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What’s Causing Florida’s Algae Crisis?

Five questions answered about the blooms that are killing fish and threatening public health

Editor's Note: Two major algae outbreaks in Flordia are killing wildlife and threatening public health. Along the state's southwest coast, a red tide outbreak has become one of the longest in the state's history. Though algae blooms are common in Florida, scientists think the prolonged outbreak is likely the result of a combination of factors, including pollution, ocean temperature and salinity, and heavy rain. Blue-green algae blooms are also occuring in downstream estuaries along both of the state's coasts, caused by polluted freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee and polluted urban runoff from the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee watersheds.

photo of Lake Okeechobee photo by NASA Earth ObservatoryIn early July 2018, blue-green algae blooms were detected across 90 percent of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee.

What’s the difference between red tide and blue-green algae?

Both are photosynthetic microscopic organisms that live in water. Blue-green algae are properly called cyanobacteria. Some species of cyanobacteria occur in the ocean, but blooms — extremely high levels that create green surface scums of algae — happen mainly in lakes and rivers, where salinity is low.

Red tides are caused by a type of algae called a dinoflagellate, which also is ubiquitous in lakes, rivers, estuaries, and the oceans. But the particular species that causes red tide blooms, which can literally make water look blood red, occur only in saltwater.  

What causes these blooms?

Blooms occur where lakes, rivers, or near-shore waters have high concentrations of nutrients — in particular, nitrogen and phosphorus. Some lakes and rivers have naturally high nutrient concentrations. However, in Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, man-made nutrient pollution from their watersheds is causing the blooms. Very high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus are washing into the water from agricultural lands, leaky septic systems, and fertilizer runoff.

Red tides form offshore, and it is not clear whether or to what extent they have become more frequent. When ocean currents carry a red tide to the shore it can intensify, especially where there are abundant nutrients to fuel algae growth. This year, after heavy spring rains and because of discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee, river runoff in southwest Florida brought a large amount of nutrients into near-shore waters of the Gulf of Mexico, which fueled the large red tide. 

The red tide has killed thousands of fish and other aquatic life, and state agencies have issued public health advisories in connection with both …more

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Time to Step Up Pressure Against the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines

Work on both pipelines have been temporarily halted due to vacated federal permits and multiple environmental violations.

The news has been coming in thick and fast from the ongoing battles to stop two fracked gas pipelines that are being forced through Appalachia and beyond. Both the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines have been ordered to stop construction amidst vacated federal permits and multiple environmental violations.

atlantic coast pipelinephoto courtesy of Construction EquipmentThese pipelines have already wreaked havoc and destruction upon everything they have touched.

Resistance has been gaining pace, with epic tree sits and creative blockades, including one West Virginia grandmother locking herself down in the 1970s Ford Pinto that was her first car.

Resistance has also been strong in the courts. Attorneys with the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center won major victories in the past two weeks to overturn permits that were incorrectly issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Parks Service, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The court’s vacating of these permits means that the route of each project is now uncertain. This left the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) no choice but to order work to stop until the issues with the permits are settled. If they can be settled.

The fact is that these federal agencies broke or changed the rules in order to give these pipeline companies what they wanted, threatening endangered species and water quality in doing so. Now a question mark hangs over whether they can permit these projects and protect the natural resources that they’re supposed to be stewarding on behalf of the American people.

These pipelines have already wreaked havoc and destruction upon everything they have touched. Regulators and citizen groups have cited both projects with numerous violations across West Virginia and Virginia as heavy rains, fueled by climate change, have caused serious erosion of fragile mountain soils exposed by construction work. Creeks and rivers have filled with sediment, choking aquatic life and impacting the headwaters of the region’s river systems for years to come. As Virginia state senator John Edwards (D-Roanoke) stated in a recent letter to Governor Northam, "It is not an overstatement to say that science dictates that [the Mountain Valley] pipeline cannot be safely built in this area."

I live in these mountains and I know some of the farmers who have had to give up some of their best pasture to make way for these projects, against their will and at the hands of unjust eminent domain laws that …more

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Is Your Perfume Sustainable?

Perfumery may seem benign, but ingredients derived from plants and animals can come with serious environmental and ethical toll

Perfumery might seem like a fairly benign business. It’s about personal scent more than anything else. But as one of the largest global luxury industries, perfume-making can have a significant impact on certain plants and animals valued for their rare scent profiles. Most perfume formulations are hidden behind one word on perfume labels, usually ‘Parfum’ or ‘Aroma,’ which makes it difficult for a consumer to know if a product is made using ethically sourced ingredients. Sustainability of raw materials used in perfumery has not always been a primary concern for consumers, but environmental consciousness regarding the issues seems to be growing.

 photo of roundup Photo by FotoMediamatic Certain raw materials used in perfumery are extracted from animals and rare plants.

Most perfumes are designed using synthetic ingredients these days, but there’s been a resurgence when it comes to use of more natural and organic materials, and some perfumes have so-called ‘mixed-media’ blends that use both synthetic and natural products. Though synthetic ingredients are typically cheaper, there are certain benefits to natural perfumes that are attracting attention from manufacturers and consumers alike, including the fact that they are less likely to trigger allergies, asthma, or headaches. Nevertheless, use of natural ingredients can be problematic. Some raw plant materials have been so overexploited by perfume makers and worshipped by perfume lovers that they are now threatened with extinction, and use of animal derived materials raises serious ethical concerns.

The perfume industry is one of the biggest consumers of precious oils extracted from plants. Although many plants are cultivated specifically to meet consumer demands, there are some wild plants that are targeted by the industry. Most of these are highly appreciated by perfumers because of their rarity, difficulty in harvesting, and because they have a unique scent profile and add outstanding nuances to perfume formulations.

Sandalwood, which is used both in perfumery and traditional medicine, is one example. It is harvested primarily in India, where it is now almost extinct in the wild. The Indian government enacted strict regulations on sandalwood harvesting in the 1960s, and as a result, production in the country has fallen significantly. But sandalwood is still listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Redlist. With sandalwood threatened in the wild, Australia has entered the sandalwood market and is producing the trees sustainably. Environmentally responsible perfume brands usually mention the origin of sandalwood if it is used in …more

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One Man’s Suffering Exposed Monsanto’s Secrets

Company’s own records revealed damning truth of glyphosate-based herbicides’ link to cancer

It was a verdict heard around the world. In a stunning blow to one of the world’s largest seed and chemical companies, jurors in San Francisco have told Monsanto it must pay $289 million in damages to a man dying of cancer that he claims was caused by exposure to its herbicides.

 photo of roundup Photo by Mike MozartOn Friday, jury's found not only that Monsanto's Roundup and related glyphosate-based brands presented a substantial danger to people using them, but that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Monsanto’s officials acted with “malice or oppression” in failing to adequately warn of the risks.

Monsanto, which became a unit of Bayer AG in June, has spent decades convincing consumers, farmers, politicians, and regulators to ignore mounting evidence linking its glyphosate-based herbicides to cancer and other health problems. The company has employed a range of tactics — some drawn from the same playbook used by the tobacco industry in defending the safety of cigarettes — to suppress and manipulate scientific literature, harass journalists and scientists who did not parrot the company’s propaganda, and arm-twist and collude with regulators. Indeed, one of Monsanto’s lead defense attorneys in the San Francisco case was George Lombardi, whose resumé boasts of his work defending big tobacco.

Now, in this one case, through the suffering of one man, Monsanto’s secretive strategies have been laid bare for the world to see. Monsanto was undone by the words of its own scientists, the damning truth illuminated through the company’s emails, internal strategy reports, and other communications.

The jury’s verdict found not only that Monsanto’s Roundup and related glyphosate-based brands presented a substantial danger to people using them, but that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Monsanto’s officials acted with “malice or oppression” in failing to adequately warn of the risks.

Testimony and evidence presented at trial showed that the warning signs seen in scientific research dated back to the early 1980s and have only increased over the decades. But with each new study showing harm, Monsanto worked not to warn users or redesign its products, but to create its own science to show they were safe. The company often pushed its version of science into the public realm through ghostwritten work that was designed to appear independent and thus more …more

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Europe’s Nuclear Reactors Fall Victim to the Heat

Closures raise questions about viability of nucelar power in a warming world

As many parts of the Northern hemisphere continue to experience an unprecedented heat-wave, with near-record temperatures in Spain and Greece this weekend, the heat-wave is having an effect on the continent’s nuclear reactors.

But first let’s keep joining the dots. What we are witnessing this summer is climate change in action.

 photo of nuclear reactor Photo by Bjoern SchwarzEnergy companies in France and Sweden have recently shut down nuclear reactors due to high temperatures in nearby rivers, which are used to cool the reactors.

For many people trying to understand why we are having record temperatures this year, there is further evidence contained in the annual “Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society,” which is for actually for last year but gives us further evidence of our warming world.

The “State of the Climate 2017” report, as it is known, is compiled by over 500 scientists from sixty five countries. It states:

“In 2017, the dominant greenhouse gases released into Earth’s atmosphere — carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide — reached new record highs. The annual global average carbon dioxide concentration at Earth’s surface for 2017 was 405.0 ± 0.1 ppm, 2.2 ppm greater than for 2016 and the highest in the modern atmospheric measurement record and in ice core  records dating back as far as 800 000 years. The global growth rate of CO2 has nearly quadrupled since the early 1960s.”

The report adds: “Notably, it was the warmest non-El Niño year in the instrumental record.”

My hunch is that 2018 will be warmer that 2017, but we will have to wait to see. And this year it is not just people dying in wild-fires or mountains in Sweden literally melting in the heat, but now the excessive temperatures have forced the closure of over half a dozen nuclear reactors.

The French energy company, EDF has halted four nuclear reactors at three different power plants in France due to the heat, a spokesman confirmed yesterday.

The force of the closure was the high temperatures registered in the Rhone and Rhine rivers, which are used to cool the nuclear reactors, according to Reuters.

But these are not the only nuclear reactors suffering in the heat. Due to increased sea temperatures in Nordic region, Reuters is also reporting that the heat “has forced some nuclear reactors to curb power output or shut down altogether, with more expected to follow suit.”

One of those plants …more

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Venezuela’s Mining Crisis Gains Regional Attention

Latin American section of Society for Conservation Biology urges protection of environment and human rights in Mining Arc

In 2016, the Venezuelan government issued a decree turning close to 112,000-square-kilometers of Amazon rainforest into a special mining district, called the Mining Arc (or Arco Minero in Spanish). President Nicolás Maduro promised the Mining Arc would bring economic prosperity and ‘ecologic mining development.’ But instead, it seems to be Latin America’s biggest mining conflict in the making, and uncontrolled mining in the region is wreaking havoc on vulnerable communities, degrading ecosystems, and harming the regions incredible biodiversity, which includes everything from jaguars and armadillos to some 850 distinct bird species.

photo of gold in handphoto by Bram EbusSince oil prices began to plummet several years ago, informal mining operations in Venezuela's biodiverse Orinoco Belt have grown in size.

Venezuela’s pillaging of its own resources, and corresponding environmental devastation, do not receive the attention they should. But for the first time, in July the Mining Arc made it into discussions on a major regional platform: the Congress of the Latin American and Caribbean Section of the Society for Conservation Biology (LACA-SCB), which is world's largest community of conservation professionals.

Arc of Desperation

Venezuela’s decision to open up the Orinoco Belt to mining threatens the Amazon rainforest.

At 10 a.m., young men on motorbikes start to arrive in front of a cockfighting arena in Las Claritas, a small village in the state of Bolívar in southeastern Venezuela. They mill around smoking cigarettes and playing cards..

>Read More…

During the event, held in Trinidad & Tobago, LACA-SCB agreed on a conference statement on the Mining Arc: The beginning of the statement reads:

"In the Venezuelan Guiana Shield and Amazon Basin, including all territories south of the Orinoco River and its delta, there occurs an area of critical regional importance to the conservation of biocultural diversity. Between 2000 and 2015, deforestation there has increased exponentially due in part to observable intensification of human activities in northern Bolivar state, a “hotspot” of precious metals and minerals including gold, diamonds, iron, and coltan, among others. Most of these activities are directly or indirectly related to an increase in informal gold mining practices, which affect protected areas and indigenous territories."

The full text can be consulted here.

So far, few attempts have been made to study current and future impacts of the Mining Arc, but the first indicators are alarming. Juan Carlos Amilibia, a biologist with the Central Venezuelan …more

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Of Earth, Wind, and Birds

With a changing climate come changing winds, and implications for feathered riders of the breeze

At the end of a third day of seemingly ceaseless high winds in the portion of western Colorado that I live in, I watched a tired and subdued Steller’s jay trying to take a little shelter from the seemingly unending spring tempest. A normally energetic species, this fellow had plainly had enough. The Steller’s jay is common to Colorado, but not at lower elevations nor in the sere adobe hills of my neighborhood. The mature, if non-native, trees here often provide an artificial bird oasis. My yard had plainly appealed to this fellow as a welcome respite. 

 photo of stellar's jay Photo by Eric EllingsonClimate change is responsible for many new and difficult conditions for both man and beast, but wind is one of the most overlooked of those elements.

As I watched his listless attempts to forage on the lawn, and slightly more animated attempts to avoid the irritated doves nesting in the willows nearby, I pondered his situation from the protected stillness of my living room. I recalled a light-hearted but compelling article from Forbes in the autumn of 2017 entitled “Where do birds go in a hurricane” by a writer identified only a “GrrlScientist.” I was captivated by the photo of a wounded hawk, named Harvey by the driver of the taxi in which he was seeking shelter during Hurricane Harvey. It was an interesting question, and one I felt had greater implications for bird populations in general. I hadn’t truly considered it further until the exhausted jay reminded me.

Climate change is responsible for many new and difficult conditions for both man and beast, but wind is one of the most overlooked of those elements. Farmers and outdoor buffs get it, but an increase in the force of spring winds is not yet the stuff of earnest discussion among the majority of folks in North America. Some folks wonder if it’s all in their imagination. It’s not. 

Take this recent excerpt from the Washington Post: “In March, 17 of 31 days featured gusts of at least 30 mph, and three days had gusts exceeding 40 mph. In April, so far, we’ve had gusts over 30 mph on 10 of 19 days, and also three days with gusts exceeding 40 mph. Winds have gusted over 30 mph on seven of the past eight days in Washington.” The phrase ‘in like a lion, out like a lamb’ — which refers to the March transition from winter to spring …more

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