A naled, or aufeis, in the flesh. Er, ice.
It sounds like science fiction, but, like so many science fiction-ish ideas in the age of radical adaption to climate change, it’s real: Mongolia is launching a $750,000 geoengineering project to freeze vast quantities of the Tuul River in order to cool its capital city of Ulan Bataar during the sweltering summer, and to provide drinking water as the ice melts, as well. While specifics about exactly how the cooling will work are scarce, details about the freezing process are not, as it will mimic a natural process that already occurs on rivers in the north.
The furiously evolving species is the bottom-feeding Atlantic tomcod, which lives in areas of the Hudson that were contaminated by PCBs through much of the 20th century.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were first introduced in 1929 and were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications, mostly as electrical insulators. They were banned 50 years later, but they don’t simply degrade. Partly because of PCB contamination, a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River is the nation’s largest Superfund site. [National Geographic]
Despite swimming in PCB-polluted waters and accumulating the chemicals in their systems, the tomcods are alive and well in the river. In a study in Science this week, Isaac Wirgin and colleagues show that this is because in the span of just a few dozen generations, the fish have evolved a resistance to PCBs.
Ever since the wall burst on a reservoir of industrial waste at a Hungarian alumina plant last week–killing eight people and deluging the countryside with red muck–shocked environmental officials have been scrambling to determine how dangerous the sludge is. It’s common knowledge that the initial torrent was highly basic in pH, which caused hundreds of people to suffer from chemical burns. But once the material was neutralized, the thinking went, the danger should be past.
However, Greenpeace activists have been on the ground in Hungary over the past week, and the red mud they’ve collected and analyzed contained twice as much arsenic as expected, as well as surprisingly high levels of mercury and chromium.
The study has met with scepticism from Hungarian chemists, partly because bauxite, the ore from which most aluminium oxide (and ultimately aluminium) is derived, contains neither mercury nor much arsenic. However, Greenpeace says that the findings have been confirmed by an independent laboratory in Hungary. The Hungarian government’s own figures — based on samples taken by scientists last week at two sites in the area — are yet to be published. [Nature News]
The head of Greenpeace campaigns in Central and Eastern Europe, a chemist named Herwig Schuster, says there may be an obvious explanation for the arsenic and mecury’s presence: The alumina plant may have mixed its industrial wastes.
Earlier this week we brought you news of water woes in the American southwest, where reservoir levels have dropped dangerously low, and in China, where the government is spending $60 billion to route water to parched cites like Beijing. Now comes news of just how widespread the world’s water problems really are. A study in Nature reports that nearly 80 percent of the world’s population lives in areas where the fresh water supply isn’t secure. And while industrialized nations have made massive investments in infrastructure to keep the faucets flowing, those projects have taken a toll on the environment.
[The researchers] say that in western countries, conserving water for people through reservoirs and dams works for people, but not nature. They urge developing countries not to follow the same path. Instead, they say governments should to invest in water management strategies that combine infrastructure with “natural” options such as safeguarding watersheds, wetlands and flood plains. [BBC News]
80beats: Water Woes: The Southwest’s Supply Dwindles; China’s Behemoth Plumbing Project Goes On
80beats: Saudi to Use Plentiful Resource (Sunlight) to Produce Scarce Resource (Fresh Water)
80beats: From 300 Miles Up, Satellites See Water Crisis in India’s Future
DISCOVER: How Big Is Your Water Footprint?
DISCOVER: Dams, From Hoover to Three Gorges to the Crumbling Ones
Images: Nature / C. J. Vörösmarty et al.
Mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, nickel, zinc—they’re all getting into the waters of northern Canada in dangerous amounts because of mining in the oil sands, according to a study coming out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Canada‘s oil sands hold an estimated 13 percent of the proven oil reserves in the world, and the United States grows increasingly reliant upon them to meet our petroleum needs. However, the process of extracting and refining the oil is energy-intensive, and dirty. An industry-led group called Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) oversees the pollution coming from oil sands exploration, and it has maintained that elevated levels of toxins in the nearby Athabasca River system come from natural oil seepage. However, the University of Alberta’s Erin Kelly and David Schindler say in their study that no, it’s the oil exploration that’s increasing the concentration of these elements in the water.
The Ting River
The waste water came from the Zijinshan mine in China’s Fujian province. Though earlier this month mine operators blamed weather for waste water entering the river, this week they admitted to and contaminating the river with–as The Sydney Morning Herald puts it–”four Olympic-size swimming pools” worth of waste water containing acidic copper.
Zijin’s board of directors expresses “its deep regret regarding the incident and the improper handling of information disclosure by the company, for causing substantial losses to the fish farmers located at the reservoir downstream of the mine and having a harmful impact on society,” the company said yesterday. [Bloomberg Businessweek]
Chinese police have detained two of the mine’s operators. Meanwhile, acidic copper has reportedly killed 4 million pounds of fish and threatens drinking water.
Reports from China’s official Xinhua News Agency suggest that Zijin is being required only to fix the problem and compensate locals with an offer of three yuan for every kilogram of dead fish. That makes the potential payout about 6 million yuan, [about $900,000]. [Sidney Morning Herald]
Brazil’s controversial plan to build the third-largest dam in the world right in Amazon rainforest got the go-ahead from the environmental ministry this week. The ministers approved the permits for the dam project, and now companies can begin to bid on the building rights. But whoever wins will have to pay out at least some money to protect the local environment.
The 11,000-megawatt Belo Monte dam is part of Brazil’s largest concerted development plan for the Amazon since the country’s military government cut highways through the rainforest to settle the vast region during its two-decade reign starting in 1964 [Reuters]. Nearly all huge dam projects raise environmental concerns because they flood vast areas and can change ecosystems so drastically. But the Belo Monte, to be built on the Xingu River, has the additional trouble of being in one of the most important habitats in world and near to populations of indigenous peoples. The Xingu is a tributary of the Amazon River.
Last week, while the world gearing up to ring in a new year, China was quietly reeling from a new pollution scare. A pipeline operated by the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC)—the country’s number one oil producer—ruptured and spilled 40,000 gallons of diesel in the northern part of the country.
The spill occurred in the Wei River, a tributary of the Yellow River–which is the source of fresh water for millions of Chinese. Over the weekend, workers threw 17 floating dams across the Wei to block the toxic diesel and save the Yellow River. But scientists discovered diesel traces in a reservoir behind a dam in Sanmenxia, a city about 100 kilometers (62 miles) downstream from the point where the Wei meets the Yellow River, an official in the Henan provincial environmental protection bureau said on Monday [Wall Street Journal].
The Great Lakes are under threat from an Asian carp invasion that could wipe out fishing stocks, and with it, the lakes’ billion dollar fishery. On Friday, officials from the Army Corps of Engineers reported that genetic material from the carp had been found for the first time in a nearby river beyond an elaborate barrier system, which has cost millions of dollars and was meant to block their passage [The New York Times]. There is concern that if carp make it into Lake Michigan, they will gobble up the plankton that native fish feed on.
Officials also say that recreational boating may be affected–the carp can grow up to 4 feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds, and the massive fish will occasionally leap up and strike boaters. Since they were found to be moving up the Mississippi River in 2002, agencies have been trying everything they can think of to slow them down, including erecting the expensive electric barriers that cost around $9 million. The barriers work by sending low-voltage electric current through steel cables that are strung across the canal; this creates an electric field that’s uncomfortable for the fish and that’s supposed to prevent them from swimming across it.
In a landmark concession that will likely lead to the largest dam-removal effort in U.S. history, an electrical utility company has agreed to destroy four dams on the Klamath River to help migrating salmon and steelhead. The dams won’t be decommissioned until 2020 and there are still regulatory hoops to jump through, but fishermen and environmentalists are delighted by the development. “We’re about to make changes to the Klamath Basin that will be observable from space,” said Craig Tucker of the Karuk tribe, which traditionally fished for salmon [Los Angeles Times].
The Klamath River, which winds through Southern Oregon and eventually reaches California’s Pacific coast, was once home to one of the most vibrant salmon runs in the West. But since the first dam was erected in 1908, the region has been host to a nasty battle over water rights, with wildlife and commercial fishers ultimately bearing the worst scars as regulators were forced to repeatedly close salmon fishing along 700 miles of the Oregon-California coast [Greenwire]. The removal of the dams’ will open 300 miles of river to the salmon.
80beats: Controversial Study Says Dams Aren’t Killing Off the Pacific Salmon
80beats: California’s Water Management Threatens Salmon With Extinction
Image: flickr / patrickmccully