By Simon Evans
Last Saturday, two dead whales washed up on the coast of Suffolk, in eastern England, and a third was spotted floating at sea.
What happened next illustrates how news can spread and evolve into misinformation, when reported by journalists rushing to publish before confirming basic facts or sourcing their own quotes.
The death of the whales generated a lot of media attention in the UK. However, much of the coverage was based on the speculation of one volunteer coastguard. The three whales became a "family," even though they were each from a different species. And their deaths were pinned on noise from offshore windfarm construction, even though pile-driving at a nearby site finished two months ago.
Carbon Brief has spoken to half a dozen experts on whales and underwater noise to try to get to the bottom of the story. Our findings cast huge doubt over whether offshore windfarms were to blame for the whale deaths, as implied by much of the media coverage.
The earliest report of this incident found by Carbon Brief was published by the Ipswich Star late on Saturday, May 20. It said one carcass is "believed to be an adult minke whale" and a second is believed to be a "baby calf."
The following day, the Ipswich Star published an updated version of its story, including an interview with a coastguard at the scene of one stranding, who said, "I can't comment on how the animal has died, we're not aware of that at the moment."
On Sunday morning, ITV News also reported the news. Its story said that the death of three whales on the Suffolk coast was being investigated, after their carcasses were first sighted on Saturday afternoon.
It said volunteers from Felixstowe Volunteer Coast Patrol Rescue Service believed one of the whales may have been hit by a large ship. It also briefly quoted the service's John Cresswell, calling it a "very sad day for marine mammals."
A BBC report also quoted Cresswell, saying it is normal for porpoises to wash up on the shores of Suffolk, "but not whales."
In fact, there are numerous and frequent reports of whale strandings around the UK coast, including in Suffolk in 2012. The UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP), which compiles figures for the government, said 88 whales stranded on UK beaches in 2015, the most recent numbers available.
By Sunday afternoon, the Mail Online was reporting that a "family of minke whales including a baby are found dead ... as marine workers try to work out how they died." The report carried lengthy quotes from the volunteer, John Cresswell, who said of his comments, "I'm not an expert and [this] is a personal opinion."
Nevertheless, he went on to say:
"Sometimes whales can't get very good sonar transmission near mudbanks, which means they end up at shore. I also believe that the wind turbines would have contributed to this, as whales aren't able to communicate properly when wind turbines are being used … I know for a fact if you stop the boat off the coast you can feel the vibrations and hear the noise. This could confuse them."
Cresswell added that "it looks like this could be a whole family."
The story was then reported widely across almost all of the UK's major newspapers, many of which used identical quotes from Cresswell. The Sun ("fears giant sea beasts were killed by windfarms") described Cresswell as an "expert."
The Mirror ("Three whales wash up dead ... 'after becoming distressed by offshore windfarm'") repeated identical Cresswell quotes and cited unnamed "environmentalists who believe offshore windfarms have contribute [sic] to whales deaths in the UK in the past."
The Telegraph report opened with the words, "Three minke whales may have been disorientated by windfarm when the [sic] washed up dead off the coast of the UK." Again, it used the same Cresswell quotes.
On the evening of Sunday, May 21, a CSIP update was posted on Facebook saying that the "confirmed stranding events are unlikely to be related given the differing degree of decomposition." It clarified that the species of whale had only been confirmed for one of the dead animals.
On Monday, May 22, the Times reported the whale deaths under the headline, "Windfarms blamed after three whales die off Suffolk."
The article began, "Three whales that washed up on the Suffolk coast may have died after becoming disorientated by offshore windfarms, marine experts believe." It added, "Wildlife experts claim that the noise generated by wind turbines can affect the sonar whales use to navigate, steering them off course."
However, the Times did not identify the marine or wildlife experts it claims to be citing. Instead, it quoted Cresswell, using new language not reported elsewhere, saying, "My personal opinion is that it could be a consequence of windfarms and the amount of sand in the water."
Also on Monday, the Daily Star reported that the cause of death of "three minke whales" was "a mystery." Its article, which once again reused one of the old Cresswell quotes, said, "The whales could have been struck by ships, confused by windfarms, caught a disease or experienced food or hydration problems. It's also possible they died of natural causes."
Once the flurry of news reports began to die down, many of the details initially reported as facts started to fall apart. A CSIP update on Tuesday, May 23, posted after site visits on Monday, said the three deaths are "considered to ... be unrelated," with the BBC reporting this in a follow-up story.
CSIP's post said that one of the whales is a minke, another is a fin whale and the third is "provisionally identified as a sperm whale." It added that the fin whale has a "large gash ... present on the left body wall, consistent with ship strike."
Carbon Brief asked John Cresswell about his reported comments, including the idea that it was a family of minke whales. He said, "That was the information that came in ... there were also calls claiming to have seen two more whales, which we now know was not confirmed at any stage ... All the information is very, very sketchy all the way through, everybody has a different opinion."
According to a post from the British Divers Marine Rescue Service:
"As often happens, the press interviewed bystanders who gave their own thoughts and rumors started that the whales were a family comprising a calf, a mother and a male and that there were more out at sea. In fact, the whales were from different species and the strandings were most likely unrelated."
So what do we know about whale deaths in the UK? The government's Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) said it can be difficult to link cause and effect in cetacean strandings, or to distinguish between natural and human impacts.
In its 2015 report, CSIP said fishing gear is a "significant issue," with over 50 percent of stranded minke whales in Scotland, examined at post-mortem between 1990 and 2010, being "diagnosed as entanglement cases." It said fin whale deaths investigated at post-mortem were due to either ship strike or starvation.
Professor Philip Hammond, member of the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group and researcher at the University of St. Andrews Sea Mammal Research Unit, told Carbon Brief, "Entanglement in fishing gear is probably the main pressure [on minke whales] in British waters."
Other human impacts on cetaceans, discussed in the CSIP report, include persistent organic pollutants, which can be detected at elevated levels in porpoises and whales. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) said noise from passing ships has also been shown to disturb cetaceans.
Minke whales are the most commonly sighted species in UK waters, perhaps explaining the early confusion over the identity of the three dead whales off Suffolk. Nevertheless, it is relatively rare for minke to be spotted so far south, as the map below shows.
Hammond told Carbon Brief that more recent data confirms the general distribution of whales shown in the map, above. However, he noted that minke whales can sometimes be found around Dogger Bank, a shallow area in the central southern North Sea, which is "not very far" from Suffolk.
Some of the experts consulted by Carbon Brief suggested whales might struggle to feed in the relatively shallower waters of the southern North Sea and that this could have contributed to the recent deaths.
But Hammond disagreed, saying minke are "perfectly capable" of feeding around Dogger Bank. He added that there is "some suggestion" that minke, like porpoises, are shifting their range southwards. He told Carbon Brief:
"Generally speaking, marine mammals are becoming more prevalent in the southern North Sea ... These observations are most likely related to changes in prey availability. So while the coast of Suffolk is quite far south, it may no longer be appropriate to consider the southern North Sea as outside the normal range of the minke whale."
While there is evidence that marine species distribution in the North Sea is being affected by climate change, with waters already having warmed by 1.3°C over the past 30 years, it is not yet clear whether if this is a factor for whales.
Hammond said, "I don't think there is sufficient evidence to say this for sure."
What about underwater noise as a potential cause of whale strandings? First, there is relatively little data about the soundscape below the waves of the seas surrounding the British Isles.
A first-ever survey of underwater noise in the UK marine environment was published in November 2016 by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), Marine Scotland Science and the University of Exeter.
In a recording site in the southern North Sea, it recorded frequent low-level noise from small fishing vessels, occasional interruptions from colliding fishing gear and a constant hum at 50Hz, coming from a nearby power station on land.
Dr. Kate Brookes, renewable energy co-group leader at Marine Scotland Science, said in a statement at the time of publication, "Understanding current noise levels underwater, and the effect these have on marine wildlife is critical to allowing us to develop plans to manage human activities."
Professor Patrick Miller, of the Scottish Oceans Institute and an expert on social communication and behavioral ecology of marine mammals, told Carbon Brief:
"First of all, minke whales have been shown to be affected by underwater noise. Most of the research in this area has been on how sonar affects minke whales. One study off Hawaii indicated a change in calling behavior of minke whales during sonar activity, possibly indicating avoidance responses. Another study (currently in press) combined data from Norway and off California to show that minke whales can show strong avoidance of naval signals. Finally, minke whales have been part of groups of whales that stranded during sonar activity in the Bahamas in 2000.
"Thus it is conceivable that underwater noise exposure can cause minke whales to have strong behavioral reactions, and that these could lead to strandings in some cases. The recent stranding of three animals on the Suffolk coast could conceivably have been due to the sounds produced by wind-farms. However, it is important not to rush to conclusions. Further steps would be useful to try to determine the causes of death."
He suggested post-mortem tests could include the health and body condition of the animals, adding:
"Windfarms can produce noise, depending on their activity phase, but there may [be] other sources of noise like airguns [used in seismic testing] or naval sonar as well. However, even if such sounds were going on at the same time (and no natural causes of death could be found), it would not 'prove' they caused the strandings. More research into the effects of noise on sensitive species like whales is needed to understand more fully how they respond to these underwater signals and vibrations caused by human activity."
At present, offshore windfarms are built on foundations driven into the seabed. This process usually involves noisy pile-driving to hammer the foundations into place. In the future, foundations could be "screwed" into place, reducing noise or removed altogether using floating wind turbines (see this Carbon Brief article for more on these, and other, offshore wind innovations).
But Carl Donovan, a lecturer at the University of St. Andrews Scottish Oceans Institute who has studied the environmental risk of sound exposure in marine mammals, told Carbon Brief:
"Marine mammals strand for various reasons [that] can be hard to ascertain. An operational windfarm would be low on the list, I think."
He said operational windfarms are "very quiet," whereas things such as seismic surveys for oil and gas exploration, sonar or pile-driving for windfarm foundations are "markedly noisy."
There is a "significant" difference between the underwater noise caused during construction compared to ongoing windfarm operation, agreed Sam East, of consultants Subacoustech, which has monitored underwater noise levels at several operational UK offshore windfarms.
East told Carbon Brief, "Often the underwater noise for operation [of a windfarm] drops below background noise within a few hundred meters."
Carbon Brief asked John Cresswell, the coastguard volunteer, what type of windfarm noise he was referring to, when speculating that it could have affected the dead whales. He said:
"We're not talking about the noise of the turbines when they're working, we're talking about the noise of the construction when these turbines towers are being hammered into the sea bed."
Nathan Marchant, lead scientist in the Cefas noise and bioacoustics team, told Carbon Brief:
"It seems the reporting of these incidents over the weekend was unfortunately lacking in expert input ... In terms of the noise generated by offshore wind turbines, the main concern with these installations is the noise generated during construction, which typically involves pile driving. During operation, the noise levels are low (they generate much less noise than a typical ship, for example) ... noise from operating wind turbines is a highly improbable cause of stranding events."
One obvious question would be whether there are any windfarms currently being built off the Suffolk coast. Information on the status of renewable energy projects around the country is freely available from the government. It shows there are just four offshore windfarms currently being built around the UK. One, the 336 megawatt Galloper windfarm, is under construction 30km from the Suffolk coast.
Carbon Brief approached project developer Innogy, which said that the turbine foundations were completed in March. Toby Edmonds, project director for Galloper offshore windfarm, told Carbon Brief in an emailed statement:
"Offshore wind companies such as ours work closely with organizations including Natural England and the Marine Management Organization to understand and mitigate the potential effects of our projects on wildlife. We also undertake extensive environmental studies before progressing with construction.
"This preparatory activity enables us to take a number of informed measures to minimize potential effects of construction. For example, we produce guidance for all vessels employed in windfarm activities; implement protocols for specific activities such as piling; and, of course, monitor noise levels to ensure they are within agreed levels.
"In relation to Galloper, the foundation piling operations, which have been completed [in March 2017], were overseen by an experienced team of marine mammal observers. We were saddened to hear about the whales beaching in shallow waters recently. Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon and is something that has been recorded throughout history."
It is, therefore, around two months since pile-driving at the windfarm off Suffolk has taken place. Given this information, Carbon Brief asked the volunteer, John Cresswell, if he agrees with reports suggesting he was blaming windfarms for the whales' deaths. "No, I'm not saying that and I never have done," he said. "All I'm saying is that my personal opinion is that they could be a contributing factor."
"I'm basing this on there's lots of noise in there. We've got ship noise, we're in a very busy seaway. In fact, the Harwich approach is the second busiest [UK] waterway after the English channel. We've got noise constantly, 24 hours a day, coming from all different areas. You can't put a finger on, that could be any one factor, [but] if you put them all together that must make a difference."
He added, "You know as well as I do you might give a media interview ... they will pick out of that what they want people to hear."
The deaths of three separate whales off the coast of Suffolk appear to reveal more about the way the media works than they do about anything else.
After early, tentative reports, an emotive and inaccurate story quickly emerged of a "family of three minke whales" whose death was pinned on offshore windfarms, based on the confident-sounding, non-expert speculation of a volunteer, whose sole qualification was "40 years as a professional seafarer."
In the rush to publish, this single view was neither challenged by reporters nor checked with other, independent experts on whales, windfarms or underwater noise. Instead, it was repeated through recycled quotes, and embellished as the view of an "expert."
Articles by the Times, Telegraph, Sun, Star, Mirror and Mail Online each quoted Cresswell, with the only other named quotes in any of their stories coming from a UK coastguard spokesperson and a "car valet worker."
As Paul Jepson, CSIP principal grant holder and reader at the Zoological Society of London, told Carbon Brief:
"We don't have any evidence for windfarms causing cetacean mass/single strandings … That's not to say that a windfarm can never cause a whale mass stranding—but we just have no evidence of that so far."
Reposted with permission from our media associate CarbonBrief.
Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
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By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
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By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.