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Three Environmental Stories not Told

Energy

Media Matters for America

By Jill Fitzsimmons

Over the past year, Media Matters has documented the deterioration of media coverage on a range of environmental issues, including declining coverage of climate change, unbalanced coverage of the Keystone XL pipeline, the perpetuation of falsehoods about U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clean air rules, disproportionate and misleading coverage of Solyndra and the denigration of clean energy. Meanwhile, the mainstream press has overlooked some of the most important environmental challenges we face. In honor of Earth Day, Media Matters compiled three major environmental stories the media missed this year:

1. Garbage In The Ocean Is Accumulating Rapidly. Did you know that in the middle of the Pacific Ocean there is garbage strewn across a region twice the size of Texas? In 1997, oceanographer Charles Moore discovered what is now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a whirlpool of debris from storm drains and fishing boats which includes plastic bottles, light bulbs, toothbrushes, boxes and abandoned fishing nets. The debris is widely dispersed, making cleanup an enormous challenge. Much of the plastic that has accumulated there has broken down into small pieces, which seabirds ingest when they mistake it for food. The plastic is not only toxic for marine wildlife—it eventually contaminates the human food supply.

Scientists say this floating landfill has grown significantly in recent years and will continue to get larger as 1-2 million tons of debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan makes its way into the North Pacific's rotating ocean current. And this is not the only one of its kind—a similar garbage patch has been found in the Atlantic Ocean, and there are at least several others across the ocean. But the media has largely ignored this growing problem. 

2. At Least 46 Oil Spills Have Occurred In The U.S. Since The  BP Disaster. As 5 million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster, nonstop media coverage drew national attention to the safety and environmental risks posed by deep-water oil drilling. But once the well was capped, the media quickly moved on, Congressional safety reform measures floundered, and the lessons of the largest oil spill in history were largely forgotten, even as gulf drilling surges. Since then, public outrage has subsided, but the risk of oil spills has not. In the two years since the BP disaster, at least 46 oil spills have occurred across the U.S., according to NOAA data compiled by Blue Planet Water Solutions. In the absence of any meaningful action by Congress, oil spills will continue to threaten ecosystems and disrupt the tourism and seafood industries. Nevertheless, the mainstream media has neglected to report on these ongoing risks. Meanwhile, the conservative media have advocated for expanded drilling while dismissing the destructive impact of the BP disaster.

3. Gulf Of Mexico Contains A "Dead Zone"—Devoid Of Life—The Size Of New Jersey. A 2008 study by ecologist Robert Diaz of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science found that there are more than 400 "dead zones" in coastal waters across the world, totaling 95,000 square miles. Many of these hypoxic zones are caused by nitrogen pollution from farm and sewage runoff, which contributes to excessive algae blooms that deplete oxygen in the water and kill or drive away marine life. Pollution from the Mississippi River watershed contributes to a massive recurring dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico each year, which threatens American fisheries and costs the U.S. seafood and tourism industries $82 million per year. Last summer, a team of scientists supported by NOAA measured the Gulf of Mexico dead zone at 6,765 square miles—about the size of New Jersey. 

Dead zones around the world will only get worse as the human population increases and requires more agricultural productivity. For example, a study published in September by researchers from South Korea and the U.S. found that nitrate levels of the coasts of China, Japan and Korea are soaring due to rapid population growth and industrial development. The study warned that increased nitrogen pollution could have major impacts on marine ecology and could lead to new dead zones in Asia. Global warming is also expected to aggravate the problem by changing rainfall patterns and increasing runoff from rivers into the ocean. But the media has turned a blind eye to this issue.

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Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

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"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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