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.11

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

Give Me A Brake

Traffic jam in Dhaka, Bangladesh // Source: The New York Times

We tend to take air conditioning (AC) for granted. Even in our cars, we can drive around on the hottest days in total comfort. We are lucky to live in an affluent country where a car with AC is the norm. In less wealthy countries, it is much less common to have AC in vehicles and as such, individuals in poorer countries are more likely to instead drive with the windows down.

You might be wondering why I am stating something that seems so obvious. Well this week, researchers from the University of Surrey found that individuals in less affluent countries are disproportionately exposed to air pollution simply because they rely on driving with their windows down for ventilation.

Researchers examined levels of air pollution exposure for commuters in ten global cities at different times of day; “Dhaka (Bangladesh), Chennai (India), Guangzhou (China), Medellín (Colombia), São Paulo (Brazil), Cairo (Egypt), Sulaymaniyah (Iraq), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Blantyre (Malawi), and Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania).”

Results showed that the highest levels of pollution exposure occurred while the vehicle windows were open during peak driving hours, subjecting “car passengers to hotspots of air pollution for up to a third of the total travel length.” On the other hand, commuters who decided to instead turn on air recirculation and keep the windows up were exposed to 80% less harmful particles than those who drove with their windows open.

While it is slightly ironic that the very cars we are driving around are responsible for causing a significant amount of pollution in the first place, we cannot ignore the differences in exposure due to a disparity in wealth and affluence- this is a matter of air pollution inequality.


Swapping Debt for Nature

Seychelles’ Ocean

Source: The Telegraph

Being in debt is never a good thing but Seychelles (off the East coast of Africa) got to alleviate theirs in a positive manner- for marine conservation. Debt-for-nature swaps have occurred in the past for preservation of tropical forests in South America and the Caribbean but this is the first time globally that it is being done for a marine environment. This endeavour involved years of extensive ocean mapping being the second largest project in the world after Norway’s Marine Spatial Plan. In 2020 they have been able to protect their ocean area the size of Germany from unregulated economic exploitation. Despite this archipelago of biological diversity having less than 1000,000 residents and one of the smallest GDPs, at present they have tripled the United Nation’s target for protecting ocean wildlife and made their local economy resilient.

These islands depend on fishing and marine tourism for revenue. However, overfishing, climate change, plastic pollution and mass coral bleaching threatened the local blue economy as two-thirds of their economy depends on the oceans. These events did not help with their $406m debt but in 2015 $22m of their debt was paid off by The Nature Conservancy group and traded for ocean protection where 13 new marine protected areas (MPA) were created. Since then, within these areas aquatic species such as the Indian Ocean’s only dugongs, Southern Ocean humpback whales, endangered turtles, sharks, manta rays and tuna are being protected. These MPAs also encouraged increased protection of coastal mangroves, coral reefs and atolls, canyons, lagoons and seagrass. While these ecosystems are flourishing due to the conservation efforts the local economy is also becoming robust.


 Rats Uh Find A Way

Photo by Mert Guller on Unsplash

Since the beginning of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic a few different animals have been suggested to be the cause. At first it was rats, then bats have been blamed. This begs the question – why are we coming in contact with rats and bats in the first place? These animals are considered pests and known to carry disease, so why do we keep letting them do it? Well, we don’t let them do it intentionally, but our actions have been causing surges in their populations. 

An assessment published in the journal Nature, and reported on by The Guardian has found that human induced destruction of ecosystems increases the number of rats and other animals which may harbor viruses. This assessment found that as wild places are destroyed due to the world’s ever-expanding population and consumption, changes are observed in animal populations that increase the risk of outbreaks. It has thus been suggested that in areas where nature is being ravaged (such as areas being deforested), that healthcare and disease surveillance be ramped up. David Redding of the ZSL Institute of Zoology in London, who worked on the assessment states, “As people go in and, for example, turn a forest into farmland, what they’re doing inadvertently is making it more likely for them to be in contact with an animal that carries disease,”.

Humans really are at the root of every problem, aren’t we? 


New penguin colonies discovered from outer space 

Source: Science Alert

A new study using satellite mapping tech reveals that there are 20% more emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica than was previously thought. The scientists from British Arctic Survey (BAS) explain that they used images from European Comisson’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite mission to locate birds. They were able to find 11 new emperor penguin colonies, 3 which were previously identified not confirmed. This findings takes global census to 61 colonies around the continent. 

Emperor penguins need sea ice to breed and are located in areas that tend to be very difficult to study because they are extremely remote and typically inaccessible with temperatures as low as -50 °C. BAS scientists have been searching for new colonies for the past 10 years using land-based research methods. Dr. Peter Fretwell, a BAS geographer, says that satellite images have enabled scientists to discover colonies that would have been extremely difficult to find otherwise.  

Although this sounds like good news (it is good news, but here comes the not so good news), the colonies are so few and far between that this discovery takes the overall population count up by 5-10% to just over half a million penguins in total. Emperor penguins are known to be vulnerable to loss of sea ice (their breeding habitat). Given current climate change projections, this habitat is likely to further decline. Most of the new colonies are on the edge of the breeding ground meaning that they are likely to be lost as the climate warms. These sites will be watched carefully as climate change continues to affect this region. The results of the study provide an important benchmark for monitoring the impacts of environmental change on the population of emperor penguins. 


Artic Lows:  we’re not just talking about the temperature

Source: NASA Earth Observatory 

Speaking of sea ice – according to the NASA Earth Observatory record-low Arctic sea ice in July 2020 could be further depleted. The 2020 melting season still has at least one more month to gnaw away to Arctic sea ice, and it has already consumed a lot. In July the ice cover spanning the Arctic Ocean reached a record low for this time of year. The maps above images show the sea ice extent in the Arctic ocean over the decades. Extent is defined as the total area in which the ice concentration is at least 15 %. The yellow outlines show the 30-year median extent for the month of July. 

Basically, what is being shown here is a decline of 2.19 million square kilometers of ice below the 1981-2010 average for the month of July. In the context of long-term records, sea ice has been declining in every geographic area in every month and season. There are no guarantees about how the remainder of the 2020 melting season will play out from now until the end of September. If you remember (or if you don’t, I’m here to tell you) the sea ice in 2019 reached a record-low for July, but ended up tied for the second-lowest annual minimum in mid-September; unexpected but not impossible. 

To read more about how atmospheric low-pressure systems over the Arctic Ocean could affect the ice click here and scroll down. 


New plant’s in New Guinea 

Source: University of Zurich 

An international collaboration led the University of Zurich has shown that New Guinea is the most floristically diverse island in the world. The study presents a list of nearly 14,000 different plant species verified by plant experts. At almost 20 times the size of Switzerland, New Guinea is the world’s largest tropical island. The island features a mosaic of ecosystems from lowland jungles, elevated grassland and high peaks, making plant diversity extremely unique.

 Efforts to identify and name thousands of plant species in New Guinea has been ongoing since the 17th century! It wasn’t until recently that scientists who worked independently of each other came together to create a plant-checklist for the island. Under the lead of Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Prof. Jordi Bascompte in the UZH Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, 99 scientists from 56 institutions and 19 countries have now built the first expert-verified checklist for the 13,634 vascular plant species of New Guinea and its surrounding islands. Through thorough cataloging, standardizing and reviewing, a resulting checklist of plants was born. 

One noteworthy finding is that 68% of the plants are endemic meaning that they are only found in the region. “Such high endemic species richness is unmatched in tropical Asia,” says Cámara-Leret. This means that Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (two states in which the island is found) have a responsibility to protect this irreplaceable biodiversity. The results are invaluable for research and conservation, while also underlining the importance of expert knowledge in the digital era for the future of discoveries.

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.

Shanella Ramkissoon is a Masters in Environment and Sustainability candidate. Her background is in the field of Environmental Science and Environment and Resource Management. Her interests lie in environmental conservation, especially for marine species such as coral reefs, turtles and dolphins. In her free time, she enjoys landscape photography, baking and art and craft projects.

Alexandra completed her Masters degree in Environment and Sustainability at Western University. She also holds a Bachelor’s of Science from the University of Windsor with Honours in Environmental Studies, where she concentrated in Resource Management and was actively involved in undergraduate research. Outside of academia, she enjoys hiking, camping, and spending her summers on the beach in Prince Edward Island.

Alex has a background in Environmental Science holding an undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies, and a Masters of Environment and Sustainability (MES) from Western University. Alex was born and raised in Barbados, a small island in the Caribbean, and has spent the past seven years attending school in Canada, while returning to Barbados for the summer and Christmas periods. Alex is passionate about the environment as he has been able to witness firsthand the effects of climate change on marine and tropical environments, and hopes to spread awareness about these issues.