Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Origins, Impacts and Mitigation of Algal Blooms in Freshwater Lakes

An algal bloom overtaking the western basin of Lake Erie in 2011.  Image: NOAA CoastWatch

In 2011, Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes in the United States experienced the largest algal bloom on record (1,920 square miles).  Lake Erie isn’t the only lake under attack-- freshwater lakes in Canada (Lake Winnipeg), Switzerland (Lake Zurich) and China (Lake Taihu) are experiencing increasing nutrient loads which stimulates the growth of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae.  Algal blooms were the norm in the 1940-1950’s in Europe and the United States until the 1970’s when wastewater treatment plants were installed, which decreased nutrient loads in the water.  In the past two decades however, algal bloom intensity has been on the rise

Algal blooms are increasing locally and globally which threaten the quality of water, sport, wildlife, and tourism.  Large blooms have crippled tourism in regions where sport fishing and lake recreation are major industries, and many towns and cities are forced to filter or shut off drinking water.  The multibillion-dollar commercial fishing industry could be hit hard, as well.  Not only is the cyanobacteria visually unappealing to most, the decomposing algae consumes the oxygen in the lake’s deep center each summer, creating a dead zone where deep water fish cannot exist with the lack of oxygen.  Lake Erie fish like perch-- a favorite food of the walleye-- could suffer if hypoxic events continue to expand due to algal growth.  Also, some cyanobacteria produce toxins (hepatotoxins or neurotoxins) that are harmful to humans and other wildlife. 

With uncontrolled growth of algae, studies have been conducted to verify the origins of the nutrients entering the freshwater systems.  The National Science Foundation awarded a five-year grant to a team of researchers, including Anna M. Michalak from the Carnegie Institution for Science, who is the principal investigator of the project.  High-tech tools and sophisticated statistical analysis were used to assess whether the algal bloom in Lake Erie was driven by an unfortunate combination of circumstances or if it is a sign of things to come.  They concluded that trends in agricultural practices, increased intensity of precipitation, weak lake circulation, and calm water conditions acted together to yield the bloom.  With global climate change expected to increase the severity and frequency of precipitation events, algal blooms will most likely increase in intensity and extent in years to come.

Now with the primary causes identified, the most favorable target is to change application of fertilizers in agricultural practices.  Changes in the timing and method of applying agricultural fertilizer are the best options for reducing phosphorus load in freshwater lakes.  These options include: 1.) a shift toward more fall fertilizer applications instead of spring applications; 2.) the use of broadcast fertilizer applications that do not incorporate fertilizer into the soil; and 3.) an increase in no-till field management that leads to a build-up of phosphorus in the top layers of soil. 

With changes in agricultural application of fertilizers, it is hopeful that algal bloom intensity and extent will decrease.  Even with improved fertilizer application, the fate of the algal blooms relies also upon the amount of precipitation, which we cannot control.  If above-average precipitation in the watershed continues this spring in the United States, fertilizer can spread across the rich Midwest farmland in late fall and early winter.  The fertilizers will be carried into nearby tributaries and rivers which empty into Lake Erie and it will fuel higher levels of algal growth. 

To reduce algal bloom occurrence, the Ecological Forecasting Lake Erie project led by researchers at the University of Michigan suggest that phosphorus loads needs to be reduced 78 percent from the 2005-2011 average.  Reducing fertilizer run-off from agricultural land by changing practices is the best option for reducing algal blooms, as we can control this aspect of the problem.  Hopefully in the future, algal blooms will be reduced in size and extent to protect the wildlife, tourism, sport, and water quality from its negative effects.  

Mercury: Pollution and Poisoning
Mercury is a heavy metal that is commonly recognized by its symbol “Hg” and atomic number 80.  The
element appears silver in color, is liquid at room temperature and evaporates readily.  It is naturally contained within a variety of rocks, including cinnabar deposits, limestone and coal.  And though it does occur in nature, it is very toxic to plants, animals and humans once it enters the environment, at which point it persists for long periods of time.  This can happen via fossil fuel combustion (specifically coal), production of cement and metal and mining (small-scale gold).

The World Health Organization considers mercury to be “highly toxic to human health.”  If the element is inhaled or ingested it may be detrimental to a variety of organ systems; these include the immune, digestive and nervous systems.  Minor indications of poisoning include headaches, weakness, and a continuous bitter taste in the mouth.   Because it does affect individuals neurologically, mercury is sometimes referred to as a neurotoxin.  Mainly damage is done to the cerebellum, which is responsible for motor control (coordination, balance).  Those affected typically display signs of stumbling, tremors and difficult speaking and/or swallowing.  The inorganic salts that form are able to breakdown cellular components of the skin, eyes and gastrointestinal tract.  Most of these damages, especially neurological, that humans experience are permanent.
      As mentioned before, mercury is released into the environment through a variety of industrial processes.  The two most common methods are coal burning and small-scale gold mining.  The combustion of fossil fuels is the number one contributor to global mercury pollution.  Artisanal small-scale gold mining is the second largest source of emissions.  There are nearly seventy countries that practice mining.  These unregulated operations contain between ten and fifteen million miners in the world.  Individuals obtain a muddy sample and add mercury.  This allows for the binding of the molecule to gold particles, resulting in a compound known as amalgram.  Finally, it is boiled or burned which allows for the extraction of gold.  There are a number of environmentally friendly practices that use less mercury or none at all, however many miners are of lower socioeconomic status and cannot afford these methods.
       Mercury pollution is considered an issue in most parts of the world.  Asia produces approximately fifty percent of the world’s emissions, whereas North America adds seven percent and Europe and North Africa together only result in twelve percent.  The emissions from China’s coal plants severely affect those living in higher elevations in different parts of the world.  These individuals may not contribute as much but are still experiencing the pollution.  It is also more likely for people living closer to mining sites to be exposed to increased levels of mercury.  In 2012, a study was performed in which hair samples from 1029 individuals within twenty-four communities of Lima, Peru were tested for the toxic element.  Data showed that natives living near the Wildcat Alluvial Gold Mining Industry were 2.3 times more likely to have high (five times higher than acceptable) levels of mercury than non-indigenous people.  It is also likely that these individuals are being affected by their greater fish intake.  In the Amazon nearly sixty percent of fish species are contaminated with unacceptable levels mercury.  Indonesia is another relatively polluted area and is known for the “Minamata Disease,” also referred to as mercury poisoning or intoxication.  There is an even larger issue within this location due to the combination of mercury and cyanide.  The latter substance aids in removing mercury.  However, if it is not handled correctly it will form methyl mercury.  This form is even more toxic and is responsible for the Minatama disease.  Other Asian countries follow this similar process and have ended up contaminating their rice paddy fields, thus introducing methyl mercury to their food.      
A number of
approaches are being implemented to attempt to reduce current levels of mercury and prevent future pollution.  In 2011, the European Union banned the exportation of the element and published rules and regulations concerning the storage and use of mercury in other products.  For example, thermometers no longer contain the element but are instead made with alcohol.  The EU continues to debate the issue of battery and dental filling material being manufactured with mercury.  In the United States, mercury bans were introduced in January of 2013 which prohibited exportation.  Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency has launched new regulations for coal burning.  It is not yet complete but the idea is that controlling emissions such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide will result in an overall decrease of mercury.  This has been referred to as a “co-benefit” and may be advantageous for Asia due to its lack of mercury control and large number of coal plants.  In Indonesia the Assistant Deputy Minister of the Environment, Halimah Syafrul, is attempting to cease all illegal mercury imports.  Finally, more than 140 countries around the world, including Norway, Switzerland and Japan, have adopted and support the United Nations’ Mercury Emissions Treaty, also known as the Minamata Convention.  The goal of the treaty is to eliminate mercury used in mining, power plants and within certain products and other industrial procedures.  Limits are to be set that may not be exceeded, while communities are encouraged to use eco-friendly alternatives.


The Impact of Illegal and Legal Wildllife Trade

         Illegal wildlife trade is a $20 billion dollar a year industry, and overall legal and illegal wildlife trafficking is worth about $160 billion dollars a year globally.  Every year billions of plants and animals are taken from the wild and sold as food, pets, leather, tourist curios, and medicine.  A lot of this wildlife trade is legal, although a large portion of the trade is illegal and deals with endangered and protected species.  Globally, populations of species have declined by an average of 40% between 1970 and 2000. Wildlife trade is the second biggest threat to species survival, after habitat destruction.  This trade causes the overexploitation of species, which harms human livelihoods and the balance of ecosystems, introduces invasive species, and results in the death of non-target species.
The biggest problem associated with wildlife trade is the overexploitation of species, to the point where their survival is at risk.  Overexploitation can cause extinctions or threaten species.  Popular examples of exploited species include rhinoceroses and elephants, which are killed for their horns and tusks.  Overexploitation is a concern because it can harm human livelihoods. Wildlife is vital in the lives of a high proportion of the world’s population.  Rural households often depend on wild animals for meat and trees and plants for fuel and medicine.  Many people in developing countries depend entirely on the continued availability of local wild animals and plants for their survival.     
The overharvesting of plants and animals also upsets the balance of nature and severely impacts biodiversity.  For example, the illegal poaching of elephants for ivory threatens the survival of a keystone species.  The loss of a keystone species within an ecosystem will negatively affect that ecosystem.Humans depend on the existence of a functioning planet, and to maintain the balance that is needed in order to not disturb the complex web of life on this planet, the careful use and management of wildlife species is required.  Bottom line: the controlled and uncontrolled wildlife trade poses a threat to the survival of several species worldwide, especially species that are currently endangered or threatened.  

An example of overharvesting: tortoises for sale at a wildlife market in southern China.

From Vietnam to L.A.: Songbirds

Sony Dong, charged with smuggling songbirds into the United States. He strapped 14 of the birds to his legs and attempted to walk out of the Los Angeles International Airport.

According to Fish and Wildlife Service agent Erin Dean, there are several ways to traffic wildlife in Southern California, such as LAX (the 6th busiest airport in the world), the Port of Los Angeles (the busiest port in the nation), and the Mexican border.  There are only 207 special agents and 126 wildlife inspectors in the U.S., and they have a large area to cover with a small amount of people.  In 2009, a man was detained flying in from Vietnam.  The man didn’t really look suspicious, but upon further investigation bird droppings were seen on top of this man’s shoes.  This man had strapped 14 songbirds to his legs which remained on him for the entire flight.

From Asia to China and Vietnam: Pangolin
Pangolins and a tortoise await their death at a wildlife market.

            Pangolins are one of the most endangered mammal groups in the world.  There are four species of Asian pangolins, and all of them are endangered or threatened.  These animals are one of the most frequently encountered mammals in Asia’s illegal wildlife trade.  It’s not uncommon for hundreds or thousands of pangolins to be seized at a time.  Pangolin scales and meat are used in China and Vietnam for medicine and food.  Hunters and traders say that pangolins have already disappeared in some areas in Asia, which is leading to an increase in trade of African pangolins. 

From India to Bangkok to Macau: Narrow-headed Softshell and Black Spotted Turtles 

Indian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtles seized in Bangkok.
            On March 12, 2014, Royal Thai Customs officers discovered 218 Black Spotted Turtles and 54 Indian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtles in check-in luggage in Bangkok on a flight destined for Macau.  The Indian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle is endangered, and the Black Spotted Turtle was recently listed in Appendix 1 of CITES and can’t be traded internationally for commercial uses.

Addressing the Threats of Wildlife Trade

Legal and illegal wildlife trade threaten biodiversity, upset the balance of nature, and threaten the livelihoods of people in developing countries.  In order to address the threat of illegal wildlife trade the Convention on International Trade inEndangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) needs support from organizations that can provide them with technical and scientific advice, such as WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring network), so that CITES can address the deficiencies in wildlife trade laws.Also, legislation needs to be tightened and enforced in developing countries, where funds for enforcement are lacking, and consumers should be educated so that they can make informed choices when buying wildlife-based products.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Once Upon a Palm Tree

           Indonesia’s land are being cleared to make an efficient biofuel that comes from the fruit of palm trees. The country has the largest amount of deforestation in the world per year. Palm oil is also used in cosmetics and many foods. There is 11.9 million hectares of palm oil planted in Indonesia. Malaysia and Indonesia account for 85% global palm oil production. 4.5 million people make a living on palm oil, 3/4th of that oil is exported. The boom for palm oil came in the food crisis of 2008 with international buyers of China, India, and the Middle East. Indonesia’s production of palm oil come from land that was once tropical forest. The forests are being slashed and burned to make room for the growing demand of palm oil. Destruction of forests are creating more emissions of greenhouse gases than they are solving by biofuels. Cutting down the trees that intake the carbon is bad for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even worse is the burning of the trees which then releases more CO2 into the air.
Deforestation and planting of Palm Oil Trees
          Each palm tree plant can produce seeds for more than 30 years. But when that plant is no longer being used, the plantation area is once again slashed and burned to clear the area for a new round of palm trees. The smoke from the burning forests can even be seen from space. 70% of Indonesia is categorized as state forest. 12% of this has been sold for palm oil production. A regulation was rewritten in 2007 to allow companies to have 100,000 hectares per plantation rather than the 20,000 which was originally set. This does not help to preserve the national forests. The forestry department is in charge of watching over the natural forest land but has not done a good job of preventing palm oil production on Indonesia’s National Forest land. Even the Prime Minister is allowing the national forests to be cleared because palm oil is great for the Indonesian economy.
Parts of Indonesia’s land is covered in rich soil called peat. Peat releases a lot of carbon. When the forests are burned the carbon gets released into the air.  Indonesia’s destruction of peatlands accounts for 4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is a large amount for the size of the island. Groups are trying to preserve the peatlands but they have not been very successful.
Palm oil comes with a high cost of destroying the ecosystem and biodiversity. Orangutans live in the same areas as the prime soils for palm plants; moist forested areas near the rivers. The fires set to clear the forests are endangering living populations in the region that may not move quick enough to escape the fire. Poaching is occurring the regions for illegal pet trading. Companies planting palm trees are also shooting the Orangutans that are on the planting lands. There is a conservation area in Indonesia for the Orangutans and Elephants. Palm trees do not make for a livable forest for these animals because palm trees only have a single layered canopy and reduced undergrowth.

The WWF has stepped in to help save the orangutan population from becoming extinct from the palm oil plantations. The papers for the Forest Minister to help preserve some of the peat lands is waiting to be signed but is being ignored. There are organizations that are working to help with the region if the government will not. Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil works to keep land for the indigenous people and preserve the natural forest. It also looks to keep greenhouse emissions down and work promote fair trade. Palm oil production needs to be controlled in Indonesia. These plantations are destroying the natural life in the country. The economics of the biofuel is great but soon the island will have nearly no natural forests left. The National Forests need to be preserved better and so do the animals that live within them. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Darkening the Night Skies to Light Them Up

The first time I remember ever seeing a clear night sky, with bright twinkling stars, I was 12 and at sixth grade camp. We were up fairly high in the mountains surrounding the San Joaquin Valley, a good distance away from any city lights, and our camp guide had taken my class and me out to a clearing in the woods to star gaze. It was beautiful and bright, like having a front row view to the universe. When the week was over, I was sad to go home. Fresno was a large enough city that all the lights covered the sky with a dim, yet blinding, sheen that made it impossible to just look up and count the stars. That’s light pollution and it’s a large problem in almost every city—big or small.
Light pollution is artificial light that goes up into the night skies and reflects off molecule surfaces back down onto Earth. It mostly happens at night, with light from streetlamps, buildings, and lighted walkways scattering. It’s well known for hampering astronomers, professional or otherwise, from clearly seeing the universe beyond our atmosphere, but it has far more effects than just that. It has an influence on our health, our economy, the environment, both crime and safety, and the health of other animals. So much artificial light streaming into our senses disrupts our circadian rhythm—what regulates our sleep cycles—and can cause an increase in cancer rates, melatonin suppression, and dampen our immune system. It does much the same to other animals while also causing disorientation, such as birds that fly into brightly lit buildings or newly hatched sea turtles that never make it to the ocean because they follow the wrong light. All this artificial light gives us a false sense of security, as well. We’re afraid of the total dark, so we feel better with the lights on but that doesn’t necessarily make us safer. Light pollution also effects our night vision, leaving us open to more accidents.
All is not lost, though. There are still places in the world, like areas around Wairarapa and Wellington, New Zealand, where the night sky is as clear and beautiful as ever. These are places where the Milky Way galaxy and other beautiful aspects of space can be seen, as astrophotographer Mark Gee found. There are also programs, such as the International-Dark Sky Association (IDA), that encourage and give recognition for places that put policies in place to diminish light pollution. Some places, like James Madison University, have even taken it upon themselves to educate the masses, for JMU this would be Starry Nights Harrisonburg week. In the end, it’s all about using light responsibly and then only when needed and then maybe one day we can turn all the world’s night into that brilliant starry image I remember from sixth grade camp.

Here is a link to a picture of what light pollution in the U.S. is predicted to become by 2025.

Behind the Scenes: Factory Farming

        Many of us are aware that most of the store bought chicken, pork, and beef we eat is produced in a factory farm. Factory farming can also be described as large-scale industrial agriculture. As documentaries about U.S industrial agricultural practices leaked onto our TV’s, people began to worry how they could be affecting us. For example, chicken, pigs, and cattle in industrial settings are raised in very close contact with one another with large concentrations of urine and feces surrounding them. This is how these animals we consume are living their short lives, standing in their own feces up to their knees.

         Not only does factory farming bring animal health concerns, but public health concerns as well. These type of practices can harbor diseases such as mad cow disease and salmonella that may make it into our own stomachs. On top of this, these factory farms are producing huge amounts of toxic manure runoff that end up in our waterways. One more problem seemingly caused by factory farming is bacteria’s growing resistance to antibiotics. When these animals are shoved into close living quarters, risk for disease becomes a threat. To deal with this, many farmers will simply add antibiotics into the water and feed even though the animals may not even be sick. Another reason they do this is because antibiotic use on factory farms has also shown increases in animal size, which benefits pocketbooks. A recent blog post titled Meat & Antibiotic Combo, Please, also addresses this issue. Misuse of antibiotics in industrial agriculture is harming both humans and animals alike as we see many bacteria growing resistant to our medicines.

            In an effort to answer the publics worrisome questions about the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to people from factory farming, microbiologist Larry Price began doing research. He obtained samples of chicken, turkey, and pork from every major grocery store in Flagstaff, AZ and used genetic sequencing to match germs found in meat with those found in urinary track infections. If Price is able to accomplish this task, he will be able to show that misuse of antibiotics in a large-scale farm setting can lead to the transfer of antibiotic resistant germs to humans. This issue has definitely been recognized by agencies such as the FDA and the EPA. For example, the FDA has put into effect a new policy that will phase out the use of antibiotics in cows, pigs, and chickens used for meat and should start within the next three years. This new policy will make it so farmers have to obtain prescriptions for sick animals instead of feeding them to the whole lot. Countries such as Sweden and Denmark have already banned antibiotics for growth promotion. Some people are worried, however, that loopholes may render this policy as a joke.
            Although some progress is being made, the EPA is actually starting to back off on their regulation of factory farming. Under the CWA (Clean Water Act), the EPA must monitor our waterways and shield them from toxic runoff. In one of the EPA’s own studies, they actually recognize that agricultural runoff is the leading cause of impaired water quality throughout the U.S. A main priority of theirs should be to regulate the amount of waste factory farms are letting off. However, they seem to be doing the exact opposite as they recently withdrew two rules. First off, the EPA needs preliminary data on these farms, which entitles them to gather information on all factory farms. This data collection has been halted by the EPA, maybe because of money-oriented lobbyists from industries such as Tyson, one of the biggest meat processing industries in the world. Secondly, the EPA has done nothing to expand the number of factory farms required to have a national discharge permit. To put this in perspective, 10,000 hogs are able to generate as much fecal matter as a small city of 40,000 people. The only difference is that hogs do not have waste treatment plants. The mass amount of toxic manure runoff generated is rolling straight towards are weakening fresh water systems. The EPA needs to forcefully regulate factory farms as their practices are threatening the integrity of our environment.

  In an effort to curb factory farming, many people are looking to find alternatives. However, even proposed sustainable practices aren’t showing much progress. Except for treating animals more humanely, organic farming practices actually have worse impacts on the environment when it comes to climate change. For example, grazing cows have been shown to emit more methane than grain fed cows. On top of this, if all cows in the U.S were to be raised on grass, it would require almost half of the countries land! It sounds like we may be consuming too much meat. By converting half of our land into cattle grazing land, we would lose large carbon sinks as well as a lot of biodiversity. There was recently a tract of land in Brazil (a rainforest), just larger than France that had been cut down for cattle grazing. This was not a sustainable decision. Although organic practices appear to be more sustainable, they are a bad alternative to producing the quantities of meat seen in a factory setting. One way to promote more sustainable farming practices is to stop eating as much meat, dairy, and eggs. In this way, demand for these animals will decrease, as will their production. This not only curbs the inhumane treatment of animals, but is also better for human health as our waterways will begin to clear up.