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Highlights from the Week's News

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The European Union Moves to Criminalize Ecocide

March 03, 2024

Hot, Dry, and Windy Conditions Lead to Largest Fire in Texas History

Last week, hot, dry, and windy conditions across the Central Plains led to warnings from the National Weather Service about the high risk of fire danger for eight million people in Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas. The massive Smokehouse Creek wildfire has been burning in the Texas panhandle for a week and has become the state’s largest in history, burning over one million acres and killing two people. As of March 2, it was only 15 percent contained.

Heavy smoke crossing a road on the Smokehouse Creek Fire on the afternoon of February 27, 2024  |  Credit: InciWeb, the U.S. interagency all-risk incident information management system

The panhandle region consists mostly of shortgrass prairie species that have evolved with fire. Karen Hickman of Oklahoma State University describes in The Conversation that a Texas conservation program has planted perennial species of mid-height or taller that can feed a fire more than shorter species can. Heather Gonzales of Texas A&M told Scientific American that a strong wet growing season led to this winter’s above-normal “fuel loading.” The area has around 85 percent of the cattle in Texas—about 10 million animals—and it is not yet known how many have died.

On Monday, February 26, temperatures in Amarillo, near the wildfire, reached 82F, when the average daily high for the month is 54 degrees. Last week, from Texas to Michigan, more than 130 monthly record-high temperatures were set, Axios reports. According to Yale Climate Connections, the classic El Niño weather pattern that brings milder, drier winters across the northern U.S. has been affected in a way that is consistent with human-caused global warming. The recent winter months of December, January, and February will probably be the warmest on record in the lower 48 states. 

New EU Laws Restore Ecosystems and Criminalize Ecocide

The European Parliament of the European Union passed a law last week that requires member states to restore at least 30 percent of lands and sea areas in poor condition by 2030, 60 percent by 2040, and 90 percent by 2050. 

Peatlands ecosystem  |  Credit: The European Climate Initiative (EUKI)

The legislation’s aim is to reverse the degradation of the continent’s natural habitats, more than four-fifths of which are in poor health. In addition, the law mandates that EU countries restore about one-third of drained peatlands and make progress on agricultural biodiversity such as increasing the number of butterflies and birds. According to a release from the EU, restoring drained peatlands is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural sector.

The new law faced strong opposition from farmers and conservative lawmakers, who were able to weaken proposed parts of the measure that would have introduced more trees, ponds, and other biodiverse features to farmland. There were weeks of protests against the legislation including, according to DW, a violent demonstration last week outside the EU’s Brussels headquarters.

The EU passed an additional measure to criminalize serious cases of environmental damage that are “comparable to ecocide.” The law sets penalties and prison sentences for causing habitat loss, illegal logging, and ecosystem destruction. Marie Toussaint, a French member of the EU parliament, told Euronews that it was one of the most ambitious laws in the world and puts an end to environmental impunity in Europe. There have been growing calls to make ecocide—generally defined as the destruction of the environment that is severe, widespread, and long term—a crime under international law.

Boiling Away Microplastics to Keep Them Out of Tap Water

Microplastics are nearly impossible to avoid. They’re in the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. They’ve been linked to serious health issues such as endocrine disruption, weight gain, insulin resistance, decreased reproductive health, and cancer. Now, a disturbing new study found that plastics are accumulating in babies even before they’re born.

Credit: Holger Ellgaard/Creative Commons

Researchers at the University of New Mexico found microplastics in all of the 62 placenta samples they tested, with polyethylene, used to make plastic bags and bottles, the most prevalent. Polyvinyl chloride (better known as PVC) and nylon each represented about ten percent of the total, with the remainder consisting of nine other polymers.

How can we, and especially expectant moms, limit our exposure to microplastics? Another new study out last week says perhaps by boiling our water. Chinese researchers tested what happened when three plastic compounds—polystyrene, polyethylene, and polypropylene—were boiled in “hard water,” which is fresh water that contains high levels of minerals like calcium and magnesium.

They found the calcium formed incrustants, a chalky substance commonly known as limescale, that ensnared the plastic after boiling the water for around five minutes. They say the plastic-laden incrustants were easily scrubbed away and any remaining plastic was removed by pouring the water through a coffee filter. The process removed around 90 percent of nano- and microplastics present in hard water and the scientists found that even in soft water with fewer minerals, boiling removed around 25 percent.

Because the study looked only at three types of plastic, the team plans to continue their research. That said, boiling water can remove potentially harmful viruses and bacteria, so if you want to try this at home, they say to let the water cool for ten minutes before filtering. However, most agree the best solution would be to stop plastics at their source, and last week, experts testified before two Senate Subcommittees, saying American drinking water has some of the highest concentrations of microplastics in the world and that Congress needs to act.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

Expectant Musk Oxen Mothers Know How to Find Nutrition

Expectant moms are told to make sure they’re getting enough folic acid, iron, and vitamin D to have healthy babies. What about pregnant wild animals? They can’t exactly run to a drug store to supplement their diets, or can they?

Musk oxen grazing tundra in Greenland's Zackerberg Valley that were used in the study. Pictured are a calf and an adult.  |  Credit: Lars Holst Hansen/Aarhus University

Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark studying musk oxen in Greenland have discovered that the females forage in areas where the minerals they need are in the soil—and by extension in the plants they eat.

Pregnant musk oxen need trace elements like copper and selenium, but not all areas in the tundra of southern Greenland have them. The scientists found the moms-to-be knew to hoof it to mineral-rich grassy areas to eat so they’d have more calves. In contrast, if they foraged at higher elevations where contaminants such as lead and arsenic are more concentrated, they had fewer babies, so the females tended to stay in the valleys.

This special relationship could be in jeopardy as the Arctic is warming four times faster than the global average, causing permafrost to thaw and release biological, chemical, and radioactive materials, which could disrupt an ecosystem that wildlife has depended on for centuries.

The study was published in the journal Science of The Total Environment.