Business, Environmentalist, Green

EPA Boots Scientists Off Scientific Review Board

At least five scientists have been removed from the EPA's Board of Science Counselors.
At least five scientists have been removed from the EPA’s Board of Science Counselors. Photo: bakdc / Shutterstock.com

At least five academic scientists have been dismissed from a major review board, according to the New York Times.

J.P. Freire, a spokesman for EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, said Pruitt would consider replacing the academic scientists with representatives from industries that are supposed to be regulated by the EPA. “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” Freire said.

This isn’t a surprising move, given that Pruitt is a former oil company executive who has questioned human-caused climate change—something that has been agreed on by at least 97 percent of the scientific community—and has been tasked by President Trump to roll back Obama-era regulations on clean water protection and climate change.

The scientists were dismissed from the 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors, which reviews and evaluates the research conducted by the EPA’s scientists.

“We want to expand the pool of applicants” for the scientific board, Freire said, “to as broad a range as possible, to include universities that aren’t typically represented and issues that aren’t typically represented.”

Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, “This is completely part of a multifaceted effort to get science out of the way of a deregulation agenda.”

“I see the dismissal of the scientists from the Board of Scientific Counselors as a test balloon,” said Joseph Arvai of the University of Michigan, a member of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), a 47-member commission that advises the EPA on areas on where it should conduct research and evaluates the scientific integrity of EPA regulations. “This is clearly very political, and we should be very concerned if it goes further.”

On the other hand, Texas Republican Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said the SAB had become nothing but a rubber-stamp organization that approves all of the EPA’s regulations. He wrote a bill designed to restock that board with more members from the business world.

“The EPA routinely stacks this board with friendly scientists who receive millions of dollars in grants from the federal government,” Smith said. “The conflict of interest here is clear.”

“Today I was Trumped,” Robert Richardson, an environmental economist wrote on Twitter. “I have had the pleasure of serving on the EPA Board of Scientific Counselors, and my appointment was terminated today.”

“I believe this is political,” said Dr. Courtney Flint, a professor of natural resource sociology at Utah State University, said of the dismissals from the Board of Science Counselors. “It’s unexpected. It’s a red flag.”

Climate Change, Nature

Scientists Concerned About Rapid Change in Arctic River Ice

Arctic river ice is melting at an accelerating rate.

The Arctic continues to bear the brunt of climate change’s current effects, with new research showing that Arctic river ice is accruing in smaller amounts and melting earlier in the season.

Arctic groundwater comes to the surface and freezes on top of already frozen rivers, and these deposits of ice grow throughout the season until whole river valleys are covered. Some river icings have grown to over 4 square miles, and as deep as 33 feet. Traditionally, they start melting in the middle of July, which keeps many rivers running long after they would otherwise have dried up, and provides fresh water for many different creatures and habitats.

But over the past 15 years, there has been less of that ice forming, and it’s been melting about a month earlier. This means habitats that rely on that water melting later are getting less water overall, as it melts too soon and there is less of it to melt in the first place.

Looking at 147 rivers icings in the U.S. and Canadian Arctic using satellite data, Pavlesky and Zarnetske discovered that 84 of those are becoming smaller or disappearing earlier in the season. The minimum area of ice also shrank a lot during the study period. In 2000, there were 30 square miles of ice, but there were only 2 square miles in 2010. The minimum ice area has rebounded a little bit: it was up to 3 square miles in 2015.

“This is the first clear evidence that this important component of Arctic river systems—which we didn’t know was changing—is changing and it’s changing rapidly,” said lead author Tamlin Pavelsky of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

The exact mechanisms of how climate change is affecting these rivers is as yet unknown, it could be that higher temperatures are directly affecting the ice, or that it is more subtly impacting groundwater, and how that water interacts with rivers.

“While glaciers tell us about climate in the mountains and sea ice tells us about sea-atmosphere interactions, the processes that control river icing may offer great insight into how groundwater and surface waters are connected in the Arctic and how our headwaters will be connected to the ocean in the future,” said study co-author Jay Zarnetske of Michigan State University.

In the meantime, these rivers and their related ecosystems are going to continue to change as the world’s overall climate warms.

Conservation, Nature, Science

Logging Threatens Leatherback Turtles

Leatherback turtles are under threat from fishing nets, marine debris like plastic, and now it seems that even distant logging activities are threatening the species.
Baby leatherback turtles like this one can become the victims of predators if their way from nest to ocean is impeded by logging debris. Photo: Shutterstock

Leatherback turtles face a number of difficulties, all of which threaten the species as a whole. They are often caught in fishing nets or eat marine debris like plastic. Many of their nesting sites are under pressure from tourism and other human activities. And now it turns out that even logging is a danger to them, despite the fact that it rarely happens near beaches.

The problem is that logging creates quite a lot of debris, which ends up washing ashore on the beaches where leatherback turtles make nests and lay eggs. These turtles have to lay their eggs far enough up the shore that they won’t be flooded by high tide. But that debris can get in the way of mothers building nests, who have to spend more time on that process and have to build their nests closer to the tideline.

Once they hatch, baby leatherback turtles make their way across the sand and down to the water, but that is becoming increasingly difficult in areas subjected to logging debris. The turtles have to navigate around the debris, which requires them to use up more energy and puts them at increased risk of predation. While not every turtle makes it to the water—where they can start eating to replenish the energy spent getting there—with increased obstacles, even fewer are doing so. Over time, this could result in an overall decrease in the leatherback turtle population, which is already struggling.

“Leatherback turtles are already under immense pressure, from fisheries bycatch, and are also one of the species prone to ingesting marine plastic litter,” said Prof. Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter. “Our research clearly indicates that logging presents another threat. It is now paramount that beach cleanup operations are built into logging activities to prevent further damage to the species.”

Luckily, leatherback turtles are a favorite of environmentalists, tourists, and other people with the social clout or budget to try and affect change on their behalf, so the odds are good that they will at least be supported with beach cleanup activities.

“Simple measures could make a real difference, such as repositioning organic waste areas, or salvaging the wood debris as an energy source,” said Dr. Adolfo Marco Llorente of the Doñana Biological Station. “It is also essential that logging practices [which] reduce the impact on the marine environment are implemented.”

Nature, Science

Light Pollution Linked to Immune Problems in Hamster Pups

Light pollution--including exposures to light at night from our tablets, phones, and TVs--can have more serious effects than previously imagined.
Light pollution–including exposures to light at night from our tablets, phones, and TVs–can have more serious effects than previously imagined. Photo: Shutterstock

According to a study by researchers at The Ohio State University, disruptions in sleep schedules are not only bad for the health of animals and people, but they can have effects which are passed on to offspring. What’s more, these problems can also be caused not just by interrupting sleep schedules, but by unnaturally light night.

To do the study, researchers used nocturnal Siberian hamsters. They exposed one group of hamsters of both sexes to a standard light day/dark night cycle, and one group to dim light at night, for nine weeks. They then mated the hamsters in four groups—mothers or fathers with dim-light exposure, both parents with exposure to light at night, and both parents with standard light exposure. After the hamsters mated, the entire group lived under standard light conditions.

The researchers found that dim light exposure had a definite influence on the offspring. Fathers and mothers seemed to pass along genetic instructions that impaired immune response and decreased endocrine activity. But it’s especially important to note that the negative changes were traced to both parents.

“These weren’t problems that developed in utero. They came from the sperm and egg,” said senior study author Randy Nelson, “It’s much more common to see epigenetic effects from the mothers, but we saw changes passed on from the fathers as well.”

While this certainly adds to the ongoing discussions of how screens are affecting us as we use them late at night, it has some other implications too. Light pollution is not a problem that has been taken very seriously in the past, despite the fact that previous research has proven that it has negative effects on animals. It has been known to interrupt animal sleep and activity patterns, and this new research has shown some specific, and negative, consequences of light pollution.

But it’s not just for animals that we should be concerned. Humans are making continued use of screens at night, often in otherwise dark rooms, which seems to be having some negative effects on our bodies. Studies have shown that it interrupts sleep and strains our eyes, but the OSU study shows that it could actually affect how genes are passed on to children.

“I think people are beginning to accept that light pollution is serious pollution and it has health consequences that are pretty pronounced—an increase in cancers, depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and anxiety disorders,” Nelson said. “We should be concerned about the increasing exposures to light at night from our tablets and phones and TVs.”

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.

Green, Science

Researchers Develop Method for Storing Solar Energy in Liquid

A team of researchers is working on a way to store solar energy as heat, to be released later.
The development of ways to store solar energy as heat could be a huge breakthrough. Photo: Shutterstock

While we have been capable of harnessing the energy of the sun for immediate use. However, before solar can replace fossil fuels and other less safe sources of energy, there needs to be a way to store that energy for later use.

Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, are working on just that. They have developed a chemical solution to store solar energy, which can then be turned into heat on command, without destroying the medium in which it’s stored. They refer to it as a molecular solar thermal system.

The process is based on the organic compound called norbornadine, that when exposed to light converts into quadricyclone.

“The technique means that we can store the solar energy in chemical boonds and release the energy as heat whenever we need it,” said Professor Kasper Moth-Poulsen, who is leading the research team. “Combining the chemical energy storage with water heating solar panels enables a conversion of more than 80 percent of the incoming sunlight.”

When the research team held its first conceptual demonstration of the technique in 2013, they were able to convert a mere 0.01 percent of solar energy into stored energy that could be transported elsewhere. They were also using an element called ruthenium, which was very expensive. Now, they have improved that storage capacity to 1.1 percent. This may not sound like much, but it’s 100 times more effective than previous technology. The ruthenium has also been replaced by cheaper carbon-based elements.

“We saw an opportunity to develop molecules that make the process much more efficient,” said Moth-Poulsen. “At the same time, we were demonstrating a robust system that can sustain more than 140 energy storage and release cycles with negligible degradation.”

As the team continues to develop this technology, we hope to see simultaneous improvement in solar energy harvesting techniques—both of which could contribute to a higher degree of use for solar products.

Nature, Science

Scientists Find New Way to Image Live Corals

By working with scientists at an eye clinic, researchers came up with a way to image live corals.
Technology used at the eye clinic can be used to image live corals. Photo: Shutterstock

It’s easy to forget that corals are animals, mostly because they don’t move. But they’re also pretty hard to study while they are alive. Until recently, attempts to image coral faltered because the opaque coral tissue is composed of multiple cell layers. Furthermore, visible light can stimulate photosynthesis and UV light can harm corals.

An international team of researchers has developed a new method to image living corals though, and it could have a huge impact on how we study the creatures. They used optical coherence tomography (OCT), which uses near-infrared radiation to penetrate deeper into tissue and reveals microscopic structures with different reflective properties. It works somewhat like ultrasound, and up until now was used primarily to study the human eye and monitor tissue damage there.

What the researchers have been able to do so far has taught us a lot about coral, and there is the potential to learn a great deal more. Corals are complex creatures that form the basis of coral reefs, which are of significant ecological importance. Coral reefs are home to a huge diversity of species, and each one is essentially unique, even when it shares traits with other coral reefs. But they are also incredibly fragile ecosystems, susceptible to global climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, overfishing, and other perils. One growing problem, bleaching, is dealing significant damage to reefs around the world, and isn’t likely to go away without some major changes on our part.

But with the discovery that OCT technology can be used to image and study corals, researchers might be able to do something more about that problem, and many others. As scientists learn more about corals, like how they react to stress, they can develop better systems to protect them, and figure out exactly what steps are needed in order to prevent further damage to coral reefs.

“OCT is a powerful technique for studying the dynamic structure of living corals and their behavioral response to environmental stress,” said research leader Professor Michael Kühl at the University of Copenhagen. “It now enables many novel applications in coral science as well as in other areas of marine biology. Our study also illustrates the importance of interdisciplinary approaches in science. Who would have thought that a technique used in the eye clinic would be useful for coral research?”