ICYMI – eco news round up, 18 May 2019

Mariana Trench: Deepest-ever sub dive finds plastic waste

An American explorer, Victor Vescovo, has found plastic waste on the seafloor while breaking the record for the deepest ever dive descending nearly 11km in to the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. It is only the third time humans have reached the ocean’s extreme depths. In total, Mr Vescovo and his team made five dives to the bottom of the trench during the expedition. Robotic landers were also deployed to explore the remote terrain. Mr Vescovo said: “It is almost indescribable how excited all of us are about achieving what we just did”.

The team believes it has discovered four new species of prawn-like crustaceans called amphipods, but amongst the sea creatures, Vescovo also found a plastic bag and sweet wrappers, revealing humanity’s profound impact on the planet. Millions of tonnes of plastic enter the oceans each year, but little is known about where a lot of it ends up.

Photo Credit: Tamara Stubbs

Climate crisis: CO2 levels rise to highest point since evolution of humans

Levels of CO2 have reached an alarming new record at the world’s oldest measuring station in Hawaii. The Mauna Loa Observatory, which has measured the parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere since 1958. . The 1958 readings showed the concentration of CO2 was 313ppm in March 1958, and that had risen to 415.26ppm by 11 May.

The Paris climate agreement, signed by most countries in 2015, is designed to try and limit average global temperature rises to 1.5C above what they were in the pre-industrial era. However, a report by the United Nations last year warned that we are currently on track to exceed 1.5C of warming between 2030 and 2052, and 3C by the end of the century, if temperatures continue to increase at the current rate. Once we hit 2C warming, the report said the world will become a profoundly different place; there will be almost no coral reefs remaining, huge numbers of animals and plants will become extinct and heatwaves and wildfires will become more frequent.

Meteorologist Eric Holthouse retweeted the Mauna Loa readings and said: “This is the first time in human history our planet’s atmosphere has had more than 415ppm CO2”.

“Not just in recorded history, not just since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Since before modern humans existed millions of years ago”.

“We don’t know a planet like this.”

Single-use plastics a serious climate change hazard, study warns

The proliferation of single-use plastic around the world is accelerating climate change and should be urgently halted, a report warns. The study says that plastic contributes to greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of its lifecycle, from its production to its refining and the way it is managed as a waste product. Authors of the report by the Center for International Environmental Law say the contribution of plastic production and disposal to climate change has been largely hidden and call for urgent action to stem production and flow or throwaway plastic.

The authors say disposable plastic found in packaging and fast-moving consumer goods forms the largest and fastest-growing segment of the plastic economy. “Packaging is one of the most problematic types of plastic waste, as it is typically designed for single use, ubiquitous in trash, and extremely difficult to recycle. A constant increase in the use of flexible and multi-layered packaging has been adding challenges to collection, separation, and recycling,” the researchers said.

The key actions which the authors say are required are: immediately end the production and use of single-use plastic, stop development of new oil, gas and petrochemical infrastructure, foster the transition to zero-waste communities and implement a system where polluters pay for the impact of their product.

Australia’s biodiversity at breaking point

Australia’s biodiversity is in trouble. Land clearing, deforestation, emissions, drought and warming oceans are all worsening the attack on Australia’s threatened species. According to the UN global assessment report, nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10 million years. More than a million species are at risk of extinction, natural ecosystems have declined by about 47% and the biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%. All of this is largely due to human activity, and the impact is likely to worsen unless action is taken immediately.

One of the main threats to Australia’s biodiversity is habitat loss, and land-clearing is happening at a staggering rate. Projections suggest that 3m hectares of untouched forest will have been bulldozed in eastern Australia by 2039 thanks to the livestock industry. Australia’s oceans are also suffering. The 2016-2018 climate change-induced mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef cause an ‘unprecedented’ decline of coral according to a report by the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Since the mass bleaching, the number of new corals on the Great Barrier Reef has crashed by 89%. Likewise, Global Warming is causing marine heatwaves to happen more frequently and with more intensity, which have a devastating impact on the ocean’s ecosystems.

Unfortunately, there has been a lack of leadership from state and federal governments in this area as protections and funding have been slashed and emissions continue to rise unabated.

Plastic Pollution: Flip-flop tide engulfs ‘paradise’ island

Close to a million plastic shoes, mainly flip flops, are among the torrent of debris washed up on an “unspoilt paradise” in the beaches of Australia’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Scientists estimate that 93% of it lies buried under the sand and warn that the scale of concealed plastic debris is being underestimated worldwide.

The researchers found that oceanic currents are depositing huge amounts of plastic on the beaches, calculating that the islands are littered with 238 tonnes of plastic, including 977,000 shoes and 373,000 toothbrushes. These were among the identifiable elements in an estimated 414 million pieces of debris. The scientists believe their overall finding is conservative, as they weren’t able to access some beaches known to be hotspots of pollution. Attempts to clear this concealed plastic would require major mechanical disturbance which might prove even more damaging to wildlife.

“It wasn’t a huge surprise to me, it’s simply that the surveys done up until now have looked at the surface and it’s obviously a lot of time and effort to dig deeper,” said Dr Chris Tuckett, from the Marine Conservation Society. “Plastic obviously breaks down into smaller pieces over time and smaller pieces will sink through the sand and settle in sub-surface layers. In hot regions, the combination of warm temperatures and high salinity is likely to make plastic items break up into pieces more quickly, although it won’t disappear entirely.”

Silke Stuckenbrock

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