducing wildlife trafficking and improving species conservation.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: David Dennis, at WikiMedia Commons