Marine systems

Plastic pollution now found in drinking water all over the world

Plastic pollution now found in drinking water all over the world

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 9/14/17

Sometimes reading a science article can be downright scary. On September 5, I read a piece in the Guardian, “Plastic fibers found in tap water around the world, study reveals.” U.S. scientific researchers analyzed tap water samples from more than a dozen nations for an investigation by Orb Media (orbmedia.org), a non-profit journalism group. The Orb study, entitled “Invisibles: The plastics inside us,” concluded that billions of people on five continents are drinking water contaminated by plastic micro-particles.

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Synthetic clothing crisis: Microfibers mucking up our oceans

Synthetic clothing crisis: Microfibers mucking up our oceans

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel April 20, 2017

Those warm, cuddly fleece jackets and quick-dry synthetic fabrics that fill so many of our closets now have created a big problem for the world’s oceans. Every time they get washed, clothes made from synthetic fabric shed thousands of tiny microfibers. Carried along with dirty wash water to the sewer and on to the wastewater treatment plant, many microfibers are so small they pass right through wastewater filters and are carried all the way out to our bays and oceans.

Tiny microfibers have turned into an enormous problem. In 2011, British ecologist Mark Anthony Browne published research describing the discovery of microfibers—mostly synthetic polyester and acrylic—on beaches worldwide, but most highly concentrated near wastewater disposal sites. Suspecting that these microfibers came from laundered clothing, Browne filtered the water used to wash a single fleece jacket and retrieved 1,900 fibers.

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Cuba natural areas: From rainforests to desert islands

 Cuba natural areas: From rainforests to desert islands

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 2/24/17

Turkey vultures soar above in clear blue skies as I write from a hotel lobby on one of the 2,500 islands in the Jardines del Rey Archipelago off the north coast of Cuba. It’s day 13 of a 16-day tour focused on Cuba’s natural areas.

Our small group has been waiting here four hours to check in. Hotels in Cuba — even those billed as “four star” — seem completely overwhelmed by the booming influx of tourists from all over the world. Plumbing often leaks, Wi-Fi is sporadic at best, lights flicker, toilet seats are commonly missing, and towel racks dangle from the walls. But never mind, the music is infectious, the beer and rum flow freely, and the Cuban people are relaxed and friendly.

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Full STEAM ahead: Artist creating a business to return art to schools

Full STEAM ahead: Artist creating a business to return art to schools

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 11/17/2016

What would happen if our nation’s schools embraced the teaching of art to enhance student understanding of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects? According to local artist and entrepreneur Ed Martinez, integrating hands-on art projects into the widely accepted STEM curriculum would result in nothing short of an educational paradigm shift.

“Decades ago art was isolated from the academic environment. That made it easy to eliminate the arts from the curriculum, and that’s what we have now,” Martinez says.

“Many kids are lost along the way because their curiosity is not stimulated by book learning alone. When hands-on art projects are added to the STEM curriculum, students begin to recognize and tap their own genius,” he adds.

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Calling all earthlings: Planet at the crossroads

Calling all earthlings: Planet at the crossroads

I spent the past 10 days in Honolulu with some 9,500 conservationists from 192 countries, attending the IUCN Worldwide Conservation Congress, “the most important conference going on in the world today, but most people don’t know about it,” according to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

“We tend to think that the biggest threat is ISIS or interest rates ... amazing that we don’t think about the state of our biosphere,” Friedman added.

Conference attendees didn’t need any convincing. The 2016 conference theme “Planet at the Crossroads” highlighted the urgent need to change humankind’s path toward irreversible climate change and unprecedented species extinction.

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A glimpse of Galápagos life before man intervened

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 4/28/16

 The author next to a Galapagos giant tortoise in the wild on Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

The author next to a Galapagos giant tortoise in the wild on Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

In month 10 of my yearlong trip around the world, I flew from Quito, Ecuador, 600 miles west to the tiny Pacific island of Baltra in the Galápagos Islands. From Baltra, I took a spectacular cruise on a 75-foot catamaran, exploring six of the islands.

On this eight-day voyage, I was thrilled by the unique natural beauty of this volcanic archipelago. I also learned about some egregious human impacts that have taken a big toll here and the extraordinary efforts underway to reverse them.

The Galápagos, of course, are famed as the site of Charles Darwin’s epic 1835 journey on Captain Robert Fitzroy’s HMS Beagle. The strange wildlife endemic to this place — most notably Galapágos finches and giant tortoises — started Darwin’s wheels turning about natural selection and led to his eventual publication of “The Origin of Species.”

My longtime fascination with the Galápagos is shared with some 150,000 tourists who visit each year. Since 1959, most of the entire land mass of the Galápagos Islands was designated as a national park and as a World Heritage Site protected area. So, tourism is regulated, especially extended cruises, where trips to each island are professionally guided and well-coordinated.

Most of the islands still seem pristine and are incredibly beautiful. We hiked across huge spreads of black Pahoe-Hoe lava dotted with cacti. We got up close to some of the rarest birds in the world, including red-footed boobies, Galápagos finches and flightless cormorants. We plodded alongside huge Galápagos giant tortoises and land iguanas in the wild.

 A marine iguana on Isla Santiago, Galapagos Islands.

A marine iguana on Isla Santiago, Galapagos Islands.

We snorkeled with sea lions, penguins, and Pacific green turtles and walked among hundreds of marine iguanas piled up on the beach like stacks of pancakes.

But, as our guide carefully explained, the monumental efforts now in place to conserve biodiversity on the Galápagos got a late start.

When the first Europeans landed in the Galápagos in 1535, there were no humans living there. The islands’ remoteness, inhospitable terrain and scarcity of water would have made permanent settlement very difficult indeed.

In the 1700s, the Galápagos became a frequent port for whalers, because of the islands’ proximity to prime sperm whale habitat.

In the 1800s, whalers aggressively sought out the slow-moving Galápagos giant tortoise as a food source. Because these reptiles can survive for months without food or water, they could be easily be kept alive on board ship before ending up in the stew pot.

Whalers took more than 100,000 giant tortoises from the islands. As tortoise populations plummeted, whalers looked for a new food source. They released a few goats to one of the islands, intending to return periodically to hunt them.

But the goats, without any natural predators, quickly reached a population of 100,000 that devastated the island’s native flora needed by the tortoises — another step down the path to extinction.

Similar stories have played out throughout the Galápagos with goats, dogs, pigs — and lately, a fly maggot — all continuously being imported by people and wreaking havoc on native ecosystems.

In 1959, when the Galápagos Islands was declared a World Heritage site, UNESCO partnered with the Charles Darwin Foundation to fund research, conservation, and education strategies to protect endemic species of the islands.

Since then, the Galápagos Islands have attracted top conservation scientists and witnessed some of the most extraordinary invasive species eradication projects anywhere. For example, Project Isabela, overseen by Galápagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation, has eradicated feral goats and pigs from Santiago and Isabela islands.

While tourist dollars help fund conservation efforts, tourists also unwittingly import new invasive species every year. If you go, be prepared to have your baggage inspected!

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is taking a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

Cutting-edge research in a tropical paradise

by Betsy Herbert

"Earth Matters," published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 02/18/16

  Undergraduate researchers from California work at the UC Berkeley Gump Research Station in Moorea, French Polynesia. Betsy Herbert — Contributed   In month nine of my yearlong trip around the world, I decided to hang out on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia during the offseason. What a great way to experience this tropical paradise and to appreciate the scientific research underway here!  I began my stay by going for a group swim in a crystalline turquoise lagoon alongside 4-foot sting rays and black-tipped reef sharks. While the sharks were not at all aggressive, the rays seemed downright affectionate, sliding against our bodies and peering at us from strangely human-looking eyes.  My beach bungalow at the laid-back Kaveka Hotel was an idyllic retreat with “Bali Hai” views of Cooks Bay and the coral reef that separates it from the Pacific Ocean. Directly across the bay, I could see UC Berkeley’s Gump Research Station, the hub of scientific inquiry that has helped to make Moorea the most studied island in the world.  In 1975, Richard B. Gump, the original owner of San Francisco’s premier gift store, donated the land on Moorea to UC Berkeley to establish the research center, with the goal of analyzing the island as a model ecosystem to understand how global changes are affecting it over time.  Frank Murphy, associate director of Gump Research Station, said Moorea makes an exceptional natural laboratory. The island is small enough (about twice the size of Manhattan) to enable scientists to construct an inventory of all of the non-microbial species known to be living there. The Moorea Biocode project was designed to accomplish this feat and is the first of its kind.  Envisioned by the center’s director, Neil Davies, Moorea Biocode enlisted researchers from 2008-2010 to ascend jagged peaks, slog through tropical forests and dive among coral reefs to sample the entire spectrum of Moorea’s animal and plant life. The end result will be a library of genetic markers and physical identifiers for every species of plant, animal and fungi on the island — and this library will be available to the public.  The coral reefs and lagoons that surround the island of Moorea have been of particular interest to “swarms of scientists who come here every year,” says Murphy, as part of the Moorea Coral Reef Long-term Ecological Research project. Though coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, worldwide almost 20 percent have been lost and another 35 percent could be lost by 2050.  These scientists have been monitoring and recording data about Moorea’s coral reefs for more than 15 years.  “This approach has considerable potential in better understanding how global climate change will affect reef corals, and we are working toward developing modeling approaches to achieve this outcome,” according to Peter Edmunds, a researcher from Cal State Hayward.  Another exciting project envisioned by Davies is the making of a digital model of the entire Moorea ecosystem, including its biological, physical and human cultural aspects. Named “Moorea IDEA,” for Island Digital Ecosystem Avatar, the end product would be an online 3-D model. Scientists and others could pose questions online, and the model would simulate how different impacts might affect the entire ecosystem.  I asked Murphy if people on Moorea were worried about sea-level rise, as a result of global warming.  “We’re in better shape than lots of places,” he said. “If worse came to worse and everything crashed, we could almost be self-sufficient.”  That’s because Moorea has tall mountains and considerable arable land. Other places, such as in the Motu archipelago, Murphy posits, “will be underwater in 60 years, because the atolls don’t have any high ground. A whole history of culture will be going underwater.”   Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.    

Undergraduate researchers from California work at the UC Berkeley Gump Research Station in Moorea, French Polynesia. Betsy Herbert — Contributed

In month nine of my yearlong trip around the world, I decided to hang out on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia during the offseason. What a great way to experience this tropical paradise and to appreciate the scientific research underway here!

I began my stay by going for a group swim in a crystalline turquoise lagoon alongside 4-foot sting rays and black-tipped reef sharks. While the sharks were not at all aggressive, the rays seemed downright affectionate, sliding against our bodies and peering at us from strangely human-looking eyes.

My beach bungalow at the laid-back Kaveka Hotel was an idyllic retreat with “Bali Hai” views of Cooks Bay and the coral reef that separates it from the Pacific Ocean. Directly across the bay, I could see UC Berkeley’s Gump Research Station, the hub of scientific inquiry that has helped to make Moorea the most studied island in the world.

In 1975, Richard B. Gump, the original owner of San Francisco’s premier gift store, donated the land on Moorea to UC Berkeley to establish the research center, with the goal of analyzing the island as a model ecosystem to understand how global changes are affecting it over time.

Frank Murphy, associate director of Gump Research Station, said Moorea makes an exceptional natural laboratory. The island is small enough (about twice the size of Manhattan) to enable scientists to construct an inventory of all of the non-microbial species known to be living there. The Moorea Biocode project was designed to accomplish this feat and is the first of its kind.

Envisioned by the center’s director, Neil Davies, Moorea Biocode enlisted researchers from 2008-2010 to ascend jagged peaks, slog through tropical forests and dive among coral reefs to sample the entire spectrum of Moorea’s animal and plant life. The end result will be a library of genetic markers and physical identifiers for every species of plant, animal and fungi on the island — and this library will be available to the public.

The coral reefs and lagoons that surround the island of Moorea have been of particular interest to “swarms of scientists who come here every year,” says Murphy, as part of the Moorea Coral Reef Long-term Ecological Research project. Though coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, worldwide almost 20 percent have been lost and another 35 percent could be lost by 2050.

These scientists have been monitoring and recording data about Moorea’s coral reefs for more than 15 years.

“This approach has considerable potential in better understanding how global climate change will affect reef corals, and we are working toward developing modeling approaches to achieve this outcome,” according to Peter Edmunds, a researcher from Cal State Hayward.

Another exciting project envisioned by Davies is the making of a digital model of the entire Moorea ecosystem, including its biological, physical and human cultural aspects. Named “Moorea IDEA,” for Island Digital Ecosystem Avatar, the end product would be an online 3-D model. Scientists and others could pose questions online, and the model would simulate how different impacts might affect the entire ecosystem.

I asked Murphy if people on Moorea were worried about sea-level rise, as a result of global warming.

“We’re in better shape than lots of places,” he said. “If worse came to worse and everything crashed, we could almost be self-sufficient.”

That’s because Moorea has tall mountains and considerable arable land. Other places, such as in the Motu archipelago, Murphy posits, “will be underwater in 60 years, because the atolls don’t have any high ground. A whole history of culture will be going underwater.”

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

 

Western Australia: Dolphins, dead ‘roos, and dazzling coastline

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 12/17/2015

 Limestone columns rise from the yellow dunes of Pinnacles in Nambung National Park (photo by Betsy Herbert)

Limestone columns rise from the yellow dunes of Pinnacles in Nambung National Park (photo by Betsy Herbert)

Just 10 days ago I was lazing on the beach in Phuket, Thailand, reflecting on my travels over the past three months in Africa and Asia. The next day I boarded a plane in Bangkok, headed for Perth, Australia.

Ah, Australia! I’d be able to drink tap water without worrying about getting sick. I was also looking forward to renting a car. In Africa and Asia, driving a rental car would have been suicidal for a Westerner.

Decades ago, I’d lived in Australia for about seven months, so I’d visited Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef, Alice Springs, Uluru and Darwin.

This time I wanted to see parts of Australia I’d missed before, so I started in Perth and drove up Indian Ocean Road and Route 60, along the sparsely populated Turquoise and Batavia coasts. The roads in this part of Western Australia are well maintained and there is little traffic other than huge “road trains” of triple-trailer trucks.

Countless turnouts allowed me to observe the astounding desert and coastal landscapes here. The Pinnacles rock formations in Nambung National Park rise out of bright yellow sand dunes. Further north, the natural bridges of Kilbarri National Park rival those of Utah. But in this part of Australia, the red rocks contrast spectacularly with blinding-white sandy beaches and the crystal clear blue-green Indian Ocean. To add to the eye-candy, many of the shrubs of the coastal heath, including hakea and banksia were still blooming, thanks to some late spring rains.

 Natural bridge at Kilbarri National Park, Western Australia (photo by Betsy Herbert)

Natural bridge at Kilbarri National Park, Western Australia (photo by Betsy Herbert)

I was saddened that the only kangaroos I saw on this trip were dead ones; the roadkill was shockingly plentiful. On one 50-kilometer stretch I saw at least 10 dead ‘roos on the side of the road. Almost every car in these parts has a hefty grill protector mounted across its front.

After another 400 kilometers, I crossed the 26th Parallel, which officially marks the boundary of Australia’s Northern Territory. Soon after, I reached Shark Bay, a World Heritage Area, where the world’s largest spread of sea grass provides wonderful habitat for dolphins, dugongs, loggerhead turtles, green sea turtles, tiger sharks, and manta rays, to mention a few well-known megafauna.

Monkey Mia, a beach at Sharks Bay, is renowned for its daily visits from wild bottlenose dolphins. The park rangers there can identify each individual dolphin by the scars and outline of its dorsal fin.

I took a half-day cruise on Shotover, a 60-foot racing catamaran, which is now used for sea life spotting expeditions in Shark Bay. Our boat was accompanied at times by pods of dolphins, most of whom first mate Kate knew by name. We also caught glimpses of dugongs and green sea turtles.

Shark Bay is like a living laboratory where you can view the Earth’s oldest surviving organisms, the stromatolites at Hamelin Pool. Stromatolites are limestone structures resembling meter-wide cow pies. Each is formed over thousands of years by single-celled blue-green algae, which thrive in extremely salty water.

Though they’ve been around for some 3,500 million years, stromatolites still survive at Hamelin Pool only because of the high salinity of the bay here. These conditions are created by Shark Bay’s huge seagrass meadows, which form sand bars and shallow bays where water evaporates quickly in the hot dry climate allowing salt to build up.

No wonder Shark Bay is a World Heritage Area!

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

New monument hugs California coast

New monument hugs California coast

The 1,665-acre Pt. Arena-Stornetta public lands on the Mendocino County coast has become the first portion of the California Coastal National Monument to offer public access.

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Hear ye, hear ye: Environmental events that shaped our county in 2012

Hear ye, hear ye: Environmental events that shaped our county in 2012

It's the time of year to pause and reflect -- I list below some of the 2012 events that helped shape our Santa Cruz environment.

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Salmon will return if given the chance

Salmon will return if given the chance

It’s not all gloom and doom for the Pacific Coast salmon, whose plight has become a crisis. More than 650 scientists, students, land managers and policymakers attended the 30th annual Salmonid Restoration Conference in Davis April 4 -7 to share their work and ideas about restoring watersheds to bring back the salmon (www.calsalmon.org).

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