The pandemic’s impacts on the recycling industry were evident during the annual Paper and Plastics Recycling Conference — both through its virtual format and the frequency with which coronavirus-related discussions seeped into sessions. But speakers said pre-existing factors apart from the pandemic, like the proliferation of brand sustainability commitments and new legislation, will also affect markets for the foreseeable future.
With the setting of the sun and the onset of polar darkness, the Arctic Ocean would normally be crusted with sea ice along the Siberian coast by now. But this year, the water is still open.
I’ve watched the region’s transformations since the 1980s as an Arctic climate scientist and, since 2008, as director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. I can tell you, this is not normal. There’s so much more heat in the ocean now than there used to be that the pattern of autumn ice growth has been completely disrupted.
To understand what’s happening to the sea ice this year and why it’s a problem, let’s look back at the summer and into the Arctic Ocean itself.
Siberia’s 100-degree summer
The summer melt season in the Arctic started early. A Siberian heat wave in June pushed air temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit at Verkhoyansk, Russia, for the first time on record, and unusual heat extended over much of the Arctic for weeks.
The Arctic as a whole this past summer was at its warmest since at least 1979, when satellite measurements started providing data allowing for full coverage of the Arctic.
With that heat, large areas of sea ice melted out early, and that melting launched a feedback process: The loss of reflective sea ice exposed dark open ocean, which readily absorbs the sun’s heat, promoting even more ice melt.
The Northern Sea Route, along the Russian coast, was essentially free of ice by the middle of July. That may be a dream for shipping interests, but it’s bad news for the rest of the planet.
Warmth sneaks in underwater
The warm summer is only part of the explanation for this year’s unusual sea ice levels.
Streams of warmer water from the Atlantic Ocean flow into the Arctic at the Barents Sea. This warmer, saltier Atlantic water is usually fairly deep under the more buoyant Arctic water at the surface. Lately, however, the Atlantic water has been creeping up. That heat in the Atlantic water is helping to keep ice from forming and melting existing sea ice from below.
It’s a process called “Atlantification”. The ice is now getting hit both from the top by a warming atmosphere and at the bottom by a warming ocean. It’s a real double whammy.
In the background of all of this is global climate change.
The Arctic sea ice extent and thickness have been dropping for decades as global temperatures rise. This year, when the ice reached its minimum extent in September, it was the second lowest on record, just behind that of 2012.
On the Atlantic side of the Arctic, open water this year extended to within 5 degrees of the North Pole. The new Russian Icebreaker Arktika, on its maiden voyage, found easy sailing all the way to the North Pole. A goal of its voyage was to test how the nuclear-powered ship handled thick ice, but instead of the hoped-for 3-meter-thick ice, most of the ice was in a loose pack. It was little more than 1 meter thick, offering little resistance.
For sea ice to build up again this year, the upper layer of the Arctic Ocean needs to lose the excess heat it picked up during summer.
The pattern of regional anomalies in ice extent is different each year, reflecting influences like regional patterns of temperature and winds. But today, it’s superimposed on the overall thinning of the ice as global temperatures rise. Had the same atmospheric patterns driving this year’s big ice loss off Siberia happened 30 years ago, the impact would have been much less, as the ice was more resilient then and could have taken a punch. Now it can’t.
Is sea ice headed for a tipping point?
The decay of the Arctic sea ice cover shows no sign of stopping. There probably won’t be a clear tipping point for the sea ice, though.
Research so far suggests we’ll stay on the current path, with the amount of ice declining and weather systems more easily disrupting the ice because it’s thinner and weaker than it used to be.
The bigger picture
This year’s events in the Arctic are just part of the climate change story of 2020.
Global average temperatures have been at or near record highs since January. The West has been both hot and dry – the perfect recipe for massive wildfires – and warm water in the Gulf of Mexico has helped fuel more tropical storms in the Atlantic than there are letters in the alphabet. If you’ve been ignoring climate change and hoping that it will just go away, now would be an appropriate time to pay attention.
Scientists led by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) have developed a novel method of using fruit peel waste to extract and reuse precious metals from spent lithium-ion batteries in order to create new batteries.
Associated journal article: “Repurposing of Fruit Peel Waste as a Green Reductant for Recycling of Spent Lithium-Ion Batteries” by Zhuoran Wu, Tanto Soh, Jun Jie Chan, Shize Meng, Daniel Meyer, Madhavi Srinivasan and Chor Yong Tay, 9 July 2020, Environmental Science & Technology. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.0c02873
The gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs is nothing new – women are significantly underrepresented. A group of young scientists and engineers has stepped outside of their discipline to publish a policy memo aimed at helping to address this longstanding problem.
The authors, all of whom are graduate students at NC State, focus specifically on paid family leave for new parents – which they argue would help retain more women in the STEM workforce. Their paper, “Paid Family Leave to Strengthen the STEM Workforce,” is published open access in the Journal of Science Policy & Governance (JSPG).
G. Panthi, et al (2021). “Leaching potential of chemical species from real perovskite and silicon solar cells.” Process Safety and Environmental Protection 141, 115-122. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psep.2020.10.035
Abstract: Despite their many advantages, solar photovoltaic (PV) cells used for electricity generation can have negative environmental impacts. The chemicals necessary for their fabrication can be released into the environment during their disposal or following damage, such as that from natural disasters. The principle objective of this study was to assess the leaching potential of chemical species, primarily heavy metals, from perovskite solar cells (PSC), monocrystalline (MoSC) silicon solar cells, and polycrystalline (PoSC) silicon solar cells under worst-case natural scenarios. In all cases, real solar cells were used as opposed to the pure component. The toxicity characteristic leaching procedure (TCLP) was used to analyze the leachates from PSCs to determine the concentrations of major component species. The results showed that broken PSCs released Si, Pb, Al, As, and Ni under TCLP conditions; lead, a major component of PSCs, was released at around 1.0 mg/L at a pH of 4.93, from both broken and unbroken PSCs. However, the concentrations of these elements in the leachate were within the toxicity characteristic (TC) limits. Encapsulation of the PSCs inhibited the release of hazardous substances, but did not completely eliminate the release of metals. TCLP results from broken MoSCs revealed that metals leached at relatively high levels: Al: 182 mg/L, Ni: 7.7 mg/L, and Cu: 3.6 mg/L. The results from broken PoSCs indicated the release of 43.9 mg/L of Cu and 6.6 mg/L of Pb, which are higher than the TC limits. These high levels may be attributed to the welding materials used on the rear side of crystalline-Si (c-Si) solar cells. This study identifies the importance of encapsulating PSCs and the welding materials on the rear side of c-Si solar cells to minimize the release of toxic substances into the environment.
On October 15, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a settlement with Electrolux Home Products, Inc. (Electrolux) to resolve alleged violations of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) for importing air filter products that contain nanosilver. Specifically, the settlement resolves EPA’s claims that Electrolux imported unregistered pesticides in violation of FIFRA Section 12(a)(1)(A) and failed to file the required Notices of Arrival in violation of FIFRA Section 12(a)(2)(N). As part of the settlement, Electrolux will pay a civil penalty in the amount of $6,991,400. The Consent Agreement and Final Order (CAFO) is available here.