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Plastic debris leaches toxins into the stomachs of sea birds

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Aug. 19 (UPI) — Sea birds regularly mistake bits of plastic for natural food, putting them at risk of physical harm — they can choke on debris and it can also cause intestinal blockage.

But new research — published Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science — suggests plastic pollution can also poison sea birds, leaching toxins into the stomachs of birds that ingest plastic.

To better understand the toxic threat posed by plastic pollution, researchers surveyed the chemical composition of stomach oil of northern fulmars, an abundant subarctic seabird. Hunters on the Faroe Islands collect the nutrient-rich oil.

“I’ve been working on northern fulmars for almost 10 years,” lead study author Susanne Kühn said in a news release.

“As these seabirds ingest plastics regularly, and 93 percent of the fulmars from the North Sea have some plastic in their stomachs, it is important to understand the potential harm this could cause,” said Kühn, marine biologist at Wageningen Marine Research in the Netherlands.

Researchers combed the beach for a variety of plastic types and shapes that a northern fulmar might eat. Scientists incubated their plastic haul in the stomach oil under realistic conditions in regards to temperature and agitation.

Periodic testing during the three-month incubation confirmed a variety of toxins were leached into the stomach oil, including plasticizers, flame retardants and stabilizers.

Even before scientists placed the plastic in the oil, tests confirmed the stomach oil, which was collected from northern fulmar chicks, contained trace amounts of plastic-derived chemicals.

Scientists aren’t yet sure how these toxins impact the health of seabirds, but previous studies suggest some of the chemicals could affect the endocrine system, which controls the release of hormones. Researchers suggest the toxins could also trigger genetic mutations.

“I hope that these results will increase awareness of the various negative effects of plastic debris in the oceans,” said Kühn. “We urgently need to reduce the amount of plastic in the marine environment.”



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Study highlights carbon sequestration services provided by U.S. forests

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Sept. 21 (UPI) — Forests in the United States currently sequester approximately three decades worth of carbon dioxide emitted by the American fossil fuel industry, according to a new a study.

What’s more, forests and harvested wood products uptake approximately 14 percent of economy-wide CO2 emissions in the United States annually.

Despite declining carbon emissions in the United States, the contribution of forests to emissions offsets has remained stable. This, researchers say, suggests the ability of U.S. forests to absorb new carbon — an ability driven largely by forest regrowth — is slowly declining.

To better understand the ability of afforestation and reforestation activities to improve carbon sequestration capabilities, researchers analyzed data from more than 130,000 national forest inventory plots.

The findings — published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — confirmed that there is potential for U.S. forests to capture and store more carbon.

Researchers used forest inventory plots to estimate the total carbon storage capabilities provided by forests in the United States. Their analysis showed each acre of forest in the United States stores nearly 700 metric tons of CO2. But the data also showed forests are underperforming.

“There are opportunities on existing forestland to increase the contribution of forests to climate change mitigation,” researchers wrote in their paper.

Researchers found nearly 82 million acres of productive forestland in the U.S. are understocked with trees, characterized by tree coverage of less than 35 percent.

“Currently, there is federal infrastructure to produce and plant approximately 65 million seedlings per year, and state and private capacity is approximately 1.1 billion tree seedlings per year,” researchers wrote.

These efforts sequester between 16 and 28 million metric tons of CO2 annually.

According to the study’s authors, concentrating tree-planting efforts on understocked forest acreage could significantly increase carbon sequestration capacity in the United States.



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Bobcat fire threatens historic Mount Wilson Observatory

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Sept. 21 (UPI) — Days after officials declared the historic Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles County safe from an aggressive fast-moving blaze, firefighters on Monday were attempting to beat back the Bobcat fire as it attempted to work its way up the mountain.

The Angeles National Forest said Sunday that the fire, which has grown to be one of the largest in the county’s history, was “threatening all of the values” on Mount Wilson. Officials had said Friday said it was safe after crews deployed strategic firing to protect the iconic observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Strong winds and low humidity overnight helped the blaze to grow a few thousand acres to 105,345 acres as of 8 a.m. Monday, the Angeles National Forest said in a statement. It was 15% contained.

Engines, hand crews and aircraft on Monday were deployed to the north side of Mount Wilson to extinguish spot fires, the service said.

“Bobcat fire is making a hard push at Mount Wilson,” the Angeles National Forest said on Twitter. “Defensive strategic operations are beginning from Mount Wilson to the west.”

Thomas Meneghi, the observatory’s executive director, told the Los Angeles Times, that on Sunday eight additional strike units were seen being dispatched to the area after it was deemed safe two days prior.

“Just when I thought the danger was over — it wasn’t,” he said.

The observatory said on its Facebook Page Monday evening that the fire has picked up and is making its way toward the Mount Wilson drainage on the northwestern slope.

The Times reported that it’s the second time the observatory, historic for its role in space exploration, has been under threat of fire with crews protecting it from the Station fire of 2009, which holds the title for the county’s largest blaze at some 160,000 acres.

Due to the Bobcat fire encroaching on communities, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office issued evacuations orders Monday for those who live in south and west of Upper Big Tujunga and east and north of Angeles Forest Highway, while the Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management ordered residents of Camp Colby to leave the area immediately.

“This warning has been upgraded to an evacuation ordered,” the service announced via Twitter. “If you are in the identified area GO NOW! EVACUATE.”

Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby told reporters and residents during a virtual press conference Monday evening that firefighters “scratch and claw” to protect every property they can.

Osby said this year has been a record fire season for California, with thousands of firefighters battling some 27 blazes, but added “the scary thing about all this” is that the fire season for Southern California wasn’t near finished.

Cal Fire said more than 3.6 million acres have been burned in nearly 8,000 fires, resulting in 7,097 structures impacted and at least 26 deaths.

Gov. Gavin Newsom called the wildfire season “historic” in a press conference on Monday, stating that last year, there were only 5,316 fires burning some 157,000 acres.

The Democratic governor said evictions have forced 23,154 people from their homes, adding that more than 6,400 structures have been wholly destroyed.

Six major fires continue to burn in the state, he said, including the August fire, the largest in the state’s history at 846,000 acres, which was at 34% contained.

In Plumas and Lassen counties, the North Complex fire, the fifth-largest ever in the state at 294,000 acres was at 64% contained, compared to 36% on Wednesday.

The Creek fire, in Fresno and Madera counties, was the seventh-largest fire in state history, and was at 278,000 acres and contained at 27%.

Concerning the Bobcat fire, he said they were deploying as many resources as possible to battle the blaze.

“We’re putting all the resources we possibly can on all these complexes but focusing, as we should, on that Bobcat fire,” he said.

Nationally, 78 large fires have consumed some 3.9 million acres this season, according to the national interagency Fire Center.

In Oregon, the Department of Forestry said some 7,500 personnel have been assigned to 10 major fires in the state.

The state’s Office of Emergency Management has confirmed nine people have died in the fires and five people were missing as of Monday.

Some 1 million acres have been burned statewide, destroying 2,268 residences and an additional 1,556 instructions, it said in a statement.

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Scientists publish water quality database for 12,000 freshwater lakes

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Sept. 22 (UPI) — Scientists have published a global water quality database detailing the health of nearly 12,000 freshwater lakes, almost half the world’s freshwater supply.

Compiled by researchers at York University, in Canada, the database offers water quality information on lakes in 72 countries and all seven continents, including Antarctica.

Researchers detailed the database compilation process in a new paper, published Tuesday in the Nature journal Scientific Data.

“The database can be used by scientists to answer questions about what lakes or regions may be faring worse than others, how water quality has changed over the years and which environmental stressors are most important in driving changes in water quality,” lead author Alessandro Filazzola said in a news release.

To build the database, researchers mined some 3,322 studies for information on chlorophyll levels in lakes all over the world. Scientists often use chlorophyll as a proxy for measuring an ecosystem’s health because it is a good predictor of primary production — the amount of vegetation and algae growing in lakes.

Primary production sounds good, but more chlorophyll isn’t always better than less chlorophyll. Rising chlorophyll levels is typically a sign of degraded water quality and declining ecosystems health, researchers say.

“Human activity, climate warming, agricultural, urban runoff and phosphorus from land use can all increase the level of chlorophyll in lakes,” said Filazzola, a postdoctoral research fellow at York. “The primary production is most represented by the amount of chlorophyll in the lake, which has a cascading impact on the phytoplankton that eat the algae and the fish that eat the phytoplankton and the fish that eat those fish.”

“If the chlorophyll is too low, it can have cascading negative effects on the entire ecosystem, while too much can cause an abundance of algae growth, which is not always good,” he said.

Rising global temperatures have encouraged algae blooms in many lakes around the world, and extreme weather events have exacerbated agricultural runoff problems, flooding lakes with excess nutrients. The problem is especially pronounced in lakes near urban watersheds and agricultural areas.

In addition to chlorophyll data, researchers compiled information on phosphorous and nitrogen levels, which can help predict changes in chlorophyll. Scientists also collected data on each lake’s physical characteristics, as well as climate data and land use information.

“In addition to drinking water, freshwater is important for transportation, agriculture, and recreation, and provides habitats for more than 100,000 species of invertebrates, insects, animals and plants,” said senior researcher Sapna Sharma.

“The database can be used to improve our understanding of how chlorophyll levels respond to global environmental change and it provides baseline comparisons for environmental managers responsible for maintaining water quality in lakes,” said Sharma, an associate professor of biology at York.



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