Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

By Sarah Fecht

You’ve probably heard the news that our nation’s bees are in trouble. Pollinators have been disappearing for decades, and the population crash could threaten the global food supply. Now, a small city in Iowa has decided to do something about it.

This spring, Cedar Rapids (population: 130,000) will seed 188 acres with native prairie grasses and wildflowers. The city’s plan is to eventually create 1,000 acres of bee paradise by planting these pollinator-friendly foodstuffs.

Scientists think the pollinator crisis is caused by a variety of factors, including pesticides, pathogens, and climate change. Meanwhile, with farms, parking lots, mowed lawns, and other human developments replacing wildflower fields, bees have been losing habitat and their food supply. While many of the drivers behind bee population decline remain mysterious, the people of Cedar Rapids hope to at least give pollinators places to perch and plants to feed on.

The 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative (http://www.cedar-rapids.org/residents/parks_and_recreation/pollinator_and_natural_resources_initiatives.php#Acre) grew out of a partnership with the Monarch Research Project(MRP), whose goal is to restore monarch butterfly populations. It was Cedar Rapids Park Superintendent Daniel Gibbins who proposed converting 1,000 acres into pollinator habitat over five years. So far, the project has secured $180,000 in funding from the state and the MRP.

“With the agricultural boom around 100 years ago, about 99.9 percent of all the native habitat of Iowa has been lost,” says Gibbins, who is spearheading the project. “When you convert it back to what was originally native Iowa, you’re going to help a lot more than just native pollinators. You’re helping birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals—everything that’s native here relies on native vegetation.”

Prairie revival

Cedar Rapids has developed a special mix of grasses and wildflowers to help restore that native habitat. The seed mix includes 39 species of wildflowers, and 7 species of native prairie grasses. While bees and butterflies are mostly attracted to the flowers, the hardy prairie grasses will prevent weeds and invasive species from moving in and choking out the flowers.

Gibbins and his team have catalogued all the unused public land where they could potentially plant the flowers and grasses. The list includes not only the rarely frequented corners of parks, golf courses, and the local airport, but also sewage ditches, water retention basins, and roadway right-of-ways, totaling nearly 500 acres. Cedar Rapids is working with other cities within the county to reach its 1,000-acre target.

Before they can seed the land with the special pollinator plant mix, Gibbins’ crew has to “knock back the undesirable vegetation.” That means mowing down, burning off, or in some cases applying herbicide to get rid of grass, weeds, and invasive species. They’ll lay down the special seed mixture in the spring and fall.

“You can’t just seed them and walk away,” says Gibbins. Although the pollinator habitat will be lower maintenance than a green turf that needs to be mown every week, the prairie grasses will require some care, including mowing once a year or burning every few years.

Everyone can help

You don’t need to have 1,000 spare acres to help bees and butterflies. Even devoting a few square feet of your garden—or even a few small planters—to wildflowers native to your area could make a difference, says Gibbins.

“When creating pollinator gardens, the most important thing is to have a big diversity of wildflowers and heirloom crops that bloom in the spring, summer, and fall,” says Stephen Buchmann, a pollination ecologist at the University of Arizona and author of The Reason for Flowers. (Buchmann isn’t involved in the 1,000 Acre Initiative.)

Buchmann recommends against using herbicides or insecticides, or, if necessary, applying them at night when bees aren’t active. Providing nesting sites for certain bee species can help, too.

“People think they’ll just plant the wildflowers and the bees will come,” he says. “And that’s true in some cases, but the smaller the bee is, the less far it can fly. Some can only fly a few hundred meters.”

Some species nest in hard substrates, like the bare ground (bees hate mulch, says Buchmann), or in holes that you can drill in adobe or earthen bricks. Others nestle in sand pits or dead wood that’s been tunneled through by beetles. And it helps to have mud and water on the premises. The Xerces Society has a handy how-to guide on creating homes for bees.

The 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative is still looking into funding for the next four years, and they don’t expect to see huge jumps in the number of pollinators immediately. But Cedar Rapids is confident it will help, and they hope the project will serve as a model for the rest of the country.

And if enough local businesses and private landowners get involved, there’s no reason to stop at 1,000 acres, says Gibbins. “There’s a big push to extend this initiative up to maybe 10,000 acres in Linn County.”

http://www.popsci.com/Cedar-Rapids-Iowa-save-bee-pollinator#page-4

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By Eva Botkin-Kowacki

Plastic is everywhere around us. We drink out of plastic cups, buy disposable water bottles, unwrap new electronics from plastic packaging, take home plastic shopping bags, and even wear plastic in polyester fabrics.

Some 311 million tons of plastic is produced across the globe annually, and just 10 percent makes it back to a recycling plant. The rest ends up in landfills, or as litter on land or in the ocean, where it remains for decades and longer.

As for the plastic that has been recycled, it has given rise to an unintended side effect: A team of scientists searching through sediments at a plastic bottle recycling plant in Osaka, Japan have found a strain of bacteria that has evolved to consume the most common type of plastic.

Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6 can degrade poly (ethylene terephthalate), commonly called PET or PETE, in as little as six weeks, they report in a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science.

Common uses of PET include polyester fibers, disposable bottles, and food containers. The last two are typically labelled with a No. 1 inside a recycling symbol.

But this new paper doesn’t mean you should ditch your reusable water bottles in favor of a tray of disposable ones, or that we’re going to inject this bacteria into landfills tomorrow. This study simply evaluated if the bacteria in question could degrade PET and was conducted under laboratory conditions.

“We hope this bacterium could be applied to solve the severe problems by the wasted PET materials in nature,” Kohei Oda, one of the study authors, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. But “this is just the initiation for application.” More research has to be done in order to make this a practical solution to plastic pollution.

But could this sort of fix work in theory?

“[Plastics] have been engineered for cost and for durability, or longevity,” says Giora Proskurowski, an oceanographer at the University of Washington who studies plastic debris in the ocean but was not part of this study, in a phone interview with the Monitor. But he’s hopeful that this research could yield further studies and technologies to mitigate the problem.

The durability of plastic isn’t the only challenge this potential fix faces. Microbes are like teenagers, Christopher Reddy, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who studies environmental pollution and was not part of this study, explains in an interview with the Monitor.

“You can tell them to clean the garage over the weekend but they’re going to do it on their own timescale, they’re going to do it when they want, they’re going to pick the easiest thing to do and they’re likely going to leave you more frustrated than you think,” he explains the metaphor. Similarly, you can’t rely on microbes to break down compounds. “Don’t rely on microbes to clean the environment.”

Dr. Reddy says that has a lot to do with the environment outside the lab. In the experiment, he says, the researchers controlled the situation so the bacteria ate the plastic, but in nature, they would have many options for food.

Also, if I. sakaiensis 201-F6 were to be applied, it would likely only help plastic pollution on land. PET particles are denser than water, so they tend to sink down into the sediment. The trillions of tons of plastic particles amassing in the oceans are other types of plastics, types for which this bacteria probably lacks an appetite. Also, Dr. Proskurowski says, marine organisms have evolved to withstand the saltwater and sunlight that sediment-dwelling organisms might not.

Still, perhaps this bacteria could be harnessed to accelerate degradation of plastics that make it to a landfill, he says.

But this study does show that “the environment is evolving and you get the microbes evolving along with that as well,” Proskurowski says. “These are evolving systems.”

Neither Proskurowski nor Reddy were surprised that the researchers found an organism that can consume PET.

“I’m surprised it’s taken this long. I’ve been waiting for results like this,” Proskurowski says.

“Nature is incredibly wily, microbes are incredibly wily,” Reddy says. “Microbes are very good eaters.”

This is not the first time researchers have found an organism that will eat trashed plastic. Last year engineers at Stanford University found a mealworm that can eat styrofoam. And in that case, it was not the animal’s digestion that broke down the styrofoam, but bacteria it its gut.

http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2016/0310/Researchers-discover-plastic-eating-bacteria-in-recycling-plant

By Peter Shadbolt for CNN

A bio-drone that dissolves after use leaving no trace it ever existed may sound like the stuff of a James Bond film, but NASA and a team of researchers are actually building one.

Made from a substance that combines mushroom fibers and cloned paper wasp spit, the drone might resemble a propeller-powered egg carton, but its designers say it has the ability to fly into environmentally sensitive areas and leave almost no trace.

Lynn Rothschild, the NASA developer guiding students from Stanford-Brown-Spelman working on the project, says the drone could be made to disappear simply by ditching it into a stream or puddle.

She said her interest in unmanned aerial vehicles was sparked by work on environmentally sensitive areas in her Earth Science group at NASA.

“Periodically, UAVs get lost — for example on coral reefs or in other sensitive habitats,” she said in an interview with the project team.

“As I started to hear about this, I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be useful if the UAV was biodegradable, so if it crashed somewhere that was sensitive, it wouldn’t matter if it dissolved.”

The mushroom-like substance known as mycelium, which makes up the chassis of the drone, is being hailed as the new plastic — a plastic that has the advantage of degrading quickly.

The team grew cellulose “leather” to coat the fungal body of the flying craft and then covered the sheets with proteins sourced from the saliva of paper wasps — a water resistant material that the insects use to cover their nests.

The circuits are printed from silver nanoparticle ink in an effort to make the machine as biodegradable as possible.

Despite a heavy preponderance of biological parts, the team said the project had its limits.

“There are definitely parts that can’t be replaced by biology, ” said Stanford University’s Raman Nelakanti.

At its first short flight at the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition in Boston, the team used a standard battery, motor and propellers to fly the drone.

Nevertheless, the team is working on making other parts biodegradable and is studying how to build its sensors from modified E. coli bacteria, the bacteria most commonly found in the intestines of humans and animals.

The team said that ultimately the drone could be sent into areas where it might not be expected to return such as wildfires or nuclear accidents, sending data and never coming back.

While the parts degrade naturally, the team also experimented with enzymes that would help the drone self-destruct, breaking it down further on impact.

Creating a drone that does not infect the environment has been another challenge for the team.

“If you have living organisms acting as biosensors and the plane crashes, there certainly could be problems as the plane interacts with the environment,” Rothschild said.

“Hopefully people could think of this in advance, and design such that this never becomes a problem.

“For example, on crashing, the cells might die. Or the cells could be attenuated. There are all sorts of other processes to keep them from contaminating the environment. But that, to me, is the largest concern with a biological UAV – having living things on the UAV.”

http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/10/tech/innovation/nasa-dissolving-drone/index.html?hpt=hp_c4

molasses122way_wide-a817154c95efea85da1f060ae57b3175f53e05c2-s6-c30

“Everything down there is dead.”

That’s one stunning quote from Hawaii News Now’s latest report about the devastating damage that’s been done to the marine life off Honolulu’s Sand Island by 233,000 gallons of molasses that were spilled into Honolulu harbor on Monday.

Gary Gill, deputy director of Hawaii’s Environmental Health Division of the Health Department, tells the news station that “this is the worst environmental damage to sea life that I have come across.”

The station sent diver Roger White into the water to see what’s happened to sea creatures there. He shot video and came back to say that:

“It was shocking because the entire bottom is covered with dead fish. Small fish, crabs, mole crabs, eels. Every type of fish that you don’t usually see, but now they’re dead. Now they’re just laying there. Every single thing is dead. We’re talking in the hundreds, thousands. I didn’t see one single living thing underwater.”

As Hawaii Public Radio’s Bill Dorman states that the state Health Department has advised the public to stay out of the water. It warns that “while molasses is not harmful to the public directly, the substance is polluting the water, causing fish to die and could lead to an increase in predator species such as sharks, barracuda and eels. The nutrient rich liquid could also cause unusual growth in marine algae, stimulate an increase in harmful bacteria and trigger other environmental impacts.”

Why is the molasses causing so much damage? In an earlier report, Hawaii News Now:
“… did an experiment to see why molasses is so hazardous to fish. When we poured store bought Molasses into a vase of water we collected from Keehi Lagoon, the concentrated sugary substance went straight to the bottom.

“Unlike an oil spill, which can be cleaned by skimming the surface, the molasses quickly disperses to the deepest points. ‘It’s sucking up all the oxygen,’ explained [state reef biologist Dave] Gulko. ‘There’s no oxygen at depth so the animals that need it can’t get it and are suffocating.’ ”

Because the spill happened in a harbor and there’s less circulation than in the open ocean, it could be months or possibly years before the molasses is completely washed away, David Field, a visiting assistant professor of marine sciences at Hawaii Pacific University, tells the station.

The spill happened as the molasses was being loaded onto a container ship. According to Hawaii News Now, the company responsible, Matson Inc., says it “regrets that the incident impacted many harbor users as well as wildlife. We are taking steps to ensure this situation does not happen again.”

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/09/12/221709158/massive-molasses-spill-devastates-honolulu-marine-life

Thanks to Ray Gaudette for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

china3n-4-web

china3n-2-web

Chinese authorities have given courts the powers to hand down the death penalty in serious pollution cases, state media said, as the government tries to assuage growing public anger at environmental desecration.

Chinese authorities have given courts the powers to hand down the death penalty in serious pollution cases, state media said, as the government tries to assuage growing public anger at environmental desecration.

An increasingly affluent urban population has begun to object to China’s policy of growth at all costs, which has fuelled the economy for three decades, with the environment emerging as a focus of concern and protests.

A new judicial interpretation which took effect on Wednesday would impose “harsher punishments” and tighten “lax and superficial” enforcement of the country’s environmental protection laws, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

“In the most serious cases the death penalty could be handed down,” it said.

“With more precise criteria for convictions and sentencing, the judicial explanation provides a powerful legal weapon for law enforcement, which is expected to facilitate the work of judges and tighten punishments for polluters,” Xinhua said, citing a government statement.

“All force should be mobilized to uncover law-breaking clues of environmental pollution in a timely way,” it added.

Previous promises to tackle China’s pollution crisis have had mixed results, and enforcement has been a problem at the local level, where governments often heavily rely on tax receipts from polluting industries under their jurisdiction.

Protests over pollution have unnerved the stability-obsessed ruling Communist Party.

Thousands of people took to the streets in the southwestern city of Kunming last month to protest against the planned production of a chemical at a refinery.

Severe air pollution in Beijing and large parts of northern China this winter have added to the sense of unease among the population.

Human rights groups say China executes thousands of people a year, more than all other countries combined. The death penalty is often imposed for corruption and other economic crimes.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=china-threatens-death-penalty-for-s

plants

Plants that were frozen during the “Little Ice Age” centuries ago have been observed sprouting new growth, scientists say. Samples of 400-year-old plants known as bryophytes have flourished under laboratory conditions. Researchers say this back-from-the-dead trick has implications for how ecosystems recover from the planet’s cyclic long periods of ice coverage. The findings appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They come from a group from the University of Alberta, who were exploring an area around the Teardrop Glacier, high in the Canadian Arctic. The glaciers in the region have been receding at rates that have sharply accelerated since 2004, at about 3-4m per year. That is exposing land that has not seen light of day since the so-called Little Ice Age, a widespread climatic cooling that ran roughly from AD 1550 to AD 1850.

“We ended up walking along the edge of the glacier margin and we saw these huge populations coming out from underneath the glacier that seemed to have a greenish tint,” said Catherine La Farge, lead author of the study.

Bryophytes are different from the land plants that we know best, in that they do not have vascular tissue that helps pump fluids around different parts of the organism. They can survive being completely desiccated in long Arctic winters, returning to growth in warmer times, but Dr La Farge was surprised by an emergence of bryophytes that had been buried under ice for so long.

“When we looked at them in detail and brought them to the lab, I could see some of the stems actually had new growth of green lateral branches, and that said to me that these guys are regenerating in the field, and that blew my mind,” she told BBC News. “If you think of ice sheets covering the landscape, we’ve always thought that plants have to come in from refugia around the margins of an ice system, never considering land plants as coming out from underneath a glacier.”

But the retreating ice at Sverdrup Pass, where the Teardrop Glacier is located, is uncovering an array of life, including cyanobacteria and green terrestrial algae. Many of the species spotted there are entirely new to science.

“It’s a whole world of what’s coming out from underneath the glaciers that really needs to be studied,” Dr La Farge said.

“The glaciers are disappearing pretty fast – they’re going to expose all this terrestrial vegetation, and that’s going to have a big impact.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22656239

South_Pole_ozone-130212

Good news from Antarctica: The hole in the ozone layer is shrinking, new measurements reveal.

Ozone is a molecule made of three oxygen atoms. It’s relatively highly concentrated in a particular layer of the stratosphere about 12 miles to 19 miles (20 to 30 kilometers) above Earth’s surface. This ozone layer prevents ultraviolet light from reaching Earth’s surface — a good thing, given that UV light causes sunburn and skin cancer.

Ever since the early 1980s, though, a hole in this layer has developed over Antarctica during September to November, decreasing ozone concentration by as much as 70 percent. The cause is human-produced chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were once heavily used in aerosols and refrigeration.

By international agreement, CFCs have been phased out of use. The policy has real effects, new satellite observations reveal. In 2012, the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was smaller than it has ever been in the last 10 years.

The new observations, announced by the European Space Agency (ESA) on Feb. 8, come from Europe’s Met Op weather satellite, which has an instrument specifically designed to sense ozone concentrations. The findings suggest that the phase-out of CFCs is working, the ESA reports.

Antarctica is particularly vulnerable to ozone-depleting substances, because high winds cause a vortex of cold air to circulate over the continent. In the resulting frigid temperatures, CFCs are especially effective at depleting ozone. The result is that people in the Southern Hemisphere are at increased risk of exposure from UV radiation.

CFCs persist in the atmosphere for a long time, so it may take until the middle of the century for ozone concentrations to rebound to 1960s levels, the ESA reports. However, the hole in the ozone over Antarctica should completely close in the next few decades.

http://www.livescience.com/27049-ozone-hole-shrinks-record-low.html