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Top Five Environmental Events of 2011

Insights + Opinion
Top Five Environmental Events of 2011

Stefanie Penn Spear

This year certainly had its big eco-news events. From natural disasters that led to one of the worst nuclear meltdowns on record to an unprecedented assault on environmental protections and regulations in Congress, 2011 felt like we took 10 steps backward on the protection of human health and the environment. Personally, I'm still reeling from 2010 events, including the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Supreme Court decision giving a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in politics, but we need to keep pressing forward and educate more people on the issues impacting the environment and solutions that can help solve the most daunting problems. We need to encourage individuals to become engaged in their community, adopt sustainable practices and support strong environmental policy.

Here's my top five list of eco-events of 2011. Though the list tells some of the story, I need your help to finish it. Help me complete this list by commenting below on what you think are the biggest eco-events of 2011. I'm sure together we can cover them all.

1. Fukushima Meltdown

The 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Northern Japan and caused a loss of cooling and the meltdowns of three nuclear reactors on March 11 tops the list of most tragic events of 2011. Beyond the 20,000 fatalities, the event led to the worst nuclear crisis in 25 years since Chernobyl in 1986.

The reactor meltdowns in Fukushima forced 160,000 people to flee radiation and the subsequent damage to fishing, farming and forestry businesses. The Fukushima disaster received the highest possible rating of seven on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. Japanese officials estimated it may be more than 20 years before residents can safely return to the area. Studies confirm substantial releases of long-lived radioactive materials such as cesium-137, a known carcinogen, into the atmosphere and Pacific Ocean. The long-term ecological and social impacts remain unclear.

Political responses to Fukushima are changing the future of nuclear power globally. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, once a proponent of nuclear power, announced a phase-out of her nation’s 17 nuclear plants by 2022. No other nation has gone so far.

President Obama requested safety reviews for existing nuclear facilities but made clear that nuclear power remains in play. Most European Union countries are also focusing on safety reviews and researching new technology. Chinese officials promise rigorous safety standards but still intend to add 40 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2020, enough to power 40 Vermonts.

Here are two of many posts from EcoWatch's coverage on Fukushima:

Fukushima Nuclear Crisis Update

Stopping Fukushima Times 10,000

2. Hydraulic Fracturing or 'Fracking'

The largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in history has swept across the U.S. The Halliburton-developed drilling technology of "fracking" or hydraulic fracturing has unlocked a "Saudia Arabia of natural gas" beneath many cities and towns across the nation. Thanks to the 2010 release of Josh Fox's documentary GASLAND, its hard to find anyone who isn't aware of this issue.

From the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's draft analysis in December indicating an association between groundwater contamination in a Wyoming aquifer and gas production practices—including hydraulic fracturing—to thousands of people who spoke out against fracking in the Delaware River Basin, leading to a postponement of fracking in that watershed, it's clear that the controversy over the safety of this extraction method will continue for years.

Here are two of many posts from EcoWatch's coverage on fracking:

Environmental Dangers of Fracking Highlighted in Whitepaper

Landowners Say Gas Companies Kept Them in the Dark on Risks

3. Keystone XL Pipeline

Thanks to the work of Bill McKibben and the folks at 350.org, Tar Sands Action and a slew of other organizations, the Keystone XL pipeline is a house-hold term. From the direct action campaign in front of the White House where more than 1,200 people were arrested in August to the more than 10,000 people circling the White House in November to demonstrations in cities across the country where President Obama was visiting to outreach campaigns like Ride for Renewables, in which Tom Weis spent 10-weeks biking the proposed pipeline route and educating people about the impacts the project would have on their communities, people are speaking out against the extreme energy practices of the fossil fuel industry that are destroying the planet, displacing communities and making people sick.

TransCanada's proposed 1,700-mile long pipeline would transport highly corrosive crude oil from Canada's oil sands region in Alberta to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, before being exported to China, Latin America or Europe.

Here are two of many posts from EcoWatch's coverage on the Keystone XL pipeline:

The Keystone XL Pipeline Scam

Keystone XL Victory Will Help Stop Tar Sands Oil Extraction


. International Energy Agency's Warning

Without a bold change of policy direction, the world will lock itself into an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system, warned the International Energy Agency (IEA) in the 2011 edition of the World Energy Outlook (WEO). The agency’s flagship publication, released Nov. 9 in London, said there is still time to act, but the window of opportunity is closing.

“Growth, prosperity and rising population will inevitably push up energy needs over the coming decades. But we cannot continue to rely on insecure and environmentally unsustainable uses of energy,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “Governments need to introduce stronger measures to drive investment in efficient and low-carbon technologies. The Fukushima nuclear accident, the turmoil in parts of the Middle East and North Africa and a sharp rebound in energy demand in 2010 which pushed CO2 emissions to a record high, highlight the urgency and the scale of the challenge.”

With the dismal outcome of the Durban climate talks and lack of energy policies in many countries, including the U.S., it seems the warning from the IEA is not being taken seriously. One example the world should be following is Australia, which passed a new clean energy law in November after more than a decade of effort by countless Australians who have worked tirelessly for action on climate change. The wide ranging plan, entitled Securing a Clean Energy Future, will take effect July 2012.

Here are two of many posts from EcoWatch's coverage on the IEA report:

World’s Appetite for Coal Continues to Grow

Door to Achieving Climate Objectives Is Rapidly Closing


5. Ocean Acidification

Each year, the ocean absorbs approximately 25 percent of all the CO2 we emit. Its acidity has increased by 30 percent since the beginning of the industrial revolution and acidification will continue at an unprecedented rate in the coming decades. This can have a negative impact on marine organisms, especially the calcifying ones such as shellfish, molluscs, coral reefs and various types of zooplankton and phytoplankton. Increasing ocean acidity requires them to use more energy to build their shells, which has potentially severe ecological consequences. If the current acidification rate continues, it could lead to the extinction of some species and impact others that feed on them.

“The increasing amounts of carbon dioxide that we emit into the atmosphere every day are changing our oceans, steadily increasing their acidity, and dramatically affecting marine life,” says Prof. Dan Laffoley, marine vice chair of International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Commission on Protected Areas and chair of RUG. “This may also have severe impacts on human life in the future. Only by reducing our CO2 emissions and enhancing the protection of oceans to strengthen their ability to recover, can we effectively address this issue.”Here are two of many posts from EcoWatch's coverage on ocean acidification:

Experts Urge Action to Limit Ocean Acidification

Feds Must Act to Protect 82 Coral Species from Extinction

There's my list of the top five eco-events of 2011. What are yours? Please share them in the comments below.

Happy new year.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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