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NOAA Launches Investigation Into Unusually High Humpback Whale Die-Offs

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Thursday it is investigating the unusually high number of humpback whale deaths off the U.S. Atlantic Coast.

A total of 41 humpback whales died in the waters off Maine to North Carolina since January 2016, including 15 that washed up dead this year. That's about three times more than the region's annual average of just 14 humpback deaths.

"The increased numbers of mortalities have triggered the declaration of an unusual mortality event, or UME, for humpback whales along the Atlantic Coast," said Mendy Garron, stranding coordinator at the NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region, on Thursday.

A UME is issued whenever there is an "unexpected, involves a significant dieoff of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response," she added.

So far, NOAA has examined 20 of the whales that died last year and determined that 10 of the mammals "had evidence of blunt force trauma or pre-mortem propeller wounds" likely from marine vessels, the agency said.

The whales may be moving around in search of prey, exposing themselves to shipping traffic, researchers suggested.

"It's probably linked to resources," Greg Silber, the large-whale recovery coordinator for NOAA fisheries, told reporters. "Humpback whales follow where the prey is."

The other half of the whales that were examined had no obvious signs of what caused their demise.

"Whales tested to date have had no evidence of infectious disease," Garron said.

The scientists stressed that they are unsure about what is causing the spike in humpback deaths.

"The answer is really unknown," Silber said.

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Trump Plans to Aggressively Expand Offshore Drilling in Protected Areas

President Trump plans to sign an executive order today intended to aggressively expand drilling in protected waters off the Atlantic and Arctic oceans.

The new EO will direct U.S. Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke to review the current offshore drilling plans, which limits most drilling to parts of the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska's Cook Inlet, and reexamine opening parts of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans to drilling. The EO will also roll back President Obama's permanent ban on drilling in the Arctic, issued in the last full month of his presidency. Zinke cautioned reporters that implementation of the EO will be "a multi-year effort," and several groups have pledged lawsuits to further slow down the process.

"Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke is dead wrong," said Greenpeace USA senior climate and energy campaigner Diana Best.

"Renewable energy already has us on the right track to energy independence, and opening new areas to offshore oil and gas drilling will lock us into decades of harmful pollution, devastating spills like the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and a fossil fuel economy with no future. Scientific consensus is that the vast majority of known fossil fuel reserves—including the oil and gas off U.S. coasts—must remain undeveloped if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change."

Best added that Trump's latest executive order does not have popular support, and instead caters to "Trump's inner circle of desperate fossil fuel executives."

"Holing up at Mar-a-lago may protect Trump from an oil spill," she said, "but it will not protect him and his cabinet of one percenters from the millions of people in this country—from California to North Carolina—who will resist his disastrous policies."

Waterkeeper Alliance Executive Director Marc Yaggi agrees. "This attempt to greatly expand offshore drilling into the Arctic and Atlantic is a blatant prioritization of fossil fuel profits over the health of our climate and coastal communities," he said. "President Trump is ignoring the cries of citizens who have said offshore drilling poses too great a threat to their economies and ways of life."

For a deeper dive:

New York Times, AP, Axios, Politico, NPR, LA Times, Bloomberg, USA Today, The Hill, ThinkProgress

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for daily Hot News.

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GreenWave

Ocean Farmers Begin 3-Day Journey to 'Climate March by Sea'

By Jonathan Hahn

On President Trump's first Earth Day in the White House, he declared on Twitter that "we celebrate our beautiful forests, lakes and lands"—an amiable if blasé arm-punch to the planet from the leader of the free world.

Until a few hours later that is, when the president resorted to his usual right cross.

"I am committed to keeping our air and water clean," he tweeted, "but always remember that economic growth enhances environmental protection. Jobs matter!"

Rarely does President Trump or his surrogates miss an opportunity to propound that "jobs matter" when it comes to the nation's environmental policies—especially where climate change is concerned. This binary logic—environmental protection equals job killer—is deeply woven into their world view. Trump has repeatedly called Obama-era initiatives like the Clean Power Plan "job killers" and vowed to "rescind all the job-destroying Obama executive actions, including the Climate Action Plan."

The delegation of fishermen that set sail Wednesday from a marina in Solomons, Maryland, would beg to differ. The only "job destroyer" for them is climate change.

Concerned about the threat global warming poses to their livelihoods, a crew of sustainable ocean farmers began a three-day journey they're calling the "Climate March by Sea." At the tiller of the small commercial fishing boat is Bren Smith, owner of Thimble Island Ocean Farm and the executive director of GreenWave. They're heading south down the Chesapeake before they plan to turn north up the Potomac on their way to Washington, DC.

Their final destination: the Peoples Climate March, when thousands of people, including indigenous, civic, social justice, business and environmental advocacy groups are set to take to the streets of the nation's capital to demand action on climate, jobs and justice.

"Climate change was supposed to be a slow lobster boil," Smith said in an interview before casting off. "For me, it arrived 100 years earlier than expected. We fishermen are the citizen scientists reporting that water temperatures are going up, species are moving north, the weather is becoming more extreme. We can see it with our own eyes. We're way beyond the idea of climate denial."

When it comes to environmental policy, the "job killer" argument is a red herring. According to an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project, "two-tenths of one percent of layoffs are caused by government regulations of any kind, including environmental regulations. Layoffs are caused far more often by corporate buyouts, technological advances and lower overseas labor costs."

For fishermen, the real crisis isn't government regulation, but the threats climate change poses to healthy oceans and seas. Marine and coastal fisheries contribute more than $200 billion in economic activity and 1.8 million jobs in the U.S. each year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The World Wildlife Fund reports that marine populations are in catastrophic decline, plunging by 49 percent between 1970 and 2012, thanks in part to ocean acidification caused by warming waters, rising sea levels and extreme weather.

Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of fisheries have crashed due to overfishing, resulting in upward of $50 billion in economic losses, the California Environmental Associates assessed in its Charting a Course to Sustainable Fisheries report. One out of four marine species is threatened as a result of overfishing and climate change, among other factors, with 37 out of 1,288 bony fish species facing extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.

The Climate March by Sea will cover 150 miles over three days, making occasional stops to pick up supporters. The crew of ocean farmers and commercial fishermen will be posting and live tweeting along the way on GreenWave's Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages with the hashtag #climatemarchbysea. They hope the voyage will help adrenalize public discourse about solutions to the climate crisis in the days leading up to the Peoples Climate March this Saturday.

An eclectic medley of individual, advocacy and corporate partners have come together to sponsor the journey, including celebrity chefs René Redzepi and David Chang, Patagonia, Ben and Jerry's, Dr. Bronners, 350.org, Bioneers, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana and the Sierra Club, among others. The trip's organizers are also raising individual donations to help pay for supplies and to sponsor more fishermen.

During the voyage, the crew will cowrite a letter, addressed to President Trump, in which they intend to make clear that climate change itself, not the policies devised to combat it, threatens the economy, their jobs and their way of life. They will also demand an end to the planned cuts to agencies like NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Smith plans to reaffirm in the letter what has become his most ardent message: There will be no jobs on a dead planet.

"Climate change is an economic issue, not just an environmental issue," he said. "It's not just about the birds and the bees. It's also about how do I run a small business and make a living in an era of extreme weather? We're heading to DC to send that message—that our livelihoods depend on a healthy ecosystem. That for those of us who care about building domestic employment, we have to mitigate climate change and protect our water."

For Smith, the Climate March by Sea is the latest in a multi-decade career during which he witnessed the ramifications of overfishing and extreme weather firsthand. A high school dropout who grew up in a fishing village, Smith first cast out to learn how to fish when he was 14. He started working on the Bering Sea as a fisherman at the height of industrialized fishing, catching fish that mostly went to companies like McDonald's for fish sandwiches. "We were tearing up entire ecosystems with our trawls, producing some of the unhealthiest food," he said.

Later, after he'd set up his own oyster farm, two hurricanes in a row wiped him out: Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene. Smith lost 90 percent of his crops, he said. Most of his gear washed out to sea.

When he began the process of rebuilding, he took an interest in extreme weather and what was causing it. He quickly became disillusioned.

Smith developed an innovative form of marine polyculture featuring a mix of shellfish and seaweed, which he calls "3-D farming." Seaweed soaks up five times as much carbon as land-based plants and is rich in omega-3s, vitamins and minerals. It also serves as storm-surge protectors. "So you can see this nexus of new environmentalism, which isn't just about conservation," he said, "it's about jobs, environmental protection and addressing food security all at once. I think we're at that sweet spot."

Since then, Smith has also created GreenWave, a nonprofit, to open-source his model of sustainable ocean farming for other fishermen and to engage in policy work and research around ocean planning, such as developing new mobile hatcheries. He also runs Seagreen Farms, which is a for-profit in the early stages of building seafood hubs in poor neighborhoods.

"I'm not really an environmentalist per se," he said. "My journey has been trying to figure out how to spend my life working on the water. This jobs-versus-environment choice that the administration keeps telling us, whether we're coal miners or fishermen, is a false choice. Environmentalism and the future of the new economy are inextricably linked."

The Climate March by Sea will dock at the Washington Marina in Georgetown on Friday morning, where the crew will hold a press conference at 10:00 a.m. They'll host an event that night at Patagonia, where they will be shucking oysters, serving beer and making signs as they prepare for the Peoples Climate March the following day.

"The Peoples Climate March represents to me the future of environmentalism," he said. "It's also time to push back. We need to defend our ground, our waters, our funding. We need to drive home that there is a whole generation of blue collar people that believe in climate change and demand that it be addressed now."

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

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Plastic biodegraded by 10 worms in 30 minutes. Photo credit: César Hernández

This Tiny Caterpillar Could Help Solve the World's Plastic Crisis

A research team discovered that the caterpillars of the greater wax moth—considered a pest in Europe because it eats the beeswax from honeycombs—also has the ability to biodegrade polyethylene, the same material used in whale-choking, landfill-clogging plastic shopping bags.

Incredibly, this discovery was all down to chance.

Scientist and amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini of Spain's IBBTEC institute had picked out a number of the parasitic caterpillars from her beehives and placed them into a plastic bag. She later discovered that the bag was full of holes because the waxworms had eaten their way out.

She decided to study the caterpillars further, enlisting researchers from the University of Cambridge's department of biochemistry to find out how good these little bugs were at eating plastic.

For their study, the team exposed around a hundred wax worms to a plastic bag from a UK supermarket. Remarkably, holes started to appear after just 40 minutes. After 12 hours, there was a reduction in plastic mass of 92 milligrams from the bag.

To test whether it was just the chewing mechanism of the caterpillars degrading the plastic, the team then mashed up some of the worms and smeared the paste onto polyethylene bags. The bags also degraded with similar results.

This implies that the chemicals in the caterpillar's body could be responsible for breaking down polyethylene.

"The caterpillar produces something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut," Cambridge's Paolo Bombelli, first author of the study, said. "The next steps for us will be to try and identify the molecular processes in this reaction and see if we can isolate the enzyme responsible."

The team published their study in the journal Current Biology.

"If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable," Bombelli said.

Largely utilized in packaging, polyethylene represents about 40 percent of total demand for plastic products, including the trillion plastic bags used every year worldwide. As Bombelli said, "this discovery could be an important tool for helping to get rid of the polyethylene plastic waste accumulated in landfill sites and oceans."

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Trump to Launch Unprecedented Attack on National Monuments

President Trump is poised to threaten more than 1 billion acres of national monument protection in a devastating and unprecedented attack on America's public lands and oceans.

Trump is expected to issue an executive order April 26 calling for a review of every national monument that's been protected by presidential proclamation since 1996. His goal is to turn these natural and cultural wonders over to special interests, including mining and logging industries. Trump reportedly has the stunning Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah at the top of his hit list.

"This is a frightening step toward dismantling the protection of some of America's most important and iconic places: our national parks and monuments," said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Trump's tapping into the right-wing, anti-public-lands zealotry that will take us down a very dangerous path—a place where Americans no longer have control over public lands and corporations are left to mine, frack, clear-cut and bulldoze them into oblivion. It starts with Bears Ears and Grand Staircase and only gets worse from there."

More than 50 national monuments are at risk, including vast marine areas in the Pacific and Caribbean. Congress gave the president the authority to designate national monuments on federally owned land under the Antiquities Act of 1906 for the express purpose of protecting important objects of historic and scientific importance.

"President Trump is clearly doing the bidding of the Utah congressional delegation, who are without question the most aggressive federal lawmakers seeking to seize, dismantle and privatize America's public lands," Suckling added.

National monument designations have protected some of the most iconic places in the country. Dozens of the nation's most treasured national parks were first protected as monuments, including Grand Teton, Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Acadia and Olympic national parks.

"With this review, Trump is declaring war on America's public lands," Suckling said. "The president is satiating the greed of industry and blatantly dismissing the wishes of the vast majority of Americans, who overwhelmingly want to see these areas protected for future generations."

The monuments under attack are cherished by Americans for their natural beauty as well as their huge cultural significance.

Congress gave the president authority to designate national monuments on federally owned land under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features. No president has ever attempted to withdraw a monument named by a predecessor.

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Adidas's Parley Ultraboost.

How This Shoe Company Is Tackling the World's Ocean Plastic Crisis

Adidas is getting serious about ocean plastic, turning the pollution "from threat into thread."

The sportswear giant, along with partner Parley for the Oceans, has released three new models of its shoes made from marine debris—the Ultraboost, Ultraboost X and Ultraboost Uncaged.

According to Business Insider, each pair uses an average of 11 plastic bottles and incorporates recycled plastic into the shoe's laces, heel webbing, heel lining and sock liner covers.

The company has a goal of creating 1 million pairs of the popular running shoes from recovered ocean plastic in 2017.

"The new additions to the adidas x Parley collection are another step in our journey to creating one million pairs of Ultraboost from up-cycled marine plastic," said Mathias Amm, a product category director at adidas.

The new, ocean-inspired sneakers will be available in-store and online May 10.

Adidas partnered with Parley for the Oceans—a team of artists, musicians, actors, directors, fashion designers, journalists, architects, product inventors and scientists addressing major threats to the world's oceans— to develop materials made from ocean plastic waste to use in its products starting in 2016. Last November, adidas and Parley rolled out 7,000 pairs of its 3D-printed shoes made from recycled ocean plastics.

To ramp up its commitment to sustainability, adidas phased out plastic bags in its 2,900 retail stores around the world, saving 70 million plastic shopping bags by switching to paper bags in its stores.

EcoWatch has extensively covered the devastating global issue of ocean plastic, which is a major threat to marine life, marine ecosystems and our own health. A staggering 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the oceans every year.

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A 130-metre-wide waterfall drains meltwater from the Nansen Ice Shelf into the ocean. Stuart Rankin via Flickr

Giant Waterfall in Antarctica Worries Scientists

By Tim Radford

Scientists poring over military and satellite imagery have mapped the unimaginable: a network of rivers, streams, ponds, lakes and even a waterfall, flowing over the ice shelf of a continent with an annual mean temperature of more than -50C.

In 1909 Ernest Shackleton and his fellow explorers on their way to the magnetic South Pole found that they had to cross and recross flowing streams and lakes on the Nansen Ice Shelf.

Antarctic Waterways

Now, U.S. scientists report in the journal Nature that they studied photographs taken by military aircraft from 1947 and satellite images from 1973 to identify almost 700 seasonal networks of ponds, channels and braided streams flowing from all sides of the continent, as close as 600km to the South Pole and at altitudes of 1,300 meters.

And they found that such systems carried water for 120km. A second research team reporting a companion study in the same issue of Nature identified one meltwater system with an ocean outflow that ended in a 130-meter wide waterfall, big enough to drain the entire surface melt in a matter of days.

In a world rapidly warming as humans burn ever more fossil fuels, to add ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, researchers expect to observe an increase in the volume of meltwater on the south polar surface. Researchers have predicted the melt rates could double by 2050. What isn't clear is whether this will make the shelf ice around the continent—and shelf ice slows the flow of glaciers from the polar hinterland—any less stable.

"This is not in the future—this is widespread now, and has been for decades," said Jonathan Kingslake, a glaciologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who led the research.

"I think most polar scientists have considered water moving across the surface of Antarctica to be extremely rare. But we found a lot of it, over very large areas."

The big question is: has the level of surface melting increased in the last seven decades? The researchers don't yet have enough information to make a judgment.

"We have no reason to think they have," Dr Kingslake said. "But without further work, we can't tell. Now, looking forward, it will be really important to work out how these systems will change in response to warming, and how this will affect the ice sheets."

Many of the flow systems seem to start in the Antarctic mountains, near outcrops of exposed rock, or in places where fierce winds have scoured snow off the ice beneath. Rocks are dark, the exposed ice is of a blue colour, and during the long days of the Antarctic summer both would absorb more solar energy than white snow or ice. This would be enough to start the melting process.

The Antarctic is already losing ice, as giant floating shelves suddenly fracture and drift north. There is a theory that meltwater could be part of the fissure mechanism, as it seeps deep into the shelves.

Drainage Theory

But the companion study, led by the polar scientist Robin Bell of the Lamont-Doherty Observatory suggests that drainage on the Nansen Ice Shelf might help to keep the ice intact, perhaps by draining away the meltwater in the dramatic waterfall the scientists had identified.

"It could develop this way in other places, or things could just devolve into giant slush puddles," she said. "Ice is dynamic, and complex, and we don't have the data yet."

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Our Plastic Habit Now Pollutes the Arctic Ocean

Ocean plastic has reached the northernmost ends of the earth. The remote and icy waters of the Arctic Ocean are also being inundated by this form of non-biodegradable pollution.

According to a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, currents carrying trash, originating mostly from the North Atlantic, are flowing north into the Greenland and Barents Seas. An estimated 300 billion bits of plastic debris has accumulated in those waters, in sea ice or even the seafloor.

Researchers from the University of Cádiz in Spain and several other institutions found that in some parts of the Greenland and Barents Seas, concentrations of plastic were in the hundreds of thousands of pieces per square kilometer. The researchers dubbed the region a "dead end for this plastic conveyor belt."

"It's only been about 60 years since we started using plastic industrially, and the usage and the production has been increasing ever since. So most of the plastic that we have disposed of in the ocean is still now in transit to the Arctic," said Carlos Duarte, one of the study's co-authors and director of the Red Sea Research Center at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.

The scientists warned that climate change could make the problem worse as rising temperatures melt sea ice.

"The growing level of human activity in an increasingly warm and ice-free Arctic, with wider open areas available for the spread of microplastics, suggests that high loads of marine plastic pollution may become prevalent in the Arctic in the future," the paper stated.

The multinational team of scientists analyzed plastic debris from survey sites around the Arctic Ocean. Most of the plastic was in tiny fragments, mostly ranging from 0.5 millimeters to 12.6 millimeters. Fishing line, film or pellets were also uncovered.

Lead author Andrés Cózar Cabañas, a professor of biology at the University of Cádiz, told the New York Times that he was both surprised and worried about the results.

"We don't fully understand the consequences the plastic is having or will have in our oceans," he said. "What we do know is that these consequences will be felt at greater scale in an ecosystem like this" because it is unlike any other on Earth.

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