Authors: Miklos Gaspar & Lucas Smalldon*
The first-ever comprehensive study on the concentration of radionuclides and trace elements in Namibia’s coastal waters revealed that while radionuclide levels are very low, there is an indication of higher than usual concentration of certain trace elements. Further study is required to determine whether these are the result of human activity along the coast or are due to the underlying geology, according to a scientific report delivered by the IAEA to the Government of Namibia in late 2017, based on research carried out at the Government’s request.
“The IAEA report provides excellent information about the current status and can be used as the basis for future monitoring activities,” said Axel Tibinyane, Director of Namibia’s National Radiation Protection Authority. “As marine resources contribute significantly to our national development, it is imperative that they be used sustainably. The report will help us do that.”
Following this preliminary research, the IAEA will continue to provide support to the Government to gain better insight into the high trace element levels.
In addition to the country’s increasing population, uranium, gold and diamond mining, as well as industrial activity, are on the rise and there is a growing interest in seabed mining for phosphates. Namibia is among the world’s top five uranium producers. To assess any impact on the environment of this increased level of human activity, a baseline needs to be established, as some of these undertakings could result in increased levels of radionuclides and trace elements. The data in the report can provide such a baseline.
“This project is the first of its kind and has provided new information on the Namibian shelf,” said Deon Louw, the marine scientist in charge of the study at Namibia’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources. “We need this knowledge to monitor and protect our marine ecosystem as human activity continues to rise.”
Increased coastal activities mean that new regulations are needed to monitor and manage natural and human-caused (or anthropogenic) radionuclides and trace elements that may contaminate the marine ecosystem, with potential impact on seafood, local populations and the economy.
Namibia’s coastal waters support a rich biodiversity and stretch along the south Atlantic’s turbulent Benguela current for over 1500 kilometres. Much of the coastline is a marine protected area, which is considered unpolluted. It is part of the northern Benguela large marine ecosystem — one of the most productive coastal ecosystems in the world — and supports valuable fisheries and mariculture industries. It is a highly dynamic environment: strong winds, seething currents, and underwater sulphur eruptions surround rich stocks of fish, plankton, and other marine life, including the world’s largest bacteria — visible to the naked eye.
Despite all this activity, little was known about Namibia’s levels of marine radioactivity and trace elements until now.
At the request of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, in 2014 the IAEA began collecting a diverse range of marine samples off the coast. Over 500 samples were gathered, including sediment, seawater, fish, mussels and seaweed. Several thousand measurements were performed on the samples. More than 40 researchers from 11 institutions in six countries participated in the research project.
In addition to providing baseline measurements for ongoing pollution assessment and regulation, radionuclides and trace metal isotopes can serve as tracers to better understand oceanographic and pollution processes (see Studying the oceans through isotopes). The study of lead isotopes, for example, can help assess whether the lead is present naturally or as a result of human activities. Lead’s isotopic signature can also provide information on the sources of pollutants.
“This research not only helps Namibia, but will also continue to add international scientific value by improving knowledge of global patterns of marine pollution,” said Martina Rožmarić, a research scientist at the IAEA Environment Laboratories. “In studying the presence of natural and anthropogenic radionuclides and trace elements, such as lead, mercury, copper, and cadmium, off Namibia’s seaboard, we are filling in a critical knowledge gap on the world map.”
Studying the oceans through isotopes
The concentration of radionuclides (natural and anthropogenic), trace elements and rare earth elements is difficult to measure. But measuring the levels of these substances and tracing them to their sources is central to understanding the state of the marine environment.
Several anthropogenic radionuclides can be detected at ultra-low levels; some, like the iodine isotope I-129 and the uranium isotope U-236, can be used as radiotracers to study oceanographic processes such as the movement of water masses or pollutants in the oceans and to improve the accuracy of marine dispersion models. Just like a colourful dye that can be observed in a water mass to see where it goes, these radionuclides have a unique signature that researchers can track to study different currents and see how fast it takes them to go from one part of the globe to another.
These isotopes are decaying slowly, which makes them a reliable tracer of natural processes, such as the circulation and mixing of water masses. But U-236 concentrations in the oceans are extremely low and can only be measured using highly sensitive accelerator mass spectrometry, which enables monitoring of ratios between U-236 and U-238, a more abundant natural isotope. In the Namibian project, these measurements were carried out at an IAEA collaborating centre, Spain’s National Centre of Accelerators in Seville.
*Lucas Smalldon, IAEA Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications
This article was featured in the IAEA Bulletin, March 2018.
Human Footprint Devastating Wildlife: An Article For Earth Day
Animals can be beautiful; they can be sleek, graceful, powerful, or just plain adorable, even cuddly. A field of wild flowers chanced upon can take your breath away. Wordsworth so moved by ‘a host of golden daffodils’ put pen to paper, and we are richer for his poem. And tourists in their thousands visit coral reefs for their stunning beauty and sea life. So it is distressing when scientists confirm our gut feelings about the human footprint on this natural environment.
Few people know that March 3 was World Wildlife Day, or this coming Sunday (April 22) is Earth Day — perhaps Trump sucking up all the media oxygen is responsible. The fact remains, world wildlife is under serious threat, and in ways we can’t even imagine — not forgetting the eventual disaster due to climate change, unless the world wakes up.
Not so long ago Science, the voice of AAAS America’s largest science body, published three papers describing the harmful, even devastating, impact of modern human presence.
The first is a mammoth global study spanning the four major continents and New Zealand. Authored by over one hundred scientists, it follows the movements of 57 mammalian species through the GPS-tracking of 803 individuals. It finds a strong negative effect of the human footprint on animal movement.
The scientists develop a human footprint index (HFI) comprising multiple aspects of human influence: built environment, croplands, pastures, nighttime lights, roads, waterways, railroads, population density, etc. On the animal side, they note and separate the effects of resource availability and body mass on vagility (migration distances) — larger species travel further as do carnivores.
They then compute animal movement as the distance between subsequent GPS locations over nine time scales ranging from one hour to 10 days. At each time scale and for each individual, they calculate the median (middle range) and longest distance movements. These procedures point to the thoroughness of their research.
Overall the findings indicate a decline in movement of mammals in high HFI areas ranging on average from one-half to one-third of their movement levels in areas without human presence. For example, the median displacement of carnivores over the 10 day period in high HFI areas was only about half when compared to zero impact regions. And the long distance movement over the same period in HFI areas was down to a third, averaging 6.6 km versus 21.5 km. The impact on feeding and breeding then is clearly severe.
The authors note the consequences for ecosystem function globally, the effects being critical for wildlife conservation and also in the spread of disease. In the latter aspect, the authors warn that “reduced vagility may go beyond ecosystem functioning to directly affect human well-being.” In their understated words it means dangers of animal extinction and human epidemics.
Most of us always assume all bees are good. Apparently not, as a couple of scientists explain. So as we reach for that honey jar … ; it all depends on where it came from. That is the contention of the second piece which assesses the impact of managed honey bees on wild bees and other pollinators.
Pointing to the rapid global growth in managed bee colonies and the attention devoted to them, the authors believe this focus reduces efforts to preserve wild pollinators so necessary for wild plants and flowers. In fact, high densities of such bees worsen the decline of these wild pollinators, and have also been linked to the spread of disease via shared wild flowers. Long term this is a worsening threat to wild plants and flowers, many facing extinction.
The authors identify managed honeybees and their honey production and pollination of commercial crops as an agricultural issue, not an ecological one. They advocate restriction of managed honey beehives in protected-ecological areas to reduce their harmful effects noting that half of all European wild bees are threatened with extinction.
The theme for Earth Day is End Plastic Pollution. If one ever wondered what can happen to a plastic bag discarded carelessly, the following research has a surprising and worrying answer.
This third Science article looks at plastic waste entering the oceans, often through catchment areas into rivers feeding into the ocean. It assesses the influence of such waste on disease in reef-building corals. The authors survey 159 coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific, a region containing 55.5 percent of global reefs and 73 percent of the human population living within 50 km of a coast — about a quarter billion people.
An estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste pollutes the oceans each year. A model based on a high end figure of 8 million estimates that more than a quarter of this is pouring in from just 10 rivers, eight in Asia. Of these the Yangtze alone dumps 1.5 million metric tons each year. The river waste is a result of mismanagement and clearly can be reduced given resources and better waste collection and disposal practices.
In the oceans, microbes hitch a ride on the plastic, living longer and increasing their chances of landing on an unfortunate host. The authors have measured plastic items per 100 square meters. The count can vary from a low of 0.4 in Australia to a high of 25.6 in Indonesia. Size of human population in coastal regions, good management or mismanagement of plastic waste disposal are all factors in the amount of waste entering the water.
The authors estimate 80 percent of marine plastic debris originates from land, thus offering a possibility of significant reduction through better waste management. They develop a prediction model showing that by 2025 the waste will almost double in low-income countries like Myanmar but will edge up just 1 percent in Australia. In total, they estimate a colossal 11.1 billion plastic items entangled on reefs across the Asia-Pacific region and expect the number to increase 40 percent by 2025 without stronger waste management intervention.
The study results are striking. The likelihood of disease rises from 4 percent in areas free of plastic to an average of 89 percent when the coral has such debris. Another issue is coral structural complexity which underpins micro-habitats for reef-reliant organisms. Unfortunately, the study finds that plastic debris is up to 8 times more likely to affect reefs with greater structural complexity. This lack of habitat can devastate fisheries through a drop in productivity by a factor of three. Thus public awareness here could be a critical factor.
The parrots in the local pet store are almost always at risk. It is human encroachment the owner tells us. Forests are cut down, reducing habitat and food sources, and diminishing parrot populations. Farmers plant crops in the cleared areas. The parrots may or may not eat these but are perceived as a threat and often killed, further endangering them.
Once upon a time, millions of rhinos roamed across Africa and Asia; now about 30,000 survive, and many species are extinct or about to be. Sudan, the last male northern white rhino lived at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya together with his daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu. He was 45, equivalent to 90 in human age, and quite infirm. Earlier this year, when his condition deteriorated to the extent he was unable to stand, the vets decided to euthanize. Hope lies with in vitro fertilization, and in the genetic material the vets collected from him. At some future date, it might be possibly to use this to create an embryo with stem cell technology.
The engaging, lovable and cuddly koala is in danger from environmental effects. its unusual diet of eucalyptus leaves carry a toxin it can usually handle, but increased CO2 levels reduce nutrition and eating more leads to ingesting more poison. Add to this the Australian drought drying the leaves, leaving little moisture and resulting in kidney damage.
The human footprint also threatens the snow leopard, most closely related to the tiger not its namesake. Ranging across the high mountain areas of central Asia, China and Mongolia, and revered in Kyrgyzstan, it has become a victim of human-wildlife conflict. The herders whose livelihood depends on their sheep, goats and yaks do not take kindly to raiding snow leopards. But their natural prey, the wild ungulates are suffering sharp declines due to competition with domestic herds. Yet this animal is an example of what a concerted effort to save a species can accomplish. Its status has been upgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’.
Altogether, these studies and cases convey a stark warning. They show that environmental degradation is the promise of a dismal future in which mammalian wildlife is scarce, wild pollinators and consequently wild flowers and plants are sparse, and beautiful coral reefs succumb to plastic waste-borne bacteria depleting reef-supported fisheries. This is our legacy unless we take a step back to reassess human wants for their impact on the environment.
Author’s note: A version of this article appeared in Common Dreams
10 reasons to plant a tree this spring
Did you know planting a tree is one of the easiest and most powerful things you can do to have a positive impact on the environment? It’s true. Trees clean the air, prevent rainwater runoff, help you save energy and even combat global warming. And they’re a snap to plant! No horticultural degree required. With Arbor Day just around the corner in April, there’s no better time to give Mother Nature a little TLC by planting a tree.
From the single homeowner in Nebraska planting a maple in her backyard to the 250 Comcast employees volunteering in communities devastated by hurricanes, fires and Emerald Ash Borer infestation by planting hundreds of trees on Comcast Cares Day (the nation’s largest single-day corporate volunteer event), people nationwide are getting their tree on this spring. Here are 10 reasons why you should join them.
Trees fight climate change
Wish you could do more than recycling and reducing your carbon footprint to combat climate change? Trees have you covered. Through photosynthesis, trees absorb harmful carbon dioxide, removing and storing the carbon and releasing oxygen back into the air.
Trees clean the air and help you breathe
Trees don’t just absorb CO2. They also absorb odors and pollutants like nitrogen oxides, ammonia, sulfur dioxide and ozone. It’s estimated that one tree can absorb nearly 10 pounds of polluted air each year and release 260 pounds of oxygen.
Trees prevent soil erosion and rainwater runoff
During heavy rains, water runoff finds its way to streams, lakes and wetlands, creating the potential for flooding. It also picks up and carries pollutants along the way. The EPA and the Center for Watershed Protection are recognizing the importance of trees in managing runoff. Leaf canopies help buffer the falling rain and their roots hold the soil in place, encouraging the water to seep into the ground rather than run off.
Planting trees is easy
Gardening can be intimidating for newbies because there are so many variables. Which plants and flowers should you put next to each other and which should you separate? Which bloom in the summer and which bloom in the fall? When you’re dealing with trees, there’s none of that. Just choose a spot in your yard and you’re good to go. Here’s a video showing you all you need to know about planting your young trees:
You’ll save money
Trees conserve energy in summer and winter, providing shade from the hot summer sun and shelter from cold winter winds. With trees standing between you and the elements, you’ll spend less on your energy bill to heat and cool your home.
Trees increase your home’s value
Studies of comparable homes with and without trees show that, if you have trees in your yard, your home’s value increases by up to 15 percent. It’s all about curb appeal, and trees make your home and yard more beautiful.
You’ll attract birds (and critters)
Trees provide nesting sites, food and shelter for your bird friends. Hang a feeder in one of the branches and enjoy the birdsong all year long. Squirrels love to make their homes in trees, too, and watching their antics is a great way to spend a lazy summer afternoon.
Trees are good for your mental and physical health
A view of trees in urban areas has been proven to reduce stress, anxiety and even the crime rate. Tree-filled gardens on hospital grounds speed healing in hospital patients.
You’ll be giving your descendants a gift
Trees can live hundreds of years, so when you plant one, you’re giving a gift to your children and grandchildren. It’s a symbol of your commitment to the environment and the beauty of the world around you that will live on far beyond your own lifetime.
Join the nonprofit Arbor Day Foundation for $10 and they’ll send you 10 trees selected for the region of the country where you live, at the right time to plant them. You’ll also get planting instructions and other information. The trees are guaranteed to grow or the Foundation will replace them.
An ancient Chinese proverb states: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
Climate chaos to continue in 2018: Will the world rise to challenge?
Climate change “is still moving much faster than we are,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned on Thursday, calling for the political will, innovation and financing to cut global emissions by at least 25 per cent over the next two years.
“Scientists are now worried that unless accelerated action is taken by 2020, the Paris goal may become unattainable,” the UN chief told reporters at the world body’s New York Headquarters.
The Paris Agreement on climate change, adopted by world leaders in December 2015, aims to keep global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius and pursues efforts to limit the temperature increase even further, to 1.5 degrees.
“I am beginning to wonder how many more alarm bells must go off before the world rises to the challenge,” Mr. Guterres said, noting that 2017 had been filled with climate chaos and 2018 has already brought more of the same.
“Climate change is still moving much faster than we are,” he warned, calling the phenomenon the greatest threat facing humankind.
Recent information from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the World Bank and the International Energy Agency shows the relentless pace of climate change.
For instance, the UN chief said, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose 1.4 per cent, to a historic high of 32.5 gigatonnes.
Moreover, weather-related disasters caused some $320 billion in economic damage, making 2017 the costliest year ever for such losses.
In social as well as economic terms, the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was devastating, washing away decades of development in an instant.
In South Asia, major monsoon floods affected 41 million people.
In Africa, severe drought drove nearly 900,000 people from their homes.
Wildfires caused destruction across the world. Arctic sea ice cover in winter is at its lowest level, and the oceans are warmer and more acidic than at any time in recorded history.
“This tsunami of data should create a storm of concern,” Mr. Guterres said, noting that next year he will convene a climate summit in New York aimed at boosting global ambition to meet the level of the climate challenge.
“The Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stones. It ended because there were better alternatives. The same applies today to fossil fuels,” he said, stressing the need for a further cut in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 25 per cent by 2020.
Responding to a question about the United States’ decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement, Mr. Guterres said he received information from his Special Envoy on climate change and former New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, that there are expectations that the US – independently of the position of its Administration – might be able to meet the commitments made in Paris as a country due to the positive reactions of the American business community and local authorities.
“All around the world, the role of governments is less and less relevant. The role of the economy, the role of the society is more and more relevant,” he said.
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