Fires Rage in Indonesia

billowing smoke from Indonesian fires

Nearly 100,000 fires have burned in Indonesia so far this year. (Photo credit: Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images)

What does your favorite packaged afternoon snack have to do with the fires raging in Indonesia? If the list of ingredients includes palm oil, there’s quite a large connection.

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Quenching California’s Thirst For Water

California drought

The past four years have been among the driest in California’s recorded history. (Photo credit: Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images)

The past four years have been among the driest in California’s recorded history. This January marked one of the driest months on record. In March, the Sierra Nevada snowpack, a key source of fresh water for the region, was at 5 percent of its historical average of 28.5 inches. The Sierra Nevada’s Tuolumne River Basin supplies water for the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts and the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System, which provides water to San Francisco and surrounding areas. [Read more…]

Alternative Fuels From Unusual Sources

tobacco plants

Oft-maligned tobacco plants could be a source of biofuels in the future. (Photo credit: Photodisc/Getty Images)

Today, the fuels we might call “alternate” were once prime candidates to supply many of our energy needs.

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At Chernobyl, Birds Adapting to Radiation

abandoned building

The effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident on the region’s human population is well-documented. But what about the flora and fauna left behind? (Photo credit: Alex Skelly/Flickr/Getty Images)

April 26, 2015 marked the 29th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. On this date, a sudden power surge during a reactor systems test at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine destroyed Unit 4. The accident and ensuing fire released huge amounts of radiation into the environment. [Read more…]

Baddie in the Bahamas: The Invasive Lionfish


Invasive lionfish are outcompeting native coral reef species in the western Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. (Photo credit: Photodisc/Getty Images)

The invasive lionfish, which is native to the Indo-Pacific, is now wreaking havoc in coral reef ecosystems in the western Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. [Read more…]

Celebrating Earth Day Every Day


Earth Day was founded in 1970 by Senator Gaylord Nelson.  (Photo credit: Loskutnikov/Shutterstock)

April 22 marks the 45th annual celebration of Earth Day. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin founded Earth Day in 1970 to bring environmental issues to the top of the national agenda. Until then, there were little to no legal or regulatory mechanisms to protect the environment. [Read more…]

Dust from the Saharan Desert Fertilizes the Amazon Rainforest

Saharan dust

This conceptual image depicts dust from the Saharan Desert crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the Amazon rainforest in South America. (Image courtesy of Conceptual Image Lab, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

The Sahara Desert, located in northern Africa, is the world’s largest desert. The Amazon rainforest, located in northern South America, is the world’s largest rainforest. New research, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, indicates that these ecosystems, while vastly different, are tied together. Each year, nearly 28 million tons of Saharan desert dust is swept across the Atlantic Ocean by strong winds, and deposited in the Amazon.

This transportation of dust is significant because it imports nutrients such as phosphorus into the nutrient-poor soils of the Amazon rainforest. While the Amazon rainforest is lush with green foliage, the majority of the nutrients are stored in the plants, making for few nutrients in the soil. What little soil nutrients remain are washed away by the rainforest’s heavy rains.

According to Dr. Hongbin Yu, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Maryland and lead author of the study, the phosphorus that reaches the Amazon rainforest– about 22,000 tons per year – is about the same amount that exits the ecosystem through precipitation and flooding. This finding is just a small part of the larger research project to understand the part dust plays in the environment and its impact on climate on both a local and global scale.

“We know that dust is very important in many ways,” Dr. Yu said in a press release about the research. “It is an essential component of the Earth system. Dust will affect climate, and, at the same time, climate change will affect dust.”

Yu and his colleagues used data collected by NASA’s Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) satellite between 2007 and 2013. The researchers concentrated on data concerning the flow of dust from the Sahara across the Atlantic Ocean to South America and further out to the Caribbean Sea. This movement is the largest transportation of dust on the planet.

Data from the satellite show that, on average, 182 million tons of dust is picked up annually and transported past the western edge of the Sahara. This dust is blown 1600 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, and 132 million tons remain in the air when it arrives along the eastern coast of South America. As discussed earlier, 27.7 million tons falls to the Earth’s surface over the Amazon basin. Approximately 43 million tons of dust travels beyond this region and settles out of the atmosphere over the Caribbean Sea.

Phosphorus levels were estimated using samples from the Bodélé Depression (an ancient lake bed in Chad) and research stations in Barbados and Miami. This estimate was used to determine the amount of phosphorus deposited in the Amazon basin.

The pattern of dust movement varies greatly from one year to the next. The scientists found that there was an 86 percent difference between the highest amount of dust transported in 2007 and the lowest amount transported in 2011. The researchers believe this variability can be attributed to conditions in the Sahel, a long strip of semi-arid land found along the Sahara’s southern border. It appears that periods of high rainfall in the Sahel coincide with less dust transport the following year.

Though the scientists agree that the data record is too short to make any long-term conclusions, it does offer interesting insight into the movement of dust and other windborne particles as they are blown across the ocean.

“This is a small world,” Yu said, “and we’re all connected together.”

More to Explore
Massive amounts of Saharan dust fertilize the Amazon rainforest
Sahara Desert Dust Blows Across Atlantic to Americas
NASA Satellite Reveals How Much Saharan Dust Feeds Amazon’s Plants
Satellite Tracks Saharan Dust To Amazon In 3-D [videos]

Concerned Scientists Seek ESA Protection for Monarch Butterflies

monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly populations have declined nearly 97% in recent decades. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Monarch butterfly populations have plummeted in recent decades. As a result, concerned scientists, including those at the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, the Xerces Society, and monarch scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower, have petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to protect the butterfly species under the Endangered Species Act. [Read more…]

Calcium, Plankton, and the Jellification of Lakes

water flea

One of the biggest losers from the decrease in calcium in lakes is Daphnia, a small species of crustacean also called a water flea. (Photo credit: NNehring/

While the element calcium is good for your bones, it’s not something you particularly want in your water supply. Water containing too much calcium and other dissolved minerals becomes what is known as “hard water.” Although not particularly harmful to your health, hard water can taste bad, and it inhibits the production of soap bubbles, making clothes and dishes more difficult to wash. Hard water also can damage industrial boilers and cooling towers, and, more close to home, even the pots and pans used for cooking. Currently, however, the problem for many lakes in the United Kingdom and North America is too little calcium. This lack of calcium is causing the water to turn to “jelly.”

The direct cause of the “jellification” of the lakes is the rise of the plankton Holopedium, particularly the H. glacialis strain. Covered with a transparent gelatinous sheath, in large quantities the presence of these plankton does seem to make lakes turn to jelly. That the plankton did flourish in these lakes wasn’t surprising. Why their numbers seemed to be rising in recent years, however, wasn’t obviously apparent. Was it acid rain? Was it deforestation? Was it a loss of food supply? As it turns out, it was a combination of all these, and it all centered on one element: calcium.

The burning of fossil fuels and allied industrial processes release sulfur and other chemicals into the air that result in the production of acid rain. While biologists knew that, when acid rain falls on lakes, it prevents fish eggs from hatching and kills insects, they couldn’t see a clear connection to Holopedium. It didn’t appear to be that any of the affected species were part of their food web. However, acid rain also combines with the calcium in the water, making it less available to organisms that need it. The problem only gets worse for lakes, such as  those in Canada, adjacent to regions where extensive logging occurs. The reforestation after logging occurs only further depletes calcium levels. While it’s true too much calcium can be a problem, too little can be as well, as many aquatic animals need it, especially crustaceans that use it to build their shells. As calcium levels dropped more and more, many organisms began to suffer from the loss.

One of the biggest losers from the decrease in calcium is Daphnia, a small species of crustacean often referred to as a “water flea.” Because of their well-known susceptibility to toxins, ecologists often use water fleas as an “indicator genus” to gauge pollution levels in lakes. Their nearly transparent bodies also make them excellent subjects on which to study the effects of various stimulants and depressants (such as caffeine and alcohol) on the nervous system. But if this so prolific a species was losing, the question became who was winning.

The answer, of course, was Holopedium. Both animals compete for similar food sources, but the difference is that the water flea needs more calcium. As the calcium levels decreased, not only did their numbers decrease, but their weakened condition also made them easier prey, only increasing the problem. According to Dr. Adam Jeriorski, one of the lead authors of a current study on the problem and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University, “Conditions now favour animals better adapted to lower calcium levels, and these changes can have significant ecological and environmental repercussions.”

Identifying the cause of the problem seems only logical in retrospect. The difficulty was that increased regulations have caused acid rain levels to drop measurably in the past thirty years, and so logically it would seem that many of its harmful consequences would have been declining as well, not suddenly appearing. Examining soil samples from lakes, Queen’s University researchers determined that the trend in fact started more than 150 years ago, a time that coincides with the rise of industrialization, and only now seems to be reaching its critical point. “Lake sediments act like a history book of past changes in a lake, recording what happened before the problem was identified,” said Professor John Smol of Queen’s University, and another author of the study. “Jelly-clad invertebrates have been increasing in an alarming number of lakes. This is likely a long-term effect of acid rain on forest soils, logging and forest regrowth.” The authors of the study conclude that “Greater representation by Holopedium within cladoceran zooplankton communities will reduce nutrient transfer through food webs, given their lower phosphorus content relative to daphniids, and greater absolute abundances may pose long-term problems to water users. The dominance of jelly-clad zooplankton will likely persist while lakewater calcium levels remain low.”

More importantly, perhaps, the study emphasizes the complex causes behind any shift in environmental conditions, and how the effects might not be realized for some time. To date, there does not appear to be any well-defined plan for how to reverse the effects of the decreased calcium levels in the lakes, and many have passed critical thresholds.

More to Explore

Zookplankton of the Great Lakes
Aquatic osteoporosis’ jellifying lakes

Toxic Water in Toledo

algal bloom

A tow boat kicks up a wake full of green algae a few hundred feet from the city of Toledo’s Water Intake on Lake Erie on Monday, August 4, 2014. (Photo credit: The Washington Post/Getty Images)

The shutdown of Toledo’s water supply was one of the top environmental stories in the summer of 2014. What caused the toxic water? Could this happen again? [Read more…]