Surface Trawls

“Publication of the garbage patch study coincided with a new report from Britain, Foresight Future of the Sea, that found plastic pollution in the ocean could triple by 2050 unless a “major response” is mounted to prevent plastic from reaching the ocean. The report declared plastic pollution to be one of the main environmental threats to the seas, along with sea-level rise and warming oceans.

“The study included two aerial surveys in October of 2016 that took 7,000 images, and 652 ocean surface trawls conducted in July, August, and September of 2015 by 18 vessels.

“The surface trawls also filled in the rest of the story.


“Fifty plastic items collected had a readable production date: One from 1977, seven from the 1980s, 17 from the 1990s, 24 from the 2000s, and one from 2010. Researchers also found 386 objects with recognizable words or sentences in nine different languages.

“The writing on a third of the objects was Japanese and another third was Chinese. The country of production was readable on 41 objects, showing they were manufactured in 12 different nations.

“The study also concluded that plastic pollution is “increasing exponentially and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters.” Others are not as confident that the conclusion indicates a dramatic change in distribution of marine debris. Much of the world’s marine debris is believed to lie in the coastal regions, not in the middle of oceans.

“Leonard says he was impressed with the scope of the study. “It’s strong science,” he says. “But at the same time, in this field, the harder we look, the more plastic we find.”

Text: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Isn’t What You Think it Is, National Geographic


“In the outside world…”

“In the outside world, the problem isn’t that plants are suddenly getting more light: It’s that for years, they’ve been getting more carbon dioxide. Plants rely on both light and carbon dioxide to grow. If shining more light results in faster-growing, less nutritious algae—junk-food algae whose ratio of sugar to nutrients was out of whack—then it seemed logical to assume that ramping up carbon dioxide might do the same. And it could also be playing out in plants all over the planet. What might that mean for the plants that people eat?


“What Loladze found is that scientists simply didn’t know. It was already well documented that CO2levels were rising in the atmosphere, but he was astonished at how little research had been done on how it affected the quality of the plants we eat. For the next 17 years, as he pursued his math career, Loladze scoured the scientific literature for any studies and data he could find. The results, as he collected them, all seemed to point in the same direction: The junk-food effect he had learned about in that Arizona lab also appeared to be occurring in fields and forests around the world. “Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising,” Loladze said. “We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history―[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.”

“He published those findings just a few years ago, adding to the concerns of a small but increasingly worried group of researchers who are raising unsettling questions about the future of our food supply. Could carbon dioxide have an effect on human health we haven’t accounted for yet? The answer appears to be yes—and along the way, it has steered Loladze and other scientists, directly into some of the thorniest questions in their profession…”

Text: The Great Nutrient Collapse, Politico.

Pic: Soylent Green, 1973.

Archipelagos of the Anthropocene

“Imagine Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle, sailing the seas across to the Galapagos and writing in his note books about finch beak forms across the different islands.

“Now imagine pockets of parkland scattered across a city, separated by oceans of malls and high rises, troughs of highways and roads.

“The dragons of Brisbane live on islands — just like Darwin’s finches did.

“And, on those islands they’re in completely human-made ecosystems with leaf blowers, fertile garden beds and human-derived food, pesticides and mowers.

“And they’re in an environment with a completely different make up of plants, prey and predators than they’ve ever had to deal with in the natural arena.

“It is a pressure cooker for evolution.

journey lizard

“I call it the archipelagos of the Anthropocene — this idea that city parks within cities are acting as islands. And potentially we are observing evolutionary processes that Darwin witnessed throughout his voyage,” Dr Frere says.

“In fact, the populations in Brisbane city are extremely genetically different from one another. So much so, that it is to the extent of different human cultural backgrounds.

“For us, the first step to speciation is genetic differentiation. I can’t tell you it will lead to a speciation event. But I think we need to be on the lookout because we’re witnessing evolution as it’s occurring.

“They are almost moving from being an arboreal species to a land-based species.

“Dr Frere is studying the isolated dragon populations in Roma Street Parklands, City Botanic Gardens, South Bank and Mt Coot-tha Botanic Gardens in Brisbane.

“The dragons’ genetic differentiation within each site is manifested in physical characteristics — referred to as morphology.

“In Brisbane city, you have unique equal morphology, so that at every single park the dragons are slightly different morphologically from one another.”

“The Roma Street dragons are smaller, but have really big heads. The City Botanical Garden dragons are immense compared to eastern water dragons in the wild, but have smaller heads and shorter limbs.

“They are starting to move away from being water dragons, and starting to be something else.”

Text: These water dragons are ‘evolving at a pace we can witness, ABC News.

Pic: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 1959.

No known historical precedent

It’s an event researchers say has “no known historical precedent” and it is still unfolding.

In the six years since a massive tsunami struck Japan, at least 289 species of animals have travelled to the US on huge rafts of pollution.

Thousands of non-native marine crustaceans, fish, molluscs and anemones continue to land on the US west coast on rafts of plastic, fibreglass and other debris that was washed out to sea in 2011.

According to a paper describing the phenomenon, published today in the journal Science, as many as 65 per cent of the species are not native to US waters.

Study co-author Professor Jim Carlton from Williams College in Massachusetts fears if any are able to colonise, there could be devastating consequences.

“The immediate concerns are the potential economic and environmental impacts of any given invasion, like the North Pacific sea star in Australia,” he said.

Objects ranging from barges and fishing vessels to plastic bags and buoys were washed out to sea in a “massive debris field” during the 2011 tsunami.

This deluge of flotsam was then sucked into the Pacific trash vortex — a gyre of circulating marine rubbish that brushes the coast of Japan and circulates clockwise around the North Pacific Ocean.

Each spring, as offshore currents pushing off the US coast ease, “spring pulses” of trash wash ashore on the west coast.

The scientists say it is unclear yet whether any animals arriving on the rafts have been able to successfully colonise.

“We are in the establishment window. The lag time between their arriving and becoming established and detected can be a while,” Professor Carlton said.

The paper’s authors make the case that massive coastal development and climate change are converging to completely reshape the way species are dispersed around the globe.

“If we advance the climate change models that argue that hurricanes and typhoons and other storms will be increasing in frequency and size, then we enter an era in the 21st century where larger and more frequent storms are for the first time interfacing with the densest populations and infrastructure that we’ve ever had on [our] coastlines,” Professor Carlton said.

Professor Steven Chown from Monash University says the research will, “change our view of the world”.

“Their research is amazing in actually documenting this pulse event, and then demonstrating that we might have to expect more such large-scale events given the huge increase in infrastructure globally along with, of course, increasingly extreme weather events,” he said.

Text: Nick Kalvert, Tsunami ‘mega-rafts’ of debris ship hundreds of animal species from Japan to US, ABC News

Man-Mediated Minerals

“Robert Hazen, a mineralogist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, and his colleagues tallied up the number of minerals on Earth only to discover that a large number have been created, thanks to human activities. Although minerals, by definition, must form via natural processes, Hazen’s team discovered 208 minerals mediated by humans—they did form naturally but in places such as man-made mines, where unnatural humidity or fires from mining operations created new minerals along the mine walls. Other examples might be even harder to find, unless you are a deep-sea diver; when bronze or brass artifacts sink in a shipwreck, for example, they interact with the seafloor to create novel, man-mediated minerals.

“Perhaps more striking are mineral-like compounds—substances that would be characterized as minerals if they were not completely man-made (rather than human-mediated). Hazen’s team created a long list of these as well—everything from synthetic rubies and diamonds to ceramics, brick, cement, batteries and certain components of cell phones—and they suspect there are hundreds of thousands of varieties, too many for them to count.

“Such dramatic changes will not go unnoticed if a future geologist finds herself digging up layers of sediment from an ancient city. “These are the real global marker of our age,” Hazen says. Not only because a city’s infrastructure contains many of these man-made minerals but because it also contains natural minerals that were quarried in locations across the world, creating concentrations that would not be found naturally. Even if sea levels rise 300 feet and cover coastal cities, those minerals will still be visible in the sedimentary record. That’s because landmarks like the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian will collapse into piles of rubble—signatures that are later preserved as highly unusual lens-shaped pockets underground, distinct from their surroundings in both shape and minerals. The Washington Monument, for example, will eventually be a lens-shaped pocket composed of limestone where no other limestone is found. And the pocket that was once the Smithsonian will contain so many rare minerals that they could not possibly have formed so close together in nature. To boot, they will be surrounded by the vast array of the man-made minerals we use every day. “There is nothing at all like this in the geology of the past 4.5 billion years on Earth,” Zalasiewicz says. “It is tragically different.”

Text: Shannon Hall, Found: Thousands of Man-Made Minerals—Another Argument for the Anthropocene, Scientific American.

Pic: “Fordite, also known as Detroit agate or Motor Agate, is old automobile paint which has hardened sufficiently to be cut and polished. It was formed from the buildup of layers of enamel paint slag on tracks and skids on which cars were hand spray-painted (a now automated process), which have been baked numerous times.” – Wikipedia

“Where is this information?”

“Millions of years ago, a few spiders abandoned the kind of round webs that the word “spiderweb” calls to mind and started to focus on a new strategy. Before, they would wait for prey to become ensnared in their webs and then walk out to retrieve it. Then they began building horizontal nets to use as a fishing platform. Now their modern descendants, the cobweb spiders, dangle sticky threads below, wait until insects walk by and get snagged, and reel their unlucky victims in.

“In 2008, the researcher Hilton Japyassú prompted 12 species of orb spiders collected from all over Brazil to go through this transition again. He waited until the spiders wove an ordinary web. Then he snipped its threads so that the silk drooped to where crickets wandered below. When a cricket got hooked, not all the orb spiders could fully pull it up, as a cobweb spider does. But some could, and all at least began to reel it in with their two front legs.

“Their ability to recapitulate the ancient spiders’ innovation got Japyassú, a biologist at the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil, thinking. When the spider was confronted with a problem to solve that it might not have seen before, how did it figure out what to do? “Where is this information?” he said. “Where is it? Is it in her head, or does this information emerge during the interaction with the altered web?”

“In February, Japyassú and Kevin Laland, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Saint Andrews, proposed a bold answer to the question. They argued in a review paper, published in the journal Animal Cognition, that a spider’s web is at least an adjustable part of its sensory apparatus, and at most an extension of the spider’s cognitive system.

“This would make the web a model example of extended cognition, an idea first proposed by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in 1998 to apply to human thought. In accounts of extended cognition, processes like checking a grocery list or rearranging Scrabble tiles in a tray are close enough to memory-retrieval or problem-solving tasks that happen entirely inside the brain that proponents argue they are actually part of a single, larger, “extended” mind.”

Text: The Thoughts of a Spiderweb, Quanta Magazine.

Pic: Odilon Redon, The Smiling Spider, 1891.

Crash the World Economy


“The asteroid, called 16 Psyche, is a massive hunk of precious metals including platinum and gold as well as iron and nickel.It orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter and is of great scientific interest because it holds clues to one of the earliest eras in the history of our solar system — less than 10 million years after the birth of our sun.

“But now it’s grabbed the attention of money-hungry entrepreneurs and investors thanks to its stratospheric price tag. Valued at $A14,000 quadrillion, according to Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the lead scientist on the NASA mission, it is definitely worth more than its weight in gold.

“But bringing back an asteroid of this value could completely wipe out our global economy. Luckily, the space agency is taking the trip for scientific purposes and isn’t planning on conducting any mining — yet.”

Text: Magi Murphy, NASA announces 2022 mission to explore metal asteroid so valuable it could crash the world economy

‘Under the stars,’ she repeated. ‘I never noticed the stars before. I always thought of them as great big diamonds that belonged to someone. Now they frighten me. They make me feel that it was all a dream, all my youth.’

‘It was a dream,’ said John quietly. ‘Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.’

How pleasant then to be insane!’

So I’m told,’ said John gloomily. ‘I don’t know any longer. At any rate, let us love for a while, for a year or so, you and me. That’s a form of divine drunkenness that we can all try. There are only diamonds in the whole world, diamonds and perhaps the shabby gift of disillusion. Well, I have that last and I will make the usual nothing of it.”

Text: F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz