Trump admin’s new coal rules will lead to poorer U.S. air quality
The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced the guidelines of its proposed Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) Rule today. The legislation would replace former president Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which set ambitious targets to close outdated coal-burning plants and cut back on carbon dioxide emissions.
Instead of shutting down aging power plants, the ACE rule would allow states to lower their pollution standards and keep these plants operational by making minor improvements. In addition, the plan would give individual states the authority to regulate harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
A news release from the EPA states: “Many believed the CPP exceeded EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act, which is why 27 states, 24 trade associations, 37 rural electric co-ops, and three labor unions challenged the rule.”
After reviewing the CPP, the EPA made some major changes to allow states “adequate time and flexibility” to develop their own strategies for improving the efficiency at existing power plants and moving toward emissions reductions.
The EPA defends its decision to replace the “overly prescriptive and burdensome Clean Power Plan (CPP)” by insisting that the legislation overstepped its authority. The EPA claims that the ACE rule “instead empowers states, promotes energy independence, and facilitates economic growth and job creation.”
But, as the details of the proposed ACE rule emerge, not everyone is singing its praises. According to The New York Times, the EPA itself acknowledges in the fine print of its proposal that the devised plan would lead to higher carbon dioxide emissions and could cause up to 1,400 premature deaths every year.
California governor Jerry Brown posted on Twitter: “This is a declaration of war against America and all of humanity – it will not stand. Truth and common sense will triumph over Trump’s insanity.”
The American Lung Association released the following statement in response to the ACE rule:
“With today’s proposal, President Trump and Acting EPA Administrator Wheeler abandon much-needed public health safeguards against power plant pollution, placing the health of all Americans at risk, and especially those who are most vulnerable, including children, older adults, and people with asthma and heart disease.”
“Today’s proposal is a dangerous substitute for the Clean Power Plan and a careless giveaway to polluters that will delay meaningful progress in the future. The United States must aggressively limit power plant carbon pollution to protect human health from the impacts of climate change, including degraded air quality and more extreme weather threats, such as hurricanes, wildfires and floods.”
The EPA will accept comments for 60 days after the proposal is published in the Federal Register, and a public hearing will also be held. More information, including a fact sheet, is available at https://www.epa.gov/stationary-sources-air-pollution/proposal-affordable-clean-energy-ace-rule.
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Trees in the eastern U.S. are adapting to the local climate
Scientists analyzed over 23,000 tree cores to gain a better understanding of how trees respond to climate change. The study revealed that trees growing in temperate forests in the eastern United States are highly adaptable to local climate.
The research team included experts from the USDA Forest Service and was led by Charles Canham, a forest ecologist at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.
“By looking at data in tree rings, we were able to reveal how individual trees responded to variations in climate during a roughly 40 year period. There is evidence of pervasive local adaptation,” explained Canham.
The tree rings had been obtained by the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program in the 1980s. Cores were collected from trees at 7,010 plots in six New England states and in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.
The team tested alternate models of how much the trees grew from year to year as a function of age, size, temperature, and precipitation between 1940 and 1984.
“Trees responded to climate based on deviation from the long-term mean conditions in the location where they were growing,” said Canham. “For all 14 species, models that used deviation from the local, long-term mean were superior, with all 14 species showing strong adaptation or acclimation to local climate.”
Across most species, tree growth was highest in years that were cooler and wetter than the long-term average of a site. According to the researchers, more work is needed to determine if trees are exhibiting genetic differentiation, phenotypic acclimation, or both.
Adaptation based on genetic diversity could make trees more sensitive to climate change than expected. On the other hand, phenotypic acclimation, or the ability to adapt to the local environment, could make trees more resilient.
“These tree species have been around for tens of millions of years. But the pace of climate change that we anticipate is faster than anything any tree in one location has seen during its evolutionary history,” said Canham. “We need to know – is the future pace of change so fast that it will swamp either of these mechanisms?”
“There is no simple takeaway. Based on these cores, trees are cleverer than we give them credit for – but we don’t know how they are pulling it off or if they can keep pace with climate change.”
The study is published in the journal Ecosphere.
The hidden secrets of the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico
Caves are special, mysterious places. I felt it first when I was very young and visited Jewell Cave in South Dakota. I felt it again during high school geology class on a field trip to a small show cave in Colorado. When I first visited Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico though, I was blown away. Seeing the truly awe-inspiring size and scope of Carlsbad was what first inspired me to try caving. Will Rogers called the place, “Grand Canyon with a roof on it.”
Above the caves, the boundaries of the National Park enclose an amazing landscape. On the edge of the Chihuahuan desert that extends south, and on the border of the great plains extending to the east and rugged canyon and mountain country extending to the west, Carlsbad is in a unique position. The nature of different ecosystems converging in one area increases the biodiversity of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Cacti common in the Chihuahuan Desert, extending south deep into Mexico, live in Carlsbad along with desert animals like tortoises, lizards and rattlesnakes. There are also scrubland plants like juniper, mesquite and the creosote bush which smells of the desert after rain. Rattlesnake springs maintains a small pool of water and water loving species of plants such as willow and cottonwood.
Over 300 bird species have also been noted at Rattlesnake Springs, which is considered an Important Bird Area (IBA). According to the National Park Service, there are 67 species of mammals found at the park. There are 17 species of bats found in Carlsbad, including 3 species of free tailed bats. Two foxes live in Carlsbad and the raccoon resides along with its more mysterious desert relative, the ringtail cat. 55 species of reptile and amphibian have been identified in the park. Three species of rattlesnake a gecko and 8 species of horned or spiny lizards call Carlsbad home. There are only 5 known species of fish found in Carlsbad but at let 600 species of insect, with new ones being discovered all the time.
There are 85 ‘plant associations’ known in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, 28 of which seem to be unique to the park itself. Plant associations are unique communities of plants such as grasslands or woodlands. There are at least 900 species of vascular plants in Carlsbad, ranging from ferns, spike-moss and horsetails to 4 species of juniper, 4 pines and even 6 plants in the cashew family. There is an impressive number of cacti at 25 known species.
Being a place of desert and caves, both habitats known for a distinct lack of life, Carlsbad hides its biodiversity well and holds its secrets close.
Hiking in through the natural entrance gives you the place a certain scope that the quick trip down in an elevator lacks. The natural entrance seems enormous and as you take steps downward and inward, you can watch the patch of sunlight from outside dwindle to nothing behind you.
The scale of the caverns is hard to explain. Darkness is the dominant element and the whole place has a slightly hushed feel to it, like a cathedral. According to US Parks, the Big Room of Carlsbad Caverns alone is approximately the size of 6.2 football fields. In the main area of Carlsbad, only 3 miles of paved trails is available to visit but more than thirty miles of passages have been mapped to date, according to National Geographic. The less accessible Lechuguilla Cave which is also part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park has over 134.6 miles of passageway surveyed and rooms half as tall as New York’s Chrysler Building, according to Live Science.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is made up of over 119 caves buried below the Chihuahuan desert. The geology of area is composed of an ancient reef system, the Capitan Reef which was mainly sponges and algae in a shallow sea 265 million years ago. The reef system created large deposits of limestone out of which the famous caverns are carved.
The subterranean geology of Carlsbad is so hidden that it wasn’t until a local cowboy, Jim White was chasing cattle in 1898 and saw a swarm of bats which from a distance appeared to be a giant plume of smoke erupting from the desert. Jim rode closer and then walked towards a gaping hole in the earth. He described the moment when he discovered Carlsbad Caverns, “I found myself gazing into the biggest and blackest hole I had ever seen, out of which the bats seemed literally to boil”.
Jim returned a few days later with a rope, wire and a hatchet he used to make a ladder with and began the still ongoing work of exploring the caves.
In the early days Jim White, lowered visitors into Carlsbad Caverns in a large bucket tied to a bucket used to collect guano. Guano was mined and sold to citrus farmers in California to be used as fertilizer. It wasn’t until 1923 that Carlsbad was turned into a National Monument and 1930 that the National Park was created.
Unlike most caves in the world Carlsbad Caverns seems to have been created largely by sulfuric acid instead of carbonic acid. Cracks, faults and other weaknesses formed in limestone naturally and sulfuric acid leaked into this cracks, enlarging them over enormous amounts of time to form caves. As the Guadalupe Mountains rose, the sulfuric acid drained away from the caves, leaving them empty. As sulfuric acid drained away it left gypsum crystals behind.
Once the caves were dry and relatively empty, formations: enormous stone columns, sharp stalactites and smooth flowstone formed over millions of years, by minerals deposited tiny drip by tiny drip. Erosion and collapse of the cave created Carlsbad’s natural entrance, letting air into the cave and allowing the chemistry that created beautiful cave formations. Columns now appear like massive candles where melted limestone stands in for wax. Side passages open, bristling with a thousand sharp projections like the stone fangs of some monstrous mouth. Shadow and light play over an alien landscape ready to be painted by the imagination.
Today, Carlsbad Caverns is home to more than 250,000 Brazilian Free-tailed Bats. Along with the bats, a colony of cave swallows also lives near the natural entrance of the cave. Three species of cave adapted crickets live within the caverns, eating fungi and algae as well as providing food for others by being eaten along with their eggs and dung. Beetles, millipedes, centipedes and other arthropods live in or around the cave, feeding on cave crickets. In the dark there are probably many other species of arthropods hiding.
In other caves in the southwest, pseudoscorpions (similar to scorpions but without a tail), centipedes and spiders have been found adapted to and living in caves. Cracks, small passages and undiscovered rooms are all places new species can hide. Even turning over and looking under small rocks on a cave floor can reveal new animals to science.
In a place like Carlsbad Caverns, the possibilities are endless. It’s uncertain how many caves there actually are or if caves now known might someday be found to connect to each other. Cave exploration can’t be done with satellites or GPS, but must like the old days be carried out largely by people under their own power creeping into the unknown. Research on strange bacteria is being carried out in Lechuguilla Cave in Carlsbad. Exploration is active and ongoing throughout the park. Even above ground new species of insects are commonly found. For the visitor, Carlsbad is a glimpse into the unknown, a reminder that the world is still often wild and strange.
Wildfires are burning across nearly two million acres in the US
This year’s wildfire season has been catastrophic in the Western United States, and it is not showing any signs of slowing down. Currently, there are 110 large fires burning and 1.9 million acres of land are on fire. Over the weekend, eight large fires were contained, including the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park, and six new fires were reported in Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon.
There is concern over persistently hot temperatures, which will continue along with daily wind cycles. Thunderstorms are in the forecast in parts of Wyoming and Montana, where lightning could spark more blazes with the increasingly dry conditions. Across the western half of Montana, a strong easterly breeze is expected that may help spread fires.
National Preparedness Level is at the highest level of 5, which means that national resources are fully committed. The “potential for emerging significant wildland fires is high and expected to remain high” in multiple regions.
The west to east jet stream has carried smoke from the fires across the country as far as the East Coast. The smoke has traveled south as far as Texas and east as far as Quebec. A local radio station near Washington DC, WTOP, reported that smoke from the California fires had reached the DC Metro area this past week.
Wildfire smoke is a mixture of particles and chemicals produced by incomplete burning of carbon-containing materials, and can be dangerous to human health. All smoke contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and particulate matter. The particles and chemicals contained in smoke vary according to what is burning, and may include aldehydes, acid gases, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), benzene, toluene, styrene, metals, or dioxins.
High levels of smoke should be completely avoided whenever possible. Infants, young children, the elderly, and people with respiratory conditions such as asthma are more vulnerable to the negative effects of smoke exposure. If exposure cannot be avoided, it is advised to limit physical exertion.
A map that shows where the smoke is currently and where it is predicted to move can be found here: https://rapidrefresh.noaa.gov/hrrr/HRRRsmoke/.
Image Credit: NASA image courtesy NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) project.
The power of the court system in fighting climate change
If climate change mitigation were up to President Trump alone, it’s not hard to imagine that any progress to cap emissions would be completely undone.
While Trump is exercising his power to undo many of many Obama-era climate change policies, the courts in the United States have been crucial to the enacting of many climate change regulatory policies.
Court rulings like the Supreme Court case that mandated the regulations of greenhouse gases make it impossible for the administration to completely ignore climate change or the impact of emissions.
Researchers from George Washington University recently conducted a study examining how lawsuits over the past 26 years have shaped new climate policies and the public’s awareness of climate issues.
“This first-of-a-kind study outlines the types of climate change lawsuits that are more likely to win or lose, and why,” said Sabrina McCormick, the lead author of the study. “Efforts to affect U.S. climate change policy should consider current trends in the courtroom.”
The researchers reviewed 873 climate change-related cases dating 1990 through 2016 and interviewed 78 lawyers, environmental advocates, and scientists who had been involved in the cases examined.
After analyzing the cases, the researchers found that lawsuits asking for emissions reductions through more regulations were often lost in court.
Coal-fired power plant emissions and pollution were the most common issues brought before a judge according to the study’s results.
When it came to cases involving major power plants, the researchers found that the courts often weighed in favor of the plant as emission regulations could affect productivity.
“At the same time, litigants who want to address climate change often win renewable energy and energy efficiency cases,” said McCormick. “The courts favored the pro-regulatory positions in these kinds of cases by a ratio of 2.6 to 1.”
The researchers found that winning was not the only way to help bring about much-needed change, and in some instances lost cases still garnered enough attention and led to a public debate on the issues of the case.
With the recent announcements of Trump’s proposals and plans to freeze fuel efficiency standards and limit state options for reducing coal power plant emissions, the study shows that the courts could be a crucial aid in enacting climate change mitigation.
“The Trump Administration’s refusal to even acknowledge human contributions to climate change, no less pursue any meaningful action to mitigate or adapt to it, coupled with Congress’s persistent inaction on climate issues, makes efforts to address climate change in the courts all the more important,” said Robert Glicksman, a co-author of the study. “Our study assesses how such efforts have fared.”
Image Credit: MPH@GW, Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University
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The winners and losers of the historic California drought
A global hotspot for biodiversity and home to many threatened or endangered species in Southern California recently offered a unique look at how vital ecological hotspots respond to weather extremes brought on by climate change.
What began as a study of the of the area’s giant kangaroo rat population and other endangered species that are found in the Carrizo Plains morphed into a look at how the many different species in the area dealt with California’s historic drought.
The results, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, show that weather extremes like drought caused drastic species decline but also created space for some species to thrive.
This pattern of winners and losers could be crucial for understanding how different ecosystems respond to climate change around the world.
“The Carrizo Plain is one of the global hotspots of endangered species, with endangered species at every trophic level: plants, rodents, carnivores,” said Laura Prugh, the study’s lead author. “It also is an ideal laboratory to see how an exceptional climate event affects a whole ecosystem.”
After the California drought that began in 2012, the researchers noticed that dominant predator species like owls and foxes declined because their main food source, the kangaroo rat, also declined.
However, the researchers noticed that these declines in predators gave way for other populations to increase.
“We think that even though these extreme climate events, in the short term, can be pretty devastating for some populations, in the long run they might be important in maintaining biodiversity in the system, by keeping inferior competitors from getting pushed out of the system entirely,” Prugh said.
For the study, the researchers collected data on plants, birds, reptiles, mammals, and insects starting from 2007. The researchers conducted field studies to count how many species there were in the area and how the drought impacted biodiversity and populations.
Of the 423 species that the researchers focused on for the study, four percent were considered “winners” because of their increasing population numbers during the drought.
Today, the Carrizo Plain area has since recovered from the drought that ended in 2015, but the results of the study could have important implications for other global hotspots.
“In terms of implications for climate change, it gives some cause for optimism in showing that ecosystems have a remarkable ability to handle some of these extreme events,” said Prugh.
Image Credit: Laura Prugh/University of Washington
Trump to announce plan to give states control of coal emissions
The Trump administration will soon announce plans to increase emissions from coal plants and reduce the individual freedoms of states in making policies to reduce or limit those emissions.
Trump has long been a friend of the coal industry, from his famous declaration that he was chosen to represent “Pittsburgh not Paris” and would withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, to Trump’s support of “clean coal.”
The administration has also worked hard to undo any climate change mitigation policies put in place by President Obama, including freezing fuel efficiency standards.
This latest proposal to put control back into the hands of coal is slated to be announced by Trump at a rally on Tuesday, according to the New York Times.
Several people who read the proposal spoke to the Times about the details of Trump’s plan, and many environmental and renewable energy advocates are concerned about the ramifications of imposing a plan that so entirely erases any progress made in climate change regulation.
Instead of finding a way to advance with the growing trend of renewables and allowing states more freedom to curb emissions on their terms, the new plan could cause emissions to spike and leave states powerless to do anything about it.
With the new proposal, control over coal power plant emissions would be left to the coal plants themselves and any measures put in place would have to be done on site.
The Trump administration seems determined to act in the face of mounting evidence that climate change is causing more weather extremes, impacting agriculture, and degrading vital habitats.
“The science is just getting clearer and clearer every day,” Janet McCabe, the Environmental Protection Agency air chief under the Obama administration told the New York Times. “I don’t know how many times people need to hear that we’re having the warmest summer on record or how many storms people need to see. This is no fooling.”
According to the New York Times, the new proposal may also be savvy political move to help gain more of a foothold in the midterm elections.
The move certainly won’t assuage fears that Trump’s administration policies will cause an increase in emissions, create health and safety hazards with increases in pollution, and exacerbate climate extremes like heat waves, droughts, sea level rise, and increasingly severe hurricanes seasons.
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Summer weather stalling increases risk of wildfires, flooding
A team of experts has conducted the first comprehensive review of research on summer weather stalling. The researchers have found growing evidence to support the idea that human activities are disturbing air circulation patterns and triggering the stalling effect.
When summer weather conditions stall, they can turn into extreme events such as wildfires, droughts, and intense rainfall. The study was focused on the influence of the disproportionally strong warming of the Arctic that is caused by harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
The researchers determined that burning fossil fuels is likely changing air circulation patterns, which are affecting local and regional weather patterns. The human influence on the weather can turn catastrophic, and a study conducted by a second research team has demonstrated this influence on the devastating 2016 wildfire in Canada near Alberta.
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber is a co-author of the second study and the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).
“Giant airstreams encircle our globe in the upper troposphere – we call them planetary waves,” said Schellnhuber. “Now evidence is mounting that humanity is messing with these enormous winds. Fueled by human-made greenhouse-gas emissions, global warming is probably distorting the natural patterns.”
The waves usually travel eastward between the Equator and the North Pole.
“Yet when they get trapped due to a subtle resonance mechanism, they slow down so the weather in a given region gets stuck. Rains can grow into floods, sunny days into heat waves, and tinder-dry conditions into wildfires,” said Schellnhuber.
PIK scientist Dim Coumou is the lead author of the review paper and a co-author of the wildfire case study.
“While it might not sound so bad to have more prolonged sunny episodes in summer, this is in fact a major climate risk,” said Coumou. “We have rising temperatures due to human-caused global warming which intensifies heat waves and heavy rainfall, and on top of that we could get dynamical changes that make weather extremes even stronger – this is quite worrying.”
This summer is a perfect example of how stalling weather can impact societies, as hot and dry weather conditions persist across Western Europe, Russia, and parts of the United States.
Under global warming, the Arctic warms more than the rest of the Northern hemisphere, which reduces the temperature difference between the North Pole and the Equator. It is this temperature difference that primarily drives the airstreams.
Simon Wang from Utah State University is a co-author of the review paper.
“There are many studies now, and they point to a number of factors that could contribute to increased airstream stalling in the mid-latitudes – besides Arctic warming, there’s also the possibility of climate-change-induced shifting of the storm tracks, as well as changes in the tropical monsoons,” said Wang.
“Under global warming, the Indian summer monsoon rainfall will likely intensify and this will also influence the global airstreams and might ultimately contribute to more stalling weather patterns. All of these mechanisms do not work in isolation but interact.”
“There is strong evidence that winds associated with summer weather systems are weakening and this can interact with so-called amplified quasi-stationary waves. These combined effects point towards more persistent weather patterns, and hence more extreme weather.”
The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.
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Major water shortages forecast as crucial reservoir levels drop
Water levels at Lake Mead, the world’s largest reservoir, have dropped around 130 feet since the 1990s. The unprecedented rate of drying up is evidenced by the growing “bathtub ring” around the lake, where the newly exposed rock from the water levels dropping starkly contrasts to the rock face above.
Lake Mead is just one major water source along the Colorado River Basin, a system of reservoirs and rivers that supply water to 40 million people and 6,300 square miles of farmland, according to the Associated Press.
Because so many people rely on the river basin, and that seven states must work together to determine water distribution, the Colorado River Basin is controlled through a complex network of treaties and agreements.
The policies that dictate how the Colorado River Basin is divided up are completely unique to the needs of the people and states that draw water from it.
While Lake Mead and the river system may be able to meet water demands for now, the long-lasting drought that the southwest has been experiencing shows no signs of letting up and could lead to major shortages after September 2019.
The Associated Press reported on a forecast from the U.S Bureau of Reclamation that shows that demand will increase and water levels will continue to drop which will prompt mandatory rationing in the southwest.
“If these projections materialize, we’re very quickly going to lose control of how to manage the deteriorating conditions on the Colorado River,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority told the Associated Press.
How Nevada, Arizona, and the other states that need water from the river system will handle any impending shortages will depend on contingency plans set in place to avoid rationing and the amount of snow and precipitation that the area sees in the coming months.
Even so, according to the Bureau, there is a 52 percent chance that a shortage will occur in 2019.
Plans and negotiations to deal with the shortage are taking longer than expected because of how the area is governed.
Currently, Arizona is having the most difficulty coming to a unified position which would enable negotiations for water management to continue effectively.
The new forecast spells out a bleak future from the Colorado River Basin and it looks like Lake Mead’s infamous bathtub ring is only going to get wider as more and more of the water system dries up.
How disposable contact lenses are damaging the environment
Contact lenses are convenient, and new innovations have prioritized comfort, eye health and ease of disposal.
But maybe disposable lenses are too easy.
The vision correcting devices may be adding to pollution, especially of microplastics, in the Earth’s rivers, lakes and oceans, according to new research presented at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society last week.
“I had worn glasses and contact lenses for most of my adult life,” said Dr. Rolf Halden of Arizona State University, who led the study. “But I started to wonder, has anyone done research on what happens to these plastic lenses?”
Halden, doctoral student Charlie Rolsky and graduate research assistant Varun Kelkar – a three-person team that had already been researching microplastics pollution – set out to determine what happens to disposable contact lenses after they’re used.
A huge number, they discovered, are washed down the drain. As much as six to 10 metric tons of plastic contact lenses end up in wastewater in the U.S. alone, the team of researchers said. Because of their weight, most of the lenses sink to the bottom of waterways, where they may be eaten by bottom-feeding marine life.
“We began looking into the U.S. market and conducted a survey of contact lens wearers. We found that 15 to 20 percent of contact wearers are flushing the lenses down the sink or toilet. This is a pretty large number, considering roughly 45 million people in the U.S. alone wear contact lenses,” Rolsky said.
However, there were some difficulties when it came to determining just how much flushed contact lenses are affecting the environment. Unlike other plastic waste, which mainly contains polypropylene, contact lenses are intended to be softer and more breathable for eye health. It’s unclear how much wastewater treatment might affect contacts’ blend of poly(methylmethacrylate), silicones and uoropolymers.
But it may not be good. The team looked at polymers used by five contact manufacturers, then studied samples from wastewater treatment plants. The lenses appear to break down more quickly and easily than some other plastics, the researchers found.
“When the plastic loses some of its structural strength, it will break down physically. This leads to smaller plastic particles which would ultimately lead to the formation of microplastics,” Kelkar said.
The team admits that more research is needed – but that’s exactly what they’re hoping their research will encourage.
“Ultimately, we hope that manufacturers will conduct more research on how the lenses impact aquatic life and how fast the lenses degrade in a marine environment,” Halden said.
By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer
Image credit: Charles Rolsky, Arizona State University
Ancient pottery shows effects of climate change on early humans
Climate change isn’t a new occurrence on our planet. The Earth’s climate has been shifting through periods of warming and cooling ever since it was first formed over 4.5 billion years ago. In fact, one of these cooling periods occurred just 8,000 years ago, when around 6200 B.C.E., climates cooled across the planet. Scientists believe that giant glacial lakes in North America spilled into the Atlantic Ocean, changing sea currents and weather patterns, ultimately triggering what is now known as the 8.2-kiloyear event (as it occurred roughly 8,200 years ago).
This cooling event lead to much drier summers in the Northern Hemisphere, which would have certainly created some problems for ancient farmers. Now for the first time, an international team of researchers from the University of Bristol and Adam Mickiewicz University has found evidence of just exactly how people living during that time may have been affected.
They did this through digging up fragments of clay pottery (or potsherds) buried in ancient trash piles in one of the world’s oldest protocities – known as Çatalhöyük.
Çatalhöyük existed in what is now central Turkey. From around 7500 B.C.E. to 5700 B.C.E., early farmers grew wheat, barley, and peaks and raised cattle, goats, and sheep in this small city of about 10,000 inhabitants. When the 8.2-kiloyear event occurred, it would have dried up feed crops and grazing lands, as well as resulted in colder winters. This likely would have led to thinner livestock in reduced numbers. And because the people of Çatalhöyük stored animal meat in clay pots, the researchers imagined that they could assess the “chemical echoes” of the animals’ dietary distress.
Using gas chromatography – a type of mass spectrometry that identifies elemental variants known as isotopes – the researchers looked at the hydrogen isotopes of the fat deposits in these clay pots. This helped them determine that the sherds dating to roughly 8,200 years ago had a ratio of isotope deuterium – or heavy hydrogen – that was 9 percent higher than other hydrogen isotopes from the sample.
This is an important find, as previous research on the area’s climate and plant chemistry had found that lower precipitation rates were linked to higher ratios of heavy hydrogen. The livestock would have taken up more of this heavy hydrogen through grazing during the climate cooling.
The researchers report the first direct archaeological evidence of this phenomenon in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s possible that through similar analysis of other fat-soaked pot sherds from different sites around the world, the researchers will be able to accurately recreate climate conditions for other ancient cultures.
New technology can predict landslides well before they happen
The ability of scientists to predict natural disasters such as landslides and earthquakes is something that can save lives when applied correctly. While an instrument such as a seismograph can detail tremors leading up to an earthquake, it doesn’t give anybody nearby that much time to evacuate the area.
Luckily, researchers from the University of Melbourne have developed a software tool that uses applied mathematics and big data analytics to predict the boundary of where a landslide will occur – two weeks in advance.
The researchers knew that there are always warning signs leading up to a collapse that causes a landslide, but it was difficult to determine what these signs are.
“These warnings can be subtle. Identifying them requires fundamental knowledge of failure at the microstructure level – the movement of individual grains of earth,” says Antoinette Tordesillas, a professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics. “Of course, we cannot possibly see the movement of individual grains in a landslide or earthquake that stretches for kilometers, but if we can identify the properties that characterize failure in the small-scale, we can shed light on how failure evolves in time, no matter the size of the area we are observing.”
The early clues leading up to a landslide are patterns of motion that change over time, ultimately becoming synchronized.
“In the beginning, the movement is highly disordered,” explains Tordesillas. “But as we get closer to the point of failure – the collapse of a sand castle, crack in the pavement or slip in an open pit mine – motion becomes ordered as different locations suddenly move in similar ways.”
Their model decodes the data on movement, turning it into a network that allows the researchers to extract hidden patterns on motion, and see how they change in space and time. The key is in detecting the ordered motions in the network as soon as possible, which is when these movements are at their most subtle. This new software is now focused on using algorithms and big data to formulate risk assessment and management actions that may be able to save lives.
“People have gone somewhat overboard on so-called data analytics, machine learning and so on,” says Robin Batterham, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “While we’ve been doing this sort of stuff for 40 years, this software harnesses the computer power and memory available to look not just at the surface movement, but extract the relevant data patterns. We’re able to do things that were just unimaginable in a mathematical sense 30 years ago.”
With this new technology, it’s possible that we’ll be able to predict when a landfill or dam might break, when a mudslide may occur, or when a building’s foundation will crack or move. Being able to apply this throughout the world could save countless lives in the future.