Tag Archives: Matt McGrath

Offshore Financed Ecotrashing Docuemtned

Grr.  Every now and again there is news that is just plain infuriating.

Evil money, evil business.

I don’t want things to be that simple, but sometimes it is just that simple.

All over the world, good people are behaving responsibly, trying to preserve the planet and, by the way, follow laws.

And all over the world, bad actors are shamelessly destroying nature and plundering resources. And, by the way, flouting laws.

How can this happen?

Simple:  lack of accountability.  And one of the most flagrant tools for flouting is ‘offshore finance’.

Offshore finance is bad for poor people, bad for the economy, and, it seems, bad for nature., too.

A new report suggests a clear link between tax havens (AKA offshore finance centers) and environment degradation [1].

Specifically, the study traces the financing for ecologically damaging enterprises, fishing and deforestation.  In both cases, there are good actors and bad actors, clean harvests and dirty harvests.  The data show that it is easy to trace the good actors behind clean activities.

But most dirty activities are funded by anonymous agents, hidden by offshore financial havens.  This means that bad agents are hard to trace.

Which, of course, is not a coincidence.

For one thing, a lot of the dirty harvesting is probably illegal.  And it would certainly be bad publicity.  So there is every reason to desire anonymity.

It is also true that, like many activities offshore, the profits are flowing away from the local economy, and often into the dark economy and dark regimes around the world.  This is stealing from the poor, the innocent, and the honest, and enriching the evil rich.  I’m not seeing any upside here.

In fact, environmental degradation is almost the least of the harms from this stuff.  These people literally don’t care about anything except money, so of course they don’t care about preserving forests or fisheries.

Finally, I’ll point out once again that cryptocurrencies are designed to be the perfect offshore financial system. Unregulated and untraceable transactions are the entire point of cryptocurrencies, and they are becoming popular in many of your favorite offshore destinations.

In this light, all the rhetoric in the world about supposed social benefits and transparency of cryptocurrencies ring hollow.  The last thing we need is lightning fast digital finance that is effectively “offshore” from everywhere.


  1. Victor Galaz, Beatrice Crona, Alice Dauriach, Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, Henrik Österblom, and Jan Fichtner, Tax havens and global environmental degradation. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2018/08/13 2018. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0497-3
  2. Matt McGrath, Tax haven link to rainforest destruction and illegal fishing, in BBC News – Science & Environment. 2018. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-45172671

Plastic pollution: bad news

One of the problems with plastic is that it doesn’t biodegrade.  The world Is filling up with plastic junk, on land and in water everywhere.

Of course, plastics do degrade, if very slowly.

This summer, a new study suggests that decaying plastic releases an array of greenhouse gasses, including methane and other hydrocarbons [1].

The more interesting finding is that the decay is potentially much larger than previously known, and potentially important to the global climate.

“Our results show that plastics represent a heretofore unrecognized source of climate-relevant trace gases” (p. 1)

The new study shows that polyethylene emits greenhouse gasses much more rapidly when exposed to water and sunlight, and the emissions accelerate over time.  This means that the vast mush of plastic trash floating in the oceans and other water are likely generating considerable amounts of greenhouse gas.  (In addition to fouling the water and harming life forms.)

“low-density polyethylene emits these gases when incubated in air at rates ~2 times and ~76 times higher than when incubated in water for methane and ethylene, respectively.”

At this point, it isn’t known how much plastic trash is emitting, so it will be important to quantify just how much plastic is out there, and how fast it is rotting.

These findings were serendipitous, accidentally discovered using polyethylene bottles in a laboratory, where excess methane was detected.  The study required long exposure to sea water and sunlight, while measuring emissions.  Which is all to say that it was lucky to have well equipped scientists notice this unexpected phenomenon, and then carefully document it.  Well done.

  1. Matt McGrath, Plastic pollution: How one woman found a new source of warming gases hidden in waste, in BBC News – Science & Environment. 2018. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-45043989
  2. Sarah-Jeanne Royer, Sara Ferrón, Samuel T. Wilson, and David M. Karl, Production of methane and ethylene from plastic in the environment. PLOS ONE, 13 (8):e0200574, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0200574

Ocean Currents Slowing, But No Ice Age Coming?

One of the big questions in Earth science is what is happening with the Ocean circulation systems, and what they are linked to.  These currents circulate around the oceans at the surface and deep below, moving vast amounts of water, nutrients, and, above all, energy around the world.  The appear to be linked to atmospheric conditions, and influence the climate on land directly and indirectly.

The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is a large current that flows North from the equator on the surface, cools and sinks, and then flows South deep in the ocean, where it eventually comes back up to complete a circuit.  This flow is driven by the differences in the density of warm, fresh water, and cool, salty water.  Heating the water absorbs a huge amount of the solar energy reaching Earth, energy that does not heat the atmosphere and land.  Changes to the current can potentially have widespread effects on climate, and the geological record appears to show cases when sudden slowing of the current has been associated with periods cooling in the Northern Hemisphere.

Melting Arctic ice floods the ocean with fresh water, diluting the salinity and potentially decreasing the downward pull, and slowing the AMOC.  This would reduce the transport of heat from the tropics, resulting in much cooler temperatures in the North.  Human generated warming is melting the Northern ice, which could lead to a sudden shutdown of the AMOC, triggering a new ice age.

This summer a new study based in part on new data from buoy arrays finds a more complex relationship between global temperatures and the AMOC [1].   The AMOC was at a minimum from 1975 to 1998, during which time the surface warmed.  From 1999 to 2004, the AMOC accelerated, and globally temperatures increased more slowly. The AMOC has now slowed again and is probably will remain at a minimum for a decade or more. This will almost certainly mean global temperatures will increase.

Basically, the AMOC (and probably other currents) appears to be absorbing the increased heat from the atmosphere, without triggering a sudden cooling during recent periods, and without sudden changes in the currents observed at some points in the past.  Probably no ice age in the near future.

In general, it seems that even if the current is transporting less heat to the North—which could generate a mini ice age there, the heat has to go somewhere.  If the ocean absorbs less, then the atmosphere will heat more.  The warmer air not only heats the middle latitudes, but also warms the North, too, which probably makes up for the cooler seas.

One interpretation of these hypotheses is that when the Earth is heating rapidly due to greenhouse gasses, the ocean current keep running, even as the ice melts.  Models of earlier eras may not reflect current conditions (no pun intended).

“Evidence from palaeoclimatology suggests that abrupt Northern Hemisphere cold events are linked to weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)1, potentially by excess inputs of fresh water. But these insights—often derived from model runs under preindustrial conditions—may not apply to the modern era with our rapid emissions of greenhouse gases.” ([1], p.387)

It’s all pretty complicated, and we’ll have to see how these theories play out.

But I’d bet that things are just going to get hotter, the ice is going to melt, and the oceans are going to rise.

  1. Xianyao Chen and Ka-Kit Tung, Global surface warming enhanced by weak Atlantic overturning circulation. Nature, 559 (7714):387-391, 2018/07/01 2018. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0320-y
  2. Matt McGrath, Slowing Gulf Stream current to boost warming for 20 years, in BBC News – Science & Environment. 2018. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-44875508

Dinosaur Dandruff?

Headline writers had fun with headlines like, Dinosaur dandruff reveals first evidence of skin shedding[1], but it’s a real find, and really important.

There has been much discussion about the outer covering of dinosaurs, which may have featured scales and/or feathers. But little is known about dinosaur skin, which is an integral part of this complex.

A new study reports on the analysis of fossils that contain flakes of skin from Cretaceous animals—essentially dinosaur dandruff [2]. <<link>> These fossils come from the wonderful fossil beds of North East China, which have yielded so many important views of the soft tissues of dinosaurs and early birds.

The remarkable fossils provide a rare view of dinosaur skin, “preserved with remarkable nanoscale fidelity”.  These samples reveal that these animals shed skin in small flakes, which reveal the cellular structure of the skin!  Who knew we could ever find such fossils?  Cool!

Skin and whatever covers it are, of course, a very import part of the thermoregulation of animals.  Consequently, these traces of skin tell us about the physiology of the animal.

First of all, shedding skin in small flakes itself is important. Reptiles shed in large molts, while birds shed small flakes continuously. This reflects continuous growth of birds, and suggests that these ancient birds and dinosaurs grew like birds, not snakes.

The skin also shows evidence of structures characteristic of modern feathered birds. This would indicate that avian skin and feathers co-evolved from early ancestors, before the development of flight.

However, the skin cells are distinctly different from modern birds. The structure is denser, with no fat, consistent with relatively little evaporative cooling compared to avians.  The researchers characterize this as “distinctly non- avian” and  indicating that “that feathered dinosaurs and early birds had a unique integumentary anatomy and physiology transitional between that of modern birds and non-feathered dinosaurs”.  This is consistent with the hypothesis that these ancient ancestors of birds had feathers but were not adapted for powered flight.

It’s really cool to find this kind of “missing link” for the physiology of the animals.  Who would have imagined we could actually find evidence that animals might have been “in between” the physiology of reptiles and birds?

But the coolest thing about this study was that they actually looked with their microscope!  Who would have thought that there could be intact, microscopic, fossil dandruff?  Who knows what other fossils may have similar micro scale remains that no one has looked for?  Get out your microscopes!

Very, very cool.

  1. Matt McGrath, Dinosaur dandruff reveals first evidence of skin shedding, in BBC News – Science & Environment. 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-44252455
  2. Maria E. McNamara, Fucheng Zhang, Stuart L. Kearns, Patrick J. Orr, André Toulouse, Tara Foley, David W. E. Hone, Chris S. Rogers, Michael J. Benton, Diane Johnson, Xing Xu, and Zhonghe Zhou, Fossilized skin reveals coevolution with feathers and metabolism in feathered dinosaurs and early birds. Nature Communications, 9 (1):2072, 2018/05/25 2018. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-04443-x

Pesticide Ban In EU

One of the worrying questions today is “what is happening to the bees?”  Bees and other pollinators appear to be dying out all over the world, and no one is really sure why.  Given that much of our food depends on these beneficial insects, this is not an idle question.

Research points to a role for agricultural pesticides, though the story isn’t simple or clear cut. Still, there is considerable reason to think that neocortinoids in particular may be killing pollinators, and ideally should be removed from the world of the bees.

Of course, agricultural policy is political, so limitations on these pesticides have been hotly contested.  (In the US, the debate will be largely suppressed for the duration of the current anti-science administration.)

But this month saw a significant political step, with the EU (including the UK) voting extending a permanent ban on neocortinoids.  At least, a ban on “outdoor” use—it will still be allowed in greenhouses.  (I suspect that it is no coincidence that the ban will heavily fall on sales of US products in the EU, at a time of strong tensions over international trade.)

Given the number of environmental challenges faced by pollinators, it is far from clear how much benefit will be seen from this particular policy.  The best studies have shown complex patterns of effects, which are not easy to explain,  and there are lots of other chemical hazards out there.

In addition to the direct effects there will be indirect effects. For example, the existing partial ban has already distorted agricultural practices (e.g., by shifting to imported crops from areas using neocortinoids). Also, one wonders just how much “leakage” there may be from “indoor” uses.  Studies have documented transmission of some substances out of greenhouses into wild populations.

In short, the results may not be simple or clear cut.

Nevertheless, this will be a golden opportunity to investigate the long-term effects of these chemicals and this policy.  For good reasons or bad, the EU is creating a natural (or at least a geo-political) comparative experiment.  We can hope to compare the health and populations of bees in the EU with other areas that have different policies.

  1. Matt McGrath, EU member states support near-total neonicotinoids ban, in BBC News -Science & Environment. 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-43910536


More Evidence of Pesticide Harm to Pollinators

Bees and other pollinators seem to be dying off or disappearing in many parts of the Earth. This is a bad thing—if only because humans depend on these species to help plants grow.

In the past decade, evidence has accumulated, confirming the grim picture of world wide decline. It isn’t clear why this is happening, but one leading factor seems to be pesticides, specifically, neonics. These chemicals are applied to seeds to protect them which is much less dangerous than broad spraying or soaking the soil. However, it appears that residues persist and are picked up and accumulate in the bodies of pollinators. Neonics are potent neurotoxins for bees, and they certainly could be dangerous.

This month a group from University of Neuchâtel published a study of 198 samples of honey from around the world [2]. Traces of neocortinoids were found in 75% of the samples, representing every continent except Antarctica. These traces suggest that the bees that made the honey have indeed been exposed to these chemicals.

The levels of the chemicals in the honey are not dangerous, per se. It also isn’t clear what the reported contamination implies about exposure of the bees. I.e., how much exposure do these samples represent? Do these residues indicated harmful effects on the pollinators?

The findings certainly raise concern because of the broad geographic range, and the presence of multiple chemicals in the samples. Whatever is going on, it seems to be happening everywhere.

This issue is becoming mired in controversy. Manufacturers of the pesticides seem to be in a “denial” stage, rejecting early evidence of the harm to pollinators, and demanding higher standards of proof (e.g., [1]). Obviously, they have reason to want solid evidence that their lucrative products need to be withdrawn. (There is also a geopolitical dimension, as some countries have found it easy to ban US made products, regardless of the reason.)

I have to wonder a bit at the criticism of this study. The press and industry organizations were emphatic that the reported contamination level isn’t dangerous to people <<link BBC>>. That, of course, is nearly irrelevant. The important point is how healthy the bees are, which we don’t know.

There was also criticism that the sample is “too small” to draw conclusions. This is a bit hard to understand. The conclusion is that traces were found in many samples all over the world. Who cares if it is 75% or 50% or 10% of the samples, when the same contaminants are found everywhere. If these tiny traces show up in a small sample, they aren’t likely to disappear in any larger sample, too.

I would hope that these trade associations that reject this research as inconclusive are conducting their own, larger studies to determine what the actual facts are. If not, then they are just playing PR games to protect their profits, and I will have no trust in anything they say on the topic.

  1. Matt McGrath, Pesticides linked to bee deaths found in most honey samples, in BBC News -Science & Environmen. 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-41512791
  2. E. A. D. Mitchell, B. Mulhauser, M. Mulot, A. Mutabazi, G. Glauser, and A. Aebi, A worldwide survey of neonicotinoids in honey. Science, 358 (6359):109, 2017. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/358/6359/109.abstract


Smell Maps of Cities

Daniele Quercia and colleagues have published research aimed at mapping the smells of entire cities [2]. They want to analyze social media to detect recent descriptions of smells to create city wide maps of what people are smelling in different places. To do this, they needed to create a dictionary of terms for smells.

They authors are mainly concerned with aesthetics, not with chemical analysis of the air or sources of smells.  They are concerned with “the positive role that ‘smell’ as opposed to ‘air pollution’ can play in the environmental experience” ([2], p.334) They comment that there is little work on this topic, so they hope to “enrich the urban smell toolkit” ([2], p.327)

The study collected residents’ reports of what they smell, and clustered similar terms to form a dictionary of smells (i.e., of concepts about smells). This was also correlated with existing dictionaries of smell terms.

Smell terms from geotagged social media entries were used to create maps of smells across the city. The researchers suggest that there are different spatial scopes for the smells, from broad to very localized. They call these “base notes”, “mid-level notes”, and “high notes”, an to perfume advertisements that is pretty shaky in this case.

The resulting maps seem to capture coarse features of the city (e.g., industrial concentrations, large food market), and are slightly correlated with air quality measures.

The main implications are public awareness of the cityscape, and perhaps an increased attention from urban designers.


I found this study to be competently done, but not really useful. It borders on what my statistics teachers would call a “Type 3 Error”: they may be asking the wrong question.

Their concept of “smells” seems to be rather questionable.

First of all, as they generally acknowledge, the sense of smell is rather complex. There are large individual differences, not just the demographic variation they mention. Worse, smell is highly affected by both short term and long term experience. People habituate to smells rapidly, and learn over time. Our sense of smell changes as we age, as well as due to illness, exercise, and other activities. For that matter, we wear scents and scented clothing, that form a private smellscape right under our own nose.

The study worked hard to cluster the words people use to describe smell, but this exercise in linguistics brings in  a slew of factors of culture and learning. These cultural and cognitive elements are definitely relevant to their interest in urban experiences, though describing smells isn’t simply perceiving smells. As the paper notes, there are quite a few contextual factors that may go into how a smell is perceived and described.

For example, I suspect that future studies might find that people report more negative words for how the “bad parts of town” smell, compared to areas they prefer, regardless of the objective chemistry of the air.  (This might be called “the New Jersey effect”.)

The terms chosen for a given smell also reflect personal and cultural contexts. For example, the smell of human sweat can be attractive or awful, depending on the people involved and the situation.

This study treats smells as rather permanent and large grain features, though they are ephemeral and subject to micro weather, e.g., wind direction. They do enumerate very localized “high notes”, though these smells can be extremely localized, detectable only within a meter or less, which cannot be represented on their maps.

In other words, the maps are coarse-grained in both time and space. Perhaps this level of analysis is useful for urban design, but it is certainly not self-evident just how much this matters. The reported low correlations with other measures probably reflects this overly coarse granularity of the geotagged terms and the other measures.

This methodology is primarily about outdoor smell. But urban experiences are mainly indoors, and indoor smells are a totally different animal. Sure, the open air farmer’s market smells wonderful for that 15 minutes I am passing it, but when I go inside, I can’t smell it any more, no matter where I am on the city map.

The researchers make an interesting point about wanting to create attractive urban spells, not just mitigate pollution and repellant odors. On the other hand, this work shows little reason to think that this kind of analysis is an accurate measure of harmful pollution, despite what the authors may sometimes claim in the popular media. I’m all in favor of my city smelling nice (at least to some people), but it is important to monitor and reduce dangerous pollution, much of which cannot be seen or smelled.

This method is not, I repeat, not a good way to monitor the air quality of a city.

  1. Matt McGrath, Can city ‘smellfies’ stop air pollution? . BBC News.March 10 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-39179098
  2. Daniele Quercia, Rossano Schifanella, Luca Maria Aiello, and Kate McLean, Smelly Maps: The Digital Life of Urban Smellscapes. International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media; Ninth International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media:327-336, 2017. http://www.aaai.org/ocs/index.php/ICWSM/ICWSM15/paper/view/10572/10516