Category Archives: endangered species

Who Owns the Riches of the Melting North Pole

A competition for the North Pole heated up in May 2019, as Canada became the third country to claim—based on extensive scientific data—that it should have sovereignty over a large swath of the Arctic Ocean, including the pole. Canada’s bid, submitted to the United Nations’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), joins competing claims from Russia and Denmark. Like theirs, it is motivated by the prospect of mineral riches: the large oil reserves believed to lie under the Arctic Ocean, which will become more accessible as the polar ice retreats. And all three claims, along with dozens of similar claims in other oceans, rest on extensive seafloor mapping, which has proved to be a boon to science…

Coastal nations have sovereign rights over an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), extending by definition 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) out from their coastline. But the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea opened up the possibility of expanding that zone if a country can convince CLCS that its continental shelf extends beyond the EEZ’s limits…..Most of the 84 submissions so far were driven by the prospect of oil and gas, although advances in deep-sea mining technology have added new reasons to apply. Brazil, for example, filed an application in December 2018 that included the Rio Grande Rise, a deep-ocean mountain range 1500 kilometers southeast of Rio De Janeiro that’s covered in cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.

The Rio Grande Rise, Brazil

To make a claim, a country has to submit detailed data on the shape of the sea floor and on its sediment, which is thicker on the shelf than in the deep ocean. …CLCS, composed of 21 scientists in fields such as geology and hydrography who are elected by member states, has accepted 24 of the 28 claims it has finished evaluating, some partially or with caveats; in several cases, it has asked for follow-up submissions with more data. Australia was the first country to succeed, adding 2.5 million square kilometers to its territory in 2008. New Zealand gained undersea territory six times larger than its terrestrial area. But CLCS only judges the merit of each individual scientific claim; it has no authority to decide boundaries when claims overlap. To do that, countries have to turn to diplomatic channels once the science is settled.

The three claims on the North Pole revolve around the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain system that runs from Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Qikiqtaaluk region to the New Siberian Islands of Russia, passing the North Pole. Both countries claim the ridge is geologically connected to their continent, whereas Denmark says it is also tied to Greenland, a Danish territory. As the ridge is thought to be continental crust, the territorial extensions could be extensive)

Lomonosov Ridge, Amerasian Basin

Tensions flared when Russia planted a titanium flag on the sea floor beneath the North Pole in 2007, after CLCS rejected its first claim, saying more data were needed. The Canadian foreign minister at the time likened the move to the land grabs of early European colonizers. Not that the North Pole has any material value: “The oil potential there is zip,” says geologist Henry Dick of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “The real fight is over the Amerasian Basin” where large amounts of oil are thought to be locked up…

There’s also a proposal to make the North Pole international, like Antarctica (South Pole), as a sign of peace, says Oran Young, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It seems a very sensible idea.”

Richard Kemeny, Fight for the Arctic Ocean is a boon for science, June 21, 2019

How Companies Buy Social License: the ExxonMobil Example

The Mobil Foundation sought to use its tax-exempt grants to shape American laws and regulations on issues ranging from the climate crisis to toxic chemicals – with the explicit goal of benefiting Mobil, documents obtained by the Guardian newspaper show.  Recipients of Mobil Foundation grants included Ivy League universities, branches of the National Academies and well-known civic organizations and environmental researchers.  Benefits for Mobil included – in the foundation’s words – funding “a counterpoint to so-called ‘public interest’ groups”, helping Mobil obtain “early access” to scientific research, and offering the oil giant’s executives a forum to “challenge the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) behind-the-scenes”….

A third page reveals Mobil Foundation’s efforts to expand its audience inside environmental circles via a grant for the Environmental Law Institute, a half-century-old organization offering environmental law research and education to lawyers and judges.  “Institute publications are widely read in the environmental community and are helpful in communicating industry’s concerns to such organizations,” the entry says. “Mobil Foundation grants will enhance environmental organizations’ views of Mobil, enable us to reach through ELI activities many groups that we do not communicate with, and enable Mobil to participate in their dialogue groups.”

The documents also show Mobil Foundation closely examining the work of individual researchers at dozens of colleges and universities as they made their funding decisions, listing ways that foundation grants would help shape research interests to benefit Mobil, help the company recruit future employees, or help combat environmental and safety regulations that Mobil considered costly.  “It should be a wake-up call for university leaders, because what it says is that fossil fuel funding is not free,” said Geoffrey Supran, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard and MIT.  “When you take it, you pay with your university’s social license,” Supran said. “You pay by helping facilitate these companies’ political and public relations tactics.”

In some cases, the foundation described how volunteer-staffed not-for-profits had saved Mobil money by doing work that would have otherwise been performed by Mobil’s paid staff, like cleaning birds coated in oil following a Mobil spill.  In 1987, the International Bird Rescue Research Center’s “rapid response and assistance to Mobil’s West Coast pipeline at a spill in Lebec, CA not only defused a potential public relations problem”, Mobil Foundation said, “but saved substantial costs by not requiring our department to fly cross country to respond”.d of trustees at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (recipient of listed donations totalling over $200,000 from Mobil) and a part of UN efforts to study climate change.

Wise ultimately co-authored two UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, serving as a lead author on one. One report chapter Wise co-authored prominently recommended, among other things, burning natural gas (an ExxonMobil product) instead of coal as a way to combat climate change.

Excerpts from How Mobil pushed its oil agenda through ‘charitable giving’, Guardian, June 12, 2019

Who to Save? Forests or Farmers

Agriculture continues to present the biggest threat to forests worldwide. Some experts predict that crop production needs to be doubled by 2050 to feed the world at the current pace of population growth and dietary changes toward higher meat and dairy consumption. Scientists generally agree that productivity increase alone is not going to do the trick. Cropland expansion will be needed, most likely at the expense of large swathes of tropical forests – as much as 200 million hectares by some estimates. 

Nowhere is this competition for land between forests and agriculture more acute than in Africa. Its deforestation rate has surpassed those of Latin America and Southeast Asia. Sadly, the pace shows no sign of slowing down. Africa’s agriculture sector needs to feed its burgeoning populations- the fastest growing in the world…. What’s more, for the millions of unemployed African youth, a vibrant agriculture sector will deliver jobs and spur structural transformation of the rural economy. Taken together, the pressures on forests are immense. Unless interventions are made urgently, a large portion of Africa’s forests will be lost in the coming decades – one farm plot at a time.

The difficult question is: what interventions can protect forests and support farmers at the same time? 

To tackle these complex challenges, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has launched a new initiative: The “Governing Multifunctional Landscapes (GML) in Sub-Saharan Africa: Managing Trade-Offs Between Social and Ecological Impacts”  Read more

Excerpts from XIAOXUE WENG et al Can forests and smallholders live in harmony in Africa?, CIFOR, June 3, 2019

How Nuclear Explosions Affect the Deep Ocean

Radioactive carbon released into the atmosphere from 20th-century nuclear bomb tests has reached the deepest parts of the ocean, new research finds.  A new study in AGU’s journal Geophysical Research Letters finds the first evidence of radioactive carbon from nuclear bomb tests in muscle tissues of crustaceans that inhabit Earth’s ocean trenches, including the Mariana Trench, home to the deepest spot in the ocean.

Mariana Deep Ocean Trench

Organisms at the ocean surface have incorporated this “bomb carbon” into the molecules that make up their bodies since the late 1950s. Crustaceans in deep ocean trenches are feeding on organic matter from these organisms when it falls to the ocean floor. The results show human pollution can quickly enter the food web and make its way to the deep ocean, according to the study’s authors.



Crustacean

According to researchers, water containing carbon-14 can take centuries to circulate throughout the ocean, but the food web drastically accelerated the process. “There’s a very strong interaction between the surface and the bottom, in terms of biologic systems, and human activities can affect the biosystems even down to 11,000 meters,” said Weidong Sun, a coauthor of the study, “so we need to be careful about our future behaviors.”

RADIOACTIVE CARBON FROM NUCLEAR BOMB TESTS FOUND IN DEEP OCEAN TRENCHES
AGU Press Release, 8 May 2019

5,000 Eyes in the Sky: environmental monitoring

The most advanced satellite to ever launch from Africa will soon be patrolling South Africa’s coastal waters to crack down on oil spills and illegal dumping.  Data from another satellite, this one collecting images from the Texas portion of a sprawling oil and gas region known as the Permian Basin, recently delivered shocking news: Operators there are burning off nearly twice as much natural gas as they’ve been reporting to state officials.

With some 5,000 satellites now orbiting our planet on any given day…. They will help create a constantly innovating industry that will revolutionize environmental monitoring of our planet and hold polluters accountable…

A recent study by Environmental Defense Fund focused on natural gas flares from the wells in the Permian Basin, located in Western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Our analysis proved that the region’s pollution problem was much larger than companies had revealed.  A second study about offshore gas flaring in the Gulf of Mexico, published by a group of scientists in the Geophysical Research Letters, showed that operators there burn off a whopping 40% of the natural gas they produce.

Soon a new satellite will be launching that is specifically designed not just to locate, but accurately measure methane emissions from human-made sources, starting with the global oil and gas industry.  MethaneSAT, a new EDF affiliate unveiled in 2018, will launch a future where sensors in space will find and measure pollution that today goes undetected. This compact orbital platform will map and quantify methane emissions from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on the planet at least weekly.

Excerpts from Mark Brownstein, These pollution-spotting satellites are just a taste of what’s to come, EDF, Apr. 4, 2019

Assisted Evolution: Engineering Coral Reefs

Imagine ecologists cultivating whole new breeds of trees to restock a devastated wilderness…. Coral conservation has traditionally focused on minimizing damage from insults such as water pollution, invasive starfish, and destructive fishing or tourism. In the Caribbean, some conservationists have worked to “replant” damaged coral. But Gates and Van Oppen [two scientists]  have something more intrusive in mind. They want to try to alter the genetics of coral or the microbes that live on it. They dubb the effort “assisted evolution.”

Coral’s most remarkable characteristic—being an animal that is part plant—is also its Achilles’ heel in a hotter world. Normally, coral polyps—the individual coral organisms, which resemble a sea anemone the size of a pinhead—live in harmony with their algal partners, which help feed the polyps and give corals their bright colors. But during heat waves, the relationship sours. Overheated polyps perceive the algae as an irritant and eject them like unwanted squatters. The coral is left bleached, bone-white and starving. If the heat persists, the coral won’t take in new algae and can die.  The bond between coral and algae is complicated, however, and still not fully understood. Just 25 years ago, for example, researchers believed that coral housed just one variety of symbiotic algae. Now, they have identified hundreds. And they are just beginning to examine the role played by the coral’s microbiome, the menagerie of bacteria that inhabit a coral polyp.

Coral bleaching right.

But the complexity also offers multiple paths for scientists trying to forge a less fragile bond between coral and algae. Today, four major lines of research exist: One involves cross-breeding corals to create heat-tolerant varieties, either by mixing strains within a species or by crossing two species that would not normally interbreed. The second enlists genetic engineering techniques to tweak coral or algae. A third tries to rapidly evolve hardier strains of coral and algae by rearing them for generations in overheated lab conditions. A fourth approach, the newest, seeks to manipulate the coral’s microbiome…

In 2018, Cleves [scientist] became the first to report successfully using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool on coral. CRISPR is often touted as a method for making genetically modified species. But Cleves says he isn’t interested in creating new kinds of coral. Rather, he sees CRISPR as a tool for deciphering the inner workings of coral DNA by knocking out, or disabling, genes one by one. He hopes to identify genes that might serve as “master switches” controlling how coral copes with heat and stress—knowledge that could help researchers quickly identify corals in the wild or in the laboratory that are already adapted to heat.

Either way, such efforts to re-engineer coral reefs make people such as David Wachenfeld, chief scientist for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority here, uneasy. The authority is supposed to protect the reef and regulate activities there. In the past, that meant a hands-off approach. Now, he concedes that “it is almost inconceivable that we’re not going to need these tools.” But, he adds, “That doesn’t mean I’m happy about any of this. This is crisis management.”

He ticks off a list of potential difficulties. Scientists focused on breeding heat-loving coral have to avoid weakening other key traits, such as coping with cold. Introducing a new coral on the scale needed to make a dent on a network of 2900 reefs spanning an area half the size of Texas is a daunting challenge. Even in its damaged state, the Great Barrier Reef still contains hundreds of millions of corals—enough to swamp the genetic impact of new coral species…

Could some kind of “super coral,” as some researchers have dubbed them, also run amok in delicate coral ecosystems.

Excerpts from  The Reef Builders, Science, Mar. 22, 2019

The Pristine Waters of Alaska and Big Oil: Exxon Valdez

Thirty years ago this Sunday, at just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground in Prince William Sound off the south coast of Alaska. No-one was hurt, but the ship’s hull was ruptured, and of the 1.26m barrels of crude on board about 258,000 spilled into the water. The National Transportation Safety Board inquiry found that the causes of the accident included the failure of the ship’s master to provide a proper navigation watch “because of impairment from alcohol”, as well as inadequate personnel training and deficient management oversight.

In terms of volume released, the spill does not make the list of the world’s largest, but it was one of the worst in US waters. The harm caused by a spill is also not a direct function of the quantity of oil: a release in the cool waters of Prince William Sound, where oil breaks down more slowly, could be more damaging than a larger volume in the Gulf of Mexico, where temperatures are warmer and there are more plentiful microbes that thrive on natural oil seeps. The location of the spill also added to its emotional impact: the pictures of the oil fouling the pristine waters of Alaska shocked the world.

Exxon Valdez Clean up

Even decades after the spill, there was still evidence of the oil visible on some of the beaches in the region. Exxon agreed to pay $900m for restoration to settle damages claims from the state and federal governments, and the work of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which oversees the use of that money, goes on. The Pacific herring population in Prince William Sound has collapsed since the early 1990s, although it is not clear whether the spill was responsible, and other wildlife such as sea ottershave recovered.

For the oil industry, the disaster was transformative. Single-hulled tankers began to be phased out, to be replaced by safer double hulls, first in the US and then worldwide. The process was accelerated after the sinking of the tanker Erika off the coast of Brittany in 1999, an accident that was considered one of France’s worst environmental disasters.

For Exxon in particular, the Valdez spill prompted a fundamental rethink of its safety culture and practices. The company developed what is called its Operations Integrity Management System, a framework that “puts safety at the center of everything we do”. By the time that Rex Tillerson ran ExxonMobil, in 2006-16, the company could rightly boast of having a safety record that was admired across the industry, and its OIMS was widely emulated….But any employer’s highest duty is to make sure workers can do their jobs safely and go home at the end of the day, and on that measure Exxon has performed better than its peers. Any workplace death is one too many, of course, but over the past decade Exxon has suffered significantly fewer than other leading oil companies.

Excerpts from Ed Crooks,  The Exxon Valdez spill 30 years on, Financial Times, Mar. 22, 2019