A Southwest Turn

Hurricanes are well-known for how unpredictable their paths can be. As wild as they can get, we can usually count on two things for storms that live primarily in the ocean in the Northern hemisphere: their general hook shape, and sharp bends.

source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:2018_Atlantic_hurricane_season_summary_map.png

2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season

As has been frequently reported in the news, Florence took a particularly strange turn when it headed southwest. To see how that came about, we can look at the Cauchy momentum equation, one of the Navier Stokes equations that are central to fluid dynamics:

The Cauchy momentum equation

The equation itself can take on several forms, depending on the usefulness for the particular application. For our purposes, however, the above is sufficient since we have the relevant terms. In determining the path for Florence, two out of three of the terms on the right side of the equal sign are important.

The first is the Coriolis force, usually lumped in with other forces. This is the force most famous for causing the spiral pattern of the storms, but, at the largest scale, is also why we have the trade winds and westerlies. This gives us the hook.

The second term is the change in pressure over space. The negative sign simply means that air and liquid prefer to move from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. If the pressure is high enough, as it was over New England and the Maritimes during Florence’s landfall, the path can acquire a sharp bend.

Put these two competing terms together, and we get Florence’s odd path.

map source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/19794489843/

Pressure field during Florence’s landfall.

Peer edited by Gabby Budziewski.

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Midterm Election Ballot Amendments: What’s up with the Right to Hunt and Fish Amendment?

Do you think the right to hunt should be protected by the NC state constitution?

This election cycle, North Carolinians will be voting on six constitutional amendments, one of which is the Right to Hunt and Fish Amendment. The amendment would upgrade hunting and fishing to a constitutional right, designating “public hunting and fishing [to] be the preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife.” Restrictions on hunting and fishing would be prohibited, except to comply with wildlife conservation and management laws.

At UNC’s Science Policy Advocacy Group (SPAG), we highlighted the quoted language from the amendment, wondering: Are voters being asked to make a decision motivated by wildlife conservation science or by politics? While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services claims that hunting is a wildlife management tool, this largely depends on local context based on hunting regulation and the species in question.

To answer this question in North Carolina, we consulted resources at the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. While NC has a Deer Management Assistance Program, a recent publication on the Wildlife Restoration Program states that the primary contribution of hunters is financial. In addition to the state taxes we all pay, hunters contribute to conservation funds through hunting licenses and excise taxes on arms, ammunition, and equipment. The Wildlife Commission uses those funds to purchase and manage habitat lands, restore wildlife species, conduct research, and survey wildlife populations. In fact, the increase in game populations (turkey, quail, fox, black bear, etc) is desirable because it incentivizes a growth in the popularity of hunting, which would in turn maintain revenue streams for conservation. The report does not mention hunting’s impact on wildlife population control in NC, and a search of academic literature yielded no results on the topic.

So hunting is an important financial tool for wildlife management, rather than a tool for wildlife population control. However, there’s also no evidence that anyone wants to reduce hunting licenses. If anything, because of the important funds generated by hunting, NC has a Hunter Heritage program to try to reverse declines in the number of people who hunt.

Which brings us back to the ballot amendment – what are we really voting for?

A “yes” vote supports creating a state constitutional right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife, affording it the same protection as free speech. This would mean the NC General Assembly would have the sole power to regulate hunting and fishing. In comparison, a “no” vote opposes codifying this right in the state constitution, maintaining having a license as a privilege.

In the end, it’s unclear what exactly this amendment would accomplish besides adding another amendment. Of all the ballot amendments, this is the one toward which state legislators feel the most ambivalent. Some democratic state representatives believe the amendment is politically motivated to draw more conservative voters to the polls who may misunderstand the amendment to mean that their ability to hunt and fish is vulnerable. This would help shore up votes for Republicans across the state.

This article is not a referendum on hunting, which, it turns out, is a prime example of how recreational activities can be leveraged to support conservation and science. However, we find this amendment uses misleading language about the efficacy of hunting itself as a wildlife management tool in NC to create unnecessary legislation.

Peer edited by Izzie Newsome.

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Why the Ocean needs the Desert

What do you imagine when you think of the desert? I grew up in the desert and I think of dry hot days and clear cool nights. I think of my home town where mountains and a vast sky surround us.  I think of sand and dust which permeates all crevices and openings. I think of low-lying scrub bushes and an ecosystem that, while not as diverse as the Amazon rain forest or the oceans, is certainly unique.

Source: https://www.panoramio.com/photo/96124662

What do you imagine when you think of the ocean?  I think of the ocean as the exact opposite of the desert. I have seen the ocean maybe five times in my life so my personal experiences are limited, but my first impression of the ocean was that it was overwhelmingly vast and intimidating. However, when I look beyond my own fears, I think of the ocean as a biodiverse ecosystem that is dependent on its diversity.

Courtesy: National Science Foundation

It’s hard to imagine two more different places on earth in terms of environment and animals. So what is the connection between the two, between the desert and the oceans? Dust.

Around 450 million tons of dust enter  the world’s oceans every year, and two-thirds of this dust comes from the Sahara desert. The dust from deserts can stay in the air for weeks and travel thousands of miles. The dust from the Sahara desert travels across the Atlantic ocean and deposits into the Caribbean Sea or even in the Amazon rainforest. This dust carries vital nutrients such as phosphorus, nitrogen, and iron, which are especially important to ocean ecosystems.

Visualization of aerosols produced around the world from dust to sea spray. The tan and red colors are denoting dust aerosols that are traveling.

Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

 

The importance of dust deposits in the ocean are apparent  in marine phytoplankton. Marine phytoplankton are microscopic plant-like organisms that are at the bottom of the food chain in the ocean and are a critical part for the survival of other ocean creatures. These marine phytoplankton not only serve as a food source for larger creatures in the ocean but they also consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. In fact, over half of the world’s oxygen is actually produced by marine phytoplankton. The rate limiting step for marine phytoplankton growth in the ocean is iron availability, which for a majority of the ocean comes from the dust produced by the great deserts of the world.

However, as fantastic as I think dust carried on the wind and contributing to the world’s ecosystems is, there can be some downsides. For example, when a lot of dust enters the ocean in   a short amount time due to dust storms in the Sahara desert, phytoplankton can create  overgrown blooms. These overgrown blooms can actually deplete the oxygen in the surrounding water and cause a dead zone in the ocean.

Despite the previously stated downside to dust, the ocean needs the desert. We, as a species, need the desert. So the next time you are thinking of the desert, think of the dust and where it’s going.

Peer edited by Kaylee Helfrich.

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In the Wake of Hurricane Florence: How Genetic Tools Can Prevent Ecosystem Damage

https://www.acc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1638448/afcent-command-and-control-operations-weather-the-storm/

Hurricane Florence approaches the Carolinas

Hurricane Florence was devastating to much of the Carolinas. The flooding that ensued destroyed not only homes and livelihoods, but greatly affected animal agriculture. The effects of Florence resulted in the deaths of millions of animals and caused massive overflows or “overtopping” of animal waste, particularly from swine production facilities. North Carolina is the nation’s second largest producer of swine, and the 9.7 million pigs who call North Carolina home produce nearly 10 billion gallons of waste annually. The damages from Florence are disastrous not only from an economic perspective, but also from an environmental one.

In livestock production, lagoons are large basins primarily used for the treatment of animal wastes. Rather than simply being a collection site for waste, proper care of a lagoon involves “feeding” the lagoon with microbes that help degrade the waste into usable fertilizer. However, during massive flooding events the volume within these lagoons can quickly rise and overflow. This disrupts the waste treatment process and exposes the environment to large quantities of nitrogen, phosphorus, or even pathogenic material derived from animal wastes. According to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, at least 32 lagoons have overtopped due to Florence, and another 61 lagoons have sustained structural damage or are close to overflowing.

An imbalance of nitrogen and phosphorus in any body of water contributes to a condition called eutrophication, in which excess nutrients allow for blooms of algae or plant matter. As these photosynthetic organisms flourish, they cause drastic changes to their environment. Algal blooms can be especially damaging, as many algae produce compounds which quickly reach toxic levels, algal overabundance clouds the water, and their rapid growth utilizes carbon leading to an increase in the pH of surrounding water. Eventually, algae change their own environment so extensively that they quickly die off, leading to subsequent microbial breakdown of the dead algae, which depletes oxygen. This rapid removal of oxygen then produces a “dead zone”, which is unsustainable for most life.

While nitrogen and phosphorus can be detrimental to the environment in large quantities, these are still very necessary components of any animal’s diet. Nitrogen and phosphorus are used as building blocks to produce DNA, proteins, and other compounds necessary for the growth. Therefore, agricultural production will need to find ways to provide these necessary building blocks while also preventing an excess of them in the environment. Thankfully, animal science research efforts have produced a unique potential fix!

Several years ago, researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada developed an animal designed with the world in mind: the Enviropig! The Enviropig is a transgenic animal, meaning its genome has been edited to contain a gene from a different species. In the case of the Enviropig, a bacterial-derived gene for the enzyme phytase is expressed in the pigs’ salivary glands, allowing the animal to break down more of the phosphorus in its diet. With more phosphorus broken down into a form the animal can digest, less phosphorus winds up in pigs’ waste, meaning less phosphorus contributes to eutrophication. A win for the pigs, now able to get better nutrition from their diet, and a win for humans and the environment, as we are able to produce and enjoy a more environmentally sustainable product. While the initial work on this project was put on hold in 2012 due to public scrutiny of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a team of researchers in China developed their own version of an environmentally-conscious pig earlier this year. This new animal is able to break down greater amounts of both phosphorus and nitrogen from its diet, reducing their abundance in animal wastes.

Neither animal has been approved for use in the United States yet, but they both hold enormous potential to reduce the environmental impacts of animal agriculture. While the Enviropig and similar transgenic animals cannot yet solve every environmental issue, had they been mainstream prior to Hurricane Florence, perhaps there would be less concern with regard to ecosystem health after the flooding. Natural disasters are as unpredictable as they are unfortunate and dangerous; however, genetic tools such as these could provide one additional safeguard to protect the environment and public safety for the future.

https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=215663&picture=pigs

Livestock, such as pigs, can be genetically designed to help protect the environment!

Peer edited by Joanna Warren.

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Honey Bees: Conservation Icon or Environmental Problem?

Bzzzzztt! Oh, sorry. That was just the sound of another honey bee dying. Seriously though, honey bee populations are crashing all over the world – we’ve lost nearly 60% of honey bee colonies since the 1970s. But there’s good news! Honey bees might be on the verge of making a comeback. Numerous conservation agencies and local businesses are making hard attempts to increase the number of honey bee colonies in all sorts of places – Barack Obama even launched a special task force in 2014! So, with all these good bee-vibes, why did one prominent bee researcher write a perspective article in Science poo-pooing the spread of honey bees as conservation icon? Let’s break it down.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/usgsbiml/34240025053/in/photolist-eenRKb-krfu9P-gkdW7q-eecLmq-ee75bt-ghnAju-gkdBS7-eecL6L-gkdV6Y-ghnDb1-o3mrPi-nBR2iN-nLb438-o5qWJe-UTSk1U-UTS5DN-U7KeYY-UaF5xx-V9MmSw

Apis mellifera, the European honey bee and maybe your best friend?

Get to the point. What’s the problem?

Sure, right away. As mentioned above, honey bees are vanishing at an alarming rate. Much of this phenomenon is associated with something called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). One day, all the bees are happy and making honey, then the next the workers have suddenly vanished and abandoned their queen and hive. In a frustrating turn of events, nobody knows quite what is causing CCD. Many experts believe CCD is attributed to a variety of factors: increased use of pesticides, a virus-harboring parasite, poor nutrition, climate change, and even cell phones (OK, you caught me: that last one isn’t widely supported). At this point, about 40-50% of established hives don’t survive to the next year – a significant change from decades past. If this worrisome trend continues, honey bee populations could plummet with a cascade of consequences.

Do honey bees really matter, though? I hardly eat honey.

Great rhetorical question (and also, what’s wrong with you?)! Honey bees are indispensable to our nation’s agriculture. While several staples of American agriculture such as wheat and corn are wind-pollinated, many others need help from other organisms to spread their pollen from one flower to the next. In fact, honey bees are essential for the pollination and production of a huge variety of crops such as apples, cantaloupes, almonds, and avocados. Honey bee-pollinated foods contribute more than 15 billion dollars to the US agricultural economy and their continued decline could increase consumer costs of these foods to ten times their current price.  

Honey bee products also make up their own economy. Honey produced by American beekeepers is a 300-million-dollar industry, while hive by-products such as beeswax, have niche markets as well (who here hasn’t heard of Burt’s Bees?).

https://www.pexels.com/photo/bee-on-flower-811691/

Honeybees play an essential role in the reproductive cycle for many flowers and plants that produce our food

The benefits of managed hives aren’t limited to large scale commercial farmers or beekeepers. Many people report that keeping bees improves the health and vibrancy of their own gardens. Consuming locally-produced honey might (emphasis on might) also help with allergies, attuning your body to the pollens it’ll be lambasted with in spring and fall. Local hives also present a fantastic opportunity to teach lessons about biology to students of any age – did you know honey bees are actually the only domesticated superorganism? (Don’t know what a superorganism, is? Look here. See, learning opportunity!)

Ok, so what’s up with this anti-honeybee article? Is the guy just a jerk?

Dr. Jonas Geldmann is actually a renowned conservation researcher at the University of Cambridge, and probably a great guy! His recent perspectives article in Science highlights a growing concern among environmental conservationists. While honey bees are fascinating and powerful machines of agriculture, high densities of managed hives also present an environmental quandary. A growing body of research suggests that domesticated honey bees, with up to 60,000 bees in a hive, may be harmful to their wild, native neighbors. Honey bee hives require huge amounts of nectar and pollen to stay healthy and produce honey, potentially placing them in direct competition with native pollinations for food. Additionally, honey bee hives can become incubators for parasites and pathogens that can be directly transmitted to other bee and insect species, impacting their health and fertility. While the jury’s still out, the accumulating evidence suggests that introducing honey bee hives can measurably reduce local populations of native bee species, which can have negative impacts on the local environment.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rhododendron_canescens_43zz.jpg

Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens) is native to North Carolina

Native pollinators, which include thousands of distinct bee species as well as butterflies, moths, bats, flies, ants, and birds, are also capable of performing a significant portion of the pollination needs of both agricultural and non-agricultural plants. In many cases, native plant species have uniquely adapted to be efficiently pollinated by their native pollinators. A beautiful example of this is the flowering azaleas, which bloom in the early spring. Unlike many flowering plants, azalea pollen is hidden deep inside their flowers – where only native bees know to look.­­­­­ North Carolina is home to several native species of deciduous azaleas, none of which can be pollinated by domesticated honey bees. Similarly, crop plants such as squash, alfalfa, and blueberries all have native bee species that are significantly more efficient at fulfilling their pollination needs than their domesticated relatives.

Unfortunately, many native pollinators are experiencing serious population declines similar to the honey bee. For evidence, we only have to look back at the agriculture industry. In the past, native pollinators were the sole source of pollination for many of the food crops that are now completely reliant on managed honey bee hives. While the honey bee has done a fantastic job of keeping these foods from vanishing off our shelves, it won’t be able to maintain the diversity of our nations flora alone. It is imperative that we keep our native pollinators in mind when discussing conservation efforts and adopt policies that promote the health and wellbeing of both native and domesticated bee species.

What can you do?

Fear not, for all is far from lost! Helping out is simple! Native and domesticated species of bee both struggle with some of the same issues: a lack of resources (nectar and pollen) and exposure to pesticides. When buying plants for your own garden, look for native species that produce plenty of nectar and pollen (also known as bee-food!) and ensure that they are pesticide free. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, contact your local beekeepers association or honey bee researcher – they will often have resources available such as this one from the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. While tending your garden, try to avoid using pesticides and only use natural, bee-friendly ones if you must – many local garden supply stores will carry such products. There are also ways to help if you aren’t an avid gardener! In an ideal world, we’d all buy locally-sourced, pesticide-free produce (which you can do! Talk to growers at your local farmers market about their practices), but that process can be a bit daunting. While imperfect, USDA certified organic foods are grown using naturally-sourced pesticides (like raw copper or sulphur), which likely aren’t as toxic to local pollinators. By sticking to these practices, anyone can promote the health of native pollinators and honey bees, alike.

Peer edited by Erica Wood.

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The Perfect Storm

https://www.flickr.com/photos/150411108@N06/37178284932

Hurricane Maria caused significant damage to Puerto Rico in September 2017. Image by Antti Lipponen.

There is a trend with recent natural disasters: out of the media, out of mind. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria all had major impacts on the US in 2017 (and yet I could only remember 1 of 3 names off the top of my head!). Once the non-stop media coverage ceases and calls for donations lose steam, we continue on with our lives without a second thought. However, these storms have lasting impacts which can radiate far beyond the directly affected areas.

When Hurricane Maria hammered the island of Puerto Rico, nearly all the territory lost power (see image). The outages affected both residents and businesses, including all 3 manufacturing facilities operated by Baxter, a critical provider of hospital products for the mainland US. Baxter is the major source of several heavily used products including sterile saline (sodium chloride 0.9%), and IV tubing and bags. Saline bags are used for patient rehydration as well as dilution of many IV drugs.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Puerto_Rico_at_night_before_and_after_Hurricane_Maria.jpg

Comparison of lights at night in Puerto Rico before (top) and after (bottom) Hurricane Maria

In the wake of Hurricane Maria’s destruction last September, production at the Baxter plants was at a stand-still. The FDA released a statement regarding the potential impact of the shortage, and even worked to get critical Baxter facilities priority for re-establishing electric power. Drug shortages are nothing new, and the FDA acknowledged in their press release that saline bags have been in shortage since 2014. But the drop in availability of basic supplies such as saline has many hospitals, including those in the Triangle, scrambling to adapt.

Exacerbating the situation, the shortages have coincided with an unusually vigorous flu outbreak and a spike in hospitalizations. As population densities increase, disease epidemics are more likely to occur, so issues such as drug shortages and over-filled hospitals will continue to occur (also see David Abraham’s post for more on the challenges of flu season). For example, the severity of the current flu season has also led to shortages of flu medication for children.

Kendra Connelly

A pharmacy technician prepares drugs in a sterile hood

Pharmacies do their best to cope, and behind the scenes are talented pharmacists, nurses and administrators working to keep operations running as normal as possible, with little impact on real-time patient care. To reduce saline bag usage, normal pharmacy protocols can sometimes be modified. This may include manually injecting drugs normally administrated by drip, switching to oral medications, and preparing drugs in different types of bags. Fortunately, all 3 Baxter plants are back online and will soon catch up with production.

In the absence of a familiar “Made in China” sticker, most people don’t consider the origin of many products in their life. And while the current drug and supply shortage cannot be compared to the ongoing suffering of those living in hurricane affected areas, the perfect storm came together to cause lasting and far-reaching effects of the latest hurricane season. Communities directly affected by Maria are still dealing with the challenges of rebuilding and likely will be for some time, but hopefully highlighting these situations will serve as a reminder to the rest of us of the lasting impact of natural disasters.

Peer edited by Hannah Perrin.

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Understanding the 2017 Climate Science Special Report

Earlier this year, the U.S. government released the Climate Science Special Report.  This document describes the state of the Earth’s climate, specifically focusing on the U.S.  If you are someone who is interested in environmental science or policy, you may have thought about reading it.  But where to start? The report contains fifteen chapters and four additional appendices, so reading it may seem daunting.  We published this summary of the report to provide a brief introduction to climate change, and to provide a starting point for anyone who wants to learn more.  

https://www.nps.gov/articles/glaciersandclimatechange.htm

Retreating of Lyell Glacier (Yosemite National Park) in 1883 and 2015. Park scientists study glaciers to understand the effects of climate change in parks serviced by the National Parks Service. 1883 Photo: USGS Photo/Israel Russell 2015 Photo: NPS Photo/Keenan Takahashi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is Climate Change?      

“Climate change” is a phrase that has become ubiquitous throughout many aspects of American and global society, but what exactly is climate change?

Like weather, climate takes into account temperature, precipitation, humidity, and wind patterns.  However, while weather refers to the status of these factors on any given day, climate describes the average weather for a location over a long period of time.  We can consider a climate for a specific place (for example, the Caribbean Islands have a warm, humid climate), or we can consider all of Earth’s climate systems together, which is known as the global climate.

Depending on where you live, you may have seen how weather can change from day to day.  It may be sunny one day, but cool and rainy the next.  Climate change differs from changes in weather because it describes long-term changes in average weather. For example, a place with a changing climate may be traditionally warm and sunny, but over many years, become cooler and wetter.  While weather may fluctuate from day to day, climate change is due to gradual changes that occur over long periods of time.  Climate is viewed through an historical lense, comparing changes over many years. Though we may not notice the climate changing on a daily basis, it can have drastic effects on our everyday lives.  It can impact food production, world health, and prevalence of natural disasters.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Effects_of_global_warming,_plotted_against_changes_in_global_mean_temperature.png

Summary of the potential physical, ecological, social and large-scale impacts of climate change. The plot shows the impacts of climate change versus changes in global mean temperature (above the 1980-1999 level). The arrows show that impacts tend to become more pronounced for higher magnitudes of warming. Dashed arrows indicate less certainty in the projected impact and solid arrows indicate  a high level of certainty.

What Causes Climate Change? 

The major factor determining the Earth’s climate is radiative balance.  Radiation is energy transmitted into and out of the Earth’s atmosphere, surface, and oceans.  Incoming radiation most often comes from light and heat energy from the Sun.  Earth can lose energy in several ways.  It can reflect a portion of the Sun’s radiation back into space.  It can also absorb the Sun’s energy, causing the planet to heat up and reflect low-energy infrared radiation back into the atmosphere.  The amount of incoming and outgoing radiation determines the characteristics of climate, such as temperature, humidity, wind, and precipitation.  When the balance of incoming and outgoing radiation changes, the climate also changes.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Earth%27s_greenhouse_effect_(US_EPA,_2012).png

Scientists agree that it’s extremely likely that human activity (via greenhouse gas emissions) is the dominant cause of the increase in global temperature since the mid-20th century.

There are some natural factors that can influence climate.  The main ones are volcanic eruptions and the El Niño Effect.  Volcanic eruptions emit clouds of particles that block the Sun’s radiation from reaching the Earth, changing the planet’s radiative balance and causing the planet to cool. The El Niño Effect is a natural increase in ocean temperature in the Pacific Ocean that leads to other meteorological effects.  The increase in ocean temperature off the coast of South America leads to higher rates of evaporation, which can cause wind patterns to shift, influencing weather patterns worldwide. Together, these factors influence climate, so when they differ from the norm, they can contribute to climate change.

It is true that climate change can occur naturally and it is expected to happen slowly over long periods of time.  In some cases, the climate can change for a few months or years (such as in the case of a volcanic eruption), but the effects of these events are not long-lasting.  However, since the Industrial Era, the factor contributing most to climate change has been an anthropogenic driver, meaning one that is being caused by human activity. The primary cause of climate change since the Industrial Era has been the presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  The main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O).  These gases are problematic because they remain in the Earth’s atmosphere for a long time after they are released.  They trap much of Earth’s outgoing radiation, leading to an imbalance of incoming and outgoing radiation energy.  Because the Earth’s atmosphere is holding on to all that energy while still receiving irradiation from the Sun, the planet heats up.  This is called the greenhouse effect, because it is similar to what happens in a greenhouse—the Sun’s energy can get in, but the heat cannot get out.  The greenhouse effect has intensified due to the greenhouse gases that are released during our modern industrial processes.  This has caused the Earth’s climate to begin to change.

 

Who contributed to the Climate Science Special Report?

The report was written by members of the American scientific community, including (but not limited to) the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the US Army Corps of Engineers, and multiple universities and national labs.  They analyzed data from articles in peer reviewed scientific journals—that is, other scientists read these articles before they were even published to check for questionable experiments, data, or conclusions—as well as government reports and statistics and other scientific assessments.  The authors provided links to each source in citation sections at the end of each chapter. They combined everything they learned into this one comprehensive document, the Climate Science Special Report.

What can we learn from this report?      

First of all, the report reveals that the Earth is getting warmer.  The average global surface temperature has increased about 1.8°F (1.0°C) since 1901.  This may seem like a small change, but this increase in temperature is enough to affect the global climate.  Sea levels have risen about eight inches since 1900, which has led to increased flooding in coastal cities.  Weather patterns have changed, with increased rainfall and heatwaves.  While the increased rainfall has been observed primarily in the Northeastern U.S., the western part of the U.S. has experienced an increase in forest fires, such as those that have devastated California this year.  Such changes in weather patterns can be dangerous for those who live in those areas.  They can even damage infrastructure and affect agriculture, which impacts public health and food production.  These changes mainly result from greenhouse gases, namely CO2, that humans have emitted into the atmosphere.

Where can I go to read the report myself?  

You can find a link to the main page of the report here.  There is also an Executive Summary, which was written for non-scientists.   While the rest of the report contains some technical language, it is generally accessible, and contains visuals to help readers understand the data.  If you are interested in gaining a better understanding of Earth’s climate and how it’s changing, we encourage you to take a look at the Climate Science Special Report to learn more.  

 

Peer edited by Amanda Tapia and Joanna Warren.

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Looking for a New Year’s Resolution? Shrink Your Plastic Footprint!

Plastics are nearly unavoidable. From the plastic bottle of water you grab walking into a meeting to the money in your wallet, plastics are ubiquitous. However, evidence is accumulating that heavy plastic use takes a hefty toll on the environment, especially the world’s oceans, which are the repository of nearly 4.8-12.7 million tons of plastic each year (about five bags of plastic for every foot of coastline in the world). Much of this marine plastic comes from litter that washes down storm drains into the oceans, but it can also be blown from landfills to end up in the ocean. Marine wildlife including fish, birds, seals, turtles and whales consume startling amounts of plastics, not only because these plastics look like dinner but because they often smell like it too. Dangers of plastics to marine animals include entanglement and intestinal perforation or blockage which can cause nutrient starvation—marine animals starving on a stomach stuffed with plastic. Researchers estimate that 90% of sea birds and half of all sea turtles have consumed plastics.

https://pixabay.com/en/rubbish-seaside-beach-waste-1576990/

Millions of tons of plastic waste winds up in the ocean each year.

More recently, the alarm has been raised about microplastics, small plastics and plastic fibers less than 5 mm in size. Microplastics can come from the degradation of larger plastics and from washing clothing containing synthetic fibers. Microplastics act like magnets for chemicals the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls “Persistent Bioaccumulative and Toxic Substances” (PBTs). PBTs build up in the bodies of marine organisms and can harm us when we consume seafood. Though other potential dangers of microplastics to the environment are not clear yet, it has been shown that the decomposition of plastics can release toxic chemicals including bisphenol A (BPA),  a chemical which disrupts hormone balances and may be linked to human health concerns including diabetes, behavioral disorders like ADHD, and cancer. Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia have shown that some of the same adverse health effects occur in fish exposed to BPA, indicating a risk to marine food chains and ecosystems.  It is clear that we do not yet know the full impact of plastics in our oceans—but that the dumping of plastic waste into marine ecosystems is not without consequences.

Although some solutions to the plastic crisis have been floated (excuse the pun) including giant plastic-collecting booms which collect large plastic debris in the ocean and plastic-munching bacteria, these approaches are only beginning to be implemented and have limitations. This is where we come in — preventing more plastics from getting into the ocean is an important first step. Simply recycling our plastics may not be enough: one professor of economics cites plastics as one of the least valuable recyclable items due to the high energy and resource costs of processing them. As a result, it is imperative to focus on reducing, rather than recycling plastics.

Here are 100 ways to reduce your plastic use, ranging from reusable coffee cups to making your own deodorant to avoid the use of plastic packaging—an idea that doesn’t stink. Another way to track your plastic use is to accept the Plastic-Free Challenge—a social media challenge that lets you share your commitment to reducing your plastic footprint with all your followers. A good way to get started is to keep track of how much plastic you use and strive to reduce this amount every week. If you want to think bigger than your own plastic footprint, you can call your representatives about measures like plastic bag bans in your city and about funding research for equipping water treatment facilities to deal with microplastic-contaminated effluent. This year, I’ll be making it my New Year’s resolution to reduce my plastic consumption: a small change in habits that can add up. Let’s face it, I was never going to make it to the gym, anyway.

Peer edited by Erica Wood.

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Tardigrades! The Super-animal of the Animal Kingdom

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Tardigrade (aka waterbear or moss piglet)

Tardigrades, also known as waterbears or moss piglets, are microscopic invertebrates that “resemble a cross between a caterpillar and a naked mole rat,” according to science writer, Jason Bittel. First discovered almost 250 years ago, there are now over 1,000 known species of tardigrade that can be found in almost every habitat throughout the world – from the depths of the ocean, to the tops of mountains, to your own backyard. As long as there is a little bit of moisture, you can find them. They are small and chubby, with most species being less than one millimeter in length. Their unique, usually transparent bodies have no specialized organs and four pairs of legs with claws at the end. Tardigrades can reproduce sexually or asexually via self fertilization. Like regular bears, Tardigrades eat a variety of foods, such as plant cells, animal cells and bacteria.

Despite being small, adorable microorganisms, tardigrades are fascinating creatures that have recently garnered the attention of scientists around their world due to their adaptability and resilience towards the most extreme environmental conditions. They have been observed to survive in a vacuum (an environment devoid air and matter) for up to eight days, for years to decades without water, temperatures ranging from under -200˚C to almost 100˚C, and heavy ionizing radiation. Tardigrades survive these conditions through a reversible mechanism known as desiccation (extreme drying), in which an organism loses most of the water in their body. In tardigrades, this can be as high as 97%. This is especially important in freezing temperatures, where water frozen into ice crystals can pierce and rupture the cells in the tardigrades’ body. During desiccation, the metabolic rate slows down to as low as 0.01% of normal function, allowing survival under the harshest of conditions for years.

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Scanning Electron Microscopy image of a Tardigrade (Hypsibius dujardini)

In a 2016 Nature paper, scientists sought to answer the question of how a certain specie of tardigrade, Ramazzottius varieornatus, is so tolerant to extreme environmental conditions. They found an increase in several stress-related gene families such as superoxide dismutases (SODs). Most multicellular animals have less than ten SODs, however the study identified sixteen in this tardigrade specie. They also found an increased copy number of a gene known to play an important role in DNA double stranded breaks, MRE11. R. varieornatus had four copies of MRE11 while most other animals have only one.  Aside from having improved mechanisms of handling stress and DNA damage, scientists were able to identify waterbear-specific genes that seemed to explain tardigrades’ radiotolerance, or rather, resistance to radiation. The scientists were curious about whether this tardigrade-specific gene had any effect on DNA protection and radiotolerance in human cells. To their surprise, this gene, called DSUP for DNA damage suppressor, was able to decrease DNA damage in human cultured cells by 40% and decreased both double and single stranded DNA breaks.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Dr. Bob Goldstein studies animal development and cellular mapping during development in C. elegans and recently in tardigrades as well. He is also focusing on developing tardigrades into an new model system while studying their body development! His lab website has a section dedicated to tardigrades, with resources about them along with pictures and videos of tardigrades in motion.

The environmental resilience of tardigrades is incredible, making the tardigrade the super-animal of the animal kingdom (in my opinion). Who knows what other fascinating creatures we have yet to discover that may have characteristics as interesting and unbelievable as those of the tardigrade?

Peer edited by Nick Martinez.

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Let’s Talk about Pets!

 Photo: Erin Spencer

Meet Marshmallow, an expert snuggler.

I love my pets. Growing up, I always had animals: fish, hamsters, hermit crabs, and even rats (my mom was particularly happy when those were out of the house). The current menagerie includes two cats, two fish, a bearded dragon, and a horse, and two fish.

Pets provide us joy (how many cat videos have you watched today?) and can even help us live longer. And they’re popular: 63% of American households have pets, resulting in more than 360 million pets in the United States alone. Consequently, pets and pet products account for over $40 billion in spending in the United States every year.

If you’re pet-obsessed (like me!), that probably doesn’t come as a surprise. But what might surprise you is that pets can pose a massive threat to our native ecosystems.

Even when people buy animals with the best intentions, a lot of things can change throughout the course of pet ownership. Maybe they realize their hubby is allergic to cats, or that teeny baby turtle outgrew his aquarium. Regardless of the reason, many pet owners will ultimately face a difficult decision: what do you do with a pet you can no longer care for?

Releasing pets into the wild may be considered a “humane” response by unknowing owners (thanks a lot Finding Nemo), but this is problematic for a number of reasons. First, a significant change in environment will likely be stressful for the pet and could lead to death. Second, they might be carrying diseases or pathogens that could spread to native wildlife, which is why even seemingly innocuous actions like flushing a dead fish could be dangerous. Lastly, in the right climate, released pets could establish breeding populations and become invasive.

Photo: Erin Spencer

The lionfish is an invasive species introduced in the Western Atlantic through aquarium releases.

This is more common than you might think. Here are a few examples of released pets becoming invasive pests in the United States:

  • Lionfish: Originally from the Indo-Pacific, these venomous fish are wreaking havoc on native fish populations in the Western Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico. Considered the “Hoover vacuums of the sea”, lionfish will eat anything up to half their size. Despite being highly invasive, they are still a popular aquarium fish are are sold in the United States.
  • Cats: Your cuddly kittens have a deadly side. Domestic outdoor and feral cats kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals every year, leading cats to be considered one of the largest human-linked threats to wildlife in the country.
  • Giant African Land Snail: These massive mollusks are one of the world’s largest snails and consume more than 500 types of plants. To top it off, they can damage plaster and stucco structures and can carry a parasitic nematode that causes meningitis in humans.
  • Burmese python:  Reaching up to 23 ft in length, Burmese pythons are some of the largest snakes in the world. Now an invasive species established throughout South Florida, Burmese pythons pose a serious risk to native wildlife and domestic pets. More than 2,000 pythons have been removed from the Everglades National Park since 2002, a figure that likely represents a small fraction of the population.

And the list goes on (check out this site if you want to read more). Thankfully, there are definitive steps that we can take as pet owners to make sure we aren’t contributing to this massive problem.

  1. First and foremost: never, ever release your pets into the wild.
  2. Keep your pet in appropriate housing to minimize chances of escaping.
  3. Properly dispose of materials in your pet’s habitat, including bedding, tank water, terrarium plants, and anything that might carry pathogens or “hitchhikers” from your pet.
  4. Never release live pet food like crickets or feeder fish. Always make sure these animals are kept in secure containers so they cannot escape.
  5. Thoroughly do your research before buying a pet. Ask how care will change as the pet gets older to make sure you’re equipped to take care of the animal throughout its lifetime.
  6. Ask your pet store about their return policy — some stores will take animals back past the normal 30 day return period.

Invasive species are a massive threat to ecosystems and economies worldwide, costing $120 billion in damages each year in the United States alone. We all need to do our part to prevent the next big species invasion by practicing responsible pet ownership.

The environment (and your pets!) will thank you.

Photo: Erin Spencer

Dracarys is perfectly happy in his aquarium, thank you very much.

Peer edited by James Custer.

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