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environmental damage ocean pollution

Researchers identify plastic pollution identical to the appearance of rocks

The overuse of plastics by human beings has carried it to the wilderness of Antarctica along with the highest and deepest places on Earth. But it still manages to surprise us in its new forms. A new research has found plastics in the camouflage of ordinary pebbles. The study has been published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.  

Known as pyroplastics, these plastic chunks are created when plastic is melted by some process such as manufacturing. Then they get weathered in a way similar to rocks and keep shedding microplastics as they are carried by the sea and sands. 

They have escaped our attention being similar to rocks. They have been detected as plastiglomerates in Hawaii, where they were mixed with sands and shells. However they differ from manufactured plastic in terms of origin, thickness and appearance. They have been found in Spain, Vancouver, hence it is suspected that it might not be a regional phenomenon. We are not able to document it on a large scale due to its geogenic appearance. 

Andrew Turner from the University of Plymouth and his colleagues researched on 165 plastic chunks from Whitsand Bay beaches in Cornwall. They also received from Orkneys, Scotland and County Kerry, Ireland. Through attenuated total reflection and infrared spectroscopy, they found that the chunks were mostly polyethylene or polypropylene. However through X-Ray fluorescence it was revealed that the samples also contained lead chromate which when mixed with plastic gives it a orange or red hue. Its use is restricted by Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), however the quantity present in the sample is greater than the limits set by RoHS. Few samples stuck to the calcium carbonate tubes of marine worm Spirobranchus triqueter. In these tubes, lead was found. 

This suggests that the compound can enter the bodies of living organisms. If found in the bodies of worms, it could also pass on to its predators. Hence there is a necessity to conduct research on a wider scale to find out the actual quantity of this plastic which is hiding from our daily view. Their impact on the environment and the amount of microplastics released can be properly gauged after that. 

Pyroplastics need to classified in a separate manner within the classification of marine litter. Researchers mention that they are also a source of finer plastic particles which are then able to contaminate organisms who ingest them. 

Journal Reference: Science of the Total Environment

Rainwater Sample

US Geological Survey finds plastic in rainfall in the Rocky Mountains

Researchers from the US Geological Survey (USGS) found something completely unexpected while analyzing the rainwater for nitrogen pollution. They found plastic. In a new report titled “It is raining plastic”, researchers explain that they detected plastic in more than 90 percent of the rainwater samples collected at eight different sites, most of them lying between Denver and Boulder, Colorado.

It is all the more surprising since plastics are found at remote locations such as in CO98 which is 3159 meters above the sea in the Rocky Mountains. Detecting plastics in urban areas is not that startling due to the high abundance of plastic in these locations. The team mentioned that a greater amount of plastic fibres were obtained from urban locations than from remote areas such as mountains. However observing plastic fibres in remote locations such as CO98 in Loch Vale, Rocky Mountain indicates that wet deposition of plastic is no longer an urban phenomenon. The study has been published by USGS.

Plastic strands which were detected resemble a lot like microfibres in synthetic materials which are normally found in clothes. They were found in blue along with red, silver, green and purple. However, the plastic pieces are quite small as they are only visible after magnification of 20 times. At present, human beings consume a minimum of 70,000 microplastic particles in a year whereas there are several million tonnes of plastic left in the oceans. This means that there are a lot more plastic in our environment than actually visible to us. Now it is a part of rainfall, snow thereby occupying a significant portion of our environment which is quite unfortunate.

However, this is not the first instance of detecting microplastics in unexpected locations of our environment. A paper published in Nature Geoscience reported the detection of microplastics in French Pyrenees. It also estimated that microplastics might be traveling up to 95 kilometers in the atmosphere.

A key difference between that paper and the current finding is that while the previous one was mainly focused on finding the reasons plastic ended up in those areas this work was not intended for it, the main goal here was to study nitrogen pollution. It was not designed to analyze samples for the collection of plastic particles. Hence the results are quite unanticipated.

This is a grave concern and therefore advanced methods of sampling, identification, and quantification of deposition of plastic is needed to understand the resultant ecological effects.

Golden gate bridge smog

Study finds air pollution to be as harmful as smoking cigarettes

Emphysema is a smoker’s disease but according to a study, it turns out that exposure to air pollution may create the same lung conditions which cause emphysema. A new study finds that long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution can be linked to a higher rate in the development of lung damage even for non-smokers. The study looked at the effects of breathing in different pollutants like ground-level ozone which is main content behind smog.

People with exposure to high levels of ground-level ozone developed changes in lungs which were similar to that of smokers. Joel Kaufman, physician and epidemiologist at the University of Washington said that an increase of 3 parts per billion of ground-level ozone is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes daily for 29 years.

The study involved close to 7000 adults from six US cities with average annual exposure between 10 to 25 parts per billion of ground-level ozone. However this is not limited to cities, but people across the US are exposed to similar concentrations that keep on varying. Ground-level ozone is formed due to pollution released from cars and from smokestacks in the sunlight.

Kaufman was surprised to see the effects similar in magnitude to that of cigarette smoking. For correct evaluation, Each person had done 5 CT scans over a decade which gave a 3D picture of their lungs and can detect changes and developments over time. Emily Brigham, a pulmonologist and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University says that when airways get narrowed and damaged, it becomes harder to breathe and the air gets trapped. The symptoms are not noticeable at an early stage but get worse over time with prolonged exposure and with irreversible effects. Chronic respiratory diseases is a leading cause of death in the U.S and close to 7 million deaths annually are linked to air pollution.

A significant proportion of the US population who has COPD is actually non-smokers, but this study answers the reason behind their lung disease. Clean Air Act has however led to declining pollution in the US but ground-level ozone or smog is harder to control and that increasing hot days means the conditions are more favorable for ozone formation, we are going to see increased effects due to global warming even in healthy populations. The past concerns dealt with short term exacerbation of symptoms during smog days for people with asthma or COPD. In the past, EPA had not accepted that COPD is caused by long-term, chronic air pollution but now the study has shown the evidence that the benefits of cleaning the air because the findings suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution is damaging to lung health.

Climate change ‘disrupts’ local plant diversity, study reveals

Climate change ‘disrupts’ local plant diversity, study reveals

Researchers have discovered that the numbers of plant species recorded by botanists have increased in locations where the climate has changed most rapidly, and especially in relatively cold parts of the world.

Human activity has been responsible for substantial declines in biodiversity at the global level, to such an extent that there are calls to describe the modern epoch as ‘The Anthropocene’.

But although the total number of plant species on the planet may be in decline, the average number of plant species found locally – the so-called local or alpha diversity of a site – seems to be stable, or even increasing in places.

Scientists at the University of York think that the ‘disruption’ of these local plant communities by rapid climate change, especially changes in rainfall, may be allowing new species in and fuelling these local diversity increases.

Substantial implications

Lead author, Dr Andrew Suggitt from the University of York’s Department of Biology, said: “We used a large dataset of over 200 studies in which botanists had counted the number of plant species present in survey plots situated all around the world.

“We tested for the influence of climate change alongside other well-known drivers of diversity change, finding that the local differences in climate, and exposure to climate change, were responsible for a substantial part of the change in plant species numbers found in these surveys”.

“Our models suggest that typical rates of climate change in cooler regions of the world are driving an increase in local species richness of 5% per decade. This is really quite a large number if it continues for 13 decades or more, given that humans have already been changing the climate for over half a century, and climate change is set to continue until the year 2100, at least. What we are observing has substantial implications for future ecosystems”.

Pervasive effect

Co-author Professor Chris Thomas added:  “This does not mean that the botanical world gets a clean bill of health. We are living in ‘The Anthropocene’ epoch, and some plant species have become globally extinct.  Many, many more are endangered.

“However, there is a disconnect between what is happening at that global level and the average change to plant diversity that can be observed in, say, a one metre square plot of ground.

“The effect of climate change may not be as dramatic as a meadow being turned into a car park, or a forest being cut down, but it’s a pervasive effect that is already evident over vast areas of the Earth’s land surface.

“For example, warmth-loving bee orchids (Ophrys apifera) have started arriving at a much wider variety of sites across the north of England, taking advantage of the changing climate.

“The data we have analysed tells us that colonists are tending to arrive faster than incumbents disappear, giving rise to slight increases in plant diversity in places where the climate is changing the most”.

Shuffling the deck

Dr Suggitt added: “The recent global assessment report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services highlighted worrying declines in plants and animals around the world.

“But it also highlighted the sore need for greater clarity over how climate change is shuffling the deck of plant species found in particular locations – especially in under-sampled areas such as the tropics, Africa and Asia.

“We hope our study opens the door to a fuller understanding of how climate change is affecting plant communities, and what this means for the conservation of nature and its contribution to people”.

Materials provided by the University of York

Iceberg in the Arctic

Architects propose design for submarine to produce icebergs in Arctic

Although it might sound crazy, architects have proposed the design for a submarine which produces icebergs in an attempt to restore the ice caps of Arctic. The team aims to form new glaciers in this technique by bringing together a swift of these vessels that will eventually help to balance arctic eco-system.

Recently, an international contest conducted by the Association of Siamese Architects awarded a second prize to the revolutionary proposal. It is yet to be checked if the idea can be practically implemented.

The Arctic Ocean has lost 95 percent of its oldest ice over the last three decades. This intense melting in association with global warming has created an ecological imbalance in the Arctic. It has damaged the natural food chain of the Arctic forcing fish, seals, wolves, polar bears into ever lesser regions. The team hopes to help the Arctic through their prototype inspired by the similar lines of re-forestation resulting in ‘re-iceberg-isation’ in the Arctic.

The submarine would function by re-freezing Arctic marine water into hexagon-shaped icebergs, each about 2,027 cubic meters (535,477 gallons) eventually gathering together to form new ice floes. The floating submarine would extract some of the salt from the collected marine water in a tank using a method of reverse osmosis making freezing easier. The left-over seawater would be frozen into a hexagon-shape iceberg and released back into the ocean after a month by the use of air turbines.

Group member and Indonesian designer Faris Rajak Kotahatuhaha mentioned the primary objective is to recover the arctic ecosystem which impacts the global climate. It does not control the emissions but it could help ensure affluent habitats and hunting stage. The size of the design would have to be enormous in order to actually avoid further sea-level rise as claimed in a video for the new prototype by the architects.

The actual risk of sea-level rise is not the melting icebergs as they are already floating in the ocean but the melting land ice which flows into the ocean. The newly created icebergs would have to somehow end up on land to make an impact. The newly formed icebergs protect ocean water by reflecting Sun’s energy and blocking absorption but to make a big influence, they need to cover a large area of the arctic ocean.

Atmospheric scientist Michael Mann commented that the model is like attempting to save sandcastle from the waves using a paper cup. There are various questions apart from sea-level about the powering of the submarine and whether adequate wind energy can be collected to freeze their huge swallows of water. It is also to be seen if these vessels are powered by renewable energy. Even now our best solution to control the rise of sea levels is to reduce the emissions.

Earth’s Magnetic Field Reversal Took Three Times Longer Than Thought

Earth’s magnetic field reversal takes much longer time than we thought

Human beings could not record the last time reversal of the magnetic poles of Earth occurred. However now with the help of the flow of ancient lava, it is possible for the scientists to estimate the duration of this phenomenon. 

A group of scientists used volcanic records for studying the last magnetic field reversal that occurred almost 780,000 years ago. They found that this reversal might have taken much longer duration than what was expected by scientists previously. The paper has been published in Science Advances journal

In the last 2.5 million years, the magnetic field of Earth reversed dozens of times, when north turned to the south and vice versa. It is known to the scientists that the last reversal occurred in the time of Stone Age but they have fewer details about the duration of the reversal and when it might occur next. 

Scientists relied on the lava flow sequences which erupted near to the last reversal for estimating its duration. With the help of this method, scientists estimated that it went on for 22000 years which is indeed quite longer than the past estimates of 1000 to 10000 years. 

Bradley Singer, a geoscience professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the study’s lead author said the last reversal was quite complex which started within the outer core of the Earth. When he was performing studies on a Chilean volcano in 1993, he stumbled on a sequence of the lava which had partially recorded the process of reversal. In an effort to date the lava, Singer observed weird magnetic field directions in the lava flow sequences. These are some of the rarest records and Singer is one of the few scientists to date them. So this incident led to his life-long career goal to understand and explain the timings of the reversals of the magnetic field. 

Reversals occur when the iron molecules in the outer spinning core of the Earth start to move in the opposite direction as the surrounding iron molecules around them. With an increase in numbers, the magnetic field present in the core of the Earth is offset by the molecules. As a result, the magnetic field of our planet gets weaker. John Tarduno, a geophysics professor at the University of Rochester said that this kind of duration of the reversal would weaken the protection of Earth from solar radiations.

Additional effects might include genetic mutations or extinctions when the exposure to UV Sunrays increases. Increasing Sun particles entering Earth would disrupt communication systems, GPS and other satellite-based communication. 

Reports of a magnetic field in direction of Canadian Arctic to Siberia has started discussions over if the next field reversal is imminent and what effect would it have on life. Singer said that there is very less evidence that the decrease in field strength or shifting in the north pole’s position would mean a reversal in polarity in the coming 2000 years. Volcanic records are the best type of records of a particular place and time. 

Journal Reference: Science Advances journal

Kaka Stewart Island

New species of extinct giant parrot discovered in New Zealand

A new species of an extinct giant parrot was recently discovered in New Zealand, which makes it the largest parrot and the first species of the extinct giant parrot to be discovered anywhere on Earth. It is estimated to be 1 meter tall, named Heracles inexpectatus and is nearly twice the height of Kakapo which is the iconic parrot who was previously the largest known and the fattest parrot. It is named after the Greek hero Heracles for its size and strength and also the unexpected discovery of the bird. The study was published in Biology Letters journal.

Researchers say that it has a giant beak that could crack open almost anything it fancied. It is 7 kilograms in weight as compared to 4 kilograms of the Kakapos. Heracles dates back to around 19 million years and was found in St Bathans in Central Otago, an area in New Zealand well known for Miocene fossil birds and animals.

New Zealand is no stranger to extinct giant birds, which once upon a time housed nine species of moa, the largest of which stood 3.6 meters and a penguin which was taller than a human. Islands create evolutionary novelties in the form of huge flightless birds like the Dodo in Mauritius, elephant birds of Madagascar, giant pigeon solitaire of Rodrigues islands and Australian giant ducks but they did not find a giant parrot before. Trevor Worthy of Flinders University has said that New Zealand is famous for giant birds. Not only moa dominated the avifauna, but the giant geese and adze bills shared the forest floor, while the eagle ruled the skies.

Researchers say that fossils not only represent new genus but reveals another example of evolutionary island giantism in birds. Like the Kakapo, it was a member of the New Zealand’s group of primitive flightless birds which are very different from today’s macaws and cockatoos. Also like Kakapo, it would have fed upon the forest floor although unlike Kakapo, there is a possibility of a huge beak which might have given it an advantage of eating whatever it came across.

Professor Mike Archer from the University of South Wales said that the Heracles, with a massive beak, could crack wide open anything it fancied, and dined on more conventional parrot food, maybe even other parrots. The rarity in the fossil is something expected if it were feeding higher up in the food chain. Parrots are resourceful birds in terms of culinary interests.

Excavations have been going on at St. Bathans site for 20 years providing a fascinating insight into diverse terrestrial fauna that lived in the subtropical climate similar to New Zealand millions of years ago.

Research Paper: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsbl.2019.0467

plate tectonics

Ancient water drops helps in calculating the timeline of plate tectonics of earth

Ancient water drops might have changed the timeline of the Earth’s tectonic plates as researchers have analyzed a series of drops from ancient seawater and arrived at an estimate that the process which underpins the plate tectonics of the Earth might have started 600 million years earlier than previously considered. The study has been published in Nature journal.

The constant movement of tectonic plates is a crucial part of renewing the surface of the planet and flourishing of life. By analyzing the levels of water in microscopic melt inclusions trapped in volcanic rock sample called komatiites, researchers calculated a new timeline when the seawater got pushed down from surface to the mantle, the point when convection started to occur. The ancient water droplets were captured in the mineral olivine found in the komatiites from the Komatiite lava flow which remained after the hottest magma was produced in Archaean Eon.

Geologist Alexander Sobolev from the Russian Academy of Sciences said the mechanism that caused the crust to sink into the mantle started 3.3 billion years ago. A global cycle of the matter was established within the first billion years and the excess water in mantle’s transition zone came from the ancient oceans.

Factors like atmospheric conditions and minerals deposited underground have been affected by shifting of the Earth’s plates along with the earthquakes and volcanoes. The plate tectonics always recycles the matter on Earth without which our Earth would end up looking like Mars. Plate tectonics started 3.3 billion years before which coincides with the time life began on Earth.

The geological landscape which was formed by these tectonic movements provides an excellent record of what happened in the past. The komatiite was dug up from Weltevreden Formation in the Barberton greenstone belt in South Africa.

After examining the piece of melt of close to 10 microns and analyzing the chemical indicators like water content, chlorine and hydrogen/deuterium ratio, it was found that the Earth’s recycling process started close to 600 million years earlier than what was thought initially. It was found that the seawater was transported deep into the mantle and later re-emerged through volcanic plumes from the core-mantle boundary.

The chemical signature of the lithographic mantle matches with that of the analyzed rocks from the Archaean, despite coming from further down in the transition zone between upper and lower mantle. The komatiites grabbed so much water from deep underground before being shot up to the surface, which in turn indicates that the tectonics plate cycle happened earlier than 2.7 billion years ago which is the currently accepted starting point.  The chemical mixes, pressure, geological processes have many variations to account in the readings. More research is needed to figure out exactly when the material of the Earth’s crust started shifting.

Journal Reference: Nature

island of stromboli

Researchers develop a model to predict the next location of volcanic eruption

Every volcanic eruption is not a catastrophe such as Mount Vesuvius where fire and flying rocks attack the unsuspecting Pompeiians. Sometimes the summits of the volcano collapse and forms depressions which are several miles wide known as the calderas that are peppered by eruptive vents. When magma forces out of the vents, the small eruptions can spew huge amounts of gas and lava. 

However the locations and level of threats of the vents are quite difficult to predict as the eruptions can occur several miles from the center of the caldera. Because of this, the cities which are located near the volcanic fields such as Naples face a constant risk of volcanic ash, gas and bursts of lava. But a group of scientists have figured out how to accurately pinpoint where on a volcano’s surface or in a caldera’s volcanic fields these damaging vent eruptions are likely to occur.The study has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Calderas are very hazardous and they have fed catastrophic eruptions on Earth which is often underestimated by the local residents. Eruptions of Mount Kilauea in Hawaii last year forced almost 1500 people to flee their homes. Eleonora Rivalta, study’s lead author said that lava comes out from the vents like fountains that leaks like a slug through the landscape. Scientists hope that their model would help communities anticipate and prepare for the eruptions in a better way. 

Magma which is the liquid rock under the crust of the Earth makes most of the mantle of our planet. Magma pushing its way to the surface creates volcanic eruption. It surges upward as it takes the path of least resistance. So figuring out the path would help the researchers in predicting where it will next breach through the surface. This is intended to achieve by Rivalta’s team. Researchers found that the easiest path is for the magma to move through the rocks which are less compressed than the other counterparts. Geologists had earlier thought that path of least resistance would be an existing path, however, Rivalta’s team found that vents are often used by the magma only once and never again used. Computer models were made for future magma paths and researchers compared their predictions to the known eruptive behaviour of the vents across Campi Fleigrei located outside Naples. 

This volcanic field is 8 miles wide and first erupted almost 50,000 years ago. The most recent eruption was in 1538. The model developed by the researchers accurately mapped the 70 eruptions over the past 15,000 years of Campi Fleigrei that includes the dangerous Monte Nuovo eruption of 1538.

278,880 people around the world were killed by volcanic activity and its consequences such as starvation, tsunami between 1600 and 2017. However, the deaths related to volcanic eruptions have decreased from 1980 as the recent eruptions have occurred away from the densely populated areas. Rivalta wants to use her group’s model to provide information to cities about the impending eruptions. She also wants to apply this to Mount Etna and the supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park. This volcano last erupted more than 640,000 years ago which created a 1500 square mile of the caldera for new magma appearance. 

Journal Reference: Science Advances

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Natural ways to avoid the heat

Natural ways to avoid the heat

Cranking up the air conditioner isn’t the only way to deal with the stifling heat that is blanketing much of North America and Europe.

Washington State University architect Omar Al-Hassawi is an expert at reducing indoor temperatures without the use of electricity.

His research blends ancient architectural practices with modern innovations to produce surprising results.

Whether you lack an air conditioner or are trying to cut your utility bill, Al-Hassawi can help. Here are a few of his suggestions for beating the heat this summer.

Ventilation strategies

In a climate like the Inland Northwest where temperatures drop by 30-35 degrees Fahrenheit at night, natural ventilation is an effective alternative to blasting the air conditioning.

Opening home windows after sunset and leaving them open until about 10 a.m. the next morning will help flush out the heat generated indoors the day before, Al-Hassawi said.

Conversely, closing windows during the hottest time of the day, from around noon till about an hour before sunset, will minimize heat gain.

Proper shading techniques

Another useful strategy for keeping home temperatures cool is shading exterior windows from the outside instead of the inside with blinds, curtains or even foliage.

“This acts like a hat for the windows similar to how we use hats to shade and protect ourselves,” Al-Hassawi said. “Exterior shading for windows facing south and west is especially effective.”

Home occupants can also wear very light clothing and avoid high heat-generating activities such as intense exercising and cooking meals during the afternoon. A cold shower or placing some cool water in front of a low flow fan are also good ways to create evaporative cooling and reduce indoor temperatures.

No stranger to the heat

Headshot of Omar Al-Hassawi
Omar Al-Hassawi

Al-Hassawi grew up in Iraq where temperatures rarely dip below 110 degrees Fahrenheit in summertime. For hundreds of years, people in the region incorporated downdraft and evaporative cooling techniques into their architectural designs that harnessed the power of wind and water to keep inside temperatures bearable.

Tall, hollow towers were often placed at the corners of homes to direct breezes down and let warm air escape. Often times, a pool of water would be placed at the base of the towers. As the air flowed over the water, it would evaporate and the air would absorb moisture, becoming cooler before passing into the home. Al-Hassawi said interest in adopting these passive cooling techniques in places like the United States has been on the rise in recent years as annual summer temperatures continue to increase across the country.

“Humans have been using architectural designs and other natural techniques to keep their homes cool for a very long time,” Al-Hassawi said. “We are starting to see a rebirth of a lot of these techniques which is a great thing considering the large role the building sector plays in global warming.”

One idea is to modify the wind tower concept by placing the evaporative cooling mechanism at the top of the tower instead of at its base. As warm air passes into the top of the tower, it would cool down because of the increase in moisture from the water. Then, the cool air would become heavier and drop naturally into the building by gravity.

“The tests I’ve done show that incorporating this type of cooling system into modern homes, particularly in a place like the Pacific Northwest, could bring temperatures down by as much as 30 degrees,” Al-Hassawi said. “So, if it is 100 F outside you can get 70 F inside.”

Materials provided by Washington State University