Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

Oil Likely to Spew Off Australia for Weeks

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 6:03 PM PDT

The Thai energy company PTTEP cannot stop a major oil leak spewing from its wellhead in the Timor Sea off the northwest Australian coast—despite an emergency response lasting a week and despite dropping nearly 5,000 gallons of chemical dispersant on the slick, reports the The Sydney Morning Herald.

 

The West Atlas drilling unit is owned by Norway's SeaDrill Ltd but operated by PTTEP Australasia. Clean-up managers are the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), reports WA Today.

 

BTW, studies in seabirds show that dispersants can be as lethal as oil to affected wildlife.

 

The spill in the West Atlas drilling unit began August 21st and now stretches across at least 110 miles of ocean, though PTTEP admits to only 8 miles. Reuters reports an air exclusion zone has been set up and ships have been advised to stay more than 20 nautical miles away from the rig, which is too dangerous to board.

 

Capping the leak is expected to take weeks. PTTEP is towing a new rig from Singapore to drill a relief well nearby, hoping to stem the flow. The new rig left Singapore on Thursday and is expected to arrive after about 16 days, with an additional four weeks needed to drill the second well. Outcome of the drilling, obviously, unknown.

 

The Australian company Woodside Petroleum, headquartered in Perth, has offered the use of a closer drill rig and an emergency  team to speed the response. So far no answer from PTTEP.

 

There's a lot at risk out there in a region considered an oceanic superhighway linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Affected wildlife, according to WWF Australia, includes flatback sea turtles, an Australian species of special concern, plus other sea turtles, sea snakes, seabirds, pygmy blue whales, and many other cetaceans.

 

Depending on winds, the slick could be pushed to atolls like Scott and Ashmore Reef, areas of global significance for their unique wildlife.

 

WWF Australia is calling for changes to preparations for such disasters, pointing out it took three days for the first dispersant to be sprayed, although the region is considered a critical area for biodiversity.

 

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Photosynthesizing Buildings

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 5:42 PM PDT

Further to Andy Kroll's blog post on artificial trees... that report from the UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IOME) argues that without geoengineering it will be impossible to avoid dangerous climate change. The report includes a 100-year roadmap to decarbonize the global economy and suggests implementing three geoengineering projects based on low-carbon technologies:

  • Algae-coated buildings: The engineers envision attaching transparent containers filled with strips of algae to the outside of buildings and since algae naturally absorb CO2 in the course of photosynthesis, the strips could be harvested periodically from the surfaces and used as biofuels.
  • Reflective buildings: The report suggests reducing the amount of solar radiation absorbed by the earth’s climate and, hopefully, cooling the planet. This could be achieved simply and quickly by making building surfaces more reflective. Some of us have've written here about the potential for cooling in white roofs and better highways.

The IOME report forecasts 1 to 2 million new green jobs in the UK by 2050 based on these three initiatives alone. So many good ideas. So few implemented. Let's change that.

 

 

Plastics in Ocean Decompose After All

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 6:21 PM PDT

If you thought billions of pounds of indestructible plastic circling the gyres of the ocean was depressing, sorry to say it gets a lot worse. Scientists are now reporting that " indestructible" plastics decompose with surprising speed and release toxic substances into the water.

The findings were reported today at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. Lead researcher Katsuhiko Saido of Nihon University, Japan, and his team found that plastic in the ocean decomposes with exposure to rain, sun, weather, and ocean—giving rise to yet another source of global contamination that will continue far into the future. Their key findings:

  • Polystyrene begins to decompose within one year, releasing components that are detectable in the parts-per-million range. 
  • Plastics themselves usually don't break down in living animal bodies after being eaten. But the substances released from decomposing plastic are absorbed and could have adverse effects. BPA and PS oligomer can disrupt the functioning of hormones in animals and can seriously affect reproductive systems.
  • The researchers simulated the breakdown of plastic products at low temperatures found in the oceans. Degrading plastic this way created three new compounds not found in nature:  styrene monomer (SM), styrene dimer (SD) and styrene trimer (ST). SM is a known carcinogen and SD and ST are suspected carcinogens.
  • BPA ands PS oligomer are not found naturally either and therefore must have been created through the decomposition of the plastic.

Seems to me we need to reconsider what goes into the ocean with the same urgency we're almost beginning to exhibit towards the atmosphere.

 

Colbert Learns a Climate Lesson

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 7:31 PM PDT

Colbert argues for end-of-the-world sex. Bill McKibben argues that chemistry and physics don't haggle. In the end, Colbert plugs the date: October 24th, the 350 International Day of Action on Climate Change, planned for more than 1,500 locations, including the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Barrier Reef, where people will unite in a common call to lower carbon levels to 350 parts per million.

McKibben wrote persuasively about the need for this in last November's MoJo. How CO2 levels have already reached 390 ppm. How we need deeper and more rapid cuts than politicians have so far embraced. October 24th is a way to join voices before the global treaty talks in Copenhagen in December.

 

EPA Pesticide Tests Seriously Shortsighted

| Mon Aug. 17, 2009 4:58 PM PDT

Hard to believe but the Environmental Protection Agency commonly uses 4-day tests to set safe levels of pesticide exposure for humans and animals. New research suggests this timescale is way too short and doesn't begin to account for long-term effects.

The new data, published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, describe how the highly toxic pesticide endosulfan—a neurotoxin banned in several nations but still used extensively in US agriculture (check out the CDC's outdated description)—exhibits a "lag effect" after direct contact has ended.

The researchers exposed nine species of frog and toad tadpoles to endosulfan levels already occurring in the wild for the EPA's required 4-day period. After 4 days the amphibians were transferred to clean water for an additional 4 days.

Although endosulfan was ultimately toxic to all species, three species of tadpole showed no significant sensitivity to the chemical until after they were transferred to fresh water. Within 4 days of being moved, up to 97 percent of leopard frog tadpoles perished along with up to 50 percent of spring peeper and American toad tadpoles.

Tadpoles and other amphibians are famously sensitive to pollutants and considered environmental indicator species. The authors suggest that if endosulfan does not kill the world's most susceptible species in 4 days, then the 4-day test period is inadequate to gauge the long-term effects for larger, less-sensitive species—like us.

Co-author Rick Relyea said: "For most pesticides, we assume that animals will die during the period of exposure, but we do not expect substantial death after the exposure has ended. Even if EPA regulations required testing on amphibians, our research demonstrates that the standard 4-day toxicity test would have dramatically underestimated the lethal impact of endosulfan on even this notably sensitive species."

A second paper by some of the same authors in the same journal expands on Relyea's earlier findings that the popular weed-killer Roundup® is "extremely lethal" to amphibians in concentrations found in the environment. The latest report on Roundup® is available on Pitt's website (pdf).

Last year Relyea reported that the world's 10 most popular pesticides combine to create "cocktails of contaminants" that can destroy amphibian populations—even if the concentration of each individual chemical is within levels considered safe to humans and animals. I reported on this at TBM at the time. The cocktail killed 99 percent of leopard frog tadpoles. Endosulfan alone killed 84 percent.

A month earlier, Relyea published a paper in Ecological Applications reporting that gradual amounts of malathion (the most popular insecticide in the US)—too small to directly kill developing leopard frog tadpoles—nevertheless sparked a biological chain reaction that deprived the amphibians of their primary food source. As a result, nearly half the tadpoles in the experiment would have died in nature.

In other words, pesticides really really suck. How much research more does the EPA need to embrace 21st-century science?
 

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