The Most Unexplored Habitat on Earth Is Packed With Pollution
By Jason Bittel
In Disney's latest animated release, titular character Moana and a demigod named Maui dive to the bottom of the ocean to do battle with a giant, David Bowie–channeling crab in a place called the Realm of Monsters. But it's not just for kicks and a catchy dance number, of course. Maui has lost his magical hook and of all the places it could be in the deep blue sea, he suspects that the glam-rock crab called Tamatoa has scooped it up.
Maui, it seems, is a student of marine biology. Plunge more than 36,000 feet below the waves in the real ocean and you will find almost-foot-long crustaceans called amphipods that scuttle about in search of rotting flesh and anything else that plummets into their lightless lair. While they might look like aliens, these guys are actually cousins to the sand hopper, the little, living detritus that pings away as you kick a pile of seaweed.
#Microplastics in Oceans Outnumber Stars in Our Galaxy by 500 Times https://t.co/f02uoXOLrd #CleanSeas @jackjohnson @adriangrenier @5gyres— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1487956347.0
Now, you might think that a life way under the sea would afford these cryptic crustaceans certain advantages—for one, avoiding humans and all of our waste. After all, it's not as if people are wont to visit a place deeper than Mount Everest is high, a place buried beneath so much black, salty seawater that pressure alone would cause an unprotected human body to implode.
But alas, just as Moana and Maui were able to sneak down and cuss up Tamatoa's day, so have we been able to yet again muck up an ecosystem we've scarcely even explored.
According to research published on Feb. 13 in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, the tissues of deep-sea amphipods are positively teeming with persistent organic pollutants or POPs. These include nasty chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), used for insulators and coolants and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are found in flame retardants. These substances are so toxic, we banned them both back in the 1970s. POPs have a tendency to bioaccumulate, which is a fancy word for what happens when little fish get eaten by big fish and those big fish absorb all the pollution inside all those little fish. It really adds up. Could that be why an apex predator like Tamatoa glows in the dark?
Monsanto's toxic PCBs have been discovered in alarming amounts in the bodies of amphipods living in the deep sea... https://t.co/i3uhd3fMIn— GMO Free USA (@GMO Free USA)1487858604.0
The findings reveal that even areas of the world that we think of as extreme and remote and pristine are anything but, said lead author Alan Jamieson, a marine ecologist at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. "Most of the ocean is, in fact, not exempt from what we do up here."
To get his samples, Jamieson and his team deployed remotely operated lander vehicles to some of the deepest known trenches on Earth: the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific and the Kermadec Trench off New Zealand. At depths of more than six miles, the landers lured in bottom-feeders with mesh bags full of mackerel and then funnel traps captured the tiny beasts. (While some amphipods can grow to the size of foot-long hot dogs, these critters were no larger than an inch or about half a cocktail weenie). Back at the surface, scientists analyzed the tissues from three different species of amphipod for concentrations of POPs. What they found was shocking.
Some of the amphipods the team sampled showed levels of PCBs 50 times higher than crabs that live in the paddy fields along the Liaohe River, one of China's most polluted waterways. This is more than a little surprising, considering that those crabs live their entire lives bathed in toxins while their amphipod cousins could not live farther away from pollution sources. Even worse, the researchers found PCBs and PBDEs "in all samples across all species at all depths in both trenches."
Nobody knows exactly how the pollution wound up in the deepest of deeps, but the researchers suspect that the substances sprinkle down as tiny particulates or stow away on anything large enough to make the descent in one piece, notably dead whales and fish.
It's unclear what effect, if any, the POPs have on amphipods, said coauthor Stuart Piertney, a molecular ecologist the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom, but we know these chemicals are generally endocrine disruptors. So it's possible that the pollutants could be messing with the deep-sea crustaceans' hormone-associated processes. Studies on the effects of endocrine disruptors on humans have linked them to cancers, birth defects and problems reproducing. What they do at the literal bottom of the food chain, we don't know.
According to Jamieson, PCBs affect the reproductive success of crustaceans living in shallower waters. "We can only speculate the same thing occurs in the deep ones," he said. "But again, without being able to study them alive we simply don't know."
Observing life as it naturally operates down in the deep is not easy. Just as a human can't survive the pressures found at the trench floor, deep-sea critters often can't handle the journey to the surface. The best scientists can do sometimes is yank up whatever they can catch and pick through the scraps for meaning.
Whether these polluted amphipods are worse for wear in their home habitat, though, is a little beside the point. They are simply proof that we can't keep treating the sea like a big, black pit. There are currently more than 400,000 tons of PCBs swirling in the seven seas. If the Earth's most inaccessible ecosystems are now coping with the mistakes of nearly half a century ago, how long will it take the environment to bounce back from bad decisions we make today?
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
A rare yellow penguin has been photographed for what is believed to be the first time.
- World-Renowned Photographer Documents Most Remote ... ›
- This Penguin Colony Has Fallen by 77% on Antarctic Islands ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Stuart Braun
We spend 90% of our time in the buildings where we live and work, shop and conduct business, in the structures that keep us warm in winter and cool in summer.
But immense energy is required to source and manufacture building materials, to power construction sites, to maintain and renew the built environment. In 2019, building operations and construction activities together accounted for 38% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, the highest level ever recorded.
- Could IKEA's New Tiny House Help Fight the Climate Crisis ... ›
- Los Angeles City-Owned Buildings to Go 100% Carbon Free ... ›
- New Jersey Will Be First State to Require Building Permits to ... ›
By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.