By Daisy Simmons
Nevada City, California. Amidst a historic pandemic and social unrest, watching the accelerating impacts of climate change on the silver screen could create a sense of helplessness – or deepen the resolve to act. Emphasizing the latter, "Resilient by Nature" was the official theme of the recent Wild & Scenic Film Festival, an entirely virtual affair this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than a tagline, a sense of resilience was palpable throughout the online event, from the festival's stirring poster art, through the 100-plus documentaries that emphasized solutions, and even into the Zoom-based lobby, where attendees could drop in for a trivia game, casual conversation about the films, or even a BYOB beer tasting.
Held by the South Yuba River Conservation League (SYRCL), the 19th annual festival also played up opportunities to act on climate and other environmental issues, from participating in virtual activism workshops to simply getting outside: Self-guided excursions included the memorable "It's All Newt to Me," a guide to local amphibians.
Despite the creative ways to come together virtually, however, there was also disappointment that the event could not be held in person. Yet even this regret seemed unifying, at least in the virtual media lounge, where several filmmakers expressed an appreciation for being able to sit in on each other's video-conference interviews – pleasantly intimate conversations that any attendee could also enjoy from the comfort of their own couch, live or after the fact.
Flexibility was indeed a silver lining of the virtual festival experience, as audiences could view most of the films at any time, from any WiFi-enabled device, during the 11-day festival.
Five Documentaries to Add to Your Climate Watchlist
Resilience doesn't mean being Pollyannaish. The festival's standout climate documentaries tackled some of today's most sobering subjects, from the devastating Camp Fire that leveled Paradise, Calif. in 2018, to existential threats faced by indigenous Arctic communities experiencing intensifying oil and gas development.
Yet even these darkest of explorations reveal stories of fierce hope and determination, a reminder that heroic action on climate isn't just possible – it's happening now.
A glance at five documentaries* that may inspire your own conviction that worthy ways forward exist:
2040 (92 min. documentary, see trailer below)
How will 2040 look for the youth of today? Australian director and narrator Damon Gameau imagines a hopeful future for his four-year-old daughter, Ella – a vision that is profoundly realistic as it is based on solutions that are already available. Yet despite the film's optimism, there is no sugarcoating here. Gameau opens with a frank description of the climate crisis, albeit in terms a young child can grasp, demonstrating greenhouse gases with a steamy shower, for one example, and the danger of melting "glaciers" spilling out of the freezer, for another.
From there an expedition in "fact-based dreaming" takes off, as the film crisscrosses the world to explore some of the most promising current "solutions," including renewable energy, driverless cars, regenerative agriculture, marine permaculture, and empowering girls. For each category, we see resourceful and dedicated people in action today, followed by a fanciful, often humorous, dramatization of Ella's future, 20-something self, living in a world rich with these solutions. Will there be a giant world party in 2040 to celebrate the success of these efforts? There's no way to know whether Gameau's hopeful vision will or won't pan-out, but he points out that "we have everything we need to make it happen."
The Last Ice (83 min. documentary, see trailer below)
A new race is afoot in the waters between Canada and Greenland, where steadily melting sea ice is opening up the potential for faster shipping, increased oil extraction, and other commercial pursuits. As industries vie for space in the newly open waters, indigenous communities are rallying to protect the Arctic as they long have known it.
Taking home the Wild and Scenic "Best of the Fest" award, The Last Ice follows the personal journeys of several Inuit people whose lives are fundamentally tied to the land and wildlife, including a young man with dreams of being a hunter, who is deeply devoted to his sled dogs, and a woman working to keep her culture's ancient traditions alive, one text at a time. Mixing in archival footage and current science and political news, the film traces the threads of globalization that led to this moment over the past century, from the first forced resettlements of Inuit communities, to container ships cutting ever-more swiftly through the ice.
Through it all, there's stunning landscapes bedazzled with Northern lights; threatened, majestic animals like polar bears and narwhals; and a fervor for preserving Inuit ways of life. They combine to make the case that it's in our shared best interest to keep the Arctic from becoming a Wild West of extraction.
Public Trust | The Fight for America's Public Lands (96 min. documentary, see trailer below)
Spanning around 640 million acres and 28% of the United States' land, the nation's public lands are a uniquely American birthright – and the center of a fight over what to do with them. Do we exploit natural resources to further economic activity? Or do we preserve them from extractive industry use, to keep ecosystems and their beauty intact for future generations? Are those poles-apart choices the only two options?
This film documents both sides of what has become a cultural war over "the last large-scale public asset on the planet," from the deserts of Utah, the storied Boundary Waters of Minnesota, and the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – all threatened by oil and gas development and/or mining. But at its core, it's also a love letter to these places, and the people across the country working to protect diverse lands.
Winner of one the festival's pair of Jury Awards, Public Trust features a refreshing mix of personalities, including a hunter and investigative reporter from north Alabama. Feeling a deeply personal stake in the future of the public lands he grew up on, he is working to "follow the money" to help Americans see who's behind the destruction of our public lands.
During production, the Trump administration opened up large areas of public land to oil and gas development. Now, viewed from the fresh reality of a new administration, it may comfort some viewers to know that a Biden administration executive order has already begun halting oil and gas leasing on federal lands.
Rebuilding Paradise (91 min. documentary, see trailer below)
The deadliest fire in California history captured international attention when it decimated Paradise in 2018. But the town's story didn't end there.
It takes grit not to fast-forward through the first harrowing 10 minutes of this Ron Howard-directed documentary. Raw dashcam footage and emergency call audio blend into a nightmarish sequence of escape from the smoke-blackened town. As the flames leap higher, a police officer, alone in his cruiser, slows down to pass his own home, stiffly reports that it is engulfed in flames, then plunges back into the darkness.
From there, though, the film shifts from disaster to what comes next for locals who choose to stay and rebuild, like the former mayor who can't wait to rebuild, and the school counselor whose own home was spared but feels crushing guilt when she runs through her now-empty neighborhood.
As the year goes on, the pain doesn't subside – it somehow gets harder, for the counselor at least. There are water contamination issues to confront, the lingering trauma that strains the police officer's marriage, and an angry town meeting with PG&E, the utility whose faulty equipment started the fire.
But life has indeed gone on in Paradise. Somehow the high school remained standing, and six months after the Camp Fire, graduating seniors light up the field with exquisite joy.
Some people argue against rebuilding because the risk of another fire is too high. The former mayor, however, is defiant in his decision to stay. "A lot of people think it's wrong to rebuild. I'm 74, I don't give a damn. Is it right to build a house in a hurricane zone in Miami on the beach? This is where I want to be."
Wild Climate (27 min. documentary, see trailer below)
Got wanderlust? Enjoy a classic cross-country road from your living room with Virginia and Peter Sargent, as they cruise through rural America to get to know people whose livelihoods are threatened by climate change. Together with their dogs, Trout and Salmon, the Sargents camp out in public lands along their way to meet folks like farmers, hunters, fishermen, and even pro snowboarders, all seeing the increasing effects of climate change in their daily lives from intensified drought thwarting the Colorado farmer, to the impacts of wildfire on a hunting outfitting company in Idaho.
Interspersed with these stories is data confirming the science behind their experiences. For example, the pro snowboarder is already seeing his work threatened by diminishing snowpack; that makes sense given that western U.S. snowpack declined by 10-20% between the 1980s and 2000s, with another 60% loss anticipated in the next 30 years.
But more than a series of interviews and scenic views, the Sargents themselves give the film heart. These aren't just big city slickers swooping in and out of little towns to get the scoop and high-tail it to the next location. There's respect and even, at times, reverence for the people they meet along the way. Of the family farmers in Idaho, Peter says, "I think Purple Sage represents the best that family farms have to offer in this country. And there are so many more like them. And it's also an aspiration. It's the kind of family I want to create with Virginia."
Note: Some of the above films may not yet be available yet for general audience streaming. Keep an eye out for a local edition of the Wild and Scenic On Tour program, coming soon to roughly 250 local events across the U.S.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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By Julia Conley
Conservation campaigners on Thursday accused President Donald Trump of taking a "wrecking ball" to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as the White House announced plans to move ahead with the sale of drilling leases in the 19 million-acre coastal preserve, despite widespread, bipartisan opposition to oil and gas extraction there.
Seven weeks before Trump is set to leave office, the administration announced it plans to conduct the sale virtually on Jan. 6. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will enter a notice about the sale in the Federal Registry next week.
The announcement comes a week after Bank of America became the latest bank to rule out financing of drilling projects in the Arctic Refuge. JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo have also stated in the past year that they will not give financial backing to fossil fuel extraction in the Arctic, leading the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency last month to propose a new rule that would bar financial institutions from refusing to lend to specific sectors in the name of "fair access."
"Arctic Refuge drilling makes zero sense in today's reality of high oil market volatility and with every major U.S. bank and many international banks unwilling to invest in risky, expensive Arctic oil projects," said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. "The administration is simply rushing to sell off one of the wildest places left on earth for pennies on the dollar before President-elect Biden takes office in January."
Every major US bank has now walked away from destructive, risky drilling in the Arctic refuge. Banks recognize this… https://t.co/XM7z8EOZMg— Senator Jeff Merkley (@Senator Jeff Merkley)1607007183.0
According to Kolton, Trump's plan to move forward with his deeply unpopular leasing plan is "yet another dangerous political favor" to the fossil fuel industry and an action which suggests he is eager to do as much damage to the environment before Biden — who opposes drilling in the Arctic Refuge — is inaugurated.
"President Trump's electoral fate has been sealed and his days in office are numbered," he said. "The fact that the sale will be officially noticed on December 7, one day after we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Arctic Refuge by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, symbolizes the degree to which the president has taken a wrecking ball to decades of bipartisan conservation support."
The timing of the announcement, added the Natural Resources Defense Council, makes "a mockery of the ongoing public comment period."
Today’s decision to guide @Interior’s Arctic Refuge drilling strategy is deeply flawed: It violates Indigenous righ… https://t.co/ypkVlab9WZ— NRDC 🌎🏡 (@NRDC 🌎🏡)1607017433.0
The Gwich'in people, who have hunted caribou on the land that is now the Arctic Refuge for thousands of years, are among the most vocal opponents to drilling in the region. In August the tribe sued the Interior Department and the BLM over the Trump administration's plan to sell leases in the refuge's 1.5 million acre coastal plain.
"The Interior Department's Arctic Refuge leasing process has been flawed from the outset, ignoring science and Indigenous voices throughout and failing at every turn to sufficiently analyze the impacts drilling will have on our climate, our air and water quality, the health of wildlife or the future of local Indigenous communities," said Kolton.
In addition to negatively impacting the Gwich'in people, opponents say drilling in the Arctic Refuge would also harm the polar bears that live there and have already been harmed by the warming of the planet, numerous fish species, and nearly 200 species of migratory birds.
"For decades, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has stood as a symbol of our nation's strong natural legacy," said Ellen Montgomery, public lands campaign director for Environment America. "Its breathtaking landscape is home to endangered polar bears, caribou, wolves, muskoxen, and migratory birds that travel annually to all 50 states. Destroying their home in the craven desire for more oil is a tragic mistake."
"Once this seal is broken, there is no going back," Montgomery added. "Industrial-level oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Refuge cannot occur without doing catastrophic damage to vital habitats."
According to a poll released in August by Morning Consult, just 31% of Americans support drilling in the Arctic Refuge.
In light of public opinion, banks' unwillingness to fund drilling projects, and signs that renewable energy industries are poised to grow faster than the fossil fuel sector in the coming years, Kolton said, "any oil company bidding on this sale will face not only economic challenges, but enormous reputational and legal risks as well."
"America is transitioning to a new administration that has already pledged to protect the refuge," said Montgomery. "We are rapidly moving to renewable energy and clean transportation options. We don't need the current administration to jam this through, using a 'going out of business sale' approach. We strongly urge oil companies to take a pass."
The Sheenjek River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Alexis Bonogofsky / USFWS
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
The oil industry responded to the controversial and last-minute sale of oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with a collective 'meh' on Wednesday.
The federal government received bids on just 11 of the 22 leasing tracts on offer, and nine of those were purchased at the legal minimum price of $25 per acre by an Alaska state-owned corporation with hopes to sublet the tracts to other oil companies in the future.
No major or even mid-size oil companies entered valid bids.
The ANWR lease sales are mandated as part of the GOP plan to pay for its 2017 tax cuts based on expectations that the sales and oil extraction would net the Treasury $1.8 billion over 10 years; Wednesday's lease sale raised $14.4 million.
Under mounting pressure from climate advocates, the six biggest American banks and five biggest Canadian banks have all pledged not to finance drilling in the refuge. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to prevent oil drilling in the refuge.
"This lease sale was an epic failure for the Trump administration and the Alaska congressional delegation," Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement.
"After years of promising a revenue and jobs bonanza they ended up throwing a party for themselves."
For a deeper dive:
- How Drilling in ANWR Would Threaten the Gwich'in People's Way of ... ›
- Trump: 'I Never Appreciated ANWR' Until Oil Industry Friend Called ... ›
- Biden Urged to Ban ANWR Drilling After Court Approves Leases ... ›
The plan was put forth by the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation and released by the Bureau of Land Management. The plan calls for the start of seismic testing on millions of acres, spanning an 847.8 square mile area, on the east side of the refuge in an area where polar bears and other wildlife reside. The seismic testing will allow the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation to detect the presence of oil in the area.
Seismic testing works in a way that is similar to ultrasound technology. It generates acoustic waves deep underground that produce a picture that can pinpoint oil deposits, according to The Hill.
The Bureau of Land Management said it would allow for 14 days of public comment before deciding if it should issue a permit, according to The New York Times.
Environmental activists have argued that the short timeframe means it is impossible to conduct an adequate environmental review of the proposal. The plan involves using heavy trucks fanned out across the area to create a grid pattern. It also requires a crew of 180 workers who would need ample supplies and mobile living quarters, according to The New York Times.
The National Wildlife Federation argues that the rushed comment period in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic ensures that public opposition will not be heard adequately.
"This is a desperate attempt to jam through a plan that could kill denning polar bears, imperil other wildlife, threaten the Gwich'in people, and cause long-lasting damage to the Arctic," said Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation, in a statement. "By rushing this plan through while ordinary Americans are focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and their own health and safety, it's clear this administration wants to cut the public out of public lands in order to advance its dangerously myopic and misguided energy agenda."
The company intending to conduct the seismic test said it will exercise caution should it encounter any wildlife during its exploration. Environmentalists countered that it's not the interactions that worry them as much as the permanent alterations to the Arctic tundra that could upset the delicate balance of the ecosystem that polar bears and other animals depend on.
"Allowing huge thumper trucks and camps onto sacred lands where they leave deep and lasting wounds is a threat to my people, the animals, our food, and our way of life," said Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, in a statement, as The Hill reported. "We have raised concerns repeatedly about this administration rushing the process and shortcutting our review."
The Wilderness Society also sees the plan as a politically motivated move that will silence the public.
"The submission of this application and BLM's choice to act on it so close to the election shows how desperate the administration is to turn over one of the nation's most sensitive landscapes to the oil industry," said Lois Epstein, director of the Arctic program for the Wilderness Society, in a statement, as The New York Times reported. "The federal government is recklessly rushing and irresponsibly denying the public adequate time to assess the application and submit comments."
The New York Times also noted that the proposal calls for the work to be carried out by Houston-based SAExploration, which declared bankruptcy, and was accused of accounting fraud earlier this month by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
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By Sharon Guynup
At this time of year, in Russia's far north Laptev Sea, the sun hovers near the horizon during the day, generating little warmth, as the region heads towards months of polar night. By late September or early October, the sea's shallow waters should be a vast, frozen expanse.
But not this year. For the first time since records have been kept, open water still laps this coastline in late October though snow is already falling there.
"In one sense, it's shocking, but on the other hand, it's not surprising," said Walt Meier, a research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Over the past 40 years, unprecedented climate change-driven events such as this have become the new normal in the Arctic — which is heating up far faster than the rest of the planet.
While weather patterns at the top of the world vary, the overall changes are dramatic and occurring so rapidly that the region may be entering a "new Arctic" climate regime, says Laura Landrum, an oceanographer with Colorado's National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The Arctic is transitioning from a mostly frozen state into an entirely new climate — and impacting the entire planet, she said.
Meier calls the Arctic the "bellweather of climate change" because it's a place where a small bump in temperature has real impact: a change from -.5°C to .5°C (31°F to 33°F) is the difference between ice skating and swimming, he said, while a couple of degrees warmer in Florida may not even be noticed.
Comparison of autumn sea ice formation for the first half of October 2012 (the record year for Arctic sea ice extent loss) and in 2020 (second place for sea ice extent loss). The satellite record goes back to 1979. @Icy_Samuel, data provided by NSIDC
An Extreme Year in a Region Known for Extremes
It's been quite a year in Siberia — on land, and off the Arctic coast. The first six months were extraordinarily warm and the sea ice began melting early. By May, fires burned in permafrost zones that are usually frozen year-round. In June, temperatures hit a record-breaking 38°C (100°F), and by September, blazes incinerated about 14 million hectares (54,000 square miles) of tundra — an area the size of Greece.
A combination of changing climate and quirky weather are now preventing this fall's freeze-up. Siberian sea temperatures are higher than usual because of this year's extreme climate events. The heat wave warmed the many rivers that feed into the Arctic Ocean and also triggered an early melt-out. Without ice and snow that acts like a mirror — reflecting the sun's heat back into the atmosphere — the dark ocean absorbed extra warmth over the summer. Much of the remaining ice disintegrated. Then in September, unusually strong, warm winds blew in from the south, pushing any newly formed ice out to sea.
In the past, a shift in the winds wouldn't have mattered much. Back in the 1980s, Igor Polyakov, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska, remembers being part of expeditions that landed small seaplanes on sea ice to study the Siberian Arctic. He described the Laptev Sea as a solid, glaring white landscape punctuated by pastel-tinged ice: rose-colored, light blue and green. Since the regions' deeply cut gulfs and bays are located in shallow continental shelf waters, they mostly stayed frozen.
But by summer 2002, sea ice was less stable, and today, ice breakers can travel the region through open water. "The changes are dramatic," he said. "It happened in front of our eyes. Now, in the summer, there's no ice at all for thousands of kilometers, sometimes as far north as the 85th parallel." That's five degrees from the North Pole.
In the 1980s, about 80% of the Arctic Ocean and its surrounding seas were frozen in thick, "old ice" that mostly survived the summer melt, said James Overland, an oceanographer with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who has studied the Arctic for decades. "Now much of that has to refreeze each winter. We did not expect to see this so soon."
Arctic sea ice extent on Oct. 25, 2020 was at a record low 5.613 million square kilometers for this date, surpassing the record set in 2019 of 6.174 million square kilometers. ChArctic NSIDC
A Dangerous Cycle
Across the Arctic, ice is now thawing earlier, freezing later, thinning and — in many places — disappearing altogether.
Thinner ice is less resilient. Picture ice cubes in a glass. Thick chunks last longer and melt slower than ice chips and slivers. All disintegrate faster in warmer liquid. This is a huge problem in the Arctic, where vast stretches of open blue water absorb the sun's heat during summer, when the sun never really sets. Those warm waters flow beneath the ice to melt it from below.
This year, the overall health of the sea ice was bleak: the end-of-summer minimum was tracking at the second-lowest amount of sea ice in 42 years, Landrum said. Measurements by NASA and the NSIDC found it was about 2.6 million square kilometers (1 million square miles) lower than the average from 1981 to 2000. NASA satellite data shows an overall downward trend in Arctic ice is averaging 12.9% a year.
This year's average global temperature will be among the warmest on record, researchers say. Current models predict the Arctic will be ice-free in summertime by 2040 – 2050. Overland thinks this so-called Blue Ocean Event (BOE) might come even sooner.
Many factors are colliding that could speed massive melt. New feedback loops continue to emerge, compounding and accelerating changes. For example, early climate models didn't factor in methane — a potent greenhouse gas — that's pouring into the atmosphere from melting permafrost. The tundra is now thought to be emitting 300-600 million tons of carbon yearly, the equivalent of driving between 65 and 129 million cars for a year.
The Arctic appears to be changing into an entirely new climate state due to rapid warming. The extent of sea ice in the late summer, when it reaches its minimum each year, has already entered a statistically different climate, with surface air temperatures and the number of days with rain instead of snow also beginning to transition. Simmi Sinha, ©UCAR
Likewise, thick ice that withstood high winds and storms decades ago, now is thin and can be severely damaged by such storms — amplifying one-off extreme weather events. Then there's "Atlantification," the increasing intrusion of salty, temperate Atlantic Ocean waters into chillier Arctic seas.
The changes in the Laptev Sea, long known as an Arctic "ice factory," add another concerning factor. In the past, sea ice created there typically moved with wind and ocean currents, traveling over the North Pole towards Greenland. Depending on changing conditions, that ice then spent years trapped in a slowly spinning gyre in the Beaufort Sea; ended up off the Greenland coast; or piled up on the north shore of the Canadian Archipelago, building ice ridges that towered 3 to 9 meters (12 to 30 feet) high — multi-year ice that resisted melting.
That system no longer works as before, with the Laptev Sea now turning to blue water every summer, the "ice factory" largely shut down, and multi-year Arctic sea ice at a record low — and still dropping.
A polar bear prowls the Arctic shoreline. VisualHunt.com
An Interconnected Planet
The polar bear has become the poster child for climate change impacts on wildlife. But Ursus maritimus isn't the only victim; cascading affects throughout the Arctic food chain are impacting everything from plankton to seals, globally important fisheries species like pollock, on up to whales, musk ox and other cold climate mammals.
In Siberia, reindeer are starving in wintertime. "Weather whiplash" is bringing rain, in what should be the frigid dead of polar night. The falling rain freezes atop the snowpack, forming a layer of thick ice that makes it impossible for reindeer to dig down to grass and plants below; many now die of hunger. These once-rare Arctic warm spells are now commonplace.
Indigenous people are also suffering. Without proper ice platforms, it's growing harder for them to hunt for the walrus and whales that sustain them. Coastlines are eroding as sediments held together by permafrost become unglued. And rising seas are inundating coastal villages.
Worse, rapidly escalating climate change in the Far North is being exported to the rest of the world: The Earth's biomes are interconnected. "You can't alter one system without affecting others," explained Mark Serreze, a research scientist for the NSIDC. "What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic, and the changes are unfolding faster than our ability to keep up with them." Serreze, in his 2018 book framing the problem, dubbed the north polar region as, "The Brave New Arctic."
Serreze notes that the Arctic covers a massive area; it's the size of the lower 48 U.S. states combined. Amplified Arctic warming alters global weather, and impacts the rest of the planet, changing weather, ocean patterns and the jet stream.
Intense storms, droughts and heat waves — once every 100- or 500-year extreme weather events — are now occurring regularly around the globe, with devastating impacts on people, economies, and ecosystems. This year alone, for example, saw massive record wildfires in California, Colorado, Siberia, and Brazil, and no one yet knows how this autumn's delayed Arctic re-freeze might impact the planet's upcoming weather.
A fire burning through northern forest in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, in July 2020. Greenpeace International
Julienne Stroeve, who specializes in sea ice research at NSIDC, adds another potential serious impact to the list: threats to our food supply. "What's predicted to happen in agricultural sectors is not good news ... We're going to be living on a very different planet if we keep adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere," she said. "We're conducting this blind experiment, and we don't yet know the real implications.
Stroeve is desperate to inform people of the urgency: "How do you sell climate change to be as much of an emergency as COVID-19? Except that it will kill a lot more people."
She believes we can rally. If we can produce a COVID-19 vaccine in record time, and heal the ozone layer through the Montreal Protocol, Stroeve thinks "we have the ability to change the course of this train."
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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The footage, shared on Facebook Sunday by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) worker Sergey Kavry, shows the bear walk by with "T-34" sprayed in large black letters on its right side. The T-34 is a World War II Soviet tank, and some Russians paint its name on their cars during Victory Day celebrations in May, according to The Guardian.
"Why?!" Kavry wrote in a Facebook post, according to The Guardian. "He won't be able to hunt without being noticed!"
Kavry wasn't the only one surprised and concerned by the video. WWF Russia press officer Daria Buyanova told BBC News that the footage was "quite a shock."
Even the people filming the video seemed surprised, according to a translation and summary provided by The Siberian Times:
Why is it so dirty?' one of them asks as the recording begins.
'A spotty bear?' answers another, before realising there was writing on the predator.
We had to beep the rest of the recording due to the Russian expletives.
Kavry said he first received the footage from a WhatsApp group for the indigenous people of the Far Eastern Russian region of Chukotka, according to BBC News. However, he does not know where or when it was actually filmed. Experts are now trying to find out.
Anatoly Kochnev, a scientist at the Institute of Biological Problems of the North, said it could take weeks for the paint to wash off. Until it does, it could be more difficult for the bear to capture prey, since it relies on its white coat for camouflage.
Kochnev said the bear would likely have needed to be sedated for quite some time in order for someone to spray the letters so evenly.
'Scientists could not do this," Kochnev told Ria Novosti news agency, according to The Siberian Times, adding that it could have been a "joke."
Kochnev speculated further that the spray paint could have been related to recent "turmoil with polar bears" in Russia's Novaya Zemlya region. In February, authorities declared a state of emergency in the far north archipelago after more than 50 hungry polar bears entered human homes and buildings. The climate crisis has melted sea ice, forcing polar bears to wander into human settlements in search of food.
"[P]erhaps they took some measures ahead of the upcoming winter by catching and immobilising bears," Kochnev said.
Russian media also thought the spray paint might be a reflection of local anger over the increased presence of bears in human areas, BBC News reported.
If the spray-painting is a reaction to polar bears entering human settlements, it could backfire, Kavry speculated. In his Facebook post, he wrote that hunger could lead the bear to die, or harm others.
"It will enter villages," he wrote.
After ongoing pressure from environmental groups and Indigenous communities, Bank of America has said it will not finance any oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, making it the last major U.S. financial institution to do so.
The decision is especially significant because outgoing President Donald Trump has opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to fossil fuel exploration, and is rushing to sell leases for drilling in the refuge before leaving office.
"It has long been clear that drilling in the Arctic Refuge would trample Indigenous rights, threaten vulnerable wildlife, and worsen the climate crisis. Now that every major American bank has stated unequivocally that they will not finance this destructive activity, it should be clearer than ever that any oil company considering participating in Trump's ill-advised lease sale should stay away," Sierra Club Senior Campaign Representative Ben Cushing said in a press release responding to the news.
Bank of America first announced its decision to Bloomberg News on Monday and confirmed it to AFP. In the statement, the Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank said it had unofficially refrained from financing Arctic drilling for a long time.
"There's been misunderstanding around our position, but we have not historically participated in project finance for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic," Bank of America head of public policy and strategy in Washington Larry Di Rita told Bloomberg. "But given that misinterpretation, we've determined that it's time to codify our existing practice into policy."
The Sierra Club singled out Bank of America after Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Chase, Wells Fargo and Citi all announced official no-Arctic-drilling policies this year.
Bank of America emphasized its environmental commitments to Bloomberg. It has pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and aims to fund green bonds and support global climate solutions.
Its announcement raises further doubt about the likely success of Trump's push to lease parcels of ANWR before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20. Some analysts have pointed out it may be difficult to finalize sales by that date, AFP reported. Oil prices are also hovering around $45 a barrel, so companies may not be motivated to lease drilling sites far from major infrastructure. International financial institutions have also promised not to fund drilling in the refuge.
"Nearly 30 major banks around the world (now including all 6 major U.S. banks!) have concluded that funding new Arctic drilling — especially the Arctic Refuge, which Trump is recklessly trying to destroy — is far too risky and bad for business," Cushing tweeted.
Environmental and Indigenous groups have long opposed drilling in the ANWR, partly because of its potential impact on Indigenous rights and endangered species such as polar bears and caribou. ANWR's coastal plain is the birthing and nursing ground for the Porcupine Caribou herd, and the Gwich'in Nation of Canada and Alaska considers it the "Sacred Place Where Life Begins." In 1988, the nation formed the Gwich'in Steering Committee to oppose oil and gas drilling on the plain.
"The Trump administration has never even pretended to care about the Indigenous communities whose human rights would be threatened by the destruction of the coastal plain, but major financial institutions are listening to us," Gwich'in Steering Committee Executive Director Bernadette Demientieff said in the Sierra Club press release. "We will never stop fighting to protect the sacred calving grounds from destructive drilling, and we will prevail."
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- Endurance swimmer and UN Patron of the Oceans Lewis Pugh has completed a 1 kilometer swim under the East Antarctic ice shelf.
- The feat was part of his campaign to secure a series of protected zones in the seas around the continent.
- He chose the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica to make his epic swim.
It's been 200 years since Russian explorer Admiral Bellingshausen discovered Antarctica. It's a frozen wilderness, and the East of the continent is the coldest place on Earth — but scientists say they are starting to see signs of ice loss even there.
Braving freezing waters and a windchill factor of -15 C, he explored a river running through an ice tunnel formed as a result of the glacier melting.
And the experience was eye-opening. "Antarctica is melting," he says. "Everywhere I looked, there was water rushing off the ice sheet, carving long ravines deep into the ice sheet, or pooling into supraglacial lakes."
"This place needs protecting," he adds. "It needs protecting because all our futures depend on it."
‘The Polar Bear’
Pugh is the only person to have undertaken long-distance swims in all the world's oceans. At 50, he's a veteran of many icy adventures, including swimming over the North Pole during a brief break in the sea ice, and crossing a lake that formed on a glacier on Mount Everest.
His ability to withstand extreme cold has earned him the nickname of "The Polar Bear."
Pugh's East Antarctic swim is part of his campaign to secure a series of Marine Protected Areas around the continent. Antarctica already has one of these zones, in the Ross Sea, but Pugh wants all the seas around the continent to be designated protection areas in order to stem the effects of climate change.
He has already visited Moscow to mark the anniversary of Admiral Bellinghausen's momentous discovery. And he plans to head to Beijing, London and Washington to persuade world leaders to increase protection for Antarctica.
Warning to the World
Since the early 1900s, glaciers around the world have been melting fast, as temperatures have risen due to global warming.
This melting causes sea levels to rise, which increases coastal erosion and creates more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Together, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are the largest contributors to global sea level rises.
The East Antarctic, with ice sheets formed over millions of years and several kilometers thick in places, has long been considered the most stable part of the continent.
But researchers say that is changing, with glaciers starting to move more quickly, which could indicate widespread shifts in the region.
"What is very clear to us from the science is that we now need to create a network of marine protected areas around Antarctica," says Pugh. "It's an amazing place."
The World Economic Forum's Net Zero Challenge was launched during this year's Annual Meeting in Davos, challenging nations and corporations to do more to achieve the targets set out in the 2015 Paris agreement.
Reposted with permission from World Economic Forum.
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.
One thing I am particularly looking forward to is hearing more from experts and scientists so that we can usher in a new era of science-based policymaking. But before we get too excited about what those changes could be, there are some essential actions that the Biden administration must take to ensure that the scientists and their work will be protected over the next four years and beyond.
I am eager to put the past behind me, but I am also acutely aware that if we do not make the effort to learn from our history then we risk repeating it. So how can we close the gaps in our laws to ensure that industry cannot profit at the expense of public health or diminish our public lands? Two words: scientific integrity.
Scientific integrity refers to the professional culture, norms, and rules that underpin the production, communication, and use of scientific research. Now more than ever we need to establish scientific integrity policies and laws that prevent the suppression and distortion of scientific research, and prohibit retaliations against scientists. Without this we risk future abuse and manipulation of science and harm to the public good.
We Need More Than Listening
By now we have all become sadly accustomed to the current administration sidelining scientists, most prominently Dr. Anthony Fauci, because the facts they provide do not fit with the political rhetoric of the moment.
I have my own history of filing a scientific integrity complaint with the National Park Service (which falls under the Department of the Interior) after senior ranking employees attempted to censor one of my scientific reports. I know all too well the damage and pain that these actions cause, not just for the individual scientist, but also because these attacks on science over the last few years have undermined sound, evidence-based decision making.
President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that he will listen to the scientists. While this is certainly a welcome change, listening can only take us so far. This past week Lauren Kurtz from the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and my colleague Gretchen Goldman published an article listing 10 actions the new administration should implement to show their commitment to strengthening government science:
- Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship.
- Protect scientists' communication rights.
- Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations.
- Protect federal scientists' right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.
- Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions.
- Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law.
- Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency.
- Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.
- Strengthen whistleblower protections.
- Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science.
All of these recommendations have been reinforced by what we have learned during the Trump administration. They would ensure that no future administration could do things like edit climate change reports to include scientifically unsound language questioning climate change, suppress oil and gas safety information, prevent scientists from discussing their work in public forums, or withhold vital scientific information that is required under other laws, such as the Endangered Species Act.
When it comes to changes at the Department of the Interior, the Union of Concerned Scientists has articulated specific actions that the Biden administration should implement if they want to ensure that government scientists are free to do their work without political interference. Scientists deserve the right of last review and the ability to comment publicly, they shouldn't have to fight for their publications to be published, and they should have a pathway to anonymously file a complaint if they think their rights have been breached.
I spent over a year staring at my finished climate change report on my National Park Service desk wondering why it was being delayed. I was later pressured to makes edits I did not agree with. When I fought back I was told that I could be removed as an author or have my work not published at all. Given my own experience, these suggestions to fix our current system are deeply personal to me because I have seen how Interior can work against scientists to silence them when their work is politically inconvenient.
Time for Action
I have spoken to many scientists, particularly federal scientists, who are eager to turn the page so they can hurry back to the work they had been doing before this administration, but I urge caution in assuming that things can be "normal" again.
Before Trump, I naively thought the scientific integrity policies established during the Obama administration would be sufficient. I never imagined that any administration could so willfully ignore and attack expert advice and evidence that is intended to protect us and our public lands.
I have personally witnessed how hard our federal scientists work. They put in long hours with minimal pay (far less that what they could get if they worked in private industry) to pursue one simple goal: to make things better for the nation.
We need stronger scientific integrity policies to protect these people and their work. But more than that, we need stronger scientific integrity laws because they also benefit society.
Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.
By Julia Conley
Climate scientists were aghast Monday at the news that David Legates, a University of Delaware professor who has repeatedly questioned the scientific consensus that human activity is causing the climate crisis and has claimed that carbon dioxide emissions are beneficial, has been named by the Trump administration to a top leadership role at the federal government's climate research agency.
Legates was appointed—without the knowledge of several NOAA officials, according to one person at the agency—to serve as deputy assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction and will report directly to acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs.
Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) called the appointment "a slap in the face to NOAA scientists who work daily to conduct and communicate climate science to the public and decision makers."
"Until now, NOAA has largely evaded the kind of anti-science political appointees that have devastated the EPA and Interior," Goldman told the Washington Post. "With Dr. Legates we risk seeing the same kind of politicization of science and corruption of ethics."
Oh my word. NOAA taps David Legates, professor who questions the seriousness and severity of global warming, for to… https://t.co/CyvTD2OtLS— Kalee Kreider (@Kalee Kreider)1600053194.0
Legates served from 2005 to 2011 as Delaware's state climatologist, and stepped down under pressure from former Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner when it came to her attention that his views on the climate were "not aligned with those of [her] administration."
"I am directing you to offer any future statements on this or other public policy matters only on behalf of yourself or the University of Delaware, and not as state climatologist," Minner wrote to Legates in 2007 after he wrote an amicus brief in agreement with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which opposed Delaware's attempt to force the federal regulation of greenhouse gases.
The appointment, which one anonymous NOAA official referred to as a surprising "midnight hire over the weekend," comes as the agency is monitoring the approach of Hurricane Sally. The storm rapidly strengthened on Monday and was expected to cause an "extremely dangerous and life-threatening storm surge" on the Gulf Coast.
NOAA's National Weather Service has also been issuing warnings to the west coast about the wildfires that have overwhelmed the region in recent days, killing more than 30 people. Agency scientists have contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) reports on the climate crisis and the warming of the globe, including the 2018 study which warned that greenhouse gas emissions will pose an increasing threat to human life if they are not drastically reduced in the next 10 to 20 years.
The appointment of Legates to help lead the agency undermines that message, critics say, considering he counts among his climate science work a paper called "The IPCC Reconsidered," a Heartland Institute-funded project which called for more, not fewer, fossil fuel emissions.
"The juxtaposition of the apocalyptic wildfires and the announcement of David Legates' appointment is mind-boggling," Jane Lubchenco, who served as NOAA administrator under President Barack Obama, told the Post. "Just at the time when we need continued truth from the nation's lead climate agency, a climate denier is hired. This is a travesty."
In his new role, Lubchenco warned, Legates will "be in a position to squelch the free flow of accurate scientific information to the public, to distort or manipulate scientific findings, curtail monitoring and research, and create an overall chilling atmosphere for the high-quality science and scientists that the nation needs."
Other examples of Legates' work include a 2007 paper—partially funded by Koch Industries, the American Petroleum Institute, and ExxonMobil—which questioned whether the climate crisis is destroying polar bears' habitats as temperatures in the Arctic rise twice as fast as the global average, and sea ice vanishes at a rate of 4% per decade.
Along with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Legates spoke in 2016 at a panel discussion on Capitol Hill—when both chambers of Congress were controlled by Republicans—about the documentary "Climate Hustle," which called into question the existence of the scientific consensus regarding human-caused climate change. The panel addressed the question: "Are [scientists] trying to control the climate...or you?"
Brian Kahn, managing editor of Earther, tweeted about a talk Legates gave at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2018 in which the professor posited that the heating of the planet holds benefit for humans and wildlife, such as the growth of larger crabs.
NOAA just hired David Legates, a man who has legitimately said with a straight face that climate change is fine bec… https://t.co/AZh6AY5iaG— Brian Kahn (@Brian Kahn)1599943117.0
Anyways, here's the crab love CO2 slide from when he gave the talk at CPAC. This man is being paid with the public'… https://t.co/kpQ84CNkZB— Brian Kahn (@Brian Kahn)1599943717.0
Legates' presentation was a "total cesspool of misinformation about how carbon dioxide is good, actually," tweeted Kahn.
"He's not just in left field—he's not even near the ballpark," Lubchenco told NPR.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, thanks to protections put in place 60 years ago, has remained a pristine oasis in the most remote section of Alaska. Now, the Trump administration is finalizing plans to end those protections and to lease the federal lands to oil and gas exploration, according to The New York Times.
The maneuver will allow oil and gas companies to exploit the vast reserves that sit under what environmentalists call "the last great wilderness," according to The Guardian.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is estimated to sit above billions of barrels of oil. However, the 19-million acre sanctuary is home to polar bears, various waterfowl, migrating caribou and Arctic foxes that make the area their year-round home. In all, the refuge is home to more than 270 species, including the world's remaining Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears, 250 musk oxen and 300,000 snow geese, according to The Washington Post.
The Trump administration plans to open the perimeter to drilling, roughly 1.6 million acres in coastline, as The New York Times reported.
The Department of the Interior said it had completed all the requisite reviews and intended to start selling leases to the land soon. Speaking to reporters, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said, "I do believe there could be a lease sale by the end of the year," as The New York Times reported.
Bernhardt added that offering the leases, "marks a new chapter in American energy independence" and predicted it could "create thousands of new jobs," according to CNN.
He also said in his conference call with reporters that he was moving forward with a 2017 budget bill, passed by a Republican-led congress, that insisted that the Federal government open up oil and gas leasing on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, according to The Washington Post.
The push to open up the wildlife refuge marks a significant energy policy for an administration that has been hostile to the urgency of the climate crisis and invested heavily in greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels. According to research from the Centers for American Progress, the drilling would result in more than 4.3 billion tons of CO2 emissions, which is roughly 75 percent of the nation's annual carbon dioxide emissions, according to The Washington Post.
"This is our nation's last great wilderness," said Adam Kolton, the executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, as The Guardian reported. "Nowhere else in the five-nation circle polar north do you have such abundant and diverse wildlife."
The migrating porcupine caribou is important to the culture of the indigenous Gwich'in people, many of whom reside alongside the caribou's migrating pattern.
"This area they just opened is their calving grounds," said Bernadette Demienti, executive director of the Gwich'in steering committee, as The Guardian reported. "This is a place that is so sacred to the Gwich'in that we don't go there. Our creation story tells us that we made a vow with the caribou that we would take care of each other. They have taken care of us, and now it is our turn to take care of them."
Demienti added that the caribou have already started to change their migration pattern as global warming afflicts the Arctic at a rapid pace, changing the landscape and the vegetation that the ruminants rely on.
Environmentalists like Kolton intend to fight the leases in federal court, where a protracted legal battle is expected to play out.
"We will continue to fight this at every turn," said Kolton in a statement, as The New York Times reported. "Any oil company that would seek to drill in the Arctic Refuge will face enormous reputational, legal and financial risks."
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By Max G. Levy
In seabird after seabird, Anna Robuck found something concerning: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, lurking around vital organs.
"Brain, liver, kidney, lung, blood, heart," Robuck says, rattling off a few hiding spots before pausing to recall the rest. Robuck, a Ph.D. candidate in chemical oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, quickly settles on a simpler response: She found the chemicals everywhere she looked.
PFAS — a group of synthetic chemicals — are often called "forever chemicals" due to their quasi-unbreakable molecular bonds and knack for accumulating in living organisms. That foreverness is less of a design flaw than a design feature: The stubborn, versatile molecules help weatherproof clothing; smother flames in firefighting foam; and withstand heat and grime on nonstick pans.
Through consumption and disposal, the chemicals seep into ecosystems and bodies, where they have been linked to cancers, pregnancy complications, and reproductive and immune dysfunction. Recent attention has focused on the prevalence of PFAS in drinking water.
"Over the past 10-15 years we've really developed this super negative picture of what PFAS do to humans," Robuck says. "But we've barely scratched the surface of that in wildlife."
One particular area of concern is the marine ecosystem. Long seen as a bottomless sink for pollutants, the ocean is a final stop for PFAS trickling into the ecosystem. Once in the ocean, PFAS can persist for decades or longer — and travel long distances. As a result, a growing body of scientific research suggests that marine wildlife are accumulating dangerous amounts of "forever chemicals."
"If we continue to emit PFAS, then the capacity of the ocean to dilute them is going to be exceeded," says Jamie DeWitt, an environmental toxicologist at Eastern Carolina University. "For all we know, oceans could be reservoirs that re-pollute the land."
Journeying Across the Globe
Coastal environments seem especially vulnerable to PFAS seeping from the chemical plants and military bases responsible for heavy contamination. Charlotte Wagner, a researcher at Harvard University studying the global transport of pollutants, says it's still unclear what fraction of PFAS pollutants remain contained at their source, and what fraction has already leached into other environments.
But the fact that they do spread — and far — is clear. They generally wind up in oceans, according to Wagner. And not just the ones nearby. Studies in the early 2000s showed that PFAS survived decades-long journeys from manufacturers to remote ocean basins without breaking down.
"The ocean is not this static pool or bathtub," she says. Large-scale ocean circulation moves pollutants huge distances across the globe. Some varieties of PFAS may degrade slightly over the course of years, until they convert into one of the more stable "terminal PFAS" subgroups, including PFAAs.
"To the best of our knowledge PFAAs don't degrade at all under natural environmental conditions," says Robuck. Rather than diluting PFAS to infinitely low concentrations, oceans carry them to remote areas, like the Arctic and Antarctic.
Other pollutants that reach the ocean, like DDT and PCBs, will stick to algae and sediment that eventually fall to the ocean floor. "That is a really important removal process," Wagner says. "For PFAS, that process is minor." Plants, algae and sediment only remove a small fraction of PFAS from the water column. That leaves more to accumulate in animals, reaching concentrations thousands of times higher than surrounding waters.
And those chemicals could travel right back to humans. Eating a lot of seafood, especially fish high on the food chain like tuna, would be concerning, she says.
But it's not just fish — and humans eating them — that are at risk. A study last year reported PFAS in seawater and plankton dozens of miles off the Mid-Atlantic coast. Other research has revealed PFAS compounds — even some that have been previously phased out of production — in manatees, loggerhead turtles, alligators, seabirds, polar bears, dolphins and whales.
Measuring Harm to Ocean Life
In North Carolina's Cape Fear River, striped bass carrying high levels of PFAS showed distinct signs of impaired immune and liver function. But in the vastness of ocean water, can PFAS levels be high enough to cause harm?
"In recent years there have been increases in immune-based diseases in turtles and dolphins," says DeWitt. One of the most well-studied health effects of PFAS is immune dysfunction. Most experiments are limited to humans, rodents and chickens, but researchers are piecing together the role of PFAS in marine immune issues.
One study concluded that PFOS, a phased-out PFAS that still circulates today, triggers "chronic immune activation" in bottlenose dolphins. A similar link between PFOS and susceptibility to disease appeared in sea otters. Other research links multiple PFAS to hormonal changes in polar bear brains. But these aquatic wildlife health studies are few and far between.
"PFAS in wildlife is kind of the wild west," says Robuck. "Wildlife are inherently difficult to study in a lot of ways."
Zeroing on the health effects for individual species is tricky because scientists lack baseline data about stress responses and pollutant levels. They have no choice but to presume consequences in wildlife based on hormonal, immune and reproductive effects in lab animals. For Robuck, that means judging how a pelican will respond to its measured PFAS levels according to health data collected from a chicken. "That's a really crappy comparison," she says.
In one sense, the method is conservative: Lab animals are well cared for, so their health effects may be a best-case scenario compared to the stressful baseline of wild animals' experience. But it also means we don't have an accurate sense of what dangerous thresholds are for most aquatic life — despite a parade of red flags.
Endless Stream of Pollutants
Part of the problem is the sheer number of different compounds. Of the thousands of known PFAS, studies have only deduced health thresholds for a handful. Scientists screening their effects simply can't keep up with the pace.
The chemical compounds that fall under the PFAS umbrella are also not all the same. Some are long, bulky molecules; others are smaller and more agile. Some forms tend to naturally convert into others; others don't degrade whatsoever. Each molecule has the potential to be more toxic or bioaccumulative than the next. But for a lot of PFAS, Wagner says, scientists don't even have standardized methods of detecting them.
To make matters worse, even as some of the most dangerous chemicals are being phased out, companies are making alternatives. But they may not be any safer than what they're replacing. And scientists have found these alternatives are also accumulating in the bodies of fish and polar bears.
"It seems that we haven't learned anything from the past," says Belén González-Gaya, an analytical chemist at the University of Basque Country in Spain. "We keep on substituting compounds [for] others without any knowledge of biological effects."
Sydney Evans, a research scientist for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, suggests that researchers shouldn't have to prove the health risks for thousands of similar compounds in order to warrant regulatory action. "The burden needs to be on these companies and manufacturers to prove their compounds are safe," she says.
And while there is much we don't know about the majority of PFAS, experts argue that we do know enough to assume they all share fundamental features: persistence, bioaccumulation and health risks. For this reason a group of scientists recently published a call for governments and companies to treat all PFAS, old and new, as a single hazardous group.
"It's really the only way that we can be ahead of the curve," says Wagner, who cowrote the article. "Rather than always realizing that a compound is toxic once it's already everywhere and we measure it on a remote ice-site somewhere in Greenland."
To shut off the flow of PFAS into the ocean, scientists say that manufacturers should phase out the chemicals and focus on proving safer alternatives.
With so many open questions, Robuck hopes to see research that more closely predicts threats to marine life — and by extension people, too.
"As humans, we rely on every natural resource under the sun," she says. "When we undercut a healthy environment, we undercut our own health."
Max G. Levy is a freelance science journalist. He writes stories about the environment, public health, basic science, and how technology shapes policy.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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