Climate Change, Conservation, Nature

Old Nautical Charts Reveal Coral Loss

British navigation charts from the 1800s show us how much coral has disappeared.
British navigation charts from the 1800s show us how much coral has disappeared. Photo: Shutterstock

Nautical charts mapped in the 18th century are showing modern researchers just how much coral has been lost around the world.

A new U.S. and Australian study has compared early British navigation charts to modern coral habitat maps to determine what changes have taken place over the past three centuries.

The study was led by Professor Loren McClenachan of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, with assistance from the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies.

Professor John Pandolfi of UQ said that the study used information from “surprisingly accurate” 18th century nautical charts and satellite data to understand coral loss in the Florida Keys.

Professor McClenachan said that more than half of the coral reef habitat mapped in the 1770s was no longer there. In some areas, coral loss was close to 90 percent.

“We found near the shore, entire sections of reef are gone, but in contrast, most coral mapped further from land is still coral reef habitat today,” McClenachan said.

This is one of the first studies where marine scientists have measured the loss of coral reef habitats over a large geographic area. Most studies look more closely at the loss of living coral from smaller sections of reefs.

“We found that reef used to exist in areas that today are not even classified as reef habitat anymore,” Pandolfi said. “When you add to this the 75 percent loss of living coral in the Keys at that finer scale, the magnitude of change is much greater than anyone thought.”

Dr. Benjamin Neal of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine, said that the early maps were remarkably precise.

“They had the best technology and they used it to create new information that conferred a lot of power,” Neal said. “The maps were essential to expansion of the British Empire, and luckily for us, they also included a lot of useful ecological information.”

This research has important conservation implications. As the authors said, when large-scale changes like this were overlooked, scientists could miss out on information about past abundance.

“We tend to focus on known areas where we can measure change. That makes sense. Why would you look for coral where you never knew it was?” McClenachan said.

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Climate Change, Nature, Science

Galápagos Seabird Population May Shrink Due to Global Warming

Nazca boobies and other animals are in jeopardy as water warms around the Galápagos Islands.
A Nazca booby guards her egg. Photo via Pixabay

The Galápagos Islands are the home of thousands of unique species. In fact, those islands were where Charles Darwin began writing about his findings on evolution. But at least one of these species is in jeopardy because of warming ocean temperatures.

Within the next century, rising ocean temperatures around the Galápagos Islands are expected to make the water too warm for sardines to tolerate.

Why is that important? Sardines are a key prey species for many seabirds including the Nazca booby.

Wake Forest University biologists published a study in the August 23 issue of the journal PLOS ONE about this phenomenon. They used decades of data on the diet and breeding of the Nazca booby to understand how the absence of sardines could affect the booby population.

They studied the diet, breeding, and survival of Nazca boobies as part of their study at Isla Españnola in the Galápagos Islands for more than 30 years. In 1997, halfway through their study, sardines disappeared from Nazca booby diet samples, replaced by flying fish.

Flying fish are less nutritious than sardines, and as researcher Emily Tompkins, lead author of the study, said, as flying fish replaced sardines in the birds’ diet, “reproductive success was halved.”

“If the current links between diet and reproduction persist in the future, and rising ocean temperatures exclude sardines from the Galápagos, we forecast the Nazca booby population will decline,” Tompkins said.

David Anderson, a professor of biology and co-author of the study, said, “Few connections have been made between ocean warming and population effects in the tropics, making this study significant.”

But the Nazca booby isn’t the only creature that could be harmed by rising ocean temperatures. The study suggests that other Galápagos predators that do well when sardines are available will have to adjust to a new menu within the next 100 years.

So many species have gone extinct or become highly endangered due to global climate change—probably including species we never even discovered—that it behooves us to act to stop, or at least slow, climate change. Given the United States’ exit from the Paris Climate Agreement, it’s up to other nations, and states and cities within the U.S., to step up and do something about this increasing danger to the survival of all animals, including humans.

Green, Science

Solar Panels Are Going Green

A team of researchers has developed a way to add color to solar panels without decreasing efficiency.
A team of researchers has developed a way to add color to solar panels without decreasing efficiency. Photo via Pixabay

Solar is one of the most common forms of green energy, with the U.S. getting 43 times more electricity from solar in 2016 than it did in 2007. But what if solar panels were even greener?

I mean, they’re literally going green.

Researchers in the Netherlands have developed a process for making conventional bluish-black solar panels bright green. It involves imprinting existing solar panels with silicon nanopatterns that give solar panels a green appearance from most angles.

Why is this important? Some people have apparently not installed solar panels because of aesthetic concerns. After all, those traditional blue-black solar panels can be a bit of an eyesore for people who want their roofs to be all one color, for example. This process might make it possible to create panels in other colors—and even white.

“The black appearance of the [conventional] solar panels is not attractive for many people and a reason to not put solar panels on their rooftop,” Verena Neder, lead author of the research paper describing the new technology, told NBC News. “Making solar cells colored makes it possible to integrate them in an architectural design of houses and full cities, but also to merge them in the landscape.”

What about efficiency? It seems that the green solar panels only show about a 10 percent power reduction and a 2 percent efficiency decrease due to the loss of absorbed green light.

“Some people say, ‘why would you make solar cells less efficient?’ But we can make solar cells beautiful without losing too much efficiency, Neder said. “The new method to change the color of the panels is not only east to apply but also attractive as an architectural design element and has the potential to widen their use.”

Previous attempts to create color solar panels have resulted in an efficiency loss of about 45 percent compared to conventional panels because they reflect much of the sunlight that falls on them due to the dye and reflective coatings that give them their color.

The prototype for this colored solar cell is about the size of a postage stamp, but “in principle, this technique is easily scalable for fabrication technology,” said Albert Polman, senior author of the paper. “ You can use a rubber stamp the size of a solar panel that in one step can print the whole panel full of these little, exactly defined nanoparticles.”

The researchers are currently designing imprints to create red and blue solar cells, too. Once they master these three colors—the primary colors of light—they can create any color by combining different nanoparticles. “If they get very close to each other, they can interact and that will affect the color,” Polman said.

Eco-friendly, Environmental Hazards, Science

Cigarette Butts Could Soon Be Turned Into Something Useful

A research team in Australia has come up with a way to turn cigarette butts into pavement.
Soon, these nasty things may be IN your asphalt, not ON it. Photo via Pixabay

How do you take the remains of a nasty habit and turn it into something that benefits everyone? Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, may have a solution.

Every year, trillions of cigarette butts are produced worldwide, and most of those are discarded into the environment. Loaded with toxins, they take a very long time to break down, and when they do, all their poisonous chemicals are released into waterways.

But the team at RMIT University, led by Dr. Abbas Mohajerani, has shown that cigarette butts can be mixed with asphalt and lead to a product that not only tolerates wear and tear of daily traffic but also reduces thermal conductivity.

What this means is that the disgusting remains that some inconsiderate smokers leave behind can solve a big waste problem and could help to reduce the urban heat island effect common in large cities.

“I have been trying for many years to find sustainable and practical methods for solving the problem of cigarette butt pollution,” said Mohajerani, a senior lecturer in RMIT’s school of engineering.

“In this research, we encapsulated the cigarette butts with bitumen and paraffin wax to lock in the chemicals and prevent any leaching from the asphalt concrete. The encapsulated cigarette butts were mixed with hot asphalt mix for making samples,” he added.

About 6 trillion cigarettes are produced each year, resulting in more than 1.2 million tons of cigarette butts. As the world’s population—and the number of smokers—continues to grow, these numbers are expected to increase by more than 50 percent by the year 2025.

“Encapsulated cigarette butts developed in this research will be a new construction material which can be used in different applications and lightweight composite products,” Mohajerani said. “The only ways to control [the chemicals in the cigarette waste] are either by effective encapsulation for the production of new lightweight aggregates or by the incorporation in fired clay bricks.”

How’s that for an unlikely solution to a big problem? I think this idea is pretty darn brilliant, and I’ll be curious to see how the research plays out in real-world applications.

Nature, Science

Surprise! Two Different Species of Butterflies Are Actually Not Two Different Species

Researchers have recently discovered that what they thought was a unique species of butterfly was actually the female of a species that has been known for more than a century.
Researchers are constantly learning about new species of tropical butterflies. Who knows what they’ll find out about this white baumnymphe butterfly in the future? Photo via Pixabay

The iridescent blue male sunburst cerulean-satyr butterfly has been known for more than a century. But a more recently discovered dull brown butterfly was given a completely different species name.

However, an international team of nine butterfly researchers used DNA “bar code” sequence data to prove that the dull brown butterfly is actually the female cerulean-satyr butterfly.

Males and females look dramatically different from one another, a phenomenon called sexual dimorphism. This is common in birds, where, for example, the male Anna’s Hummingbird is very bright and flashy, whereas the female’s feathers boast a much more muted color palette.

The classification mistake with the butterflies probably occurred because the brown butterflies are rare than the blue ones, and because sexual dimorphism is not common in most species of butterflies.

The research team collected and analyzed DNA bar codes—short, diagnostic gene sequences—for more than 300 species across the euptychiine group of butterflies that includes the sunburst cerulean-satyr. It turned out that the DNA sequences for the sunburst cerulean-satyr and the dull brown butterfly, which had been given a completely different species name, were identical.

“None of us thought about this possibility before, and we were all surprised by this outcome of our DNA analysis,” said study lead author Shinichi Nakahara of the University of Florida. “Given that males and females of most euptchiine butterflies look more or less the same, I guess no one thought that the female would look so different compared to the male.”

The discovery of the female sunburst cerulean-satyr butterfly contributed to the recognition of the male and female of two other species in this group, including a new species from the cloud forests in eastern Ecuador. The different-looking males and females of the two species means that the euptchiine group of butterflies is one of the most sexually dimorphic among the species.

A better understanding of the diversity and relationships among euptchiines makes it possible for scientists to think about bigger questions like why and how they diversified and the role wing patterns play in signaling between the sexes, Nakahara said.

“Our study will serve as the basis for developing a firm understanding of the true species diversity of this group and of Neotropical butterflies in general,” Nakahara said. “These findings are extremely valuable at a time when the biodiversity of the Neotropics is threatened, since it will be impossible to recognize and document the region’s unique elements of biodiversity after they are gone.”

Nature, Science

U.S. to Be Treated to a Full Solar Eclipse in August

Americans are going to be treated to a full solar eclipse on August 21, 2017.
Americans are going to be treated to an amazing event on August 21. Photo via Pixabay

On August 21, the moon will come between the earth and the sun, casting a 70-mile shadow from Oregon to South Carolina in what is likely to be the most-viewed solar eclipse ever recorded.

Already being referred to as the “Great American Eclipse,” this will be the first coast-to-coast solar eclipse in 99 years.

“The US only covers 2 percent of the globe, so we get very few eclipses,” said Matthew Penn, an astronomer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. “And to have one travel across the entire country is an unprecedented sort of opportunity. It’ll be a heck of a day.”

Penn will be running a project during the eclipse called Citizen CATE (Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse) that will attempt to record and put together a movie of the full eclipse in order to study the sun’s magnetic field. Data will be collected via telescopes, cameras, and computers operated by volunteers across the country.

The eclipse will first be visible from the Oregon coast around 9:05 AM on the 21st, after which a partial eclipse will be viewable across the entire US, including Alaska and Hawaii. Canada, Central America, and northern South America will also get a view at varying points throughout the day.

More than 200 million people currently live within a day’s drive of the eclipse, which means it’s likely to be seen by more people than any other eclipse in recent history.

Scientists are particularly excited about the part of the eclipse during which the sun’s corona, a magnetically energized region just above the sun’s surface, will be visible. Temperatures in this region will climb from 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit to nearly 4 million degrees—and scientists still don’t know why. So the chance to study the area more closely is pretty exciting, particularly since the innermost regions can only be seen during a total solar eclipse.

In addition to various individual Earth residents, 11 NASA spacecraft and more than 50 high-altitude balloons will be taking photos and studying the effects of the eclipse on the earth’s atmosphere.

If you want to see the eclipse, be sure to wear proper viewing glasses to avoid damaging your eyes. You’ll want shades with these specifications, provided by NASA:

  • Certification information with a designated ISO 12312-2 international standard
  • Manufacturer’s name and address easily accessible to assure legitimacy
  • Less than three years old and without scratches or wrinkled lenses
  • NO homemade filters (they’re not as safe as the properly manufactured kind)

Happy solar eclipse viewing!

Conservation, Nature, Science

Home On the Range? Not So Much for Large Carnivores

New research reveals that large carnivores have lost more than 90 percent of their historic range.
Large carnivores like the cheetah have lost more than 90 percent of their historic ranges. Photo: Shutterstock

A recent study from the Oregon State University revealed that the six largest carnivores in the world have lost more than 90 percent of their historic range.

The researchers mapped the current range of 25 large carnivores and compared them with historic maps from 500 years ago.

“Of the 25 large carnivores we studied, 60 percent (15 species) have lost more than half of their historic ranges,” said researcher Christopher Wolf.

“As many carnivores were historically sympatric [descended from one common ancestor] and are at high risk of future range contraction, conservation should be accomplished at the level of whole predator guilds [groups of species that exploit the same resources, or who exploit different resources in related ways] when possible,” the researchers wrote in their report.

What this means is that contracting the range of one species—either through physical barriers like fencing or the widespread use of land for herds of domestic cattle—can have dramatic effects on large carnivores’ ability to survive in their historic ranges.

“This means that scientifically sound reintroductions of large carnivores into areas where they have been lost is vital both to conserve the large carnivores,” Wolf said. “This is very dependent on increasing human tolerance of large carnivores—a key predictor of reintroduction success.”

The researchers also say that reintroduction programs would be most successful in rural areas with low human population density and limited agricultural and livestock-raising use.

“Also, more large protected areas are urgently needed for large carnivore conservation,” said co-researcher William Ripple.

The good news is that it is possible to help these animals by changing human attitudes about them.

“Many large carnivores are resilient, particularly when human attitudes and policy favor their conservation,” the researchers wrote. “This helps to explain the large carnivore recoveries observed in Europe and elsewhere (e.g., gray wolves in the continental United States).”

Additionally, the relationship between increasing agriculture use and range contractions can be limited when predator-friendly agriculture methods are used.

But human exploitation of former large carnivore ranges isn’t the only thing we need to be on the lookout for.

“In the face of newer threats like anthropogenic climate change, it is critical to continue to monitor large carnivore ranges to ensure the future of these species,” the researchers conclude.

Ultimately, the stability of large carnivore populations is highly dependent on human behavior. Whether that involves evolution of agriculture and ranching methods or limiting the effects of climate change, the ultimate success of reintroducing these species in their historic ranges is dependent entirely on us.