When toxicologist Linda Birnbaum’s daughter was visiting recently, she asked to stop at a store to buy eye makeup. But when the salesperson began touting the benefits of a certain waterproof mascara, Birnbaum advised her daughter to steer clear.
Why? Researchers recently found that waterproof, sweatproof and long-wearing cosmetics — so popular at this time of year — contain higher levels of a potentially toxic class of thousands of chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances or (PFAS). The study was led by scientists at the University of Notre Dame and published in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
Once known as the water of life, whisky is now making headlines as an eco-friendly fuel source.
Scottish distillery glenfiddich has launched a fleet of specially converted trucks that run on green biogas made from its own whisky waste. The innovative closed loop system will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 99% when compared to diesel and other fossil fuels, with each truck displacing up to 250 tonnes of CO2e annually.
Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chair Gary Gensler has asked agency staff to submit a proposal for mandatory climate risk disclosures for consideration by the end of 2021. Such reports may be required in an expanded Form 10-K and describe a company’s direct and indirect carbon emissions, including those by suppliers and partners in its “value chain.”
Companies may be required to disclose both qualitative and quantitative details, including how they manage climate-related risks and opportunities in day-to-day operations and in broad strategy, Gensler said Wednesday. They may also need to report on metrics such as greenhouse gas emissions, financial impacts of climate change and progress towards climate-related goals.
“Today, investors increasingly want to understand the climate risks of the companies whose stock they own or might buy,” Gensler said in remarks during a webinar. “Investors are looking for consistent, comparable, and decision-useful disclosures so they can put their money in companies that fit their needs.”
Here’s a handy geography question for your next trivia match: What is the world’s only sea that doesn’t have a land border?
The answer is the Sargasso Sea – a 2-million-square-nautical-mile haven of biodiversity that lies east of Bermuda in the Atlantic Ocean. Rather than beaches, it’s bounded by rotating ocean currents that form the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre.
The Sargasso is named for sargassum, a free-floating brown seaweed that grows in its calm, clear waters. In the open ocean this seaweed serves as nursery grounds and a haven for sea life.
But over the past decade, a new “Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt” has inundated Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Florida coastlines, wreaking environmental and economic havoc. It’s driving away tourists, devastating local fishing industries and requires costly cleanup.
In my work as a coastal scientist, I’ve watched these invasions become the new normal, choking beaches and turning clear blue waters golden brown. Along with other researchers, I’m trying to understand why sargassum has proliferated into this new sprawling bloom, how to deal with such massive amounts of it, and how affected countries can predict the severity of the next influx.
A mysterious ‘golden floating rainforest’
For centuries people have viewed the Sargasso Sea with superstition and fear. Early myths described a treacherous section of the Atlantic Ocean where seaweed ensnared ships. Christopher Columbus documented this ecosystem in his 1492 expedition journals when his ships were becalmed there. His crew feared they would be dragged to the ocean floor, never returning home to Spain.
This region was sometimes called the Devil’s Triangle. Sea captains mapped routes to circumvent it completely. Mysterious accidents and disappearances there prompted author Vincent Gaddis to give it a new name in 1964: the “deadly Bermuda Triangle.”
But these sargassum islands also create a rich ecosystem that ocean explorer Sylvia Earle calls “a golden floating rainforest.” Suspended by round “berries” filled with gas, the seaweed offers food, sanctuary and breeding grounds for crabs, shrimp, whales, migratory birds and some 120 species of fish. Mats of it form the sole spawning grounds for European and American eels and habitat for some 43 other threatened or endangered species.
Sargassum also shelters sea turtle hatchlings and juvenile fish during their early life in the open ocean. Ten endemic species live nowhere else on Earth. The Sargasso is a valuable commercial fishery worth about US$100 million per year.
Enormous amounts of sargassum first engulfed Caribbean coastlines in 2011. I was there at the time, conducting research in the British Virgin Islands, and I saw huge “rafts” of this brown macroalgae extending 500 feet offshore.
Swimmers couldn’t get into the water. Some boats couldn’t leave port. Beaches were piled with massive mounds, some nearly as tall as I was. Nesting sea turtles couldn’t lay their eggs. The seaweed isn’t toxic, but as it decomposed it reeked of rotten eggs and swarmed with insects.
Small quantities of sargassum have always turned up as “beach wrack” – stuff that washes ashore. It stabilizes shorelines by helping to build sand dunes and nourishes dune plants. For these reasons, it’s left to naturally decompose in wild areas, such as Cape Florida State Park.
But the scale of recent coastal influxes is unprecedented. And since the 2011 event, they have occurred every year except for 2013.
Gluts of coastal seaweed have a damaging influence on the coastal environment. In large quantities, the seaweed strips oxygen from the water, killing fish and seagrasses that offer key habitat for many species. It may reduce sunlight needed by ocean plants and smother shallow coral reefs, like those in the Florida Keys.
Data gathered over the past decade has revealed the likely causes of these seaweed invasions: Saharan dust clouds, warming temperatures and the growing human nitrogen footprint.
Just as nutrients feed red tide blooms, they feed sargassum, which thrives in warmer water. Climate change also increases upwelling of nutrients from deep ocean waters at the other end of the sargassum belt in West Africa.
The influxes of the past decade seem to have originated along Brazil’s Atlantic coast, not in the Sargasso Sea. Large amounts of fertilizer flow into the Amazon River and then to the ocean from industrial-scale agriculture and ranches. Nutrients also pour into the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River. Climate change-driven downpours increase runoff.
Saharan dust clouds that extend for thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean have also contributed to this explosion of sargassum seaweed. The dust contains iron, nitrogen and phosphorus that fertilizes plankton and seaweed blooms. These thick atmospheric dust plumes corresponded with a sargassum spike in 2015 and the worst incursion of sargassum in 2018.
Researchers are also exploring changing in ocean currents, which may be another contributing factor.
Economic and ecological harm
Sargassum threatens tourism, a major economic engine for the Caribbean and Florida. Mexico has deployed Navy ships for cleanup operations in Cancun. Some Caribbean destinations have installed floating barriers, like those used in oil spills, to keep seaweed offshore. In 2019 Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley of Barbados likened the scale of the economic fallout to that of a hurricane.
There is currently no good way to dispose of such great volumes of seaweed. It’s labor-intensive and expensive. Removing sargassum from 15 miles of Miami-Dade beaches cost $45 million in 2019.
Some communities plow seaweed under the sand. Others, like Fort Lauderdale, collect it, wash off the salt and convert it to natural fertilizer or mulch. In Mexico some entrepreneurs are compressing it into bricks and using it, like adobe, for building construction. In the long term, lasting solutions will come only through addressing climate change and nitrogen emissions from human activities.
The suburban Illinois county has more square miles of water than land, with more than 170 lakes and rivers, 400 miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetland, according to the latest U.S. census data.
But modern infrastructure problems and climate change threaten the waterways, sparking efforts — like the intergovernmental Sylvan Lake Dam Modification Project, which passed in the U.S. House of Representatives last week — that aim to restore the health of the ecosystem.
The $1.3 million proposal would renovate the more than 100-year-old dam in Mundelein to meet current safety standards, according to the office of Rep. Lauren Underwood, who represents the 14th District including Lake County.
You probably remember your grade school science teachers explaining that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. That’s a fundamental property of the universe.
Energy can be transformed, however. When the Sun’s rays reach Earth, they are transformed into random motions of molecules that you feel as heat. At the same time, Earth and the atmosphere are sending radiation back into space. The balance between the incoming and outgoing energy is known as Earth’s “energy budget.”
Our climate is determined by these energy flows. When the amount of energy coming in is more than the energy going out, the planet warms up.
That can happen in a few ways, such as when sea ice that normally reflects solar radiation back into space disappears and the dark ocean absorbs that energy instead. It also happens when greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere and trap some of the energy that otherwise would have radiated away.
99.9 watts are reflected back into space by clouds, dust, snow and the Earth’s surface.
The remaining 240.5 watts are absorbed – about a quarter by the atmosphere and the rest by the surface of the planet. This radiation is transformed into thermal energy within the Earth system.
Almost all of the absorbed energy is matched by energy emitted back into space. However, a residual now accumulates as global warming. That residual has increased, from just under 0.6 watts per square meter at the end of the last century to 0.79 in 2006-2018, according to the latest data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The vast majority of that is now heating the oceans. While it might sound like a small number, that energy adds up.
The atmosphere absorbs a lot of energy and emits it as radiation both into space and back down to the planet’s surface. In fact, Earth’s surface gets almost twice as much radiation from the atmosphere as it does from direct sunshine. That’s primarily because the Sun heats the surface only during the day, while the warm atmosphere is up there 24/7.
Together, the energy reaching Earth’s surface from the Sun and from the atmosphere is about 504 watts per square meter. Earth’s surface emits about 79% of that back out. The remaining surface energy goes into evaporating water and warming the air, oceans and land.
Earth’s energy budget is at the heart of the new IPCC climate assessment, written by hundreds of scientists reviewing the latest research. With knowledge of what’s changing, everyone can make better choices to preserve the climate as we know it.
This article was updated Aug. 9, 2021, with details from the new IPCC report.
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