500 Years After Columbus, Cuba's Gardens of the Queen Still Pristine
[Editor's note: Conor Kennedy traveled this summer to Cuba to dive the Gardens of the Queen, one of the most pristine marine environments in the Caribbean, to conduct ecological assessments of the coral reef ecosystem with Ocean Doctor. This is Part IV of a five-part series. Read Part I, Part II and Part III and Part V.]
We spent three days exploring rich, varied undersea bottom topography with its mélange of deep canyons, steep cliffs, coral ledges and lofty pillars rising from sandy bottoms 60 feet deep. At each dive site the skiff would drop us at one point and we would swim to the bottom and travel about a quarter of a mile underwater to our take-out, moving with the current under spectacular overhanging ledges, through caves and catacombed buttresses, many of them housing cleaning stations where larger fish would stop to have their teeth brushed by tiny gobies. Since these waters had not been fished for nearly 20 years, thick schools of curious reef sharks, many of them more than 8 feet long, and 300 pound Goliath groupers—mostly extinct elsewhere in the Caribbean—followed and occasionally nuzzled us like friendly Saint Bernards.
Dive Day 1: El Quebrado
Near the end of our first dive at a site called El Quebrado, we moved back into shallow waters around 40 feet in depth, where we floated, captivated, above vast forests of vibrant, towering Elkhorn coral. Our dive master Noel Lopéz Rodriguez told us that we were seeing the best living example of this species remaining in the world. During later dives at Octopus Cave and Finca de Pepe, we saw Hawksbill and green turtles swimming over crowded groves of sponges and brain coral, sea cucumber and thick forests of hard and soft coral tubes. I was excited to see tangled webs of black coral in great abundance in just 20 feet of water. In the rest of the Caribbean that species is rare in waters shallower than 90 feet, having been plucked and cut by divers to feed the jewelry trade. Over the next few days we made a dozen similarly spectacular dives.
Dive Day 2: Cabezo de la Cubera
On the second morning we dove Cabezo de la Cubera, a site dropping from a bustling shallow reef down a 50-foot wall accompanied by our ubiquitous posse of sharks and Goliath groupers to find a shipwreck housing giant green and spotted moray eels. A glistening cloud of tarpon, shiny as mirrors, surrounded, and then enveloped us in their school. Living organisms occupied every inch of space on the busy reef. I recognized live brain, staghorn and sheet corals, and basket and vase sponges beneath the bushy expanses of waving sea fans. The reef was alive with colorful aquarium fishes like sergeant majors, purple and yellow fairy basslets and bluehead wrasse, along with multi-colored micro lichens, sea urchins, tiny iridescent shrimp and long legged arrow shrimp that looked like daddy long-leg spiders with blue bodies and shiny yellow claws. We watched blue and peacock colored parrot fish, brilliant red file fish, triggerfish and angel fish grazing on the coral while squirrel fish and spode fish hid on their sides in the crevices, holes and under ledges.
Large Black Grouper. One of the species benefiting significantly from the protected area of Cuba's Gardens of the Queen. Photo credit: Noel Lopez
Dive Day 3: Five Seas
During an early morning dive we followed schools of tarpon along the sandy bottom below the cliff base, past caves and over hanging rocks covering the sandy bottom below the towering bluff. As usual, there was too much to see and my brother Aidan and I ran short on air. In a hurry to surface, we exited upward through a steep coral chimney, chasing a giant barracuda that loped warily above us while a large reef shark pursued us from behind, then suddenly rose up between us; close enough to brush us both with his sandpaper skin as he passed.
Back at the Avalon II, to pick up fresh tanks, we found two uniformed officials from a Cuban government vessel who had arrived during our absence with a letter from Castro thanking us for visiting his beloved Gardens of the Queen and encouraging us to report back to him on the conditions of the reef ecosystem and how the reserve has responded to government protection.
After our second dive at a site called Five Seas, we stopped for a picnic lunch at an island named Boca de Predra. The moment we beached our skiffs, we were mobbed by what seemed to be a pack of Cocker Spaniels in the shape of rats. They turned out to be giant rodents known as “jutias" who rushed from the mangroves to greet us on the shore. As friendly as kittens, they stood on their hind feet begging for food. Aidan gave them pineapple from our lunch box. Dad fed them watermelon from his mouth until he got scratched on the face and bled. Encouraged by our generosity to the rats, waves of iguanas and hermit crabs followed the jutias out of the mangrove. Soon the beach was crowded with rodents, reptiles, crustaceans and humans, all just searching for food and friendship.
Katie Losey and RFK, Jr. watch an invasive Lionfish hover over a basket sponge. Photo credit: Noel Lopez
Atlantic Spadefish. One of the many awesome schools of fish that visited us at Boca Grande. Photo credit: Noel Lopez
Conor assists local dive masters in controlling invasive Lionfish populations. Photo credit: Noel Lopez
Dive Day 4: Luisa's Reef, Los Mogotes and Cayo Alcatraz
During early morning dives at Luisa's Reef and Los Mogotes we dropped over a 60 foot ledge carpeted by healthy coral and found an amphitheater encircling a shrine of standing coral pillars each laden with multiple cleaning stations. Among the living columns we found Nassau grouper, goliath, tiger and black grouper, tarpon, barracuda, jacks and sharks. Then, at Noon, we lit out for unexplored regions motoring west 27 miles to Cayo Alcatraz to explore new frontiers near the edge of the marine reserve. We moored next to a mangrove island adjacent to a frigate bird rookery called Cinco Ballas, where thousands of baby frigate birds and egrets begged for food from nests a few feet off the sand.
The Cuban government has done an excellent job preserving the Gardens of the Queen and we hope our survey of these remote reefs will help bolster Cuba's enthusiasm for marine protection and provide data to support an economic justification to enlarge the reserve. The government requires that any jobs lost by fishermen be replaced by jobs in tourism, fishing, diving or in outfitting expeditions. For example, many of Avalon's staff of safety divers and skiff pilots and chefs were former fishermen. The Cuban government must make delicate calculations that preserve jobs, protect the reef and limit tourism to sustainable numbers. The Explorers Club scientists and conservation experts believe it's possible to extend marine protection to the new zones with sustainable eco-tourism as an economic driver to protect existing jobs and create new ones.
Dive Day 5: Cayo Pedra de Pitoto Nino
During a shallow snorkel dive at Cayo Pedra de Pitoto Nino we found a massive heap of tightly meshed dead corals, possibly pulverized by tropical storms and hurricanes over time. Wave currents and tides had since pressed and woven the skeletal mound into a consolidated pile nearly an acre in size. The marine biologists and scientists in our group were ecstatic to find new, living brain, stag, elkhorn, fire coral and sea fans sprouting from the skeletal stack. The newly rejuvenated reef is a sign for hope elsewhere. Duke University marine biologist and professor Rebecca Vidra told us that this was an exciting discovery for the world's marine biologists, many of whom are struggling with the problems of reef restoration around the globe. To her knowledge, it was the first example of obliterated reef rejuvenating itself in this way. Man-made efforts to resurrect reefs damaged by ship strikes or pollution have, sadly, been largely unsuccessful. It is believed that local fishermen have named this submarine feature the “floating reef" because it appears to move unanchored about the sandy bottom posing a navigational hazard.
That night, violent storms lit up the evening sky. In the morning a three-foot iguana swam up to our boat and climbed aboard, with my dad's help. The lizard demonstrated its gratitude by trying to bite his nose.
Aidan photo surveys unexplored areas of the Gardens of the Queen. Photo credit: Noel Lopez
Iguanas would swim out from the mangrove islands, sometimes with crocodiles, to investigate our expedition. Photo by David E. Guggenheim
Dive Day 6: Los Mogotes
At Los Mogotes, we had the best dive of the trip—and of my life. At around 70 feet at the base of a steep escarpment we found a sandy bottom bristling with an exotic living geology of coral towers catacombed with caves, holes and chimneys. We explored vibrant coral cliffs cut with deep crevasses and steep buttes where every tiny crevice and cranny was occupied by giant coral crabs, squirrel fish, sergeant majors, porcupine fish, stone crabs and moray eel. In the larger caverns, we found metropolis of spiny lobster, some of them quite massive. A giant porcupine fish hid in a thick grove of stag coral. Above wide coral prairies, a pair of reef sharks cut innocuously through a school of jack crevalle and then herded the jacks into a rolling fish ball and pushed it through the water column, keeping pace with us as we swam with the current.
Individual jacks peeled away from the school to pursue the sharks and rub their skin against the sharks' sandpaper hides, a maneuver that clearly annoyed the giant predators. We watched rivers of yellow tailed snapper cascading over the palisades to school in the middle of the water column followed by gleaming strata of tarpon that pooled above them mingling there with Jack Crevalle, horse-eye jack, yellow jack, big cubera snappers and sleek cero. A few large barracuda and a half dozen species of grouper, hugged the bottom just above the reef.
It felt like Grand Central Station at rush hour as thick aggregations of fish commuted to and from work with tarpon above, grouper below and the snapper schools in between. Only the giant southern sting rays seemed to have missed the wake-up call, snoozing on the sandy bottom between coral ledges surrounded by gargantuan conch moving glacially. Aidan and I took time to stroke the long scythe-like tail of a nine foot nurse shark hiding in a shallow cave. He wagged his tail to scold us away.
That night Ocean Doctor President Dr. David E. Guggenheim confided that those aggregations were the biggest fish highways he'd seen in 40 years of diving. On the way to our take-out, we followed 120-pound snapper loping lazily through a canyon as Aidan shot voracious reef killing lion fish with a tiny Hawaiian sling as part of an experimental study program to try to teach local predators—groupers and shark—to eat this spiny exotic.
Seeing this living reef with almost no visible bleaching—all teeming with robust reef fish and pelagic fish populations, made many of us feel like we had made a journey back in time. To me, the ocean looked the way it does in the old Jacques Cousteau films—with every part of the reef and surrounding sea crowded with bustling populations of living corals and fishes. We were especially excited to think that we might have been the first humans to see this particular underwater paradise.
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Thousands of Superfund sites exist around the U.S., with toxic substances left open, mismanaged and dumped. Despite the high levels of toxicity at these sites, nearly 21 million people live within a mile of one of them, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Currently, more than 1,300 Superfund sites pose a serious health risk to nearby communities. Based on a new study, residents living close to these sites could also have a shorter life expectancy.
Published in Nature Communications, the study, led by Hanadi S. Rifai, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Houston, and a team of researchers, found that living in nearby zip codes to Superfund sites resulted in a decreased life expectancy of more than two months, the University of Houston reported.
"We have ample evidence that contaminant releases from anthropogenic sources (e.g., petrochemicals or hazardous waste sites) could increase the mortality rate in fence-line communities," Rifai told the University of Houston. "Results showed a significant difference in life expectancy among census tracts with at least one Superfund site and their neighboring tracts with no sites."
The study pulled data from 65,000 census tracts – defined geographical regions – within the contiguous U.S., The Guardian reported. With this data, researchers found that for communities that are socioeconomically challenged, this life expectancy could decrease by up to a year.
"It was a bit surprising and concerning," Rifai told The Guardian. "We weren't sure [when we started] if the fact that you are socioeconomically challenged would make [the Superfund's effects] worse."
The research team, for example, found that the presence of a Superfund site in a census tract with a median income of less than $52,580 could reduce life expectancy by seven months, the University of Houston reported.
Many of these toxic sites were once used as manufacturing sites during the Second World War. Common toxic substances that are released from the sites into the air and surface water include lead, trichlorethylene, chromium, benzene and arsenic – all of which can lead to health impacts, such as neurological damage among children, The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in a blog.
"The EPA has claimed substantial recent progress in Superfund site cleanups, but, contrary to EPA leadership's grandiose declarations, the backlog of unfunded Superfund cleanups is the largest it has been in the last 15 years," the Union wrote.
Delayed cleanup could become increasingly dangerous as climate change welcomes more natural hazards, like wildfires and flooding. According to a Government Accountability Office report, for example, climate change could threaten at least 60 percent of Superfund sites in the U.S., AP News reported.
During the summer of 2018, a major wildfire took over the Iron Mountain Superfund site near Redding, CA, ruining wastewater treatment infrastructure that is responsible for capturing 168 million gallons of acid mine drainage every month, NBC News reported.
"There was this feeling of 'My God. We ought to have better tracking of wildfires at Superfund locations,'" Stephen Hoffman, a former senior environmental scientist at the EPA, told NBC News. "Before that, there wasn't a lot of thought about climate change and fire. That has changed."
In the study, researchers also looked at the impacts of floodings on Superfund sites, which could send toxins flowing into communities and waterways.
"When you add in flooding, there will be ancillary or secondary impacts that can potentially be exacerbated by a changing future climate," Rifai told the University of Houston. "The long-term effect of the flooding and repetitive exposure has an effect that can transcend generations."
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A weather research station on a bluff overlooking the sea is closing down because of the climate crisis.
The National Weather Service (NWS) station in Chatham, Massachusetts was evacuated March 31 over concerns the entire operation would topple into the ocean.
"We had to say goodbye to the site because of where we are located at the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge, we're adjacent to a bluff that overlooks the ocean," Boston NWS meteorologist Andy Nash told WHDH at the time. "We had to close and cease operations there because that bluff has significantly eroded."
Chatham is located on the elbow of Cape Cod, a land mass extending out into the Atlantic Ocean that has been reshaped and eroded by waves and tides over tens of thousands of years, The Guardian explained. However, sea level rise and extreme weather caused by the climate crisis have sped that change along.
"It's an extremely dynamic environment, which is obviously a problem if you are building permanent infrastructure here," Andrew Ashton, an associate scientist at Cape-Cod based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told The Guardian. "We are putting our foot on the accelerator to make the environment even more dynamic."
This was the case with the Chatham weather station. It used to be protected from the drop into the ocean by about 100 feet of land. However, storm action in 2020 alone washed away as much as six feet of land a day.
"We'd know[n] for a long time there was erosion but the pace of it caught everyone by surprise," Nash told The Guardian. "We felt we had maybe another 10 years but then we started losing a foot of a bluff a week and realized we didn't have years, we had just a few months. We were a couple of storms from a very big problem."
The Chatham station was part of a network of 92 NWS stations that monitor temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed and direction and other data in the upper atmosphere, The Cape Cod Chronicle explained. The stations send up radiosondes attached to weather balloons twice a day to help with weather research and prediction. The Chatham station, which had been observing this ritual for the past half a century, sent up its last balloon the morning of March 31.
"We're going to miss the observations," Nash told The Cape Cod Chronicle. "It gives us a snapshot, a profile of the atmosphere when the balloons go up."
The station was officially decommissioned April 1, and the two buildings on the site will be demolished sometime this month. The NWS is looking for a new location in southeastern New England. In the meantime, forecasters will rely on data from stations in New York and Maine.
Nash said the leavetaking was bittersweet, but inevitable.
"[M]other nature is evicting us," he told The Cape Cod Chronicle.
By Douglas Broom
- If online deliveries continue with fossil-fuel trucks, emissions will increase by a third.
- So cities in the Netherlands will allow only emission-free delivery vehicles after 2025.
- The government is giving delivery firms cash help to buy or lease electric vehicles.
- The bans will save 1 megaton of CO2 every year by 2030.
Cities in the Netherlands want to make their air cleaner by banning fossil fuel delivery vehicles from urban areas from 2025.
"Now that we are spending more time at home, we are noticing the large number of delivery vans and lorries driving through cities," said Netherlands environment minister Stientje van Veldhoven, announcing plans to ban all but zero-emission deliveries in 14 cities.
"The agreements we are setting down will ensure that it will be a matter of course that within a few years, supermarket shelves will be stocked, waste will be collected, and packages will arrive on time, yet without any exhaust fumes and CO2 emissions," she added.
She expects 30 cities to announce zero emission urban logistics by this summer. City councils must give four years' notice before imposing bans as part of government plans for emission-free road traffic by 2050. The city bans aim to save 1 megaton of CO2 each year by 2030.
Help to Change
To encourage transport organizations to go carbon-free, the government is offering grants of more than US$5,900 to help businesses buy or lease electric vehicles. There will be additional measures to help small businesses make the change.
The Netherlands claims it is the first country in the world to give its cities the freedom to implement zero-emission zones. Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht already have "milieuzones" where some types of vehicles are banned.
Tilburg, one of the first wave of cities imposing the Dutch ban, will not allow fossil-fuelled vehicles on streets within its outer ring road and plans to roll out a network of city-wide electric vehicle charging stations before the ban comes into effect in 2025.
"Such initiatives are imperative to improve air quality. The transport of the future must be emission-free, sustainable, and clean," said Tilburg city alderman Oscar Dusschooten.
Europe Takes Action
Research by Renault shows that many other European cities are heading in the same direction as the Netherlands, starting with Low Emission Zones of which Germany's "Umweltzone" were pioneers. More than 100 communes in Italy have introduced "Zonas a traffico limitato."
Madrid's "zona de baja emisión" bans diesel vehicles built before 2006 and petrol vehicles from before 2000 from central areas of the city. Barcelona has similar restrictions and the law will require all towns of more than 50,000 inhabitants to follow suit.
Perhaps the most stringent restrictions apply in London's Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which charges trucks and large vehicles up to US$137 a day to enter the central area if they do not comply with Euro 6 emissions standards. From October, the ULEZ is being expanded.
Cities are responsible for around 75% of CO2 emissions from global final energy use, according to the green thinktank REN21 - and much of these come from transport. Globally, transport accounts for 24% of world CO2 emissions.
The Rise of Online Shopping
Part of the reason for traffic in urban areas is the increase in delivery vehicles, as online shopping continues to grow. Retailer ecommerce sales are expected to pass $5billion in 2022, according to eMarketer.
The World Economic Forum's report The Future of the Last-Mile Ecosystem, published in January 2020, estimates that e-commerce will increase the number of delivery vehicles on the roads of the world's 100 largest cities by 36% by 2030.
If all those vehicles burn fossil fuels, the report says emissions will increase by 32%. But switching to all-electric delivery vehicles would cut emissions by 30% from current levels as well as reducing costs by 25%, the report says.
Other solutions explored in the report include introducing goods trams to handle deliveries alongside their passenger-carrying counterparts and increased use of parcel lockers to reduce the number of doorstep deliveries.
Reposted with permission from the World Economic Forum.
The bill, SB467, would have prohibited fracking and other controversial forms of oil extraction. It would also have banned oil and gas production within 2,500 feet of a home, school, hospital or other residential facility. The bill originally set the fracking ban for 2027, but amended it to 2035, The AP reported.
"Obviously I'm very disappointed," State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), one of the bill's two introducers, told the Los Angeles Times. "California really has not done what it needs to do in terms of addressing the oil problem. We have communities that are suffering right now, and the Legislature has repeatedly failed to act."
The bill was introduced after California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would sign a fracking ban if it passed the legislature, though his administration has continued to issue permits in the meantime, Forbes reported. Newsom has also spoken in favor of a buffer zone between oil and gas extraction and places where people live and learn, according to the Los Angeles Times. The latter is a major environmental justice issue, as fossil fuel production is more likely to be located near Black and Latinx communities.
Urban lawmakers who want California to lead on the climate crisis supported the bill, while inland lawmakers in oil-rich areas concerned about jobs opposed it. The oil and gas industry and trade unions also opposed the bill.
This opposition meant the bill failed to get the five votes it needed to move beyond the Senate's Natural Resources and Water Committee. Only four senators approved it, while Democrat Sen. Susan Eggman of Stockton joined two Republicans to oppose it, and two other Democrats abstained.
Eggman argued that the bill would have forced California to rely on oil extracted in other states.
"We're still going to use it, but we're going to use it from places that produce it less safely," Eggman told The AP. She also said that she supported the transition away from fossil fuels, but thought the bill jumped the gun. "I don't think we're quite there yet, and this bill assumes that we are," she added.
Historically, California has been a major U.S. oil producer. Its output peaked in 1986 at 1.1 million barrels a day, just below Texas and Alaska, according to Forbes. However, production has declined since then making it the seventh-most oil-producing state.
Still, California's fossil fuel industry is at odds with state attempts to position itself as a climate leader.
"There is a large stain on California's climate record, and that is oil," Wiener said Tuesday, according to The AP.
Wiener and Democrat co-introducer Sen. Monique Limón from Santa Barbara vowed to keep fighting.
"While we saw this effort defeated today, this issue isn't going away," they wrote in a joint statement. "We'll continue to fight for aggressive climate action, against harmful drilling, and for the health of our communities."
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By Brett Wilkins
As world leaders prepare for this November's United Nations Climate Conference in Scotland, a new report from the Cambridge Sustainability Commission reveals that the world's wealthiest 5% were responsible for well over a third of all global emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.
The report, Changing Our Ways: Behavior Change and the Climate Crisis, found that nearly half the growth in absolute global emissions was caused by the world's richest 10%, with the most affluent 5% alone contributing 37%.
"In the year when the UK hosts COP26, and while the government continues to reward some of Britain's biggest polluters through tax credits, the commission report shows why this is precisely the wrong way to meet the UK's climate targets," the report's introduction states.
The authors of the report urge United Kingdom policymakers to focus on this so-called "polluter elite" in an effort to persuade wealthy people to adopt more sustainable behavior, while providing "affordable, available low-carbon alternatives to poorer households."
The report found that the "polluter elite" must make "dramatic" lifestyle changes in order to meet the UK's goal — based on the Paris climate agreement's preferential objective — of limiting global heating to 1.5°C, compared with pre-industrial levels.
In addition to highlighting previous recommendations — including reducing meat consumption, reducing food waste, and switching to electric vehicles and solar power — the report recommends that policymakers take the following steps:
- Implement frequent flyer levies;
- Enact bans on selling and promoting SUVs and other high polluting vehicles;
- Reverse the UK's recent move to cut green grants for homes and electric cars; and
- Build just transitions by supporting electric public transport and community energy schemes.
"We have got to cut over-consumption and the best place to start is over-consumption among the polluting elites who contribute by far more than their share of carbon emissions," Peter Newell, a Sussex University professor and lead author of the report, told the BBC.
"These are people who fly most, drive the biggest cars most, and live in the biggest homes which they can easily afford to heat, so they tend not to worry if they're well insulated or not," said Newell. "They're also the sort of people who could really afford good insulation and solar panels if they wanted to."
Newell said that wealthy people "simply must fly less and drive less. Even if they own an electric SUV, that's still a drain on the energy system and all the emissions created making the vehicle in the first place."
"Rich people who fly a lot may think they can offset their emissions by tree-planting schemes or projects to capture carbon from the air," Newell added. "But these schemes are highly contentious and they're not proven over time."
The report concludes that "we are all on a journey and the final destination is as yet unclear. There are many contradictory road maps about where we might want to get to and how, based on different theories of value and premised on diverse values."
"Promisingly, we have brought about positive change before, and there are at least some positive signs that there is an appetite to do what is necessary to live differently but well on the planet we call home," it states.
The new report follows a September 2020 Oxfam International study that revealed the wealthiest 1% of the world's population is responsible for emitting more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest 50% of humanity combined.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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