Video: True Facts about Elephants

Today was for other work, so I’m going to tap in Ze Frank to tell you about the most prestigious of pachyderms: The elephant!

I’ve been fortunate enough to see African elephants in the wild a few times (though I’m not sure I’ll do so again), and it was really neat! I also had the more somber experience of seeing a dead elephant, attended by an army of vultures, with what appeared to be mourners standing a little way off. They’re fascinating creatures, and I really hope that we can, somehow, help them avoid the extinction we’ve pushed them towards.


Some More News on Hawaii, National Parks, and the Perils of Overtourism

I like going to new places. Getting there is often so miserable and expensive that it’s not worth it, but I’m fond of my memories of stuff like climbing Kilimanjaro, or teaching juggling to kids in Cuba, or writing in a garret overlooking an Italian river valley. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do some traveling on other people’s dime, and I sincerely believe that travel should be available to everyone, regardless of wealth. That said, I do think that there are limits on that, because simply going to a place is not a neutral act. We need to accept that there are some places that, out of respect for the land and the people, we just can’t visit.

I did a research project and presentation in college, about the impacts of eco-tourism, and it quickly became clear that even when we’re not aware of the animals nearby, they’re generally aware of us, and we make them nervous. I’m too lazy to try to find the exact research I cited, but two studies stand out in my memory. The first was about the effects of traffic on ducks (equipped with monitors) nesting near a road. Basically, every time a car went by, the ducks heart rate elevated. The other study looked at penguins that nested near a boardwalk, where tourists were allowed to get near enough to see them, but not actually close. The penguins in direct line of sight of the boardwalk, even through gaps in bushes, also had an elevated heart rate when they could see humans.

That may not sound like a lot, a faster heartbeat means more calories burned, which means more food is needed, which could take away from things like egg incubation. Similar problems have been recorded for cheetahs dealing with tourists in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Another problem I heard about, when I was in the Bahamas helping with iguana research, was tourists feeding the lizards stuff like bread, which messed up their digestion. Travel is great, but it’s pretty clear that there need to be limits on how many people can go to a given place, and on what they can do there.

Well, there ought to be limits if we want those places to be there for future generations, or if we respect the people who live at tourist destinations, because that’s the other part of  all this. Tourists are not there to help the locals. They often do, by bringing in money, but that’s within the context of a system that has forced a number of poor colonies into a situation where tourism and ecological beauty are the only things that haven’t been extracted and removed for profit. As with so much else, we need to change how we do things, and stop pretending that we don’t affect the world as we move through it. We need to listen to locals, like the Native population of Hawaii, when they ask people to stop coming there. There’s lots of information on this sort of thing on the internet, of course, but since you’re already here, why don’t you check out this video from Some More News, which just so happens to be on this very topic!


I really want to go to Lechuguilla, but even just me going there could damage it in ways that might never be repaired. I’m satisfied with the pictures and video that exist, and grateful that I live in a time where that’s available to me.

Tree Law: Hollywood Producers Really Are Villains

As you are no doubt aware, the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists are both on strike over absurdly low pay, while studio executives rake in hundreds of millions of dollars. This is the first time in around 60 years that both writers and actors have been on strike together, and when you dig into the issue, it’s not hard to see why. Because streaming is new, existing labor agreements don’t apply to it, and under capitalism, everything is allowed for the rich by default, so the bosses get a nice little window where they’re allowed to just not pay their workers for the success of the products they generate, and suffer no consequences.

This trend of finding “clever” ways to underpay workers is just part of capitalism. I don’t know if paying workers is the expense that capitalists resent the most, but it’s clear that they very much want slaves, not paid professionals. Like all other capitalists, they want to pay as little as possible to the people who make them their millions.

Now, some of you may be thinking, “now hang on – that’s a little extreme, isn’t it? These people aren’t literally cartoon villains, so they’ve got feelings, right?” Well, they’re not cartoon villains, but they might as well be. I like to describe strikes as a form of siege, and I mean that quite literally. Lives are on the line, and if the peasant surrounding the castle don’t have enough supplies, they stand to lose everything. Hollywood executives also see it that way, and they’ve made clear that they intend to destroy lives before fairly paying the people who created their wealth:

According to a recent Deadline report, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) is in the strike for the long haul—with a plan to let the Writers Guild of America (WGA) “bleed out” before resuming negotiations. “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” one source told the trade.

I’ve talked before about how capitalists and the government collude to use desperation as a very literal weapon against the working class, and this is yet another example of that. Hollywood has a long history of going out of its way to screw anyone who might cut into the only thing they actually care about, which is profit. While these obscenely wealthy executives and owners often plead poverty when opposing fair pay, it’s nice to have the reality that’s always been obvious, made explicit. The only limit on what they do, is what they think they can get away with or afford the penalty for. That includes holding out till people lose their homes, but it also includes pettier efforts to attack striking workers, like aggressively pruning trees, out of season, right where they would otherwise provide shade and comfort for striking workers:

The image shows a row of curbside trees along a street. The trees have almost no leaves at all, having had their entire crowns cut off. They are casting sparse shadows on the sidewalk (bottom left corner of the picture), and you can see a small garden pavilion shading a table, a couple chairs, and some boxes. Closer to the camera, in the bottom left corner, there are a couple coolers. On the bottom center and right, there are five traffic cones on the edges of a stack of what look like big steel or rubber plates. You can see a glass building in the background, along with some un-pruned trees. The sky is blue with wisps of white cloud.

The image shows a row of curbside trees along a street. The trees have almost no leaves at all, having had their entire crowns cut off. They are casting sparse shadows on the sidewalk (bottom left corner of the picture), and you can see a small garden pavilion shading a table, a couple chairs, and some boxes. Closer to the camera, in the bottom left corner, there are a couple coolers. On the bottom center and right, there are five traffic cones on the edges of a stack of what look like big steel or rubber plates. You can see a glass building in the background, along with some un-pruned trees. The sky is blue with wisps of white cloud.

The Los Angeles city controller’s office says it is investigating the trimming of tree branches on a stretch of roadway outside Universal Studios. The studio’s owners NBC Universal have denied making conditions for striking actors and writers more difficult in the intense heat.

In a series of posts on social media, LA city controller Kenneth Mejia said that the trees concerned are “LA City managed”, and that while public works agency StreetsLA are responsible for tree maintenance “a business can also obtain a permit to trim a tree”.

Strikers on picket outside Universal Studios’ Gate 8, on Barham Blvd, first reported the work on Monday, complaining that a line of ficus trees that had provided shade from what is forecast to this week become 33C (91F) heat had been severely cut back.

In a statement to Deadline, NBC Universal denied it had targeted strikers: “We understand that the safety tree trimming of the ficus trees we did on Barham Blvd has created unintended challenges for demonstrators, that was not our intention. In partnership with licensed arborists, we have pruned these trees annually at this time of year … We support the WGA and Sag’s right to demonstrate, and are working to provide some shade coverage.”

NBC Universal has also denied that it is refusing to create safe pathways for strikers around ongoing construction work on another part of its studio site, after the writers’ union WGA and actors’ union Sag-Aftra filed a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The unions have complained that NBC Universal have not installed a temporary pedestrian lane in Lankershim Blvd, resulting in dangerous conditions for strikers attempting to maintain a protest there, and that “picketers [are forced] to patrol in busy streets with significant car traffic where two picketers have already been struck by a car”.


The reason you don’t usually prune in July, is that they spend the summer storing resources in their root system, before going dormant, at least above ground, in the winter. If you prune in the summer you are starving the trees, and possibly making them grow out of season to try to make up for the loss:

In general, avoid pruning landscape trees in mid- to late summer (July, August and September), unless it’s very light, because you can induce an off-season growth spurt, which can leave some species, such as ficus, vulnerable to freeze damage. Hot-weather pruning can also delay or shorten dormancy for deciduous trees and is especially damaging to eucalyptus and pines.

There’s no real horticultural reason for the pruning, so it seems as though it was done purely to make picketing workers suffer more during a heat wave. It did, however, ping some people’s legal radar, leading Universal Studios to be reported for a potential violation of California Tree Law, and it seems that LA is investigating:

The city has said that they did not issue a permit for this pruning. I hope Universal gets slapped with a maximum penalty, but I doubt that will do much. I’ve had some trouble finding what potential penalties they might face, but from what I can tell, the biggest possible expense would be if they’re forced to replace the trees, plus a fine. It has oft been said that a fine just means that it’s legal if you’re rich enough, and there’s no question that these corporations are rich enough, even if they do have to replace the trees. No, the only way to hold them accountable, within the system as it exists, is for everyone to show solidarity for striking workers, and make it clear that if the industry refuses to pay its workers, the the industry will no longer have any workers to exploit.

This is a problem that will never actually go away, in a capitalist society, because such a society most empowers those whose only purpose in life is the ruthless exploitation, use, and abuse of other human beings. When someone creates a new and useful technology, capitalists look at it and see a new way to avoid paying workers. That is the core of what capitalism is, and why there will always be a need for strong unions within this economic system. Without that pressure from the bottom, which capitalists and the government work so hard to eliminate, the pathological greed of the owning class will always consume the entire system, resulting in monopolies, poverty, and devastating crashes.

In the end, it comes down to this: Strike actions are a compromise. They are the moderate option – a polite siege, if you will. The workers are simply withholding their labor. They are not literally laying siege to the homes of their overlords. They are not taking the wealth they are owed by force. The executives here are just fine taking from those poorer than themselves – it’s basically their only real job – but they seem to have forgotten that that can go both ways, it’s just that the folks at the bottom don’t have cops to do the actual violence for them. I’ll let Ron Pearlman explain:


Unacceptable: Universities and Environmental Groups Paying and Working with Fossil Fuel Lobbyists

The idea that “we don’t do that anymore”, or “that doesn’t happen anymore”, is one of the most destructive tropes in the popular discussion of history. In recent years, the rise of fascism and open white supremacy has disabused most people of the idea that those problems are “behind us”, but I sometimes worry that that’s only for those particular issues. This is an issue with almost everything that has been deemed part of a barbaric past that we’ve outgrown. I remember talking to someone around a decade ago, who agreed that labor unions were necessary back in the early 1900s, but they made their point, got us our rights, and now they exist to help themselves, rather than the workers, and we don’t need them anymore. I heard similar things about feminism as a movement, as well. At every step of the way, every movement for change is constantly denounced as unnecessary, but the second change is achieved, that movement is necessary in retrospect, but has now completed its task, and is now unnecessary. A truly depressing number of people seem to accept this reasoning on a truly depressing number of topics.

And so, when it comes to climate change, I worry. It’s hard for me to tell, sitting here inside my skull, whether it is now common knowledge that fossil fuel companies knew about climate change, and lied to prevent anything from being done. I think most people know about that. Honestly, I think most people who oppose climate action are aware of the reporting on oil company lies, they just don’t care. What worries me is that some people may think that all that corruption and lobbying and shady dealing stopped when it became public knowledge that they had been doing it.

You know, “Oh, you caught me. Shucks, well I guess I can’t do that anymore!” and then the movie ends, the good guys win, and we move on to the next problem.

I think most people who’re likely to read this blog (or any other blog on this network) are fully aware that all that bad stuff has continued unabated, or even escalated. I don’t know how representative that is of the general population, but I hope that I’m being too cynical when I worry about this. Regardless, that worry is why I want to highlight this recent reporting, which exposes how hundreds of lobbyists have been ostensibly working for universities and environmental groups, while on the fossil fuel payroll:

More than 1,500 lobbyists in the US are working on behalf of fossil-fuel companies while at the same time representing hundreds of liberal-run cities, universities, technology companies and environmental groups that say they are tackling the climate crisis, the Guardian can reveal.

Lobbyists for oil, gas and coal interests are also employed by a vast sweep of institutions, ranging from the city governments of Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia; tech giants such as Apple and Google; more than 150 universities; some of the country’s leading environmental groups – and even ski resorts seeing their snow melted by global heating.

The breadth of fossil-fuel lobbyists’ work for other clients is captured in a new database of their lobbying interests which was published online on Wednesday.
It shows the reach of state-level fossil-fuel lobbyists into almost every aspect of American life, spanning local governments, large corporations, cultural institutions such as museums and film festivals, and advocacy groups, grouping together clients with starkly contradictory aims.

For instance, State Farm, the insurance company that announced in May it would halt new homeowner policies in California due to the “catastrophic” risk of wildfires worsened by the climate crisis, employs lobbyists that also advocate for fossil fuel interests to lawmakers in 18 states.

Meanwhile, Baltimore, which is suing big oil firms for their role in causing climate-related damages, has shared a lobbyist with ExxonMobil, one of the named defendants in the case. Syracuse University, a pioneer in the fossil fuel divestment movement, has a lobbyist with 14 separate oil and gas clients.
“It’s incredible that this has gone under the radar for so long, as these lobbyists help the fossil fuel industry wield extraordinary power,” said James Browning, a former Common Cause lobbyist who put together the database for a new venture called F Minus. “Many of these cities and counties face severe costs from climate change and yet elected officials are selling their residents out. It’s extraordinary.

“The worst thing about hiring these lobbyists is that it legitimizes the fossil fuel industry,” Browning added. “They can cloak their radical agenda in respectability when their lobbyists also have clients in the arts, or city government, or with conservation groups. It normalizes something that is very dangerous.”


The fossil fuel industry, and anyone working to further their interests, should be treated as pariahs. They should be unwelcome everywhere they go. I’m not talking about coal miners, oil rig workers, and all those, I’m talking about the people working to prevent any kind of political or legal change that would give us a fighting chance at avoiding extinction.

I know corruption has become so normalized in the US that many people seem unable to see it, but this is beyond ridiculous. In addition to the fossil fuel lobbyists, any environmental group that hires these people knowingly should also be shunned, and made to understand exactly why it’s happening. I don’t care what side-stepping justifications the people involved offer for what they’re doing. This isn’t a game, and we don’t have time to indulge their bullshit. It’s well past time to pick a side.

Video: Please, Kill Your Lawn

I hadn’t intended to do two video posts in a row, but my post on sedimentary archeology is going to take more work than I thought, and I’ve recently added miserable stuff like job hunting back into my routine, so here we are. Fortunately, we’ve got a new video from the always-excellent Mexie, on why you should kill your lawn. This video doesn’t just go into why lawns are bad, but also into the history of how they became such a scourge upon North America.

Video: Let’s talk about electoral options and other parties…

I don’t think I’ve hidden the fact that Beau of the Fifth Column has been hugely influential on my current view of political change. The point of organizing based on where you live and work, is that it gives you a group of people united by common interests, rather than a political party. That means that no matter what strategy you want, whether it’s to boost a new political party, or push for a particular policy, you have that collective power to bring to the fight.

Crawford Lake, Ontario, Chosen to Represent the Beginning of the Anthropocene

I’ll admit it – I don’t know a whole lot about geology. I think I did take a 101 class in college, but I don’t remember a whole lot from that. As I understand it, geological periods, like Jurassic, Pleistocene etc., are defined by “events” that are recorded in the layers of rock that make up the geologic record. Mass extinctions are common markers, as vast numbers of species simply vanish from the fossil record, but that doesn’t help us if we’re trying to determine whether we are, right now, at a boundary between the Holocene epoch and a new epoch that has been dubbed Anthropocene, in which humans are the dominant force acting on the surface of the planet. Because this is a relatively new idea, work is ongoing to determine whether it’s real/valid as a geological period, and where to draw the line. From what I can tell, the division among those who think it’s real is mainly between whether to start it in the Neolithic era, with the rise of agriculture, or around the start of the Industrial Revolution. From what I can tell, the idea of a more recent starting point is more widely supported, and it’s certainly the one with which I am most familiar.

Resolving this disagreement requires research, of course, but it’s a bit tricky to study a geological layer as it’s forming. All the other ones scientists have studied are long enough ago that they’re literally set in stone.  The Subcommission on Quaternary Strategraphy, a part of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, itself a part of the International Union of Geological Sciences (an NGO that’s part of the International Science Council) set up the Anthropocene Working Group to study the Anthropocene and figure out whether there’s evidence supporting a formal ratification of the Anthropocene as a geological epoch. They’ve been working since 2009, just published their work choosing a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point to mark the start of the Anthropocene, for future study. .

Specifically, they’ve chosen Crawford Lake, a little south and west of Toronto, for its “exquisite” sedimentary record, and they are proposing a layer of plutonium from the testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s, as the starting point of the new epoch:

“The sediments found at the bottom of Crawford Lake provide an exquisite record of recent environmental change over the last millennia,” says Dr Simon Turner, Secretary of the Anthropocene Working Group from UCL. “Seasonal changes in water chemistry and ecology have created annual layers that can be sampled for multiple markers of historical human activity. It is this ability to precisely record and store this information as a geological archive that can be matched to historical global environmental changes which make sites such as Crawford Lake so important. A GSSP is used to correlate similar environmental changes seen in other sites worldwide, so it is critical to have a robust and reproducible record at this type locality.”

The team has gathered core sample sections from a variety of environments around the world, from coral reefs to ice sheets. Samples from a range of these sites were then sent for analysis to the University of Southampton’s GAU-Radioanalytical labs at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. Researchers there processed the samples to detect a key marker of human influence on the environment – the presence of plutonium.

Professor Andrew Cundy, Chair in Environmental Radiochemistry at the University of Southampton and member of the Anthropocene Working Group, explains: “The presence of plutonium gives us a stark indicator of when humanity became such a dominant force that it could leave a unique global ‘fingerprint’ on our planet.

“In nature, plutonium is only present in trace amounts. But in the early-1950s, when the first hydrogen bomb tests took place, we see an unprecedented increase and then spike in the levels of plutonium in core samples from around the world. We then see a decline in plutonium from the mid-1960s onwards when the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty came into effect.”

Other geological indicators of human activity include high levels of ash from coal-fired power stations, high concentrations of heavy metals, such as lead, and the presence of plastic fibres and fragments. These coincide with ‘The Great Acceleration’ – a dramatic surge across a range of human activity, from transportation to energy use, starting in the mid-20th century and continuing today.

From the hundreds of samples analysed, the core from Crawford Lake has been proposed as the GSSP, along with secondary supporting sites that show similar high-resolution records of human impact. Evidence from the sites will now be presented to the ICS, which will decide next year whether to ratify the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch.

I could quibble with this starting point, mainly because by 1950, we were already more than half a century past Arrhenius’ calculation that our CO2 emissions were warming the world. That said, I can’t argue with the utility of the plutonium layer as an excellent global marker, as well as something that will be detectable long into the future. There’s also the fact that defining eras like this is always going to be at least a little arbitrary, determined by convenience or conceit. I talked before about the concept of a “long century”, in which historians include events from the end of one century as part of the beginning of the next, so that the centuries overlap, because our categorization of the past is, itself, fairly arbitrary, and determined by convenience or conceit. The new epoch has to start somewhere, and the point at which we coated the entire planet with plutonium works as well as anything else.

I appreciate Dr. Cundy’s reasoning for Crawford Lake as a site, as well. In the video above he mentions that not only does the sediment provide a clear record of the modern era, it also provides a good record of pre-industrial, and pre-colonial human habitation. I often talk about ways in which the colonial era never really ended, it just changed tactics. That change is as good a reason to mark out a new era as any other, but the similarities are important, because there was a real effort to erase Indigenous Americans from the continent, and in many ways that effort is still ongoing. As we fight for Indigenous rights, and for Land Back, we are also fighting for their history – something that has been under attack along with the people themselves.

We are in a period that is itself defined by the speed at which things are changing. On the one hand, I think that’s just part of the human experience, but on the other, we know, without question, that our species has never experienced a warming event like this in its history. Whether or not the Anthropocene ends up being ratified as and Official Epoch, it will be vital for us to understand this era, if we survive long enough to really learn from it.

Thank you for reading! If you liked this post, please share it around. If you read this blog regularly, please consider joining my small but wonderful group of patrons. Because of my immigration status, I’m not allowed to get a normal job, so my writing is all I have for the foreseeable future, and I’d love for it to be a viable career long-term. As part of that goal, I’m currently working on a young adult fantasy series, so if supporting this blog isn’t enough inducement by itself, for just $5/month you can work with me to name a place or character in that series!

Video: What Does A Second American Civil War Look Like?

I don’t know how likely it is that the US will have another civil war in the near future, but I no longer think it’s out of the question. I don’t think it would look anything like the Civil War of the 1860s, but with fascism being a major part of current US politics, some kind of armed conflict within US borders seems possible. The question is, what would it look like? Well, I don’t really know. The video below is from an interview with a fellow who has spend a while studying and interacting with far-right people and groups who actively want war. One thing from the interview that I think is important to highlight is that when you think of far-right conspiracy theorists who might be willing to take up arms, remember that that includes people like the commanders of military bases. It may be less Red Dawn, and more Dr Strangelove, if a bunch of Q-anon base commanders decide an election was stolen, and that it’s their duty to take orders from the loser.

Marine ecosystems are struggling, and mining is set to make it worse.

I was poking around the internet, looking for something to write about, when I came across two research headlines that I think form a depressingly good microcosm of what we’re doing to the planet (and ourselves) as a whole. The first is grim, if unsurprising news; a catchy headline reading, “Multiple ecosystems in hot water“. The study was a 10-year review of California’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), which concluded that because of global warming, they aren’t actually helping much. MPAs are, as the name suggests, protected from fishing, industrial activity, tourism, and other activities, depending on the relevant laws. These don’t just protect habitat from destruction, they also serve as a sort of bio-reservoir that can help replenish fish stocks depleted by industrial fishing. The problem is that the absolutely staggering amount of heat that the oceans have been absorbing – equivalent to seven Hiroshima-sized nuclear explosions per second in 2021 – has been making it hard for protected areas to replenish themselves, let alone other nearby habitats.

 As MPA managers around the world face increasing climate shocks, the extent to which MPAs can buffer the worst of these events has become an important question. The working group scientists asked how the ecological communities in California’s protected areas fared after such a severe and prolonged heatwave: Would the communities shift and if so, how? Would they ‘bounce back’ when the marine heatwave subsided? Could the marine protected areas protect sensitive populations or facilitate recovery?

To find answers to their questions, they synthesized over a decade of data collected from 13 no-take MPAs located in a variety of ecosystems along the Central Coast: rocky intertidal zones, kelp forests, shallow and deep rocky reefs. The team looked at fish, invertebrates and seaweed populations inside and outside these areas, using data from before, during and after the heatwave.

They also focused on two of these habitats, rocky intertidal and kelp forests, at 28 MPAs across the full statewide network to gauge whether these locations promoted one particular form of climate resilience — maintaining both population and community structure.

“We used no-take MPAs as a type of comparison to see whether the protected ecological communities fared better to the marine heatwave than places where fishing occurred,” said Smith, now an Ocean Conservation Research Fellow at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The results are somewhat sobering, though not altogether unexpected.

“The MPAs did not facilitate resistance or recovery across habitats or across communities,” Caselle said. “In the face of this unprecedented marine heatwave, communities did change dramatically in most habitats. But, with one exception, the changes occurred similarly both inside and outside the MPAs. The novelty of this study was that we saw similar results across many different habitats and taxonomic groups, from deepwater to shallow reefs and from fishes to algae.”

The implication of these findings, according to Smith, is that every part of the ocean is under threat from climate change. “MPAs are effective in many of the ways they were designed, but our findings suggest that MPAs alone are not sufficient to buffer the effects of climate change.”

Did we need this study to tell us that? Well, sort of. I think most informed people would have guessed at this result, but it’s good to actually know. We do actually need to check our predictions against reality, and when we find something unexpected, that’s generally a source of new information. This is yet another piece of evidence that climate change is damaging our world right now, and the longer we wait to take that seriously, the less will remain to be saved.

And that brings me to the second piece of research that caught my eye. “Ocean animals vacate areas both around and outside deep-sea mining operations“. A lot of the worries I’ve read about deep-sea mining have related to noise. The sounds from a mine can carry for hundreds of kilometers through the ocean, and with sound being a vitally important tool for marine organisms, that’s a serious issue all by itself. Unfortunately, sound is far from the only problem. Just like its dry-land counterpart, deep-sea mining destroys habitat, and generates a great deal of pollution: .

In 2020, Japan performed the first successful test extracting cobalt crusts from the top of deep-sea mountains to mine cobalt — a mineral used in electric vehicle batteries. Not only do directly mined areas become less habitable for ocean animals, but mining also creates a plume of sediment that can spread through the surrounding water. An investigation on the environmental impact of this first test, published July 14th in the journal Current Biology, reports a decrease in ocean animals both in and around the mining zone.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which has authority over seafloor resources outside a given country’s jurisdiction, has yet to finalize a set of deep-sea mining regulations. However, for companies looking to mine the ocean’s floor for minerals such as cobalt, copper, and manganese, the ISA is required to either adopt a set of exploitation regulations or consider mining exploitation under existing international laws starting July 9.

“These data are really important to get out,” says first author Travis Washburn, a benthic ecologist who works closely with the Geological Survey of Japan. “A set of regulations is supposed to be finalized soon, so a lot of these decisions are happening now.”

The team analyzed data from three of Japan’s visits to the Takuyo-Daigo seamount: one month before the mining test, one month after, and one year after. After taking a seven-day boat trip from port, a remotely operated vehicle went to the seafloor and collected video of the impacted areas. One year after the mining test, researchers observed a 43% drop in fish and shrimp density in the areas directly impacted by sediment pollution. However, they also noted a 56% drop in the fish and shrimp density of surrounding areas. While there are several possible explanations for this decrease in fish populations, the team thinks it may be due to the mining test contaminating fish food sources.

The study did not observe a major change in less mobile ocean animals, like coral and sponges. However, the researchers note that this was only after a two-hour test, and coral or sponges could still be impacted by long-term mining operations.

“I had assumed we wouldn’t see any changes because the mining test was so small. They drove the machine for two hours, and the sediment plume only traveled a few hundred meters,” says Washburn. “But it was actually enough to shift things.”

The researchers note that they will need to repeat this study several times to gain a more accurate understanding of how deep-sea mining impacts the ocean floor. Ideally, multiple years of data should be collected before a mining test occurs to account for any natural variation in ocean animal communities.

“We’re going to need more data regardless, but this study highlights one area that needs more focus,” says Washburn. “We’ll have to look at this issue on a wider scale, because these results suggest the impact of deep-sea mining could be even bigger than we think.”

I like to say that we humans are a part of the ecosystems that surround us. We’ve tried to pretend otherwise, but we depend on the “services” they provide to us, and the ocean is no exception to that. My favorite example is the way modern medicine – including every COVID vaccine – relies on the blood of horseshoe crabs, but there are a myriad of other ways in which marine ecosystems help us. There’s the food, obviously; around 20% of the protein humans eat comes from fish, and most of that is from the oceans. As with dry land, marine ecosystems also mitigate pollution, generate oxygen, and provide cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual value to people.

It seems like a problem, then, that we’re just moving ahead with mining the sea floor. I mean, obviously, we’ve been doing seafloor oil drilling for ages, and we definitely need to change how we go about getting cobalt, but as I wrote a couple months ago, we’ll never know the full scale of oceanic biodiversity that we’ve already destroyed. The effects of seafloor mining that we already know about are bad news all by themselves, but when you add in the research about what’s happening to MPAs, more mining could end up being like gasoline on a flame. At a time when global warming is already pushing ecosystems beyond what they can bear, I think that we should be wary of adding more destruction. Rather than mining the sea floor, we should be vastly improving conditions in the mines on land, and investing in better ways to recover things like cobalt from dysfunctional electronics.

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Research Clarifies Air Pollution’s Role in Insect Decline

When people talk about the decline in insect populations, the focus is generally on pesticide use, and habitat destruction. There’s no question that these are major factors, but there’s another that has apparently been under-estimated: air pollution. I talk about air pollution a lot on this blog, and while that’s mostly focused on how it affects humans, I did post last November about how air pollution made it harder for fig wasps to find their aphid prey. The researchers speculated that the presence of diesel fumes and ozone masked the scent of their prey, but that prey feeding on cabbages and other brassicas were smelly enough to cut through the pollution. Now a new study has come out, which demonstrates that air pollution particles can collect on an insect’s sensory organs, affecting their sense of smell in general:

The research team conducted several related experiments:

  • Using a scanning electron microscope, they found that as air pollution increases, more particulate material collects on the sensitive antennae of houseflies. This material comprises solid particles or liquid droplets suspended in air and can include toxic heavy metals and organic substances from coal, oil, petrol, or woodfires.
  • They exposed houseflies for just 12 hours to varying levels of air pollution in Beijing and then placed the flies in a Y-shaped tube ‘maze’. Uncontaminated flies typically chose the arm of the Y-maze leading to a smell of food or sex pheromones, while contaminated flies selected an arm at random, with 50:50 probability.
  • Neural tests confirmed that antenna contamination significantly reduced the strength of odour-related electrical signals sent to the flies’ brains – it compromised their capacity to detect odours.

In addition, continuing research in bushfire-affected areas in rural Victoria has shown that the antennae of diverse insects, including bees, wasps, moths, and species of flies, are contaminated by smoke particles, even at considerable distances from the fire front.

Insect antennae have olfactory receptors that detect odour molecules emanating from a food source, a potential mate, or a good place to lay eggs. If an insect’s antennae are covered in particulate matter, a physical barrier is created that prevents contact between the smell receptors and air-borne odour molecules.

“When their antennae become clogged with pollution particles, insects struggle to smell food, a mate, or a place to lay their eggs, and it follows that their populations will decline,” Professor Elgar said.

“About 40 per cent of Earth’s landmass is exposed to particle air pollution concentrations above the World Health Organisation’s recommended annual average.

“Surprisingly, this includes many remote and comparatively pristine habitats and areas of ecological significance – because particulate material can be carried thousands of kilometres by air currents,” Professor Elgar said.

I’ll be honest: If you had asked me how air pollution was contributing to the decline in insect populations, I would have guessed ill health through inhaling, drinking, or eating air pollution, but I wouldn’t have gone with “it messes with their sense of smell”. Given the fig wasp thing I mentioned above, I guess it should have been higher on my list, but I apparently didn’t give it enough thought. I think it’s partly that being a visual creature that gets food from stores, I sometimes forget the importance of smell to other animals. Repetition aids memory, though, so now I’m more likely to remember it. I suppose the next question here will be how big this olfactory problem is, but while we wait for a number, we can add this to the already-huge pile of reasons why it’s good to reduce air pollution.