US needs stricter rules for sand mining

 

The Earth is running low on sand and gravel. Photo courtesy of Ashley Vedral

Sand and gravel are mined all over the world and used to create concrete for the structures and streets humans take advantage of every day. Manufacturing concrete is not the only thing sand and gravel are mined for and because of the continuously rising demand for sand, the world is beginning to run out.

An article by David Owen for The New Yorker states a beach volleyball tournament held in Toronto imported 35 semitruck loads of sand. In addition to the reporters eyewitness account, he also cites a study done in March 2014 by the U.N. Environmental Programme’s (UNEP) Global Environmental Alert Service regarding the fact that Earth is losing sand faster than the environment can naturally produce more.

“Globally, between 47 and 59 billion tons of material is mined every year, of which sand and gravel … account for both the largest share (from 68-85 percent) and the fastest extraction increase,” the UNEP study said. “Surprisingly, although more sand and gravel are mined than any other material, reliable data on their extraction in certain developed countries are available only for recent years. The absence of global data on aggregates mining makes environmental assessment very difficult and has contributed to the lack of awareness about this issue.”

The world’s demand for sand and gravel in construction projects is rising as humans construct roads and buildings while working to replenishing shorelines. Alone, China constructed approximately 90,968 miles of roadways in 2013.

“[C]ement demand by China has increased exponentially by 437.5 percent in 20 years, while use in the rest of the world increased by 59.8 percent. Each Chinese citizen is currently using 6.6 times more cement than a U.S. citizen,” the UNEP study said.

The study goes on to note that sand, once mined and extracted from land quarries, riverbeds and streams is now mined and extracted from the ocean and coastlands. Resources from inland areas are declining due to the over mining.

However, sand is still extracted from these areas. This is due in part to the lack of legislation regarding mining of sand and gravel. What follows is an excerpt from ThreeIssues.sdsu.edu which states U.S. law.

“Sandmining from streambeds in the U.S. is regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 33, Chapter 26, Subchapter IV, Section 1344: Permits for dredged or fill material),” it said. “Under this legislation, the government is authorized to deny or restrict the specification of any defined area as a disposal site, whenever it is determined, after notice and opportunity for public hearings, that the discharge of dredged or fill materials into such area will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas.”

The entirety of the law can be found here. The law shows that the U.S. is able to issue permits, however, there is no definite law stating punishment for over mining or making any areas illegal to mine from.

Another reason sand is still extracted from areas that are beginning to run low is that certain projects require specific types of sand and gravel.

“For concrete, in-stream gravel requires less processing and produces high-quality material, while marine aggregate needs to be thoroughly washed to remove salt,” the UNEP study said. “If the sodium is not removed from marine aggregate, a structure built with it might collapse after few decades due to corrosion of its metal structures. Most sand from deserts cannot be used for concrete and land reclaiming, as the wind erosion process forms round grains that do not bind well.”

If more strict laws are not put in place around the world, it is possible the Earth could run out of sand in the future. UNEP suggests that a lack of monitoring and regulating leads to over mining and a great deal of damage to the environment.

Over mining of sand and gravel is also drastically affecting marine life.

“The mining of aggregates in rivers has led to severe damage to river basins, including pollution and changes in levels of pH,” the UNEP study said. “Removing sediment from rivers causes the river to cut its channel through the bed of the valley floor (or channel incision) both upstream and downstream of the extraction site. This leads to coarsening of bed material and lateral channel instability. It can change the riverbed itself.”

Although this issue is one that is not widely known, it is staring to garner attention as popular news sites report on it.

The New Yorker

New York Post

Smithsonian

NPR

New York Times

Tom Scott via YouTube

The entirety of the  UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service’s study can be found here.

Military sonar disrupts whales

Bardock, Wal Cuviera, CC BY 3.0

 

It is no secret that everyday human activity is continuously destroying the Earth’s environment and atmosphere.

A recent study suggests that carbon emissions and disposed trash in the oceans, among other prominent forms of pollution, are not the only factors contributing to environmental peril; something unexpected is now harming animals in the ocean.

In a study conducted by Erin A. Falcone et al. and published by Royal Society Publishing, it is shown that mid-frequency sonar used by the military to track submarines is beginning to negatively affect Cuvier’s beaked whales. The scientists tagged and studied 16 whales off the coast of Southern California and noticed this species of whale will beach themselves when they come in contact with these mid-frequency sonars. Upon further study of the beached whales, scientists discovered what resembled decompression sickness. This discovery is groundbreaking, as it was believed that decompression sickness — more commonly known as the bends — was not possible in marine mammals.

According to the study, scientists had a difficult time researching these whales due to the amount of information that is unknown about them. They have not been observed much over the years, and their basic behavior was relatively undocumented prior to the beginning of the studies regarding the beaching of these whales due to sonar contact. Cuvier’s beaked whales are known “to perform a stereotypic [sic] pattern of deep, foraging dives separated by a series of shallower, non-foraging dives,” per the study. Two specific whales were tagged for controlled exposure, and upon exposure to the mid-frequency sonars, the whales were observed to completely change their behavior. At times, they stopped foraging mid dive. On other occasions, the whales would dive deeper and longer than normal and rush back to the surface too quickly. The whales, in some instances, were known to stop diving completely. One rare occasion showed a whale completely unaffected by the sonar; however, this whale was farther out of the sonar’s range.

After compiling the data regarding deeper dives made by the whales post-contact with the mid-frequency sonars, these were the results.

“Deep dives became longer as the distance to the nearest mid-power MFAS decreased. Using the Complete dataset [sic], the mean deep dive duration was predicted to increase with proximity to mid-power MFAS from approximately 60 min to approximately 90 min beginning at around 40 km. The SOAR dataset [sic] predicted that the mean deep dive duration returned to MFAS-free levels by approximately 20 km, after increasing to approximately 107 min with mid-power MFAS at approximately 5 km. The second-ranked models added distance to the nearest high-power source, with a comparable AIC weight for the Complete dataset [sic] (0.224) but a weight roughly half that of the best model in the SOAR dataset [sic].”

The study also showed data about length of surface intervals as well.

“Surface intervals tended to be longer, but also more variable in duration, during either type of MFAS use. This effect was most apparent on SOAR, where predicted surface time during confirmed MFAS-free periods was brief and constrained to a very narrow interval, relative to both periods with MFAS use on SOAR and periods with no reported MFAS use in the Complete dataset [sic].”

The study concluded the sonar is — in fact — the cause of the behavioral changes in Cuvier’s beaked whales. Although high frequency sonar was tested as well, the mid-frequency sonar showed higher levels of response. The full study can be found here.

Earth’s extinction history could be repeating

 

During the 4.54 billion years Earth has existed, five mass extinction events have occurred. According to scientists, a sixth mass extinction may possibly begin in fewer than 100 years.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Daniel Rothman, after studying the carbon cycle and 31 extinction events from the previous 542 million yeas for some time, has noticed alarming parallels between the present and the Permian-Triassic extinction event that took place about 252 million years ago. This event is nicknamed “The Great Dying” due to a loss of 96 percent of the species on Earth. Per World Atlas, this catastrophic happening was triggered by a volcanic eruption that emitted so much carbon dioxide that it triggered extreme global warming and causing the acidity level of the oceans to rise.

The next mass extinction will be called the Holocene extinction if and when it occurs. This would be the first time carbon will once again be a factor in the extinction process.

The Ordovician-Silurian extinction occurred 439 million years ago and caused an 86 percent loss of life. The event was triggered by falling sea levels and the formation of glaciers. The extensive vegetation caused an extreme lack of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, creating the glaciers. The Late Devonian extinction wiped out around 75 percent of the species on Earth about 364 million years ago. Plants on Earth during this time littered the oceans with nutrients, creating massive algal blooms and causing a lack of oxygen in the oceans. The next mass extinction has been mentioned previously; the Permian-Triassic extinction from 251 million years ago. The Triassic-Jurassic extinction from 214 million years ago was caused by asteroid impacts and global climate change. The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction from 65 million years ago was caused by volcanic eruptions and asteroid impact – all according to World Atlas.

Scientists started wondering how soon it could happen again since these mass extinctions are relatively common in Earth’s history.

The critical level for carbon in the oceans is 310 gigatons and, according to Rothman, humans have the possibility of adding anywhere from 300 to 500 gigatons of carbon to the oceans by the beginning of the next century. By the time the year 2100 rolls around, the carbon cycle will have bypassed the critical threshold. Despite this, it could take up to 10,000 years for an actual extinction level event to happen. The number of years is determined by the time it takes for the carbon cycle to reset after it has been imbalanced. At current rates, this process usually takes around 10,000 years. According to Rothman and MIT, “the critical threshold is no longer tied to the rate at which carbon is added to the oceans but instead to the carbon’s total mass. Both scenarios would leave an excess of carbon circulating through the oceans and atmosphere, likely resulting in global warming and ocean acidification.”

As The Sun reporter Jasper Hamill states, humans have created 1,540 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

“This is not saying disaster occurs the next day. It’s saying, if left unchecked, the carbon cycle would move into a realm which would be no longer stable and would behave in a way that would be difficult to predict. In the past this type of behavior is associated with mass extinction,” Rothman said to Hamill.

According to IFLScience, biodiversity on Earth is the highest it has ever been and the next event will bring about unknown consequences.

Melting of permafrost awakens fears of ancient diseases

As the Earth’s temperature begins to rise, not only are the ice caps melting, but the permafrost is melting as well. As this thick, usually frozen layer of soil begins to melt, rumors start to surface regarding ancient and, in some cases, unknown diseases resurfacing and posing potential threats to mankind. However, many of these rumors are false.

As Jasmine Fox-Skelly reports in BBC Earth, “scientists have discovered fragments of RNA from the 1918 Spanish flu virus in corpses buried in mass graves in Alaska’s tundra. Smallpox and the bubonic plague are also likely buried in Siberia.” They suspect that black plague and smallpox DNA fragments are also frozen in the permafrost. These disease fragments have been discovered in buried, frozen bodies of humans and animals alike.

In addition to these fragments, NASA scientists discovered and revived Carnobacterium pleistocene, a lactic acid bacteria, frozen since the era of woolly mammoths over 32,000 years ago.

While scientists are not too concerned, the possibility that dormant plague and small pox viruses could reawaken and spread across the globe has caught their attention.

“Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark,” Jean-Michel Claverie, microbiologist at the Aix-Marseille University in France said, per Jasmin Fox-Skelly at BBC. Yes, these viruses are concerning, but with modern medicine, including penicillin, they can be easily eradicated.

According to an article by Stephanie Pappas on Live Science, strains of the Zika virus — which has been of recent concern due to mosquitoes — have been discovered in the melting ponds and permafrost. Pappas also reviewed a 2014 study from the American Geophysical Union, which stated warmer climates could also cause outbreaks of Cholera, a deadly diarrheal disease, more so in areas with poor sanitation than others. Additionally, The Indiana Times suggests diseases like malaria and dengue fever will become more common with warmer climates; although, it is not made clear if these specific diseases are coming from the melting permafrost.

Business Insider adds to the list with the discovery of Mollivirus sibericum, from the Siberian permafrost. While it is unclear exactly how this virus affects humans, it is a massive virus, containing 500 genes, causing it to be placed in a category known as Megaviridae, according to Ancient Origins website. The website further reports the discovery of Pithovirus sibericum and Pandoravirus (more large, ancient viruses discovered in 2003), also from Siberia’s permafrost. Erin Brodwin and Lydia Ramsey of Business Insider report a 2005 discovery of Mimivirus in the melting Russian permafrost, which is a virus with 1,200 genes that is twice the length of the viruses infecting the population today. Fox-Skelly notes that tetnaus and pathogens that cause botulism can survive in the frozen ground as well.

These viruses seem intimidating and will require further studying to determine their threat to humans and animals, but they are not the main concern. A reindeer with anthrax died over 75 years ago, became frozen under the soil, and released the disease in 2016 when it thawed and infected about 20 people and killed a young boy in the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle. Bacteria and viruses are normally not able to survive away from a host for too long; however, the dark, frozen, oxygen deprived permafrost creates the perfect environment for these bacteria to survive.

As the ice continues to thaw, it is possible for more ancient viruses and bacteria to be rediscovered; scientists fear that this will only be the beginning. It is entirely possible for many ancient diseases to “rise from the dead” and infect the living.