January 2019: Monthly Environmental News Roundup

  1. Antarctica melts 15% faster than last year

With aerial photos, satellite measurements and computer models, scientists have tracked that the southernmost continent Antarctica is melting six times faster than what it used to in the 1980s. Compared to last year’s study, this is more than 15%. Till last year’s study, no ice loss was found in East Antarctica, but the current satellite based study has revealed that East Antarctica is losing around 56 billion tons of ice a year. This further increases the risk of more than 10 feet sea level rise in the coming century.

2. NGT recommends Rs. 171.34 crores fine for Volkswagen

In another major blow to Volkswagen group which is already facing penalties and has agreed to pay $2.8 billion in US and Canada, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has recommended the company to pay Rs.171.34 crores as fine for the estimated heath damage caused in India due to the 48.76 tons of NOx released from the vehicles in 2016. The panel which used Delhi as the base city for the calculations reiterated the adverse health effects of long exposure to NO2 and said only human health damages are considered and the value is conservative due to lack of methodologies to calculate the overall impact.

3. Srinagar Airport declared Plastic free

Srinagar International Airport is one amongst the 20 airports declared plastic free by Airports Authority of India (AAI). Besides discouraging use of single use plastics and promoting eco-friendly alternatively, these airports also plan to have waste bins and plastic bottle crushers in prominent areas. Other environment friendly measures like solar power generation, rain water harvesting, garbage disposal are also being considered. AAI’s environment policy has been formulated to cut down the green house gases and carbon footprint.

4. Wild animal deaths in road and rail accidents continue unabated

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued an advisory in 2016 for mitigating human-animal conflicts and there were many other advisories from conservationists, organizations. Despite all this the wild animal deaths in road and rail accidents is on the rise. 49 elephants, 11 tigers, 13 lions were killed in rail and road accidents during 2016-2018. Low hanging electric wires also pose a major threat to wildlife where 461 elephant have been electrocuted during 2009-2017. Jose Louise, a conservationist has developed an app which can help monitor, regulate traffic and reduce future road kills.

5. Contact lens recycling scheme launched in UK

An estimated 3.7 million people wear contact lenses and 20% of them admit they dispose these lenses in the toilets or sinks. To reduce plastic waste in landfill, oceans Johnson & Johnson in collaboration with recycling firm TerraCycle has come up with a scheme to recycle the lenses, UK’s first free national recycling scheme. Wearers of any soft lens brand can now have their discarded items collected or can drop them in the network of recycle bins. These recycled contact lenses, packaging will be turned into outdoor furniture and other such products.

6. 66% chances of meeting 1.5C global warming target – new study

A new research used computer models to estimate the rise in global temperature if fossil fuel infrastructure phase out began and found that if the infrastructure is replaced by their green alternatives immediately there is 66% chance of staying below 1.5C and 33% chance if it began after 2030. The analysis however has not included the tipping point possibilities, which could spark the global warming. The International target which was 2C earlier was lowered to 1.5C as the difference was found to significantly lower the risk of drought, heat waves, flood, etc.

7. Brine from Desalination plants cause environmental damages

A UN backed study has revealed that desalination plants produce 142 million cubic meters of brine every day for producing 95 million cubic meter of fresh water. While the global sea water, has 3.5% salt, the brine from the desalination plants contain 5% salt along with presence of toxins like chlorine, copper. These toxins have toxic effects on the fishes, crabs, and other creatures on sea bed as they cut their oxygen supply. Study reveals that it is harder to treat brines from brackish lakes, rivers far inland than those from coastal plants.

8. New technique to process bacteria samples

Microbes are found to survive in extreme conditions and seem to have a way of producing electricity. Scientists and engineers are looking to harness these microbes for running fuel cells, sewage water treatment etc.  Studying these microbes is a challenge as their cells are extremely small and difficult to grow. MIT engineers have come up with an efficient and safer microfluidic technique using which the bacteria samples can be processed quickly and their polarizability property which is correlated with their ability to produce electricity can be gauged.

9. Coral reefs in remote areas in better state

According to the latest five status reports of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which covers the coral reef ecosystems in the common wealth of Northern Mariana Islands, Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, Pacific Remote islands Marine National Monument, in the uninhabited remote areas of American Pacific, the condition of the coral reefs are better compared to other areas as the water quality issues are less and there is less effect of fishing and near shore developments in those regions. The climate changes like acidic water and warmer still seem to have an impact on these remote area reefs also.

10. Cern’s proposal for Larger accelerator

Cern has submitted in a conceptual design report, proposal for £20bn Future circular collider (FCC), 10 times more powerful than its predecessor Large Hadron collider. FCC is expected to hunt for newer sub atomic particles by 2050. Critics feel that such huge amount could be used better for research on other pressing priorities like climate change or health issues.  However Cern’s director doesn’t think this as expensive and reminds that spending on Cern has led to many technologies advances in the past.

11. Cotton sprouts on Moon

Marking the first time growth of biological matter on moon, the seeds taken by Chang’e-4 mission to the moon have sprouted said China National Space Administration. This ability to grow plants on moon  in an controlled environment is expected to be useful for long term space missions like mission to mars where astronauts could harvest their own food and wouldn’t have to come back to earth for resupply. While some questions rise regarding contaminating the moon, experts feel this helps in laying the foundation for future establishment of space base.

12. Romeo the loneliest frog gets his Juliet

Romeo the calm, relaxed Seheuncas frog considered to be the last of its kind and famous as the world’s loneliest frog spent 10 years in isolation in an aquarium in Bolivia. Juliet is one amongst the five Sehuencas water frogs that scientists have found with goal of breeding and reintroducing the species into the wild. The rediscovered frogs will be treated for infectious diseases and then Romeo will meet Juliet in an attempt to produce offspring.  It is notable that 22% amphibians face extinction threat due to habitat loss, climate change, pollution.

13. 3D printed Venus flytrap

Scientists have 3D printed the artificial Venus flytrap plant. This artificial version which does not require any batteries or processors can capture small objects, selectively responding to environmental, external cues.  Taking inspiration from the Venus flytrap which catches its prey even without any brain, scientist s have come up with structures having embodied logic. This technology is expected to be used in aquatic pollution monitoring, sensors in harsh, remote deserts, mountains or planets where these embodied logic sensors could remain dormant and spring into action by proper signals.

14. Photosynthesis efficiency improvement technique

Agriculture industry has mostly optimized the ways of boosting the yield using fertilizers, irrigation, etc. Now researchers are trying to make photosynthesis more efficient to improve plant growth. A major roadblock for photosynthesis is photorespiration where oxygen is taken up from the atmosphere and interacts with enzyme to produce toxic compound which spans four compartments of plant cell for recycling and takes up a lot of time. Scientists have found way to restrict this to one cell compartment and the results on modified tobacco plant show 41% improvement. The tests are planned on other plants also and this would reveal if this fix would be beneficial for them as well.

15. Hemp fields a bonanza for bees

The no high variety cannabis, industrial hemp plants are becoming a familiar sight for the bees. Though the species don’t offer any nectar, the insects seem to rely on the pollen which they need for their young ones. Though nothing much is known about the nutritional aspects of the pollen, these seem to be a food source for the bees whose health has faltered recently. Growing cannabis forms has been illegal in the US, but the 2014 farm bill has provided a distinction between the high THC crops and low ones and allowed regulated legal growing.

16. A Crater found in Greenland

Scientists recently revealed about the giant crater shaped depression that they found 3 years back, buried below a kilometer of ice in Northwest Greenland. The radar data clues, have suggested the crater to be between 2.6 million and 11700 years old. Proponents of Younger Dryas believe that this could have been formed due to the cosmic impact which is said to be responsible for extinction of mammoths while others feel this could be iron meteorite impact as platinum data was found in ice cores of Greenland earlier. While the renewed debates over this discovery continue, crater developers plan to continue search for such craters beneath Greenland, Antarctica ice besides collecting more sediments from the current one.

17. Termites help resist drought in tropical rainforests

Kate Parr, a tropical ecologist and her colleagues demonstrated how termites help in resisting drought in tropical rainforests. This study was a part of the project to examine how termites, ants affect decomposition in rainforests. They used around 3500 toilet paper rolls to check and gauge the termite activity in the area under study. When the forest was hit by drought, they found the termite numbers doubled and decomposition happened faster and soil moisture, soil nutrient mixing and seedling survival t o be higher in the untreated plots compared to treated plots. 

18. Vehicle tires, brakes, roads – culprits

Scientists pulled the air around 3 busy German highways and analyzed more than 500 particles, scanning them under electron microscope to figure out what each was. The majority of the particles termed as microplastics came from vehicle tires, brake systems, roads. These particles which get blown by wind, washed by rain, generally end up in the oceans and harm the aquatic animals and the fragile ecosystem. Earlier, a research found 30% of microplastics polluting the water bodies to have come tire wear. While tire abrasion is not avoidable, it was found that moving at constant speeds without usage of brakes much produced lesser particles.

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