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Tracking the Planet's Pulse, Micro Plastics in your Dinner, and Tiptoeing Penguins
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Thursday, April 12th, 2018

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Data For Good 

Yesterday, the World Resources Institute (along with 30 partners including Google and National Geographic) launched Resource Watch, an open, freely accessible, online platform that brings together hundreds of datasets in one place and makes it easier for researchers, analysts, journalists, policymakers and citizens to find the data they need to better understand the challenges our planet faces.

As WRI noted, Resource Watch was created in the face of two global challenges: a proliferation of data, and declining trust in institutions. Decision-makers are drowning in a sea of data yet can't find the information they need. That's where Resource Watch comes in: an easy-to-use monitoring tool that curates and visualizes reliable data. Now, users can see where shrinking reservoirs could cause instability, which cities’ air pollution levels pose a serious threat to their residents’ health, and watch a coral reef transform from bleaching over time

Why This Matters: In the era of "fake news" it's important to have places where people can turn to find objective data. Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said at the Resource Watch launch in D.C. yesterday, “When our institutions are being tested and science is facing unprecedented attacks, we must increase transparency and speak with clarity and conviction in support of sound science.Tools like Resource Watch are essential for making science accessible to decision-makers so we can turn science into actions that advance policies, technologies and products that improve public health."



What's on this plate?  More plastic than you think!

Microplastic: It's What's For Dinner

According to a recent study published in the scientific journal Environmental Pollution, we humans consume on average about 114 plastic microfibers each meal simply from household dust that settles on our plates.  Wow - that news is hard to swallow!  The study was conducted to determine how much plastic people consume when they eat seafood -- in the case of the study, it was mussels.  What the scientists found was surprising  -- the mussels actually contained less microplastic (only 2 particles)  than what fell on a plate out of the air during the course of the meal.  

Where does all that plastic come from?  Friends of the Earth staff member Julian Kirby said, "Plastic microfibers found in the dust in our homes and the air we breathe can come from car tires, carpets, and soft furnishings, as well as clothing such as fleece jackets. These are regularly shedding tiny bits of plastic into the environment as they are worn away."   And that results in our ingestion of between 13,000 and 68,000 bits of microplastic each year, according to the study.  

Why This Matters:  There is great concern about the amount of plastic in the ocean -- and how much we are ingesting when we eat seafood.  The good news is that at least for mussels, the amount of plastic is next to none.  The bad news is, plastic is everywhere in our environment and we are ingesting it more directly than we thought. Not to mention that we still should be concerned about ocean plastics.  If we needed more evidence as to why, just look at the photo below of a whale that washed ashore in Spain this week - it will make your stomach turn.  This sperm whale had more than 64 pounds of plastic in its belly when it died.  We still have a long way to go to rid our oceans of plastic pollution.


Holy Cow: Carbon Neutral Cattle! 

Americans eat a lot of beef, in fact, the average U.S. citizen eats about 55 pounds of beef a year. This comes with environmental consequences as livestock production contributes about 14.5 percent of GHG emissions, with beef constituting 41 percent of that figure. This is due in large part to the methane cattle produce during the digestion process and also because overgrazing can release carbon stored in soils.

Civil Eats reported that a new five-year study that will be published in the May 2018 issue of the journal Agricultural Systems suggests that cows can be raised, fed, and slaughtered in a way that reduces their GHG emissions. Conducted by a team of researchers from Michigan State University and the Union of Concerned Scientists, the study suggests that if cattle are managed in a certain way during their finishing phase (the last stage before they are slaughtered), grassfed beef can be carbon-negative in the short term and carbon-neutral in the long term.

The technique involves moving the cattle when they have eaten just enough forage to stimulate grass regrowth and prevent the incursion of woody plants and trees. This preserves the soil structure and doesn’t allow the carbon already stored in the soil to be released.

Why This Matters: American consumers are beginning to think more about the impact their meat has on the planet: retail sales of organic, fresh grass-fed beef grew from $6 million in 2012 to $89 million in 2016, driven by consumers' concern for sustainability, health, and animal welfare. While it's beneficial for us to be able to raise beef more sustainably (let's face it, hamburgers aren't going anywhere) experts still say the best way to reduce the impact of agriculture on our planet is to eat less meat.

Go Deeper: Changing just a couple meals a week to be meat-free can help you consume more fiber, reduce saturated fat intake and can even have benefits for your heart. If you're looking for meal inspiration, the blog Sprouted Kitchen has some amazing vegetarian recipes that are delicious and easy to make. 



Coral Bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef  Photo: The Independent
Marine Heatwaves Are Intensifying

There is new evidence that our oceans are increasingly impacted by climate change. In a new study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, scientists found that from 1925-2016, the frequency of marine heatwaves increased on average by 34 percent and the length of each heatwave increased by 17 percent. Indeed, the number of marine heatwave days has increased 54 percent per year, with a marked increase in this trend starting in 1982.  The researchers combined satellite data with a range of datasets taken from ships and various land-based measuring stations going back 100 years. They then removed the influences of natural variability caused by the El Nino and La Nina ocean warming events in order to determine the overall trend.  

The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang reports that ocean heat content in 2017 was the highest in recorded history, and ocean heat waves will necessarily increase given the building "stockpile" of heat in the ocean -- so this trend will continue.  That does not bode well for marine life and ecosystems.  “This increase in marine heat waves is having devastating impacts on coral reefs around the world,” said Mark Eakin, a coral reefs specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In fact, coral reefs are bleaching four to five times as frequently as they did three decades ago.

Why This Matters: According to researchers, these heat waves will only get worse, with untold impacts on ocean resources that we all depend on for food, recreation, and storm protection.  We are only just beginning to understand the ripple effects of climate change on our oceans.  


Scoot Over, Automobiles 

As we were leaving lunch yesterday Monica and I saw a man zip down 22nd street here in D.C. on a lime green scooter and we both noted that we've been seeing these scooters everywhere. Lo and behold, Condé Nast Traveler put out an article yesterday titled "Scooter Sharing Is the Unlikely Trend That'll Reshape the Way We Travel." 

Scooter travel is poised to become the next big thing in cities across the US. The startup LimeBike, founded last year, is one of two companies leading the way. This year, they added electric-assist bikes and electric scooters to their existing fleets. So far, their e-scooters are in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Washington D.C. The other major player is Bird, which was also founded last year, by former Uber and Lyft executive Travis VanderZanden. Bird's scooters are already fixtures in Austin, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, and Washington, D.C. The company says it will expand to 50 U.S. markets by the end of 2018.

Why This Matters: Electric scooters make it easy to get around in a city, they're less bulky than bikeshare bikes and easier to pick up (often cheaper too): pricing is $1 to start plus 15 cents per mile thereafter and when you're done, just park your scooter somewhere out of the way of pedestrians. They also let you zip up hills without breaking a sweat. 

Go Deeper: Last year Vespa announced that it will begin making an electric model that's quieter and cleaner than its other model. Recently Italian designer Guilio Iacchetti reimagined what this new generation of Vespas could look like, drawing heavily on the original Vepsa 98 made famous by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in the 1953 film, Roman Holiday. 
Photo: Guilio Iacchetti/Designboom 


Blue Planet II - Watch these penguins try to not to get caught between two elephant seal bulls.
One Cool Thing: Tiptoeing Penguins

These penguins sure are cute.  But watch what happens as they try to tiptoe through these elephant seals!  If you ever tried to sneak out of the house while your parents were sleeping, then you can relate!  ICYMI - We highly recommend the entire Blue Planet II series.  
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