Air pollution exposure during pregnancy linked to birth problems

Researchers at NYU School of Medicine have determined that exposure to air pollution during the early stages of pregnancy may lead to preterm birth and low birth weight. The study found that susceptibility to air pollution during the first or second trimester increases the risk of negative birth outcomes.

Researchers studied the effects of fine particulate air pollution, which comes from car exhaust and various industrial processes. Exposure to fine particulate air pollution, or PM2.5, has been found to increase the risk of asthma and heart disease.

Previous studies linked PM2.5 inhalation during pregnancy to low birth weight, but the research did not establish which stages of pregnancy are the most vulnerable. The authors of the current study have found that exposure during the first two trimesters can cause the most harm.

For the study, the researchers exposed one group of pregnant mice to PM2.5 levels comparable to those found in highly-polluted urban environments, while a second group was exposed to filtered air. The mice who were ingesting air pollution were at four varying gestational stages which represented the different trimesters of human pregnancy.

Air pollution inhalation during period one resulted in preterm birth for approximately 83 percent of the mouse litters. In addition, exposure to PM2.5 from conception to the end of the second trimester resulted in an 11.4 percent decrease in birth weight for half of the litters.

Dr. Jason Blum is an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine at NYU School of Medicine and lead author of the study.

“This first study of this problem in mice adds to the growing body of evidence that inhalation of particulate matter from implantation through the second trimester of pregnancy is potentially dangerous,” said Dr. Blum.

Susceptibility to PM2.5 during the first and second trimester also caused decreased body length, decreased placental weight, and decreased anogenital distance in the mouse litters.

“These findings could lead physicians to advise women to avoid high pollution areas or use air filtration systems during the early stages of pregnancy,” said senior author Judith Zelikoff, PhD. “With preterm birth and low birth weight having such serious health consequences, the need for further research in this area is greater than ever.”

The study is published today in Environmental Health Perspectives.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

New super filters can remove heavy metals from water

Researchers from Rice University have developed filters that can remove toxic heavy metals from water. Carbon nanotubes immobilized in a tuft of quartz fiber absorbed 99 percent of cadmium, cobalt, copper, mercury, nickel, and lead from water samples.

The filter is so effective that only one gram of the material could treat 83,000 liters of contaminated water to meet World Health Organization standards, according to calculations made by the researchers. This amount of water could meet the daily needs of 11,000 people.

Lead author Perry Alagappan was still a high school student when he teamed up with Rice University chemist Andrew Barron for the project. Alagappan learned about the contamination of groundwater by electronic waste in India and set out to find a solution.

Barron points out that the raw materials for the filters are inexpensive. The filters can be washed with a mild chemical like vinegar and reused, which simplifies the process of recycling them even in remote locations.

The powerful filters consist of carbon nanotubes grown in place on quartz fibers that are then chemically epoxidized. The quartz provides the framework and the carbon nanotube covering makes the filter tough, but the researchers determined the epoxidation appears to be most responsible for adsorbing the metal.

Scaled-up versions of the “supported-epoxidized carbon nanotube” (SENT) filters were able to treat 5 liters of water in less than one minute. The filters were restored in 90 seconds, and retained almost 100 percent of their capacity to purify water for up to 70 liters per 100 grams of SENT. The metals absorbed in the materials can either be extracted for reuse or turned into a solid for safe disposal.

“This would make the biggest social impact on village-scale units that could treat water in remote, developing regions,” Barron said. “However, there is also the potential to scale up metal extraction, in particular from mine wastewater.”

An analysis of these lab results will be published in this month in the journal Scientific Reports.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Project to save the Belize coastline provides useful blueprint

Coastal areas face a series of increasing risks to the natural habitats around them. Research has found that overfishing, city development, pollution, and receding habitats are all serious threats posed to environmental preservation. But recent research out of Belize has worldwide implications as scientific studies combined with community efforts have created a management plan to help preserve the coasts of the area.

Belize’s rich marine life is dependent on the mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass meadows of the area. Belize’s economy is also dependent on the preservation of its coastal ecosystem as many people rely on ecosystem services like fishing, food, protection of its coastlines and the tourism industry.

Belize was the perfect location for a study of ways to incorporate better coastal management as its Barrier Reef Reserve, the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List of sites in danger in 2009.

Research was gathered over a period of 5 years and specifically looked at the risks posed to coral, mangrove, and seagrass habitats by typical activities like fishing. Scientists were also careful to consider the needs of the communities who both depend on and affect these habitats while performing the study.

The study, which was printed in the International Journal of Biodiversity Science, Ecosystem Services & Management, with lead author Gregg Verutes and published by Taylor and Francis, showcases the collaboration between the Coastal Zone Management Authority & Institute and the Natural Capital Project.

The two teams came together to work on a coastal management plant, the first of its kind, that both enhances Belize’s economy and spans ecological development projects, while still preserving the ecosystem. This balancing act between conservation and development to create a management plan was called “visionary” by UNESCO.

This coastal management plan could help coastal nations around the world sustain their economic development and still preserve and protect crucial marine habitats.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Seawalls protect our coastlines and have environmental impact

Many of America’s coastlines are dotted with massive armored structures of the non-military variety: seawalls. These man-made obstructions are designed to protect the shoreline and any human lives and infrastructure that may dwell behind it – particularly in urban areas.

But not every seawall is the same. These structures vary greatly depending on environmental setting, ranging from huge seawalls and revetments along the open coast to small bulkheads and manmade oyster reefs located in estuaries and tidal marshes. And although the design of these walls varies widely, the research hasn’t. While research efforts regarding the ecological effects of seawalls have increased, they have generally focused on specific settings and have not provided a bigger picture of how seawalls influence their environment.

A recent study by marine scientists at UC Santa Barbara and their colleagues from three coastal sites in the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network looks to increase knowledge of seawalls’ ecological impact. Their study attempts to generalize the ecological responses to armoring throughout a range of coastal settings where the structures exist.

“The size and shape of these manmade structures often result in the loss of intertidal habitats,” explains lead author Jenifer Dugan, a research biologist at UCSB’s Marine Science Institute. “The extent of that loss is a function of environmental setting, structure type and how far seaward and along the shore the structure extends.”

The three unique LTER programs analyzed armoring at a variety of different sites. At the Santa Barbara Coastal LTER, they studied the impact of seawalls on open coast beaches – revealing a significant ecological impact on many species, including birds. The Georgia Coastal Ecosystems project focused on the effects of small-scale armoring in salt marshes, while the Virginia Coast Reserve LTER looked at man-made oyster reefs and living shorelines being used as coastal protection structures.

“What was novel about this cross-site collaboration was putting these site-specific studies into perspective by making comparisons across a broad range of habitats,” says study co-author Merryl Alber, a professor at the University of Georgia.

The researchers also designed a model in order to analyze the environmental location relate to hydrodynamic energy, such as wave and tide action. Using existing literature, they evaluated how accurately their model could predict the ecological impact of seawalls.

Their review of previous studies showed how unbalanced previous research was in regards to varying environments and key factors of ecological effects.

“Our review not only revealed major gaps in knowledge but also highlighted the fact that existing information on ecological responses to armoring is unevenly distributed across soft sediment habitat types and does not necessarily cover the range of potential environmental and armoring contexts,” says co-author Kyle Emery, a doctorate candidate at UCSB. “Our work makes it clear that there is certainly room for more studies.”

The research team believes that coastal armoring structures will likely face greater hydrodynamic energy as sea levels continue to rise, resulting in even more significant ecological impacts on many environments.

With these increased research efforts and an effective model to determine the ecological effects of shoreline armoring, scientists are enhancing our knowledge of how these practices affect the world around us.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Measuring soil moisture can help predict wildfires

A new study suggests that management agencies are using an outdated method of calculating soil moisture for wildfire risk assessments.

The Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI) was developed in 1968 to estimate the likelihood of wildfire based on drought conditions such as the availability of soil water. Researchers in Oklahoma have determined KBDI is no longer the most reliable technique for determining soil moisture, as tools are now capable of producing detailed measurements.

Using KBDI, soil moisture is approximated by precipitation and estimated evapotranspiration. Meters and sensors are available that can measure soil moisture more accurately as a fraction of available water capacity (FAW). Despite this fact, many agencies are still using KBDI to rate fire danger levels.

Using statewide data, researchers in Oklahoma compared the relationships of FAW and KBDI with wildfire incidents and found that FAW was consistently better than KBDI.

For example, soil moisture conditions with a higher chance of producing large wildfires during growing seasons were more narrowly defined by FAW. Regression models based on FAW more frequently predicted days with large fires. FAW also delivered more time to prepare for wildfire, as alerts for the potential of extreme wildfire could be given earlier with FAW than with KBDI.

The findings of the study indicate that FAW is a much more reliable resource than KBDI for establishing soil water levels and assessing fire risk based on soil moisture. The authors express an urgent need for land management agencies in Oklahoma to stop relying on KBDI.

The report is published in the Soil Science Society of America Journal.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Are Indian monsoons getting stronger?

Indian monsoons have strengthened in the central and northern parts of the country over the past 15 years, according to a new study.

The new trend reverses a decades-long pattern of dry weather, scientists at MIT discovered. However, it also means a lot more water than the regions are equipped to handle: the heavier than normal monsoon activity has brought powerful flooding with it.

The MIT researchers set out to discover what caused the change in monsoon patterns. The changes appear to correspond with warming trends in both the Indian ocean and in atmospheric surface temperatures in the Indian subcontinent.

Since 2002 – the same year Indian monsoons began to pick up – the subcontinent has seen a strong warming trend of anywhere from 0.1 to 1 degree Celsius each year, the MIT researchers noted. During the same time, rising ocean temperatures in the Indian ocean slowed unexpectedly.

“Climatologically, India went through a sudden, drastic warming, while the Indian Ocean, which used to be warm, all of a sudden slowed its warming,” Dr. Chien Wang of MIT said. “This may have been from a combination of natural variability and [human-caused] influences, and we’re still trying to get to the bottom of the physical processes that caused this reversal.”

Whatever the cause behind the reversal, the warmer air temperatures catching up to the ocean has created the “perfect storm” of variables to create strong and powerful Indian monsoons.

The study, which looked at weather data from India that has been recorded since the late 1800s, has put to rest worries that India is caught in an irreversible dry spell.

The worry – based on a 50-year dry spell that began to reverse only 15 years ago – was that deforestation and use of aerosols in India had caused a dry period that could not be mitigated.

But the MIT researchers were surprised, when they studied the rainfall data, to find that the dry period in northern and central India was rebounding.

“The Indian monsoon is considered a textbook, clearly defined phenomenon, and we think we know a lot about it, but we don’t,” Wang says. “Here, we identify a phenomenon that was mostly overlooked.”

Research is still needed to narrow down whether the drying and revival of the northern and central monsoons are a natural cycle or whether the changes were caused by human activity, the scientists said.

The study will be published in the journal Nature Climate Change. MIT’s research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation, the National Research Foundation of Singapore, and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

Image credit: Daniel J. Rao / Shutterstock.com

The complicated nature of wildfires

Earth.com presents a crash course in the causes, risks, damage, and importance of wildfires.

To Americans living predominantly in the West, summer has the dubious distinction of being wildfire season. When the climate is at its hottest and driest, millions of acres of forests become a literal tinderbox. And thanks to climate change, we’re seeing a greater number of days in which conditions are prime for wildfire destruction.

Causes

While lightning strikes start some fires, humans are the primary cause of about 80 percent of U.S. wildfires. The “trigger” can be smoldering campfires, carelessly tossed cigarette butts, sparks thrown from dragging mufflers, fireworks or even deliberate acts of arson.

However the flame is struck, fuel is abundant in the form of dry trees, grasses or other vegetation. A single flame can turn quickly to a conflagration that can consume millions of acres of land, building structures and even entire communities.

The damage done

Wildfires are also a threat to human and animal survival. One reason they’re so potentially deadly is that they can spread quickly. Depending on the available fuel source and wind speed, a fire can move at the rate of up to 14 miles an hour. As Americans encroach more and more on previously undeveloped land in the West, the Southeast and elsewhere, human populations become more at risk when wildfires occur.

Sixteen people died when the Wallow Fire in 2011 burned for about six weeks and incinerated 538,000 acres of land in the Bear Wallow Wilderness area in Arizona and New Mexico.

Last year, wildfires in Tennessee killed seven, forced the evacuation of 14,000 people in and near Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and threatened the Dollywood theme park.

Historically, the most lethal fire on record occurred in Minnesota and Wisconsin in 1918. It killed some 1,000 people.

A rightful place in the ecosystem

As dangerous as they can be to firefighters and area residents and visitors, wildfires aren’t all bad. In fact, they’re a natural part of the ecosystem.

They clean out overly thick vegetation, kill harmful insects and microorganisms and add nutrients to the soil. Also, in destroying thick canopies, the fires allow sunlight to penetrate and encourage new growth.

The before and after photos of forest fire environments can offer dramatic proof of the natural cleansing effect of fire. Understandably, that’s of little consolation to homeowners caught in the grip of a raging and out-of-control wildfire.

Original Feature by David Searls, Earth.com Staff Writer

Focus on climate change consensus may undermine education efforts

Want to influence public views on climate change? Focus education efforts on solutions to climate problems and not scientific consensus, scholars say.

Education campaigns that make a point of correcting misconceptions about scientific consensus may actually be undermining policy efforts, according to a new expert commentary published in the journal Environmental Communication.

Instead, environmental education efforts and policy should focus on finding solutions to individual climate problems, they said. Focusing the scientific consensus not only shifts attention away from the effects of climate change, it may undermine the development of useful policy.

This is especially true of campaigns that focus on the “97 percent” statistic, the experts said.

“There is a danger of overreach in that numbers like the 97 percent consensus are implicitly extended to all areas of climate science, and used to close down debate over complex topics like extreme weather events,” said Dr. Reiner Grundmann of the University of Nottingham, one of the commentary’s co-authors.

By focusing on the scientific consensus, the experts said, environmental advocates are assuming it is needed to give legitimacy to strategies to mitigate damage caused by climate change.

“This (climate change) approach also makes the implausible assumption that publics will follow the correct policy path once given the relevant scientific information, and that acceptance of scientific consensus is needed to support specific solutions,” he said.

But in the late 1970s and 1980s, a campaign to shift Americans away from using aerosol cans that released ozone-depleting chemicals was successful, even though there was no scientific consensus at the time as to whether the hole in the ozone layer was man-made or not. Neither was there consensus over the ozone layer’s purpose. By the time the Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987, the campaign was years old, Grundmann and his co-authors note.

Rather than getting the public to accept that a scientific consensus exists, education efforts are better served by focusing on addressing specific issues like extreme weather, they said.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

A preview of what a warmer climate will be like in the 2080s

With climate change on the horizon, scientists have begun piecing together what life on planet Earth might look and feel like by the end of this century. According to a new study, over 75% of plant and animal species in England will be significantly affected by climate change by the year 2100.

The research comes from the University of York and predicts that more than half of 3,000 species of plants and animals in England could significantly expand their populations into different areas of the country to avoid the ill effects of climate change.

“In England we’re likely to see more winners than losers if we manage land in the right places to facilitate expanding populations,” said Colin Beale of the University of York. “This research will also help us identify where we have the best chance to help species that are at most risk.”

The team, which includes researchers at the University of Reading, the British Trust for Ornithology, and Natural England, also found that 27 percent of species may not find suitable climate in the areas they currently occupy.

Northern and upland species were found to be the most vulnerable, which includes birds like the dotterel and red grouse, flowering plants such as crowberry, and damp-loving mosses, the study said.

However, wasps, bees, ants and many southerly distributed species such as Dartford warbler and emperor dragonfly, are likely to thrive in warmer conditions and could expand to new areas of the country.

“This research provides valuable information for nature conservationists, who need to plan for changing species’ distributions and an uncertain future,” said James Pearce-Higgins, Director of Science at the British Trust for Ornithology, and lead author of the study.

The researchers compiled a study of 400 species and the factors known to make them more vulnerable to climate change.

With these factors included, the proportion of wildlife at risk from climate change increased to 35 percent, while 42 percent may be able to expand their populations.

The study emphasizes the need to protect and expand networks of habitats so that species can successfully colonize new areas.

“Climate change is a big challenge to conservationists; we need to ready to protect species where they have the best chance in the future, which will not always be the same places as in the past,” said Dr. Mike Morecroft, Principal Specialist in Climate Change at Natural England. “Good science is more important than ever to ensure good decision making.”

By: David Beasley, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: University of York

Enhanced microalgae could be the secret weapon in saving corals

A genetically engineered species of microalgae could help protect coral reefs from bleaching by increasing their tolerance to ocean warming, according to a new study.

The microalgae are called Symbiodinium, which use photosynthesis to produce molecules that feed the corals.

Coral bleaching is caused by changes in ocean temperatures which hurt Symbiodinium, causing corals to starve to death.

Rachel Levin from the University of New South Wales in Australia and an international research team used sequencing data from Symbiodinium to design genetic engineering strategies for enhancing coral stress tolerance. They have now identified the specific Symbiodinium genes that could be targeted to fight coral bleaching.

“Very little is known about Symbiodinium, thus very little information is available to improve coral reef conservation efforts,” Levin said. “Symbiodinium is very biologically unusual, which has made it incompatible with well-established genetic engineering methods. We therefore aimed to overcome this roadblock by conducting novel genetic analyses of Symbiodinium to enable much needed research progress.”

Genetically enhanced Symbiodinium has “great potential to reduce coral bleaching globally,”  the researchers said. But Levin warns that this would be no instant cure.

“If lab experiments successfully show that genetically engineered Symbiodinium can prevent coral bleaching, these enhanced Symbiodinium would not be immediately released onto coral reefs,” she said. “ Extensive, rigorous studies evaluating any potentially negative impacts would be absolutely necessary before any field-based trials on this technology begin.”

Other scientists will need to contribute to the research to advance the information currently available, she added.

“We have developed the first, tailored genetic engineering framework to be applied to Symbiodinium,” Levin said. “ Now this framework must be comprehensively tested and optimized. This is a tall order that will be greatly benefitted by collaborative efforts.”

Coral reefs, the most diverse marine habitat, contribute over $30 billion to the world economy each year.

The researched was published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

By: David Beasley, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: Frontiers in Microbiology

Formerly calm coastal areas could soon see major storms

A study published in the latest issue of the journal Scientific Reports reveals that sea level rise is not the only danger to waterfront areas as a result of climate change. As storm patterns shift and change directions, property and structures along the coastline that were once considered to be relatively safe from the impact of storms are now at risk of being severely damaged.

Engineers at University of New South Wales in Sydney analyzed data from a “superstorm” that hit the eastern coast of Australia in June 2016. The storm, one of the strongest in decades, flooded towns and took out buildings.

Recording tools were deployed a week before the storm and used into the weeks that followed the storm. These devices including drones, floating sensor buoys, fixed cameras, and aircraft fitted with LiDAR laser ranging sensors. This provided experts with the most detailed pre-storm and post-storm record that had ever been assembled.

The team determined that 11.5 million cubic meters of sand was eroded from beaches across a 200-kilometer stretch of Australia’s eastern coast in only three days. This amount of sand could fill up a 100,000-person-capacity stadium to the brim with sand more than seven times. This is comparable to the amount of sand diminished on eastern coast of the United States by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The superstorm surveyed in Australia was only average in its force, but hit from a very unusual direction.

“And that’s what’s really worrying,” said co-author Ian Turner. “The damage we saw from a moderately intense storm last year is a harbinger of what’s to come. Climate change is not only raising the oceans and threatening foreshores, but making our coastlines much more vulnerable as the direction of incoming storms change.”

Previous research calculated the cost of infrastructure damage caused by sea level rise could reach $226 billion in Australia alone. Buildings at risk include 258 police and emergency response stations, 75 hospitals and health centers, 41 waste disposal facilities, and five power stations. Data collected from long-term monitoring in areas like Narrabeen Beach in Sydney will help engineers build models to predict storm damage in advance.

“With this data, we can now construct accurate coastal erosion models, to predict damage days before a storm hits,” said senior lecturer Karen Splinter. “It will also be pivotal in understanding the future effect of climate change on coastal variability around the world.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: University of New South Wales

Photo: Christopher Drummond/UNSW

Earth.com film review: Chasing Coral

Scientists, divers, and underwater photographers teamed up to document the disappearance of coral reefs in the Netflix film Chasing Coral. The shocking images captured by the team give viewers an unparalleled look at the rapid decline of corals across the globe.

Richard Vevers, founder and CEO of The Ocean Agency, developed the project in an effort to expose the magnitude of the coral crisis. He assembled a team to capture footage of a massive coral bleaching event, enlisting the help of Director Jeff Orlowski after viewing his 2012 documentary Chasing Ice.

In Chasing Coral, coral bleaching is described as a “phenomenon directly attributed to climate change” that has only been seen in recent years. Beginning in the 1980’s, large portions of coral began to turn white. The scientists explain this was not due to disease but to rising ocean temperatures. During the bleaching process, the corals attempt to get rid of algae that are not functioning properly and basically starve themselves by eliminating their main food source.

Dr. Ruth Gates is a coral reef biologist that expresses “the utmost respect for corals.” She describes the fascinating composition of the animals and compares their complexity to that of human beings, saying that corals choose to be “really sophisticated in a quiet way.” Dr. Gates explains that coral bleaching is a stress response much like fever is a stress response in humans.

Corals have many other species that depend on them in a type of “neighborhood” setting. According to the film, corals are essentially the nursery for 25 percent of life in the ocean.

For the project, the team managed to quickly develop cameras that could survive the stressors of being underwater and transmit images wirelessly to the researchers. Two months after the cameras were deployed, however, the experts discovered they were out of focus.

The team then travelled to the Great Barrier Reef, where they resorted to manually capturing underwater time-lapses. They ultimately selected two of the hottest locations where coral bleaching was certain to be taking place. At a site called Lizard Island, most of the reef turned to barren rock face in a matter of two months.

Underwater camera technician Zack Rago says his infatuation with corals dates back to childhood. While he realized the heat wave they were documenting was going to be “nothing short of catastrophic for the coral,” he was still not prepared for the devastation he witnessed firsthand in his emotionally grueling dives on the Great Barrier Reef.

The footage is an alarming testament to the strain placed on marine ecosystems by rising ocean temperatures. The researchers point out that the majority of the impact of global climate change is occurring within Earth’s oceans. 93 percent of the heat trapped from greenhouse gases is absorbed by the ocean, and this film provides irrefutable evidence of the destruction that results.

50 percent of the world’s corals died in the last 30 years. In 2016, 29 percent of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef were lost in a single year. According to Dr. Gates, global warming at the current rate will result in the “eradication of an entire ecosystem in our lifetime.”

Despite the fact that over half a billion people rely on coral reefs for their main source of food and income, the experts explain that it is difficult to make people realize the gravity of this issue. Vevers says that one of the biggest problems is that the ocean “is completely out of sight, out of mind.” He reminds us, “Without a healthy ocean, we do not have a healthy planet.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: Chasing Coral