Scientists find 38 million pieces of trash on remote Pacific island


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Garbage on Henderson Island in the south Pacific Ocean. The uninhabited island has been found to have the world’s highest density of waste plastic, with more than 3,500 additional pieces of litter washing ashore daily at just one of its beaches. (Jennifer Lavers, AP)
Jake Slobe | May 15, 2017

When researchers traveled to a tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they were astonished to find an estimated 38 million pieces of trash washed up on the island.

A new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that there were 17.6 tons of debris on the shores of the tiny island. The world produces that amount of plastic every 1.98 seconds, the researchers wrote.

Over 99 percent of the debris is made of plastic—most pieces are unidentifiable fragments.  The researchers say that fishing-related activities and land-based sources seem to have produced the majority of the debris.

The researchers say the density of trash was the highest recorded anywhere in the world, despite Henderson Island’s extreme remoteness. The island is located about halfway between New Zealand and Chile and is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.

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Henderson Island sits at the western side of the South Pacific Gyre, a counterclockwise current that collects floating debris from the shore of South America. Researchers found that most items on the island came from China, Japan or Chile.  (Jennifer Lavers, AP)

Dr. Jennifer Lavers, a research scientist at the University of Tasmania in Australia, was the lead author of the report.

What’s happened on Henderland Island shows there’s no escaping the effects plastic pollution even in the most distant parts of our oceans, said Lavers in a press release discussing the study.

“It speaks to the fact that these items that we call ‘disposable’ or ‘single-use’ are neither of those things,” she said, “and that items that were constructed decades ago are still floating around there in the ocean today, and for decades to come.”

Scientists find that less tilling means more earthworms


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Anecic earthworms live deep in the soil and emerge at night, providing a helpful mixing of soil in agricultural fields. (The Earthworm Society of Britain)
Jenna Ladd | May 16, 2017

Wriggly earthworms are the unsung heroes of agricultural fields around the world. Their tiny bodies make it easier for water and air to enter the soil, transform organic matter into nutrients that is available to plants and can improve crop productivity by more than 50 percent.

A study recently published in the journal Global Change Biology sought to better understand which agricultural conditions are optimal for worms. Dr. Olaf Schmidt and Dr. Maria Briones analyzed 215 studies from over 40 countries that explored the relationship between tilling practices and worm population health.

The meta-analysis showed that disturbing the soil less (i.e. no-till farming, conservation agriculture) resulted in significantly more abundant earthworm populations. For example, no-till farmland saw a 137 percent increase in worm populations and a nearly 200 percent increase in soil biomass. Those areas of land in reduced-till for more than ten years saw the most earthworms return to the soil. In contrast, those field that were heavily plowed lost half of their original worm population.

Researchers observed the affect of tilling on 13 species of worms and found that the largest species were most heavily impacted. These creatures, called anecic earthworms, live deep down in the soil. At night-time they wriggle up a single channel, grab food, such as plant matter or manure, and then slide back down the same permanent burrow.

The researchers write that restoring earthworm populations through practing reduced-till or no-till farming “will ensure the provision of ecosystem functions such as soil structure maintenance and nutrient cycling by “nature’s plow.””

On The Radio – Iowa leads midwest in clean energy momentum


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The recently released top ten list ranks states not only by current performance but also their potential for clean energy development in the future. (Union of Concerned Scientists)
Jake Slobe | May 15, 2017

This On the Radio Segment discusses the recently released list of states in the U.S. that lead in the use of clean energy.

Transcript: The Union of Concerned Scientists recently published its list of top ten states demonstrating “clean energy momentum,” and Iowa led the Midwest.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

States were ranked according to twelve metrics that were organized into three broad categories: technical progress; direct, visible effects on our daily lives; and policies to build momentum for the future. California was at the top of the list as it was a top performer in eight of the twelve metrics. Other leading states included Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Oregon, Maine, Washington, and New York.

Iowa rounded out the top ten list and was ranked first among Midwestern states. The Hawkeye state was the first to generate more than 30 percent of its energy from wind and is expected to source more than 40 percent of its total energy from wind turbines by 2020.

The publication pointed out that despite recent rollbacks of Obama-era climate policy, great strides have been made in renewable energy development. It notes that enough solar panels were added in 2016 to power two million houses.

To read the full report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, visit iowenvironmentalfocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Senate votes to preserve Obama-era methane gas regulation


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This methane gas collector near Tuscan, Arizona pipes methane from a landfill to Tuscan Electric Power where it is used to generate electricity. (Gene Spesard/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 12, 2017

The U.S. senate voted on Wednesday to uphold an Obama-era rule that limits the release of methane from oil and gas production on federal land.

The Republican-majority senate voted 51-49 to block the resolution. Three GOP senators, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona voted with their democratic colleagues against the motion. Senate Republicans proposed  repealing the rule under the Congressional Review Act (CRA). So far in 2017, 14 regulations have been repealed under the CRA including a stream buffer rule aimed at keeping coal mining debris from entering waterways and another rule that gave the public some say about what happens to federal land.

President Obama updated the decades-old-rule that governs the venting and flaring of methane gas and regulates natural gas leaks. Upon the rule’s establishment, the Obama administration projected it could keep 41 billion cubic feet (BCF) of natural gas per year from going to waste. Methane, which is often released during the production of natural gas, is short-lived but 100 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Republican senator John McCain agreed with those hoping to keep the rule in place. He said, “Improving the control of methane emissions is an important public health and air quality issue, which is why some states are moving forward with their own regulations requiring greater investment in recapture technology.”

Opponents of the rule say that it discourages U.S. energy production and hurts state and county revenue streams. However, the Western Value Project estimates that the U.S treasury would have lost out on $800 million in royalties from oil and gas production over then next decade if the rule had been revoked.

Nordic nations demand Trump’s acknowledgement of climate change in Arctic circle


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An arctic beach off of the Norwegian sea. (Tony Armstrong/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 11, 2017

Representatives from eight Arctic nations will gather in Fairbanks, Alaska today for the 10th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting.

At the meeting, the end of the United States two-year chairmanship of the council will be marked with a final statement summarizing U.S. accomplishments as chair. Officials from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden have not yet signed off on the statement because they say that the Trump administration deemphasizes climate change and the Paris climate accord in the document. The language of the document must be approved by all parties prior to its presentation for signing.

The other member countries say that President Trump has reversed the commitment that President Obama made to climate issues when the U.S. became chair in 2015. Along with Russia, the current administration has suggested opening up the Arctic to more drilling. The White House is also considering pulling out of the Paris climate pact, which was signed by over 200 nations in 2015.

Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden recently made a joint statement pledging to take the lead on climate change and energy policy and firmly backing the Paris accord. At the ministerial meeting’s end, Finland will become head of council.

Although the current administration has taken decisive steps to dismantle climate change policy, David Balton, the State Department’s assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, said, “The U.S. will remain engaged in the work the Arctic Council does on climate change throughout. I am very confident there will be no change in that regard.”

U.S. drought levels at record low levels


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After years of widespread, intense drought, the US is experiencing its smallest drought footprint since 2000. (NASA Earth Observatory)
Jake Slobe | May 10, 2017

After years of intense, record-setting drought, the U.S. is now experiencing its lowest level of drought in the 17 years since the U.S. Drought Monitor began its weekly updates.

Less than 5 percent of the U.S. was in some stage of drought as of May 4, the most recent update, compared to the 65 percent in drought in September 2012.

The last time drought levels across the country were this low was in July 2010, when 8 percent of the U.S. was in drought after which came a remarkable period of deep, damaging drought that led to billions in crop and livestock losses, spurred major water restrictions, and helped fuel terrible wildfires.

The ups and downs in drought levels could be linked to some of Earth’s natural climate cycles that can usher in relatively wet and dry periods. But climate change is likely to play a role as higher temperatures lead to increased evaporation and therefore worse drought conditions.

The epicenters of drought were in the central and southern Plains states from 2011 to 2013 and in California from 2012 to this winter. At the peak of its drought, more than half of California was experiencing “exceptional” drought conditions, the highest category of drought. At the end of September 2011, more than 85 percent of Texas was in this category as well.

Both droughts were fueled by a combination of dry weather and repeated, sizzling heat waves. The exceptional heat that blanketed much of the central and eastern portions of the country in 2012 boosted it to the hottest year on record for the U.S., while California experienced back-to-back record-hot years during its drought.

That heat is the clearest link between climate change and droughts, as rising global temperatures fueled by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere tilt the odds in favor of record heat.

Studies have pointed to the role of climate change-fueled heat in California’s drought, and droughts in the future, no matter where they happen in the U.S., are likely to be more intense than those of today because temperatures will be higher on average.

 

Georgia wildfire inches closer to rural communities


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The Incident Information System regularly posts the latest developments in the West Mims Wildfire and other wildfires across the country. (InciWeb)
Jenna Ladd | May 9, 2017

The West Mims Wildfire near the Georgia-Florida state line has been burning for weeks and shows few signs of slowing down.

The wildfire was ignited on April 6th when a lightening strike touched down inside the swampy Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Since then, the fire has torched more than 133,000 acres and counting. Until this weekend, the wildfire did not pose a threat to humans in the area. After the fire crossed manmade fire breaks this weekend, an evacuation notice was sent out to residents of two small rural communities in Charlton county, St. George and Moniac.

By Monday, the fire had already burned about 37 square miles in Charlton county and 210 square miles total. Susan Heisey is supervisory ranger for the Okefenokee refuge. She said, “The accumulated moisture in the vegetation is at record-breaking lows right now. These fuels, they’re getting one little piece of ash and the fire’s just picking up and moving.”

A high pressure system in the southeast United States contributed to temperatures nearing 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the area on Monday, with humidity at just 20 percent. As temperatures remain high for the next few days and dry winds continue to blow across the West Mims fire, spokespeople for fire-fighting effort expect the fire to continue burning wherever fuel is available to it.

So far, there are 624 personnel working to keep the fire under control. A detailed incident report outlines predictions of the fire’s status over the next 72 hours. The report reads, “The drying trend will continue causing more fuels to become available to burn in the swamp. Fire activity will increase in areas that have not seen much heat over past few day. Re-burn potential remains very high.”

Climate change has lengthened the wildfire season in the U.S. by 78 days since the 1970’s. Rising temperatures and more frequent, intense droughts have contributed to more intense wildfires across the country.