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Ghost nets and feminised fish: sea turtles and the dangers of ‘novel pollutants’

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Any turtle that gets through to adulthood is precious”, says Roger Downie, honourary professor of zoological education at Glasgow University.

It is estimated that only one out of every 1,000 turtle hatchlings survive to reach reproductive maturity. Many fall victim to predators such as crabs, birds or even raccoons. However, through pollution and manmade climate change, we humans are partly responsible, too.

Effectively all the species of marine turtles are classified as endangered species, under various levels of threat concern”, says Downie.

A study, published last week in the journal Conservation Biology, found that some species of turtle are now swallowing twice as much plastic as they did 25 years ago. The study looked at data collected from around the world since the late 1980s and found that green and leatherheard turtles are ingesting more “anthropogenic debris” – manmade waste – than ever before.

It is estimated that over 6m tonnes of manmade waste enters the marine environment every year – a lot of which is plastic. Around 15,000 pieces of plastic are dumped into the ocean every day, and it is believed that there is around 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of ocean.

Downie has worked on turtle conservation projects in Trinidad & Tobago, and Cyprus. He explains that turtles are particularly vulnerable to plastic pollutants. Some species prey on jellyfish, and mistake floating, transparent plastic bags for food.

The plastic has been shown in some cases to clog up the gut of a turtle so badly that they can no longer feed properly and essentially starve to death”, he adds.

Turtles have backwards-facing spines in their throats, an evolutionary trait which allows them to grip their prey. Unfortunately, this means they cannot regurgitate plastics or other pollutants that they mistakenly ingest.

And of course, pollutants are just one of the manmade dangers these turtles face. Tourists have invaded many of their natural nesting beaches, and they can be caught, sometimes accidentally by fishermen, or sometimes deliberately.

They’ve been overexploited, in terms of people catching them. Of course, they’re very easy to catch when they come up onto the beach to lay eggs, and in some societies turtle eggs as well as turtle meat is regarded as a delicacy”, Downie says.

Turtles are also vulnerable to what is known as ‘ghost fishing.’ This occurs when a fishing net breaks free from a fisherman’s boat, and independently drifts through the water catching fish, turtles, and other forms of aquatic life as it goes along. An online image search provides plenty of gruesome evidence of this phenomenon, with haunting pictures of skeletons trapped in nets at the bottom of the ocean.

And then of course, there is climate change.

Downie says, “Turtle eggs require a particular temperature to develop on beaches. If climate change leads to those temperatures changing that may affect the survival rate of the hatchlings and ultimately have a very serious effect on their long-term survival. So doing something about climate change is as important for turtles as it is for everything else on the planet.”

However, researchers are increasingly concerned about the potential effects of a ‘new’ form of pollutant. Dr Alex Ford, a reader in biology from the University of Portsmouth with experience as a pollution control officer and a turtle biologist, says, “In the past biologists generally used to look at what concentration of pollutants was harmful. Now we tend to look at the more subtle effects that might be going on, looking at what concentration might affect an organisms growth or its behaviour or its reproduction.

This involves studying the effects of ‘novel compounds’. The phrase ‘marine pollutants’ may traditionally bring to mind images of beaches smothered in oil, whereas novel compounds are somewhat less familiar.

By their very nature, novel compounds are trickier to understand and to deal with. This category includes things such as pharmaceuticals and nanoparticles – pollutants that are inconceivably small but still potentially deadly to aquatic life.

Pharmaceuticals such as oestrogens and antidepressants have already been found to have contaminated the marine environment. Through a process that is probably best not elabourated on, these drugs end up in sewage treatment plants, where they are not fully broken down, then released into local rivers and eventually find their way into the sea. Evidence has shown that even in small concentrations, oestrogens have ‘feminised’ male fish, with potentially chronic impacts on the sustainability of whole species.

When they eventually break down, plastics also fit into this category. Ford explains, “They break down into such a small size that they can actually translocate through an organism. 

“This means that particles of plastic can find their way out of the stomach into the blood stream of the animal, and can cause serious damage if it finds its way into an organ.“

Some microplastics are a particular problem, as they act like a sponge to other pollutants and soak them out of the environment. This may sound like a good thing, but when an animal ingests this plastic, it means that it is ingesting countless concentrated pollutants.

These pollutants can then be passed up through the food chain; meaning animals that were never exposed to the plastic particles can be harmed as well. This should be of concern to us, when it is considered that often the animals at the top of the food chain are humans.

Efforts are already underway, Ford says, to limit the impact of novel compounds on turtles and other marine life: “Manufacturers are working hard to develop more biodegradable plastics. And I think, certainly in the UK, that landfill tax has gone quite a long way to making us think about what we’re putting into our environment.” There is evidence that taxes could prove very effective in reducing the distribution of plastic pollutants. In the Republic of Ireland, a tax on plastic bags cut the use of new bags by 90%.

Also important is that we build better sewage treatment works, to ensure that pharmaceutical compounds don’t make it out into the environment. However, Ford says, “There is also an onus on us. With any pharmaceuticals we don’t use, we shouldn’t chuck them in our garbage, we should take them back to our pharmacy and get them to dispose of them appropriately.” This practice is already enforced by law in some European countries.

Such measures won’t fix the problem of marine pollutants alone. Certainly, they won’t solve all the problems of the endangered species of marine turtle. However they are surely small prices to pay in order mitigate our contribution to the decline of so many vulnerable species.

Further reading:

Marine life changing living habits because of global warming

No truly ‘green economy’ without a ‘blue economy’

Marine conservation could be worth ‘billions’ to UK economy

Neglecting our oceans could cost trillions

Humans, nature and responsible tourism: chronicles of an Italian holiday

Environment

What Does the Rising Alt-Right Movement Mean for Climate Change Propaganda?

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Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Rawpixel.com https://www.shutterstock.com/g/rawpixel

Time author Justin Worland penned an insightful post this summer about the increasingly divisive attitudes on climate change. Worland pointed out that concerns about climate science used to be a bipartisan focus, but have since become primarily the concern of the left.

The Alt-Right Gives Renewed Voice to Climate Change Denialism

Unfortunately, the battle is becoming more divisive than ever before. The rise of the alt-right movement has propelled climate change denialism into overdrive. The election of Donald Trump illustrates this perfectly. In 2012, Trump tweeted that climate change was a mess created by the Chinese. At the time, his statement was dismissed as a mocking jab at the current president. However, after millions of alt-right voters put Trump in office, these fears became more pronounced.

The alt-right movement is gaining steam across the Western World. This has created profound concerns about the inevitable future of climate change. Of course, not every alt-right group adheres to climate change denialism. A British paper writing service would likely publish more articles that are favorable to the climate change discussion, even if it was read primarily by right-wingers. However, that is of little solace to the rest of the world. While alt-right groups in mainland Europe may not share the American GOP’s hostility towards climate science, they will help reinforce their political capital.

Around the same time Worland published his article, his colleague at The Guardian, David Runciman wrote a piece that focused more heavily on recent developments driven by the alt-right.

“Not all climate sceptics are part of the “alt-right”. But everyone in the alt-right is now a climate sceptic. That’s what makes the politics so toxic. It means that climate scepticism is being driven out by climate cynicism. A sceptic questions the evidence for a given claim and asks whether it is believable. A cynic questions the motives of the people who deploy the evidence, regardless of whether it is believable or not. Any attempt to defend the facts gets presented as evidence that the facts simply suit the interests of the people peddling them.”

Does this mean that the quest to fight climate change has been lost? No. A new generation of right wingers are beginning to break the cycle of climate change denialism. According to recent polls, millennial conservatives are much more likely to be concerned about the future of climate change then they’re older conservative brethren. They may help turn the tide of the political discussion, so climate change can once again be a bipartisan concern.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of concerns:

  • Millennials are less politically active, so they may not have the influence necessary to temper the alt-right position on climate change.
  • The alt-right has significant control over the discussion. Trump has taken efforts to bar studies that contradict his position on climate change. Millennial attitudes on climate science make shift after being exposed to alt-right propaganda.

The biggest concern of all is that it may be too late to address the problem by the time millennials have any meaningful political influence.

So what can be done to address the issue? Climate change advocates must be more diligent than ever. They will be combating a group of climate change deniers with a lot more political support. They will need to make the case that fighting climate change is not a political concern, but a concern of human survival.

With concerns about climate change mounting, they will also need to make it one of their primary ballot points during coming elections. If they create enough of a protest, they may be able to turn the tide of discussion.

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Environment

How Home Automation Can Help You Go Green

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The holidays are an exciting, nostalgic time: the crispness in the air, the crunch of snow under your boot, the display of ornate holiday lighting up your home like a beacon to outer space, and the sound of Santa’s bell at your local Walmart.

Oh, yeah—and your enormous electric bill.

Extra lights and heating can make for some unexpected budgeting problems, and they also cause your home to emit higher levels of CO2 and other pollutants.

So, it’s not just your wallet that’s hurting—the planet is hurting as well.

You can take the usual steps to save energy and be more eco-conscious as you go about your normal winter routine (e.g., keeping cooler temperatures in the home, keeping lights off in naturally lit rooms, etc.), but these methods can often be exhausting and ultimately ineffective.

So what can you actually do to create a greener home?

Turn to tech.

Technology is making waves in conservation efforts. AI and home automation have grown in popularity over the last couple of years, not only because of their cost saving benefits but also because of their ability to improve a home’s overall energy efficiency.

Use the following guide to identify your home’s inefficiencies and find a solution to your energy woes.

Monitor Your Energy Usage

Many people don’t understand how their homes use energy, so they struggle with conservation. Start by looking at your monthly utility bills. They can show you how much energy your home typically uses and what systems cost you the most.

monitor energy usage

Licensed from Shutterstock – By Piotr Adamowicz

The usual culprits for high costs and energy waste tend to be the water heater and heating and cooling system. Other factors could also impact your home’s efficiency. Your home’s insulation, for example, could be a huge source of wasted heating and cooling—especially if the insulation hasn’t been inspected or replaced in years. You should also check your windows and doors for proper weatherproofing every year.

However, waiting for your monthly bill or checking out your home’s construction issues are time-consuming steps, and they don’t help you immediately understand and tackle the problem. Instead, opt for an easier solution. Some homeowners, for example, use a smart energy monitor such as Sense to track energy use in real time and identify energy hogs.

Use Smart Plugs

Computers, televisions, and lights still consume energy if they’re left on and unused. Computers offer easy cost savings with their built-in timers that allow the devices to use less energy—they typically turn off after a set number of minutes. Televisions sometimes provide the same benefit, although you may have to fiddle with the settings to activate this feature.

A better option—and one that thwarts both the television and the lights—is purchasing smart plugs. The average US home uses more than 900 kilowatts of electricity per month. That can really add up, especially when you realize that people are wasting more than $19 billion every year on household appliances that are always plugged in. Smart plugs like WeMo can help eliminate wasted electricity by letting you control plugged-in items from your smartphone.

Update Your Lighting

Incandescent lightbulbs can consume and waste a lot of energy—35% of CO2 emissions are generated from electric power plants. This can have serious consequences for increased global warming.

To reduce your impact on the environment, you can install more efficient lightbulbs to offset your energy usage. However, many homeowners choose smart lights, like the Philips Hue bulbs, to save money and make their homes more energy efficient.

Smart lights can be controlled from your smartphone, and many smart light options come with monthly energy reporting so you can continue to find ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Take Control of the Thermostat

Homeowners often leave the thermostat on its default settings, but defaults often result in heating and cooling systems that run longer and harder than they need to.

In fact, almost half the average residential energy use comes from energy-demanding heating and cooling systems. As an alternative to fiddling with outdated systems, eco-conscious homeowners use smart thermostats to save at least 10% on heating and roughly 15% on cooling per year.

Change your home’s story by employing a smart thermostat such as the Nest, ecobee3, or Honeywell Lyric. Smart thermostats automatically adjust your in-home temperature by accounting for a variety of factors, including outdoor humidity and precipitation. A lot of smart thermostats will also adjust your home’s temperature depending on the time of day and whether you’re home.

Stop Wasting Water

The average American household uses about 320 gallons of water per day. About one-third of that goes to maintaining their yards. Using a smart irrigation systems to improve your water usage can save your home up to 8,800 gallons of water per year.

Smart irrigation systems use AI to sync with local weather predictions, which can be really helpful if you have a garden or fruit trees that you use your irrigation system for  water. Smart features help keep your garden and landscaping healthy by making sure you never overwater your plants or deprive them of adequate moisture.

If you’re looking to make your home greener, AI-enabled products could make the transition much easier. Has a favorite tool you use that wasn’t mentioned here? Share in the comments below.

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