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Our Daily Planet: Beyond the Milky Way, Protecting DeepSea Coral, Moscow's Snow, Microplastic & Ocean giants, 2018 Farm Bil, Chem Plants & Floodplains
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Wednesday, February 7th, 2018

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A Newly Discovered Cluster of Planets 3.8 billion Light Years Away 
University of Oklahoma

To Infinity and Beyond

In a new paper published this week, scientists at the University of Oklahoma provide an image of what they believe to be planets that exist beyond the Milky Way.  These planets are so far away that they cannot be seen, even with the most powerful telescope.  But relying on Einstein's theory of relativity, the scientists used a technique called microlensing to "see" light that is coming from a quasar — the nucleus of a galaxy with a swirling black hole — that emits powerful radiation in the distance. In that way, our galaxy acts as a magnifying glass that makes a previously unseen celestial body visible in a kind of X-ray view.  The researchers believe that there are approximately  2,000 extragalactic planets for each star outside our galaxy. Some of these extragalactic planets are relatively small (like our moon) but others are as massive as the planet Jupiter.  "We can estimate that the number of planets in this [faraway] galaxy is more than a trillion," says Xinyu Dai, the astronomy and astrophysics professor who led the study.

Why This Matters:  Wow.  Far Out.  If the universe is bigger than we previously thought, who knows, anything is possible!

To Go Farther:  Watch the short video below for more information about this incredible discovery.  We are not sure we could explain it further!

And For Even More:  Watch this video of the launch of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy -- the world's most powerful rocket.   It used to be that only government could do something this big.  But thanks to Tesla's Elon Musk, our quest to go deeper into space continues.  
Billions of Extragalactic Planets Exist  Video: Aban Tech


Graphic: New York Times
2,500 US Chemical Plants Are Built on High-Risk Floodplains

A recent New York Times analysis found that in the floodplains of every American state there at 2,500 sites that handle toxic chemicals, 1,400 of them are located in areas of highest flooding risk. "As flood danger grows — the consequence of a warming climate — the risk is that there will be more toxic spills like the one that struck Baytown, Tex., where Hurricane Harvey swamped a chemicals plant, releasing lye. Or like the ones at a Florida fertilizer plant that leaked phosphoric acid and an Ohio refinery that released benzene."

Historically, locating chemical sites near rivers and the ocean was seen as low-risk and a means of transportation, trade, and cooling water. Many chemical companies continue to build their plants on floodplains and especially along the Gulf Coast where a "boom in plastics manufacturing has brought billions of dollars of investment to the Gulf shoreline."

As we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, flooding in these plants can rapidly spread toxic chemicals. 34,000 pounds of sodium hydroxide and 300 pounds of benzene (both highly toxic) escaped through a broken valve at the Chevron Phillips plant, spilling out into the city streets. 

Why This Matters: Business as usual of building these plants near floodplains is going to have to change as we experience more sea level rise and increased flooding as result of climate change. "Federal law does not explicitly require sites in floodplains that handle toxic chemicals to take extra precautions against flooding. Nor do most states or local governments have such requirements."

We're going to have to seriously change the way we plan infrastructure projects to keep people safe in a warming world. President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2015 requiring planners of federally funded infrastructure projects to account for the impact of possible flooding from sea level rise. President Trump rescinded those rules last year.


2018 Farm Bill Could be the Conservation Policy We Desperately Need

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was a critical time in American history (we all remember the plight of the Joads). It was caused by drought but also by the destruction of topsoil of countless farms in the Great Plains and Midwest. In 2011-12 another drought swept the region which was far more intense than that of the 1930s but because of decades of soil management and conservation the same environmental disaster didn't ensue. 

A bulk of these conservation efforts are funded by the government and private sector and the 2018 reauthorization of the farm bill has the ability to leverage these much-needed partnerships. 

A new study put out by the (center left) Center for American Progress (CAP) and the (center right) R Street Institute highlights the opportunities in the farm bill to strengthen soil conservation. As R Street's William Murray stated in his recent op-ed. "The farm bill is the largest single source of conservation funding in the United States — approximately $5 billion annually. As the study explains, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs and authorities can be easily modified to better attract private investment. By some estimates, $3 billion in private capital is available to fund things like clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat, and that number will grow if properly supported through legislation."

Why This Matters: It's rare to see bipartisan agreement on policy these days but a healthy planet is critical for everyone's survival--R, D, or otherwise. Murray sums it up best, "By elevating these efforts in the 2018 farm bill, conservation policy can take a step into the future, a future that provides high returns on investment for the public and the economy while addressing a range of environmental problems that have a history of underfunding."

 Climate Change

Red Square Under a Blanket of Snow   Photo: Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images
Moscow's Snowmaggedon -- They Call It the "Arctic Invasion"

Freak storms happen everywhere -- even in Russia.  Snowfall is not exactly unusual in Moscow, but a record-breaking storm this week has dumped more snow on the Russian capital than at any time since they started keeping track.  More than a month's worth of snow fell in less than 36 hours, felling thousands of trees and power lines and forcing hundreds of flight cancellations.  It was so bad the Russian Army had to help clear the streets, and they closed the schools.  Generations of Muscovites have never known a snow day, much less experienced day off from school because of snowy weather. And more snow is forecast over the weekend.  It could be more than a week before the city's streets are cleared and things return to their "normal" bitter cold.  

Why This Matters: Moscow is known for its brutal winters -- and the city never shuts down.  Until now.  This is further evidence that weather patterns are being altered in profound ways due to climate change.  Humans everywhere will have to adapt.  


Deep Sea Corals    Photo: NOAA Okeanos Explorer
New England Fishermen Recommend Protection for Deep-Sea Corals 

Last week, New England fishermen approved a proposal to protect corals found on the seafloor by banning certain damaging fishing gear. The New England Fishery Management Council (a committee of fishermen that draws up regulatory and management plans for the region) voted to conserve deep-sea corals located in an area of more than 25,000 square miles south of Georges Bank that includes four seamounts and 20 deep-sea canyons (see the area in pink on the map below).  Fishermen in the region had vigorously opposed permanent protections for portions of these areas that were proposed by President Obama two years ago.  But those protections would have banned all industrial activities, including all fishing, not just fishing gear that drags along the bottom.  The newly protected area starts near the shelf break—where the seafloor descends to the deep ocean—and extends seaward to the outer boundary of the U.S.'s economic zone. Its closest point to shore is about 90 miles off Nantucket, Massachusetts. It ranges in depth from about 2000 feet deep to more than 6500 feet deep.  

Why This Matters:  Fishermen, once loathe to limit commercial fishing in any way, are starting to come around on conserving habitat.  The New England Fishery Management Council's decision follows similar actions by the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils. The Pew Trusts reports that once the New England measure takes effect—after NOAA completes its formal rule-making process—almost 100,000 square miles of deep-sea coral habitat from the border with Canada to the tip of Florida will be protected.  That is real progress.  But without government funding for more ocean exploration -- which is on the chopping
block -- it will be hard to know what other amazing things are down there in the deep blue sea.  We know more about the moon than we do about what lies at the bottom of the ocean.

To Literally Go Deeper:  NOAA has a very cool deep sea exploration submarine called the Okeanos Explorer.  To see more of the sea floor you can watch any of their videos, like the one below from an expedition in 2016.  
Beautiful videos of the deep sea courtesy of NOAA's Okeanos Explorer


Photo: Simon Pierce/Marine Megafauna Foundation 
Microplastics Are Harming Ocean Giants

Microplastics are a big problem in our oceans. The tiny bits of plastic generally result from their production in the cosmetics and personal care products industries (think exfoliating beads in your shower gel) and also from the breakdown of larger plastic products. The particles get into our oceans and are harmful to animals from tiny plankton, to coral, and even giant whale sharks

A recent study in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution found that filter-feeding marine animals such as manta rays and whale sharks are swallowing large quantities of plastics that are a result of pollution and contaminated prey. According to a review of the study, "plastic-associated chemicals and pollutants can accumulate over decades and alter biological processes in the animals, leading to altered growth, development and reproduction, including reduced fertility."

Some whale sharks in Mexico's Sea of Cortez ingest 200 pieces of plastic per day, while fin whales in the Mediterranean Sea swallow roughly 2,000 microplastic particles per day.

Why This Matters: Plastic takes hundreds--if not thousands--of years to decompose. In fact, bottles made of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) will never decompose. Progress came when the  US and UK banned the use of microplastic beads in personal care products and many companies have eliminated them from their products in all markets. However, we have to do something about plastic waste that doesn't get recycled and breaks down into microplastics. As consumers, we have the ability to limit our use of plastics. (A really easy way is to skip plastic straws and as our friends at the Lonely Whale Foundation say, #stopsucking )
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