Worried about Earth’s future? Well, the outlook is worse than even scientists can grasp



Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University

Anyone with even a passing interest in the global environment knows all is not well. But just how bad is the situation? Our new paper shows the outlook for life on Earth is more dire than is generally understood.

The research published today reviews more than 150 studies to produce a stark summary of the state of the natural world. We outline the likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification. We clarify the gravity of the human predicament and provide a timely snapshot of the crises that must be addressed now.

The problems, all tied to human consumption and population growth, will almost certainly worsen over coming decades. The damage will be felt for centuries and threatens the survival of all species, including our own.

Our paper was authored by 17 leading scientists, including those from Flinders University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Our message might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But scientists must be candid and accurate if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face.

Girl in breathing mask attached ot plant in container
Humanity must come to terms with the future we and future generations face.
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Getting to grips with the problem

First, we reviewed the extent to which experts grasp the scale of the threats to the biosphere and its lifeforms, including humanity. Alarmingly, the research shows future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than experts currently believe.

This is largely because academics tend to specialise in one discipline, which means they’re in many cases unfamiliar with the complex system in which planetary-scale problems — and their potential solutions — exist.

What’s more, positive change can be impeded by governments rejecting or ignoring scientific advice, and ignorance of human behaviour by both technical experts and policymakers.

More broadly, the human optimism bias – thinking bad things are more likely to befall others than yourself – means many people underestimate the environmental crisis.

Numbers don’t lie

Our research also reviewed the current state of the global environment. While the problems are too numerous to cover in full here, they include:

  • a halving of vegetation biomass since the agricultural revolution around 11,000 years ago. Overall, humans have altered almost two-thirds of Earth’s land surface

  • About 1,300 documented species extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more unrecorded. More broadly, population sizes of animal species have declined by more than two-thirds over the last 50 years, suggesting more extinctions are imminent




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What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now?


  • about one million plant and animal species globally threatened with extinction. The combined mass of wild mammals today is less than one-quarter the mass before humans started colonising the planet. Insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions

  • 85% of the global wetland area lost in 300 years, and more than 65% of the oceans compromised to some extent by humans

  • a halving of live coral cover on reefs in less than 200 years and a decrease in seagrass extent by 10% per decade over the last century. About 40% of kelp forests have declined in abundance, and the number of large predatory fishes is fewer than 30% of that a century ago.

State of the Earth's environment
Major environmental-change categories expressed as a percentage relative to intact baseline. Red indicates percentage of category damaged, lost or otherwise affected; blue indicates percentage intact, remaining or unaffected.
Frontiers in Conservation Science

A bad situation only getting worse

The human population has reached 7.8 billion – double what it was in 1970 – and is set to reach about 10 billion by 2050. More people equals more food insecurity, soil degradation, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss.

High population densities make pandemics more likely. They also drive overcrowding, unemployment, housing shortages and deteriorating infrastructure, and can spark conflicts leading to insurrections, terrorism, and war.




Read more:
Climate explained: why we need to focus on increased consumption as much as population growth


Essentially, humans have created an ecological Ponzi scheme. Consumption, as a percentage of Earth’s capacity to regenerate itself, has grown from 73% in 1960 to more than 170% today.

High-consuming countries like Australia, Canada and the US use multiple units of fossil-fuel energy to produce one energy unit of food. Energy consumption will therefore increase in the near future, especially as the global middle class grows.

Then there’s climate change. Humanity has already exceeded global warming of 1°C this century, and will almost assuredly exceed 1.5 °C between 2030 and 2052. Even if all nations party to the Paris Agreement ratify their commitments, warming would still reach between 2.6°C and 3.1°C by 2100.

people walking on a crowded street
The human population is set to reach 10 billion by 2050.
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The danger of political impotence

Our paper found global policymaking falls far short of addressing these existential threats. Securing Earth’s future requires prudent, long-term decisions. However this is impeded by short-term interests, and an economic system that concentrates wealth among a few individuals.

Right-wing populist leaders with anti-environment agendas are on the rise, and in many countries, environmental protest groups have been labelled “terrorists”. Environmentalism has become weaponised as a political ideology, rather than properly viewed as a universal mode of self-preservation.

Financed disinformation campaigns against climate action and forest protection, for example, protect short-term profits and claim meaningful environmental action is too costly – while ignoring the broader cost of not acting. By and large, it appears unlikely business investments will shift at sufficient scale to avoid environmental catastrophe.

Changing course

Fundamental change is required to avoid this ghastly future. Specifically, we and many others suggest:

  • abolishing the goal of perpetual economic growth

  • revealing the true cost of products and activities by forcing those who damage the environment to pay for its restoration, such as through carbon pricing

  • rapidly eliminating fossil fuels

  • regulating markets by curtailing monopolisation and limiting undue corporate influence on policy

  • reigning in corporate lobbying of political representatives

  • educating and empowering women across the globe, including giving them control over family planning.

A coal plant
The true cost of environmental damage should be borne by those responsible.
Shutterstock

Don’t look away

Many organisations and individuals are devoted to achieving these aims. However their messages have not sufficiently penetrated the policy, economic, political and academic realms to make much difference.

Failing to acknowledge the magnitude and gravity of problems facing humanity is not just naïve, it’s dangerous. And science has a big role to play here.

Scientists must not sugarcoat the overwhelming challenges ahead. Instead, they should tell it like it is. Anything else is at best misleading, and at worst potentially lethal for the human enterprise.




Read more:
Mass extinctions and climate change: why the speed of rising greenhouse gases matters


The Conversation


Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders Professor of Global Ecology and Models Theme Leader for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, President, Center for Conservation Biology, Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

14 billion litres of untreated wastewater is created each day in developing countries, but we don’t know where it all goes



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Jacqueline Thomas, University of Sydney

To limit the spread of disease and reduce environmental pollution, human waste (excreta) needs to be safely contained and effectively treated. Yet 4.2 billion people, more than half of the world’s population, lack access to safe sanitation.

In developing countries, each person produces, on average, six litres of toilet wastewater each day. Based on the number of people who don’t have access to safe sanitation, that equates to nearly 14 billion litres of untreated faecally contaminated wastewater created each day. That’s the same as 5,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

This untreated wastewater directly contributes to increased diarrhoeal diseases, such as cholera, typhoid fever and rotavirus. Diseases such as these are responsible for 297,000 deaths per year of children under five years old, or 800 children every day.

The highest rates of diarrhoea-attributable child deaths are experienced by the poorest communities in countries including Afghanistan, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Given the global scale of this problem, it’s surprising sanitation practitioners still don’t know where exactly all the human excreta flows or leaches to, due to absent or unreliable data.

Poor sanitation to worsen under climate change

Inadequate sanitation is not only a human health issue, it’s also bad for the environment. An estimated 80% of wastewater from developed and developing countries flows untreated into environments around the world.

If an excess of nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorous) are released into the environment from untreated wastewater, it can foul natural ecosystems and disrupt aquatic life.




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Australia’s pristine beaches have a poo problem


This is especially the case for coral reefs. Many of the worlds most diverse coral reefs are located in tropical developing countries.

And overwhelmingly, developing countries have very limited human excreta management, leading to large quantities of raw wastewater being released directly onto coral reefs. In countries with high populations such as Indonesia and the Philippines, this is particularly evident.

A coral reef underwater, with clown fish swimming by.
Sewage discharges in proximity to sensitive coral reefs, particularly in the tropics.
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The damage raw wastewater inflicts on corals is severe. Raw wastewater carries solids, endocrine disrupters (chemicals that interfere with hormones), inorganic nutrients, heavy metals and pathogens directly to corals. This stunts coral growth, causes more coral diseases and reduces their reproduction rates.

The challenges of climate change will exacerbate our sanitation crisis, as increased rain and flooding will inundate sanitation systems and cause them to overflow. Pacific Island nations are particularly vulnerable, because of the compounding impacts of rising sea levels and more frequent, extreme tropical cyclones.

Meanwhile, increased drought and severe water scarcity in other parts of the world will render some sanitation systems, such as sewer systems, inoperable. One example is the mismanagement of government-operated water supplies in Harare, Zimbabwe leading to the failure of the sewerage system and placing millions at risk of waterborne diseases.

Even in more developed countries like Australia, increased frequency of extreme weather events and disasters, including bushfires, will damage some sanitation infrastructure beyond repair.

Global targets to improve sanitation

Improving clean water and sanitation have clear global targets. Goal 6 of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals is to, by 2030, achieve adequate and equitable sanitation for all and to halve the proportion of untreated wastewater.

A man emptying a pit latrine in urban Tanzania
A man emptyies a pit latrine in urban Tanzania.
Jacqueline Thomas, Author provided

Achieving this target will be difficult, given there is an absence of reliable data on the exact numbers of sanitation systems that are safely managed or not, particularly in developing countries.

Individual studies in countries such as Tanzania provide small amounts of information on whether some sanitation systems are safely managed. But these studies are not yet at the size needed to extrapolate to national scales.




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So what’s behind this lack of data?

A big reason behind the missing data is the large range of sanitation systems and their complex classifications.

For example, in developing countries, most people are serviced by on-site sanitation such as septic tanks (a concrete tank) or pit latrines (hole dug into the ground). But a lack of adherence to construction standards in nearly all developing countries, means most septic tanks are not built to standard and do not safely contain or treat faecal sludge.

A hole in the ground, lined with two bricks, and a blue bucket beside it
A typical pit latrine in rural Tanzania.
Jacqueline Thomas, Author provided

A common example seen with septic tank construction is there are a lot of incentives to build “non-standard” septic tanks that are much cheaper. From my current research in rural Fiji, I’ve seen reduced tank sizes and the use of alternative materials (old plastic water tanks) to save space and money in material costs.

These don’t allow for adequate containment or treatment. Instead, excreta can leach freely into the surrounding environment.

A white pipe juts out of a blue plastic tank and into the ground.
A ‘non-standard’ septic tank, which uses plastic, in Fiji.
Jacqueline Thomas, Author provided

A standard septic tank is designed to be desludged periodically, where the settled solids at the bottom of the tanks are removed by large vacuum trucks and disposed of safely. So, having a non-standard septic tank is further incentivised as the lack of sealed chambers reduces the accumulation of sludge, delaying costly emptying fees.

Another key challenge with data collection is how to determine if the sanitation infrastructure if functioning correctly. Even if the original design was built to a quality standard, in many circumstances there are significant deficiencies in operational and maintenance activities that lead to the system not working properly.




Read more:
Sewerage systems can’t cope with more extreme weather



What’s more, terminology is a constant point of confusion. Households — when surveyed for UN’s Sustainable Development Goal data collection on sanitation — will say they do have a septic tank. But in reality, they’re unaware they have a non-standard septic tank functioning as a leach-pit, and not safely treating or containing their excreta.

Fixing the problem

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 6 requires nationally representative data sets. The following important questions must be answered, at national scales in developing countries:

  • for every toilet, where does the excreta go? Is it safely contained, treated on site, or transported for treatment?

  • if the excreta is not contained or treated properly after it leaves the toilet, then how far does it travel through the ground or waterways?

  • when excreta is removed from the pit or septic tank of a full on-site latrine, where is it taken? Is it dumped in the environment or safely treated?

  • are sewer systems intact and connected to functioning wastewater treatment plants that releases effluent (treated waste) of a safe quality?

Presently, the sanitation data collection tools the UN uses for its Sustainable Development Goals don’t answer in full these critical questions. More robust surveys and sampling programs need to be designed, along with resource allocation for government sanitation departments for a more thorough data collection strategy.

And importantly, we need a co-ordinated investment in sustainable sanitation solutions from all stakeholders, especially governments, international organisations and the private sector. This is essential to both protect the health of our own species and all other living things.




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Curious Kids: Where does my poo go when I flush the toilet? Does it go into the ocean?


The Conversation


Jacqueline Thomas, Lecturer in Environmental and Humanitarian Engineering, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

These are the plastic items that most kill whales, dolphins, turtles and seabirds



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Lauren Roman, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, CSIRO, and Qamar Schuyler, CSIRO

How do we save whales and other marine animals from plastic in the ocean? Our new review shows reducing plastic pollution can prevent the deaths of beloved marine species. Over 700 marine species, including half of the world’s cetaceans (such as whales and dolphins), all of its sea turtles and a third of its seabirds, are known to ingest plastic.

When animals eat plastic, it can block their digestive system, causing a long, slow death from starvation. Sharp pieces of plastic can also pierce the gut wall, causing infection and sometimes death. As little as one piece of ingested plastic can kill an animal.

About eight million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean each year, so solving the problem may seem overwhelming. How do we reduce harm to whales and other marine animals from that much plastic?

Like a hospital overwhelmed with patients, we triage. By identifying the items that are deadly to the most vulnerable species, we can apply solutions that target these most deadly items.

Some plastics are deadlier than others

In 2016, experts identified four main items they considered to be most deadly to wildlife: fishing debris, plastic bags, balloons and plastic utensils.

We tested these expert predictions by assessing data from 76 published research papers incorporating 1,328 marine animals (132 cetaceans, 20 seals and sea lions, 515 sea turtles and 658 seabirds) from 80 species.

We examined which items caused the greatest number of deaths in each group, and also the “lethality” of each item (how many deaths per interaction). We found the experts got it right for three of four items.

Plastic bag floats in the ocean.
Film plastics cause the most deaths in cetaceans and sea turtles.
Shutterstock

Flexible plastics, such as plastic sheets, bags and packaging, can cause gut blockage and were responsible for the greatest number of deaths over all animal groups. These film plastics caused the most deaths in cetaceans and sea turtles. Fishing debris, such as nets, lines and tackle, caused fatalities in larger animals, particularly seals and sea lions.

Turtles and whales that eat debris can have difficulty swimming, which may increase the risk of being struck by ships or boats. In contrast, seals and sea lions don’t eat much plastic, but can die from eating fishing debris.

Balloons, ropes and rubber, meanwhile, were deadly for smaller fauna. And hard plastics caused the most deaths among seabirds. Rubber, fishing debris, metal and latex (including balloons) were the most lethal for birds, with the highest chance of causing death per recorded ingestion.




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What’s the solution?

The most cost-efficient way to reduce marine megafauna deaths from plastic ingestion is to target the most lethal items and prioritise their reduction in the environment.

Targeting big plastic items is also smart, as they can break down into smaller pieces. Small debris fragments such as microplastics and fibres are a lower management priority, as they cause significantly fewer deaths to megafauna and are more difficult to manage.

Image of dead bird and gloved hand containing small plastics.
Plastic found in the stomach of a fairy prion.
Photo supplied by Lauren Roman

Flexible film-like plastics, including plastic bags and packaging, rank among the ten most common items in marine debris surveys globally. Plastic bag bans and fees for bags have already been shown to reduce bags littered into the environment. Improving local disposal and engineering solutions to enable recycling and improve the life span of plastics may also help reduce littering.

Lost fishing gear is particularly lethal. Fisheries have high gear loss rates: 5.7% of all nets and 29% of all lines are lost annually in commercial fisheries. The introduction of minimum standards of loss-resistant or higher quality gear can reduce loss.




Read more:
How to get abandoned, lost and discarded ‘ghost’ fishing gear out of the ocean


Other steps can help, too, including

  • incentivising gear repairs and port disposal of damaged nets

  • penalising or prohibiting high-risk fishing activities where snags or gear loss are likely

  • and enforcing penalties associated with dumping.

Outreach and education to recreational fishers to highlight the harmful effects of fishing gear could also have benefit.

Balloons, latex and rubber are rare in the marine environment, but are disproportionately lethal, particularly to sea turtles and seabirds. Preventing intentional balloon releases and accidental release during events and celebrations would require legislation and a shift in public will.

The combination of policy change with behaviour change campaigns are known to be the most effective at reducing coastal litter across Australia.

Reducing film-like plastics, fishing debris and latex/balloons entering the environment would likely have the best outcome in directly reducing mortality of marine megafauna.




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The Conversation


Lauren Roman, Postdoctoral Researcher, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Qamar Schuyler, Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmospheres, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It might be the world’s biggest ocean, but the mighty Pacific is in peril



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Jodie L. Rummer, James Cook University; Bridie JM Allan, University of Otago; Charitha Pattiaratchi, University of Western Australia; Ian A. Bouyoucos, James Cook University; Irfan Yulianto, IPB University, and Mirjam van der Mheen, University of Western Australia

The Pacific Ocean is the deepest, largest ocean on Earth, covering about a third of the globe’s surface. An ocean that vast may seem invincible. Yet across its reach – from Antarctica in the south to the Arctic in the north, and from Asia to Australia to the Americas – the Pacific Ocean’s delicate ecology is under threat.

In most cases, human activity is to blame. We have systematically pillaged the Pacific of fish. We have used it as a rubbish tip – garbage has been found even in the deepest point on Earth, in the Mariana Trench 11,000 metres below sea level.

And as we pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the Pacific, like other oceans, is becoming more acidic. It means fish are losing their sense of sight and smell, and sea organisms are struggling to build their shells.

Oceans produce most of the oxygen we breathe. They regulate the weather, provide food, and give an income to millions of people. They are places of fun and recreation, solace and spiritual connection. So, healthy, vibrant oceans benefit us all. And by better understanding the threats to the precious Pacific, we can start the long road to protecting it.


This article is part of the Oceans 21 series

The series opens with five profiles delving into ancient Indian Ocean trade networks, Pacific plastic pollution, Arctic light and life, Atlantic fisheries and the Southern Ocean’s impact on global climate. It’s brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.


The ocean plastic scourge

The problem of ocean plastic was scientifically recognised in the 1960s after two scientists saw albatross carcasses littering the beaches of the northwest Hawaiian Islands in the northern Pacific. Almost three in four albatross chicks, who died before they could fledge, had plastic in their stomachs.

Now, plastic debris is found in all major marine habitats around the world, in sizes ranging from nanometers to meters. A small portion of this accumulates into giant floating “garbage patches”, and the Pacific Ocean is famously home to the largest of them all.

Most plastic debris from land is transported into the ocean through rivers. Just 20 rivers contribute two-thirds of the global plastic input into the sea, and ten of these discharge into the northern Pacific Ocean. Each year, for example, the Yangtze River in China – which flows through Shanghai – sends about 1.5 million metric tonnes of debris into the Pacific’s Yellow Sea.

A wildlife killer

Plastic debris in the oceans presents innumerable hazards for marine life. Animals can get tangled in debris such as discarded fishing nets, causing them to be injured or drown.

Some organisms, such as microscopic algae and invertebrates, can also hitch a ride on floating debris, travelling large distances across the oceans. This means they can be dispersed out of their natural range, and can colonise other regions as invasive species.




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For decades, scientists puzzled over the plastic ‘missing’ from our oceans – but now it’s been found


And of course, wildlife can be badly harmed by ingesting debris, such as microplastics less than five millimetres in size. This plastic can obstruct an animal’s mouth or accumulate in its stomach. Often, the animal dies a slow, painful death.

Seabirds, in particular, often mistake floating plastics for food. A 2019 study found there was a 20% chance seabirds would die after ingesting a single item, rising to 100% after consuming 93 items.

A turtle tangled in a fishing net
Discarded fishing nets, or ‘ghost nets’ can entangle animals like turtles.
Shutterstock

A scourge on small island nations

Plastic is extremely durable, and can float vast distances across the ocean. In 2011, 5 million tonnes of debris entered the Pacific during the Japan tsunami. Some crossed the entire ocean basin, ending up on North American coastlines.

And since floating plastics in the open ocean are transported mainly by ocean surface currents and winds, plastic debris accumulates on island coastlines along their path. Kamilo Beach, on the south-eastern tip of Hawaii’s Big Island, is considered one of the world’s worst for plastic pollution. Up to 20 tonnes of debris wash onto the beach each year.

Similarly, on uninhabited Henderson Island, part of the Pitcairn Island chain in the south Pacific, 18 tonnes of plastic have accumulated on a beach just 2.5km long. Several thousand pieces of plastic wash up each day.

Kamilo Beach is referred to as the world’s dirtiest.

Subtropical garbage patches

Plastic waste can have different fates in the ocean: some sink, some wash up on beaches and some float on the ocean surface, transported by currents, wind and waves.

Around 1% of plastic waste accumulates in five subtropical “garbage patches” in the open ocean. They’re formed as a result of ocean circulation, driven by the changing wind fields and the Earth’s rotation.

There are two subtropical garbage patches in the Pacific: one in the northern and one in the southern hemisphere.

The northern accumulation region is separated into an eastern patch between California and Hawaii, and a western patch, which extends eastwards from Japan.

Locations of the five subtropical garbage patches.
van der Mheen et al. (2019)

Our ocean garbage shame

First discovered by Captain Charles Moore in the early 2000s, the eastern patch is better known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch because it’s the largest by both size (around 1.6 million square kilometers) and amount of plastic. By weight, this garbage patch can hold more than 100 kilograms per square kilometre.

The garbage patch in the southern Pacific is located off Valparaiso, Chile, extending to the west. It has lower concentrations compared to its giant counterpart in the northeast.

Discarded fishing nets make up around 45% of the total plastic weight in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Waste from the 2011 Japan tsunami is also a major contributor, making up an estimated 20% of the patch.




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Whales and dolphins found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for the first time


With time, larger plastic debris degrades into microplastics. Microplastics form only 8% of the total weight of plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but make up 94% of the estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic there. In high concentrations, they can make the water “cloudy”.

Each year, up to 15 million tonnes of plastic waste are estimated to make their way into the ocean from coastlines and rivers. This amount is expected to double by 2025 as plastic production continues to increase.

We must act urgently to stem the flow. This includes developing plans to collect and remove the plastics and, vitally, stop producing so much in the first place.

Divers releasing a whale shark from a fishing net.

Fisheries on the verge of collapse

As the largest and deepest sea on Earth, the Pacific supports some of the world’s biggest fisheries. For thousands of years, people have relied on these fisheries for their food and livelihoods.

But, around the world, including in the Pacific, fishing operations are depleting fish populations faster than they can recover. This overfishing is considered one of the most serious threats to the world’s oceans.

Humans take about 80 million tonnes of wildlife from the sea each year. In 2019, the world’s leading scientists said of all threats to marine biodiversity over the past 50 years, fishing has caused the most harm. They said 33% of fish species were overexploited, 60% were being fished to the maximum level, and just 7% were underfished.

The decline in fish populations is not just a problem for humans. Fish play an important role in marine ecosystems and are a crucial link in the ocean’s complex food webs.

A school of fish
Overfishing is stripping the Pacific Ocean of marine life.
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Not plenty of fish in the sea

Overfishing happens when humans extract fish resources beyond the maximum level, known as the “maximum sustainable yield”. Fishing beyond this causes global fish stocks to decline, disrupts food chains, degrades habitats, and creates food scarcity for humans.

The Pacific Ocean is home to huge tuna fisheries, which provide almost 65% of the global tuna catch each year. But the long-term survival of many tuna populations is at risk.

For example, a study released in 2013 found numbers of bluefin tuna – a prized fish used to make sushi – had declined by more than 96% in the Northern Pacific Ocean.

Developing countries, including Indonesia and China, are major overfishers, but so too are developing nations.




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When hurricanes temporarily halt fishing, marine food webs recover quickly


Along Canada’s west coast, Pacific salmon populations have declined rapidly since the early 1990s, partly due to overfishing. And Japan was recently heavily criticised for a proposal to increase quotas on Pacific bluefin tuna, a species reportedly at just 4.5% of its historic population size.

Experts say overfishing is also a problem in Australia. For example, research in 2018 showed large fish species were rapidly declining around the nation due to excessive fishing pressure. In areas open to fishing, exploited populations fell by an average of 33% in the decade to 2015.

A plate of sushi
Stocks of fish used to make sushi have declined in number.
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So what’s driving overfishing?

There are many reasons why overfishing occurs and why it is goes unchecked. The evidence points to:




Read more:
The race to fish: how fishing subsidies are emptying our oceans


Let’s take Indonesia as an example. Indonesia lies between the Pacific and Indian oceans and is the world’s third-biggest producer of wild-capture fish after China and Peru. Some 60% of the catch is made by small-scale fishers. Many hail from poor coastal communities.

Overfishing was first reported in Indonesia in the 1970s. It prompted a presidential decree in 1980, banning trawling off the islands of Java and Sumatra. But overfishing continued into the 1990s, and it persists today. Target species include reef fishes, lobster, prawn, crab, and squid.

Indonesia’s experience shows how there is no easy fix to the overfishing problem. In 2017, the Indonesian government issued a decree that was supposed to keep fishing to a sustainable level – 12.5 million tonnes per year. Yet, in may places, the practice continued – largely because the rules were not clear and local enforcement was inadequate.

Implementation was complicated by the fact that almost all Indonesia’s smaller fishing boats come under the control of provincial governments. This reveals the need for better cooperation between levels of government in cracking down on overfishing.

Man checks fishing haul
Globally, compliance and enforcement of fishing limits is often poor.
Shutterstock

What else can we do?

To prevent overfishing, governments should address the issue of poverty and poor education in small fishing communities. This may involve finding them a new source of income. For example in the town of Oslob in the Philippines, former fishermen and women have turned to tourism – feeding whale sharks tiny amounts of krill to draw them closer to shore so tourists can snorkel or dive with them.

Tackling overfishing in the Pacific will also require cooperation among nations to monitor fishing practices and enforce the rules.

And the world’s network of marine protected areas should be expanded and strengthened to conserve marine life. Currently, less than 3% of the world’s oceans are highly protected “no take” zones. In Australia, many marine reserves are small and located in areas of little value to commercial fishers.

The collapse of fisheries around the world shows just how vulnerable our marine life is. It’s clear that humans are exploiting the oceans beyond sustainable levels. Billions of people rely on seafood for protein and for their livelihoods. But by allowing overfishing to continue, we harm not just the oceans, but ourselves.

fish in a net
Providing fishers with an alternative income can help prevent overfishing.
Shutterstock



Read more:
Poor Filipino fishermen are making millions protecting whale sharks


The threat of acidic oceans

The tropical and subtropical waters of the Pacific Ocean are home to more than 75% of the world’s coral reefs. These include the Great Barrier Reef and more remote reefs in the Coral Triangle, such as those in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Coral reefs are bearing the brunt of climate change. We hear a lot about how coral bleaching is damaging coral ecosystems. But another insidious process, ocean acidification, is also threatening reef survival.

Ocean acidification particularly affects shallow waters, and the subarctic Pacific region is particularly vulnerable.

Coral reefs cover less than 0.5% of Earth’s surface, but house an estimated 25% of all marine species. Due to ocean acidification and other threats, these incredibly diverse “underwater rainforests” are among the most threatened ecosystems on the planet.

A chemical reaction

Ocean acidification involves a decrease in the pH of seawater as it absorbs carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere.

Each year, humans emit 35 billion tonnes of CO₂ through activities such as burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

Oceans absorb up to 30% of atmospheric CO₂, setting off a chemical reaction in which concentrations of carbonate ions fall, and hydrogen ion concentrations increase. That change makes the seawater more acidic.

Since the Industrial Revolution, ocean pH has decreased by 0.1 units. This may not seem like much, but it actually means the oceans are now about 28% more acidic than since the mid-1800s. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the rate of acidification is accelerating.

An industrial city from the air
Each year, humans emit 35 billion tonnes of CO₂.
Shutterstock

Why is ocean acidification harmful?

Carbonate ions are the building blocks for coral structures and organisms that build shells. So a fall in the concentrations of carbonate ions can spell bad news for marine life.

In more acidic waters, molluscs have been shown to have trouble making and repairing their shells. They also exhibit impaired growth, metabolism, reproduction, immune function, and altered behaviours. For example, researchers exposed sea hares (a type of sea slug) in French Polynesia to simulated ocean acidification and found they had less foraging success and made poorer decisions.

Ocean acidification is also a problem for the fishes. Many studies have revealed elevated CO₂ can disrupt their sense of smell, vision and hearing. It can also impair survival traits, such as a fish’s ability to learn, avoid predators, and select suitable habitat.

Such impairment appears to be the result of changes in neurological, physiological, and molecular functions in fish brains.

A sea hare
Sea hares exposed to acidification made poorer decisions.
Shutterstock

Predicting the winners and losers

Of the seven oceans, the Pacific and Indian Oceans have been acidifying at the fastest rates since 1991. This suggests their marine life may also be more vulnerable.

However, ocean acidification does not affect all marine species in the same way, and the effects can vary over the organism’s lifetime. So, more research to predict the future winners and losers is crucial.

This can be done by identifying inherited traits that can increase an organism’s survival and reproductive success under more acidic conditions. Winner populations may start to adapt, while loser populations should be targets for conservation and management.




Read more:
Acid oceans are shrinking plankton, fuelling faster climate change


One such winner may be the epaulette shark, a shallow water reef species endemic to the Great Barrier Reef. Research suggests simulated ocean acidification conditions do not impact early growth, development, and survival of embryos and neonates, nor do they affect foraging behaviours or metabolic performance of adults.

But ocean acidification is also likely to create losers on the Great Barrier Reef. For example, researchers studying the orange clownfish – a species made famous by Disney’s animated Nemo character – found they suffered multiple sensory impairments under simulated ocean acidification conditions. These ranged from difficulties smelling and hearing their way home, to distinguishing friend from foe.

A clownfish
Clownfish struggled to tell friend from foe when exposed to ocean acidification.
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It’s not too late

More than half a billion people depend on coral reefs for food, income, and protection from storms and coastal erosion. Reefs provide jobs – such as in tourism and fishing – and places for recreation. Globally, coral reefs represent an industry worth US$11.9 trillion per year. And importantly, they’re a place of deep cultural and spiritual connection for Indigenous people around the world.

Ocean acidification is not the only threat to coral reefs. Under climate change, the rate of ocean warming has doubled since the 1990s. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, has warmed by 0.8℃ since the Industrial Revolution. Over the past five years this has caused devastating back-to-back coral bleaching events. The effects of warmer seas are magnified by ocean acidification.




Read more:
Coronavirus is a ‘sliding doors’ moment. What we do now could change Earth’s trajectory


Cutting greenhouse gas emissions must become a global mission. COVID-19 has slowed our movements across the planet, showing it’s possible to radically slash our production of CO₂. If the world meets the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement and keeps global temperature increases below 1.5℃, the Pacific will experience far less severe decreases in oceanic pH.

We will, however, have to curb emissions by a lot more – 45% over the next decade – to keep global warming below 1.5℃. This would give some hope that coral reefs in the Pacific, and worldwide, are not completely lost.

Clearly, the decisions we make today will affect what our oceans look like tomorrow.The Conversation

The Pacific Ocean off the Taiwan coast
Our decisions today will determine the fate of tomorrow’s oceans.
Shutterstock

Jodie L. Rummer, Associate Professor & Principal Research Fellow, James Cook University; Bridie JM Allan, Lecturer/researcher, University of Otago; Charitha Pattiaratchi, Professor of Coastal Oceanography, University of Western Australia; Ian A. Bouyoucos, Postdoctoral fellow, James Cook University; Irfan Yulianto, Lecturer of Fisheries Resources Utilization, IPB University, and Mirjam van der Mheen, Fellow, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Can countries end overfishing and plastic pollution in just 10 years?



Artem Mishukov/Shutterstock

Henrik Österblom, Stockholm University

In my career as a marine biologist, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some of the most remote islands in the world. These beautiful places continue to remind me why I have this job in the first place, but they also bring home the pervasive influence of human societies. Uninhabited bird colonies on the Canadian West Coast, remote tropical Japanese islands, and tiny bits of land in South East Asia all have one thing in common: plastic waste on the beach.

When at home in Sweden, I regularly swim and sail in the Baltic Sea. But agricultural fertilisers and other types of pollution have created dead zones where fish either leave or suffocate. Meanwhile, offshore fisheries and aquaculture farms in many parts of the world overharvest and pollute the water. We know what proper management of these activities could look like, but political will has so far not been equal to the challenge.

That may be about to change. A recent agreement between 14 heads of state – together representing 40% of the world’s coastline – promised to end overfishing, restore fish stocks and halt the flow of plastic pollution into the ocean within a decade.

A tropical beach strewn with plastic waste.
Ocean problems implicate every country – and demand coordinated solutions.
Musleemin Noitubtim/Shutterstock

Interconnected problems

Pollution, plastics and unsustainable seafood may look like isolated problems, but they influence each other. As nutrients run off farmland and into the sea, they affect the conditions fish need to thrive. Pollution makes our seafood less healthy and overfishing is pushing some fish stocks beyond their capacity to renew themselves.

All of these stresses are amplified by global warming. The ocean has been acting as a sink for CO₂ emissions and excess heat for decades, but there is only so much that marine ecosystems can take before collapsing. And we shouldn’t think these problems won’t affect us – stronger storms, fuelled by warmer ocean waters, are happening more often.

It’s in everyone’s interests to protect the ocean. Clean seas would be more profitable and research suggests that better managed fisheries could generate six times more food than they do currently. The exclusive economic zones of coastal states would be more productive if every country agreed to protect the high seas. And sailing in the Baltic Sea would be much nicer if the boat didn’t have to plough a thick, green sludge.

So how can the world make progress – and what’s holding us back?

International solutions

As part of the recent agreement between 14 heads of state, the participating countries – Australia, Canada, Chile, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Palau and Portugal – committed to a number of goals within their national waters, including investment in zero-emission shipping, eliminating waste and ensuring fisheries are sustainable. The aim is to ensure all activity within these exclusive economic zones is sustainable by 2025.

The countries agreed to fast-track their plan for action, rather than work through the UN. Their combined national waters roughly equal the size of Africa. They each have clear stakes in the continued functioning of ocean ecosystems and economies, so this pragmatic approach makes sense. That’s a sentiment that businesses could no doubt respect. After all, there are no economic opportunities in a dead ocean.

The agreement is an encouraging message from political leaders, and these states can leverage vast sums of money and resources to effect change. But the ocean is home to a dozen global industries, and around 50,000 vessels traverse it at any one time. Clearly, we need more than governments to deliver on this ambitious agenda.

Colourful shipping containers and cranes fill a bustling seaport.
Shipping accounts for nearly 90% of all global trade.
Harmony Video Production/Shutterstock

My scientific colleagues and I have been developing a global coalition of businesses concerned with sustainable seafood. Our strategy is to find “keystone actors” within the private sector – companies with a disproportionate ability to influence change due to their size and strength.

The seafood industry is vast, and includes some of the largest companies in the world – from entire fisheries, to aquaculture farms and feed processors. After four years of working together, change within the participating companies is accelerating. For example, Nissui, the world’s second-largest seafood company, has evaluated their entire production portfolio for sustainability challenges.

Collaboration between scientists and businesses is vital to delivering commitments made by governments. Scientists can help define the problems, and business can develop, pilot and scale solutions. For instance, we’re developing software that can automatically detect which species of fish are caught on vessels, to radically improve the transparency of seafood production.

The ocean has been a source of inspiration, imagination and adventure since the beginning of time. It has fed us and generated livelihoods for billions. Politicians have stood serenely on the sidelines for some time now, content to be passive observers of deteriorating ecosystems. But the era of passive observation may finally be coming to an end.The Conversation

Henrik Österblom, Professor of Environmental Science, Stockholm University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why microplastics found in Nigeria’s freshwaters raise a red flag



Plastic pollution remains a topmost environmental concern
Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

Emmanuel O. Akindele, Obafemi Awolowo University

Freshwater ecosystems are a priority for environmental scientists because they affect the health of animals and plants on land too – as well as people. They provide food, water, transport and flood control. Freshwater ecosystems also keep nutrients moving among organisms and support diverse forms of life.

Freshwater systems make a big difference to the quality of life in any human society. But they are under great pressure. Freshwater biodiversity is declining faster than terrestrial biodiversity.

Among the three major types of habitats – terrestrial, freshwater and marine – freshwater accounts for less than 1% of the earth’s surface. Yet these habitats support more species per unit area and account for about 6% of the world’s biodiversity.

One of the biggest stresses on freshwater ecosystems is the presence of plastics. Some microplastics – tiny pieces of plastic that have broken down from bigger pieces – get into water from various sources. Some are introduced from industrial sources like cosmetics, toothpaste and shaving cream. Another major source is dumping of plastic waste like bags and bottles.

In Nigeria, an important source is the plastic sachets that contain drinking water. Over 60 million of these are consumed in a day.

Ultimately all these types of plastic waste find their way to the aquatic environment. There they stay in the water column, settle on river beds or are ingested by aquatic animals.

My research group set out to assess the load and chemical nature of microplastics in two important rivers and Gulf of Guinea tributaries in Nigeria. We looked for the presence of microplastics in aquatic insects since they often dominate aquatic animal life. Most also spend their adult stage in the terrestrial environment, once they emerge from their larvae. We found that microplastics were present in large quantities in the insect larvae. The insects are part of a food chain and could transfer the harmful effects of microplastics throughout the chain.

This further reinforces the urgent need for Nigeria to go ahead with measures to reduce the use of plastic bags and single-use plastics.

The research findings

We used three of the rivers’ aquatic insect species as bio-indicators and found that all three had ingested microplastics from the two rivers. The ingested microplastics include styrene-ethylene-butylene-styrene, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, chlorinated polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyester. The quantity of microplastics ingested by the insects was fairly high, especially in the Chironomus sp. which is a riverbed dweller recorded in the Ogun River.

The diversity of plastic polymers recorded in these insects suggests a wide range of applications of plastics in Nigeria.

The three insect species spend their larval stages in the water and later migrate to land in the adult phase. The concern is that the insect larvae could serve as a link for microplastics’ transfer to higher trophic levels in the aquatic environment. Also, the adults serve in the same capacity in the terrestrial environment. A trophic level is the group of organisms within an ecosystem which occupy the same level in a food chain.

Dragonfly larvae in the water are eaten by fish, salamanders, turtles, birds and beetles. Adult dragonflies on land are also eaten by birds and other insects.

Other research elsewhere has shown the link between microplastics and human health.

Through feeding, the transfer of microplastics in the environment could go as far as people – who caused the plastic pollution in the first place.

Evidence suggests that microplastics reduce the physiological fitness of animals. This comes through decreased food consumption, weight loss, decreased growth rate, energy depletion and susceptibility to other harmful substances. Human health could similarly be at risk on account of microplastic ingestion.

Microplastics can be retained for a longer time at the higher trophic levels where humans belong, thereby predisposing humans to serious health hazards.

Case for a plastic bags ban

A ban on plastic bags would curb the plastic pollution in Nigeria. There are alternatives to the use of plastic bags, for instance, bags made from banana stalks, coconut, palm leaf, cassava flour and chicken feathers. Unlike plastic bags, which could persist in the environments for over a century, bags made from these organic materials decompose readily in a manner that does not pose a health risk to the environment.

For a long while, the call to mitigate plastic pollution was not heeded in Nigeria. Recently, the House of Representatives passed a bill banning plastic bags. But this is yet to be implemented as the president has not assented to it.

A study in the European Union indicates that a ban on single-use plastics could reduce marine plastic pollution by about 5.5%.

It is about time Nigeria treated plastic pollution as a national emergency, considering its implications for human health and the ecological integrity of aquatic ecosystems. An approach that puts people at the centre of the issue has been suggested as one way to convince local communities to preserve the integrity of the environment.

Perhaps this approach could help restore plastic-laden aquatic ecosystems and preserve the pristine ones.The Conversation

Emmanuel O. Akindele, Senior Lecturer, Obafemi Awolowo University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Humans are polluting the environment with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and I’m finding them everywhere



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Michelle Power, Macquarie University

Many of us are aware of the enormous threat of antibiotic- (or “antimicrobial”) resistant bacteria on human health. But few realise just how pervasive these superbugs are — antimicrobial-resistant bacteria have jumped from humans and are running rampant across wildlife and the environment.

My research is revealing the enormous breadth of wildlife species with superbugs in their gut bacterial communities (“microbiome”). Affected wildlife includes little penguins, sea lions, brushtailed possums, Tassie devils, flying foxes, echidnas, and a range of kangaroo and wallaby species.




Read more:
Speaking with: Dr Mark Blaskovich on antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the threat of superbugs


To combat antibiotic resistance, we need to use “One Health” — an approach to public health that recognises the interconnectedness of people, animals and the environment.

And this week’s appointment of federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley to the world’s first One Health Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance, brings me confidence we’re finally heading in the right direction.

Where we’ve found superbugs

Tackling antimicrobial resistance with One Health requires studying resistance in bacteria from people, domesticated animals, wildlife and the environment.

Tasmanian devil standing on a rock
Tasmanian devils are among the species we’ve found harbouring resistant bacteria.
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Humans have solely driven the emergence and spread of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, mainly through the overuse, and often misuse, of antibiotics.

The spread of superbugs to the environment has mainly occurred through human wastewater. Medical and industrial waste, which pollute the environment with the antibiotics themselves, worsen the issue. And the ability for antibiotic-resistant genes to be shared between bacteria in the environment has propelled antimicrobial resistance even further.




Read more:
How antibiotic pollution of waterways creates superbugs


Generally, wildlife closer to people in urban areas are more likely to carry antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, because we share our homes, food waste and water with them.

For example, our recent research showed 48% of 664 brushtail possums around Sydney and Melbourne tested positive for antibiotic-resistant genes.

Brushtailed possum in a tree
Hundreds of possums around Sydney and Melbourne have resistant bacteria.
Shutterstock

Whether animals are in captivity or the wild also plays a role in their levels of antimicrobial resistance.

For example, we found only 5.3% of grey-headed flying-foxes in the wild were carrying resistance traits. This jumps to 41% when flying-foxes are in wildlife care or captivity.

Likewise, less than 2% of wild Australian sea lions we tested had antibiotic-resistant bacteria, compared to more than 40% of those in captivity. We’ve found similar trends between captive and wild little penguins, too.

And more than 40% of brush-tailed rock wallabies in a captive breeding program were carrying antibiotic resistance genes compared to none from the wild.

So why is this a problem?

An animal with antibiotic-resistant bacteria may be harder to treat with antibiotics if it’s injured or sick and ends up in care. But generally, we’re yet to understand their full impact – though we can speculate.

Grey-headed flying-foxes hanging from a branch
We’ve found new types of resistant genes in flying-fox communities.
Shutterstock

For wildlife, resistant bacteria are essentially “weeds” in their microbiomes. These microbial weeds may disrupt the microbiomes, impairing immunity or increasing the risk of infection by other agents.

Another problem relates to how antimicrobial-resistant bacteria can spread their resistant genes to other bacteria. Sharing genes between bacteria is a major driver for new resistant bacterial strains.

We’ve been finding more types of resistant genes in an animal’s microbiome than we do in comparison to commonly studied bacteria, such as Escherichia coli. This means some wildlife bacteria may have acquired resistance genes, but we don’t know which.

Many of the wildlife species we’ve examined also carry human-associated bacterial strains — strains known to cause, for instance, diarrhoeal disease in humans. In wildlife, these bacteria could potentially acquire novel resistance genes making them harder to treat if they spread back to people.

This is something we found in grey-headed flying-fox microbiomes, which had new combinations of resistant genes. These, we concluded, originated from the outside environment.

How do we mitigate this threat?

Antimicrobial stewardship — using the best antibiotic when a bacterial infection is diagnosed, and using it appropriately — is a big part of tackling this global health issue.

This is what’s outlined in Australia’s National Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy: 2020 & Beyond, which the federal government released in March this year.

The 2020 strategy builds on a previous strategy by better incorporating the environment, in what should be a true “One Health” approach. The World Health Organisation’s appointment of Ley supports this.

Antimicrobial stewardship is equally important for those in veterinary fields as well as medical doctors. As Australia leads the world in wildlife rehabilitation, antimicrobial stewardship should be a major part of wildlife care.

For the rest of us, preventing our superbugs from spilling over to wildlife also starts with taking antibiotics appropriately, and recognising antibiotics work only for bacterial infections. It’s also worth noting you should find a toilet if you’re out in the bush (and not “go naturally”), and not leave your food scraps behind for wild animals to find.




Read more:
‘Deeply worrying’: 92% of Australians don’t know the difference between viral and bacterial infections


The 2020 strategy recognises the need for better communication to strengthen stewardship and awareness. This should include education on the issues of antimicrobial resistance, what it means for wildlife health, and how to mitigate it.

Citizens tackle antibiotic resistance in the wild.

This is something my colleagues and I are tackling through our citizen science project, Scoop a Poop, where we work with school children, community groups and wildlife carers who collect possum poo around the country to help us better understand antimicrobial resistance in the wild.

The power of working with citizens to better the health of our environment cannot be overstated.




Read more:
Explainer: what are superbugs and how can we control them?


The Conversation


Michelle Power, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Frequent extreme bushfires are our new reality. We need to learn how to live with smoke-filled air



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Gabriel da Silva, University of Melbourne

As fires ravaged large sections of the Australian bush last summer, cities and towns all along the coast were blanketed in toxic smoke. Air pollutants were measured at unheard of levels across the country.

Hazardous air descended on cities hundreds of kilometres away from the fires themselves. This air was the most dangerous to breathe on the planet.




Read more:
The bushfire royal commission has made a clarion call for change. Now we need politics to follow


The bushfire royal commission was tabled on October 30, with some sobering findings about fires and air pollution. Unfortunately, it showed that as a nation we were not prepared to deal with this public health emergency.

These disasters are inevitable under climate change, and while we need to urgently act on climate change to protect future generations, we also need to make changes now to mitigate the risks that already face us.

Australia must get better at communicating how to identify and then stay safe in hazardous air. A national set of air quality categories would go a long way to achieving this.

Over 400 deaths attributed to bushfire smoke

The royal commission heard that air pollution from the summer fires likely caused more than 400 deaths. Thousands of additional hospital admissions put added strain on our hospitals. All up the added burden to our health system was estimated at almost A$2 billion.

Even in the absence of extreme natural disasters, air pollution is one of Australia’s biggest public health concerns. Pollution from all sources causes thousands of deaths per year. This includes emissions from coal-fired power stations, diesel cars and wood-fired heaters.

Better preparing ourselves to deal with bushfire smoke will have flow-on benefits in tackling these problems.

Different state, different health advice

The royal commission found “there is an urgent need for national consistency in the categorisation of air quality”. At the moment, every state has their own system to categorise air quality and communicate it to the public.




Read more:
How does bushfire smoke affect our health? 6 things you need to know


But there are major discrepancies with how different states identify the worst air quality.

Air quality is the sum impact of the concentration of various unhealthy chemicals in the air. These include ozone, nitrogen and sulfur oxides, and fine particulate matter. To communicate this to the public, most countries convert these chemical concentrations into an Air Quality Index (AQI).

In the US, there is a standardised AQI categorisation for the whole country.

In Australia, the situation is very different. Every state has its own bands, with their own colour codes. These bands trigger at different pollutant levels and carry different health advice. The Royal Commission told us this needs to be standardised, and now.

For example, in NSW the worst air quality category is “Hazardous”, which triggers at an AQI of 200. South Australia, however, only recognises “Very Poor” as the worst class of air quality, with an AQI of 150 and above.

During the summer bushfires, AQI values as high as 5,000 were measured. It’s clear the highest bands of air pollution are no longer appropriate.

We need a national air quality system

We have faced a similar problem before. After Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in 2009, we recognised that our fire danger ratings were inadequate.

The Black Saturday royal commission found we needed a higher category for the most dangerous fire conditions. The “Catastrophic” category (“CODE RED” in Victoria) was added. It carried clear advice about what to do in such dangerous conditions, instructing people to safely leave as early as possible.

Fire danger rating sign in front of a grass fire
The ‘CODE RED’ or ‘Catastrophic’ fire danger rating was added after the Black Saturday fires.
Shutterstock

Something similar now needs to happen with air quality ratings.

When facing future extreme bushfires, we need a way to identify when catastrophic conditions have led to air so unhealthy that everyone should take precautions, such as staying indoors and wearing masks. We then need to get clear health advice out to the public.




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Our buildings aren’t made to keep out bushfire smoke. Here’s what you can do


A national air quality rating system could achieve this, and would also help address other important recommendations of the Royal Commission: That we need improved means of getting reliable information out to the public, along with better community education around what to do when air quality plummets.

There’s work to do

An Australian AQI should be featured on national weather reports and forecasts, providing important health information to the public every day of the year. At the same time it would familiarise Australians with air quality measures and actions that need to be taken to protect ourselves from unhealthy air.

But there is work to do. First, we need to develop a new set of air quality categories that work for the entire country, and reflects both the everyday hazards of industrial pollution and the extreme dangers of bushfires. These categories also need to be matched with sound health advice.




Read more:
The bushfire royal commission has made a clarion call for change. Now we need politics to follow


And if we are going to report these measures more widely then we also need to get better at measuring and predicting air quality across the nation — two other important royal commission recommendations.

Achieving all of this won’t be easy. But if we can get it right then we will be much better placed to deal with smoke risk the next time severe bushfires inevitably happen.The Conversation

Gabriel da Silva, Senior Lecturer in Chemical Engineering, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Japan plans to dump a million tonnes of radioactive water into the Pacific. But Australia has nuclear waste problems, too


Tilman Ruff, University of Melbourne and Margaret Beavis

The Japanese government recently announced plans to release into the sea more than 1 million tonnes of radioactive water from the severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

The move has sparked global outrage, including from UN Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak who recently wrote,

I urge the Japanese government to think twice about its legacy: as a true champion of human rights and the environment, or not.

Alongside our Nobel Peace Prize-winning work promoting nuclear disarmament, we have worked for decades to minimise the health harms of nuclear technology, including site visits to Fukushima since 2011. We’ve concluded Japan’s plan is unsafe, and not based on evidence.

Japan isn’t the only country with a nuclear waste problem. The Australian government wants to send nuclear waste to a site in regional South Australia — a risky plan that has been widely criticised.

Contaminated water in leaking tanks

In 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami resulted in the meltdown of four large nuclear reactors, and extensive damage to the reactor containment structures and the buildings which house them.

Water must be poured on top of the damaged reactors to keep them cool, but in the process, it becomes highly contaminated. Every day, 170 tonnes of highly contaminated water are added to storage on site.

As of last month, this totalled 1.23 million tonnes. Currently, this water is stored in more than 1,000 tanks, many hastily and poorly constructed, with a history of leaks.

How does radiation harm marine life?

If radioactive material leaks into the sea, ocean currents can disperse it widely. The radioactivity from Fukushima has already caused widespread contamination of fish caught off the coast, and was even detected in tuna caught off California.




Read more:
Four things you didn’t know about nuclear waste


Ionising radiation harms all organisms, causing genetic damage, developmental abnormalities, tumours and reduced fertility and fitness. For tens of kilometres along the coast from the damaged nuclear plant, the diversity and number of organisms have been depleted.

Of particular concern are long-lived radioisotopes (unstable chemical elements) and those which concentrate up the food chain, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90. This can lead to fish being thousands of times more radioactive than the water they swim in.

Failing attempts to de-contaminate the water

In recent years, a water purification system — known as advanced liquid processing — has been used to treat the contaminated water accumulating in Fukushima to try to reduce the 62 most important contaminating radioisotopes.

But it hasn’t been very effective. To date, 72% of the treated water exceeds the regulatory standards. Some treated water has been shown to be almost 20,000 times higher than what’s allowed.




Read more:
The cherry trees of Fukushima


One important radioisotope not removed in this process is tritium — a radioactive form of hydrogen with a half-life of 12.3 years. This means it takes 12.3 years for half of the radioisotope to decay.

Tritium is a carcinogenic byproduct of nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants, and is routinely released both into the water and air.

The Japanese government and the reactor operator plan to meet regulatory limits for tritium by diluting contaminated water. But this does not reduce the overall amount of radioactivity released into the environment.

How should the water be stored?

The Japanese Citizens Commission for Nuclear Energy is an independent organisation of engineers and researchers. It says once water is treated to reduce all significant isotopes other than tritium, it should be stored in 10,000-tonne tanks on land.

If the water was stored for 120 years, tritium levels would decay to less than 1,000th of the starting amount, and levels of other radioisotopes would also reduce. This is a relatively short and manageable period of time, in terms of nuclear waste.

Then, the water could be safely released into the ocean.

Nuclear waste storage in Australia

Australians currently face our own nuclear waste problems, stemming from our nuclear reactors and rapidly expanding nuclear medicine export business, which produces radioisotopes for medical diagnosis, some treatments, scientific and industrial purposes.




Read more:
Australia should explore nuclear waste before we try domestic nuclear power


This is what happens at our national nuclear facility at Lucas Heights in Sydney. The vast majority of Australia’s nuclear waste is stored on-site in a dedicated facility, managed by those with the best expertise, and monitored 24/7 by the Australian Federal Police.

But the Australian government plans to change this. It wants to transport and temporarily store nuclear waste at a facility at Kimba, in regional South Australia, for an indeterminate period. We believe the Kimba plan involves unnecessary multiple handling, and shifts the nuclear waste problem onto future generations.

The proposed storage facilities in Kimba are less safe than disposal, and this plan is well below world’s best practice.

The infrastructure, staff and expertise to manage and monitor radioactive materials in Lucas Heights were developed over decades, with all the resources and emergency services of Australia’s largest city. These capacities cannot be quickly or easily replicated in the remote rural location of Kimba. What’s more, transporting the waste raises the risk of theft and accident.

And in recent months, the CEO of regulator ARPANSA told a senate inquiry there is capacity to store nuclear waste at Lucas Heights for several more decades. This means there’s ample time to properly plan final disposal of the waste.

The legislation before the Senate will deny interested parties the right to judicial review. The plan also disregards unanimous opposition by Barngarla Traditional Owners.




Read more:
Uranium mines harm Indigenous people – so why have we approved a new one?


The Conversation contacted Resources Minister Keith Pitt who insisted the Kimba site will consolidate waste from more than 100 places into a “safe, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility”. He said a separate, permanent disposal facility will be established for intermediate level waste in a few decades’ time.

Pitt said the government continues to seek involvement of Traditional Owners. He also said the Kimba community voted in favour of the plan. However, the voting process was criticised on a number of grounds, including that it excluded landowners living relatively close to the site, and entirely excluded Barngarla people.

Kicking the can down the road

Both Australia and Japan should look to nations such as Finland, which deals with nuclear waste more responsibly and has studied potential sites for decades. It plans to spend 3.5 billion euros (A$5.8 billion) on a deep geological disposal site.




Read more:
Risks, ethics and consent: Australia shouldn’t become the world’s nuclear wasteland


Intermediate level nuclear waste like that planned to be moved to Kimba contains extremely hazardous materials that must be strictly isolated from people and the environment for at least 10,000 years.

We should take the time needed for an open, inclusive and evidence-based planning process, rather than a quick fix that avoidably contaminates our shared environment and creates more problems than it solves.

It only kicks the can down the road for future generations, and does not constitute responsible radioactive waste management.


The following are additional comments provided by Resources Minister Keith Pitt in response to issues raised in this article (comments added after publication):

(The Kimba plan) will consolidate waste into a single, safe, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility. It is international best practice and good common sense to do this.

Key indicators which showed the broad community support in Kimba included 62 per cent support in the local community ballot, and 100 per cent support from direct neighbours to the proposed site.

In assessing community support, the government also considered submissions received from across the country and the results of Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation’s own vote.

The vast majority of Australia’s radioactive waste stream is associated with nuclear medicine production that, on average, two in three Australians will benefit from during their lifetime.

The facility will create a new, safe industry for the Kimba community, including 45 jobs in security, operations, administration and environmental monitoring.The Conversation

Tilman Ruff, Associate Professor, Education and Learning Unit, Nossal Institute for Global Health, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne and Margaret Beavis, Tutor Principles of Clinical Practice Melbourne Medical School

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ are widespread and threaten human health – here’s a strategy for protecting the public



Firefighting foam left after a fire in Pennsylvania. These foams often contain PFAS chemicals that can contaminate water supplies.
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Carol Kwiatkowski, North Carolina State University

Like many inventions, the discovery of Teflon happened by accident. In 1938, chemists from Dupont (now Chemours) were studying refrigerant gases when, much to their surprise, one concoction solidified. Upon investigation, they found it was not only the slipperiest substance they’d ever seen – it was also noncorrosive and extremely stable and had a high melting point.

In 1954 the revolutionary “nonstick” Teflon pan was introduced. Since then, an entire class of human-made chemicals has evolved: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS. There are upward of 6,000 of these chemicals. Many are used for stain-, grease- and waterproofing. PFAS are found in clothing, plastic, food packaging, electronics, personal care products, firefighting foams, medical devices and numerous other products.

But over time, evidence has slowly built that some commonly used PFAS are toxic and may cause cancer. It took 50 years to understand that the happy accident of Teflon’s discovery was, in fact, a train wreck.

As a public health analyst, I have studied the harm caused by these chemicals. I am one of hundreds of scientists who are calling for a comprehensive, effective plan to manage the entire class of PFAS to protect public health while safer alternatives are developed.

Typically, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assesses chemicals for potential harm, it examines one substance at a time. That approach isn’t working for PFAS, given the sheer number of them and the fact that manufacturers commonly replace toxic substances with “regrettable substitutes” – similar, lesser-known chemicals that also threaten human health and the environment.

Graphic showing how PFAS moves from many sources into soil and water
As PFAS are produced and used, they can migrate into soil and water.
MI DEQ

Toxic chemicals

A class-action lawsuit brought this issue to national attention in 2005. Workers at a Parkersburg, West Virginia, DuPont plant joined with local residents to sue the company for releasing millions of pounds of one of these chemicals, known as PFOA, into the air and the Ohio River. Lawyers discovered that the company had known as far back as 1961 that PFOA could harm the liver.

The suit was ultimately settled in 2017 for US$670 million, after an eight-year study of tens of thousands of people who had been exposed. Based on multiple scientific studies, this review concluded that there was a probable link between exposure to PFOA and six categories of diseases: diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

Over the past two decades, hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers have shown that many PFAS are not only toxic – they also don’t fully break down in the environment and have accumulated in the bodies of people and animals around the world. Some studies have detected PFAS in 99% of people tested. Others have found PFAS in wildlife, including polar bears, dolphins and seals.

Attorney Robert Billott describes suing Dupont for knowingly releasing millions of pounds of hazardous PFOA in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Widespread and persistent

PFAS are often called “forever chemicals” because they don’t fully degrade. They move easily through air and water, can quickly travel long distances and accumulate in sediment, soil and plants. They have also been found in dust and food, including eggs, meat, milk, fish, fruits and vegetables.

In the bodies of humans and animals, PFAS concentrate in various organs, tissues and cells. The U.S. National Toxicology Program and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have confirmed a long list of health risks, including immunotoxicity, testicular and kidney cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility and thyroid disease.

Children are even more vulnerable than adults because they can ingest more PFAS relative to their body weight from food and water and through the air. Children also put their hands in their mouths more often, and their metabolic and immune systems are less developed. Studies show that these chemicals harm children by causing kidney dysfunction, delayed puberty, asthma and altered immune function.

Researchers have also documented that PFAS exposure reduces the effectiveness of vaccines, which is particularly concerning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regulation is lagging

PFAS have become so ubiquitous in the environment that health experts say it is probably impossible to completely prevent exposure. These substances are released throughout their life cycles, from chemical production to product use and disposal. Up to 80% of environmental pollution from common PFAS, such as PFOA, comes from production of fluoropolymers that use toxic PFAS as processing aids to make products like Teflon.

In 2009 the EPA established a health advisory level for PFOA in drinking water of 400 parts per trillion. Health advisories are not binding regulations – they are technical guidelines for state, local and tribal governments, which are primarily responsible for regulating public water systems.

In 2016 the agency dramatically lowered this recommendation to 70 parts per trillion. Some states have set far more protective levels – as low as 8 parts per trillion.

According to a recent estimate by the Environmental Working Group, a public health advocacy organization, up to 110 million Americans could be drinking PFAS-contaminated water. Even with the most advanced treatment processes, it is extremely difficult and costly to remove these chemicals from drinking water. And it’s impossible to clean up lakes, river systems or oceans. Nonetheless, PFAS are largely unregulated by the federal government, although they are gaining increased attention from Congress.

Water treatment tanks
Part of a filtration system designed to remove PFAS from drinking water, Horsham Water and Sewer Authority, Horsham, Pennsylvania.
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Reducing PFAS risks at the source

Given that PFAS pollution is so ubiquitous and hard to remove, many health experts assert that the only way to address it is by reducing PFAS production and use as much as possible.

Educational campaigns and consumer pressure are making a difference. Many forward-thinking companies, including grocers, clothing manufacturers and furniture stores, have removed PFAS from products they use and sell.

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State governments have also stepped in. California recently banned PFAS in firefighting foams. Maine and Washington have banned PFAS in food packaging. Other states are considering similar measures.

I am part of a group of scientists from universities, nonprofit organizations and government agencies in the U.S. and Europe that has argued for managing the entire class of PFAS chemicals as a group, instead of one by one. We also support an “essential uses” approach that would restrict their production and use only to products that are critical for health and proper functioning of society, such as medical devices and safety equipment. And we have recommended developing safer non-PFAS alternatives.

As the EPA acknowledges, there is an urgent need for innovative solutions to PFAS pollution. Guided by good science, I believe we can effectively manage PFAS to reduce further harm, while researchers find ways to clean up what has already been released.The Conversation

Carol Kwiatkowski, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences, North Carolina State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.