No Safe Haven for Polar Bears in Warming Arctic
By Tim Radford
The world of the polar bear is shrinking—everywhere. New research by scientists in the U.S. confirms that each of the 19 known populations of Ursus maritimus is increasingly affected by the earlier sea ice melt in the Arctic spring, and the later arrival of ice every autumn.
Polar bears are affected by the earlier sea ice melt in the Arctic spring.Alamy
The finding is hardly a shock, as there have been warnings from conservationists about such things for years, with the polar bear becoming an icon of climate change concerns. And in most cases of species threat there are winners as well as losers.
The 25,000 or so surviving Arctic bears rely on the ice for their feeding and breeding success. A few stay on the ice all year round, but southerly populations survive ashore in the summer, and it is the seasonal winter feast upon seals and other sea mammals that gives them the nourishment to make it to the next breeding season.
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"Sea ice really is their platform for life," said Kristin Laidre, principal scientist at the University of Washington's Polar Science Centre (PSC). "They are capable of existing on land for part of the year, but the sea ice is where they obtain their main prey."
She and her co-author, Harry Stern, principal mathematician at the PSC, used 35 years of satellite data to examine sea ice concentrations around the entire Arctic.
The total number of ice-covered days fell at the rate of seven to 19 days per decade between 1979 and 2014. Sea ice in the summer months—when polar bears are often forced to fast on land—also declined in all regions, by between 1 percent and 9 percent per decade.
And they found that the trend towards an earlier spring melt and a later autumn freeze was consistent everywhere.
Dr. Laidre and other scientists reported last year that all Arctic marine mammals could be at risk because of habitat loss. The catch was that biologists did not know enough about them to be sure.
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Another group of researchers has established that things look bleak for Canada's polar bears, but this is just a subset of the species.
The PSC scientists have now established that spring melt has begun on average three to nine days earlier per decade, and the freeze similarly later each decade. Effectively, that added up to seven weeks' total loss of good habitat—that is, firm ice upon which the bears can stalk seals.
"These spring and fall transitions bound the period when there is good ice habitat available for bears to feed," Dr Laidre said. "Those periods are also tied to the breeding season, when bears find mates, and when females come out of their maternity dens with very small cubs and haven't eaten for months.
"We expect that if the trends continue, compared with today, polar bears will experience another six to seven weeks of ice-free periods by mid-century."
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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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