Monday, August 24, 2015

Something mysterious is killing off whales in Alaska


dead in whale carcass bears

The event began with reports of a dead fin whale calf in Marmot Bay, by Kodiak Island, Alaska.

Since then, ten more fin whale bodies have been discovered, along 14 dead humpbacks, one gray whale, and four unidentified cetacean carcasses.

Whales die and their bodies wash up or are discovered floating in oceans around the world — that's not unusual.

But in this case, there have been far more dead whales in the Pacific Northwest than would be expected — about three times as many — making this what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls an "unusual mortality event."

This is a significant enough event that NOAA says that it "demands immediate response."

Canadian researchers on the West Coast have found another six dead whales between August 7 and 13, including a fin whale (that seems to have been hit by a ship); four humpbacks; and one sperm whale — an unusual and above average number, though not as strikingly high as the number of dead whales in Alaska.

whale stranding deaths alaskaSo far, researchers have not been able to figure out what's killing them off.

dead fin whale"NOAA Fisheries scientists and partners are very concerned about the large number of whales stranding" — and dying — "in the western Gulf of Alaska," Dr. Teri Rowles, NOAA Fisheries' marine mammal health and stranding response coordinator said in a press release. "[W]e do not yet know the cause of these strandings."

dead whale mapResearchers in Alaska have only been able to examine one of the dead whales, and they haven't yet determined a cause of death. Most of the rest have been unreachable. As you can see in the image at the top of this article, wildlife can — and does — get in the way of examinations.

Canadian scientists examined two of the humpback bodies they found, but are still waiting on results.

fin whale carcassPotential explanations include the toxic algae bloom raging in the warm waters off the West Coast, or perhaps an outbreak of some kind of infectious disease, but until researchers are able to analyze more samples, they won't know for sure.

They do say that a connection to the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown is "highly unlikely."

If you come across a dead or stranded whale, NOAA would like to hear from you.

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Researchers pluck carbon from the sky, turn it into diamonds



Carbon's the perfect material to build strong yet lightweight materials, but it's also the reason we're running head-first into an ecological apocalypse. Wouldn't it be great if we could snatch the excess CO2 from the air and use it to cheaply build aircraft fuselages, modern cars and artificial diamonds? That's what a group of researchers from George Washington University claim to have achieved at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society. Not only would it mean that future engineering projects would have an abundant source of cheap materials, but it also has planet-saving consequences.

The process works a little like the electrolysis you'd have seen in high school. Rather than dunking a pair of electrodes in a bath of water, however, they're placed in a mix of molten lithium carbonate and lithium oxide. When this compound reacts, it effectively pulls in CO2 from the surrounding air, and the electrodes cause solid carbon to gather around one terminal. The researchers have been able to tweak this system to create carbon nanofibers of varying shapes and sizes, which could theoretically be used to build pretty much anything. In addition, because the team can use solar power to drive this reaction, it's believed that the process could actually produce a net reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

CO2 in the air is one of the key causes of climate change and we're now well beyond the "safe" limit of 350 parts per million that the UN put in place. The increasing rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide is also causing faster acidification of our oceans which, you probably don't need us to tell you, is a pretty bad thing. This system is, effectively, a super-smart carbon capture and storage system, but rather than dumping the material in chambers underground, would actually create something useful with it.

In a report by MIT Tech Review, it's claimed that this process could actually return the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere to pre industrial levels in just a decade. That's an ambitious claim, and it'd require a facility that took up roughly 940,000 square kilometers to make it happen. But let's be honest, if this process can be proven to work, we could wind up with super-clean air, not to mention cars, planes and computers made out of carbon fiber. Let's just hope that the team can make good on these promises, and fast.

[Image Credit: Getty]


Via: MIT Technology Review

Source: Nano Letters, George Washington University, American Chemical Society

Tags: AmericanChemicalSociety, Carbon, CarbonFiber, ClimateChange, GeorgeWashingtonUniversity, StuartLicht


Further investigation planned in whale deaths in Alaska


This June 5, 2015 photos provided by the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, shows a fin whale carcass found on Whale Island, Alaska in the Kodiak Archipelago. A federal agency announced plans Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015, for a more intense investigation into what caused the deaths of many large whales in the western Gulf of Alaska since May. (Dr. Bree Witteveen/Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program via AP)

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A federal agency announced plans Thursday for a more intense investigation into what caused the deaths of 30 large whales in the western Gulf of Alaska since May.

NOAA Fisheries declared the deaths an "unusual mortality event," triggering a new-level investigation that brings with it access to additional resources. The agency said the deaths are about three times the historical average for the region.

Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries in Alaska, said a leading hypothesis for the deaths is harmful algal bloom toxins but she noted that there currently is no conclusive evidence linking the two.

Officials have only been able to get samples from one of the 30 whales. Teri Rowles, NOAA Fisheries' marine mammal health and stranding response coordinator, told reporters during a teleconference Thursday that large-scale whale deaths are among the toughest to investigate, partly because the carcasses often are floating, rarely beached and difficult to access for examination. In Alaska, bears feeding on washed-up whale carcasses create safety concerns for researchers who want to collect samples, she said.

Without being able to conduct a more complete necropsy, scientists and researchers can look at such things as environmental factors, historical information and mortality among seabirds or other sea creatures to try to get a better sense of what is going on, Rowles said. But they are limited in what they can do without better access to the carcasses, she said.

Officials urged the public to report any sightings of dead whales or distressed animals that they encounter.

The agency plans to work with colleagues in Canada, where six large whales have been reported dead off the coast of British Columbia since May — five of those this month. Necropsies were conducted on two of the more recent carcasses, and the results are pending, said Paul Cottrell, marine mammals coordinator for the Pacific region of Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Rowles said this does not appear to be a "coast-wide" event at this point, noting that large whale deaths have not increased during the same timeframe near California, Washington and Oregon as they have very locally in the western Gulf of Alaska.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

The EPA’s spill is the least of Colorado's problems: 230 mines have been dumping thousands of gallons of contaminated water every minute for years


Gold King Mine entrance

On August 5, over 3 million gallons of toxic waste spilled into the Animas River in southwest Colorado. But it wasn't the first, and it won't be the last, time these harmful materials have leaked into the river.

The toxic sludge came from the Gold King Mine, but there are 230 other mines currently leaking heavy metals the state's river system — materials that threaten drinking water, as well as animal and plant life.

Heavy metals, including copper, iron, cadmium and manganese, come from mining gold deep in the Colorado mountains. When miners have depleted all of the gold, they abandon it. Over time, the materials that are left over from the mining process build up in the acidic groundwater also left in the mines, supplemented by years of rain and snowmelt water that gets in as well, flowing from there into nearby creeks and later major rivers.

The Gold King Mine spill leaked copper, lead, cadmium, iron, and other metals, and the 230 mines are leaking their own mixtures of the metallic sludge into rivers all over Colorado. The Denver Post estimates the mines leak thousands of gallons per minute — quickly adding up to more than the Gold King Mine spill that occurred while the EPA worked on the mine.

However, the Denver Post reports that state officials aren't keeping track of how much these mines are leaking, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency set out to get a better idea of what's getting into the rivers. During the investigation, which involved the use of heavy machinery, EPA workers accidentally ripped a hole in the mine, giving the dirty mine water a more direct route to the Animas River.

Metals in low enough doses don’t have much of an effect on the ecosystem of river, Colorado State University geoscience professor Ellen Wohl told Business Insider. But the higher the concentration of metals, the more likely the plants, fish and microbes in the environment won’t be able to thrive, let alone survive.

Colorado is having a tough time figuring out how to keep track of and fix all the mines that are leaking around the state.

"You're going to have some people say: 'Hey, the EPA, look at how incompetent they are.' But others will see this is part of a longer-term problem," Peter Butler, a coordinator of the Animas stakeholders group, told the Denver Post. "Mistakes happened. We need to have this agency come in and provide more resources. There's just a shortage of state resources."

Without the manpower to keep these spills from happening, toxic sludge will continue to pump into rivers, killing fish and making water undrinkable, for years to come.

RELATED: Colorado wants to re-open the river that turned mustard-yellow with toxic sludge days ago — here's why that's not the best idea

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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Ikea Is Buying Up Whole Forests, and So Is Apple


Ikea bought 83,000 acres of forest last month. In April, Apple bought 36,000 acres. What’s the reasoning behind these retail giants buying their own forests? To manage them.