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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: Could the supposedly imminent collapse of the Gulf Stream cause another ice age? -- B.L., San Francisco, CA

The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)—aka the “Gulf Stream”—is a vital system of ocean currents, driven by temperature and salinity disparities at various locales and depths. Warm surface waters are propelled poleward by winds and tides. At the poles, the water cools, forming ice crystals devoid of salt and nutrients. The denser salt and nutrients sink to the cooler waters below, while warmer, less dense waters rise. This transports warmth and nutrients to the coasts of Africa and the Americas. In essence, the AMOC serves as a conveyor belt that transports nutrients and heat all around the globe.

Why are people worried about a Gulf Stream collapse? Rising global temperatures cause rapid melting of polar ice caps, introducing non-saline water. This dilutes deep currents, weakens AMOC’s upwelling, and disrupts circulation. Freshwater doesn't sink rapidly, leading to a “traffic jam.” University College London researcher David Thornalley reports that the AMOC is at its weakest point in 1,600 years.

The future of AMOC is debated. Some predict it will halt; others foresee a slowdown. Some believe the point-of-no-return will come in 2025 while optimists believe we have until 2095 to stabilize the situation. Regardless, scientists have reached a consensus on the consequences of melting polar ice. The U.S. East Coast will certainly experience flooding and cooling. The Gulf Stream brings warm waters along the east coast of North America. If it stops completely, the East Coast may experience a 9°F cooldown within a decade. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that water levels are rising at a rate of one inch every three years. Between now and 2050, coastal sea levels are projected to rise one to four feet. Areas like Miami, New Orleans, Atlantic City, Manhattan, Long Island, San Francisco, San Diego and Honolulu could face severe infrastructure damage from flooding. This is not a global-scale Ice Age, but it certainly implicates grave repercussions.

Areas in Africa and Asia will grapple with drought. The AMOC brings monsoonal rainfall to areas in West Africa and South Asia. Without this circulation, countries such as Sudan, Senegal, India and Thailand will encounter drought. The supply of freshwater for human activities and agriculture will be jeopardized. The Amazon Rainforest may transform into a savanna. The AMOC brings rainfall to the Amazon Rainforest. Without this precipitation, Harvard researchers hypothesize that this tropical forest may transition into a dry savanna. The Amazon would absorb less carbon dioxide and produce less oxygen. In addition, the over three million Amazon species will struggle to survive.

Biodiversity in aquatic ecosystems will decline. The AMOC transports nutrients and oxygen. Without the circulating presence of these organic materials, populations of life forms on all tiers of the food chain will most likely dwindle. Though neither the collapse of the Gulf Stream nor a modern-day Ice Age are guaranteed, the declining rate of the AMOC poses serious threats to our current way of life and the survival of other organisms around the globe. Reining in carbon emissions at home and around the globe is our only hope of avoiding this among many cataclysmic natural disasters in the years to come.


CONTACTS: Gulf Stream current could collapse in 2025, plunging Earth into climate chaos, https://www.livescience.com/planet-earth/climate-change/gulf-stream-current-could-collapse-in-2025-plunging-earth-into-climate-chaos-we-were-actually-bewildered; The Collapse Of The Gulf Stream — An Epitaph For A Dying Planet, https://cleantechnica.com/2023/07/27/the-collapse-of-the-gulf-stream-an-epitaph-for-a-dying-planet/.

Dear EarthTalk: I hear there is a legal challenge brewing regarding a recent Biden administration decision lauded by environmentalists to stop the Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay? --Robert E., via email

Bristol Bay is a relatively small but nevertheless important body of water in Southwestern Alaska. It is known for plentiful salmon and blossoming wildlife and has been home to native tribes for centuries. They’ve witnessed the brightest of days and darkest of nights.

However, in the early 21st century a mining operation named “Pebble Mine” wished to lay claims on the area. Spearheaded by Northern Dynasty Minerals, their goal was to extract valuable copper ores that resided in the bay.

Despite a 10+ year battle with Northern Dynasty Minerals and their supporters, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put their foot down with a section 404(c) veto on the proposed operation in January of 2023, “ending” a long-standing feud between two strikingly different groups. The veto was issued on the grounds of how valuable Bristol Bay was to the country, as it creates a staggering $2.2 billion in revenue, 15,000 jobs and 80+ million fish. The tremendous wealth and prosperity Bristol Bay provided to the nation was too valuable, according to the EPA, to not protect.

So, the EPA ruled that the “Pebble Mine” operation be forced to shut down. Happily, ever after, right? Not quite. Although all of the EPA’s previous 14 section 404(c) vetoes have never been overturned, the fight is not exactly in the history books yet. Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor has requested the U.S Supreme Court review the EPA’s decision, claiming it unlawful. The state argues that by issuing orders on their state land, the EPA “usurps the State’s ability and responsibility to protect its own natural resources.” Northern Dynasty Minerals further insists that their operation is necessary for creating supply chain independence. Supporters of “Pebble Mine” call the move a necessity to push back against “tyranny,” while opponents of the operation insist it’s a last-minute prayer to prevent financial losses.

No official Court ruling has been reached yet—understandably as the request is very recent—but both sides will certainly be on their toes should conflict rekindle. Alaska’s overturn request is grounded in state sovereignty, and may get assistance from a conservative Supreme Court.

The operation would extract precious copper and minerals out of the bay, but at the expense of the enormous salmon industry, precious natural resources, and innocent native tribes. Which is more valuable? The answer will come from the federal government.


CONTACTS: State seeks Supreme Court action on EPA’s Pebble Mine decision, alaskasnewssource.com/2023/07/27/state-seeks-supreme-court-action-epas-pebble-mine-decision/; EPA Blocks Pebble Mine with Rare Veto. What Happens Next? nrdc.org/bio/joel-reynolds/epa-blocks-pebble-mine-rare-veto-what-happens-next; Alaska’s Bristol Bay & The Pebble Mine,earthjustice.org/feature/alaska-bristol-bay-pebble-mine.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that spam email takes a huge toll on the environment? – P.L., Bern, NC

If you are among the 92 percent of Americans who use email as a means of communication, you are a recipient of unsolicited batch emails called “spam.” Every day, upwards of 14.5 billion spam emails are sent globally. They may seem harmless on the surface, but the storage, sorting and transmission of unnecessary spam emails consume copious amounts of energy, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Emails may seem to appear somewhat magically on a phone or laptop, but any kind of electronic request actually requires a physical touchpoint, called a data center, for the information to be transmitted. Data centers need enormous amounts of electricity to function. Everything, from the servers to the infrastructure to cool the extensive computer systems, is powered by electricity. In 2014, data centers in the United States consumed 70 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity which is equivalent to around two percent of all annual American electricity consumption (the amount of electricity that data centers consume today is likely far higher). Electricity is frequently generated from fossil fuels, and fossil fuels release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere when burned. A high demand for electricity from data centers significantly contributes to the high volume of greenhouse gas emissions.

Therefore, every email sent and received has a carbon footprint. Mike Berners-Lee, a professor at Lancaster University, determined that each spam email has a carbon footprint of 0.3g of carbon dioxide. While a spam email’s carbon footprint is actually less than the average non-spam email’s carbon footprint, spam email accounts for the majority of all emails sent, according to some reports—and volume matters. One spam email has the same carbon footprint as driving just three feet in a car, but the total annual volume of spam has the same carbon footprint as driving around the world 1.6 million times.

Between the energy required to harvest addresses, store unread messages in data centers for long periods of time, filter spam and complete basic processing and transmission of messages, spam email is estimated to consume 22 billion kilowatt-hours annually. The same amount of energy could power 2.3 million homes in the United States. And assuming the electricity is coming from fossil fuel sources, 2.6 billion trees would have to be planted every year to offset the pollution.

Luckily, spam is unnecessary and there are steps you can take to limit its presence in your own inbox, and to make your inbox greener. Deleting emails, clearing your spam inbox regularly, and unsubscribing from unwanted subscriptions reduces the amount of data volume being transmitted between servers and stored, which reduces demand for electrical energy. You can also choose a cloud provider, like Gmail or Microsoft Outlook, that has pledged to make their data centers carbon neutral or more environmentally friendly. Green cloud providers use a renewable electricity source or have vastly improved the electrical efficiency of their data centers. In choosing your cloud provider, take a look at Brainwave’s ranking of the “Greenest Clouds.” The impact of some of the more major cloud providers going green has had a tangible impact: while the volume of spam email has significantly increased over time, the amount of electricity spam email consumes annually has remained relatively consistent in the past few years.

CONTACTS: Who Has the Greenest Cloud? brainnwave.ai/who-has-the-greenest-cloud/; The Carbon Footprint of Email Spam Report, siskinds.com/wp-content/uploads/carbonfootprint_12pg_web_rev_na-1.pdf; How Does Deleting Emails Reduce Carbon Footprint? graygroupintl.com/blog/how-does-deleting-emails-reduce-carbon-footprint

Dear EarthTalk: Are carbon offsets an effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or are they just corporate greenwashing with little if any environmental impact? -- Joe M., Milwaukee, WI

If you want to get environmental advocates agitated, bring up carbon offsetting. It is among the most hotly debated climate solution efforts, with opinions fanned out on the spectrum from whole-heartedly for, entirely against, and everywhere in between. But what actually is it?

Offsetting is the act of counterbalancing harmful emissions one might be responsible for by funding a project that removes the same amount of emissions from the atmosphere, i.e. planting trees to compensate for an airplane flight. Offsets are hooked up to a broader financial system called a “carbon market,” where investors can buy “carbon credits” to compensate for their emissions. One credit equals one ton of CO2.

There are two types of carbon markets, one “voluntary” and one called “compliance.” Compliance markets are controlled by official policy, and a cap-and-trade system, whereby a government will set a “cap” (a limit) how much CO2 an industry may release, and then divide it into permits, which are either given or sold to companies within that industry. If a company doesn't use all of its allowance, it can sell the extra to bigger emitters for a profit. Each year, the cap is supposed to get lower and lower, driving the price of polluting up and, in theory, sending companies careening towards renewables and clean energy.

The voluntary system is similar, but it functions outside of government regulation. Companies purchase credits from carbon offsetting projects in order to prove their environmental standards. On paper, this sounds great. But activists do have valid concerns. An investigation into Verra, the world’s leading voluntary carbon credit certifier, found that over 90 percent of its credits were phantom ones with no environmental benefit. So, it is easy to see why some think it is a massive scam.

“Stop greenwashing!” shouted young climate activist Greta Thunberg at an assembly of experts at the 2021 United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow. The topic? Carbon offsetting. Greenpeace is very vocal on the matter too, seeing it as merely “[t]ree planting window dressing aimed at distracting [us] from ecosystem destruction.” But solid belief in the potential in the market is also valid. Johan Rockström from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says that offsetting generates much-needed investments even if it does lack proper regulation. In fact, investments in green spaces and local communities are a major upside to offsetting. By selling credits that maintain natural landscapes, often in developing countries, the carbon markets funnel money into wildlife, and could even eventually reverse the depressing maxim: “Our forests are worth more dead than alive.”

And what about the carbon that is already in the atmosphere? Naveen Shivalingam, co-founder of Peak 365, a carbon market solutions company, notes that “the negatives [of the carbon markets] are pretty far reaching. But the fact remains that we have 60 billion tons [of CO2] too many in the atmosphere. Even if the world magically switched to renewables tomorrow, we would still be in a climate disaster in 50 years.” Offsetting projects provide a viable escape route.

CONTACTS: Peak 365, peak365.co.uk; Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, www.pik-potsdam.de/en/home; Is Carbon Offsetting Greenwashing? The Big Picture,

impactful.ninja/is-carbon-offsetting-greenwashing/.

Dear EarthTalk: How are amphibians doing in the U.S. and around the world these days?

-- D. Victor, Philadelphia, PA

Amphibians, such as frogs, toads, salamanders and newts, live on both land and in water. Having emerged over 300 million years ago, today there are over 7,000 known species. However, they are perishing at an alarming rate. In 2004, about a third of amphibian species were threatened by extinction. Scientists have calculated that amphibian populations are decreasing at an annual rate of 3.79 percent in the U.S. alone.

Amphibians are crucial for ecosystem viability. They improve biodiversity and resilience in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems by transferring energy and organic matter. Certain amphibians eat decomposers, allowing soil to retain nutrients longer. Tadpoles feed on algae, slowing algal blooms and subsequent eutrophication. Lizards, birds, fish and snakes rely on amphibians as a source of food. Certainly, the disappearance of amphibians will have serious repercussions throughout a wide range of ecosystems.

Amphibians typically have highly permeable skin that helps them breathe. Oxygen molecules dissolve into the skin’s mucus membrane and surface blood vessels. Since their skin is so permeable, amphibians are very sensitive to their surroundings. As such they are considered an “indicator species” because they react so quickly when environmental factors change and can signal trouble for the wider environment.

There are many reasons why amphibian populations are declining, many of which are human-related. When people build roads and dams, amphibians may be separated from other members of their species. The infrastructure also interrupts migrating patterns and the flow of larvae in water. Water retention in rivers, streams and ponds is declining and shorelines are receding. Additionally, people exploit amphibians as pets or ingredients in medicinal/biological markets.

Many amphibians lay eggs in water, and toxins like road salts, pesticides, fertilizers, industrial wastes and plastics can penetrate the eggs’ membranes and poison the developing larvae. Pollutants can also cause behavioral irregularities, lower reproductive success, and even cause death. Moreover, ozone layer erosion has let more of the sun’s ultraviolet rays infiltrate the atmosphere. UV-B rays can kill amphibians directly and cause growth delays and immune dysfunction. These changes result in the mass mortality of eggs, larvae, and metamorphosizing amphibians.

Since the mid-1900s, there has been a pandemic of the infectious chytrid fungus in over 700 amphibian species. The fungal spores move through water and stick in soil. When amphibians (notably frogs) come in contact with this fungus, it degrades the keratin layer of their skin, causing skin sloughing, lethargy, weight loss and death. Scientists are still exploring efficient ways to slow the spread of this lethal fungus.

Everyone can play a part in helping amphibians, from keeping pets indoors, reducing fertilizer and pesticide usage, covering your pool when not in use (to save amphibians from falling in). These are some of many ways that you can do your part to help these endangered critters out!


CONTACTS: Why are amphibian populations declining? usgs.gov/faqs/why-are-amphibian-populations-declining; Water Quality and Amphibians, conservewildlifenj.org/blog/2015/03/27/water-quality-and-amphibians/; What Amphibians Can Tell Us About Water Quality, cnr.ncsu.edu/news/2023/04/amphibians-water-quality/; What You Can Do,nps.gov/subjects/amphibiansandreptiles/what-you-can-do.htm.

Dear EarthTalk: Is there any way to stem the tide of fiberglass pollution from aging and discarded boats fouling marine ecosystems? -- Jared Grissom, Summit, NJ

It’s summer vacation and you’re ready to let loose on the water. Time to head out to the lake house, bring the boat out of the driveway, and cruise around the lake. Now imagine that same vessel 10 years from now, rotting away and destroying the local marine ecosystem. Nobody wants to kill off Nemo and Dory when boating on the bay, but sometimes innocent pastimes have unintended consequences. The fiberglass in these watercrafts has a rippling wave of destruction on our marine friends, damaging aquatic organisms’ organs and leaching toxic chemicals into public soils and seas, affecting life even on land.

Okay fiberglass is pretty harmful, we get that, but then why is the boat industry still chock full of it? For one, fiberglass is much stronger compared to boat material alternatives like aluminum. Fiberglass simply resists adverse weather conditions better than other materials. Boats are more flexible than aluminum, giving them more maneuverability and versatility. The fiberglass allows for better hydrodynamics, increasing efficiency when venturing into the open water. In addition, boats made out of fiberglass allow for more surface area actually inside the vessel, a favorable advantage for fishermen and families alike.

To call degrading fiberglass damaging is an understatement, as the material’s effects have had astounding impacts globally. The microplastics present after fiberglass breaks down over time silently enter the bodies of aquatic organisms. These microplastics can disrupt their biological organs, like the endocrine system which is responsible for regulation of hormones. Toxic chemicals like lead and copper dilute in the water and break apart precious, coastal ecosystems like estuaries and coral reefs. These same heavy metals can stay in the soil and leach into clean groundwater, contaminating healthy resources. Amplifying the problem is the difficulty of disposing of fiberglass boats. It is complicated, costly and, time-consuming. A lack of education about the true severity of abandoning vessels further contributes to a carefree release of fiberglass toxicity into our marine ecosystems.

Thankfully, the ship of environmental remediation hasn’t fully sunk. Ships in good condition can be sold used, and others can be reused piecemeal as parts. Organizations can help as well. Groups like the Vessel Disposal and Reuse Foundation, U.S Coast Guard and others can help organize the recycling process.

The federal government, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has collaborated with organizations like the Lynnhaven group and has granted almost $2 million in debris removal initiatives. There is still hope for optimism that we will solve the fiberglass issue. It is crucial to educate ourselves and our neighbors about the harsh dangers of fiberglass to really emphasize the magnitude of the issue. We can speak our minds to local legislatures for tighter regulations on the disposal of boats. While the issue of fiberglass pollution is still plaguing our waterways, we have many tools at our disposal to fight back.


CONTACTS: The Environmental Hazards of Fiberglass Boat Disposal, partsvu.com/blog/the-environmental-hazards-of-fiberglass-boat-disposal/; Fiberglass Pollution: Abandoned Boats A Growing Problem In VA, chesapeakebaymagazine.com/fiberglass-pollution-abandoned-boats-a-growing-problem-in-va/; Nautical not nice: How fiberglass boats have become a global pollution problem, .theguardian.com/environment/2020/aug/06/nautical-not-nice-how-fibreglass-boats-have-become-a-global-pollution-problem.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org. Send questions to:question@earthtalk.org.


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