Monday, 24 February 2020

In the line of fire

Nature Climate Change 
The bushfires burning in Australia have led to widespread local and global calls for increased efforts to mitigate climate change. Details here.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Full impact of mysterious Brazil oil spill remains unknown

Last summer, an oil spill of unknown origin hit Brazil’s northeast coast – just as migrating shorebirds arrived in the area. Our Partner SAVE Brasil has been campaigning for action and striving to measure the impact on birds - but more support is urgently needed. More here.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

New research shows, human exploitation of fossil fuels may be playing an even bigger role in our climate crisis than earlier thought.

Extraction of Earth's oil, gas and coal reserves is probably unleashing vastly more methane (CH4) into the air than is currently being estimated. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and significant contributor to the dangerous heating of our planet. 
by Larry Powell.

Pump jacks extract crude oil from the Bakken field southeastern Saskatchewan, Canada. Are such operations releasing even more methane than we once thought? A PinP photo.

Using the largest ice drill in the world (below), the researchers “looked back in time” to the 17 hundreds, by drilling deep into the ice in Greenland and Antarctica.                                                                                       
The Blue Ice Drill, used to collect 
the cores used in this study. 
Photo by B. Hmiel.

By analyzing air bubbles trapped, both in the ice cores and the snow, they were able to measure how much methane was escaping into the air at the time. Since this was the “pre-industrial era,” before major human expansion of fossil fuel development began, those emissions would have virtually all come from natural sources like natural gas seeps from beneath the ocean floor and mud volcanoes (below) and ancient, but mostly undisturbed deposits of fossil fuels.
Mud volcanoes on the Nahlin Plateau, BC, Canada. 
Are such sites not quite the "climate culprits" 
they were once considered? Photo by Hkeyser.
The findings were surprising. Methane originating from those natural sources were shown to be minimal - only about 1.6 teragrams per year, or 5.4 teragrams, at most. (A teragram is equal to one trillion grams.) As the study concludes, that was "an order of magnitude lower than the currently used estimates." Put another way, those estimates are probably some ten times higher than these new test results show.

Ice cores from the 1870s, however, tell a different story. They show significantly higher methane levels. By then, the industrial revolution had begun, with major extraction of fossil fuels well under way. While fossil fuel extraction would have been the main factor in the increase, other human activities such as rice farming and domestic livestock production would likely also have played a part.

So, the lesson learned from all of this? Emissions due to human activity have been underestimated by anywhere from 25% to 40%. In other words, they are much larger than previously suggested.

Regardless of whether it springs from manmade or natural origins, methane is still a potent greenhouse gas (GHG), capable of trapping heat and impacting the climate. And it's up to 36 times more efficient at doing so than is carbon dioxide (C02), the most common GHG. Atmospheric concentrations of methane have more than doubled since the pre-industrial era. 

"The Global Carbon Project" refers to rising methane levels as "an increasingly important component for managing realistic pathways to mitigate climate change. It's an umbrella group of scientific organizations gathering together a common knowledge base in order to "slow down and ultimately stop the increase of GHGs in the atmosphere."

The lead author of this latest research, Dr. Benjamin Hmiel of the University of Rochester tells PinP that, even after methane is combusted, it still has an impact. While it no longer exists as methane, it transforms into carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas.

Dr. Hmiel's international team consisted of 19 scientists from eleven institutions.

The researchers hope their findings will "emphasize the human impact on the atmosphere and climate and will help inform strategies for targeted emissions reductions to mitigate the effects of climate change."
The findings were published in the journal Nature today.  

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Regardless of the decision, Teck Frontier proves the system is still broken

This company has now withdrawn its application for the mine.

The Pembina Institute
Canada is facing a decision on the biggest oil sands mine proposal in almost a decade. Alberta’s Frontier oil sands mine, proposed by Teck Resources, has gone through a lengthy regulatory process culminating in a recommended approval from a joint federal-provincial review panel and is now under consideration by the federal cabinet. A casual observer might assume that given the potent environmental and economic impacts, this process would have been comprehensive. Yet, the panel's report, which shares the reasoning behind the decision, is remarkably weak on its consideration of climate impacts. More here.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Climate change to create farmland in the north, but at environmental costs, study reveals

The Canadian Arctic. Photo by David.

In a warming world, Canada's north may become our breadbasket of the future - but this new "farming frontier" also poses environmental threats from increased carbon emissions to degraded water quality, according to the first-ever study involving University of Guelph researchers.  Story here.

Global financial giants swear off funding an especially dirty fuel.

The New York Times
The Alberta tar sands. Source: "Beautiful Destruction."

Some of the world's biggest financial institutions have stopped putting money behind oil production in the Canadian province of Alberta, home to one of the world's most extensive and dirtiest, oil reserves.  Story here. 

Friday, 7 February 2020

Why bumble bees are going extinct in time of 'climate chaos'

Tricoloured Bumble bees - Bombus ternarius - forage on chives
in an organic garden in Manitoba. Circa 2000. A PinP photo.
When you were young, were you the type of child who would scour open fields looking for bumble bees? Today, it is much harder for kids to spot them, since bumble bees are drastically declining in North America and in Europe.  More here.


Thursday, 6 February 2020

This is the age of the megafire – and it’s being fuelled by our leaders

Tim Flannery for the Guardian
Bushfires spire from Yuraygir National Park,
Australia. Photo by European Space Agency.

In the face of the climate disaster it helped create, the Australian government has given us only lies and denial. Story here.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Our warming world turns vast areas of the Arctic green.

High Alpine Tundra in Noatak National Preserve, Alaska. 
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
New research techniques are being adopted by scientists tackling the most visible impact of climate change—the so-called greening of Arctic regions. STORY HERE. 

Farming as nature intended. A “dynamic duo” from south of the border, brings a message of hope and radical change to producers on the Canadian prairies.

by Larry Powell

A conventional farm in Manitoba. A PinP photo.
"You're tilling too much!"
That was Ray Archuleta's blunt message to about 50 people at a meeting this week in the small, agricultural community of Shoal Lake, Manitoba. The brilliant, affable Archuleta operates a small ranch in Missouri. His partner. Gabe Brown, whose "down home" personality has apparently earned him the monicker, "Farmer Brown," runs a big, mixed operation in North Dakota.

Both men are on the same mission - convince as many farmers as they can to move away from conventional production. That's how countless producers in Canada, the U.S. and developed countries around the world, have, for decades, practised this predominant style of agriculture. They rely on heavy and expensive "inputs" of fertilizers, pesticides, machinery and "mono-crops," all designed to produce the highest yields possible. 

Ray Archuleta conducts a so-
called "slake test."
Archuleta, a soil and water scientist, worked for the U.S. government for many years. He says too much tillage 
makes the land more vulnerable, not only to the kind of erosion that blows farmers' soils away in massive dust storms, but to devastating floods and droughts, as well. He adds, neglect of soil biology has gone on for so long, it has resulted in farm soils becoming "the most destroyed eco-system there is!" 

In a demonstration for his audience (similar to the one shown, l.), Archuleta had volunteers drop different samples of the same type of soil into clear, plastic tubes. Some of those samples were from fields that had been tilled and treated with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Others had not been tilled, but planted with cover crops that kept them constantly green and fed with valuable nutrients. When water was added, the first soil group rapidly disintegrated. The second kept their shapes for a prolonged period and absorbed the water into their pores, instead. This was indicative of healthy soil that would hold moisture and nutrients for the plants growing in it.

Archuleta says, after working for the government for a long time, promoting the kind of system he now campaigns against, he saw the light and quit to start ranching and spreading the word of a new and better way called Regenerative Agriculture. He sees too many conventional farmers going broke and doesn't like it. He calls them "The poorest millionaires I know," due to the tremendous debt they carry for expensive infrastructure. In his words, "The money goes to the tool-makers," meaning the machinery and farm input manufacturers.

He believes producers like himself, who emulate nature (a process called "bio-mimicry"), are the ones who are now making the money.
Gabe Brown in his field, with several
cover crops growing at once.
His partner, Gabe Brown (r.), says cover crops hold the secret to healthy soil and crops. On his five thousand acre farm near Bismark, Brown keeps his fields diversified with a constant cover of green during the growing season; before, after and during development of the main crop. 
An example is intercropping - planting several grain crops in the same field, then harvesting and separating or using the mix for feed.Brown says, too many inputs (like pesticides and artificial fertilizers), even on "zero-till" fields, can, over time, turn soil into virtual "bricks." These can result in "ponding," rather than absorption in heavy rains. He wonders whether the disastrous flooding which ravaged vast parts of the U.S. midwest this summer, might have been as bad had the soils in states like Iowa, not been turned into "crap" by misguided farming practises over many years.

Brown isn't impressed with the high yields many conventional farmers get, either. His advice, "Stop giving awards for yields, instead of profit." He suggests yields really don't matter much if your profits are eaten up with high input and machinery costs.

Brown notes, for every harmful pest farmers face, there are 17 hundred beneficial ones. This obviously means, it probably makes more sense to nurture the beneficial ones, than kill the bad one! So he grows lots of flowering plants on his land which attract pollinators like bees and butterflies. He even has a beekeeper operating on his property, to produce honey which he buys and sells at a profit. 

He also raises beef cattle which are carefully herded through fields to avoid overgrazing. Hogs and chickens range outdoors. 

The event which brought the two men to Canada, was sponsored by Agriculture Canada and the Living Labs Project.      

One of the local organizers, Michael Thiele, tells PinP,  there are many producers beginning to think about or are making the first small changes towards a regenerative model. Over the 4 workshops this week we spoke to over 300 producers. Huge interest."



Monday, 27 January 2020

How the power of the pork industry thwarts efforts to protect the public from infectious diseases. A CBS "Sixty-Minutes" video.


Saturday, 25 January 2020

Wildfires in Western Canada Created Air Pollution Spikes as Far Away as New York City

Eco Watch
Fires around Ft. MacMurray, Alberta, Canada in 2016.
Satellite photo by NASA Earth Observatory.
New York City isn't known for having the cleanest air, but researchers traced recent air pollution spikes there to two surprising sources — fires hundreds of miles away in Canada and the southeastern U.S. Story here.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Toxic Tides

One of the biggest challenges facing the aquaculture industry everywhere, is Lepeophtheirus salmonis, the sea-louse. 

 Sea lice, Lepeophtheirus salmonis, on farmed
Atlantic salmon, New Brunswick, CA.
Photo by 7Barrym0re

It’s a parasite which attacks both farmed and wild salmon (r.), causing lesions and infections which stunt their growth. But the costs of de-lousing are high. And so are the losses suffered by the industry in the marketplace. Many lice can actually kill many fish.

To fight back, the fish-farmers dump pesticides into the waters (below). But, because they’re released directly into the environment, they not only kill the lice, but place beneficial, “non-target” organisms at risk, too. And several of these live in the open ocean, beyond the confines of the  farms.
This image shows how industry applies pesticides within their operations.

The latest (but not the only) cautionary tale about the wisdom of this practise, has just emerged from Norway

A team of researchers there exposed (in the lab), an important food source for the fish, to varying levels of hydrogen peroxide (H202).  It's the active ingredient in several such products.  The food source  was a zooplankten called Calanus spp. (r.)

Calanus spp. Illustration by the

It's abundant in coastal waters where many salmon farms are located and is a key component in the North Atlantic food web. It's important, not only to young farmed fish, but to wild herring and cod, as well. 

The lab results were convincing.

In just one hour, at only 10% of levels the farmers would apply, 92% of the juvenile Calanus spp. and all of the adult females died. And, at much lower doses (1% or less), the ability of the organisms to take in oxygen was greatly reduced. Their “escape response” was destroyed, making the likelihood of them being eaten by predators, "extremely high." 

The researchers concluded,  "Present recommended levels of application underestimate the impact of the pesticide on non-target crustaceans.”
Rosa H. Escobar Lux, PhD candidate,
Research group Disease & Pathogen 
Transmission.Havforsknings Institute 
of Marine ResearchAustevoll Research Station, 

I interviewed the lead author of the study, Rosa Escobar Lux (l.).

PinP: Do you have any evidence that the abundance of Calanus spp. may be affected to the degree that the fish themselves are becoming "food-deprived?" 

Dr. Escobar Lux: "No. Our experiments were done in a laboratory which can answer some of our questions but it does not give definite answers to what is happening in the wild.  Also, there's a need for dispersion models to help us understand the real magnitude of the effects...."

The findings of her team were published recently in the Canadian science journal, FACETS.

Is evidence of harm confined to the lab?

Another study from Norway published just last month,  takes us beyond the lab, into open waters (or "the wild" as Dr. Escobar Lux puts it). It reveals, elevated levels of the pesticide diflubenzuron (DFB) are being found in commercially-valuable northern shrimp, (Pandalus borealisin Norwegian fjords. Salmon farms there use a medicated feed containing that productLab tests have shown it can be lethal to the shrimp, and actually becomes more toxic in warmer waters. This raises added concerns in a world that is heating up fast.

Many Norwegian fishers report, they're catching fewer shrimp in fjords where salmon farms are operating. Experts want further studies to find out if shrimp populations are already crashing. 

And yet another recent study reaches a similar conclusion, that 
hydrogen peroxide's toxicity may already be making itself felt in the open ocean, on northern shrimp. Conducted by mostly Norwegian researchers, they find hydrogen peroxide may be causing "gill damage and delayed mortality" to the shrimp, more than a kilometre from fish farms there.

But, there's more. Even older studies, some done in Canada, point to several other marine creatures being vulnerable to aquacultural pesticides, too. These not only include zooplankten like the kind already referred to, but commercially valuable catches such as lobster and shrimp!

Last year, experts "rounded up" those studies and combined them in  a single, "systematic and exhaustive" review. 

They concluded that hydrogen peroxide wasn't the only suspect product. Three others, cypermethrin, deltamethrin and azamethiphos - each used extensively in the industry - had similar effects. 

The review concludes, "Aquaculture has consequences for the environment. Salmon and trout cage culture has required the use of large quantities of pharmaceuticals. Our results show clear negative  effects at concentrations lower than those used in treatments against sea lice in all of the species studied." 

Despite all of this, in 2016, quite some time after much of this research was known,  Health Canada granted "full registration for  the sale and use" of pesticides using hydrogen peroxide as their active ingredient" for the treatment of sea lice on Atlantic salmon reared in marine aquaculture sites." That was at least five years after the first warnings about the pesticides I was personally able to findwarnings that our government officials must have been aware of. 

A year later, the Department registered also azamethiphos for an identical use, giving identical reasons for doing so. 

In its documents approving registration of both products, Health Canada concludes, "Under the approved conditions of use, the products have value and do not present an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.   relatively benign products that pose little or no risk to salmon, the marine environment, non-target species, or human health." 

It went on to recommend that the industry, facing one of its worst years for sea lice that year, be allowed one treatment more of H202 than was usually allowed. 

In addition to H202, Canada has, for at least a decade, also permitted the use of deltamethrin, at least in Atlantic Canada.  Cypermethrin, however, is prohibited. 

In the course of my investigation, I was only able to find out how much hydrogen peroxide is being used in aquaculture.

Health Canada figures (see table) show more than one million kilograms were sold in 2016. That placed the active ingredient among the top ten best-sellers that year (9th). It did not register in the top ten the following year. (The government counts products sold for aquaculture as "agricultural.")

Top 10 Active Ingredients Sold in Canada in 2016 in the Agricultural Sector

Active Ingredient 
Product Type
Surfactant blend
Available chlorine, present as sodium hypochlorite 
Glufosinate ammonium
Mineral oil
Hydrogen peroxide
Source - PMRA - Health CA. 

If that figure sounds high, amounts used in Norway - the world's largest producer of farmed Atlantic salmon - are "through the roof" by comparison. One source says, the industry in that country applied 132 million kilograms of H202 between 2009 and 2018. That would be at least than 13 times more per year than the Canadian usage!

So why do regulators continue to register these products?

The importance of aquaculture to human society is widely recognized. In their own studies, the researchers describe it as "One of the best prospects to help meet the growing need for protein in the human diet." 

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, almost 19 million people worked in that sector in 2015. The world now produces about as much farmed fish as that taken in the wild. Once non-fish products (plants, shells and pearls) are added in - more than 100 million tonnes, or US$163 billion dollars worth of products, were produced by "ocean-farming" that year. It's considered the fastest-growing source of food for human consumption and is made up mostly of "finfish" such as the Atlantic salmon.

In Canada, government figures show, aquaculture employed 14 thousand people, full-time in 2009. For some reason, it's the most recent figure available. In 2013, production in the sector was valued at almost $1 billion. This country is ranked as the world's 4th-largest producer of farmed salmon. 

The website of the Canada Food Inspection Agency proudly states:

"Canada is one of the world's most trusted and respected food suppliers, trusted to provide safe and wholesome products and respected for our commitment to global food security. Canada's strong regulatory system forms the basis of this positive reputation."  (Emphasis mine.)

Are there better ways?

Researchers with Fisheries and Oceans Canada are among those looking for alternatives. They're trying to find out whether physical light traps and biological filters may be able to attract and remove the sea lice from the farms. There's no sign, yet that such methods are about to replace that heavy pesticide use, however. 

Meanwhile, research published about five years ago, seems to put an even finer point on the importance of finding alternatives - not just to pesticides - but to aquaculture itself!  Growth of the industry could actually be worsening the problem. Since sea lice numbers are proportional to fish size, "expanded salmon farming has shifted the conditions in favour of the parasites. Salmon farms are often situated near migrating routes of lice in the open ocean." 

And, as if that weren't enough, the lice are now showing resistance to three of the five compounds being used against them.

On January 11th, I e-mailed Canada's Minister of Health, Patty Hajdu (responsible for the Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency); Fisheries and Oceans Minister, Bernadette Jordan and the "Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance," to comment on my story. 

Apart from automated, return e-mails promising mine would be reviewed, at this writing, I've received no responses.