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Our Daily Planet: New WOTUS Rule, Antarctic Ice, Hippo Hunts, and the Milky Way
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Thursday, June 14th, 2018

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Should this stream be regulated?  It is flowing in April (left) and dry in September (right).  Photo: EPA
WOTUS Rule Update -- Pruitt Action Expected Shortly

A revised version of the rule defining what water bodies can be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act is expected to be announced very soon, according to a source close to the Trump Administration decision.  In 2015, the Obama Administration promulgated a rule (called the WOTUS rule for the acronym "waters of the United States") that broadly defined what could be regulated under the Clean Water Act to include intermittent stream and wetland areas that are not continuously flowing or submerged all year long.  Many water bodies and tributaries are seasonal -- such as the stream pictured above.  

Our Daily Planet has learned that the new rule expected to be proposed by EPA, which has been developed under the close direction of senior EPA leadership, requires there to be a "continuous surface connection" in order for a water body to rise to the level of being covered by the law.  This is language derived from a Supreme Court opinion by the late Justice Scalia, and apparently, the agency's reasoning for narrowing the rule is strained and not borne out by the rulemaking record.  We understand Administrator Pruitt may announce the outlines of the new rule at an event with farmers in Nebraska today.  

Why This Matters:  The narrower the scope of the Clean Water Act, the more pollution there will be in our rivers. lakes, coastal oceans and drinking water.  And the only way to stop this kind of pollution will be through private litigation brought by individuals who can prove that they were harmed by it.  The government will not be able to enforce against many polluters because the law simply won't apply to them.  This is particularly true for activities like oil and gas drilling, fracking, and agricultural waste like the kind we reported on last Friday in Delaware -- and there are thousands of these facilities currently under the umbrella of Clean Water Act regulation now.  


Proposed Monuments Commemorate African and Native Americans

As the proposal to shrink many national monuments remains a possibility, three new monuments proposed by the Trump Administration last fall also remain under consideration.  Two of the three of them commemorate African American historical sites -- a Civil War Camp that took in freed slaves, and the home of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and the third is a native American historical site in Montana. 
  • Camp Nelson near Nicholasville, Kentucky, was established in 1863 as a 700-bed Union Army hospital, supply depot and recruiting center for African-American troops and the Army also built a refugee camp for family members of freed slaves who trained there before going to fight in the war. 
  • Medgar Evers Home in Jackson, MS - which was recently designated a national historic site -- was the family home of Evers, who organized boycotts over segregation statewide on behalf of the NAACP, before he was shot by a local Ku Klux Klan member in June of 1963.
  • Badger Two Medicine in Montana is the site of the creation story of the Blackfoot tribes of the U.S. and Canada. It abuts the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and Glacier National Park --  a Louisiana-based company wants to drill for oil and gas on a federal lease it holds within the proposed monument.
These monuments were not originated by this Administration -- they, in fact, had been under study for years and are widely supported by their local communities.  Legislation creating each of these monuments is pending in Congress as well.  There is no word when the Trump Administration plans action on any of the new monuments or the ones they have proposed to shrink.  

Why This Matters:  Of the 417 parks, monuments and historic sites managed by the National Park Service around the U.S., only 40 commemorate African American history, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.  More must be done to ensure that we conserve all our history -- including that of minorities.  Still it would be a shame for the creation of these national monuments to overshadow the reduction of other monuments.  

 Climate Change

Crevasses near the grounding line of Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica. Photo: Ian Joughin/University of Washington
Antarctic Ice Loss Has Tripled in a Decade

Antarctica is the world's largest ice sheet and it's pouring more than 200 billion tons of ice into the ocean annually which is raising sea levels a half-millimeter every year, according to a report published yesterday. The study which was conducted by a large group of Antarctic experts who collectively reviewed 24 recent measurements of Antarctic ice loss concluded that ice loss has tripled in the last decade. As the Washington Post reported, the rapid, recent changes are almost entirely driven by the West Antarctic ice sheet, which scientists have long viewed as an Achilles’ heel. It is known to be losing ice rapidly because it is being melted from below by warm ocean waters, a process that is rendering its largest glaciers unstable.

While East Antarctica has remained more stable it has also started to lose ice in the past five years-2-8 billion tons per year by some estimates. Christine Dow, a glaciologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario who was not involved in the research said that “If you start removing mass from there, you can have a very large-scale evacuation of ice into the ocean and significant sea-level rise." 

Why This Matters: Axios said it best: "Antarctica's future, and the future of the world's populated coastlines, are intricately linked and dependent on decisions made during the next one to two decades. It's not a done deal that huge parts of Antarctica are doomed, unless countries fail to rein in greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming." For if the East Antarctic shelf begins to rapidly melt it is capable of raising sea levels by well over 100 feet.​


A Second Life for Fishing Nets, A Glimmer of Hope for Our Oceans

It's estimated that 3 billion people depend on fish as a primary protein source, and over four billion more rely on it to supplement other protein sources--this is especially true of the world's poorest communities. Sadly, overfishing in many places has not only depleted fish stocks but has added to the massive amounts of discarded fishing nets and lines that litter beaches and kill marine life. Further offshore, "ghost nets" (lost or abandoned fishing nets) float around trapping marine animals and have become some of the biggest killers in our oceans. 

As National Geographic reported in this month's Planet or Plastic edition of its magazine, the Danajon Bank in the central Philippines was once a geologic treasure chest brimming with marine life but has sadly succumbed to the problems outlined above. But recently fisherman who saw their catch drastically decline have been working to collect the discarded nets through a flourishing net retrieval program with the twin goals of paying a living wage while helping the beat-up ecosystem recover. Net-Works is a collaboration between global carpet tile manufacturer Interface, Inc. and the Zoological Society of London and tackles the growing environmental problem of discarded fishing nets in some of the world’s poorest coastal communities.

Why This Matters: Heather Koldewey, a marine scientist, chief of the Zoological Society of London’s global programs, and a NatGeo Explorer wants to change the way discarded fishing nets and lines are thought about in terms of a waste management problem. Locals often view them as solely the responsibility of fisherman but it's going to take a broader effort to tackle the problem as fishing gear makes up about 10 percent of the plastic trash in the oceans, but accounts for an outsized proportion of fatalities to marine wildlife.

The good news is that the goal has been to build a self-sustaining business and the program has shown enough promise that Net-Works has expanded to hubs in the Philippines, Cameroon, and Indonesia.


A hippo in South Luangwa, Zambia.  Photo: Burrard Lucas

Zambian Government To Allow Hippo Trophy Hunts 

The Government of Zambia has begun to allow the trophy hunting of more than a thousand hippos over the next five year.  This reverses policy and is seen as a huge step backward for the hippo, which is down to under 20% of its original population in that area and is listed as "threatened" on the Internation Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) "Red List."  Under pressure from environmental groups and the public in 2016, the Government of Zambia suspended a previously planned "cull" of hippos from the pristine Luangwa Valley.  

The safari tours will be run by Umlilo Safaris, and for a cost of $14,000, hunters will each be allowed to bag 5 hippos.  The government argues that the cull is needed to control populations of hippos in the Luangwa River and prevent an anthrax outbreak within the population.  However, Will Travers, president of Born Free, took issue with the government, saying "Once again, the Zambian authorities have failed to provide any scientific evidence showing an overpopulation of hippos in the Luangwa River, or to make public any data that, at least in their mind, could justify a cull.”

Why This Matters:  Hippos are increasingly like elephants and rhinos, the subject of illegal hunting.  According to the African NGO Born Free, there is increasing demand for hippo teeth as an ivory substitute -- prior to 2016 thousands of hippo teeth were exported to the European Union, and Hong King imported over 100,000 pounds of hippo ivory to be carved and sold.  And just as with ivory, while some claim it is important to have alternatives to ivory to help struggling economies in Africa, the sale of these products rarely provides significant benefits to needy communities.  Just as with sharks, these hippos are more valuable to Zambian communities for tourism than they are when hunted once and then gone forever. 

What You Can Do:  The Born Free website has information about how to write to the Zambian government to express your views.  Click here and scroll down for the address. 



Milky Way Mysteries Revealed 

Astronomers have discovered new evidence about the Milky Way's origins. Previously, scientists were unsure whether our galaxy was formed when a lot of little galaxies merged together or a few large ones. The European Space Agency's GAIA satellite's most recent data release this past April helped provide astronomers with some revelatory information. Researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands this week published their findings and concluded that the Milky Way was shaped into existence by a “massive merger event” with another large galaxy, as well as several smaller mergers. 

After more than 20 months of observations, the Dutch researchers discovered five small star clusters, believed to be remnants of five merger events. These stars, according to study co-author Helmer Koppelman, form a giant “blob” moving in the opposite direction to the Milky Way. “This suggests they are the result of a merger with a large galaxy,” he said. “In fact, we believe that this merger event must have remodeled the disk in our Milky Way.”

Why This Matters: GAIA has mapped more than 1.6 billion stars in the Milky Way, and is the biggest and most accurate atlas of the night sky to date. The maps the satellite creates are crucial to our understanding of our home galaxy.

More Milky Way: The Milky Way might be twice as wide as astronomers previously thought and it also contains clouds of spinning diamonds!
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