The Plastic Tide Citizen Science Project

I’d like to bring a really important citizen science project to your attention today. As you may know, I am very passionate about plastics in the ocean and it is often a huge source of emotional stress when I begin to think about it.

That being said, I often feel like I should be doing more than I am doing to help save the planet because we are running out of time. Being in school and sitting at my desk in my small office everyday,  I find it hard to take the strong activist position that I would like to. So when I came across The Plastic Tide’s project, I got very excited because I finally feel like I am making a tiny impact and helping in some small way, which is extremely important.

The Plastic Tide has created an algorithm that works to identify plastics on coastlines with the goal of determining exactly how much plastics and other man-made debris are actually there. They are seeking people who will examine high-resolution photos of beaches and flag the plastic debris that appears in the photos. This will thus, teach the algorithm how to identify plastic debris, so that it can be used at a more broad scale. It is purely a citizen science effort, which is even more special, as it gives so many people, like me, the opportunity to participate in something they care deeply about, even if it is in just some small way.

Of course, it is not a project that works to solve systemic issues with the creation of plastic debris, however, the quantification aspect is something very important because I believe there is a lot of strength that can come from numbers.

I believe that projects like these are very important in raising awareness and encouraging participation of the people. If people can understand it, they can care about it and fight for the change that the world needs because ultimately, politicians do not enact the needed change, passionate people do.

If you wish to participate in the project, you can do so through their website (link above) or through Zooniverse (as I did). Zooniverse is a platform for all kinds of citizen science projects, so you can explore it and find other projects that mean something to you.

Let’s Talk About Mass Extinctions: Permian Triassic

This is the second of a three-part series. To view the previous post of the series, go here.

The Permian Triassic extinction is the largest known extinction to date, wiping out an estimated 96% of all species. The surface of the Earth 251 million years ago looked much different than it does today. All the continents were connected, forming one large super continent, known as Pangea. Ocean circulation was set up similarly today, where upwelling of cold water to the surface would have been in the Tethys Sea. 

The cause of the Permian Triassic extinction was mostly uncertain until recently. It was known that oxygen levels in the atmosphere were lower than they are today, but the reason for this was unclear. It was thought that the intense volcanism occurring at the time drastically increased atmospheric CO2 levels, causing global warming and lower atmospheric O2 levels. This alone would not have been a sufficient cause for the massive amount of species that went extinct during this time. In particular, it especially could not explain the number of plant species that went extinct considering the fact that plants thrive in conditions of elevated CO2. The discovery of some very important marine fossils brought some light to the situation.

Marine fossils from the Permian Triassic boundary contain large amounts of photosynthetic green and purple sulfur bacteria. Today, these bacteria are found in anoxic (without oxygen) aquatic areas such as deep, stagnant lakes and the Black Sea. They need light in order to photosynthesize, meaning that they need to stay fairly close to the surface. One of their main functions is the production of H2S gas, which is very toxic to most life forms.

 Typically, these bacteria reside fairly deep down in the ocean, because the surface ocean contains a fair amount of oxygen that these bacteria don’t like. The low light at these depths slows their photosynthesis and proliferation, preventing a bloom of the toxic bacteria. The abundance of these bacteria suggests that the world’s oceans were in an anoxic state right up to the surface. The high atmospheric CO2 levels from intense volcanism was most likely the main contributor to anoxic oceans, because warmer waters have a lower ability to absorb oxygen.

The conditions of the ocean were perfect for rapid and widespread proliferation of these bacteria, and this would have led to huge bubbles of H2S gas erupting into the atmosphere. This toxic gas would have been detrimental to nearly all life forms on Earth at the time. In addition to this, elevated sulfideatmospheric CO2 and warming would have increased the lethality of H2S.

This process did not become so intense overnight, it took hundreds of thousands of years for levels of H2S in the atmosphere to reach toxic levels. Models of H2S levels line up with estimations of past ocean circulation, where highest levels were in primary areas of upwelling of deep ocean waters. It is estimated that amount of H2S entering the atmosphere from the ocean was 2000 times greater than what is released by any volcano.

More than just fossil evidence of the H2S producing bacteria is needed to confirm this explanation for the biggest known extinction. Elevated levels of toxic H2S gas in the atmosphere would have surely caused great damage/thinning to the Earth’s ozone layer, the layer of O3 gas protecting the surface from the UV radiation of the sun. Fossil spores found in Greenland show deformities that are known to be caused by high UV exposure. High UV levels would have also caused great distress to any life on land, further contributing the extinctions.

In summary, the Permian Triassic is a classic example of “priming the pump” meaning that all the conditions were lined up perfectly for everything to go wrong causing the extinction of almost all life on Earth. High volcanic activity led to high CO2 and low O2 levels in the atmosphere causing rapid global warming. This made it difficult for the oceans to absorb oxygen, leading to anoxic oceans and an ocean wide bloom of oxygen-hating-H2S-producing bacteria. Massive bubbles of H2S gas were being emitted into the atmosphere from the oceans. The amplified lethality of H2S from the warm conditions of Earth at the time was slowly killing off life on Earth and damaging the ozone layer, exposing plants and animals to dangerously high levels of UV radiation. 

The likelihood of all these events lining up so perfectly is extremely small and rare, but not impossible. Considering that mass extinctions are also rare (but very important) occurrences, it would make sense that more significant and complex events than just volcanos caused them. Next week, we will explore how we could be currently entering the 6th mass extinction.

Back of the Envelope

I started this semester with what I would consider to be a very interesting class, but I couldn’t seem to make the connection between the goals of the course and the theme of this class.  It was three agonizing hours of “back of the envelope calculations”, which are rough calculations using common knowledge that can be done on the back of an envelope. I mean, sure, it’s interesting, but I don’t see how the rough calculation of how many dentists are in the Greater Montreal Area is relevant to Earth system modelling. 

There were some questions in our assignment that were quite striking. They addressed real-life environmental topics. The first was “how many pairs of shoes can be made with one cow?” My first instinct was to write “None. Make your shoes with something else” because I’m a strong believer in animal rights and veganism. But my classmates and I went ahead and somehow came up with answers ranging from 6 to 40 pairs. Regardless of what the real number is, just think about this: picture a cow and a class of 40 people. If they all had one pair of leather shoes, that’s (potentially more than) one cow. This means that to give everyone in Canada one pair of leather shoes, we would need at least 900 000 cows. I’m not trying to push my views on anyone, but just keep that image in your mind, and take into consideration that these shoes don’t last very long. 

The next question would have been incredibly interesting if I was allowed to do some research first, but we were only allowed to use our brains. It asked what area of watershed is required to meet the water needs of Montrealers. From what I know, the area of the island seems to be large enough. This assumes a yearly consumption of 300L of water and 40 cm of runoff, which in my opinion is on the low-end of consumption and the high-end of precipitation. Don’t be fooled by these numbers, because most of this water is not even usable because a lot of it is snow, or doesn’t fall in useful places. We are fortunate enough in Montreal that we have other water sources, but this does not mean that we should be careless with our water consumption. Here is a link to a list of over 100 ways that you can reduce your household’s water consumption. I cannot stress enough the extreme importance of depleting freshwater sources on Earth today. We should almost treat water as if it were gold or platinum; not expensive, but very precious.

This last question left me in a state of panic for a moment. It asked how long it would take for the livable surface of Earth to be covered in two metres thick of garbage. Just the thought of that actually happening was terrifying enough, but then I had to go ahead and attempt to estimate it. I started by looking at my own garbage production, imagining my daily waste sprawled out on the floor, and worked from there. I used a vague estimate of how many Canadas could fit into all the land on Earth since that’s the only country I roughly knew the area of. It came out to be 56 000 years. Although that may sound like a lot of time, that’s also an insane amount of garbage, meaning that that’s actually a very short amount of time. The rate at which we, in the developed world, produce waste is incredibly quick, hence why the term “overconsumption” is often used to describe our way of life.

I’m just about ready to go on a full-blown rant about overconsumption and deprivation on Earth, but I think I’ll save that for another post.

These back of the envelope calculations are simply fascinating, but after doing them, I really wish I could know the real answer! They really got me thinking about my own water consumption and waste production. Although I might think that it’s really not all that much, I now know that I should really consider the population as a whole having the same or similar impact. Just a small reduction from each person can have exponential results. I don’t live alone here on Earth, and neither do any of you. I’ll leave you with that, and all the above striking numbers up there in hopes that it will also get you thinking and consider your own consumption.