Category Archives: marine pollution

Geopolitical Quintet: Legal Status of Caspian Sea

Caspian Sea…is the world’s largest body of inland water—or what some would call a rather salty lake. The confusion has fuelled disputes over its legal status for nearly 30 years, as lakes and seas fall under different international legal regimes.

The Caspian sits at a strategic spot between Europe and Asia, and contains lucrative stores of oil, gas and fish, including the caviar-producing sturgeon. The Soviet Union and Iran had a clearly defined maritime border but, after the Soviet collapse, the appearance of independent Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan muddied the waters.

On August 12th the five littoral countries at last signed an agreement the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. The Caspian, says a Russian official, is to be treated as neither sea nor lake, but instead subject to a “special legal status”. While leaving some of the thorniest issues unresolved, the pact clarifies the maritime borders, enabling new oil, gas and pipeline projects to go ahead.

All five countries are to have 15 mile-wide territorial waters extending from their shores and another ten miles of exclusive fishing rights. The rest of the surface water will be common territory, but non-signatory states (e.g., the United States) may not deploy armed forces there. For Russia, this helps preserve its military dominance by retaining freedom of movement for its warships. (Russia has used the Caspian to launch missiles into Syria.)

The seabed and its resources, meanwhile, will be divided separately between the signatories. Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan already have agreements that split up the northern Caspian. Carving up the rest of the seabed will require further negotiations. The agreement also allows pipelines to be constructed with the consent only of the countries whose sectors they pass through. That might unblock a much-discussed Trans-Caspian Pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan which Russia has long opposed.

Exceprts from Big Lake Small Sea: Russia’s Neighborhood, Economist, Aug. 18, 2018, at 44

Running out of Beaches: sand miners and builders

For a place that depends on sun-and-sand-seeking tourists, Fort Lauderdale, Florida has a big problem: Its beaches are disappearing.  The Florida city has been fighting a defensive battle against nature for decades. The sand that lines its shores is constantly being swept out to sea by wind, waves and tides. In the natural course of things, that sand would be replenished by grains carried by the Atlantic’s southward-moving currents. That’s what used to happen. Today, however, so many marinas, jetties and breakwaters have been built along the Atlantic coast that the flow of incoming sand has been blocked. The natural erosion continues, but the natural replenishment does not.

For many years, Broward County, in which Fort Lauderdale sits, solved its vanishing-beach problem by replacing the sand with grains dredged up from the nearby ocean floor. Nearly 12 million cubic yards of underwater grains have been stripped off the sea bottom and thrown onto the county’s shores. But by now, virtually all of the accessible undersea sand has been used up.  The same goes for Miami Beach, Palm Beach and many other beach-dependent Florida towns. In fact, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, nearly half of the state’s beaches have suffered “critical erosion.” Florida isn’t an anomaly. Beaches are disappearing all across America and around the world, from South Africa to Japan to Western Europe. A 2017 study by the U.S. Geological Survey warned that unless something is done, as much as two-thirds of Southern California’s beaches may be completely eroded by 2100…

Massive coastal development blocks the flow of ocean-borne sand. In many countries, including the U.S., river dams also cut off sand that used to feed beaches. The widespread practice of dredging up river sand to use for making concrete makes the problem worse. Researchers at the South African Institute of International Affairs believe that sand mining has slashed by one-third the flow of river sand that feeds the beaches of Durban, South Africa; and in the San Francisco Bay, environmentalists warn that massive sand dredging may be starving nearby beaches.

In some places, outlaw sand miners are hauling away the beach itself. In Morocco, Algeria, Russian-occupied Crimea and elsewhere, illegal miners have stripped entire beaches for construction sand, leaving behind rocky moonscapes. Smugglers in Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia load beach sand onto small barges in the night to sell in Singapore.

Having thwarted the natural processes that used to feed beaches, people are now replacing them with artificial ones. The easiest and cheapest method is to suck up grains from offshore and blast them onto the beach through massive pipes. But having run out of offshore sand, many towns in southern Florida are left with no choice but to dig their sand from inland quarries and haul it to the coast one roaring, diesel-spewing truck at a time. Tourists and locals hate the noise and traffic, and county officials hate the extra cost, which can be easily double that of dredged sand. Desperate officials are even talking about importing sand from the Bahamas.

The costs add up fast. The price of renourishing a beach can reach $10 million per mile. Broward County alone has spent more than $100 million replenishing its beaches in a multiyear project launched in 2015. More than a few places, such as Atlantic City, have already racked up tabs of well over $100 million by themselves. All told, nearly $9 billion has been spent in the U.S. in recent decades on artificially rebuilding hundreds of miles of beach, according to researchers at Western Carolina University. Florida accounted for about a quarter of the total. Almost all of the costs are covered by taxpayers.

Dredging up ocean sand clouds the water with stirred-up grains and muck. Suspended in the water, those particles can block life-giving sunlight from reaching coral reefs. And when the grains settle, they can suffocate the reefs and whatever creatures are living on them.  Moreover, beach sands are themselves home to a multitude of creatures. Besides the obvious ones—clams, crabs, birds, plants—they shelter all kinds of nematodes, flatworms, bacteria and other organisms so small that they live on the surface of individual sand grains. Despite their tiny size, these creatures play an important role in the ecosystem, breaking down organic matter and providing food for other creatures. Dumping thousands of tons of imported sand on top of these organisms can obliterate whole colonies of them.

Beaches are bulwarks that can protect lives and property from storms and rising seas in our climatically imperiled world….The U.S.’s densely populated eastern seaboard is already getting a taste of what that means. When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, it killed 159 people and damaged or destroyed at least 650,000 homes. The storm struckhardest in areas where beaches had eroded, leaving little or no buffer between cities and the raging wind and waves. On the other hand, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, renourished beaches in New York and New Jersey prevented an estimated $1.3 billion in damages that Sandy otherwise would have inflicted.

Excerpts from Vince Beiser, The Battle for our Beaches, Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2018

See also The World in a Grain

Lead and Mercury in the Seas

image from wikipedia

The levels of lead and mercury in the sea reduce noticeably following concrete actions to limit their release, recent research at the IAEA using nuclear techniques has shown. The banning of leaded petrol and the closure of a mercury discharging plant have led to decreases in pollution levels over 10-15 years.

This is the case for lead, which when consumed by fish which is in turn eaten by people, can cause damage to the human nervous system and internal organs. Many different activities such as mining or smelting in metallurgy and the burning of coal as well as lead’s use in batteries, paint, ceramics and other everyday items can release it into the environment. The biggest source of lead pollution in the last century was related to the use of leaded petrol.

As part of efforts to develop new methods to determine the source and levels of lead pollution, researchers at the IAEA Environment Laboratories analysed sediments from the Baltic Sea and the Caribbean Sea. In mapping the pollution history in a sediment core from the Baltic coast of Germany, researchers could clearly observe that within 10 to 15 years of phasing out lead in petrol by 1996, lead pollution levels in the sea had decreased..

In addition, IAEA researchers have successfully developed methods to use lead isotope ratios to determine the source of lead pollution and assess whether it is naturally present or the result of anthropogenic activities, since natural and anthropogenic lead sources will show different isotopic fingerprints and isotope compositions….

IAEA scientists’ analysis of a dated sediment core in a Caribbean bay shows total mercury (Hg) levels rapidly decreased after the closure of a discharging plant…Mercury was used in an alkali plant there as a catalyser, and in the 1970s, high concentrations were found in water, sediments and marine organisms as a result of discharges from the plant.  Years later, after the plant had been closed, IAEA researchers showed, by analysing sediment core taken from the bay, that levels of total mercury had started to decrease.  While remnants of this pollution are still buried in the sediment, acute toxicity has been greatly reduced.

Excerpts from World Oceans Day 2018: Regulating Lead and Mercury Releases has Decreased Marine Pollution, IAEA Press Release, June 8, 2018

A Resurrection Story: the Great Barrier Reef

Heron Island, a coral cay in the southern Great Barrier Reef. Image from wikipedia

Great Barrier Reef, which runs for 2,300km along the coast of Queensland, is one of the icons of environmentalism. Conservationists constantly worry that human activity, particularly greenhouse-gas-induced global warming, will harm or even destroy it….Reef-forming corals prefer shallow water so, as the world’s sea levels have yo-yoed during the Ice Ages, the barrier reef has come and gone. The details of this have just been revealed in a paper published in Nature Geoscience by Jody Webster of the University of Sydney and her colleagues…. They discovered that it has died and then been reborn five times during the past 30,000 years. Two early reefs were destroyed by exposure as sea levels fell. Three more recent ones were overwhelmed by water too deep for them to live in, and also smothered by sediment from the mainland. The current reef is therefore the sixth of the period.

The barrier reef’s ability to resurrect itself is encouraging. But whether it could rise from the dead a sixth time is moot. The threat now is different. It is called bleaching and involves the tiny animals, known as polyps, which are the living part of a reef, ejecting their symbiotic algae. These algae provide much of a polyp’s food, but also generate toxins if the temperature gets too high, in which case the polyp throws them out. That causes the coral to lose its colour.  Polyps can tolerate occasional bleaching, but if it goes on too long, then they die. In the short term, therefore, global warming really does look a serious threat to the reef. It would, no doubt, return if and when the sea temperature dropped again. But when that would be, who knows?

Excerpts from Conservation: A Great Survivor, Economist, June 2, 2018, at 78

Fish, Gas and Minerals: the Arctic

Mr Xi has been showing a growing interest in Arctic countries. In 2014 he revealed in a speech that China itself wanted to become a “polar great power”..,,In January 2018 the Chinese government published its first policy document outlining its Arctic strategy.

China is also keen to tap into the Arctic resources that will become easier to exploit as the ice cap retreats. They include fish, minerals, oil and gas. The region could hold a quarter of the world’s as-yet-undiscovered hydrocarbons, according to the United States Geological Survey. Chinese firms are interested in mining zinc, uranium and rare earths in Greenland.

As the ice melts, it may become more feasible for cargo ships to sail through Arctic waters. China is excited by this possibility (its media speak of an “ice silk road”). In the coming decades such routes could cut several thousand kilometres off journeys between Shanghai and Europe. Sending ships through the Arctic could also help to revive port cities in China’s north-eastern rustbelt… China is thinking of building ports and other infrastructure in the Arctic to facilitate shipping. State-linked firms in China talk of building an Arctic railway across Finland.

Chinese analysts believe that using Arctic routes would help China strategically, too. It could reduce the need to ship goods through the Malacca Strait, a choke-point connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans. Much of China’s global shipping passes through the strait. It worries endlessly about the strait’s vulnerability to blockade—for example, should war break out with America.

There are no heated territorial disputes in the Arctic, but there are sensitivities, including Canada’s claim to the North-West Passage, a trans-Arctic waterway that America regards as international—ie, belonging to no single state.

Plenty of non-Arctic countries, including European ones, have similar dreams. But China is “by far the outlier” in terms of the amount of money it has pledged or already poured into the region, says Marc Lanteigne of Massey University in New Zealand. Its biggest investments have been in Russia, including a gas plant that began operating in Siberia in December 2017. Russia was once deeply cynical about China’s intentions. But since the crisis in Ukraine it has had to look east for investment in its Arctic regions.

The interest shown by Chinese firms could be good news for many Arctic communities. Few other investors have shown themselves willing to stomach the high costs and slow pay-offs involved in developing the far north…. The main concern of Arctic countries is that China’s ambitions will result in a gradual rewiring of the region’s politics in ways that give China more influence in determining how the Arctic is managed. Greenland is a place to watch. Political elites there favour independence from Denmark but resist taking the plunge because the island’s economy is so dependent on Danish support. The prospect of Chinese investment could change that. Should Greenland become independent, China could use its clout there to help further its own interests at meetings of Arctic states, in the same way that it uses its influence over Cambodia and Laos to prevent the Association of South-East Asian Nations from criticising Chinese behaviour in their neighbourhood.

Excerpts from The Arctic: A Silk Road through Ice, Economist, Apr. 14, 2018, at 37

The Super-Corals

image from wikipedia

By some estimates, half of the world’s coral has been lost since the 1980s. Corals are delicate animals, and are succumbing to pollution and sediment from coastal construction. Also to blame are sewage, farmland run-off and fishing, all of which favour the growth of the big, fleshy algae that are corals’ main competitors for space. (The first two encourage algal growth and the third removes animals that eat those algae.) But the biggest killer is warming seawater. Ocean heatwaves in 2015, 2016 and 2017 finished off an astonishing 20% of the coral on Earth. This is troubling, for countless critters depend on coral reefs for their survival. Indeed, such reefs, which take up just a thousandth of the ocean floor, are home, for at least part of their life cycles, to a quarter of marine species. Losing those reefs would cause huge disruption to the ocean’s ecosystem. So researchers are looking for ways to stop this happening.

A growing number of scientists reckon that an entirely different approach to saving coral is needed. If oceans are changing faster than coral can adapt via the normal processes of evolution, why not, these researchers argue, work out ways to speed up such evolution  One way to do this would be selective breeding. Most species of coral spawn on just one or two nights a year, a process regulated by the lunar cycle, the time of sunset and the temperature of the water. The sperm and eggs released during spawning meet and unite, and the results grow into larvae that search for places where they can settle down and metamorphose into the stone-encased sea-anemone-like polyps that are the adult form. In the wild, the meeting of sperm and egg is random. Some researchers, however, are trying to load the dice. By starting with wild specimens that have survived a period of heat which killed their neighbours, they hope to breed heat resistance into the offspring.

This is the tack taken, for example, by Christian Voolstra of the Red Sea Research Centre in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. He describes it as “making sure super papa and super mama meet and reproduce”. Corals bred in this way at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, on Oahu, survive in water that is warm enough to kill offspring resulting from normal, random reproduction.

The reason corals die when the surrounding water gets too hot is that the microscopic algae and bacteria which live on and in their tissue, and are their main food sources, are sensitive to small changes in temperature. When stressed by heat these symbionts start producing dangerous oxidants. This causes the polyps to eject them, to ensure short-term survival. The reef thus turns ghostly white—a process called bleaching. Bleached coral is not dead. But unless the temperature then drops, the polyps will not readmit the algae and bacteria, and so, eventually, they do die.

Polyps that survive one such ordeal will, however, fare better if temperatures rise again. The second time around they have acclimatised to the change. Some species, indeed, can pass this resilience on to their offspring by a process called intergenerational epigenesis. The Hawaii Institute’s efforts to develop hardier corals thus include administering a near-death experience to them. Ruth Gates, the institute’s director, says the goal is to create reefs “designed to withstand the future”. The institute’s first such reef will probably be grown inside Biosphere 2, an enclosed ecosystem run by the University of Arizona.

Another approach, taken by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Queensland, is to crossbreed corals from different places, to create hybrid vigour. The results of such crosses are unpredictable, but some survive heat greater than either of their parents could cope with.

The artificial breeding of corals is, though, constrained by their cyclical breeding habits, so researchers at the Florida Aquarium, on Tampa Bay, are trying to speed the process up. The operators of the aquarium’s “coral ark” nursery stagger lighting and temperature patterns to fool the animals into releasing their gametes on a day of the researchers’ choosing. This also permits the co-mingling of sperm and eggs that would not normally meet, thus allowing new varieties to be created. According to Scott Graves, the aquarium’s boss, half a dozen such varieties show most promise of heat resistance, but the team is generating thousands more, “just like a seed bank”, as a backup.

A coral’s fate is tied so closely to the algae and bacteria which live in its tissues that, as Dr Gates puts it, it is best to think of the whole thing as “a consortium of organisms”. This is why scientists at AIMS are keen also to produce algae that withstand higher temperatures without releasing the oxidants that lead coral to kick them out. They are doing so using a process which Madeleine van Oppen, a researcher at the institute, calls “directed laboratory evolution”. In the past few years her team have grown more than 80 generations of algae, repeatedly culling those organisms most susceptible to heat stress and also to acidification, another curse of a world with more carbon dioxide around than previously. The resulting algae release fewer toxins and photosynthesise better in warm water than do their wild brethren..

[A]fter the trauma of bleaching, polyps do extend a preferential welcome to algae that have greater levels of heat tolerance. His team are thus now using special lights to bleach corals. Polyps “stress hardened” in this way will be planted on wild reefs in coming months…

This raises the question of whether the genomes of coral, algae and bacteria might be edited for greater robustness. According to Dr Voolstra, more than ten laboratories around the world are trying to do so. His own team has successfully inserted genetic material into about 30 larvae of a coral called Acropora millepora. Editing corals’ heat thresholds in this way is, he reckons, about five years away.

Whether they are created by selective breeding or genetic engineering, supercorals, the thinking goes, would not need to be placed on reefs in astronomical numbers… That thought, however, does not please everybody. Some object in principle to the idea of releasing human-modified creatures into the wild, or feel that amelioration of this sort is a distraction from the business of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. Others have pragmatic concerns—that corals bred to survive warming seas might suffer handicapping trade-offs. So regulators have been cautious. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, for example, will probably require that the hybrid organisms AIMS hopes to test in the open reef are removed before they begin spawning. …[T]he alternative, of doing nothing, is the equivalent of “ just throwing our hands up in the air and saying, ‘OK, we’re prepared now not to have coral’.” For the world’s oceans, that loss would be catastrophic.

Excerpts from Accelerating Evolution: Refreshing Reefs, Economist, Mar. 17, 2018, at 75

Forever Dead Products

Yangtze river

In a paper published in 2107 in Science Advances, Roland Geyer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues put the cumulative amount of solid plastic waste produced since the 1950s that has not been burned or recycled at 4.9bn tonnes. It could all have been dumped in a landfill 70 metres deep and 57 square kilometres in area—that is to say, the size of Manhattan

If only it had all remained on land, or even washed up on beaches, where it could be collected. A bigger environmental worry is that much plastic has ended up in the ocean, where, dispersed by currents, the stuff becomes virtually irretrievable, especially once it has fragmented into microplastics. Computer models suggest that seas hold as many as 51trn microplastic particles. Some are the product of larger pieces breaking apart; others, like microbeads added to toothpaste or face scrubs, were designed to be tiny….

Even if the flow of plastic into the sea, totalling perhaps 10m tonnes a year, was instantly stanched, huge quantities would remain. And the flow will not stop. Most of the plastic in the ocean comes not from tidy Europe and America, but from countries in fast-developing East Asia, where waste-collection systems are flawed or non-existent. In October 2017 scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, in Germany, found that ten rivers—two in Africa and the rest in Asia—discharge 90% of all plastic marine debris. The Yangtze alone carries 1.5m tonnes a year

Trucost, a research arm of Standard & Poor’s, a financial-information provider, has estimated that marine litter costs $13bn a year, mainly through its adverse effect on fisheries, tourism and biodiversity. It puts the overall social and environmental cost of plastic pollution at $139bn a year. Of that half arises from the climate effects of greenhouse-gas emissions linked to producing and transporting plastic. Another third comes from the impact of associated air, water and land pollution on health, crops and the environment, plus the cost of waste disposal.

Exerpts from:  Plastic Pollution: Too Much of a Good Thing, Economist, Mar. 3, 2018, at 51

Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made (R. Greyer et al., 2017)