Unexplained Ecological Disaster in Russia Kills Scores of Marine Life
By Charli Shield
Local authorities in the eastern Russian city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy have been warning people against visiting the nearby Khalaktyrsky beach, after surfers complained of partially losing their eyesight and experiencing headaches, fevers and nausea when venturing into the water.
"I noticed the ocean had a strange taste and didn't smell like it usually does. My eyes hurt, I had a dry, scratchy throat and my body itched horribly," Anton Morozov, founder of local surfing school, Snowave, told DW.
He and his team first noticed their symptoms in early September, but didn't associate them with the ocean until later in the month, when they reported them to the authorities.
Since then, images of dead octopuses, seals, sea urchins and starfish littered along the beach have been shared on social media, with some beachgoers saying dead fish look as if they have been boiled.
Local Authorities Investigate Three Causes
The authorities took samples from the ocean, where by the end of September, Morozov said a "yellowish-greenish liquid" had appeared along a 20 to 30-kilometer (12-18-mile) stretch of the shoreline.
Local investigators are now looking into three main reasons for the water pollution, including a toxic spill, volcanic activity in the area and naturally occurring deadly algal blooms, governor of the Kamchatka region, Vladimir Solodov, told a press conference on Monday.
On a video posted to Instagram, the governor said the situation was normalizing due to the ocean's unique ability to self-regenerate.
"As I said, we will push for a full and meticulous investigation of the reasons behind what happened, but now we can observe that the situation has significantly improved in the past few days."
The region's natural resources minister, Alexei Kumarkov, said tests on samples had thus far only detected unusually high levels of the chemical phenol and oil products in the water.
However, later on Monday, Russia's Natural Resources Minister said that the pollution was unlikely to be manmade, the RIA news agency reported.
Ecology Minister Dmitry Kobylkin said that so far research had only uncovered slightly raised levels of iron and phosphates.
He also said that the incident might have been prompted by the stormy conditions recently experienced in the region of eastern Russia.
Little Evidence for Oil Spill
Environmentalist Dmitry Lisitsyn, head of local NGO Sakhalin Environmental Watch, told DW there have been no visible signs of oil on the surface of the water, and the bottom-dwelling sea creatures that have been found dead are not normally linked to oil spills.
"Petroleum products are lighter than water — they form a film at the top of the water, which mainly kills birds. Oil products aren't poisonous enough to kill such a huge amount of animals," he said.
Nicky Cariglia, an independent marine pollution advisor, said oil spill events are often "very obvious", and that though in some cases it is possible for spills of very light oil to kill marine animals that live on the sea floor, oil tends to float on the surface of the water.
"The first thing you see when you have an oil spill is the presence of oil — whether it's crude oil or bunker oil or even lighter types of oil," she told DW.
As to the high concentrations of phenol in the water, Cariglia said it is not enough to indicate whether the event is a result of human activity or a naturally occurring phenomenon.
"High levels of phenol concentration can result from land-based runoff — if there have been, for example, a lot of fires — or from harmful algal blooms, or also from other decomposing organic materials," she said.
Deeper Research Needed
Lisitsyn is "convinced" the water pollution is linked to a leak of decades-old expired rocket fuel from the Radygino military base located 10 kilometers from Khalaktyrsky beach.
"It's very likely that the waste disposal site there started to leak, maybe the storage tanks broke and a large amount of rocket fuel was washed into the ocean," Lisitsyn told DW, speculating that the noxious liquid could have been washed into the ocean during a cyclone that hit the area on September 9.
He says it is now up to authorities to launch a thorough investigation into the source of the contamination, which includes determining whether there is an ongoing leak.
"The military base needs to be examined, as do the storage locations and all the streams of water that flow down from it into the ocean," he said, adding that the components of rocket fuel are carcinogenic and that if it were spilling uncontained into the ocean, it could have long-term effects — not just for marine life.
"They are very harmful to people. I wouldn't recommend walking along this beach or breathing in the fumes there."
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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Much of the conversation surrounding the ecological benefits of tropical rainforests focuses on South America's Amazon. However, the forests of Central Africa are just as important. While the Amazon is the largest contiguous rainforest in the world, Central Africa's rainforests are the world's second largest, Nature reported. They store more carbon per hectare than the Amazon and host a higher concentration of large trees than any other continent.
They are also under threat. A new study published in Nature on Wednesday maps the different forest types present in Central Africa and pinpoints which are most vulnerable to the climate crisis and human activity.
"Africa is forecasted to experience large and rapid climate change and population growth during the twenty-first century, which threatens the world's second largest rainforest," the study authors wrote. "Protecting and sustainably managing these African forests requires an increased understanding of their compositional heterogeneity, the environmental drivers of forest composition and their vulnerability to ongoing changes."
To accomplish this goal, a France-based research team examined data concerning six million trees from more than 180,000 field plots in Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, AFP reported.
The team mapped the forests based on where different plants thrived.
"The forest area of Central Africa is far from being a homogeneous green carpet. It is home to a wide variety of forests with different characteristics, including their own particular carbon storage capacity," Maxime Réjou-Méchain, study lead author and French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD) ecologist, said in an IRD press release. "This diversity can be explained by the different types of climate (humidity, temperature, evapotranspiration rate, amount of rainfall) and soils, as well as by the history of the African flora and the degree of human activity that has disturbed the forests for thousands of years, such as shifting agriculture."
The researchers identified 10 types of forest, according to Nature. These include Atlantic coastal evergreens in Gabon and semi-deciduous forests at the northern edge of the Central African study area. The researchers then compared their map with projections for how the region's climate is likely to change by 2085.
Because the various forest types have evolved over time to thrive in different climate niches, the rise in global temperatures might mean that some trees will be less able to adapt to a changing climate.
"[T]he forest margins in the north and south of the region, the Atlantic forests and most of those in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is home to more than half of Central Africa's forests, are among the most vulnerable," Professor Bonaventure Sonké, study coauthor and University of Yaoundé 1 botanist, told IRD.
However, the research also presents a guide to conserving the particular biodiversity of these forests.
"These results must now be used and applied to develop land use plans that preserve forest characteristics while maintaining connections between protected zones through sustainably managed timber production forests," Sylvie Gourlet-Fleury, study coauthor and CIRAD forest ecologist, said in the press release.
While human activity threatens the forests, they are also key resources for the people who live in and near them.
"[R]ainforests in Central Africa and the ecosystem services they provide are intertwined with people's livelihoods and food security," Marion Pfeifer from Newcastle University's School of Natural and Environmental Sciences and Deo Shirima from Tanzania's Sokoine University of Agriculture wrote in Nature. "Developing sustainable management plans that recognize the diversity of the ways in which people interact with and depend on these forests will be a huge challenge. It will require concerted cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral efforts that move beyond national boundaries."
The Race to Save the World is releasing on Virtual Cinema this Earth Day. Instead of focusing on paralyzing facts and numbers this inspiring feature takes a unique approach by following passionate activists, ages 15-72, who are in the trenches fighting for a livable future. These brave climate warriors put their lives on the line to push for change, regardless of the personal cost.
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Watch the exclusive Earth Day preview above.
For more on "The Race to Save the World" read Olivia Rosane's article "3 New Films to Watch This Earth Week."
Where to Entire Film Watch: Virtual Cinema
Forty leaders from the world's top greenhouse gas-polluting nations where hosted by the Biden administration on Thursday for an all-virtual summit to discuss the global climate emergency and the pathways — including individual emission reduction goals — that governments must take to stave off the worst impacts of global warming and runaway destruction of the planet's natural systems.
Just ahead of the gathering, President Joe Biden announced new U.S. commitments to meeting the goals set forth in the 2015 Paris climate agreement and said that the nation will now aim to reduce annual carbon output by 52% compared to 2005 levels.
"Our clean energy plan will create millions of good-paying union jobs, ensure our economic competitiveness, and improve the health and security of communities across America," Biden said in a declaration released ahead of the summit. "By making those investments and putting millions of Americans to work, the United States will be able to cut our greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030."
While the most ambitious target ever set forth by an American president — and a total reversal from the destructive policies of his predecessor Donald J. Trump — climate scientists and advocacy groups have been outspoken to say that even Biden's stated goals are simply "not enough" to meet U.S. obligations or keep the world from less than 1.5ºC of warming this century.
Watch the summit above.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
The recycling industry in America is broken. With unsellable scrap materials and already-burgeoning landfills, many consider the entire industry confusing and complex, at best, and a lost cause, at worst. Nevertheless, some local governments are trying to address program shortfalls with various policies.
Over the last 20 years, as more and more scrap materials were diverted from landfills, recycling rates increased, RTS reported. Still, several factors have complicated and even stalled serious progress. First, the U.S. recycling program is less-than ideal. The single-stream system means that consumers put all recyclables (and anything else they hope can be recycled) into one bin. This has created "imperfect recycling habits" and general consumer confusion about what is and isn't recyclable. It's easier on the consumer, but the result has been a contamination rate of about one-fourth of U.S. recyclables, Columbia's State of the Planet reported.
The mixed-stream of materials in residential bins is subsequently trucked to a waste management facility, where it is cleaned, separated and processed into saleable bales of plastic, aluminum, paper and cardboard. These are the actual products that recycling facilities sell to other countries or to companies for processing into eventual new products, a Miami recycling facility representative told EcoWatch. The more contamination that a batch of recyclables has, the harder and more expensive it is to clean. Higher contamination rates result in a lower price for the product. At some point, it becomes more economical to landfill contaminated batches of recyclables rather than clean them.
In 2018, China threw a wrench in the U.S.'s already-precarious system when it decided to stop accepting most recyclables from the rest of the world. The goods were often too contaminated for proper recycling and would end up in landfills, oceans or polluting the countryside. The U.S. had previously shipped over half of its plastics and paper recyclables to China, and loss of this market meant that recycling facilities had nowhere to sell the increasing amounts of recyclable trash being created daily.
Having been so reliant on the Chinese market and without a federal recycling program, this forced recycling facilities to give cities and municipalities two choices: pay more for recyclables to be processed or send them to the trash, The Atlantic and State of the Planet reported.
In the years since, some states and cities have tried to regulate and legislate their way towards a third option: waste management policies that could work.
Here are some of the innovative local recycling policies:
1. San Francisco
According to the EPA, the West Coast city diverts 80 percent of its waste from landfills – the highest rate of any major U.S. city. A city ordinance requires both residents and companies to separate their waste into three streams – blue for mixed recyclables, green for compostables (including food scraps, food soiled paper and yard waste) and black for trash intended for the landfill. The system helps to protect the integrity of recyclables and allows for the diversion of 80 percent of food waste into compost for local farmers and wineries.
San Francisco also enacted a variety of aggressive regulations to support its goal of zero waste by 2020, including bans on single-use plastic checkout bags and polystyrene to-go food containers, construction debris recovery requirements, mandatory recycling and composting at all events in the city, and a government-private industry partnership with the city's waste removal company, Recology, to ensure that the latter will remain profitable while it gets the city to its zero waste goal, reported the EPA and Busted Cubicle.
2. Los Angeles
As of 2019, California's other major city recycled almost 80 percent of its waste, Busted Cubicle reported. LA went from voting against recycling in the early 1960's to having a goal of recycling 90 percent of waste by 2025 and 97 percent by 2030, RTS reported. Compelled by statewide goals for waste recovery and mandates for recycling, LA used related state grants to build up its recycling infrastructure and better public education surrounding recycling.
In a public-private partnership, the city collects curbside collection and transports it to private recycling facilities. Sub-programs include requiring restaurants to compost their scraps and giving companies tax breaks based on the amount they recycle, Busted Cubicle reported. The report estimated that the local recycling industry added $1.2 billion annually to LA's economy.
According to RTS and Busted Cubicle, forward-thinking Seattle adopted a mandatory food scrap recycling program in 2009, a zero-waste policy in 2010 and a mandatory commercial recycling program in 2013. In particular, the city hopes to eliminate landfilling and incineration of trash.
As of 2017, Seattle recycled 56.9 percent of its waste, with a goal to reach 72 percent by 2025. A three-year phase-in program for mandatory recycling allowed for better education of residents and creation of processes for effective enforcement, Busted Cubicle reported. Individuals are incentivized to reduce waste because, while recycling is collected for free, residents pay a per-bag fee for regular garbage, The New York Times reported. Individuals are further motivated to reduce waste because smaller trash cans incur a lower monthly rate for disposal. Penalties and even fines are levied against non-compliant residents. Private companies hired by the city to process trash are similarly "handsomely compensated" when they send less to landfills.
According to the city, 98 percent of Boise residents recycle, a credit to their extensive educational programs, Busted Cubicle reported. When China's recycling ban disrupted the city's recycling, Boise came back with an innovative recycling initiative for previously non-recyclable plastic films.
In partnership with Hefty® brand bags and Renewlogy, a company that converts plastics into diesel fuel, Boise encouraged residents to collect their plastic films in orange bags provided to them by the city, RTS reported. The lightweight plastics, which include grocery store bags, food packaging and even candy wrappers, are bagged and put into normal blue recycling bins for pickup. At local processing centers, they are sent to Renewlogy in Salt Lake City for conversion into a diesel fuel that has 75 percent lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels at one-third the cost, Busted Cubicle reported.
5. San Jose
Just south of San Francisco, the Bay Area hub committed to 75 percent waste diversion by 2013, zero waste by 2022 and zero landfill or incinerator waste diversion by 2040, Busted Cubicle reported. A three-way partnership for commercial waste management between the city and two private companies has been critical to San Jose's success.
Republic collects recyclables and organics from more than 8,000 businesses in the city. It processes the former and sends the latter to Zero Waste Energy Development Company for processing into energy or compost, the news report said. Residential curbside recycling continues to improve through various sub-programs including street sweeping, curbside junk pickup and cleanup events.
Colorado's capital city currently has a low diversion rate – 22 percent as of 2017 with a modest goal of 34 percent by 2020 – but it has an advantage in housing Alpine Waste & Recycling. This cutting-edge waste management company uses technology to simplify single-stream recycling even further. Rather than asking customers to correctly figure out what is recyclable, Alpine finds ways to increase what types of items can be recycled in Denver.
The company has paved the way in new processes to recycle materials that traditionally were confusing or impossible to recycle, including paper coffee cups, juice and milk cartons, styrofoam and large, rigid plastics, Busted Cubicle reported. Their new facility employs state-of-the-art technology to quickly process many tons of waste per hour.
7. New York City
As recently as January 2020, The New York Times reported on "7 Reasons Recycling Isn't Working In New York City." The metropolitan "lagged' behind other major cities, only recycling around one-fifth of its trash, The Times reported. Reasons included lack of recycling and composting bins, political reluctance and fiscal challenges to implementing additional recycling policies and the local culture built around hyper-consumerism, Amazon deliveries and takeout food.
Despite these shortcomings, the big apple makes this list because of a new proposed bill hoping to force manufacturers to pick up the tab for recycling paper, plastic, glass and metal. The extended producer responsibility (E.P.R.) bill would compel manufacturers to pay for the end-waste their products produce, another New York Times article reported. This could incentivize companies to create more sustainable packaging and products to lower fees. The municipality could use collected fees to offset recycling expenses. Proponents could also write in an anti-price gouging provision to ensure manufacturers don't pass the new costs onto consumers. The profits from such a program would be infused back into New York's struggling recycling programs, with the goal of upgrading technology and even creating more jobs, The Times reported.
While ambitious and innovative, many of these local programs are still far from reaching their lofty goals. As they work to become sustainable and profitable, the global market for high-quality recycled materials is actually growing, State of the Planet reported.
For the U.S. to take advantage of this, domestic recycling processes must be reformed, the news report emphasized. Whether through better technology at facilities like in Denver and Boise, innovative public-private partnerships like in the three California cities or in precedent-setting legislation like in New York, cities must lead the way in order to modernize and save the U.S. domestic recycling industry.
Tiffany Duong is an avid ocean advocate. She holds degrees from UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and is an Al Gore Climate Reality Leader and student member of The Explorer's Club.
She spent years as a renewable energy lawyer in L.A. before moving to the Amazon to conduct conservation fieldwork (and revamp her life). She eventually landed in the Florida Keys as a scientific scuba diver and field reporter and writes about the oceans, climate, and the environment from her slice of paradise. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram @lilicedt.
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The new research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month, looked at maps of human habitation over the last 12,000 years and found that almost three-quarters of Earth's land had been sustainably shaped and managed by Indigenous or traditional societies during that time. This means that it isn't simply human presence in a landscape that drives environmental destruction.
"With rare exceptions, current biodiversity losses are caused not by human conversion or degradation of untouched ecosystems, but rather by the appropriation, colonization, and intensification of use in lands inhabited and used by prior societies," the study authors wrote.
The research was the fruit of a uniquely multidisciplinary effort involving 18 researchers from more than a dozen institutions all over the world, according to a University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) press release. The team of geographers, archaeologists, anthropologists, ecologists, and conservation scientists looked at patterns of land use since 10,000 BCE and found that most areas faced some form of human intervention such as burning, hunting, cultivation or the spreading of new species. This included more than 95 percent of temperate forests and 90 percent of tropical ones.
"Areas untouched by people were almost as rare 12,000 years ago as they are today," lead author and UMBC professor of geography and environmental systems Erle Ellis said in the UMBC release.
The difference is that these earlier societies used the land in a way that was not destructive and was actually beneficial in many cases. The researchers looked at how past histories of land use were associated with areas currently high in biodiversity and found that many areas now considered natural were in fact shaped by past human interventions.
"[I]mportantly, current global patterns of vertebrate species richness and key biodiversity areas are strongly associated with past patterns of human land use, when compared to current, 'natural,' recently-untouched landscapes," study co-author James Watson of the University of Queensland (UQ) told UQ News.
The new research goes against past assumptions about conservation. John Muir who founded the Sierra Club, for example, did not think that Indigenous communities belonged in protected wild areas, as Open Access Government explained. Native American communities were excluded from the country's national parks when they were formed, as UBMC pointed out. The study also overturns past research claiming that most of the globe was uninhabited up until 1500 CE.
"There's a paradigm among natural scientists, conservationists and policymakers that human transformation of terrestrial nature is mostly recent and inherently destructive," Watson said.
The fact that this is not true has important implications for preventing biodiversity loss and the sixth mass extinction. Explicitly, it emphasizes that Indigenous rights and natural protection go hand in hand.
"This study confirms on a scale not previously understood that Indigenous peoples have managed and impacted ecosystems for thousands of years, primarily in positive ways," study co-author Darren J. Ranco, associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of Native American research at the University of Maine and a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation, told UMBC. "These findings have particular salience for contemporary Indigenous rights and self-determination."
The study is not the first to make this point. A major UN report published in March found that Indigenous communities in Latin America were the best guardians of forests on that continent. Still, inequalities persist. Indigenous groups will not have a seat at the negotiating table at the upcoming UN biodiversity conference this year, though they will be present as observers.
Ranco noted that Indigenous groups currently manage around five percent of land on the planet, but that land contains 80 percent of Earth's biodiversity. He argued that contemporary efforts to conserve this biodiversity should not repeat the mistakes of the past.
"We must also assure that new attempts to protect lands and biodiversity are not just a green-grab of Indigenous lands," Ranco told UMBC. "We cannot re-create the worst of colonial policies meant to exclude Indigenous people, which would undoubtedly make the situation much worse for the environment and humanity."
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