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Algae bloom in the Arabian sea. Norman Kuring / NASA

Ocean dead zones quadrupled in size since 1950, while low oxygen sites around the world increased tenfold, threatening large swaths of marine life, scientists warned in a study released on Friday.

"Major extinction events in Earth's history have been associated with warm climates and oxygen-deficient oceans," the analysis published in the journal Science stated.


"Under the current trajectory that is where we would be headed. But the consequences to humans of staying on that trajectory are so dire that it is hard to imagine we would go quite that far down that path," Denise Breitburg, an author of the study and researcher at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in the U.S., told the Guardian.

Human activities are largely responsible for the growth of ocean dead zones. Climate change, caused by fossil fuel emissions, is behind the large-scale removal of oxygen in open waters. Open oceans have naturally low oxygen areas that typically lay west of continents due to the Earth's rotation.

Coastal zones, which provide jobs to 350 million people, are now home to at least 500 known dead zones, though that number could be much higher. According to the study, these areas have increased by an area roughly the size of the European Union since 1950, when there were 50 reported around the world.


This global map indicates coastal sites where industrial activity, including large-scale and chemical-intense farming, are suffocating ocean life. International Oceanographic Commission / Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

In coastal regions, algae blooms are the main culprits behind dead zones. Manure, sewage and fertilizers create these blooms. When the algae decomposes it sucks oxygen out of the water.

"This is a problem we can solve," Breitburg told the Guardian, pointing to the River Thames in the UK and the Chesapeake Bay in the U.S., where improved sewage and agricultural practices helped remove dead zones.

"Right now, the increasing expansion of coastal dead zones and decline in open ocean oxygen are not priority problems for governments around the world. Unfortunately, it will take severe and persistent mortality of fisheries for the seriousness of low oxygen to be realized," Robert Diaz, a professor at the Virginia institute of Marine Science who reviewed the study, told the Guardian.

"No other variable of such ecological importance to coastal ecosystems has changed so drastically in such a short period of time from human activities as dissolved oxygen," Diaz said.

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Beijing successfully lowered air pollution levels following a crackdown on polluters last year, bringing China's capital in line with air quality targets, according to Chinese officials.

The announcement Wednesday by the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau followed a 2013 plan that ordered the city to reduce the yearly average concentration of particulate matter to less than 60 micrograms. According to the bureau, the capital succeeded by reducing PM2.5 concentrations to 58 micrograms per cubic meter—a reduction of 35.6 percent from 2012.


Reuters reported that the figures provided by the government agency were in line with the news agency's own estimates.

Despite meeting the target, northern China is still a ways off its official PM2.5 of 35 micrograms per cubic meter and even further off the maximum of 10 micrograms per cubic meter recommended by the World Health Organization.

"Current air pollutant levels remain a lot higher than the national air quality standard, indicating the improvement in air quality will still be a long-term process," Beijing's environment agency said.

PM2.5 is particulate matter with a length of 2.5 microns or less. Often a mix of chemicals, the microscopic cocktail of toxins from power plants, automobiles and other sources of industry harm human lungs and can cause heart problems if they enter the bloodstream.

Brought about in 2013 by public anger over frequently hazardous air pollution levels, the initiative received a late push from the government in October to ensure 2017 targets were met. The push included 27 other northern Chinese cities.

To reduce air pollution, Beijing closed nearly 2000 factories in the cement, foundry and furniture sectors and shut down coal power plants in the past five years. The city also took nearly 2 million high-emission vehicles off the road.

In north China's drive to switch to residential winter heating systems, it began phasing out coal-powered boilers to switch to gas or electric-powered equipment. It also shut down or curbed production at heavy industrial plants.

The government partly attributed the air quality improvement to drier and windier weather.

Wednesday's announcement came just two days after China announced it would suspend the production of hundreds of car models to curb air pollution.

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Energy companies and other businesses are no longer liable for accidentally killing migratory birds, the Trump administration announced Friday in a decision hailed by industry insiders.

A legal memo by the U.S. Interior Department reverses a longstanding agency practice and last-minute ruling released by the Obama administration in January 2017. The Obama-era policy meant that oil, gas, wind and solar operators could face prosecution for accidentally killing birds.


"Christmas came early for bird killers. By acting to end industries' responsibility to avoid millions of gruesome bird deaths per year, the White House is parting ways with more than 100 years of conservation legacy," David O'Neill, the chief conservation officer for the National Audubon Society, said in response to the decision.

In a legal opinion, the Interior Department's principal deputy solicitor, Daniel Jorjani, described the federal government's application of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—a 1918 law that officials have used to prosecute those who kill birds "incidentally"—as overreach.

The law "applies only to direct and affirmative purposeful actions that reduce migratory birds, their eggs, or their nests, by killing or capturing, to human control," Jorjani said in the Interior Department's legal memo.

Applying the law "to incidental or accidental actions hangs the sword of Damocles over a host of otherwise lawful and productive actions, threatening up to six months in jail and a $15,000 fine for each and every bird injured or killed," Jorjani wrote.

Before his post with the Trump administration, Jorjani worked for the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a project of the billionaire oil executives Charles G. and David H. Koch.

The National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA) and the American Petroleum Institute (API) praised the Interior Department's change of direction as a reasonable approach to the issue.

"Over the last few years, the management of 'take' under MBTA has been riddled with flawed decisions that have created massive uncertainty," Tim Charters, the senior director of government affairs for NOIA, told the Washington Post. "This common-sense approach ensures that lawful activities are not held hostage to unnecessary threats of criminalization."

Environmentalists expect that the policy reversal will create an environment with no accountability for the deaths of unprotected birds, Reuters noted. The prospect of legal liability fostered corporate efforts to create bird-friendly solutions.

"We just don't want to lose any incentive for the industry to come to the table and work through this with us," O'Neill told the Washington Post. "And the solutions are out there."

"The wind kills all your birds. All your birds, killed," Trump said during a rally in Pennsylvania in August 2016. "You know, the environmentalists never talk about that."

O'Neill, speaking to the Washington Post, said it's "ironic" that Trump lamented the bird-deaths then turned around to gut "one of the best tools we have to make sure the wind industry is properly siting these projects."

This move is the latest in a series of actions taken by Trump to weaken environmental protections his administration views as burdensome to industry, including shrinking of two national monuments in Utah and reconsidering protections for the Greater Sage Grouse, a Western bird whose population has dropped rapidly amid threats to its habitat.

Exact estimates are difficult to come by, but it's estimated that oil waste pits kill between a half million and 1 million birds each year, according to one study. Meanwhile, power lines kill up to 175 million birds per year, according to Audubon.

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