Category Archives: marine pollution

Exist, Evolve, Be Restored: the Rights of Nature

Only a few years ago, the clear, shallow waters of Mar Menor, a saltwater lagoon off eastern Spain that is Europe’s largest, hosted a robust population of the highly endangered fan mussel, a meter-long bivalve. But in 2016, a massive algal bloom, fueled by fertilizer washing off farm fields, sucked up the lagoon’s oxygen and killed 98% of the bivalves, along with seahorses, crabs, and other marine life.

The suffocating blooms struck again and again, and millions of dead fish washed onto shore. In 2021 local residents—some of whom benefit from tourism to the lagoon—had had enough. Led by a philosophy professor, activists launched a petition to adopt a new and radical legal strategy: granting the 135-square-kilometer lagoon the rights of personhood. Nearly 640,000 Spanish citizens signed it, and on 21 September, Spain’s Senate approved a bill enshrining the lagoon’s new rights. The new law doesn’t regard the lagoon and its watershed as fully human. But the ecosystem now has a legal right to exist, evolve naturally, and be restored. And like a person, it has legal guardians, including a scientific committee, which will give its defenders a new voice.

The lagoon is the first ecosystem in Europe to get such rights, but this approach to conservation has been gaining popularity around the world over the past decade…The clearest success story, scholars say, is the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which was given legal rights by an act of Parliament in 2017. Like a person, the river and its catchment can sue or be sued, enter contracts, and hold property. In that case, the aim was not to stop pollution but to incorporate the Māori connection between people and nature into Western law. “The river and the land and its people are inseparable,” Niko Tangaroa, a Māori elder of the Whanganui Iwi people and a prominent activist for the river, wrote in 1994.

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad, This Lagoon is Effectively a Person, New Spanish Law Says, Science, Oct. 7, 2022

Irradiating Plastics to Death: the IAEA Solution

Plastic pollution has become one of the major global environmental challenges of the century; projections show that by 2050 the oceans may have more plastic than fish. Nuclear technology has emerged as one innovative solution to this growing problem. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been working on an initiative called  Nuclear Technology for Controlling Plastic Pollution – NUTEC Plastics.

Nuclear technology can be used to innovate plastic waste recycling and support development of biodegradable, green alternatives to single use petroleum-based plastic products – an approach aimed at reducing the volume of plastic waste world-wide and prevent the plastics from reaching earth’s marine environments.  Nuclear techniques can also be used to quantify and characterize marine microplastic pollution and to assess their impact on coastal and marine ecosystems.  A global plastics monitoring network of marine laboratories can also help tackle marine pollution. Presently, there are 55 laboratories in the global NUTEC Plastics Monitoring Network. ..

The Philippines has a significant plastic pollution problem and a great interest in recycling. The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) in the Philippines has undertaken a pre-feasibility study for a pilot plant employing electron beam radiation to combine two waste streams – plastics and palm tree fibers – into a new consumer product, construction material…

The IAEA is unique within the United Nations system in having laboratories in Austria and Monaco that apply nuclear science to help states address some of the world’s biggest issues, including plastic pollution… The Monaco laboratories serve as the central hub to the global NUTEC Plastics Monitoring Network.

Excerpts from Sinead Harvey, More Plastic Than Fish by 2050 – IAEA Event Gathers Experts Working Together to Save Marine Environments from Plastic Pollution, IAEA Newsletter, Sept. 28, 2022
 

New Drugs: Animals Stuck to the Seabed

Biologists are working with engineers to develop new tools to accelerate the development of medicines derived from marine animals, focusing on ocean-going robots with onboard DNA-sequencing gear. They foresee fleets of autonomous submersible robots trolling the ocean like electronic bloodhounds to sniff out snippets of the animals’ DNA in seawater—and then gathering and analyzing this so-called environmental DNA, or eDNA.

“The ultimate goal is an underwater vehicle that collects environmental DNA samples, sequences them and then sends the data back to the lab,” says Kobun Truelove, senior research technician at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. “We would like to set up a network where you would have these autonomous vehicles out there sampling and then basically be getting the data back in real time.”

More than 1,000 marine-organism-derived compounds have shown anticancer, antiviral, antifungal or anti-inflammatory activity in medical assays, according to a database compiled by the Midwestern University Department of Marine Pharmacology. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved 15 drugs derived from marine organisms, including ones for chronic pain and high cholesterol. Another 29 marine animal-derived compounds are now in clinical trials, according to the database.

Marine invertebrates are a key target of biomedical research because the animals—mostly attached to the seabed and unable to move—have evolved sophisticated chemical defenses to fend off fish, turtles and other predators in their environment. Research has shown that the natural toxins that comprise these defenses can be toxic to cancer cells and human pathogens. These sea creatures “make a broad range of different chemistries, things that synthetic chemists never thought of making,” says Barry O’Keefe, who have also identified compounds produced by bacteria living symbiotically with marine invertebrates. Once scientists have a suitable sample of eDNA and it’s been sequenced, they say, they can identify compounds the organisms are capable of producing. Then researchers can synthesize the compounds and test them to see if they have medicinal properties…

Collection of eDNA promises to be faster and less costly than the complex method commonly used   collect marine specimens—one that Amy Wright, director of the natural products group at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, likens to a treasure hunt. Currently, research vessels on weekslong expeditions launch submersible vehicles equipped with clawlike grabbers and suction tubes for gathering specimens. Once the vehicles and their payload are back on the ships, researchers preserve them and deliver them to labs, where their genomes are sequenced. The entire process can take weeks and is expensive. Just paying the crew to operate a research vessel for a single day can cost $35,000, according to the National Science Foundation.

Excerpts from  Eric Niile, Finding New Drugs From the Deep Sea via ‘eDNA’, WSJ, Sept. 3, 2022

Why China Fears Elon Musk More than the U.S.

Chinese military observers have been increasingly concerned about the potential of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network in helping the US military dominate space, especially so, in the wake of the Ukraine war, where Elon Musk activated Starlink satellites to restore communications that had stopped because of shelling by the Russian troops…. 

“SpaceX has decided to increase the number of Starlink satellites from 12,000 to 42,000 – the program’s unchecked expansion and the company’s ambition to use it for military purposes should put the international community on high alert,” said the article on China Military Online, the official news website affiliated with the Central Military Commission (CMC), China’s highest national defense organization headed by President Xi Jinping himself.

The article notes the SpaceX Starlink’s role during the Russia-Ukraine war, where Elon Musk provided Starlink terminals to restore communications…However, there have also been reports of Starlink aiding the Ukrainian armed forces in precision strikes against Russian tanks and positions, which has not been unnoticed by Chinese military observers.

“In addition to supporting communication, Starlink, as experts estimated, could also interact with UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] and, using big data and facial recognition technology, might have already played a part in Ukraine’s military operations against Russia,” said the China Military Online article…..Another remarkable event was SpaceX’s swift response to a Russian jamming effort targeting its Starlink Satellite service which was appreciated by the Pentagon’s Director for Electromagnetic Warfare. Elon Musk had claimed that Russia had jammed Starlink terminals in Ukraine for hours at a time, following which he also said that after a software update, Starlink was operating normally….“And suddenly that [Russian jamming attack] was not effective anymore. From [the] EW technologist’s perspective, that is fantastic … and how they did that was eye-watering to me,” said Dave Tremper, the Director of electronic warfare  (EW)for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The China Military Online commentary listed the numerous instances since 2019 when Starlink has cooperated with the US military, which also included the successful data transmission test conducted by the US Air Force (USAF) on March 3, 2022…It also raised a possibility that Starlink could form a second and independent internet that threatened states’ cyberspace sovereignty.

Another concern for Chinese military analysts has been the scarcity of frequency bands and orbital slots for satellites to operate, which they believe are being quickly acquired by other countries. “Orbital position and frequency are rare strategic resources in space,” said the article, while noting, “The LEO can accommodate about 50,000 satellites, over 80% of which would be taken by Starlink if the program were to launch 42,000 satellites as it has planned.” “SpaceX is undertaking an enclosure movement in space to take a vantage position and monopolize strategic resources,” the article further added.

Excerpts from Tanmay Kadam, China ‘Deeply Alarmed’ By SpaceX’s Starlink Capabilities That Is Helping US Military Achieve Total Space Dominance, EurAsian Times, May 9, 2022

Toxic Waste: Down the Toilet and into the Seas

Dumping oily wastewater into the ocean has been outlawed globally for decades, but an investigation by DW, in collaboration with the European nonprofit newsroom Lighthouse Reports and eight other European press outlets, has found that the practice is still common today, with potentially devastating effects for the environment.

Satellite imagery and data provided by the environmental group SkyTruth helped identify hundreds of potential dumps across the globe in 2021 alone. But the number of spills is most likely significantly higher because the satellites used by SkyTruth cover less than one-fifth of the world’s oceans. According to the group’s estimate, the amount of oily water dumped into the oceans this way could amount to more than 200,000 cubic meters (52.8 million gallons) annually, or roughly five times the equivalent of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska — one of the worst maritime environmental disasters.

As merchant ships make their journeys, liquids from the engine room, oil, detergents, water and other substances collect in the bottom of the vessel, the bilge. This noxious mixture, called “bilgewater,” is then stored in tanks. In a day, a single merchant ship can produce several tons of it. International regulations require that large vessels treat the bilgewater with an “oily water separator” before it is discharged into the ocean. Each liter of bilgewater pumped into the sea after treatment is permitted a maximum residual-oil proportion of 15 parts per million, or 15 milligrams of oil per liter of water (0.0005 ounces per quart), according to a limit set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 1973. The remaining toxic mixture is stored in tanks onboard and later discharged at harbor in port reception facilities.

All big vessels are required to have working separators. But many ships circumvent the system entirely…through a small, portable pump. “It’s very easy,” one man who had witnessed it in operation on several occasions told DW. “You can assemble this portable pump in five minutes and then detach (in) five minutes and hide (it) if someone is coming.”

The pump is used to transfer the oily water into a different tank — in most cases, the sewage tank. On the high seas, ships are allowed to dump their sewage untreated. Then, the toxic mix is quietly released into the ocean, often under the cover of night or during inclement weather, when there is a lower chance of getting caught, according to several seafarers DW talked to. At night it is harder for authorities to verify the crime, and bad weather can prevent the deployment of surveillance ships and planes… Because the illegal dumps happen at sea, it is difficult for authorities and researchers to track them. That is why satellite imagery is used to monitor the seas for pollution. When a vessel discharges oily wastewater illegally, it usually creates a spill kilometers long and with a very distinct shape.

A system set up in 2007 by the European Maritime Safety Agency, or EMSA, uses radar satellites to “see” through cloud cover and at night to identify possible spills. It alerts the respective member states when one is found…Illegal dumps “still regularly occur in European waters,” according to EMSA, and the number of spills detected and prosecuted remains low. Individual member states do not always follow up on the alerts, and, when they do, it is often not quickly enough. The longer it takes authorities to verify a spill in situ, the less likely they are to find oil, as spills begin to dissipate. In 2019, only 1.5% of spills were verified within a critical three-hour time frame. Polluters are only caught in a fraction of cases.

The satellites are also not able to monitor EU waters continuously, meaning that there is a window of several hours each day during which oil spills can go unnoticed. To get a sense of the total scope of this issue in EU waters, SkyTruth combined data and assumptions from EMSA with calculations of satellite coverage. Based on that fairly conservative estimate, the group expects that every year nearly 3,000 slicks are caused by vessels discharging mineral oil into EU waters. That averages out to more than eight per day — the majority of which go unseen by satellites.

Excerpts from Exclusive: How chronic oil pollution at sea goes unpunished, DW, Mar. 2022

Ending the Plastic Paradise?

Heads of State, Ministers of environment and other representatives from 175 nations endorsed a historic resolution at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) on March 2, 2022: “End Plastic Pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument.” The resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal. 

The resolution…establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), which will begin its work in 2022, with the ambition of completing a draft global legally binding agreement by the end of 2024…The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) will convene a forum by the end of 2022 that is open to all stakeholders in conjunction with the first session of the INC, to share knowledge and best practices in different parts of the world.

Plastic production soared from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017, becoming a global industry valued at US$522.6 billion, and it is expected to double in capacity by 2040. 

Exposure to plastics can harm human health, potentially affecting fertility, hormonal, metabolic and neurological activity, and open burning of plastics contributes to air pollution. By 2050 greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic production, use and disposal would account for 15 per cent of allowed emissions, under the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (34.7°F). More than 800 marine and coastal species are affected by this pollution through ingestion, entanglement, and other dangers.

Some 11 million tonnes of plastic waste flow annually into oceans. This may triple by 2040. A shift to a circular economy can reduce the volume of plastics entering oceans by over 80 per cent by 2040; reduce virgin plastic production by 55 per cent; save governments US$70 billion by 2040; reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent; and create 700,000 additional jobs – mainly in the global south.

Excerpts from ,Historic day in the campaign to beat plastic pollution: Nations commit to develop a legally binding agreement, UNEP Press Release, Mar.  2, 202

The Most Fantastic Thing in the World: Icefish

The most extensive and densely populated breeding colony of fish anywhere lurks deep underneath the ice of the Weddell Sea.. The 240 square kilometers of regularly spaced icefish nests, east of the Antarctic Peninsula, has astonished marine ecologists. “We had no idea that it would be just on this scale, and I think that’s the most fantastic thing,” says Mark Belchier, a fish biologist…

In February 2021, the RV Polarstern—a large German research ship–came upon thousands of 75-centimeter-wide nests, each occupied by a single adult icefish—and up to 2100 eggs…High-resolution video and cameras captured more than 12,000 adult icefish (Neopagetopsis ionah)….The  team on the RV Polarstern saw 16,160 closely packed fish nests, 76% of which were guarded by solitary males. Assuming a similar density of nests in the areas between the ship’s transects, the researchers estimate that about 60 million nests cover roughly 240 square kilometers.

The vast colony, the researchers say, is a new reason to create a marine protected area in the Weddell Sea…The Weddell Sea—a unique and largely undisturbed ecosystem—is already protected from a destructive fishing practice called bottom trawling…

Excerpt from Huge Icefish Colony Found, Science, Jan. 14, 2022

Are We Transgressing the Planetary Boundaries?

There are an estimated 350,000 different types of manufactured chemicals on the global market. These include plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, chemicals in consumer products, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals….The rate at which these pollutants are appearing in the environment far exceeds the capacity of governments to assess global and regional risks, let alone control any potential problems..

In 2009, an international team of researchers identified nine planetary boundaries that demarcate the remarkably stable state Earth has remained within for 10,000 years – since the dawn of civilization. These boundaries include greenhouse gas emissions, the ozone layer, forests, freshwater and biodiversity. The researchers quantified the boundaries that influence Earth’s stability, and concluded in 2015 that four boundaries have been breached. But the boundary for chemicals was one of two boundaries that remained unquantified.

This new research takes this a step further. The researchers say there are many ways that chemicals and plastics have negative effects on planetary health, from mining, fracking and drilling to extract raw materials to production and waste management.

Some of these pollutants can be found globally, from the Arctic to Antarctica, and can be extremely persistent…Global production and consumption of novel entities is set to continue to grow. The total mass of plastics on the planet is now over twice the mass of all living mammals, and roughly 80% of all plastics ever produced remain in the environment. Plastics contain over 10,000 other chemicals, so their environmental degradation creates new combinations of materials – and unprecedented environmental hazards. Production of plastics is set to increase and predictions indicate that the release of plastic pollution to the environment will rise too, despite huge efforts in many countries to reduce waste.

Excerpt from Safe planetary boundary for pollutants, including plastics, exceeded, say researchers, Stockholm Resilience Center Press Release, Jan. 18, 2022

For an alternative view on planetary boundaries see NY Times Article, 2015

Lunatics or Climate Fixers?

The ocean has already absorbed nearly one-third of the carbon emissions from human activities, and scientists hope it can shoulder even more of the burden. Ocean Iron fertilization is among the cheapest options. Ocean fertilization is a form of geoengineering  that involves adding iron to the upper layers of the ocean to stimulate phytoplankton activity  in an attempt to remove carbon from the atmosphere and, thus, abate global warming.

Photosynthetic plankton act like tropical rainforests, sucking CO2 from the atmosphere. Their populations are often limited by a scarcity of iron, which sifts into the ocean in windblown dust from deserts, in volcanic ash, and even from underwater hydrothermal vents. Extra iron would stimulate a bloom, the thinking goes, causing plankton to take up extra carbon. The carbon would sink into the depths in the form of dead plankton, or the feces or bodies of organisms that eat them. In theory, the carbon would be entombed for centuries.

Ocean scientists contended in 2021 that ocean fertilization  experiments were a priority and called for the United States to spend up to $290 million on even larger ones that would spread 100 tons of iron across 1000 square kilometers of ocean. Already, researchers next year plan to pour iron across a patch of the Arabian Sea (Center for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge.)

But skeptics note that a recent survey of 13 past fertilization experiments found only one that increased carbon levels deep in the ocean. That track record is one reason why making iron fertilization a research priority is “barking mad,” says Wil Burns, an ocean law expert at Northwestern University. Stephanie Henson, a marine biogeochemist at the United Kingdom’s National Oceanography Centre, also worries about surprise consequences of the approach, likening it to the catastrophic introduction of rabbits to Australia ecology. “You could just imagine something like that happening in the oceans completely by accident.”

Excerpts from Warren Cornwall, To Draw Carbon, Ocean Fertilization Gets Another Look, Science, Dec. 17, 2021

Global Microbiome Living on Plastics

The number of microbial enzymes with the ability to degrade plastic is growing, in correlation with local levels of plastic pollution. That is the finding of a study from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, that measured samples of environmental DNA from around the globe. The results illustrate the impact plastic pollution is having on the environment, and hint at potential new solutions for managing the problem.

The study analyzed samples of environmental DNA from hundreds of locations around the world. The researchers used computer modelling to search for microbial enzymes with plastic-degrading potential, which was then cross-referenced with the official numbers for plastic waste pollution across countries and oceans. “Using our models, we found multiple lines of evidence supporting the fact that the global microbiome’s plastic-degrading potential correlates strongly with measurements of environmental plastic pollution – a significant demonstration of how the environment is responding to the pressures we are placing on it,” says Aleksej Zelezniak, Associate Professor in Systems Biology at Chalmers University of Technology. 

More enzymes in the most polluted areas: In other words, the quantity and diversity of plastic-degrading enzymes is increasing, in direct response to local levels of plastic pollution. In total, over 30,000 enzyme ‘homologues’ were found with the potential to degrade 10 different types of commonly used plastic. Homologues are members of protein sequences sharing similar properties. Some of the locations that contained the highest amounts were notoriously highly polluted areas, for example samples from the Mediterranean Sea and South Pacific Ocean…

The researchers believe that their results could potentially be used to discover and adapt enzymes for novel recycling processes…“The next step would be to test the most promising enzyme candidates in the lab to closely investigate their properties and the rate of plastic degradation they can achieve. From there you could engineer microbial communities with targeted degrading functions for specific polymer types,” explains Aleksej Zelezniak.

Plastic-degrading enzymes increasing in correlation with pollution, Chalmers University of Technology Press Release, Dec. 14, 2021

Why Crabs and Mussels Love Plastic Pollution

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” is considered the world’s largest accumulation of ocean plastic. It’s so massive, in fact, that researchers found it has been colonized by species — hundreds of miles away from their natural home. The research, published in the journal Nature, found that species usually confined to coastal areas — including crabs, mussels and barnacles — have latched onto, and unexpectedly survived on, massive patches of ocean plastic.  As suitable habitat made of plastics now exists in the open ocean, coastal organisms can both survive at sea for years and reproduce, leading to self-sustaining coastal communities on the high seas!

But the mingling of the neuston and coastal species is “likely recent,” researchers said, and was caused largely because of the accumulation of “long-lived plastic rafts” that have been growing since the middle of the 20th century. Just by itself, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between California and Hawai’i, is estimated to have at least 79,000 tons of plastic within a 1.6 million-square-kilometer area. There are at least four other similar patches throughout the world’s oceans. Researchers expect that plastic waste is going to “exponentially increase,” and by 2050, there will be 25,000 million metric tons of plastic waste.  

For lead author Linsey Haram, the research shows that physical harm to larger marine species should not be the only concern when it comes to pollution and plastic waste. “The issues of plastic go beyond just ingestion and entanglement,” Haram said in a statement. “It’s creating opportunities for coastal species’ biogeography to greatly expand beyond what we previously thought was possible.” 

But that expansion could come at a cost. “Coastal species are directly competing with these oceanic rafters,” Haram said. “They’re competing for space. They’re competing for resources. And those interactions are very poorly understood.” There is also a possibility that expansions of these plastic communities could cause problems with invasive species. A lot of plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, is debris from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami in Japan, which carried organisms from Japan to North America. Over time, researchers believe, these communities could act as reservoirs that will provide opportunities for coastal species to invade new ecosystems. 

There are still many questions researchers say need to be answered about these new plastic-living communities — like how common they are and if they can exist outside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — but the discovery could change ocean ecosystems on a global scale, especially as climate change exacerbates the situation. 

Excerpts from LI COHEN, There’s so much plastic floating on the ocean surface, it’s spawning new marine communities, CBS News, Dec. 2, 2021
BY LI COHEN

Exchanging Nature for Crushing Debt

In 2020 tourism in Belized dried up, growth contracted sharply and public debt jumped from just under 100% GDO in 2019 to over 125%. That forced Belize,  into a debt restructuring…As part of the deal, concluded on November 5th, 2021 Belize bought back its only international bond, a $553m, at 55 cents on the dollar. It funded that with $364m of fresh money, arranged by The Nature Conservancy, an NGO, which is insured by the International Development Finance Corp, an American agency. The transaction is backed by the proceeds of a “blue bond” arranged by Credit Suisse, a bank. The payback is due over 19 years. It is called a blue bond because Belize has pledged to invest a large chunk of the savings into looking after the ocean. That includes funding a $23m endowment to support future marine-conservation projects and promising to protect 30% of its waters by 2026…

Debt-for-nature swaps are nothing new. Lenders have been offering highly indebted countries concessions in return for environmental commitments for decades. But these transactions have historically involved debt owed to rich countries, not commercial bondholders. As Lee Buchheit, a lawyer who specialises in sovereign-debt restructurings, points out, they were “negligible in size”. In total, the value of debt-for-climate and nature-swap agreements between 1985 and 2015 came to just $2.6bn, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Of the 39 debtor nations that benefited from the swaps, only 12 negotiated debts of over $30m. “It was really an exercise in public relations,” Mr Buchheit says….

Other poor countries are trying to move in the same direction. At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow Ecuador’s president Guillermo Lasso proposed enlarging the country’s Galapagos nature reserve through a debt-for-nature swap…Yet no amount of creative dealmaking can distract from the grim truth: many emerging markets still suffer from crushing debts.

Excerpts from Debt-for Nature Swaps: Reef relief, Economist, Nov. 13, 2021

No Matter What they Say-Nobody Likes Nuclear Waste

The first stage of the process has been under way since November 2020 for the town of Suttsu and the village of Kamoenai assessing two municipalities in Hokkaido for their suitability to host a final disposal facility for high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.  Under the government’s plan, the first-stage surveys take two years and will be followed by the second phase… which will include geophysical exploration, geological reconnaissance surveys and drilling surveys. Already stories about divisions and conflict over the surveys are emerging from the local communities.

The mayoral election of Suttsu in October 2021, for example, turned into a bitter and divisive political battle over the issue between the incumbent who decided to apply for the first-phase survey and a challenger who ran on opposition to the project. Some of the neighboring municipalities have enacted an ordinance to ban the entry of radioactive materials. Both the Hokkaido prefectural government and most of the local administrations around the two municipalities have declined to accept state subsidies related to the surveys. These actions have been driven by the fear that accepting the surveys will set in motion an unstoppable process leading to a permanent repository for nuclear waste.

The NUMO (Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan) and the METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry)  have jointly held more than 100 meetings to explain the plan to local communities across the nation. Even though they have continued calling for localities to volunteer, no local governments except for the two in Hokkaido have responded.

Excerpts from Entire nation should share in disposal of spent nuke fuel, Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 22, 2021

Repairing Damaged Coral Reefs

Rather than blocking waves, as a sea wall does, a reef slows them, dissipating their energy before they reach land. One estimate, from the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Centre, suggests natural reefs prevent $1.8bn a year of flood damage in America alone.

While natural reefs take centuries to grow, hybrid versions can be conjured up in months. The idea began with Wolf Hilbertz, an architect with an interest in marine biology. In the 1970s Hilbertz developed a technique that uses submerged electrodes to run electrical currents through seawater. This precipitates calcium carbonate and magnesium hydroxide out of the seawater, forming limestone similar to that of natural reefs. The artificial reef can become the substrate upon which a natural coral ecosystem develops…Later work with Thomas Goreau, a marine biologist, produced both a catchy name—“Biorock”—and the idea of using the stuff as the basis of coral reefs, and, in particular, for repairing damaged reefs.

In 1996 the Global Coral Reef Alliance, a charity, began using Biorock for reef repairs by growing a six-metre structure in the Maldives. Other repairs have followed in Indonesia, Jamaica and Mexico. The Pemuteran Coral Reef Restoration Project, in Bali, is more than 300 metres long and includes dozens of “nurseries” in which Biorock acts as nuclei for the natural extension of the reef….DARPA a research agency run by America’s Department of Defense, also sees hybrid reefs as a means of coastal defence—in this case protecting the country’s seaside military installations. Lori Adornato, head of DARPA’s “Reefense” project, says the goal is a hybrid reef-type system which will be maintenance-free and self-repairing. Reefense therefore involves not only creating reefs and measuring their effectiveness, but also attracting and fostering appropriate organisms to sustain the reefs’ health, ensuring they can survive even when natural reefs are suffering.

Excerpts from Ocean Reefs: Hybrid Vigor, Economist, Sept. 11, 2021

The 17 000 Nuclear Objects Dumped in the Kara Sea


“Having the exact coordinates for the dumped container with the nuclear reactors from K-19 submarine is undoubtedly good news,” says nuclear safety expert Andrey Zolotkov. Zolotkov hopes for risk assessments to be carried out soon with the aim to see how the nuclear reactors could be lifted out of the maritime environment and brought to a yard for safe decommissioning…More than 50 years have passed since the dumping.

In the so-called “White Book” on dumped nuclear objects, originally published by President Boris Yeltsin’s environmental advisor Alexei Jablokov, the dumping of the submarine’s two reactors is listed for the Abrosimova Bay on the east coast of the Kara Sea, but exact location hasn’t been confirmed.

It was in August 2021 that the the crew on “Akademik M. Keldysh” with the help of sonars and submersibles found the container. Both marine researchers, oceanology experts from Russia’s Academy of Science and representatives of the Ministry of Emergency Situations are working together in the expedition team.

K-19 is one of the most infamous nuclear-powered submarines sailing for the Soviet navy’s Northern Fleet. In July 1961 the reactor lost coolant after a leak in a pipe regulating the pressure to the primary cooling circuit. The reactor water started boiling causing overheating and fire. Crew members managed to extinguish the fire but had big problems fixing the leak in an effort to save the submarine from exploding. Many of them were exposed to high doses of radioactivity before being evacuated to a nearby diesel submarine sailing in the same area of the North Atlantic. Eight of the crew members who had worked on the leak died of radiation poisoning within a matter of days.

The submarine was towed to the Skhval shipyard (No. 10) in Polyarny. Later, the reactor compartment was cut out and a new installed. The two damaged reactors, still with spent nuclear fuel, were taken north to the Kara Sea and dumped. Keeping the heavily contaminated reactors at the shipyard was at the time not considered an option.

In the spring of 2021, Russia’s Foreign Ministry invited international experts from the other Arctic nations to a conference on how to recover sunken radioactive and hazardous objects dumped by the Soviet Union on the seafloor east of Novaya Zemlya. Moscow chairs the Arctic Council for the 2021-2023 period. 

The two reactors from the K-19 submarine are not the only objects posing a risk to marine environment. In fact, no other places in the world’s oceans have more radioactive and nuclear waste than the Kara Sea. Reactors from K-11 and K-140, plus the entire submarine K-27 and spent uranium fuel from one of the old reactors of the “Lenin” icebreaker are also dumped in the same sea. While mentality in Soviet times was «out of sight, out of mind», the Kara Sea seemed logical. Ice-covered most of the year, and no commercial activities. That is changing now with rapidly retreating sea ice, drilling for oil-, and gas, and increased shipping…Additional to the reactors, about 17,000 objects were dumped in the Kara Sea in the period from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.

Excerpts from Thomas Nilsen, Expedition finds reactors 56 years after dumping, The Barents Observer, Sept. 2, 2021

The Trillion Dollar Mess: Taking Down the Oil Infrastructure

Some of the world’s largest oil companies have been ordered to pay part of a $7.2 billion tab to retire hundreds of aging wells in the Gulf of Mexico that they used to own, capping a case that legal experts say is a harbinger of future battles over cleanup costs.

A federal judge ruled last month that Fieldwood Energy a privately held company that currently controls the old wells and had sought bankruptcy protection, could pass on hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental liabilities to prior owners and insurers of the wells as part of its reorganization plan. Exxon Mobil,  BP, Hess , Royal Dutch Shell and insurance companies had objected to the plan. The dispute, litigated for months in federal bankruptcy court in Houston, centered over who should bear the enormous costs of capping and abandoning wells, primarily in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico where an oil spill could wreak havoc. The companies could still appeal the ruling…

Jason Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy said that the expenses to decommission oil-and-gas infrastructure world-wide will in the trillions of dollars. “Who bears the costs?” he said. “There will be people who want to pass the buck.”

BP and Shell have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions to zero by 2050. To accomplish that, those companies will have to sell off some oil-and-gas wells to get their related emissions off their books, say energy analysts. But such asset sales present huge risks for big oil companies because many of the buyers are smaller, privately held firms, like Fieldwood, which may not have the financial wherewithal to bear cleanup costs, Ms. Usoro said. This was Fieldwood’s second bankruptcy in two years.

These smaller companies buy the wells for pennies on the dollar and assume the cleanup expenses in the hope that they can reduce the assets’ cost structure and squeeze out the remaining barrels of oil profitably. “I’ve always questioned this business model,” said Ms. Usoro. “Are these guys able to take care of the end of life?”

Excerpts Christopher M. Matthews, Oil Companies Are Ordered to Help Cover $7.2 Billion Cleanup Bill in Gulf of Mexico, WSJ, July 6, 2021

Green Con Artists and their Moneyed Followers

Green investing has grown so fast that there is a flood of money chasing a limited number of viable companies that produce renewable energy, electric cars and the like. Some money managers are stretching the definition of green in how they deploy investors’ funds. Now billions of dollars earmarked for sustainable investment are going to companies with questionable environmental credentials and, in some cases, huge business risks. They include a Chinese incinerator company, an animal-waste processor that recently settled a state lawsuit over its emissions and a self-driving-truck technology company.

One way to stretch the definition is to fund companies that supply products for the green economy, even if they harm the environment to do so. In 2020 an investment company professing a “strong commitment to sustainability” merged with the operator of an open-pit rare-earth mine in California at a $1.5 billion valuation. Although the mine has a history of environmental problems and has to bury low-level radioactive uranium waste, the company says it qualifies as green because rare earths are important for electric cars and because it doesn’t do as much harm as overseas rivals operating under looser regulations…

When it comes to green companies, “there just isn’t enough” to absorb investor demand…In response, MSCI has looked at other ways to rank companies for environmentally minded investors, for example ranking “the greenest within a dirty industry”….

Of all the industries seeking green money, deep-sea mining may be facing the harshest environmental headwinds. Biologists, oceanographers and the famous environmentalist David Attenborough have been calling for a yearslong halt of all deep-sea mining projects. A World Bank report warned of the risk of “irreversible damage to the environment and harm to the public” from seabed mining and urged caution. More than 300 deep-sea scientists released a statement today calling for a ban on all seabed mining until at least 2030. In late March 2021, Google, battery maker Samsung SDI Co., BMW AG and heavy truck maker Volvo Group announced that they wouldn’t buy metals from deep-sea mining.

[However the The Metals Company (TMC) claims that deep seabed mining is green].

Excerpts from Justin Scheck et al, Environmental Investing Frenzy Stretches Meaning of ‘Green’, WSJ, June 24, 2021

Junk: the Engine of Green Growth

“Plastic waste is not just a global crisis that threatens economic recovery, climate, and nature. It is also an investment opportunity that can flip it from a scourge into an engine for economic development,” said Rob Kaplan, who founded Circulate Capital in 2017. Initially the firm sought to back companies in India and Southeast Asia, such as recycling or waste-sorting companies, that help reduce the amount of plastic waste that winds up in the ocean.

In 2019 it raised a $106 million debt and project finance fund, Circulate Capital Ocean Fund, backed by a handful of large multinational corporations that include Coca-Cola, Danone,  Procter & Gamble,  and Unilever…Circulate is one of a small but growing number of firms investing in companies that contribute to what they call the circular economy, a business model that seeks to eliminate waste that organizations produce, continuously reuse products and materials and regenerate natural systems.

An estimated 30 private-market funds, including private-equity, venture and debt strategies focused on the circular economy in the first half of 2020, up from just three in 2016….A number of large multinational corporations are funding these firms’ efforts as part of a broader push to reduce both the overall waste their own companies produce and the amount of virgin materials they use.

Unilever, which has backed funds managed by Circulate and New York-based Closed Loop Partners, aims to cut in half the amount of virgin plastic it uses by 2025 and plans to collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells. Coca-Cola, also a backer of Circulate’s Ocean fund, aims to make all of its global packaging recyclable by 2025 and to use at least 50% of recycled packaging material by 2030, among other goals.

Excerpt from Laura Kreutzer, Growth Firms See Plastic Waste as an Investment Opportunity, WSJ, June 23, 2021
 

Save Time and Money but Destroy Soil and Oceans

The images of swaths of garbage floating on the oceans’ surface have become a rallying call to address plastic pollution, but there is more to this challenge than meets the eye. While plastics and microplastics – items smaller than 5 mm – accumulate and impact marine environments, much of the problem is rooted in land contamination. Land-based plastic pollution, which often feeds into the oceans, is estimated to be at least four times higher than what is in the oceans, according to a study published in Global Change Biology. 

“Soil is the main source of microplastics reaching oceans through soil erosion and surface runoff,”  Plastics settle in soil through disposal in landfills, as well as through the use of plastic-sheets in agriculture or application of microplastic contaminated compost. “Direct disposal of plastics to ocean is relatively less pronounced compared to the transfer of microplastics from land. Microplastics, lighter than soil particles, such as sand, silt and clay, are easily lost to waterways,”…

“We contribute to plastic pollution through indiscriminate disposal of plastics in landfills and use of microbeads in cosmetics and microfibers in textiles. There are efforts to produce biodegradable plastics, which may provide some solution to plastic pollution, but bioplastic may not be the silver bullet to manage plastic pollution.” Commonly used biodegradable bioplastics “retain their mechanical integrity under natural conditions, potentially causing physical harm if they are ingested by marine or terrestrial animals.” “The fate of biodegradable bioplastics in natural and engineered environments could be potentially problematic. Methane is a product of biodegradation in anaerobic environments in landfills.” These bioplastics, furthermore, require high temperatures, controlled aeration and humidity to degrade completely.

Due to their small size, microplastics, especially nanoplastics resulting from the degradation of microplastic, can enter organisms’ internal organs, where they could potentially transfer contaminants attached to them. These can include persistent organic pollutants, like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), as well as trace metals like mercury and lead. The plastics and pollutants that accumulate on or in them enter the food chain and can eventually be transferred to humans, causing growing food safety concerns.

The Joint FAO/IAEA Centre’s laboratories are equipped to research the presence of microplastics in food. “Techniques such as energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy and infrared and Raman spectroscopy can be applied to screen for plastics in foods, enabling risk assessment and management,” said Andrew Cannavan, Head of the Joint Centre’s Food and Environmental Protection Section. 

Excerpt from Joanne Liou Out of Sight but not out of Mind: IAEA and FAO Launch R&D to Identify Sources, Impacts of Microplastic Pollution in Soil, IAEA Press Release, July 2, 2021

Nuclear Nightmare Coming Back to Haunt Us: Nuclear Waste Dumped at Sea

A stock control inspection has revealed that about 2,800 barrels of radioactive waste partly originating from the healthcare and defense industries may have been handled carelessly, Swedish Television reported. The barrels are reportedly located on the floor of the Baltic Sea 100 kilometres north of Stockholm in Forsmark, where one of Sweden’s seven nuclear plants is situated. The barrels, dating from the 1970s and 1980s, are said to be of no danger at the moment but may pose a risk in the future if not taken care of and repositioned properly.

The government will now have to make decisions on the financial costs of inspecting and restoring the waste and how it will be handled in the future…

 Pekka Vanttinen, 2,800 radioactive waste barrels found near Baltic Sea, stored carelessly, EURACTIV.com, May 18, 2021

How Air Pollution Infiltrates the Seas

A global effort to curb pollution from the heavy fuel oil burned by most big ships appears to be encouraging water pollution instead. A 2020 regulation aimed at cutting sulfur emissions from ship exhaust is prompting many owners to install scrubbing systems that capture pollutants in water and then dump some or all of the waste into the sea.

Some 4 300 scrubber-equipped ships are already releasing at least 10 gigatons of such wastewater each year, often in ports and sometimes near sensitive coral reefs…. The shipping industry says pollutants in the waste don’t exceed national and international limits, and that there’s no evidence of harm. But some researchers fear scrubber water, which includes toxic metals such as copper and carcinogenic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, poses a rapidly growing threat, and they want to see such systems outlawed.

The emerging debate is the result of a 2020 regulation put into place by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an arm of the United Nations that works with 174 member states to develop common rules for international shipping. By banning the use of sulfur-heavy fuel oil, the rule intended to reduce pollutants that contribute to acid rain and smog. IMO estimated the rule would slash sulfur emissions by 77% and prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths from air pollution in ports and coastal communities.

But cleaner fuel can cost up to 50% more than the sulfur-rich kind, and the rule allows ship owners to continue to burn the cheaper fuel if they install scrubbers. In 2015, fewer than 250 ships had scrubbers (often to comply with local regulations); last year, that number grew to more than 4300, according to industry figures.

A scrubber system sends exhaust through a meters-tall metal cylinder, where it is sprayed with seawater or freshwater, depending on the type, at rates comparable to gushing fire hydrants, to capture pollutants. In the most popular systems, called open loop scrubbers, seawater is discharged to the ocean after little or no treatment. Other systems retain sludge for disposal on land and release much smaller (but more concentrated) amounts while at sea….Researchers are particularly worried about discharges in areas that IMO has designated as ecologically sensitive. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, receives about 32 million tons of scrubber effluent per year because it’s near a major shipping route for coal. Ships also release scrubber water around the Galápagos Islands….

Ports see substantial discharges, too. Cruise ships dominate those releases, contributing some 96% of discharges in seven of the 10 most discharge-rich ports. Cruise ships typically need to burn fuel in port to continue to operate their casinos, heated pools, air conditioning, and other amenities. Most ports have shallow water, so pollutants are less diluted and can accumulate more rapidly….

Researchers, who are participating in a €7.5 million European effort to study shipping pollution called EMERGE, would like to study how scrubber water affects fish larvae.

But shippers have become hesitant to share samples and data with scientists. “We’re reluctant to give it to organizations which we know have already an established agenda,” says Mike Kaczmarek, chairman of the Clean Shipping Alliance 2020

The ultimate solution is to require ships to use the cleanest fuel, called marine gas oil. In the meantime, 16 countries as well as some localities have banned the most common scrubbers.

Excerpts from Erik StokstadShipping rule cleans the air but dirties the water, Science, May 13, 2021

The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) study, released on April 9, 2021

Dumping Carbon in the Seabed

Oil companies have for decades made money by extracting carbon from the ground. Now they are trying to make money putting it back. Energy giants such as Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell are pushing carbon capture and storage (CCS)—where carbon is gathered and buried underground—as part of a drive to reduce both their own and their customers’ emissions. Executives say the service could become a new source of income when the industry is grappling with how to adapt to a lower-carbon economy.

Oil companies have long captured carbon from their operations, albeit mostly to produce more oil. Now they want to retool that skill as a service they can sell to heavy-polluting industries like cement and steel, burying their carbon in the ground indefinitely for a fee, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. Yet critics question the environmental benefits and high cost of such projects.

In 2021, Shell, Total and Equinor launched a joint venture to store carbon in a rock formation thousands of feet beneath the seabed off the coast of Norway. The state-backed Northern Lights project is set to be the first time companies outside the oil industry will be able to pay to have their carbon gathered and stored. Most carbon-storage projects rely on government funding. Norway is covering about 80% of the $1.6 billion cost of the Northern Lights project, with the rest split equally between Shell, Equinor and Total.

Exxon has said it plans to form a new business unit to commercialize carbon capture and storage, forecasting it could become a $2 trillion market by 2040. Chevron has formed partnerships on storage projects, while BP is codeveloping storage projects in the U.K. and Australia. Oil executives’ sales pitch to carbon-intensive companies: We will provide your energy, then take back the carbon to minimize your footprint. Carbon capture and storage iss becoming a business rather than just a solution. 

The U.S. offers companies a tax credit of as much as $50 a metric ton of carbon captured, while the U.K., Norway and Australia have collectively committed billions of dollars of funding for carbon-capture projects. But There are  concerns about whether storage sites could leak carbon. In Europe, public resistance to land-based storage has led to the use of aquifers and depleted gas fields in the North Sea….In the Norway project, carbon will be transported by ship around the bottom of the country before being pumped offshore via a 68-mile pipeline and then injected into an aquifer under the seabed. BP is working on a similar concept for a project it will operate in northeast England, where carbon will be collected from a gas-power plant and various industrial sites, then stored under the North Sea. “We’ll capture the carbon, we’ll take it offshore, we’ll stuff it underground,” BP Chief Executive Bernard Looney recently said of the project. “Taking the carbon back is what I like to describe it as.”

Excerpts from Sarah McFarlane, Oil Giants Turn to Carbon Storage, Apr. 20, 2021

Hazardous Waste Dumping on the Los Angeles Seafloor

An expedition led by UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography mapped more than 36,000 acres of seafloor between Santa Catalina Island and the Los Angeles coast in a region previously found to contain high levels of the toxic chemical DDT in sediments and the ecosystem. The survey on Research Vessel (R/V) Sally Ride identified an excess of 27,000 targets with high confidence to be classified as a barrel, and an excess of 100,000 total debris objects on the seafloor

“Unfortunately, the basin offshore Los Angeles had been a dumping ground for industrial waste for several decades, beginning in the 1930s. We found an extensive debris field in the wide area survey,” said Eric Terrill, chief scientist of the expedition and director of the Marine Physical Laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The expedition that ran March 10-24, 2021 was developed in collaboration with NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations…The project, part of ongoing collaboration with NOAA’s Uncrewed Systems Operations Center, tested autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) technology to map the seafloor….Two AUVs, the REMUS 6000 capable of working up to depths of 6,000 meters (19,600 feet), and Bluefin , capable of depths up to 1,500 meters (4,900 feet), were deployed to work in tandem to map the seabed at a high resolution…

In 2011 and 2013, UC Santa Barbara professor David Valentine discovered concentrated accumulations of DDT in the sediments in the same region, and visually confirmed 60 barrels on the seafloor. Scientists are also finding high levels of DDT in marine mammals including dolphins and sea lions, with exposure to PCBs and DDT linked to the development of cancer in sea lions. Reporting on this issue by the Los Angeles Times noted that shipping logs from a disposal company supporting Montrose Chemical Corp. of California, a DDT-producing company, show that 2,000 barrels of DDT-laced sludge could have potentially been dumped each month from 1947 to 1961 into a designated dumpsite. In addition to Montrose, logs from other entities show that many other industrial companies in Southern California used this basin as a dumping ground until 1972, when the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, also known as the Ocean Dumping Act, was enacted…

There is a lot to be understood towards how DDT is impacting our environment and marine food webs, according to Scripps chemical oceanographer and professor of geosciences Lihini Aluwihare, who in 2015 co-authored a study that found high abundance of DDT and other man-made chemicals in the blubber of Bottlenose Dolphins that died of natural causes… “These results also raise questions about the continued exposure and potential impacts on marine mammal health, especially in light of how DDT has been shown to have multi-generational impacts in humans. How this vast quantity of DDT in sediments has been transformed by seafloor communities over time, and the pathways by which DDT and its degraded products enter the water column food web are questions that remain to be explored.”

Excerpts from SCRIPPS OCEANOGRAPHY COMPLETES SEAFLOOR SURVEY USING ROBOTICS, FINDS THOUSANDS OF POSSIBLE TARGETS OF INTEREST AT DUMPSITE OFF COAST OF LOS ANGELES, Apr. 26, 2021

The Leaky Oil Pipelines on Our Seafloor

Federal officials aren’t adequately monitoring the integrity of 8,600 miles of active oil-and-gas pipelines on the Gulf of Mexico’s seafloor, and for decades have allowed the industry to abandon old pipelines with little oversight, a new report to Congress shows. The Government Accountability Office report faults the Interior Department’s offshore oil-safety regulator’s reliance on surface observations and pressure sensors, rather than  subsea inspection, to monitor for leaks.

The report urges the regulator, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), to resume work on a long-stalled update to pipeline rules. BSEE currently requires monthly inspections of pipeline routes in the Gulf by helicopter or marine vessel, to look for oil sheens or gas bubbles on the surface to determine whether a pipeline is leaking. By comparison, the bureau’s Pacific office requires subsea pipeline inspections, in part because of seismic concerns, on its much smaller network of 200 miles of active pipelines.

The GAO also found that BSEE and its predecessors allowed the oil industry to leave thousands of miles of decommissioned pipelines on the seafloor rather than incur the cost of raising them back to the surface. Federal regulations allow BSEE to permit operators to decommission pipelines in place, cleaning and burying them in the seabed. The GAO found that the agency doesn’t ensure standards are followed, even as it allowed 97% of the miles of decommissioned pipelines taken out of active use in the Gulf since the 1960s—nearly 18,000 miles—to remain in place.

BSEE also has failed to fully consider whether decommissioned pipelines represent a hazard to navigation and commercial fishing, like trawlers that can be damaged by snagging equipment on undersea pipelines, the report said. Eighty-nine trawlers reported damage from snagging on oil-and-gas equipment between 2015 and 2019, the report found.

BSEE’s failure to inspect decommissioned pipelines also means officials don’t have a complete record of which equipment has been properly cleaned and buried, or whether hurricanes and underwater landslides have moved buried pipelines, potentially creating navigation hazards and environmental damage. A buried 9-mile pipeline segment was swept 4,000 feet out of place by Hurricane Katrina, the report said.

BSEE also allowed oil producers to leave in place some 250 decommissioned “umbilical lines” that carry electricity and hydraulic power to subsea equipment, the report said, over objections of some Interior officials who were concerned that these lines often contain hazardous chemicals that could leak over time as the equipment degrades.

Excerpt from Ted Mann, U.S. Needs to Better Monitor Oil, Gas Pipelines in Gulf of Mexico, Report Says, WSJ, Apr. 19, 2021

Hearing the Naked Truth: Earth Observation

In the middle of last year, Ecuadorians watched with concern as 340 foreign boats, most of them Chinese, fished just outside the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around their country’s westernmost province, the Galapagos Islands. The law of the sea requires such vessels to carry GPS-based automatic identification systems (AIS) that broadcast where they are, and to keep those systems switched on. Some boats, however, failed to comply. There were more than 550 instances of vessels not transmitting their locations for over a day. This regular radio silence stoked fears that the boats concerned were sneaking into Ecuador’s waters to plunder its fish.

Both local officials and China’s ambassador to Ecuador denied this, and said all the boats were sticking to the rules. In October 2020, however, HawkEye 360, a satellite operator based in Virginia, announced it had detected vessels inside Ecuador’s EEZ on 14 occasions when the boats in question were not transmitting AIS. HawkEye’s satellites could pinpoint these renegades by listening for faint signals emanating from their navigation radars and radio communications.

HawkEye’s satellites are so-called smallsats, about the size of a large microwave oven. They are therefore cheap to build and launch. HawkEye deployed its first cluster, of three of them, in 2018. They are now in an orbit that takes them over both of Earth’s poles. This means that, as the planet revolves beneath them, every point on its surface can be monitored at regular intervals…Unlike spy satellites fitted with optical cameras, RF satellites can see through clouds. Their receivers are not sensitive enough to detect standard mobile phones. But they can pick up satellite phones, walkie-talkies and all manner of radar. And, while vessels can and do illicitly disable their AIS, switching off their communications gear and the radar they use for navigation and collision-avoidance is another matter entirely. “Even pirates don’t turn those things off,” says John Beckner, boss of Horizon Technologies….

RF data are also cheap to collect. Satellites fitted with robotic high-resolution cameras are costly. Flying microwave ovens that capture and timestamp radio signals are not. America’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), one of that country’s numerous spying operations, is a big user of RF intelligence. It employs HawkEye’s data to find guerrilla camps and mobile missile-launchers, and to track both conventional warships and unconventional ones, like the weaponised speedboats sometimes deployed by Iran. Robert Cardillo, a former director of the agency who now advises HawkEye, says dozens of navies, Russia’s included, spoof AIS signals to make warships appear to be in places which they are not. RF intelligence is not fooled by this. Mr Cardillo says, too, that the tininess of RF satellites makes them hard for an enemy to destroy.

Beside matters military, the NGA also uses RFdata to unearth illicit economic activity—of which unauthorised fishing is merely one instance. Outright piracy is another. And the technique also works on land. In 2019, for example, it led to the discovery of an illegal gold mine being run by a Chinese company in a jungle in Gabon. And in 2020 the managers of Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo began using HawkEye data to spot elephant poachers and dispatch rangers to deal with them…

Horizon also plans to compile a library of unique radar-pulse “fingerprints” of the world’s vessels, for the tiny differences in componentry that exist even between examples of the same make and model of equipment mean that signals can often be linked to a specific device. It will thus be able to determine not merely that a vessel of some sort is in a certain place, but which vessel it is, and where else it has been…

Excerpt from Espionage: Ears in the Sky, Economist, Mar. 20, 2021

The Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown: Ten Years — and Counting

A resolution to the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remains a distant goal a decade after three of its reactors melted down. The most challenging part of the cleanup—removing molten nuclear fuel from each reactor—has yet to begin because of high radiation inside the reactor buildings, putting the targeted decommissioning of the plant by 2051 into doubt.

More than 80% of the Japanese public doesn’t feel significant progress is being made and is concerned about further accidents because of recent events. On Feb. 13, 2021 a large earthquake centered near Fukushima, an aftershock of the one 10 years ago, caused water to slosh out of a tank containing spent fuel rods, which must be kept submerged to avoid overheating. A week later, a fish caught off the coast of Fukushima was found to contain 10 times the allowed level of radioactive cesium…This incident shows how risks from the plant continue to weigh on those who live and work nearby. 

“We are still struggling with harmful rumors from the nuclear plant accident,” said Tadaaki Sawada, a spokesman for the federation of Fukushima fishery cooperatives. “How many more years will it continue?”…By several measures, the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident in 1986 has been contained. Only around 2% of Fukushima prefecture, or state, is still a no-go area, down from 12% immediately after the disaster. An extensive decontamination process removed topsoil from areas around the plant. Still, thousands of people remain forced out of towns closest to the plant.

In 2020, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., known as Tepco, and the government were close to a decision to start releasing into the sea over a million cubic meters of water from the plant, but plans were suspended amid opposition from local fishermen and concerns raised by neighboring countries. Contaminated rain and groundwater is stored in large tanks that dominate one side of the plant site. Once treated to remove most radioactive elements, the water still contains tritium, a form of hydrogen that emits a weak form of radiation. Tritium is regularly released into the sea and air from nuclear plants around the world after dilution.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency visited the Fukushima plant in 2020 and said disposal of the treated water into the sea would be in line with international practice. “A decision on the disposition path should be taken urgently” to keep the overall decommissioning on track, the IAEA said.

The most challenging part of the cleanup—removing molten nuclear fuel from each reactor—has yet to begin…Tepco has yet to get a clear picture of the location of molten fuel in the reactors because the levels of radiation are damaging even to robots…Gov. Uchibori said that gaining an accurate grasp of the molten-fuel situation was critical to making headway. “If you look at the entire process, right now we are still around the starting point of decommissioning,” he said.

Excerpts from Alastair Gale Fukushima Nuclear Cleanup Is Just Beginning a Decade After Disaster, 

A Lethal Combination: Rusty Tanks and Melting Ice in the Artic

A mining firm has paid a record $2bn fine over a huge oil spill that caused one of Russia’s worst environmental disasters. Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer, said it had paid the fine on March 10, 2021.The fuel spill in May 2021 saw 21,000 tonnes of diesel pour from one of the company’s storage tanks into rivers and lakes in Russia’s Arctic north…The penalty is the biggest ever issued for environmental damage in Russia, officials say.

How did the spill happen? The diesel oil began leaking on May 29, 2020. It is thought to have originated from a rusty storage tank at Norilsk Nickel’s power plant in Siberia.
Investigators believe the tank near Norilsk sank because of melting permafrost which weakened its supports. The Arctic had seen weeks of unusually warm weather – widely believed to be a symptom of global warming – prior to the disaster. The oil contaminated the Ambarnaya river and surrounding subsoil before drifting about 20km (12 miles) north of Norilsk. It then entered Lake Pyasino, which flows to the Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean. In total, the oil contaminated a 350 sq km (135 sq mile) area…

The clean-up could cost $1.5bn and take between five and 10 years…Norilsk is already a well-known pollution hotspot, because of contamination from the industry that dominates the city.

Excerpt from Norilsk Nickel: Mining firm pays record $2bn fine over Arctic oil spill, BBC, Mar. 10, 2021

How the Global Trade in Plastics Spills Over the Oceans

Low-value or “residual” plastics – those left over after more valuable plastic is recovered for recycling – are most likely to end up as pollution. So how does this happen? In Southeast Asia, often only registered recyclers are allowed to import plastic waste. But due to high volumes, registered recyclers typically on-sell plastic bales to informal processors…When plastic types were considered low value, informal processors frequently dumped them at uncontrolled landfills or into waterways.

Plastics stockpiled outdoors can be blown into the environment, including the ocean. Burning the plastic releases toxic smoke, causing harm to human health and the environment. When informal processing facilities wash plastics, small pieces end up in wastewater, which is discharged directly into waterways, and ultimately, the ocean.

The price of many recycled plastics has crashed in recent years due to oversupply, import restrictions and falling oil prices, (amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic). However clean bales of (polyethylene terephthalate) PET and (high-density polyethylene) HDPE are still in demand. In Australia, material recovery facilities currently sort PET and HDPE into separate bales. But small contaminants of other materials (such as caps and plastic labels) remain, making it harder to recycle into high quality new products. Before the price of many recycled plastics dropped, Australia baled and traded all other resin types together as “mixed plastics”. But the price for mixed plastics has fallen to zero and they’re now largely stockpiled or landfilled in Australia.

Excerpts from Monique Retamal et al., Why Your Recycled Plastic May End up in the Ocean, the Maritime Executive, Mar. 8, 2021

Green-Shaming ExxonMobil

ExxonMobil’s shareholders concerned about greenery are angered by ExxonMobil’s continued carbon-cuddling. Those who care more about greenbacks are irked by its capital indiscipline. Right now, both are pushing in the same direction.

D.E. Shaw, a big hedge fund, is urging ExxonMobil to spend more wisely… More eye-catchingly, Engine No.1, a newish fund with a stake of just 0.02%, is trying to green-shame Mr Woods with a mantra as straightforward as ExxonMobil’s: if the company continues on its current course, and demand shifts quickly to cleaner energy, it risks terminal decline. The fund has launched a proxy battle by proposing four new directors; the current board, it complains, is long on blue-chip corporate credentials but short on energy expertise. Engine No.1’s agitation for a shake-up has won backing from, among others, Calstrs, which manages $283bn on behalf of California’s public-sector workers.

Most important, the tone from ExxonMobil’s three biggest institutional shareholders—BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street—has also shifted…In a recent letter to clients, Larry Fink, boss of BlackRock, talked of greener stocks enjoying a “sustainability premium” and dirty ones jeopardising portfolios’ long-term returns. He hinted that his firm—the world’s largest asset manager—might divest from firms that failed to appreciate the “tectonic shift” taking place. Vanguard, too, has called out ExxonMobil for flawed governance…

Excerpt from Schumpeter: The Long Squeeze, Economist, Feb. 6, 2021

Natural Capital and Human Well-Being

What is the contribution of nature to the economy?… The breathable air, drinkable water and tolerable temperatures that allow humans to do everything they do, and the complex ecosystems that maintain them, tend to be taken for granted. Professor Dasgupta’s review on the Economics of Biodiversity does not seek to play on the heartstrings with tales of starving polar bears. Rather, it makes the hard-headed case that services provided by nature are an indispensable input to economic activity. Some of these services are relatively easy to discern: fish stocks, say, in the open ocean. Others are far less visible: such as the complex ecosystems within soil that recycle nutrients, purify water and absorb atmospheric carbon. These are unfamiliar topics for economists, so the review seeks to provide a “grammar” through which they can be analysed.

The report features its own illustrative production function, which includes nature. The environment appears once as a source of flows of extractable resources (like fish or timber). But it also shows up more broadly as a stock of “natural” capital. The inclusion of natural capital enables an analysis of the sustainability of current rates of economic growth. As people produce GDP, they extract resources from nature and dump waste back into it. If this extraction and dumping exceeds nature’s capacity to repair itself, the stock of natural capital shrinks and with it the flow of valuable environmental services. Between 1992 and 2014, according to a report published by the UN, the value of produced capital (such as machines and buildings) roughly doubled and that of human capital (workers and their skills) rose by 13%, while the estimated value of natural capital declined by nearly 40%. The demands humans currently place on nature, in terms of resource extraction and the dumping of harmful waste, are roughly equivalent to the sustainable output of 1.6 Earths (of which, alas, there is only the one)…Indeed, Professor Dasgupta argues that economists should acknowledge that there are in fact limits to growth. As the efficiency with which we make use of Earth’s finite bounty is bounded (by the laws of physics), there is necessarily some maximum sustainable level of GDP…

Professor Dasgupta hints at this problem by appealing to the “sacredness” of nature, in addition to his mathematical models and analytical arguments.

Excerpts from How should economists think about biodiversity?, Economist, Feb. 6, 2021

When Life Colonizes Plastic: the Deep Sea Wonder

The ocean deep, where pressure is high, light absent and nutrients scarce, is often seen as a desert. But, as with other deserts, it has oases. Hydrothermal vents, methane-gas seeps and whale corpses are hot spots for marine wildlife.  These natural loci of biodiversity are now being joined by unnatural ones made of plastic. Researchers obtained 33 objects from the deep sea in the South China Sea. Most were bags, bottles and food wrappers, but they picked up some derelict fishing ropes and traps as well…

These objects were teeming with life. When the researchers examined their finds in a laboratory, they found nearly 1,200 individual organisms representing 49 species of crustaceans, corals, echinoderms, flatworms, molluscs, polychaete worms and fungi. They also discovered evidence that some of these species were breeding. There were egg capsules from four different types of snail, and a cocoon from a flatworm known for parasitising crustaceans. This result suggests that accumulations of plastic are, indeed, benthic oases… As to why organisms colonise the objects in these accumulations, the short answer is, “because they are there”.

Excerpts from Marine Ecology: Deep-ocean plastic is a haven for life, Economist, Feb. 6, 2021

Who Will Rule the Arctic?


Rosatom joined the Arctic Economic Council*in February 2021. Rosatom is a Russian state-owned corporation supplying about 20% of the country’s electricity. The corporation mainly holds assets in nuclear power and machine engineering and construction. In 2018, the Russian government appointed Rosatom to manage the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The NSR grants direct access to the Arctic, a region of increasing importance for Russia due to its abundance of fossil fuels. Moreover, due to climate changes, the extraction of natural resources, oil and gas are easier than ever before.

Since Russia’s handover of NSR’s management, Rosatom’s emphasis on the use of nuclear power for shipping, infrastructure development and fossil fuel extraction is likely to become more prevalent in the Arctic region. Rosatom already operate the world’s first floating nuclear power plant in the Siberian port of Pevek and is the only company in the world operating a fleet of civilian nuclear-powered icebreakers…The company has numerous plans up its sleeves, among them to expand the fleet of heavy-duty nuclear icebreakers to a minimum of nine by 2035.

*Other members of the Arctic Economic Council.

Excerpt from Polina Leganger Bronder, Rosatom joins Arctic Economic Council, BarentsObserver, Feb. 8, 2021

The Unbankables: Fossil-Fuel Companies

Defenders of the oil-and-gas industry in Washington are fighting back against big banks who want to stop financing new Arctic-drilling projects, fearing it could be a harbinger of an unbankable future for fossil-fuel companies. Five of the six largest U.S. banks— Citigroup, Goldman Sachs,  JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo have pledged over the past year to end funding for new drilling and exploration projects in the Arctic.  Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan has been lobbying the Trump administration to examine whether the federal government can prevent banks from cutting off financing.

“That these banks would discriminate against one of the most important sectors of the U.S. economy is absurd,” Mr. Sullivan said in an interview. “I thought it was important to push back.” The American Petroleum Institute, one of industry’s most influential lobbying groups, has said it is working with the Trump administration on the issue, which it called a “bad precedent.” API, Mr. Sullivan and others have also suggested the White House should examine whether it could cut off the banks’ access to funding under coronavirus relief packages.

Wall Street has been pulling back from the oil-and-gas industry after years of dismal returns from it and is under increasing pressure from environmentalists and others to limit fossil-fuel lending. While broader market conditions during the coronavirus pandemic this year have dried up capital for new exploration, some analysts have said a lack of bank financing could deter drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the administration opened to exploration in August 2020…

Capital flight remains one of the primary risks facing the oil industry, according to Moody’s Corp. If the world were to accelerate a transition to renewable sources of energy, oil-and-gas reserves could become uneconomic and turn into a credit liability for producers, making it difficult to access longer-maturity loans, Moody’s said.

Alaska’s economy is almost entirely dependent on the fossil-fuel industry, which has historically funded about 90% of the state’s general fund through tax revenues. Energy executives worry the pledges that banks are making could spread to other regions and parts of the industry as pressure mounts from environmental groups, and companies face the prospect of tighter government regulations. This week, JPMorgan pledged to push clients to align with the Paris climate accord and work toward global net zero-emissions by 2050.

“If it is successful, why would they stop with the Arctic?” said wildcatter Bill Armstrong, founder of Armstrong Oil & Gas Inc., which has discovered more than 3 billion barrels of oil in Alaska. “A lot of misguided people are trying to make oil and gas the new tobacco.

Excerpt from Christopher M. Matthews and Orla McCaffrey, Banks’ Arctic Financing Retreat Rattles Oil Industry, WSJ, Oct. 9 2020

1 Million Tons Radioactive Water Release at Sea: Fukushima, Japan

On October 19, 2020, China urged the Japanese government to “cautiously” consider whether to release treated radioactive water in the sea from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. China’s remarks came days after it was reported by Japanese media that an official decision on the discharge of the water from the nuclear plant may be made by the end of October 2020. The water has been treated using an advanced liquid processing system, or ALPS, to remove most contaminants other than the relatively less toxic tritium and is stored in tanks on the facility’s premises.

But space is expected to run out by the summer of 2022, with contaminated water increasing by about 170 tons per day. As of September 2020, the stored water totaled 1.23 million tons and continues to grow.

China urges Japan to cautiously consider nuclear plant water release, Japan Times, Oct. 19, 2020

Electrical Bacteria as Ecosystem Engineers

Electric bacteria join cells end to end to build electrical cables able to carry current up to 5 centimetres through mud. The adaptation, never seen before in a microbe, allows these so-called cable bacteria to overcome a major challenge facing many organisms that live in mud: a lack of oxygen. Its absence would normally keep bacteria from metabolizing compounds, such as hydrogen sulfide, as food. But the cables, by linking the microbes to sediments richer in oxygen, allow them to carry out the reaction long distance…

The more researchers have looked for “electrified” mud, the more they have found it, in both saltwater and fresh. They have also identified a second kind of mud-loving electric microbe: nanowire bacteria, individual cells that grow protein structures capable of moving electrons over shorter distances. These nanowire microbes live seemingly everywhere—including in the human mouth… Scientists are pursuing practical applications, exploring the potential of cable and nanowire bacteria to battle pollution and power electronic devices…

The Center for Electromicrobiology was established in 2017 by the Danish government. Among the challenges the center is tackling is mass producing the microbes in culture…Cultured bacteria would also make it easier to isolate the cable’s wires and test potential applications for bioremediation and biotechnology…

Electrical bacteria are everywhere. In 2014, for example, scientists found cable bacteria in three very different habitats in the North Sea: an intertidal salt marsh, a seafloor basin where oxygen levels drop to near zero at some times of the year, and a submerged mud plain just off the coast…Elsewhere, researchers have found DNA evidence of cable bacteria in deep, oxygen-poor ocean basins, hydrothermal vent areas, and cold seeps, as well as mangrove and tidal flats in both temperate and subtropical regions.

Nanowire bacteria are even more broadly distributed. Researchers have found them in soils, rice paddies, the deep subsurface, and even sewage treatment plants, as well as freshwater and marine sediments. They may exist wherever biofilms form, and the ubiquity of biofilms provides further evidence of the big role these bacteria may play in nature.

The microbes also alter the properties of mud, says Sairah Malkin, an ecologist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “They are particularly efficient … ecosystem engineers.” Cable bacteria “grow like wildfire,” she says; on intertidal oyster reefs, she has found, a single cubic centimeter of mud can contain 2859 meters of cables, which cements particles in place, possibly making sediment more stable for marine organisms.

Excerpts from Elizabeth Pennisi, The Mud is Electric: Bacteria that Conduct Electricity are transforming the way we see sediments, Science, Aug. 21, 2020, at 902

Fatalism about Plastics: Intractable Plastics Pollution

The annual inflow of plastic could nearly triple from 2016 to 2040, the study found, and even if companies and governments meet all their commitments to tackle plastic waste, it would reduce the projection for 2040 by only 7%, still a more-than twofold increase in volume.  The study’s authors, the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trust and sustainability consulting firm Systemiq Ltd., set out a range of measures to stem the flow and called on businesses and governments to do more to reduce the use of plastic. 

The study attributes the surge to a growing global population using more plastic per person. Other factors include greater use of nonrecyclable plastics and an increasing share of consumption occurring in countries with poor waste management. China and Indonesia are likely the top sources of plastic reaching the oceans, accounting for more than a third of the plastic bottles, bags and other detritus washed out to sea, according to a study published in 2015 by Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia.

Over the past two years China has been making strides to improve waste management, including banning the import of plastic and other waste from developed countries like the U.S., which for decades have shipped much of their trash overseas. Indonesia has implemented its own restrictions on trash coming in from overseas, while lawmakers in the U.S. are increasingly trying to find ways to improve the country’s domestic recycling rates as export markets vanish.

They found that flexible plastic packaging—particularly items like potato-chip bags and food pouches, which are made of several materials and typically aren’t recycled—accounts for a disproportionate amount of ocean plastic. The As You Sow report said companies should stop selling products in flexible plastic until it is recycled or composted in significant amounts. Companies, in response, have been redesigning flexible packaging to promote recycling. For example, Nestle recently began selling a line of Gerber baby-food pouches made from a single material. But hurdles remain, particularly around collection and sorting of the packaging…

The amount of plastic flowing into the oceans could be reduced by as much as 80% over the next 20 years through a combination of reduced plastic use, increased recycling, alternatives to problematic packaging like plastic pouches and better waste management, the Pew-Systemiq study said…

Excerpts from Saabira Chaudhuri, Ocean Plastic Is Getting Worse and Efforts to Stem the Tide Fall Short, Study Finds, WSJ, July 23, 2020

The Cracks on the Nuclear Runit Tomb

Excerpts from the US Department of Energy Report on the Nuclear Runit Dome

The Runit Dome is a containment structure on Runit Island, located on Enewetak Atoll.  Enewetak Atoll is a former U.S. atmospheric nuclear weapons test site located approximately 2,300 miles west of Hawaii in the northwest Pacific Ocean. The Runit Dome,  which was built in the late 1970s, contains over 100,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and  debris [from the US nuclear weapons testing] that were encapsulated in concrete inside an unlined nuclear test crater, the Cactus Crater, on the north end of Runit Island. The site has remained a concern to the people of Enewetak. 

The Runit Dome is not in any immediate danger of collapse or failure, and the exterior concrete covering the containment structure is still serving its intended purpose, effectively reducing the natural erosion of the waste pile below by wind and water. Visual surveys of the exterior  concrete of the Cactus Crater containment structure have revealed the presence of cracks and spalls in the concrete cap. However, these cracks and spalls in the exterior concrete cap do not form sites for external or internal radiation exposure that impact or endanger human health or
the environment, or wildlife.

DOE has performed preventative maintenance on exterior surfaces of the containment structure, which will aid in the determination of any changes that
may occur in the condition of the concrete in the future. Any concerns about the imminent failure or collapse of the structure are unfounded.

The main safety concern to humans associated with leakage of radioactive waste from the Cactus Crater containment structure is the uptake of fallout radioactivity in marine foods. There are no data to suggest that the Cactus Crater containment structure, or more specifically, the radioactive material encapsulated in Cactus Crater, is currently having a measurable adverse effect on the surrounding environment or on the health of the people of Enewetak. However, DOE is in the process of establishing a groundwater radiochemical analysis program that is designed to provide scientifically substantiated data that can be used to determine what, if any, effects the dome contents are having, or will have, on the surrounding environment now
and in the future.

Long-term trends in the concentration of Pu in lagoon waters derived from retrospective analysis of a coral core collected off Runit Island show levels of Pu in lagoon waters are systematically decreasing. These data provide compelling evidence that the construction of the Runit Dome has had, and continues to have, a negligible impact on the wider marine environment….

The Cactus Crater containment structure remains vulnerable to wave driven over wash and flooding caused by storm surge and potential effects of sea level rise… It is
anticipated that any measured or modeled effects of storm events may help provide a better understanding of the long-term consequences of sea-level rise on mass-transport of dome derived radionuclides.

Crude Oil in the Bile of Fish: BP Horizon Oil Spill

Since the 2010 BP oil spill, marine scientists at the University of South Florida (USF) have sampled more than 2,500 individual fish representing 91 species from 359 locations across the Gulf of Mexico and found evidence of oil exposure in all of them, including some of the most popular types of seafood. The highest levels were detected in yellowfin tuna, golden tilefish and red drum. The study represents the first comprehensive, Gulf-wide survey of oil pollution launched in response to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Over the last decade have examined the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), the most toxic chemical component of crude oil, in the bile of the fish. Bile is produced by the liver to aid in digestion, but it also acts as storage for waste products.

“We were quite surprised that among the most contaminated species was the fast-swimming yellowfin tuna as they are not found at the bottom of the ocean where most oil pollution in the Gulf occurs,” said lead author Erin Pulster…Pulster says it makes sense that tilefish have higher concentrations of PAH because they live their entire adult lives in and around burrows they excavate on the seafloor and PAHs are routinely found in Gulf sediment. However, their exposure has been increasing over time, as well as in other species, including groupers, some of Florida’s most economically important fish. …

Oil pollution hot spots were also found off major population centers, such as Tampa Bay, suggesting that runoff from urbanized coasts may play a role in the higher concentrations of PAHs. Other sources include chornic low-level releases from oil and gas platforms, fuel from boats and airplanes and even natural oil seeps — fractures on the seafloor that can ooze the equivalent of millions of barrels of oil per year.

Excerpts from Firste Gulf of Mexico-wide survey of oil pollution completed 10 years after Deepwater Horizon, Science Daily, Apr. 15, 2020

What the Naked Eye Can’t See: Nanoplastics in Food and Sea

Smaller plastic particles are especially dangerous, because they are easily ingested and can enter organs and body fluids of organisms and thus propagate up the food chain. The fact that these particles are also co-contaminated with various chemicals and other pollutants makes accurate assessments of the effects and toxicity of plastic pollution challenging. A group of scientists led by the IAEA has recently published a comprehensive review on the effects on fish of ‘virgin’ micro- and nano-plastics – tiny plastic particles such as resin pellets used in plastics manufacturing. The review, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology in March 2020, revealed that in 32% of all studies assessed, such virgin plastic particles were indeed affecting biological functions in fish, such as their behavior and neurological functions, as well as their metabolism, intestinal permeability and intestinal microbiome diversity.

Plastic particles below 5 mm in length are called microplastics. The smaller ones, with a size equal to or less than 100 nm (1/10 000 mm) are called nanoplastics. They are so tiny that one cannot see them with naked eye or even with an ordinary optical microscope.

According to the UN Environment Programme, 8 million tonnes of plastic end up the world’s oceans every year, often carried there by rivers. If the trend continues, by 2050 our oceans could contain more plastic than fish Microplastic particles are accidentally consumed by marine organisms, which are then consumed by predator fish. Nanoplastic particles are even more toxic to living organisms as they are more likely to be absorbed through the walls of digestive tracts and thereby transported into the tissues and organs. Consequently, such plastic particles can interfere with various physiological processes, from neurotransmission to oxidative stress and immunity levels of freshwater and marine organisms.

Jennet Orayeva, New Research on the Possible Effects of Micro-and Nano-plastics on Marine Animals

Naked Commercial Whaling and Toxic Whale Meat

Scientific “research” was also the reason Japan’s government gave for continuing to kill whales in the vast Southern Ocean after a global moratorium on commercial whaling came into force in 1985. But international criticism along with environmental groups’ attempts to sabotage the annual hunt proved too costly to Japan’s reputation and purse (the government bankrolled the hunt). In late 2018 Japan declared it was giving up killing in the Southern Ocean .

The Southern Ocean is now a sanctuary. But it comes at a cost. Japan walked out of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), accusing the anti-whaling members of failing to appreciate the cultural significance of whaling in Japan and of imposing their values on others. Freed from the IWC’s strictures, the government said commercial whaling would resume in Japan’s own extensive waters. But…whaling in home waters is troubling. Most whale populations in the Southern Ocean are healthy. In Japanese waters, stocks are less bountiful….

The whaling lobby is powerful in Japan. For now, the subsidies continue, supposedly to help ease the switch to nakedly commercial whaling but they coud be gone in two or three years. Other fleets complain that whaling gets far more than its fair share of subsidies for fisheries.

The challenges are immense. Whalemeat consumption has fallen from 230,000 tonnes a year in the early 1960s to 3,000 tonnes today, and whale is no longer cheap. Local whales have higher accumulations of toxins (such as a mercury) than those in the Southern Ocean. One packager of sashimi admits he sources his whale meat from Norway.

Excertps from Japan wants to catch whales. But who will eat them?, Economist, Apor. 25, 2020

Plastic Bags Back in Vogue: Blame COVID or Plastics Industry?

Plastic bags may make a temporary comback in some places because of COVID-19.
In a setback, albeit temporary, for efforts to combat plastic waste, many state and local governments have suspended plastic bag bans and are prohibiting the use of reusable bags to stem the spread of COVID-19. The plastics industry is pushing for such measures, causing environmentalists to cry foul. San Francisco, which has been at the forefront of single-use plastics restrictions, issued an order “not permitting customers to bring their own bags, mugs, or other reusable items from home” as a measure “to prevent unnecessary contact.” Maine is delaying enforcement of its plastic bag ban to Jan. 15, 2021, after originally planning to roll it out on April 22—Earth Day….

The plastics industry has been advocating for such measures. In recent weeks, Bag The Ban, an initiative sponsored by the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, has endorsed editorials in newspapers such as the Boston Herald and the New Hampshire Union Leader advocating use of plastic bags to protect grocery workers from COVID-19.

Writing to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Plastics Industry Association made a similar point. “Single-use plastic products are the most sanitary choice when it comes to many applications.” The association cited research on reusable bags, including a 2011 study from Loma Linda University and the University of Arizona that tested bags from shoppers selected randomly at the grocery store and found bacteria such as E. coli on 8% of them. It also pointed to a 2012 outbreak of norovirus in Oregon linked to use of a reusable food bag and cited a 2019 study from Portugal that found bacteria in bags.

Alexander H. Tullo, Plastic bag bans rolled back for COVID-19, Apr. 7, 2020

Oceans Restored: the 2050 Deadline

A study published in Nature on April 2, 2020 claims that marine ecosystems could recover in just 30 years because of the growing success of conservation efforts and the ocean’s remarkable resilience. Some of these conservation efforts include the increase in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) from less than 1 percent in 2000 to almost 8 percent today and the restoration of key habitats such as seagrass beds and mangroves

One great success is the restoration of humpback whales that migrate between Antarctica and eastern Australia. Their numbers have rebounded from a few hundred in 1968 to more than 40,000 today. Sea otters in Western Canada have also jumped from dozens in 1980 to thousands. Green turtles in Japan, grey seals and cormorants in the Baltic and elephant seals in the United States have all also made remarkable comebacks. However, “If we don’t tackle climate change and raise the ambition and immediacy of these efforts, we risk wasting our efforts,” Duarte, one of the authors of the study, told BBC News. The initial price tag on all this is hefty: $10 to $20 billion a year until the 2050 recovery date.

Excerpts from Oceans Can Recover by 2050, Study Shows, EcoWatch, Apr. 2, 2020

Even the Oceans are not Free: Swarming the Seas

The Ocean of Things of Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aims to  wire up the high seas with swarms of floating, connected sensors.  Such devices are not in themselves new. There are around 6,000 floating sensors deployed around the world’s oceans, run by navies and research institutes. What is unprecedented is the scale of  DARPA’s ambition. Over the next few years it hopes to deploy 50,000 sensors across 1m square kilometres of sea, an area considerably larger than Texas. The eventual goal—much more distant—is to enable the continuous monitoring and analysis of a significant fraction of the world’s oceans.

Existing “floating instrument packages”, known as floats or drifters, are often custom-built, and usually contain the highest-quality instruments available. They therefore tend to be expensive, and are bought only in small numbers. A typical existing float, designed for scientific research, is the Argo. It costs around $20,000, and can measure water temperature and salinity.  The Ocean of Things takes the opposite approach. The aim is to cram as many cheap, off-the-shelf components as possible into a single low-cost package. Current float prototypes cost around $750…That would allow tens of thousands to be deployed without breaking the bank. Large numbers are crucial for coverage. They also help compensate for inaccuracies in individual instruments.

The project’s researchers are evaluating three designs from different manufacturers, ranging in size from about six to 18 litres. One, proposed by Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre, is made of glass, like a traditional Japanese fishing float. A second, from a firm called Areté Associates, has an aluminium shell, and uses wood for buoyancy. Both models feature solar panels. The third, made by a company called Numurus, is made of lacquered cardboard, and relies entirely on its batteries. All three are designed to last for a year or so and are made to be as environmentally friendly as possible, with minimal use of plastics. That is important because, at the end of their mission, the floats are designed to scuttle themselves

With 361m square kilometres of ocean on the planet, a true Ocean of Things, monitoring everything on and under the water, would require about 18m floats.

Excerpts from Big Wet Data: The Ocean of Things, Economist, Mar. 14, 2020

540 Katrina Oil Spills Equal an Exxon Valdez Disaster

The federal agency overseeing oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico after hurricane Katrina reported that more than 400 pipelines and 100 drilling platforms were damaged. The U.S. Coast Guard, the first responder for oil spills, received 540 separate reports of spills into Louisiana waters. Officials estimated that, taken together, those leaks released the same amount of oil that the highly publicized 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound — about 10.8 million gallons…

While hurricanes gain speed due to the effects of climate change, the push for oil leasing in the Gulf of Mexico shows no sign of slowing down. In 2014, the Obama administration opened up 40 million new acres in the Gulf for oil and gas development. Four years later, the Trump administration announced plans to open up most of the rest, in what would be the largest expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. history. Many of these 76 million acres are to be offered at reduced royalty rates to encourage additional near-shore drilling in Louisiana waters…

“In the Gulf, storms are predicted to be less frequent but more intense when they do come,” said Sunshine Van Bael, an ecologist at Tulane University who evaluated damage to marsh ecosystems from the BP oil spill. “One thing that storms do is, if oil has been buried underneath the marsh because it wasn’t rehabilitated, a storm could come along and whip that back up to the surface. So, the aftereffects of the oil spills might be greater [with climate change] since the storms are predicted to be more intense.”…

In 2009, a class-action lawsuit against Murphy Oil Corp. ended in a settlement requiring the company to pay $330 million to 6,200 claimants, including owners of about 1,800 homes in St. Bernard Parish. The damage occurred when one of Murphy’s storage tanks floated off its foundation during Katrina and dumped over a million gallons of crude oil into a square-mile segment of Meraux and Chalmette….

To date, more than $19 million has been paid out from the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to reimburse at least two oil companies for costs they incurred cleaning up oil they spilled during Katrina…

“We don’t normally penalize [companies] for act of God events,” Greg Langley of the Department of Environmental Quality said. “We just get right to remediation.”

Excerpts from Joan Meiners, How Oil Companies Avoided Environmental Accountability After 10.8 Million Gallons Spill, ProPublica, Dec. 27, 2019

Viva Over-Fishing! Addicted to Over-Consumption of Fish

In 2015 world leaders signed up to a long list of sustainable development goals, among them an agreement to limit government subsidies that contribute to overfishing. Negotiators at the World Trade Organisation (wto) were told to finish the job “by 2020”. They have missed their deadline. Overfishing is a tragedy of the commons, with individuals and countries motivated by short-term self-interest to over-consume a limited resource. By one measure, the share of fish stocks being fished unsustainably has risen from 10% in 1974 to 33% in 2015.

Governments make things worse with an estimated $22bn of annual subsidies that increase capacity, including for gear, ice, fuel and boat-building. One study estimated that half of fishing operations in the high seas (waters outside any national jurisdiction) would be unprofitable without government support.

 Trade ministers were supposed to sort it all out at WTO meeting in December in Kazakhstan. But the meeting was postponed till June 2020. Moreover, the murky nature of subsidies for unregulated and unreported fishing makes their work unusually difficult. Governments do not have lines in their budget that say “subsidies for illegal fishing”, points out Alice Tipping of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a think-tank.

Negotiators are trying to devise a system that would alert governments to offending boats, which would become ineligible for future subsidies. That is tangling them up in arguments about what to do when a boat is found in disputed territory, how to deal with frivolous accusations and how to treat boats that are not associated with any country offering subsidies.

When it comes to legal fishing of overfished stocks, it is easier to spot the subsidies in government budget lines, but no easier to agree on what to do about them. America and the European Union, for example, have been arguing over whether to allow subsidies up to a cap, or whether to ban some subsidies and take a lenient approach to the rest. The EU favours the second option, arguing that where fisheries are well-managed, subsidies are not harmful. To others this looks like an attempt to ensure any eventual deal has loopholes.

Further complicating matters is a long-running row about how to treat developing countries. All WTO members agree that some need special consideration. But as an American representative pointed out at a recent WTO meeting, 17 of the world’s 26 most prolific fishing countries are developing ones. That means broad carve-outs for them would seriously weaken any deal.

China, both the world’s biggest fisher and biggest subsidiser of fishing, has proposed capping subsidies in proportion to the number of people in each country who work in the industry. But it is the world leader here, too, with 10m at the last count (in 2016). Other countries fear such a rule would constrain China too little.

Excerpts from The World Trade Organization: What’s the Catch, Economist, Jan 4, 2020

When the Fish are Gone: As Bad as it Could Get in the Yangtze River

China imposed a 10-year commercial fishing ban in January 2020  on the Yangtze – the first ever for Asia’s longest river – in a bid to protect its aquatic life.  Facing dwindling fish stocks and declining biodiversity in the 6,300km (3,915-mile) river, the Chinese government decided seasonal moratoriums were not enough. The ban will be applied at 332 conservation sites along the river. It will be extended to cover the main river course and key tributaries by January 1 2021, according to a State Council notice.   Dam-building, pollution, overfishing, river transport and dredging had worsened the situation for the waterway’s aquatic species.  Fishermen using nets with smaller holes and illegal practices such as the use of explosives or electrocution have also contributed to the river’s decline

 President Xi Jinping warned that the Yangtze River had become so depleted that its biodiversity index was as bad as it could get, saying it had reached what could be described as the “no fish” level… Back in 1954, the annual catch from the Yangtze was about 427,000 tonnes, but in recent years it had been less than 100,000 tonnes.
According to an official estimate, about 280,000 fishermen in 10 provinces along the Yangtze River will be affected by the ban. Their 113,000 registered fishing boats will be grounded or destroyed. The government has allocated funds to help those affected find alternative work and provide them with welfare and retraining. To counter illegal fishing, he said river authorities would be equipped with speedboats, drones and video surveillance systems. Fishermen would also be recruited to patrol the river.

Excerpts from China bans fishing in depleted Yangtze River for 10 years to protect aquatic life, South China Morning Post, Jan. 3, 2020

The Ocean-Based Internet: Data Mining the Ocean

The U.S. Defense Department could one day place thousands of low-cost, floating sensors into the ocean to collect environmental data, such as water temperature, as well as activity data about commercial vessels, aircraft and even fish or maritime mammals moving through the area. But others also are dropping similar sensors in the world’s oceans, and defense researchers suggest many of those systems could be integrated into an even more comprehensive ocean-based Internet of Things.

The growing Internet of Things is mostly a land-based phenomenon, frequently in large cities with loads of sensors. But researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) foresee a wide range of military and civil benefits from extending the Internet of Things out to sea.  The agency announced its Ocean of Things program in 2017. John Waterston, a program manager within DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, says the sensors will float along the surface for at least one year, transmitting short messages via the Iridium satellite constellation back to a central location for analysis. “It’s a 280-byte in and 340-byte out message, so it’s a little bit more than a tweet. I like to say these things tweet about their environment,” he says.

The goal is to increase maritime awareness in a cost-effective way. Using existing systems to continuously monitor vast regions of the ocean would be cost prohibitive…. By coupling powerful analytical tools with commercial sensor technology, the agency intends to create floating sensor networks that significantly expand maritime awareness at a fraction of the cost of current approaches.

Waterston says one of the most interesting missions for the sensor might be to simply determine whether GPS signals are available in an area of interest for military operations. …The program also could help improve ocean modeling, which is important for forecasting weather, finding people who have fallen overboard or locating debris from a crashed aircraft. …The agency has yet to determine how many sensors it might eventually deploy, but they could number in the tens of thousands. To put that into perspective, DARPA officials compare the final density to placing a penny on the national mall, which Wikipedia says covers about 309 acres between the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial….

In addition, Argo, an international program, uses several thousand battery-powered, robotic floating devices to measure temperature, salinity and current for climate and oceanographic research. The floats mostly drift 10 days at a time below the ocean surface. After rising and transmitting their data to satellites, they return to depth to drift for another 10 days. The floats go as deep as 2,000 meters, according to the Argo website. 

Argo Floating Device

It is possible an ocean-based Internet could provide data on demand to a variety of customers inside and outside the Defense Department. If, for example, a government agency needs the water temperature in a given area reported every six hours, or a combatant command needs to know what’s happening in the Mediterranean, or NATO officials want information between Gibraltar and Sicily, or commercial fishermen need data on where the shrimp or tuna are, they could simply request it. “It’s about serving the end users. If you can use that data, we can generate it for you,” he offers. “It’s a little bit like floats-as-a-service or data-as-a-service.”

Argo’s Ocean Sensors

Another option is that other organizations could purchase and deploy the DARPA-developed sensors. “I hope people want to come up with their own sensors or want to buy these. I imagine a marketplace where you get many commercial people buying these. Everyone could buy 500 and then take advantage of the service provided by the thousands that are out there. I could imagine this as that foundational community,” Waterston suggests.

DARPA currently is working with three teams led by the Palo Alto Research Center, better known as PARC***, Areté Associates and Numurus LLC to develop the floats. Leidos, Draper Laboratory, SoarTech and Geometric Data Analytics are providing software for data visualization, performance prediction, float command and control and detection. 

Excerpts from George Seffers, DARPA’s Ocean of Things Ripples Across Research Areas, AFCEA.org, Nov. 1, 2019

***See also DARPA’s Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program. According to one scientist that works in the PARC’s disappearing electronics platform (called DUST) “Imagine being able to cover a large area, like the ocean floor, with billions of tiny sensors to ‘hear’ what is happening within the earth’s crust, and have them quickly disintegrate into, essentially, sand, leaving no trace and not harming the planet or sea life,  

Scrubbing Sulfur Pollution

From January 2020, the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) will ban ships from using fuels with a sulphur content above 0.5%, compared with 3.5% now.The rules herald the biggest leap in how ships are powered since they switched from burning coal to oil over a century ago, but vessels will still be allowed to use higher-sulphur fuel if fitted with cleaning devices called scrubbers.  Closed-loop scrubbers keep most of the water used for sulphur removal onboard for disposal at port. Open-loop systems, however, remove sulphur coming through a ship’s smokestack with water that can then be pumped overboard.

Years of studies have examined whether open-loop scrubbers introduce into waterways acidic sulphur harmful to marine life, cancer-causing hydrocarbons, nitrates leading to algal blooms and metals that impair organ function and cause birth defects.  The results have largely been inconclusive and the IMO itself has encouraged further study into the environmental impact of scrubbers.

The stated aim of the new IMO measures is to improve human health..  A study in the journal Nature last year found ship emissions with current sulphur levels caused about 400,000 premature deaths from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease as well as around 14 million childhood asthma cases every year.

Singapore and Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates have banned the use of open-loop scrubbers from the start of next year. China is also set to extend a ban on scrubber discharge to more coastal regions. 

Excerpts from Noah Browning, Going overboard? Shipping rules seen shifting pollution from air to sea, Reuters, Oct. 21, 2019

Gambling with the Environment: Shell’s Decommissioning Plans in the North Sea

Giant oil firms have spent more than four decades pumping billions of pounds worth of oil from the seabed. But now decommissioned rigs in the North Sea are at the centre of an environmental storm with an oil giant under intense pressure to rethink plans to leave some of the platforms in the sea.

Several hundred oil drilling platforms in the waters off Scotland are due to be decommissioned over the next three decades as they approach the end of their operational lifetime.  Due to the cost and difficulty of dismantling the structures – each of which can be as tall as the Eiffel Tower – Shell proposed removing only the topside of its four Brent platforms, leaving the huge concrete legs in place.

A natural gas platform in Norway. Almost all of the 600KT structure will be submerged.

That resulted in the controversial suggestion that oil mixed with sediment in 42 out of 64 concrete storage cells – each up to 66 feet in diameter and 200 feet high, around the height of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh – should remain on the seabed. These could remain for up to 500 years after the platforms have been decommissioned.

Chevron oil platform

The plans have raised alarm in some quarters over the impact of leaks from the estimated 11,000 tonnes of raw oil and toxins remaining in the base of the four Brent installations – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta, all put up in the East Shetland basin in the 1970s.  It has emerged that a report of an expert evaluation group commissioned by the Dutch government has provided a critical analysis of the position and recommends a clean-up be carried out as agreed more than 20 years ago in international treaties.   See Brent Decommissioning Derogation: An evaluation. The special treaty known as Ospar, which was adopted in 1992, states that rigs, including their contents and pipelines, must be removed from the sea after decommissioning.

The experts said that removing all contaminated materials “presents the most certain solution”.  They say staying true to Ospar “not only avoids passing on potential problems to future generations” but also prevents “large amounts of negative public attention as was the case in the decommissioning of Brent Spar in the 1990s”.  When Shell proposed sinking the Spar oil storage buoy in 1995, it prompted protests by Greenpeace, petrol boycotts in Germany and a falling share price. The company was eventually forced to back down and find a more environmentally friendly plan.

In October 2019, Greenpeace activists from the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark boarded two oil platforms in Shell’s Brent field in a protest against the plans. They scaled Brent Bravo and hung banners saying “Shell, clean up your mess!” and “Stop Ocean Pollution”.

The 2019 report revealed that an earlier independent review group(that took place in 2017)said that a “leave in place” solution with appropriate navigational markers and safety zones gave “a risk in relation to shipping impact that Shell regarded as acceptable”.  The report added: “However, although the estimated probabilities of a collision may be low on a per annum basis, the consequences could be catastrophic and result in major injury and loss of life or serious marine pollution.”

Excerpts from North Sea oil decommissioning: pressure grows on Shell to back down, the Herald, Oct. 20, 2019
 

Sunlight Can Make Plastics Disappear

Numerous international governmental agencies that steer policy assume that polystyrene, a sort of plastic  persists in the environment for millennia. 

Styrofoam Cup

In their research paper published in the Journal of  Environmental Science and Technology Letters, scientists show the  that polystyrene is completely photochemically oxidized to carbon dioxide and partially photochemically oxidized to dissolved organic carbon. Lifetimes of complete and partial photochemical oxidation are estimated to occur on centennial and decadal time scales, respectively. These lifetimes are orders of magnitude faster than biological respiration of polystyrene and thus challenge the prevailing assumption that polystyrene persists in the environment for millennia. 

Excerpt from Collin P. Ward et al, Sunlight Converts Polystyrene to Carbon Dioxide and Dissolved Organic Carbon, Journal of Environmental Science and Technology Letters, October 10, 2019

The Disappearing Birds

North America’s birds are disappearing from the skies at a rate that’s shocking even to ornithologists. Since the 1970s, the continent has lost 3 billion birds, nearly 30% of the total, and even common birds such as sparrows and blackbirds are in decline, U.S. and Canadian researchers reported in the September 2019 Issue of Science Magazine…  Five  years ago, PM Rosenberg a conservation biologist decided to take a broader look at what is happening in North America’s skies.

“I frankly thought it was going to be kind of a wash,” Rosenberg says. He expected rarer species would be disappearing but common species would be on the rise, compensating for the losses, because they tend to be generalists, and more resilient. Indeed, waterfowl and raptors are thriving, thanks to habitat restoration and other conservation efforts. But the declines in many other species, particularly those living along shorelines and in grasslands, far exceeded those gains, Rosenberg and his colleagues report. Grassland birds have declined by 53% since 1970—a loss of 700 million adults in the 31 species studied, including meadowlarks and northern bobwhites. Shorebirds such as sanderlings and plovers are down by about one-third, the team says. Habitat loss may be to blame.

The familiar birds that flock by the thousands in suburbs were not exempt. “There’s an erosion of the numbers of common birds,” Rosenberg says. His team determined that 19 common species have each lost more than 50 million birds since 1970. Twelve groups, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and blackbirds, were particularly hard hit. Even introduced species that have thrived in North America, such as starlings and house sparrows, are losing ground.  “When you lose a common species, the impact will be much more massive on the ecosystem and ecosystem services,” says Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist and conservation biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. “It’s showing the magnitude of the problem.”

Some of the causes may be subtle. Last week, toxicologists described how low doses of neonicotinoids—a common pesticide—made migrating sparrows lose weight and delay their migration, which hurts their chances of surviving and reproducing. Climate change, habitat loss, shifts in food webs, and even cats may all be adding to the problem, and not just for birds. 

Weather radar data revealed similarly steep declines. Radar detects not just rain, but also insect swarms and flocks of birds, which stand out at night, when birds usually migrate. “We don’t see individual birds, it’s more like a big blob moving through airspace,” explains Cornell migration ecologist Adriaan Dokter. He converted “blobs” from 143 radar stations into biomass. Between 2007 and 2017, that biomass declined 13%, the Science paper reports. The greatest decline was in birds migrating up the eastern United States….

Excerpts from Elizabeth Pennisi, Billions of North American Birds Have Vanished,  Science, Sept. 20, 2019

A Huge Headache: the Radioactive Water at Fukushima

What to do with the enormous amount of radioactive  water, which grows by around 150 tons a day at Fukushima, is a thorny question, with controversy surrounding a long-standing proposal to discharge it into the sea, after extensive decontamination.  The water comes from several different sources: Some is used for cooling at the plant, which suffered a meltdown after it was hit by a tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake in March 2011.  Groundwater that seeps into the plant daily, along with rainwater, add to the problem.

A thousand, towering tanks have now replaced many of the cherry trees that once dotted the plant’s ground. Each can hold 1,200 tons, and most of them are already full.  “We will build more on the site until the end of 2020, and we think all the tanks will be full by around the summer of 2022,” said Junichi Matsumoto, an official with the unit of plant operator TEPCO in charge of dismantling the site.

TEPCO has been struggling with the problem for years, taking various measures to limit the amount of groundwater entering the site.  There is also an extensive pumping and filtration system, that each day brings up tons of newly contaminated water and filters out as many of the radioactive elements as possible.

The hangar where the decontamination system runs is designated “Zone Y” — a danger zone requiring special protections.  All those entering must wear elaborate protection: a full body suit, three layers of socks, three layers of gloves, a double cap topped by a helmet, a vest with a pocket carrying a dosimeter, a full-face respirator mask and special shoes.  Most of the outfit has to burned after use.

“The machinery filters contain radionuclides, so you have to be very protected here, just like with the buildings where the reactors are,” explained TEPCO risk communicator Katsutoshi Oyama.  TEPCO has been filtering newly contaminated water for years, but much of it needs to go through the process again because early versions of the filtration process did not fully remove some dangerous radioactive elements, including strontium 90.

The current process is more effective, removing or reducing around 60 radionuclides to levels accepted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for water being discharged.  But there is one that remains, which cannot be removed with the current technology: tritium.

Tritium is naturally present in the environment, and has also been discharged in its artificial form into the environment by the nuclear industry around the world.  There is little evidence that it causes harm to humans except in very high concentrations and the IAEA argues that properly filtered Fukushima water could be diluted with seawater and then safely released into the ocean without causing environmental problems.

But those assurances are of little comfort to many in the region, particularly Fukushima’s fishing industry which, like local farmers, has suffered from the outside perception that food from the region is unsafe.

Karyn Nishimura, At Fukushima plant, a million-ton headache: radioactive water, Japan Times, Oct. 7, 2019
 

The Impact of Oil Spills on the Deep Sea: the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Louisiana University Marine Consortium (LUMCON) published in September 2019 a study on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in Royal Society Open Science.  The BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010, killing 11 workers.  The subsequent cleanup and restoration had cost nearly $65 billion..but while while we can burn off and disperse oil on the surface, but we don’t have the technology to get rid of oil on the seafloor. So approximately 10 million gallons of it settled there….In 2017 , the The LUMCON surveyed the site surrounding the wreck of the rig, and another one 1,640 feet north. There were no giant isopods, glass sponges, or whip corals that would have jumped (metaphorically) at the chance to colonize the hard substrate of the rig, such as discarded sections of pipe…..But]  crabs were just about everywhere. The researchers were shocked by the sheer number of crustaceans and other arthropods that had colonized the spill site. According to rough estimates, Atlantic deep sea red crabs, red shrimp, and white caridean shrimp were nearly eight times more populous at the Deepwater site than at other spots in the Gulf. “Everywhere there were crabs just kicking up black plumes of mud, laden with oil,” Nunnally says. But abundance does not mean the site was recovering, or even friendly to life. Particularly eerie was the crab’s achingly slow movement. “Normally, they scatter when they see the ROV lights,” he says. But these crabs seemed unbothered, or unaware of the robot’s presence.

Crabs on the seabed of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

The researchers hypothesize that degrading hydrocarbons are what’s luring unwitting crabs from the surrounding seafloor to the deep-sea equivalent of a toxic dump. “The chemical makeup of oil is similar to the oils naturally present on crustaceans,” Nunnally says. “They’re attracted to the oil site, but everything goes downhill for them once they’re in the area.” A similar kind of chemical confusion occurred at an oil spill in Buzzards Bay in New England in 2003, which attracted hordes of American lobsters. The researchers liken the death trap to the La Brea Tar Pits: Once lured in, the crabs lose their ability to leave. With no other species able to thrive in the area, the crabs have no food source—except each other. And as one might imagine, consuming the flesh of a toxin-riddled crab or starving to death in a deep-sea tar pit is sort of a lose/lose situation.

The crabs also looked anything but normal: some claws shrunken, some swollen, shriveled legs, a dusting of parasites. “There were deformities, but mostly things were missing,” Nunnally says. “You come in with eight legs and try to get away on four or five.” The researchers have yet to ascertain what specific toxins led to these maladies. The shrimp looked just as awful as the crabs. “They didn’t look like shrimp from other sites,” Nunnally says, adding that many of the small crustaceans had humps in their backs—tumors, perhaps.

Excerpts from SABRINA IMBLERS, A Decade Later, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Has Left an Abyssal Wasteland, Atlas Obscura, Sept. 18, 2019

From Streets into Drains into Seas: Cigarette Butts

Cigarette butts, the most littered items in the world, are posing an intractable trash problem for regulators and tobacco companies: Throwing them on the ground is a firmly entrenched habit for many smokers.  Regulators are taking a tougher stance on cigarette filter pollution amid concerns about the environmental impact of single-use plastic. Butts for decades have been made from cellulose acetate, a form of plastic, which takes years to break down. Studies show that butts—which often wash from sidewalks into drains and then waterways—can be toxic to fish.

About 65% of cigarettes smoked in the U.S. are littered, according to Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit whose cigarette litter prevention program is funded by the tobacco industry.  “That whole habit is so ingrained it becomes part of the ritual of taking the cigarette out of the pack, lighting it, smoking it, putting it on the ground,” said Christopher Proctor, chief scientific officer at British American Tobacco (BAT), whose cigarette brands include Kent, Newport and Camel. “Changing ingrained behavior is a really difficult thing to do.”

The European Union in May adopted new rules under which members must pass laws within two years requiring tobacco companies to fund the cleanup of filter litter as part of a broader crackdown on single-use plastics. A bill proposing banning filters has made its way through the California Senate and will be heard by the lower house next year.  In response, BAT and Japan Tobacco Inc. are testing biodegradable filters, while Philip Morris International Inc. is assessing the appetite for portable ashtrays. Companies also are tapping behavioral psychologists to understand what propels smokers to litter, hoping to forestall stricter regulation…

he World Health Organization says that when filters do break down they leach out some of the 7,000 chemicals contained in cigarettes, many of which are environmentally toxic.

Excerpts from Saabira Chaudhuri, The World’s Most Littered Item Comes Under Fire, WSJ, July 31, 2019

The Sand Industry: Opaque, Illegal, Unsustainable

Malaysia, Singapore’s biggest source for sea sand, has banned the export of the commodity, according to officials in Kuala Lumpur, a move that traders said could complicate the island-state’s ambitious expansion plans on reclaimed land.  Those plans include the development of the Tuas mega port, slated to be the world’s biggest container terminal. Singapore has increased its land area by a quarter since independence in 1965, mostly by using sand to reclaim coastal areas.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir, who came to power in a shock election last year, imposed a ban on all sea sand exports on October 3, 2018… Endie Shazlie Akbar, Mahathir’s press secretary, confirmed that the government had put a stop to sand exports last year. However, he denied that it was aimed at curbing Singapore’s expansion plans, saying it was a move to clamp down on illegal sand smuggling….Two traders importing sand to Singapore, who both asked not to be named, said the commodity is becoming scarcer and driving Singapore to source sand from as far as India, which would push up costs. Shipping is the biggest single cost in acquiring sand.The traders added Singapore has been stockpiling sand in recent years which could provide a buffer against any immediate bottleneck in supplies.

The sand industry is opaque with no international price index, making it difficult to gauge the financial impact of a ban by Malaysia.  Sea sand is mostly used for land reclamation, while river sand is a core component in constructions materials like cement.

Singapore imported 59 million tonnes of sand from Malaysia in 2018, at a cost of $347 million, according to United Nations Comtrade data, which is based on information provided by individual countries’ customs offices. That accounted for 97% of Singapore’s total sand imports in the year by volume, and 95% of Malaysia’s global sand sales.The data does not distinguish between types of sand.  When Indonesia banned exports to Singapore in 2007, citing environmental concerns, it caused a “sand crisis” in the city-state that saw building activity almost come to a halt. Singapore has since bolstered its stockpiles.

Unsustainable sand dredging disrupts sediment flows and fishing grounds, destroying livelihoods and polluting water sources in some of the poorest communities in Asia.  But Singapore criticized Indonesia for allegedly using the ban as leverage in negotiations over an extradition treaty and border delineation.

River Dredging for Extraction of Sand

Excerpts from Fathin Ungku, Rozanna Latiff , Exclusive: In blow to Singapore’s expansion, Malaysia bans sea sand exports, Reuters, July 2, 2019

When Plastic Reached the Himalayas: India’s War on Single-Use Plastics

The daily plastic waste generated by the average Indian—while much lower than the average American—climbed 69% between 2015 and 2018, according to government estimates. Across the country, dumps are overflowing and drains are clogging with plastic, while cows—considered sacred—are getting sick after eating packaging….To get a grip, India has instituted some of the world’s strictest rules on single-use plastic, forcing companies to collect packaging that is often left as litter.
 

Nonrecyclable packaging is a problem globally, but particularly acute in countries with poor waste management. Many Indian households lack regular collection services so they burn trash or dump it on the side of the road. Much of the waste ends up in waterways. Of plastic found in the world’s oceans, 90% is traced to 10 rivers, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Eight of the rivers are in Asia and two flow through India.

Single-Serve Pouches

In emerging markets, products like shampoo and detergent are often sold in single-serve pouches similar to the ketchup packets that come with an order of fries. The resilient “multilayer” pouches protect against extreme temperatures and contamination, and, most important, are affordable for poor consumers. Single-serve packets make up over 80% of shampoo sales in India, Indonesia and the Philippines, according to Euromonitor….This type of packaging combines different types of plastic with materials like aluminum. That makes it nonrecyclable and of no interest to India’s waste pickers who trawl through trash looking for recyclables to sell.  Three years ago, India’s government said it would ban multilayer packaging by 2018, setting off alarm bells through the industry…

A consortium—including Nestlé, Pepsi and Mentos-maker Perfetti Van Melle SpA—tried for months to develop a recyclable alternative. After little success, they decided on a different approach.  Through street plays and workshops, the companies trained 1,500 waste pickers across eight cities to identify and collect multilayer packaging, paying them for what they brought in.  The pilot program amassed 680 metric tons of material in three months. In March 2018, New Delhi changed the law to allow the sale of multilayer packaging. The caveat is that companies must collect back the equivalent volume of what they sell and find other uses for it, like sending it to cement plants as fuel…

Despite such efforts, some government officials have accused companies of moving too slowly. E. Ravendiran of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board says companies only swung into action after being threatened with bans or having to pay a deposit on multilayer packaging sold. Executives say the target of collecting 100% of multilayer plastic by 2020 is unrealistic and that details on how the rule will be implemented are scarce.

Hassan, a former waste picker who manages a small team of waste collectors in Bangalore, says pickers aren’t financially motivated to bend down hundreds of times to collect a kilogram of multilayer plastic from piles of mixed waste or just off the street. Saahas pays him 27 rupees (around 39 U.S. cents) for one kilogram of plastic bottles, compared with just 4 rupees for one kilogram of multilayer packaging, which is much harder to collect.

Excerpts,  Saabira Chaudhu India Saddles Consumer-Goods Makers With Fixing Plastic Trash Problem, WSJ, July 5, 2019

Nuclear Submarines on Fire (2)

Vladimir Putin has confirmed  on July 4, 2019  that the top-secret submarine that suffered a deadly fire was nuclear-powered, but Russia’s defence minister said the nuclear unit had been sealed off and was in “working order.”  The incident, which left 14 Russian sailors dead,  The Russian government has been slow to reveal information about the incident because the submersible, thought to be a deep-diving vessel used for research and reconnaissance, is among Russia’s most secret military projects.  The fire aboard the “Losharik” AS-31 submersible began in the battery compartment and spread through the vessel…The vessel is thought to be made of a series of orb-like compartments, which increase the submersible’s resilience and allow it to dive to the ocean floor. Once there, it can perform topographical research and participate in rescue missions. It may even be able to tap and sever communications cables on the seabed.

Officials claim the submariners sealed themselves in one of the compartments to battle the blaze and toxic fumes…A Norwegian official told Reuters there had been no “formal communication” from Russia about an incident aboard a nuclear-powered vessel, but “we would have been happy to have been informed of such incidents”….Accidents aboard submarines invariably evoke comparisons to Putin’s clumsy handling of the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000, which left 118 dead and families desperate for information about their loved ones.

Excerpt Putin confirms fire-hit Russian submarine was nuclear-powerered, Guardian, July 4, 2019

Melted Plastic on the Shores: Madeira Island

‘Plasticrusts’ are see on the surface of rocks in Madeira island, Portugal. Researchers say they may have identified a new kind of plastic pollution in the sea, and they’re calling it “plasticrust.” Scientists working on Madeira, a volcanic Portuguese island off northwest Africa, have found small patches of what look like melted plastic encrusted on rocks along the shoreline. 

Excerpts from Scientists on Madeira see new ‘plasticrust’ sea pollution, Associated Press,
June 25, 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

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

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

Can’t Eat This! MicroPlastics Carrying Bacteria

The hard surface of waterborne plastic provides an ideal environment for the formation of biofilm by opportunistic microbial colonisers, and could facilitate a novel means of dispersal for microorganisms across coastal and marine environments. Biofilms that colonise the so-called ‘plastisphere’ could also be a reservoir for faecal indicator organisms (FIOs), such as Escherichia coli, or pathogenic bacteria such as species of Vibrio.

Nurdles on bathing beach

A study published in March 2019 looks into five public bathing beaches and quantifies their colonisation by E. coli and Vibrio spp. Nurdles [i.e., microplastics] were heterogeneously distributed along the high tide mark at all five beaches, and each beach contained nurdles that were colonised by E. coli and Vibrio spp. Knowledge of E. coli colonisation and persistence on nurdles should now be used to inform coastal managers about the additional risks associated with plastic debris.

Abastract from Colonisation of plastic pellets (nurdles) by E. coli at public bathing beaches

The Micro-Plastics Menance: Oceans

The IUCN report published in 2019 looked at primary microplastics – plastics that enter the oceans in the form of small particles, as opposed to larger plastic waste that degrades in the water – released from household and industrial products across seven geographical regions. Sources of primary microplastics include car tyres, synthetic textiles, marine coatings, road markings, personal care products, plastic pellets and city dust.  According to the report, between 15 and 31% of the estimated 9.5 m tonnes of plastic released into the oceans each year could be primary microplastics, almost two-thirds of which come from the washing of synthetic textiles and the abrasion of tyres while driving…Synthetic textiles are the main source of primary microplastics in Asia and tyres dominate in the Americas, Europe and Central Asia…. Synthetic clothes could be designed to shed fewer fibres, for example, and consumers can act by choosing natural fabrics over synthetic ones”

The World Health Organization is reviewing microplastics’ potential impact on human health after a study found plastic in 259 bottles of water from 11 different brands bought in nine countries. Microplastics have turned up in seafood, drinking water, beer, honey and sugar, according to studies, but the impact on human health is unclear.Research shows that ingesting microplastics can hurt the ability of planktonic organisms to feed and the ability of fish and marine worms to gain energy from food.  Pending bills in New York and California, if successful, would require labels on clothes made from more than 50% synthetic material to tell consumers that these shed plastic microfibers when washed.

Researchers also have zeroed in on how clothes are washed. Outdoor-apparel brand Patagonia found fabrics shed lots of microfibers on the first wash, but few in subsequent washes. That suggests pretreating garments before they are sold could potentially capture and recycle what otherwise goes down consumers’ drains.  It also found types of washing machines matter. Jackets washed in top-load washing machines shed seven times as many microfibers as front-loaders.

Excerpts from  Invisible plastic particles from textiles and tyres a major source of ocean pollution – IUCN study,Feb 2017; The Tiny Plastics in Your Clothes Are Becoming a Big Problem, Wall Street Journal, Mar. 7, 2019
 

Plastics in Seas as New Tiny Ecosystems

The malign effect of floating plastic debris on seabirds, turtles and other sea creatures is well known. But, as Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler have discovered, plastic debris also provides a new habitat for organisms small enough to take advantage of it.  The two researchers collected pieces of plastic from various sites in the North Atlantic. They then examined each using DNA analysis, and also an electron microscope, to see what was living on it. Lots of things were. Altogether, they discovered about 50 species of single-celled plant, animal and bacterial life. Each bit of debris was, in effect, a tiny ecosystem….Plastics are energy-rich substances, which is why many of them burn so readily. Any organism that could unlock and use that energy would do well….Less encouragingly, Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler also found cholera-like bacteria in their tiny floating ecosystems. Both fish and seabirds act as vectors for cholera (the former bring it into human settlements when caught by fishermen, the latter when resting ashore or nesting), so anywhere that such creatures might pick up cholera bugs is something worth keeping an eye on.

The researchers paint an intriguing picture of the adaptability of nature, and provide another piece of the jigsaw that is the Anthropocene. Conservationists intent on preserving charismatic megafauna have reason to lament the spread of plastics through the ocean. But those interested in smaller critters have been given a whole, new sphere—the plastisphere—to study.

Marine ecology: Welcome to the plastisphere, Economist, July 20, 2013, at 7

How the Shipping Industry Gets its Way: pollution from ships

Do not give the regulated power over the regulators, unless you want consumers to lose out and producers to game the system. ..That lesson has been learned in many places around the world. National regulators are increasingly independent of the firms they regulate. But international ones still have further to go—and none further than the specialised agencies of the United Nations, such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for shipping where the interests of the shipping industry are upheld d in several ways. The first is the distribution of voting rights between countries. At the IMO, for example, Panama and Liberia, with populations of just 4m and 4.8m respectively, can automatically get seats on its decision-making body as they have the world’s biggest merchant fleets.

The second is the assignment of those voting rights by individual countries. Remarkably, many governments have handed voting rights to private-sector firms… At the IMO least 17 countries have assigned their voting rights to flag registries operated by private firms, reckons Transparency International, an anti-corruption group; that adds up to about a tenth of delegates. At an IMO environmental-committee meeting in 2017, almost a third of countries were represented, at least in part, by business interests.

The third way in which producer interests are protected is through a spectacular lack of transparency. The agenda of the IMO’s council in November 2018 in London is available only to those with a password. Journalists are forbidden to report what delegates say or how they vote. There are no rules on the suitability or conflict of interests of delegates. In 2014 St Lucia appointed a Saudi billionaire without previous shipping experience as its IMO representative; a court in London judged in 2016 that the appointment was obtained in order to gain diplomatic immunity against divorce proceedings. There are no limits on the amount of gifts that can be showered on representatives. Goodies put on top of desks at an IMO assembly meeting last year were so heavy that they broke 137 sets of headphones underneath.

Such swampiness matters. The IMO is responsible for limiting emissions from ships, which were excluded from the Paris climate deal.   Some countries are interested in reform. At the imo council meeting this week Australia proposed allowing journalists to report on its meetings as a first step. The Marshall Islands has taken back some of its votes from the private firm that runs its flag registry. But more radical change is needed. Countries should send civil servants, not private actors, as their representatives. The un’s rules on conflicts of interest should be imposed. And voting rights should be allocated with the interests of consumers in mind. These lessons have been widely absorbed within borders. They ought to cross them, too

Excerpts from UN Regulatory Bodies: Agency Problems, Economist, Nov. 24, 2018, at 15

Cleaning Up Dirty Shipping

Making shipping cleaner is made more urgent by the decision of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the United Nations body responsible for the world’s shipping, to reduce the amount of sulphur allowed in bunker fuel from 3.5% to 0.5% by 2020. Sulphur is nasty stuff. When burned, it forms sulphates, which cause acid rain and pollute the air. A paper published in February 2017 in Nature Communications, by Mikhail Sofiev of the Finnish Meteorological Institute, found that the imo’s new rule could stop between 139,000 and 396,000 premature deaths a year.

The trouble is that sulphates also scatter sunlight and help to form and thicken clouds, which reflect solar radiation away from Earth. As a result, shipping is thought to reduce rather than increase man-made global warming—by 7% throughout the 20th century, according to one study. Dr Sofiev’s research showed that this cooling effect could fall by 80% after 2020, with the new low-sulphur standard in place…

The obvious way to offset the loss of sulphur-related cooling is by steep cuts to shipping’s planet-cooking carbon-dioxide emissions. The IMO wants these to fall by half, compared with 2008 levels, by 2050, regardless of how many vessels then ply the seas. But unlike desulphurisation, which is both imminent and legally binding, the CO2 target looks fuzzy and lacks any enforcement mechanism. An attempt to begin fleshing it out, at a meeting of  IMO member states which concluded in London on October 26, 2018 foundered.

One way to cut fuel consumption is to reduce drag by redesigning hulls and propellers. This is happening. In the past five or so years many ships’ propellers have been fitted with tip fins analogous to the turbulence-reducing upturned winglets on aeroplanes.  Further percentage points can be shaved away by smoothing hulls. This means, in particular, stopping barnacles and other creatures growing on them. Tin-based antifouling paints are now banned as toxic to sea life, so paintmakers are returning to an 18th-century solution to the fouling problem—copper.   Hulls can be scraped smooth, too, but restrictions on littering waters with paint chips and species from foreign parts have made such cleaning problematic. This may change, though, thanks to an underwater drone described by its Norwegian maker, ecosubsea, as “a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a lawnmower”. Rather than scour hulls with a metal brush, ecosubsea’s robots blast water at an angle almost parallel with the hull’s surface, which mostly spares paint from abrasion but hits marine growth perpendicularly, and thus hard. 

Many have hopes of returning to wind propulsion, and engineers have devised various modern versions of the sail. None has yet succeeded. A system developed by SkySails, a firm in Hamburg, for example, relied on kites to pull ships along. It was installed on five ships from 2008-11, but proved fiddly to use and maintain…

Some hope to cut marine emissions by employing batteries and electric motors. For transoceanic shipping this looks a long-shot. But local shipping might benefit. Norway, for instance, has started to introduce battery-powered ferries. And a Dutch company called Port-Liner is building electric canal barges for transporting shipping containers. The technology is expensive. Without taxpayer subsidy it would hardly be a runner—a fact also true of the Norwegian ferries.

The problem of shifting emissions around rather than eliminating them also applies to the idea of powering ocean-going vessels using fuel-cells. These generate electricity by reacting hydrogen and oxygen together. Given that electric propulsion more usually disguises emissions than eliminates them, some suggest the most practical approach to reducing shipping’s contribution to global warming is to switch to low-carbon fuel systems rather than conducting a futile search for no-carbon fuels. One alternative is diesel-electric propulsion.  Liquefied natural gas (lng) is another option. 

Excerpts  from Marine Technology of the Future: In Need for a Cean Up, Economist,  Nov. 3, 2018, at 75

Sucking the Life out of Deep Sea

Those involved in deep-sea mining hope it will turn into a multi-billion dollar industry. Seabed nodules are dominated by compounds of iron (which is commonplace) and manganese (which is rarer, but not in short supply from mines on dry land). However, the nodules also contain copper, nickel and cobalt, and sometimes other metals such as molybdenum and vanadium. These are in sufficient demand that visiting the bottom of the ocean to acquire them looks a worthwhile enterprise. Moreover, these metals seldom co-occur in terrestrial mines. So, as Kris Van Nijen, who runs deep-sea mining operations at Global Sea Mineral Resources (gsr), a company interested in exploiting the nodules, observes: “For the same amount of effort, you get the same metals as two or three mines on land.”

Though their location several kilometres beneath the ocean surface makes the nodules hard to get at in one sense, in another they are easily accessible, because they sit invitingly on the seabed, almost begging to be collected. Most are found on parts of the ocean floor like the Clarion Clipperton Zone (ccz), outside the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones of littoral countries. They thus fall under the purview of the International Seabed Authority (isa), which has issued 17 exploration licences for such resources. All but one of these licences pertain to the ccz, an area of about 6m square kilometres east-south-east of Hawaii.

The licensees include Belgium, Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, Singapore and South Korea, as well as several small Pacific island states. America, which is not party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that established the isa, is not involved directly, but at least one American firm, Lockheed Martin, has an interest in the matter through a British subsidiary, uk Seabed Resources. And people are getting busy. Surveying expeditions have already visited the concessions. On land, the required mining machines are being built and tested. What worries biologists is that if all this busyness does lead to mining, it will wreck habitats before they can be properly catalogued, let alone understood.

 Some of the ccz’s creatures stretch the imagination. There is the bizarre, gelatinous, yellow “gummy squirrel”, a 50cm-long sea cucumber with a tall, wide tail that may operate like a sail. There are galloping sea urchins that can scurry across the sea floor on long spines, at speeds of several centimetres a second. There are giant red shrimps, measuring up to 40cm long. And there are “Dumbo” octopuses, which have earlike fins above their eyes, giving them an eerie resemblance to a well-known cartoon elephant…Of 154 species of bristle worms the surveyors found, 70% were previously unknown. 

the Whale fossils, sea cucumbers and shrimps are just the stuff that is visible to the naked eye. Adrian Glover, one of Dr Amon’s colleagues at the Natural History Museum, and his collaborators spent weeks peering down microscopes, inspecting every nook and cranny of the surfaces of some of the nodules themselves. They discovered a miniature ecosystem composed of things that look, at first sight, like flecks of colour—but are, in fact, tiny corals, sponges, fan-like worms and bryozoans, all just millimetres tall. In total, the team logged 77 species of such creatures, probably an underestimate.

Inevitably, much of this life will be damaged by nodule mining. The impacts are likely be long-lasting. Deep-sea mining technology is still in development, but the general idea is that submersible craft equipped with giant vacuum cleaners will suck nodules from the seafloor. Those nodules will be carried up several kilometres of pipes back to the operations’ mother ships, to be washed and sent on their way.

The largest disturbance experiment so far was carried out in 1989 in the Peru Basin, a nodule field to the south of the Galapagos Islands. An eight-metre-wide metal frame fitted with ploughs and harrows was dragged back and forth repeatedly across the seabed, scouring it and wafting a plume of sediment into the water…. The big question was, 26 years after the event, would the sea floor have recovered? The answer was a resounding “no”. The robots brought back images of plough tracks that looked fresh, and of wildlife that had not recovered from the decades-old intrusion.

Conservation and seabed minerals: Mining the deep ocean will soon begin, Economist, Nov. 10, 2018

Crabs in Radioactive Seas: Kara Sea

The Soviet Union during the 1960s and 70s dumped several hundred containers with solid radioactive waste in the Blagopoluchie Bay in Novaya Zemlya. Back then, these waters were covered with ice overwhelming parts of the year.  Today, that is quickly changing. The bay located in the northern part of the Russian Arctic archipelago is now ice-free increasing parts of the year. With the retreating ice follow new species.

Researchers from the Russian Shirshov Institute of Oceanology have comprehensively studied the eco system of the bay for several years. Among their key findings is a quickly growing number of snow crabs. In this year’s research expedition to the remote waters, the researchers were overwhelmed by the numbers. According to the institute, the crab invasion can be described «as avalanche».

The number of crabs in the area is now estimated to almost 14,000 per hectare, the institute informs. With the help of underwater photo and video footage, the researchers have studied how the crab expansion is leading to a other reduction in other marine life on the sea bottom.    A further spread in the other parts of the Kara Sea is imminent, and the Russian Fisheries Agency (Rosrybolovstvo) believe that the Kara Sea will ultimately become an area with commercial crab fishing.

But Kara seas is a major nuclear waste dump…No major leakage from the radioactive materials have so far been registered.  Soviet authorities are believed to have dumped about 17,000 containers with solid radioactive wastes in Arctic waters and primarily in the Kara Sea. More than 900 containers are located on the bottom of the Blagopoluchie Bay. Also a number of reactor compartments were dumped, as well as three nuclear subs and other nuclear materials.

Exceprts from Atle Staalesen, Arctic crab invasion comes to nuclear waste graveyard, the Barents Observer, Nov. 26, 2018

Future of Green Life Depends on a Toilet

Innovator Cranfield University, U.K.: Putting down the toilet lid activates a dry flush. The motion turns a set of gears that drop feces and urine into a pan, where they are separated and either combusted into ash that can be thrown away or filtered into clean water that could be used to water plants, for instance, though not drinking. It was one of the few completely standalone toilets at the expo, able to function without links to water, sewer or electric lines.

The Innovator: Helbling Group, Switzerland: Helbling’s self-contained toilet system
Similar to other models, this toilet is a mostly self-contained system that transforms waste into clean water and a form of charcoal. But its makers, who were contracted by the Gates Foundation to develop this model, also had modern design in mind: A sleek, black-and-white prototype includes a touchpad for the flush and a container that can be detached to dump out excess water. While it doesn’t have to connect to water or sewer lines, one limit is that the model still needs electricity from an outside source

Sedron Technologies makes the Janicki Omni Processor, a small-scale waste-treatment plant that can filter wet fecal matter so thoroughly that the resulting water is not only free of bacteria and viruses but also safe for drinking. At its highest capacity the plant can manage waste for up to 500,000 people, the same range as two other plants featured at the expo. A trial has been running in Dakar, Senegal, over the past three years to identify and fix technical problems.

Excerpts  from Flush With Ideas: Bill Gates Pursues the Toilet of the Future, WSJ, Nov. 9, 2018

 

Restoring Species: ocean iron fertilization

Thought-Provoking Article by Randall S. Abate, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University,Ocean iron fertilization (OIF) is a new and controversial climate change mitigation strategy that seeks to increase the carbon-absorbing capacity of ocean waters by depositing significant quantities of iron dust into the marine environment to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton blooms. The photosynthetic processes of these blooms absorb carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it to the ocean floor. OIF has been criticized on several grounds. including the foreseeable and unforeseeable adverse consequences it may cause to the marine environment….

Notwithstanding these challenges, OIF recently has produced a valuable benefit unrelated to its carbon sequestration purpose. In 2012, the Haida indigenous community in Canada conducted an OIF experiment that sought to restore its decimated supply of Pacific Northwest salmon stocks, upon which the Haida community relies for subsistence and self- determination. The experiment significantly increased salmon stocks within the span of one year. This Article addresses whether indigenous communities like the Haida in the U.S. Pacific Northwest region could assert a legal right to employ such a strategy in the future to help restore and maintain a cultural food source that has been depleted in part due to climate change impacts. 

Recommended Citation
Randall S. Abate, Ocean Iron Fertilization and Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Food: Leveraging International and Domestic Law Protections to Enhance Access to Salmon in the Pacific Northwest, 20 UCLA J. Int’l L. & For. Aff. 45 (2016).

See also the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation

The 500 Cases of Marine Pollution

An international law enforcement operation against maritime pollution has revealed hundreds of violations and exposed serious cases of contamination worldwide.  Codenamed 30 Days at Sea, the month-long (1-31 October) operation saw some 276 law enforcement and environmental agencies across 58 countries detect more than 500 offences, including illegal discharges of oil and garbage from vessels, shipbreaking, breaches of ship emissions regulations, and pollution on rivers and land-based runoff to the sea.  More than 5200 inspections have resulted in at least 185 investigations, with arrests and prosecutions anticipated.

“Criminals believe marine pollution is a low-risk crime with no real victims.  This is a mistake and one which INTERPOL and our partners are addressing as demonstrated by this operation,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.  Cases of serious contamination included the dumping of animal farm waste in Philippine coastal waters where local communities collect shellfish and children play.  In Germany, a vessel discharged 600 litres of palm oil into the sea. Ghana uncovered gallons of waste oil in large bottles thought to be illegally dumped at sea.  Authorities prevented an environmental disaster in Albania by securing waters around a sinking vessel containing some 500 litres of oil. Similarly, the pollution threat resulting from the collision of two ships in French waters was contained thanks to preventive action during the operation.

Innovative technologies permitted authorities to detect offences, including the use of satellite images (in Argentina and Sweden), aerial surveillance (Canada and Italy), drones (Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan) and night vision cameras.

Excerpt from Marine pollution crime: first global multi-agency operation, Interpol Press Release, Nov. 13, 2018

 

Underwater Nuclear Wrecks

Russian scientists have said that radioactive waste sunk in the Arctic by the Soviet Navy has not leaked any contamination….  Data on the scuttled cargoes –– which includes several thousand containers of radioactive waste, as well as an entire nuclear submarine –– come from a month-and-a-half-long expedition in the Kara Sea conducted by the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oceanology.  Mikhail Flint, the institute’s head, told reporters last week that scientists on the expedition had managed to significantly improve their maps of where the sunken waste lies, especially in the area of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, a former Soviet nuclear bomb testing site.  From Novaya Zemlya’s craggy coast, the expedition conducted additional research mapping radioactive hazards in the White Sea, and then progressed to the Laptev Sea some 2000 nautical miles to the east.

Since the first decades of the 2000s, these mapping and measuring expeditions have taken place on an annual basis. Environmentalists fear the waste could eventually rupture and spoil thousands of square kilometers of fertile Arctic fishing grounds.

Beginning in 1955 and continuing until the early 1990s, the Russian Navy dumped enormous amounts of irradiated debris — and it one case an entire nuclear submarine — into the waters of the Arctic. It was not, however, until 2011 that the Russian government admitted this on an international level.  That year, Moscow shared with Norwegian nuclear officials the full scope of the problem. The list of sunken objects was far more than had initially been thought, and included 17,000 containers of radioactive waste; 19 ships containing radioactive waste; 14 nuclear reactors, including five that still contain spent nuclear fuel; the K-27 nuclear submarine with its two reactors loaded with nuclear fuel, and 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery.

Exceprts from  Charles Digges ussian officials update maps of radioactive debris sunk in Arctic, Bellona, Oct. 15, 2018.

Who Owns the Genes in the Seas?

It’s an eye-catching statistic: A single company, the multinational chemical giant BASF, owns nearly half of the patents issued on 13,000 DNA sequences from marine organisms. That number is now helping fuel high-stakes global negotiations on a contentious question: how to fairly regulate the growing exploitation of genes collected in the open ocean, beyond any nation’s jurisdiction.

The negotiations that took place at the UN in September 2018 aim, inter alia, to replace today’s free-for-all scramble for marine genetic resources with a more orderly and perhaps more just regime.  Many developed nations and industry groups are adamant that any new rules should not complicate efforts to discover and patent marine genes that may help create better chemicals, cosmetics, and crops. But many developing nations want rules that will ensure they, too, share in any benefits. Scientists are also watching. A regulatory regime that is too burdensome could have “a negative impact” on scientists engaged in “noncommercial ocean research,” warns Robert Blasiak, a marine policy specialist at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.  It is not the first time nations have wrangled over how to share genetic resources. Under another U.N. pact, the 2010 Nagoya Protocol, 105 countries have agreed to rules to prevent so-called biopiracy: the removal of biological resources—such as plant or animal DNA—from a nation’s habitats without proper permission or compensation.

Those rules don’t apply in international waters, which begin 200 nautical miles from shore and are attracting growing interest from researchers and companies searching for valuable genes. The first patent on DNA from a marine organism was granted in 1988 for a sequence from the European eel, which spends part of its life in freshwater. Since then, more than 300 companies, universities, and others have laid claim to sequences from 862 marine species, a team led by Blasiak reported in June in Science Advances. Extremophiles have been especially prized. Genes from worms found in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, for example, encode polymers used in cosmetics. And BASF has patented other worm DNA that the company believes could help improve crop yields. The conglomerate, based in Ludwigshafen, Germany, says it found most of its 5700 sequences in public databases…

It may take years for nations to agree on a marine biodiversity treaty; [A]n “ideological divide” between developing and developed countries has, so far, “led to stalemate” on how to handle marine genetic resources, says Harriet Harden-Davies, a policy expert at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Most developing nations want to expand the “common heritage” philosophy embedded in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which declares that resources found on or under the seabed, such as minerals, are the “common heritage of mankind.” Applying that principle to genetic resources would promote “solidarity in the preservation and conservation of a good we all share,” South Africa’s negotiating team said in a recent statement. Under such an approach, those who profit from marine genes could, for example, pay into a global fund that would be used to compensate other nations for the use of shared resources, possibly supporting scientific training or conservation.

But developed nations including the United States, Russia, and Japan oppose extending the “common heritage” language, fearing burdensome and unworkable regulations. They argue access to high seas genes should be guaranteed to all nations under the principle of the “freedom of the high seas,” also enshrined in the Law of the Sea. That approach essentially amounts to finders keepers, although countries traditionally have balanced unfettered access with other principles, such as the value of conservation, in developing rules for shipping, fishing, and research in international waters.

The European Union and other parties want to sidestep the debate and seek a middle ground. One influential proposal would allow nations to prospect for high seas genes, but require that they publish the sequences they uncover. Companies could also choose to keep sequences private temporarily, in order to be able to patent them, if they contribute to an international fund that would support marine research by poorer nations. “Researchers all around the world should be put all on a level playing field,” says Arianna Broggiato, a Brussels-based legal adviser for the consultancy eCoast, who co-authored a paper on the concept this year in The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law.

Exceprts from Eli Kintisch U.N. tackles gene prospecting on the high seas, Science, Sept. 7, 2018

Geopolitical Quintet: Legal Status of Caspian Sea

Caspian Sea…is the world’s largest body of inland water—or what some would call a rather salty lake. The confusion has fuelled disputes over its legal status for nearly 30 years, as lakes and seas fall under different international legal regimes.

The Caspian sits at a strategic spot between Europe and Asia, and contains lucrative stores of oil, gas and fish, including the caviar-producing sturgeon. The Soviet Union and Iran had a clearly defined maritime border but, after the Soviet collapse, the appearance of independent Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan muddied the waters.

On August 12th the five littoral countries at last signed an agreement the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. The Caspian, says a Russian official, is to be treated as neither sea nor lake, but instead subject to a “special legal status”. While leaving some of the thorniest issues unresolved, the pact clarifies the maritime borders, enabling new oil, gas and pipeline projects to go ahead.

All five countries are to have 15 mile-wide territorial waters extending from their shores and another ten miles of exclusive fishing rights. The rest of the surface water will be common territory, but non-signatory states (e.g., the United States) may not deploy armed forces there. For Russia, this helps preserve its military dominance by retaining freedom of movement for its warships. (Russia has used the Caspian to launch missiles into Syria.)

The seabed and its resources, meanwhile, will be divided separately between the signatories. Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan already have agreements that split up the northern Caspian. Carving up the rest of the seabed will require further negotiations. The agreement also allows pipelines to be constructed with the consent only of the countries whose sectors they pass through. That might unblock a much-discussed Trans-Caspian Pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan which Russia has long opposed.

Exceprts from Big Lake Small Sea: Russia’s Neighborhood, Economist, Aug. 18, 2018, at 44