'Plastic Rain' Is Pouring Down in National Parks
The plastic crisis has polluted the world's oceans and created mountains in landfills. Microplastics have been identified wafting on the sea breeze and raining down on top of the Pyrenees. They travel on the winds and slowly drop down from the skies. Now, a new study has found that some of the most untouched areas of the U.S. are seeing 1,000 tons or more of microplastics rain down every year, according to The New York Times.
The study examined airborne microplastics in national parks in the American West. That means those hikes through the untouched land in Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon or Joshua Tree National Park are not providing the pristine, fresh air we thought they do.
The researchers found that nearly one-fourth come from nearby cities, while the rest drift through the air from far-flung locations. The findings, the first to discern the plastics' geographic origins, add to mounting evidence that microplastic pollution is a worldwide scourge, as Science reported.
"We created something that won't go away," says Janice Brahney, a biogeochemist at Utah State University and lead author on the new paper, according to Science. "It's now circulating around the globe."
The new study was published on Thursday in Science magazine and titled "Plastic rain in protected areas of the United States." The researchers noted that microplastics are found in "nearly every ecosystem on the planet."
To conduct the study, the researchers collected rainwater and air samples for 14 months to calculate how many microplastic particles fall into 11 protected areas in the west each year. They found tiny plastic particles in 98 percent of the 339 samples they collected. Microplastics made up 4 percent of the dust particles that were tested, according to The New York Times.
The 1,000 metric tons, or over 2.2 million pounds, that drops over 11 protected areas every year is equal to of over 120 million plastic water bottles, according to Wired.
"We just did that for the area of protected areas in the West, which is only 6 percent of the total US area," said Brahney, as Wired reported. "The number was just so large, it's shocking."
The plastic is trapped in fundamental atmospheric processes and falling all over the world, making plastic rain the new acid rain, according to Wired.
Microplastics are tiny particles that measure less than 5 millimeters in length. Most microplastics are fragments from larger pieces of plastic. Since plastics aren't biodegradable, when they end up in landfills or garbage heaps, they break down into microparticles and make their way through the earth's atmosphere, soil and water systems, according to The Guardian.
Considering that they have such a long life after their usefulness has expired, many microplastics could be traveling through natural systems for a long time.
"Plastics could be deposited, readmitted to the atmosphere, transported for some time, deposited and maybe picked up again," said Brahney, as The Guardian reported. "And who knows how many times and who knows how far they've travelled?"
Scientists have yet to conclude how all the plastic in the atmosphere affects animal and plant species, but the authors of this new study argue that the global community needs to work together to find a solution.
"The consequences to ecosystems are not yet well understood but are inescapable in the immediate future," the researchers wrote in their study, as CNN reported. "If the potential dangers posed by environmental microplastics are to be mitigated, both the scale of the solution and the level of cooperation that will be required call on the engagement of the global community."
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
Earth's ice is melting 57 percent faster than in the 1990s and the world has lost more than 28 trillion tons of ice since 1994, research published Monday in The Cryosphere shows.
By Jewel Fraser
Noreen Nunez lives in a middle-class neighborhood that rises up a hillside in Trinidad's Tunapuna-Piarco region.