Environmental Hazards, Nature

California Sea Lions Dying Due to Poisonous Algae Blooms

California sea lions are being killed by toxic algae blooms.
California sea lions are being killed by toxic algae blooms.

In the first two weeks of April, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California, recorded 14 sea lion deaths due to poisoning by domoic acid. Another nine are in various stages of recovery.

Domoic acid poisoning occurs when animals eat fish that have been feeding on toxic algae.

Marine Mammal Center spokeswoman Krysta Higuchi told the Los Angeles Times that 10 years ago, the last time the problem was this severe in southern California, 79 sea lions died due to domoic acid poisoning.

“Other rescue facilities are also seeing the same animals,” Higuchi said. They’re “all over the place.”

How does domoic acid poisoning happen? Normally, blooms of single-celled algae occur for about a week in the spring. However, the heavy rains California has been receiving have intensified the blooms by flushing nutrients from fertilizers and other sources into the Pacific Ocean, and this has intensified the blooms. Small sea animals like anchovies, clams, and mussels feed on the algae, and the sea lions then feed on those animals.

“When the sea lions eat these toxic anchovies, they have serious neurological problems,” said Kathi Lefebvre of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in Seattle. “The sea lions will have seizures, in some cases they’ll die, in some cases they’ll recover but have permanent brain damage.” In addition, many pregnant sea lions miscarry. The pups that do survive until birth often suffer from the effects of domoic acid poisoning.

The Marine Mammal Center in the northern California city of Sausalito has also treated two sea lions it suspects were poisoned by domoic acid.

Dr. Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at the Sausalito center, said that it’s possible more sea lions in northern California may be affected as the water temperatures rise in the summer and fall.

“There’s still a lot of unknowns about what triggers these blooms of algae and what triggers them to become toxic, because not all the blooms are toxic,” Johnson told SFgate. “There’s a lot of research going on to better understand [the causes] so we can better predict when these blooms will happen so that fisheries can be monitored, and for us, so we can be prepared for increased stranding [of sea lions].

California officials have warned consumers not to eat mussels, clams, or whole scallops harvested recreationally in Santa Barbara County. Commercially harvested seafood is typically tested for safety before being distributed.

Environmental Hazards, Environmentalist, Science

National Academy of Sciences Says EPA Pollutant Studies Are Necessary

EPA employees protest job cuts, March 2, 2017
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers and supporters protest job cuts during rally in Chicago, Illinois, March 2, 2017. Photo: John Gress Media Inc / Shutterstock.com

The EPA periodically performs controlled human inhalation exposure (CHIE) studies, in which people are exposed to air pollutants in order to study their short-term effects. The concentration and duration of such exposure is minimal, intended to not have any lasting harm on participants, and of 845 such participants in eight studies between 2009 and 2016, only one person had an unexpected complication.

But that does mean that there is some potential risk to participants who, while they are provided with information about the potential risks of such studies, are given that information through highly technical consent forms. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently finished a study that found that the value of the CHIE studies outweighs their risk, with some caveats.

Primarily, they suggest that the EPA develop clearer language for participant consent forms, in order to prevent further dangers. “While communicating with potential participants, it’s particularly important to appropriately characterize the risks,” said Robert Hiatt, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. “EPA needs to make every effort to ensure that these descriptions are accurate, scientifically grounded, and comprehensible to people.”

But overall, the studies have been found to benefit society far more than they endanger participants, which is exactly what one might want from such studies. By looking at how pollutants interact with human biology on their own, we can learn more about those pollutants in particular, which informs laws about air quality. It also helps us to determine what might be to blame when pollutants mix in the atmosphere and cause otherwise unforeseen problems.

The findings by the National Academy come at a time when the EPA is under considerable scrutiny by Congress and the President. Anything that can help the EPA prove that they’re helping the American people will be welcome in keeping that agency funded and active, which is necessary if we’re to do anything about climate change and other human activities which damage the planet.

Climate Change, Conservation, Environmental Hazards, Green, Nature

Climate Change is Already Threatening Some Species

Polar bear walking near water
Climate change is affecting endangered animals even more than we might think. Image: Shutterstock

Often, when we talk about climate change, we talk about the future, about how it’s going to affect the world. But more and more, we’re realizing that it already is affecting the world, that it is no longer a “future threat” but a very real, very current problem. And part of that problem is climate change.

There are currently 873 species of mammals and 1,272 species of birds listed as threatened, but of those, only 7% of mammals and 4% of birds are considered “threatened by climate change and severe weather.” However, a recent study by researchers from the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society has found that as much as half of those mammals and a quarter of the birds “have already responded negatively to climate change.” This means that those species, such as the mountain gorilla, will have an even greater chance of being negatively affected by future changes.

The problem is that we aren’t seeing enough studies of animals, already classified as threatened or not, that take climate change into effect.

Climate change’s effect on animals isn’t anything new to us, even if previous studies have been few and far between. Back in 2014, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was already warning us that many animals were migrating further north or south toward the water in an effort to survive catastrophic changes to their natural habitats. Only the truly flexible species will be able to make it through as habitats shift and temperatures fluctuate.

Still, these studies might not be all doom and gloom. While the threats posed to these species are very real (and likely to get worse), knowing that these problems exist allows us to start addressing them. And knowing that climate change is already negatively affecting at least some species might make it easier to motivate people to care about climate change as something that’s happening right now…something we have a chance to deter, if not stop entirely.

Environmental Hazards, Nature, Science

Conservation Tillage Can Have Unanticipated Consequences

Conservation tillage can have unanticipated consequences when it's not combined with fertilizer management.
An algae-covered rock in Lake Erie. Photo: Shutterstock

The rise of conservation tillage, in which farmers leave the remnants of plants that have been harvested in the fields until they are ready to plant new crops, has helped to reduce erosion and soil loss. However, it might also be contributing to an increase of phosphorus in Lake Erie and presumably other bodies of water as well. This increase is mostly in the form of soluble phosphorous, which is being used more often in agricultural fertilizers. Unfortunately, it is also getting into rivers, streams, and lakes, where it is leading to dangerous algal blooms.

The algae feed off the phosphorus, and since there’s so much more of it, an overabundance of algae blooms. These are dangerous to fish and other animals, as well as plants, in those bodies of water. In 2014, an algae bloom in Lake Erie resulted in 400,000 people in Toledo, Ohio being unable to drink their city tap water.

In 2016, the American and Canadian governments took steps to start reducing phosphorous levels in Lake Erie by 40 percent, which should help, but more research is needed to discover the best ways to do this.

“Effective conservation is an adaptive process,” said study co-author Professor Andrew Sharpley of the University of Arkansas. “In the case of Lake Erie catchments, reduced land tillage dramatically reduced erosion, but without changing fertilizer management practices, this effectively trapped phosphorous at the soil surface.”

There is never one simple solution to the challenges of maintaining threatened or damaged ecosystems. That a solution has worked in some ways but failed in others does not mean that we should abandon it outright, but we do need to find ways to further adapt and improve our conservation efforts.

“The main lesson learned is that there can be unintended consequences of changing farm conservation practices, which should be recognized,” Sharpley said.

Ideally, further research into this problem will help us determine the best way to conserve soil and soil nutrients in agriculture, while also not leading to dangerous algal blooms in water ways.

Environmental Hazards, Science

We Continue to Learn Lessons From the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Scientists are still learning lessons from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Photo: Shutterstock

We’re still trying to assess the long-term damage of the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010, and a new study has some findings that might help clarify that process. While we know largely where most of the 160 million gallons of oil went—it contaminated 1,000 square miles of ocean floor—we now know more about how it’s biodegrading as well.

That oil contained some 125 major components, each of which biodegrades at a different rate, and each of which is present in differing amounts in different areas. The new study has found that most of those components are biodegrading faster while suspended in water than they do when they’ve settled on the ocean floor. This implies that the biodegrading process has slowed down over the last six years.

We also know that concentration of oil in a given spot can also impact the biodegrading rate, with higher concentrations taking longer to break down than lower. That makes sense when you think about it, but now we have more solid evidence that this is the case, and might help us determine better ways to deal with future oil spills

Dispersants were used to help spread the oil out after the spill. This might sound unhelpful, but it is partly responsible for the faster biodegrading of some parts of the spill.

“Our evidence is circumstantial but points to rapid biodegradation of suspended oil,” says study co-author David Valentine. “Since dispersant promotes and prolongs suspension of oil, it is likely that the decision to apply dispersant ultimately boosted biodegradation.”

Future use of dispersants might be made more efficient by having a better idea of how quickly some components will break down, and how to better disperse them.

Obviously, avoiding oil spills in the first place would be preferable, but given the increasing number of pipeline ruptures and oil rig leaks, it seems to be an inevitable part of the oil industry. Luckily, there are a lot of researchers trying to clean up the messes left by oil companies.

Environmental Hazards, Sustainability

Earth’s “Technosphere” is Terrifyingly Large

The technosphere is terrifyingly large.
Photo: Shutterstock

The Anthropocene Review is a journal that looks at the current epoch of the Earth’s history, the one in which humans have so impacted the planet as to mark it as unique from previous epochs. Although the Anthropocene concept is still rather new, it is gaining recognition, and as a byproduct comes a new term: the technosphere.

The technosphere can be compared to the biosphere, which is the system by which life on the planet interacts. The technosphere, in contrast, consists of all the stuff that humans have made: houses, airports, mines, smartphones, AOL free trial CDs, and all the garbage in landfills across the world.

While that may be an interesting concept in and of itself, it’s helpful in putting into context just how much stuff humans have made. Currently, estimates of the total weight of the technosphere come to about 30 million (metric) tons. That works out to about 50 kilos of stuff per square meter of the Earth’s surface.

That’s a lot of stuff.

The technosphere has been evolving for millennia now, but has taken on a life of its own in recent centuries. Frankly, it’s not all the good at being a thing. Where as the biosphere is incredibly efficient, with each living organism providing nutrients for other organisms at some point in its life or death, the technosphere is terrible at recycling, which is why it weighs so much. There’s no getting rid of a lot of this stuff.

The concept of the technosphere, and how terrifyingly huge it is, helps to put into context just how important it is that we get better at efficiently using the resources to which we have access. Eventually, we’re going to run out of raw materials with which to make more things, and at that point the technosphere will have crushed everything else under its weight.

Environmental Hazards, Nature

Local Extinctions Rise Due to Climate Change

Local extinctions are on the rise due to global climate change.
Photo: Shutterstock

We often talk about global climate change as a problem of the future, and that frankly isn’t helping the situation, because climate change is having very real, and very serious, effects on the world already.

To date, 450 species of plants and animals have already experienced local extinctions due to climate change. Scientists predict that global temperatures will continue to rise over the next few decades, which could bring this number even higher.

Local extinction is not the same as species extinction. It simply refers to a species disappearing from a specific part of its range. Generally, in this case it refers to creatures moving to cooler and higher-altitude parts of their ranges. This happens more in the tropical and subtropical areas, which is especially troubling because the majority of plant and animal species live in the tropics.

Local extinctions may not sound as bad as outright species extinction, but they can devastate regional ecosystems. As plants and animals that form important parts of local food webs leave the area, they leave niches unfilled, which may or may not be taken over by other species. The vacuums left by these local extinctions can result in the loss of other plant life as animals they depend on to help them propagate vanish, or due to the rapid uptick in pest species that would normally be kept in check by now-extinct creatures.

All of this is happening while global temperature increase has been less than one degree Celsius. The current global goal is to limit warming to less than two degrees by the end of the century, though if we don’t take action now, we could see as much as a five-degree increase by the middle of the 21st century. By that point, we can expect to see much more than “just” local extinctions.