The WTF: The Week This Friday Vol. 47

This is the Week This Friday! 6 quick-and-smart briefs about happenings in the environmental space.

Newly Discovered Green Rock: A Warning of Our Future?

Source: Christine Siddoway via BBC News

A small, green rock was found deep in the ocean off the coast of West Antarctica and scientists are saying it has given us insights into the future … sounds a little strange, right? Just keep reading and we’ll explain how this rock could be foreshadowing an undesirable future of our planet.

The rock in question is a small piece of sandstone, discovered in the deep ocean, far off the coast of West Antarctica. Scientists call this type of rock a “dropstone”, which means it is an isolated piece of rock debris that has dropped from a frozen ice sheet and deposited into the water. 

Scientists claim this rock was an unexpected find because of the long distance it must have travelled to end up far off the coast. According to researchers, this dropstone was scraped off the continent by a glacier, carried in flowing ice for a while, and then discarded offshore by an iceberg. Researchers believe it to have originated from the Ellsworth Mountains – a mountain range far inland of Antarctica, approximately 1300 kilometres from where the rock was found. Scientists have been scratching their heads trying to figure out how it survived travelling so far underneath the ice all the way to the coast.

Christine Siddoway, professor of geology at Colorado College, explains, “In our view of observations of that material, it would not withstand a great deal of transport, with deposition and then re-transport over multiple steps of a cycle … it probably would not hold up well to a great deal of interaction between the ice sheet and the bedrock. It would be destroyed and disaggregated.”

The answer to this scientific mystery lies in the Pliocene – about 3 million years ago. This epoch was the last time in Earth’s history that carbon dioxide levels were over 400 parts per million (ppm). Back then, it is estimated that Earth’s temperature was significantly warmer and sea-levels higher. The sea-levels imply that the West Antarctic ice sheet had largely melted away, leaving a series of islands in place of the massive continent that exists today.

This explains how the rock could have travelled so far through the large, melted channel. Professor Siddoway says these findings show how the ice disappeared and reformed at a fairly rapid rate in geological time.

“We read from very detailed records that the ice sheet has collapsed back a considerable extent, specifically in the middle Pliocene. This is an interval, if we read current literature from climate modellers, that we may be entering… The climate conditions of the Pliocene are what we are expected to enter. And if warming continues at the rate that it is now, we may stay there.”

Although scientists have reassured that they do not expect the West Antarctic ice sheet to fully melt any time soon, the small, green rock is a warning of the conditions that our Earth is moving towards and an urge to slow climate change … now!

Research Confirms Trawl Ban is Helping the Oceans 

Source: Greenpeace International YouTube

A study led by City University of Hong Kong (CityU) has found that the prohibition of trawling activities in the Hong Kong marine environment for two and a half years has significantly improved biodiversity. Biodiversity is crucial to the health and existence of marine ecosystems. 

Greenpeace wrote an article a few years ago outlining 7 ways fishing trawlers are bad for the seabed. They talked about trawling depleting fish populations leading to overfishing, unwanted bycatch getting stuck in the nets, destabilizing the sea floor by dragging sediment, and destroying coral reefs and other life within the seabed. Despite what we know about trawling, this is still a primary fishing method used all over the world. 

CityU research shows, for a fact, that a trawl ban can restore and conserve biodiversity in tropical waters. On December 31, 2012, the Hong Kong SAR Government implemented a territory-wide trawling ban in Hong Kong waters with the hope of rehabilitating the marine benthic habitat. To investigate whether this intervention can facilitate ecosystem recovery, the research team, led by Professor Leung, collected sediment samples with five replicates from each of 28 locations in Hong Kong waters in June 2012 (half a year before the trawl ban) and two and a half years after the trawl ban, and then examined for physicochemical properties of the sediment and diversity of benthic animals that typically live at the bottom of a body of water. 

The findings

The results of this study suggested the trawling ban has reduced pressure on the marine environment from fishing, and has led to substantial increases in the richness of species and the abundance of benthic marine organisms. To read a detailed account of the findings click here. Hopefully this research will allow governments to see that a trawling ban can work to protect the integrity of our marine ecosystems.

Western Caribou Populations Losing the Fight to Habitat Loss

Source: Pixabay

According to a new study, collaboratively funded by the B.C., Alberta, and federal governments, woodland caribou might become extirpated in Western Canada due to habitat loss if conservation efforts are not put in place ASAP.

The study findings show that caribou populations are mostly threatened by habitat loss, which is caused by logging, road building, forest fires, and climate change. These caribou have lost “twice as much habitat as they’ve gained over the past 12 years”.

Jesse Zeman, director of fish and wildlife restoration with the B.C. Wildlife Federation said, “What this paper tells us is that … caribou over the long run [are getting] closer and closer to extinction as we move forward.”

Caribou also have cultural significance to the West Moberly First Nations in this region, which makes their protection even more important to prioritize. Chief Roland Wilson of the West Moberly First Nation said that the members of their community have not been allowed to hunt caribou due to the Species at Risk Act (SARA), but this lack of hunting has put pressure on other species.

“We used to hunt caribou, moose and elk and buffalo. And you would hunt them all at different times [because] they all mate at different times,” Wilson said. “During those times of importance, you would leave them alone. They were a pretty critical piece of our culture … When you look at conservation measures, you don’t hunt an animal to the brink of extinction. You hunt them when you need them and then you let them recover.”

Jesse Zeman claims that the government has known about the threats and causes of caribou habitat loss since the 1970s, but the action to prevent or mitigate the impacts have not been adequate. Zeman and the B.C. Wildlife Federation continue to advocate for better protection of caribou that involve real, measurable actions instead of short-term band-aid solutions.

“Climate change will play a role, a wildfire will play a role, but we have control over these other mechanisms,” Zeman said. “And we know that if we stop logging or manage it more sustainably, things will get better for caribou.”

Something is Killing Killer Whales 

Source: Centre for Whale Research

A new study from McGill University suggests that some Icelandic killer whales have very high concentrations of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in their blubber. PCBs are industrial chemicals banned decades ago after they were found to have serious health impacts on both humans and wildlife. Since they degrade incredibly slowly after being released into the environment, they still bioaccumulate in the bodies of marine mammals. 

The researchers collected skin and blubber biopsies from 50 orcas in Iceland and found considerable variation in the contaminant concentrations and profiles across the population. The whales that ate a mixed diet of other sea mammals, e.g. seals and fish, like herring, had concentrations of PCBs in their blubber that were up to 9 times higher on average than the whales that just stuck to a diet of mainly fish. 

“Killer whales are the ultimate marine predators and because they are at the top of the food web, they are among the most contaminated animals on the planet,” explains Melissa McKinney, an Assistant Professor in McGill’s Department of Natural Resource Sciences and the Canada Research Chair in Ecological Change and Environmental Stressors. This research suggests that there are higher thresholds of PCBs in the world’s ultimate marine predator, and that could lead to serious immune and reproductive problems. 

The researchers at McGill will continue studying these animals, and plan to put together a database of containments in orcas across the Atlantic Ocean to contribute to conservation efforts. 

Siobhan Mullally (she/her) has an Honours B.E.S. from the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS) at the University of Waterloo with a minor in English Language and Literature and two diplomas in Environmental Assessment and Ecosystem Restoration and Rehabilitation. For her senior thesis, she travelled to Labrador to study climate change impacts on tundra ecosystems in the Canadian Subarctic. As a budding ecologist, researcher, and writer, she is interested in exploring the intersections between ecology and communication to inspire climate change and help others develop a deeper appreciation for nature. In her free time, she enjoys spending time in nature and getting lost in her favourite novels.

Teo Guzu is a Master’s in Environment and Sustainability student with a focus on policy and research. Her background is in the field of Sociology and Global Development Studies where she developed an interest in how climate change disproportionately affects different communities. Her interests lie in plastics and waste management, conservation, and clean technology. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family/friends and her dog Charlie, reading, writing, and watching docu-series on various topics.