Sunday, November 29, 2020

On Wells and Wellness: Oil and Gas Flaring as a Potential Risk Factor for Preterm Birth

Environmental Health Perspectives
Cattle graze in a field as gas flares from a pumping installation on the Eagle Ford Shale in Karnes County, Texas. The shale oil boom is going strong on a formation that stretches for about 500 kilomtres across south Texas, one of the most prolific oil patches in the U.S. Excess gas is burned off at oil pumping stations which dot the countryside. A Greenpeace photo.

Several studies have examined the association between unconventional oil and gas development and adverse birth outcomes. But up to now, no study is known to have looked specifically at flaring—the controlled burning of natural gas at the well site to relieve pressure or dispose of waste gas.1 In a recent article in Environmental Health Perspectives, investigators report their findings on flaring and maternal and fetal outcomes. Details here.






Friday, November 27, 2020

As giant ice shelves collapse amid global warming in the Arctic, experts call for more protection for the "Last Ice Area" (LIA). The vast communities of plants and animals living there could be lost, they warn, before we even get to understand them!

    by Larry Powell 
                                The vast Milne Ice Shelf broke up this summer. Animals found 
living within its ice cavity (red box), are shown on the right. 
Photo credits: Left: Joseph Mascaro, Planet Labs Inc. 
Right: Water and Ice Laboratory, Carleton University.

Using tools which included video taken by a robot submarine, a Canadian research team recently discovered an amazing array of plants and animals, living in the heart of Milne, the very ice shelf which broke apart just this summer north of Ellesmere Island (above), losing almost half of its mass.

Dr. Derek Mueller, Professor of Geography and Environment Science at Ottawa's Carleton University, is a team member who's worked in the area for decades. In an email to PinP, he can barely disguise his excitement over what they found.

"There are really neat microbial mats (communities of micro-organisms including cyanobacteria, green algae, diatoms, heterotrophic bacteria, and viruses) that live on the surface of the ice shelves. Similar microbial mats can be found in ponds on the bottom of shallow lakes... Inside the sea ice and clinging to its underside are communities of algae and lots of kinds of phytoplankton in the ocean as well." 
Small animals from marine waters under the sea ice in Tuvaijuittuq, a Marine Protected Area in the region. Photo credit: P. Coupel and P. Tremblay, Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
So what might the world lose if these organisms disappear with the ice?

"This Last Ice Area will hopefully serve as a refuge for ice-dependent species," Dr. Mueller explains, "both on land and in the marine environment.  We know relatively little about these organisms - how they are adapted to their surroundings, how unique they are (or perhaps how similar they are to their cousins in analogous environments in the Antarctic) and many more questions!  We won't get to ask these questions if global temperatures rise unabated and this ice melts away."

The images above come from just a tiny part of the vastness Mueller refers to, called the "Last Ice Area." And, in the face of a rapidly-warming Arctic, events involving the break-up of sea ice are all too common there.
What's left of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf in the Last Ice Area 
after breaking apart in 2011Credit: CEN, Laval University.

Here's how Dr. Mueller describes the LIA. 

"'The Last Ice Area' means the region in the Arctic Ocean where sea ice is most likely to survive in a warming world." 

It sprawls for up to 25 hundred kilometres along the coastlines of northern Canada and Greenland and well out to sea. It's there that the thickest sea-ice in the entire Arctic can be found. Because of its importance as a home for ice-dependant marine life and its cultural significance to the Inuit people living there, they and the World Wildlife Fund have long promoted it as worthy of conservation. (Local Inuit elders call it “Similijuaq - place of the big ice.”) 

Dr. Mueller and a colleague, Dr. Warwick Vincent of Laval University in Quebec City, are now sounding the latest alarm bells over why additional measures are needed to protect the area from increased human activity.

While Dr. Mueller remains optimistic for the future, he suggests, further steps need to be taken to expand those existing, protected areas. 

"The good news is, we do still have a window to make a difference. We can augment the existing conservation areas - the marine one, Tuvaijuittuq MPA and the terrestrial one - Quttinirpaaq National Park,  with more optimal coverage of the LIA - from Greenland in the east to the NWT in the west and perhaps there could be more protection by expanding across the coastal region reaching both inland and offshore." 

The Government of Canada announced the creation of Tuvaijuittuq Marine Protected Area a year ago, aimed at protecting a large part of the LIA.
 It's not just marine life that will be vulnerable to melting ice. So, too will terrestrial (land) animals 
such as the Peary caribou, known to migrate across the sea ice. 
Photo by Paul Gierszewski - Nunavut.


"This would recognize the important interconnection between the terrestrial and marine environments. With vulnerable ice-dependent ecosystems protected from human activity, this will guarantee the removal of multiple environmental stressors.  The big stressor is, of course, climate change. But, if we can make good on our Paris commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally, then the chances of the LIA remaining, increase dramatically."   

The team's findings were published recently in Science Magazine.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

As South Africa clings to coal, a struggle for the right to breathe

YaleEnvironmnt360


A small coal Mine, Highveld, South Africa. A Sierra Club photo.

Close ties between the ruling elite and the coal industry have helped perpetuate South Africa’s dependence on the dirtiest fossil fuel for electricity. But now residents of the nation’s most coal-intensive region are suing to force the government to clean up choking air pollution. Story here.


Saturday, November 21, 2020

The role we humans play in the continuing decline of Earth's biosphere knows no boundaries. Sadly - an essential part of human life - food production - remains part of the problem.

by Larry Powell

 A thick blanket of smoke again darkens skies over northern India. Every year, farmers light large numbers of small fires between September and December—after the monsoon season—to burn off rice stalks and straw leftover after harvest, a practice known as stubble or paddy burning. (A NASA satellite image.) 
Smoke from burning stubble hovers over a small town in southwestern Manitoba, CA.
Nov. 2020. A PinP photo.

Canada is no stranger to the same practise. While "stubble-burning" in this country did not approach that of India's (at least not this year), numerous such fires were still common again this fall over the eastern prairies (See above) and in past years (below).

Stubble-burning in Manitoba - circa 2005. Photos by PinP.
Wildfire smoke (see brown) over the Canadian prairies last year. A NASA photo.

Smoke from several large wildfires in Canada (now proven to be more severe, frequent and prolonged thanks to manmade climate change) was so thick and widespread that it was easily visible from 1.5 million kilometres away from Earth. NASA captured this image in May, 2019, when a river of smoke was streaming east across Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Snarl for the camera! An international team of scientists and software developers use facial recognition technology to identify individual grizzlies in the wild.

 By Larry Powell


An adult female grizzly (Ursus arctos). "BearID," as the program is called, captures a bear’s face in a 
photo image, rotates, extracts and embeds it in order to classify the individual.  


Facial recognition techniques have long been used to identify primates, including humans. But, up 'til now, there's really been no effective way of identifying wild species like the grizzly (brown) bear who, unlike the zebra or giraffe, lacks unique and consistent body markings.
     
In co-operation with two US software developers, four scientists from the University of Victoria bought their idea to reality. They tested their system on grizzlies at two locations - Knight Inlet, BC, and Katmai National Park, Alaska. After taking thousands of pictures, they were able to positively identify 132 individuals with almost eighty-four percent accuracy. 

An adult female in another colour phase. All images by Melanie Clapham, U of Victoria, Canada. 

The technology enables wildlife monitoring on larger scales and in higher resolution than before. And it can be applied, not only to the grizzly, but to many other mammals, as well. This, in turn, could allow conservationists and lawmakers to tackle global challenges such as biodiversity and habitat loss.

Knight Inlet, one of the two locations for the research, is home to a First Nations Lodge where bear-watching forms part of the local eco-tourism industry. 

A band official there, Dallas Smith is impressed with the results. 

“This amazing technology will help us identify individual bears and better understand their movement and interactions throughout our territories, which will enable us to build better management plans around habitat protection. It will also help us manage and mitigate the impact of wildlife viewing, as well as positioning ourselves to more effectively and efficiently deal with bear-human conflicts that are becoming more and more prevalent.”

These new ways of using facial recognition technology, referred to as a "deep learning approach," were published recently in the journal, Ecology and Evolution.

Concentration Matters. Farmland Inequality on the Canadian Prairies

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives 

 by Darrin Qualman, Annette Aurélie Desmarais, André Magnan and Mengistu Wendimu

A scene typical to the Canadian prairies - a big farm at harvest time.
A public domain photo by cj berry.

The ownership and control of Canada’s food-producing land is becoming more and more concentrated, with profound impacts for young farmers, food system security, climate change and democracy. 

On the Canadian prairies, small and medium-sized family farms are often portrayed as the primary food production units. Yet, the reality of farming in Western Canada is quite different. In fact, a small and declining number of farms are operating the lion’s share of Prairie farmland and capturing the lion’s share of farm revenue and net income. 

The authors analyse the extent of farmland concentration in Canada’s three Prairie provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba), where over 70 per cent of the country’s agricultural land is situated. They find that 38 per cent of Saskatchewan’s farmland is operated and controlled by just 8 per cent of farms. In Alberta, 6 per cent of farms operate 40 per cent of that province’s farmland, while Manitoba sees 4 percent of farms operate and control 24 per cent of the land. Such concentration makes it much harder for young and new farmers to enter agriculture, with the number of young farmers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba declining by more than 70 per cent within just one generation

The persistent decline in the number of farmers, farm size expansion, growing farm income inequality, and increased land concentration have other effects as well. Rural economies, communities, businesses, and services are also affected as there are fewer farm families to patronize local shops and services, while farmers lose their capacity to democratically influence governments and legislation as their voting numbers fall. Meanwhile, non-farmers lose their connections to farms and rural culture as fewer and fewer urban residents count farmers among their family members or friends. A series of policy measures are urgently needed to counter the market forces that will otherwise drive us toward even more concentrated farmland ownership and drive half of Canadian farm families off the land in the next one to two generations.

RELATED:

Just 1% of Farms Control 70% of Global Farmland: Study Finds 'Shocking State of Land Inequality'

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Recent research shows: More rare, endangered sharks are dying in the worldwide trade in shark fins than earlier feared.

by Larry Powell

  The "Grey Nurse" or "Sand Tiger," shark ( Carcharias taurus), a coastal species on the ICU's Red List as critically endangered. A public domain photo by Richard Ling. 



After hauling them aboard their vessels, the fishermen cut off their fins, then toss them back into the ocean. Still alive, they sink to the bottom where they're either eaten by other predators or die of suffocation. 
 
About 100 million sharks are believed to be taken by fishers each year, most of them for their fins alone. 

It's an industry estimated to be worth US$400 million a year. 
The blue shark (Prionaceglauca). Photo by Mark Conlin/NMFS.

If one were to believe official trade records over the past twenty years, most fins traded on world markets have come from more abundant "pelagic" species (ones which live in the open ocean) like the blue shark (above). 

The leopard shark (Stegostoma fasciatum). An ADV photo by Jeffrey N. Jeffords. 
Using advanced techniques in barcoding and genetic tracing, scientists are now painting a different picture. By analyzing more than five thousand fins from markets on three continents, they still found a lot had come for those "pelagic" populations. But they also found "an additional 40 'range-restricted' coastal species" which did not show up in previous records. These populations live closer to shore and do not range as widely as those in the open oceans. With local jurisdictions providing little protection for them, their populations now face "dramatic declines" and are "typically less abundant."  

However, even the more common deep-sea species have been falling victim to "chronic exploitation" by fishers who are "collapsing" their populations, too. 
New DNA tracking techniques are revealing a greater number of threatened and coastal sharks from stockpiles of intact shark and processed fins (pictured). Image credit: Paul Hilton.

So, if we want to conserve sharks and curb the "unsustainable global trade in shark fins," conclude the researchers, "stronger local controls of coastal fishing are urgently needed."

Their study was published this summer in the proceedings of The Royal Society.

But this is hardly the first cautionary tale pointing to the plight of Earth's marine life in general and sharks, in particular. Another research paper published in 2017 warns, they face "possibly the largest crisis of their 420 million year history. Many populations are overfished to the point where global catch peaked in 2003, and a quarter of species have an elevated risk of extinction."

RELATED:

Pollution and pandemics: A dangerous mix. Research finds that as one goes, so goes the other -- to a point.

ScienceDaily

A highway project in Alberta. A PinP photo.

Are we setting ourselves up for the spread of a pandemic without even knowing it? Story here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Ending greenhouse gas emissions may not stop global warming

Nature (With minor editing by PinP)

One of several steel power pylons toppled in an historic wind, snow and ice storm which swept through eastern Manitoba about a year ago. It left thousands without power in what was described as the worst power outage in the history of Manitoba Hydro. Damages are expected to exceed 100 million dollars.
A Manitoba Hydro photo. 

Even if human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be reduced to zero, global temperatures may continue to rise for centuries afterwards, according to a simulation of the global climate published in Scientific Reports.

Jorgen Randers and Ulrich Goluke modelled the effect of different greenhouse gas emission reductions on changes in the global climate from 1850 to 2500. They also created projections of global temperature and sea level rises.

What do they show? Under conditions where manmade greenhouse gas emissions peak during the 2030s, then decline to zero by 2100, global temperatures will be 3°C warmer and sea levels 3 metres higher by 2500 than they were in 1850. Where all such emissions are reduced to zero during the year 2020 here's the scenario the models portray. 

After an initial decline, global temperatures will still be around 3°C warmer and sea levels will rise by around 2.5 metres by 2500, compared to 1850. Global temperatures could continue to increase after emissions have reduced, as continued melting of Arctic ice and carbon-containing permafrost may increase the levels of water vapour, methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Melting of Arctic ice and permafrost would also reduce the area of ice reflecting heat and light from the sun.

To prevent the projected temperature and sea level rises, the authors suggest that all GHG emissions would have had to be reduced to zero between 1960 and 1970. To prevent global temperature and sea level rises after greenhouse gas emissions have ceased, and to limit the potentially catastrophic impacts of this on Earth’s ecosystems and human society, at least 33 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide would need to be removed from the atmosphere each year from 2020 onwards through carbon capture and storage methods.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Where people go, there too, goes Covid-19! Surprising? Perhaps not. But, if more solid science will help to convince the doubters - here it is!

Nature

A busy London pub. Photo by Steve Parker.

Reopening places such as restaurants, fitness centres, cafes, and hotels carries the highest risk for transmitting SARS-CoV-2, according to a modelling study based on data from the United States published in Nature. Reducing occupancy in these venues may result in a large reduction in predicted infections, the model suggests. The study also highlights disparities in infection risk according to socioeconomic status.

To assess how changes in movement might alter the spread of the  virus, Jure Leskovec and colleagues use phone data (collected this spring) to map the movements of millions of people from different local neighbourhoods. They combined these data with a model of transmission. This allowed them to identify potential high-risk venues and at-risk populations. The simulations from their model accurately predict confirmed daily case counts in ten of the largest metropolitan areas (such as Chicago, New York City and San Francisco).

The level of detail of the mobility data allowed the researchers to model the number of infections occurring, by the hour, at nearly 553,000 distinct locations grouped into 20 categories — termed “points of interest” — that people tended to visit regularly. Their model predicts that a small number of these locations, such as full-service restaurants, account for a large majority of infections. For example, in the Chicago metropolitan area, 10% of the points of interest accounted for 85% of the predicted infections at points of interest. The model predicts that compared with higher-income groups, lower-income populations are more likely to become infected because they have not been able to reduce their mobility as substantially and because the places they visit tend to be smaller and more crowded, which increases the risk of infection. For example, grocery stores visited by lower-income individuals tended to have 59% more people per square foot than those visited by higher-income individuals, and their visitors stayed 17% longer on average.

By modelling who is likely to be infected at which locations, the authors were also able to estimate the effects of different reopening strategies, and they suggest that their model can inform reopening policies. For example, capping the occupancy of a venue at 20% of its maximum capacity is predicted to reduce new infections by over 80%, but would only reduce the overall number of visits by 42%.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Rivers melt Arctic ice, warming air and ocean.

 SCIENCEDaily
An Arctic river in Alaska. Photo by mypubliclands 

A new study shows that increased heat from Arctic rivers is melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean and warming the atmosphere. Details here.

The Arctic may be sea-ice-free in summer by the 2030s

  Nature Communications                                                 Photo by Patrick Kelley   The Arctic could be sea-ice-free during th...