Rogue Waves are More Common than We Thought

Rogue waves may not be so rogue after all, according to new research.
Rogue waves may not be so “rogue” after all, according to new research. Photo: Shutterstock

Rogue waves are unexpected waves that suddenly appear and can pose serious threats to even the largest ships and offshore platforms. They’ve been known to reach as high as 49 feet above the normal water level, and can be as much as 300 feet wide and travel as quickly as 40 miles an hour.

In 2007, a rogue wave in the North Sea was recorded—perhaps the largest ever noted—and it gave us a lot of data about such waves.

Rogue waves can, and have, caused loss of life and serious damage in the past. Luckily, they aren’t that common, or so we thought.

It seems like rogue waves aren’t that rogue after all. It turns out that they can occur twice a day during storms, and tend to happen on their own once every three weeks or so. The findings also showed that the steeper the waves are, the less frequent their occurrence.

From this data, scientists will hopefully be inspired to do further research that about how rogue waves form and how to predict and avoid them. It also gives researchers and engineers more information that will allow them to construct ships and platforms that have a greater chance to survive rogue waves.

“Rogue waves are known to have caused loss of life as well as damage to ships and offshore structures,” said Mark Donelan of the University of Miami, one of the study’s authors. “Our results, while representing the worst-case rogue wave forecast, are new knowledge important for the design and safe operations for ships and platforms at sea.”

These changes could save lives and reduce costs associated with loss of property, but would also have a benefit for the environment, as the more capable a ship or platform is of surviving rogue waves, the less chance there is of potentially dangerous cargo being dumped into the ocean.


As Many as Half of All Species Could Face Extinction by 2100

The Vatican
The Vatican was the site of a recent conference on global extinction and creating a sustainable world. Photo: Shutterstock

As it stands, one in five species on the planet (20 percent) face extinction, but by the year 2100, that number is expected to rise to as much as 50 percent. And, of course, this is almost entirely due to human action.

“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs, and put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?”

This is why the Vatican, of all places, held a conference on biological extinction. While the Catholic Church has long been seen as an enemy to science, on ecological issues at least, those days are gone.

The conference brought together ecologists, economists, and biologists, natural and social scientists, as well as academics from the humanities. The idea behind the conference was to find ways to prevent the increase in endangered species, and find ways to roll back the pains of climate change, among other things.

Another problem the conference addressed was sustainably supporting the world’s growing population, and finding ways to slow that growth down. The UN expects that, by 2100, the Earth’s population will have grown form its current 7.2 billion to 11.2 billion. Even today, based on our current resource use, we would need another half an Earth to sustainably support those 7.2 billion people. If everyone lived the wasteful way we do in the United States, we’d need five more full Earths’ worth of resources.

“We are wrecking our planet’s life support systems. We have the capacity to stop that,” said Ehrlich. “The trouble is that the danger does not seem obvious to most people, and that is something we must put right.”

The thing is, these problems are our fault, and it is within our power to solve them. But we need to actually work toward that goal. We need to address difficult questions, and find ways to make those problems resonate with everyone, and not just the people studying them. Getting people to care and to support steps toward healing the world is the first step.


Pollution from 1970s Found in Deepest Ocean

Pollution from the 1970s has been found in the deepest parts of the world's oceans.
Photo: Shutterstock

A study by researchers from Newcastle University, the James Hutton Institute, and University of Aberdeen have found that amphipods, small scavengers who live in the depths of the Mariana and Kermadec trenches, over 6 miles deep and 4,400 miles apart, contain “extremely high levels of Persistent Organic Pollutants” stored in their fatty tissue.

Better known as POPs, these include chemical compounds like PCBs and PBDEs, which were banned in the 1970s. This means that these pollutants have been working their way down the food web and into the deepest parts of the ocean, where they build up in larger numbers in creatures that live there.

The researchers used deep-sea landers to bring up samples of creatures that live in the deepest levels of the trenches.

“The amphipods we sampled contained levels of contamination similar to that found in Suruga Bay, one of the most polluted industrial zones in the northwest Pacific,” said study lead author Dr. Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University.

The deepest parts of the ocean are in significant danger as pollutants, released into the environment through industrial accidents and discharges and leakages from landfills, sink to the bottom of the ocean. Whether in their raw form, like bits of plastic, or in the bodies of animals that have ingested those pollutants, they end up building up on the bottom. When scavengers eat such creatures, they gets larger doses of POPs than animals in shallower water did.

It’s safe to assume that POPs aren’t the only pollutants that have reached the deep oceans, and it’s obvious that human activity has an even greater impact than we’d hoped.

“This research shows that far from being remote, the deep ocean is highly connected to the surface waters,” Jamieson wrote. “We’re very good at taking an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach when it comes to the deep ocean, but we can’t afford to be complacent.”


Black Carbon In the Siberian Arctic Comes From Unexpected Sources

Black carbon in the Russian Arctic comes from different sources than it does in the European Arctic.
The Russian Arctic. Photo: Shutterstock

Black carbon, better known as soot, can cause serious problems in the Arctic. It settles on top of snow and speeds up the melting process because it soaks up the sun’s heat instead of reflecting it. Increased snow and ice melt are serious problems in the Arctic, and it has a number of knock-on effects that make climate change worse. Finding a way to reduce black carbon in the Arctic could actually help to mitigate some aspects of climate change, but fist we have to figure out where it comes from.

In the Russian Arctic, 35 percent of black carbon comes from residential heating, and 38 percent from transportation. Open fires, power plants, and gas flaring account for the rest. This is according to a new study that set out to get a better understanding of where the soot comes from.

There are a number of factors, but first and foremost is proximity. “High-latitude sources are especially important. Even though China, for example, releases much more black carbon than Arctic regions, reductions there have less impact per kilogram than reductions in the Arctic,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers drew on previous research that was part of an EU-funded project to study carbon emissions and how they affected the European Arctic. But while they found good agreements between model estimates of black carbon concentrations and measurements for the European Arctic site, there was a mismatch between their projections and what they found in the Russian Arctic site of Tiksi, a research station in the far eastern region of Siberia.

The more complete results they got from adding the Tiksi results showed them the importance of heating and transport in the buildup of black carbon in that region of the Arctic.

Learning more about where black carbon is coming from is a big step toward figuring out how to reduce it, because now researchers can start looking at ways to address those problems in particular. This will involve research on how to reduce black carbon production in housing and transportation in Artic Russia. These findings could probably be extrapolated to other parts of the Arctic as well.

Climate Change, Nature, Sustainability, Uncategorized

Danish Seagrass Sequesters Carbon at Record Rates

Danish seagrass sequesters carbon at record rates.
Tropical seagrass. Photo: Shutterstock

Seagrass, a type of underwater plant which flowers and grows quite like terrestrial grasses, is apparently a huge contributor to the world’s ability sequester carbon. Seagrass grows in “meadows,” large patches dominated by one or two species, which are home to many shallow-water and coastal creatures. It forms an integral part of their local ecosystems.

But seagrass also sequesters carbon dioxide at a very high rate, and in one Danish bay, it’s much better at it than anywhere else. Outside of Thurøbund, no meadow seems to hold more than 11,000 grams of carbon per square meter, but the Danish bay sequesters upwards of 27,000 grams per square meter.

Biologists think this might have something to do with the protected nature of the bay. Not protected in a legal sense, but by having less direct contact with the larger ocean. There, when the plants die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean and get buried in sediment, so the carbon they had been storing stays there. In other meadows, these plants are washed out to sea, after which nobody is sure what happens to them.

Seagrass is threatened, as are so many species on the planet. Since 1879, the Earth has lost about 29 percent of its seagrass meadows. Denmark itself has lost between 80 and 90 percent since the 1930s. But because these plants are so good at storing carbon, it’s certainly worth our time to not only find ways to preserve those meadows which still exist, but to find ways to shore them up. If we can get more seagrass to grow, returning to levels before 1879, that could be a huge help in reducing global warming.

While the Earth’s processes of naturally sequestering carbon aren’t likely to save the day, they do put in a lot of work, and finding ways to increase the effectiveness with which they do so could make quite a difference.


Scientists Make Biodegradable Polymers from Shrimp Shells

Scientists have found a way to make a biodegradable polymer from shrimp shells.
Photo: Shutterstock

Egypt has a waste problem, and shopping bags and food packaging being a considerable part of it. This plastic, which is largely not biodegradable, ends up in the streets and at illegal dumping sites as often as it ends up in proper landfills. Bioplastics made from plants are a partial solution to such a problem in many places, but not in Egypt, where space for food crops is limited enough as it is.

But British and Egyptian scientists may have struck on a solution: shrimp. Shrimp shells make up another large part of Egypt’s waste problem, but those shells can be treated and turned into a material known as chitosan, a biodegradable polymer that could be used for making shopping bags. It has the benefits of being affordable and being a solution that wouldn’t compete with food crops.

“Use of a degradable biopolymer made of prawn shells for carrier bags would lead to lower carbon emissions and reduce food and packaging waste accumulating in the streets or at illegal dump sites,” said Dr. Nicola Everett of the University of Nottingham, lead researcher. “It could also make exports more acceptable to a foreign market within a 10-15-year time frame. All priorities at a national level in Egypt.”

On top of all that, it might be possible to make it absorb oxygen, which when used in food packaging, could actually improve the shelf life of foods, which could be a boon across the world.

Food waste is a huge problem globally, with grocery stores in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and until last year France, throwing away millions of tons of food because it’s “past the shelf date.” While much of that food is still perfectly good, with better packaging it might remain good for even longer, meaning less of it ends up in dumpsters and landfills.

Don’t expect to see chitosan bags in stores next week though, as the researchers are still working on developing the process of making those bags. They’re also trying to make that process more efficient so that it can be scaled up for industrial production. Just because a material is more eco-friendly doesn’t mean it will catch on in manufacturing—it has to be cheap enough to be worth the investment for companies that might use it before it can save the world.

Conservation, Environmentalist, Sustainability, Uncategorized

New Brazilian Laws Could Threaten Environment, Indigenous Rights

New Brazilians laws could threaten the environment and indigenous rights.
Indigenous Brazilians in their village. Photo: Shutterstock

New regulations currently being discussed by the Brazilian legislature could have catastrophic results for the country’s environment and indigenous groups. Two initiatives would roll back environmental licensing laws, while the third would allow the building of several new industrial waterways without requiring assessment of potential environmental or social impacts.

The alarm around these potential laws is largely due to the recently announced 29% increase in Amazon deforestation, which comes on the heels of a rocky start for Brazilian president Michel Temer after the impeachment of his predecessor.

According to Mauricio Guetta, a lawyer for the Socio-Environmental Institute, a Brazilian NGO, these new laws would represent “the most worrying regressions of [Brazil’s] recent history.

“If approved, they will certainly make it impossible for Brazil to meet its commitments under the Paris agreement,” Guetta added.

Brazil has agreed to cut 37 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and end illegal deforestation by 2030.

However, if these new laws go into effect, Brazil’s standard environmental licensing procedures would change dramatically. Not only would the overall process speed up, but some companies would be allowed to supply their own licenses—or forgo them entirely. This could be particularly problematic when it comes to greenhouse gas, since 52 percent of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and the way land and forests are used.

About 250 organizations, including NGOs and environmental prosecutors have signed a bill denouncing the potential laws, noting previous environmental disasters like the dam burst in Mariana, which flooded the countryside with millions of liters of mining waste.

The trouble is, in many ways, political. President Temer’s cabinet has shown a tendency to cater to a powerful bloc of pro-agribusiness lawmakers called the ruralista, who advocate legislature that serves local business, often without regard for potential environmental fallout.

The ruralista are also increasingly pushing for changes in how indigenous lands are used and protected—or made unprotected. Another drafted law would transfer control over demarcation of indigenous lands from the executive to the legislative branch. This law would only allow land occupied by indigenous groups from 1988 on to be held as reserves. That means land where indigenous peoples were expelled would now be available for economic development.

“This is a clear violation of Brazilian and international law, which could result in the destruction of whole peoples,” said indigenous activist group Survival International. The organization also warned against increased deforestation in these areas.

Then there are the bills known as Decretos Legislativos, or PDCs. Their passage through the legislature has been stalled, but by no means stopped entirely. These bills would authorize the construction of three industrial waterways in major river basins on the Tapajós River, the Amazon, the Tocantins and Araguaia Rivers, and the Paraguai River. While the waterways would help expedite shipments of soy and other products, they would be built without any environmental oversight beyond whatever is supplied by the companies themselves.

The fight between Brazilian environmental activists and a government hoping to improve the economy at the expense of oversight is set to continue in February 2017 after the parliamentary recess.