Own the conversation this weekend with The WTF, a top-6 collection of the current and topical environmental news briefs, delivered with a side of humour.

The WTF: The Week This Friday Vol. 43

This is the Week This Friday! 6 quick-and-smart briefs about happenings in the environmental space.

Increasing Numbers of North Atlantic Right Whales: A Promising Sign Or False Hope?

Source: Science

North Atlantic Right Whales are listed as Critically Endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN); their populations are in decline and they’re on track to becoming extinct. Three years ago, this species was observed to be producing no offspring at all, which was quite a blow to the scientific community and conservation groups. However, this past winter (2020-2021), these whale populations reproduced in greater numbers than have been seen since 2015. Is this increase in births a promising trend for this whale species or could it just be false hope since many threats to this species still exist?

The past few years have been dismal for this species’ reproduction, but this year we’ve seen more newborns than the combined total for the past 3 years. Researchers believe that the declining trends could have been due to a shortage in available food (e.g. zooplankton) and this new spike could be attributed to the whales moving into regions with more abundant food sources.

This past winter season, research teams spotted 17 newborn right whales with their mothers offshore between Florida and North Carolina. However, one of the newborns soon died after being struck by a boat – a prime example of a threat that experts fear is driving their declining numbers. Along with boat collisions, the other major threat to this species’ survival is entanglement in fishing gear.

The overall population of North Atlantic Right Whales is dwindling around 360 individuals, so scientists are still very cautious and hope to see higher birth trends continue. This upward climb in newborns is a hopeful sign, but in order to help this species stabilize to a healthy level and grow again, they need to be better protected and the human activities that threaten their existence need to be better managed.

The Earliest Cherry Blossom Bloom in Japan – Result of Climate Change

Source: Unsplash

The earliest bloom in over 1,200 years. Read that again. Japan’s cherry blossoms are hitting historical records of the earliest bloom due to climate warming. The peak of the bloom was recorded on March 25th in the capital city of Kyoto. Researchers at Osaka University, traced back in time while looking at historical data that was recorded in diaries of emperors, aristocrats, governors and monks to conclude this finding.

Due to the fluctuation in the weather, it leads the cherry trees to bloom faster than ever this year. In Japan this year, January was very cold and then February was very warm, leading to the acceleration of the blooms.

The cherry blossoms are a big part of the Japanese culture and often attract large crowds during their blooming season; the flower viewing has become a tradition which dates back centuries. The cherry trees are very sensitive to temperatures, and out of the 58 tracked trees, 40 have hit their peak bloom.

Lights Off For Fireflies

Source: Unsplash

Light pollution is classified as another driving force for the insect apocalypse that we are facing. There are two new studies which point to the negative unintentional effects of artificial light. One study focuses on how grasshoppers were drawn to the city lights of Las Vegas (Maybe they wanted to hop over and try their luck at the casinos?). While another study is showing the correlation between artificial light at night and the mating of fireflies – this could long-term drive a wedge in the survival of the species.

Avalon Owens, an entomologist at Tufts University has been studying fireflies for about ten years between North America to Taiwan, where the insects can be seen year-round and thought to be the spirits of ancestors.

Fireflies are part of the beetle family and create flashes of light in their abdomens. These flashes depend on the species itself, but the main purpose of the flashes is to attract mates. With light pollution being the main disturbance of this natural process, disconnecting the search for potential mates within the species. Such courtship suppresses light, and the study has concluded that bright amber light was the worst culprit behind the disturbance.

While no light is the most obvious solution, it is often still needed to light the way for safety and traffic. There are suggestions for lights with motion sensors to help the situation as we don’t need constant lights on.

Americans Opting for Economic Relief Instead of Environmental Protection

Source: Gallup

A new survey released this week showed that many Americans are currently more worried about the economy than protecting the environment. A company known as Gallup has been surveying the American population annually for over 36 years, and the most recent poll conducted in 2020 has shown that 50% of Americans believe that protecting the environment is of importance. Whereas 42% of the surveyed population believe that strengthening the economy is a greater priority.

At first glance, the results may show that more Americans prioritize the environment over economic growth, however, this is one of the lowest percentages recorded of this category since 2015; this year’s result is down from 60% in early 2020 (surveyed before the pandemic) and is the lowest recorded since 2015 when only 46% of the population held this view.

Gallup has stated that the rise of interest in the economy might be due to the current U.S. unemployment rate, which has been steadily increasing ever since the initial lockdown in March 2020. The struggle to make a stable income has most definitely affected how many people view the economy within their country, as they seek relief and stability from it.

However, it is still impressive that more Americans still value the environment, even if only by a slim margin. Gallup has been quick to say that the current Biden administration has been pursuing an environmental agenda that might cause economic risks but protects the country’s natural systems in the process. Progress is progress nonetheless.

Coffee Can Wake Up Forests, Too!

Source: Stuff

New research from a study in Costa Rica shows that putting coffee pulp on the ground layer of forests can help ecosystem restoration. The study took place in a region of southern Costa Rica that had previously experienced rapid deforestation of the tropical rainforests for agricultural land. Before the experiment, the lands were mostly dominated by non-native pasture grasses.

The team compared two sites in their study, one covered with coffee pulp and the other not. They measured soil quality, plant species, tree trunk diameter, and forest ground cover. On the coffee-treated land, they saw faster tree growth, more vegetation, denser tree trunks, and greater canopy height after two years compared to non-treated land. The coffee-treated land also had nearly 30 times more tree coverage than the non-treated land.

After the two year study period, the non-treated land was still more than 75% covered in the non-native grasses, but the coffee-treated land had new growth of herbaceous plants, improvements in the soil quality, and a much more lush ecosystem overall.

The researchers believe that their results could be very useful to inform future forest restoration efforts, although they note that restoration methods vary depending on location and other local factors. This method appears to be a promising solution to this region, at least. Who knew that this beloved brew could revitalize nature as well as humans?

New Documentary Takes Us Behind the Scenes of B.C.’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre 

10 questions with a marine mammal rescue expert | Cottage Life

The Marine Mammal Rescue Centre team freeing a seal entangled by plastic // Source: Cottage Life citing White Pine Pictures Inc.

If you’re an avid browser of environmental news, the oceans should be on your radar, especially in the past few weeks. A new three-part documentary series titled “Wild Pacific Rescue” follows the B.C. Marine Mammal Rescue Centre (MMR) and shows us what goes on behind the scenes, from the operating room to the ocean. The documentary explores things like the Sealion Disentanglement Program, which involves remotely injecting animals that have been severely entangled in marine debris with a dart gun and freeing them. Viewers will get to meet some of the animals recovering at the centre, like Quatse, a baby sea otter found isolated and unconscious near Port Hardy, and Sandy, a stellar sealion who was discovered lying comatose on a beach near Tofino in March.

The Vancouver Aquarium’s rescue centre saves more than 100 marine mammals each year and rehabilitates them at its facility near Crab Park before releasing them back into the wild. The documentary series will start airing this coming Wednesday, April 14th on Cottage Life TV. Documentary director Michael Sheehan was given exclusive access to the team and its facilities to document their work and to show people the front-line work that goes on to protect these amazing animals. “The underlying goal was just to engage people, the whole idea of conservation and the threats that wildlife face and how those threats are related to human activity, and what people can do to eliminate those negative threats,” Vancouver Aquarium head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena explains. To find out more about the series, click here. Cottage Life also conducted an exclusive interview with the team to answer a list of top 10 questions about the MMR.

Siobhan Mullally is studying in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS) at the University of Waterloo while also minoring in English Language and Literature. As a budding ecologist, researcher, and writer, she is interested in exploring the intersections between environment and communication to inspire climate action. In her free time, she enjoys spending time in nature and getting lost in her favourite novels.

Greta Vaivadaite is a Journalist, Online Editorial and Social Media Coordinator at Alternatives Media. Greta has completed her undergraduate studies at York University in Environmental Management, and completed her Masters of Environment and Sustainability at Western University in 2020. Her professional interests lay in advocating for environmental education, sustainable fashion, and a greener travel industry. 

Teo Guzu is a Master’s in Environment and Sustainability student with a focus on policy and research. Her background is in the field of Sociology and Global Development Studies where she developed an interest in how climate change disproportionately affects different communities. Her interests lie in plastics and waste management, conservation, and clean technology. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family/friends and her dog Charlie, reading, writing, and watching docu-series on various topics.