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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.

Himalayan mountains from air

Study finds Himalayan glaciers releasing decades old pollutants

The melting of the Himalayan glaciers are releasing pollutants, accumulated for decades, into the downstream ecosystems. A study in AGU’s Journal of Geophysical Research found that the chemicals used in pesticides have been accumulating in glaciers and ice sheets since the 1940s and are now released as the Himalayan glaciers are melting. The pollutants are ending in the Himalayan lakes affecting aquatic life including fish making it toxic for human consumption.

It can be seen that most remote places also can be repositories for pollutants and are not limited to a particular place. The glaciers contain the high levels of atmospheric pollutants due to their proximity to south Asian countries, home to some of the heavily polluted regions in the world.

Pollutants can travel long distances through atmosphere, dust and water and that ice sheets at the poles contain pollutants that have travelled long distances before falling onto the ice and being formed into glaciers. The phenomenon known as Arctic paradox is now seen in Himalayan glaciers.

On the central Tibetan Plateau between Gangdise-Nyainqȇntanglha mountains to the north and the Nyainqȇntanglha range to the south, lies Nam Co Basin which is home to 300 glaciers and that between 1999 and 2015 there have been almost 20 percent decrease in the volume of ice formation. Due to global warming, the glaciers are melting and releasing decades of accumulated pollutants into the ecosystem. Xiaoping Wang, a geochemist at Chinese Academy of Sciences, and his team have measured the concentration of the class of chemicals in pesticides called perfluoroalkyl acids(PFAAs) in glacial ice and snow, water runoff and in lake water in Nam Co Basin.

They found that glaciers release close to 1,342 milligrams per day into the lake and level of PFAAs in the lake as high as 2,172 picograms per liter. The estimated annual input of PFAAs into the lake is close to 1.81 kilograms per year. The influx of PFAAs can have an impact on aquatic life in the lakes and downstream. They have a long lifespan and do not regularly biodegrade and are passed down readily through organisms and ecosystems. The study does not include the toxic risk assessment of the levels on aquatic life but eating fish from this lake can be detrimental to human health. The accumulation potential of these chemicals in the body is extraordinary. The microorganisms and insect take up these molecules and get transferred into fishes and other predators and the contaminants keep getting higher up in concentration as well as the food chain.

The Nam Co Basin also feeds direct water into India. The study throws light upon the pollutants cycle around the globe. Similar studies have been conducted at the poles but as much information is not known as the pollutants in the Himalayas. The earth is a closed ecosystem and everything released on Earth stays on the planet.

Journal Reference: Journal of Geophysical Research

Whitelee wind farm

Scotland is generating enough wind energy to power two Scotlands

Motivated from numerous renewable energy records and landmarks achieved, another milestone has been achieved in the first half of 2019. The country Scotland has produced enough energy from wind power which can power its homes twice.

For a nation which is home to 2.6 million people, producing 9.8 million Megawatt-hours of electricity by using turbines in the time period between January and June which is the adequate power supply to 4.47 million homes is a notable achievement. The record high wind energy is capable of providing enough electricity for every home in Scotland and also most part of Northern England for the first six months of the year. The month with the highest production was March with 2,194,981 Megawatt-hours (MWh) of output.

Robin Parker, the Climate & Energy Policy Manager at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said that everyone is benefitting from cleaner energy and atmosphere throughout the country and also seeing those incredible statistics, Scotland’s wind energy revolution seems to boost up. Moreover, he added that the data shows that utilising Scotland’s abundant coastal wind potential could supply eco-friendly electricity for millions of houses in both Scotland as well as England.

In the field of renewable energy, the United Kingdom (UK) has just achieved its longest span without depending on coal energy since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. According to the National Grid in the UK, for seven days and a total of 167 consecutive hours in a row, coal power stations didn’t supply them energy in which gas turbines, nuclear power, solar energy and other renewables played a part.

Scotland could play a big role in the UK government’s aim of producing energy without coal completely by 2025.

With huge funding in the wind and solar, Germany and other nations are benefiting with increased demand and the possibility of renewable energy production. Qinghai Province in northwest China which is home to five million has been operating for weeks on renewable sources like solar, wind and hydropower.

With the increased ability and more productive technology, scientists discover the ways to produce more electricity with existing solar or wind. With coastal farms at a potential of 8,423 Mega-Watt (MW) as of December 2018, Scotland is a groundbreaker in terms of wind power and hopefully, within next 12 months, they will supply all of its energy from renewables. Alex Wilcox Brooke, Weather Energy Project Manager at Severn Wye Energy Agency said that those statistics actually highlight the compatibility of wind energy in Scotland and its significance in the UK energy market.

plastic pollution forming plasticrust ocean shores

Researchers discover a different type of plastic pollution at the shoreline

Scientists have recently discovered crust of plastic particles that were forming up on shoreline rocks. This ‘plasticrust’  is a huge threat to the creatures inhabiting on rocks and there could also be a possibility of plastic entering into their food chain. The study was published in Science of the Total Environment

A Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre (MARE) team from Portugal has been observing the building up of plastics across the shore of the volcanic island of Madeira by evaluating their impact on the local ecosystem since 2016. Ignacio Gestoso, a marine ecologist said that the crusts are developed due to the crashing of large pieces of plastics against the rock shores similar to how algae or lichens do.

The plasticrust looks similar to a chewed piece of gum or a squeeze of toothpaste on the rocks and their shape is similar to that of inhabitants on the rock and this way the plastic is fixing itself into the environment. Several researchers like Gestoso are researching on the reason behind its formation and their effects and thus it was discovered that they are formed due to the usage of polyethylene, the material found in plastic bags and food packaging. Now according to the scientists, this polyethylene which is sticking to the shoreline covers nearly about 10 percent of the surface of the rock.

The researchers and their team also discovered a proof which shows that the winkle sea snails which eats algae are as comfortable being in the plasticrust as they are on the rocks and thus they might be sucking the plasticrust and the algae on the rock as well. As of now, the researchers just want us to make aware of this problem. If we don’t reduce the usage of plastics then the rocks which are getting covered by plastics will bring serious issues to the microorganisms.

However, sadly this is not the first time this has occurred. In the year 2014, there was a discovery of plastiglomerates which is a substance similar to rock made from melted plastics and organic debris. The scientists say that plastic is hugely used and if it continues this way then we’ll leave huge sediments of plastics for the future generation. Gestoso told that he, as a marine ecologist researcher would like to choose to report about other types of discoveries than describing a sad new way of plastic pollution in his research paper.



We consume a minimum of 74,000 microplastic particles in a single year

Microplastics have reached every corner of the ecosystem on the planet. The deepest ocean trenches to the highest mountain peaks, it is due to humans that microplastics have spread across the ecosystem. An average person today is set to consume close to 74,000 pieces of microplastic every year. It is said to be undervalued as the intake of microplastics can be through sugars, fish, alcohol, bottled water and even the air we breathe. The microplastic database is compared to US Dietary data which predicts a person consumes anything between 74,000 to 121,000 pieces of microplastic particles.

This analysis and report is an alarming indication that the harm we cause to the ecosystem as analyzed by Thavamani Palanisami, a researcher in contamination risk assessment at the University of Newcastle not directly involved in the research. This is a crisis which not only affects the ecosystem but in turn, affects the food we eat and water we drink. This number is highly an average and can undergo a lot of variation. The number has been derived from an American’s daily food consumption and only 14% of calorific intake. The amount of plastic in the remaining 85% is not possible to determine and considering that too, the average microplastic consumption may be close to several hundred thousand yearly.

The research, however, does not mention the costs to be counted on the human health factor. The ill effects of microplastic are highly unknown. Recent research made headlines when researchers found evidence of microplastic in human excreta samples from all over the world. The study has been published in Environmental Science and Technology.

Scientists have proposed few potentially hazardous pathways for harm to the human body but the larger ill effects are not known. Once the microplastics enter the gut they release toxic substances causing stress and cancer, according to the researchers. Similar things could happen when microplastic substances enter through the lungs. Anas Ghadouani, an environmental engineer at the University of Western Australia raises a very serious and a key question about the impacts of microplastics on the human body.

According to a study, bottled water contains 90% more microplastics per litre than tap water. Drinking bottled water for a day may lead to microplastic intake of 349 particles compared to just 16 particles from tap water. Avoiding bottled water is just one way in which we can reduce the intake of microplastics. If the precautionary measures are not followed then the most effective way to reduce microplastic consumption is to reduce the plastic products in our daily life.

air pollution smoke rising from plant tower

Latest estimates of atmospheric carbon dioxide shows horrifying future ahead

Human actions have depleted the natural resources of the planet to a great extent. From polluting the atmosphere, depletion of fossil fuels to harming aquatic life, human footprints have been literally everywhere. The price has to be paid by the coming generations.

Calculations by scientists showed that the carbon levels reached an all-time high of more than 415 parts per million in the middle of May. For the second time in the span of two months, researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and NOAA have bad news to be shared.

The team of researchers recorded the highest monthly average of carbon dioxide above the largest volcano in Hawaii since measurements began 61 years ago. The number is 414.8 parts per million, which has been the greatest of the increase in measurements made every year in May. Researchers at Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory have been recording the values from 1958 and the values have been plotted on a curve known as “Keeling Curve“- after Charles David Keeling who observed a strange trend. The results have been published by The Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

When the measurement began, the average annual increase of carbon dioxide was approximately 0.7 ppm. It increased to 1.5 ppm in the 1990s and in 2000s it had a value of 2.2 ppm. In 2019, both NOAA and Scripps found that this May monthly average – the highest point each year – is 3.5 ppm higher than it was in 2018. So, the annual change in CO2 is now 3.5 ppm per year. While a single reading can be dismissed, this continuous increment cannot be ignored.

Ralph Keeling, director of the CO2 program at Scripps and son of Charles Keeling commented that the human intervention in the earth’s atmosphere can be clearly observed as we focus on the bigger picture. Most of this change is due to the extremely high usage of fossil fuels which has led to search for more greener sources of energy. Climate model projections do not give us the current state of the atmosphere and they tend to overlook the alarming situation of global warming. However, these measurements are real time and give us an overview of our situation and where we are heading to.

Pieter Tans, an atmospheric scientist with the Global Monitoring Division of the NOAA remarked that it is very essential to have the correct, long term measurements of the carbon dioxide levels to get a clear understanding of the changes caused by fossil fuel pollution to our climate.

There have been many proposals on how to tackle the problem of global warming, but without a sharp decline of the carbon dioxide emissions, the proposals are borderline useless.

plastic wastes ocean

Researchers successfully convert plastic waste to jet fuel

A group of researchers at Washington State University has found a technique for converting the plastic waste products which are generated every day to jet fuel. Hanwu Lei of WSU and his colleagues have been successful in melting plastic waste at a very high temperature with the help of activated carbon, which is a processed carbon with a greater surface area to form jet fuel. The study has been published in the journal Applied Energy.

Lei, an associate professor at Department of Biological System Engineering in WSU commented that waste plastic is a major problem worldwide. But they have been able to recycle the plastic in a very simple way.

For the experiment, several low-density polythenes and a variety of waste plastic products such as water bottles, plastic bags were tested by the research group and they were ground to a very small size, around the range of three millimetres which is equal to the size of a rice grain. The granules of plastic were then kept above activated carbon, placed in a tube reactor at very high temperature, in the range of 430 to 571 degrees Celsius, which translates to 806 to 1060 Fahrenheit. The activated carbon plays the role of a catalyst which is a substance for increasing the rate of a chemical reaction without itself being consumed in it.

Lei remarked that since plastic is very difficult to be decomposed to smaller particles, the help of a catalyst has to be taken in order to break the chemical bonds. Plastics contain a very high amount of hydrogen, which is an important component in fuels.

Once the carbon catalyst has been used for one set of conversion, it can be again separated and reused for the next batch of conversion of plastics. If the catalyst loses its activity, it can be also be regenerated. Researchers tested several combinations of plastics and the best result obtained was a mixture of 85 per cent jet fuel and 15 per cent diesel fuel.

According to the estimates of Environmental Protection Agency, landfills located in the United States received close to 26 million tonnes of plastic in the year 2015. This is the most recent statistics which are available currently. Scientists estimate that at least 4.8 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans in the world.

This new technique would help in making the best use of plastic and hence minimize its wastage. Lei said that almost 100 percent of the energy can be recovered from the plastic which is tested. The fuel which is obtained is of decent quality and the byproduct gases are of good quality as well. This process is even highly scalable.

power plant emissions

Carbon dioxide levels reach an all-time high of 415ppm

According to the sensors at the Mauna Loa Observatory which is research outpost of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, carbon dioxide levels have crossed 415 parts per million and is reaching 415.26 parts per million. This kind of drastic change has been recorded for the first time in human history.

On 13th May 2019, a climate reporter Eric Holthaus posted about the macabre milestone which he came to know from the data which was recorded and presented by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California. He tweeted that this was the first time our planet’s atmosphere has more than 415 ppm CO2 and he also added that he don’t know about a planet like this.

A few years ago it was seen that carbon pollution was about 400ppm which drastically changed to 410ppm in the year of 2017. Scientists already knew that the rate of change of carbon poising was uncontrollable and it would hit around 415ppm in the year 2019.

The Keeling Curve was recorded to be wrong which was published on the Scripps website and the false data was changed after many sites complained about the wrong data and reported it to the grim accomplishment. Scripps wrong data suggested that CO2 levels crossed 415ppm on May 3rd itself. But finally, we have reached that 415ppm mark. 

The director of the Scripps for performing the CO2 program Ralph Keeling said that the average growth rate remained on the high end and also added that the increase should be around three parts per million from the last year but according to the recent average study it has been recorded to be 2.5 ppm and he also added that they are observing the effects of mild El Nino conditions over the use of fossil fuels.

It is observed that the use of fossil fuels is a real problem here. In the year of 1910, the atmospheric CO2 stood at 300ppm -higher than that of 800,000 years before. Now, in just a century it jumped 100+ppm and this drastic change in the rate took place because of the pollution and the cross of 400ppm was a hugely symbolic moment numerically at least, but the symbolism doesn’t end there.

It is to be noted that a huge amount of heat will be trapped on earth if this carbon pollution keeps getting thicker in our atmosphere we can experience global warming in a very different way which didn’t happen in last hundred million years.

I think we all should help reducing carbon dioxide levels by doing some means. Are you doing something to reduce carbon dioxide levels? Tell us with a short and quick comment

Here is a recently proposed way to control rising CO2 levels

Smoke over the river Volga

UN releases Sixth Global Environment Outlook with both good and bad news for us

The Sixth Global Environment Outlook, which is the most comprehensive assessment of the environmental system which is produced by the United Nations in five years has both good and bad news in the store for us.

There has been continuous deterioration of the environment since the first report of GEO-6 was published in 1997 with almost irreversible impacts on the environment if the issues are not addressed. But all hopes are not lost as there are routes to create positive changes and thus a sustainable future can be ensured.

It was launched in the month of March, in the fourth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly which took place in Nairobi. The report is the result of the collaborative work of about 200 experts for 18 months. It covers a wide range of topics such as biodiversity, quality of air, oceans, freshwater, energy and human health.

The state of our environment was assessed and possible courses of action for achieving the goals for the 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development were also discussed.

There is a fair amount of good news in the GEO-6 amidst all the negative things which reflect the state of the environment in the whole world. There are some pathways to cause a wide scale positive impact which have to be carried out with utmost sincerity and a great rate for creating sustainable futures. The policies which are most likely to make a big impact are related to entire systems such as food, waste management and energy.

For example, if we reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, it leads to better health benefits by reducing the outdoor air pollution which is responsible for causing premature deaths. Also, efforts directed towards reducing worldwide hunger rates can help us to fight many issues such as climate change, land degradation and chemical loss. But all of this has to be done in a short amount of time because, with the increasing rate of change of environmental conditions, the scope for positive action is continuously reducing.

But the GEO-6 also informs us of the condition of the environment which has been deteriorated mainly due to factors such as population growth, climate change and urbanisation. Not to mention, the unprecedented rates of change in technology have also hurt the environment. Currently, we are dealing with issues such as

  • Air pollution causing premature deaths of around 6-7 million annually
  • The sixth largest mass extinction in the history of the planet
  • Disposal of around 8 million tonnes of plastic in the oceans
  • 1.4 million annual deaths due to polluted drinking water and lack of sanitation

Under these circumstances, the various goals under Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement are unlikely to be completed. The GEO-6 has called for sustained and urgent efforts by the governments and business leaders for achieving it.