Outside: Why Is It So Hard to Get Answers About Deepwater Horizon?

A new book and movie explore the causes, legacy, and drama of the oil spill. But neither probe deeply enough.

Outside

deepwater-horizon-movie_hIt seemed inevitable that the deadly 2010 explosion of the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform, which caused millions of gallons of oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, would eventually get the Hollywood treatment. It’s also unsurprising that a former Department of Justice lawyer would pen an account of the spill that is cast in nearly as dramatic fashion—“the story that neither BP nor the federal government wants heard,” according to its publisher, the Brookings Institute Press. Both were released this fall, within weeks of each other.

Unfortunately, neither the movie, Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, nor the book, Daniel Jacobs’ BP Blowout: Inside the Gulf Oil Disaster, do justice to one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. Where a dramatized account could at least convey the human side of the disaster to a wider audience, Deepwater Horizon feels more like an action movie with a side helping of workplace and familial drama. And where a nonfiction account could bring fresh facts and clarity, BP Blowout fails to deliver many new insights. That well from hell, as those who labored on the rig called it, still elicits more questions than answers.

Read the full story here.

 

Outside: Patagonia’s New Study Finds Fleece Jackets Are a Serious Pollutant

The brand commissioned a study to find out how many synthetic microfibers—the tiny bits of plastic that marine scientists say could be jeopardizing our oceans—are shed from its jackets in the wash. The results aren’t pretty.

Outside

It all started on a beach in southwestern England in the early 2000s. Richard Thompson, then a senior lecturer at Plymouth University (where he now serves as professor of marine biology), was leading a team of graduate students researching microplastics in marine environments. Examining samples of sandy sediment, they expected to find degraded bits of marine plastic from decades-old flotsam or plastic beads that were becoming widely used in cleaners. To their surprise, most of the plastic fragments were fibrous, which meant they likely came from clothing, rope, or some types of packaging.washing-machine-patagonia-clothes_h

Then, in 2011, Mark Browne, one of Thompson’s former graduate students, published a study in which he examined sediment sampled from 15 beaches around the world. He found high concentrations of polyester and acrylic fibers in samples taken near wastewater treatment plants. He then ran a polyester fleece jacket through the wash and filtered 1,900 fibers from the wastewater—fibers that otherwise would have gone to the local wastewater treatment plant. Browne started reaching out to apparel makers to see if they’d help fund research to study this issue more deeply—eventually, he hoped, finding tweaks to fabric design or apparel construction that would stop the microfibers from entering wastewater. He received one offer of help—from women’s clothing brand Eileen Fisher—but Patagonia, Columbia, and other big brands declined, saying they didn’t know if the fibers were anything they needed to worry about.

Fast-forward four more years, and the fibers finally got everyone’s attention. The science was piling on, showing that wastewater treatment plants couldn’t filter out all synthetic fibers, and that toxins such as DDT and PCBs can bind to them as they make their way into watersheds. It also showed that small aquatic species ingest the fibers, and that fish and bivalves sold for human consumption also contain microfibers. Experiments have shown that microplastics can lead to poor health outcomes in some species, and research is underway to find out how the plastics affect humans.

Jill Dumain, director of environmental strategy at Patagonia, was one of the people paying attention to all the news. In early 2015, she and the company’s leadership decided to commission a study to find out if and how Patagonia’s iconic and well-loved fleeces and some other synthetic products were contributing to the problem. The results recently came in, and they’re not good.

Read full story here.

Pacific Standard: The Pleasures — and Ecological Benefits — of River Snorkeling

In praise of river snorkeling, a pastime for fish obsessives that also reminds riparian activists what they’re protecting.

Pacific Standard

matt_pic_russ
Photo: Russ Ricketts

I’m like the reverse of a fish out of water — a floundering human in water, I think to myself and let out a nervous chuckle. This breaks the seal my mouth has formed around the snorkel’s mouthpiece, and as the frigid Cascadian water of Icicle Creek hits the back of my throat I start floundering more, coughing and thrashing around like a hooked fish.

Jesus, get a grip, continues my inner dialog. Show them you can handle yourself.

Them refers to Matt Collins and Russ Ricketts, my guides for my first foray into river snorkeling. And show them you can handle yourself is something I recall thinking often, back when I used to live in these wonderful central Washington mountains, where the three of us worked at a ski area. It felt important to prove myself: Up on the hill, after a storm had dumped unfathomable amounts of snow, I would struggle to keep the nose of my snowboard floating above the fray, always feeling like the slowest, weakest member of the crew. Usually, I was.

Read the full story here.

Outside: Terry Tempest Williams’s Dark Love Letter to the National Parks

The acclaimed nature writer’s portraits of 12 parks go beyond perfect postcard tributes, and the resulting book couldn’t have come at a better time.

Outside

I had expected Terry Tempest Williams’ latest book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (MacMillan), would be a string of tributes to the sacred spaces within our 100-year-old park system. And that’s what Williams says she expected to write. But by the time I’ve reached Big Bend—the midpoint in the dozen parks that comprise a dozen chapters—it’s clear that this book isn’t about our romanticized images of the parks.hour-of-land-big-bend_h

The Hour of Land is about National Parks as battlegrounds. What it means to hold land in trust, who defines its best uses, the tangibility of park boundaries, and whether and how we will reconcile our history with our present and future, are all tested on these lands.

Williams, 60, is an acclaimed nature writer recognized for her lyrical, conservation-minded prose. And there are plenty of passages in which Williams so deftly conveys the magic of a place that you will ache to be there and experience it directly. But she is also an increasingly outspoken activist, and spends most of her words exploring conflicts in and around our parks, as well as some of her internal battles. Even on the system’s 100th birthday, this approach feels more fitting than another book exalting their beauty.

Fossil fuel development undergirds Williams’ family, and it is a thread that emerges when she confronts the resources the landscape holds. In the book, Williams visits Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota with her father, who spent his career laying natural gas pipeline across the West. They tour the park with its then superintendent, Valerie Naylor (she retired in 2014), who describes her Sisyphean efforts to keep fracking pads and attendant gas flares from marring the park’s viewshed.

Williams’ dad is curious about, but then dismayed by, the Bakken shale oil development that envelops the park, which has been criticized for dangerous working conditions. “There’s no dignity here,” he laments, looking on as men sleep in truck cabs and storage units. His own son, Williams’ brother, had done so the previous winter. Williams herself recently purchased a 10-year lease on hundreds of acres of land owned by the Bureau of Land Management in her native Utah. While the parcels, bordering parkland, are earmarked for oil and gas development, she made the purchase with an eye toward protecting them from exploitation.

Read the full story here.

Off the hook: can a new study in the Pacific reel in unsustainable fishing?

The Nature Conservancy-funded program will test how new hook designs and other practices could reduce bycatch while keeping the fishing business lucrative.

The Guardian

2400
Photo: Jonne Roriz

Within seconds of being hauled onto the Shen Lain Cheng, a 79-foot tuna fishing boat from China, the crew’s most senior member, whose deeply wrinkled face conveys more than his 58 years, is plunging a T-handled spike between the glistening eyes of a 100-lb yellowfin tuna. The hope is that the swift death has minimized the release of lactic acid, which degrades the flesh meat and reduces the crew’s chances of earning a grade-A for this fish once it is offloaded back at port in Koror, Palau, a small island nation in the Pacific Ocean.

He quickly eviscerates the taut, silvery fish, pulling out an assembly of organs that look like something from another planet. He removes the heart and stomach – the scavenged parts that will likely go into tonight’s crew dinner – and tosses the rest of the guts overboard before flushing the carcass with running water, sewing up its gaping mouth, and placing it into the icy waters of the boat’s cold storage tank.

If the buyers back in Koror, who inspect and score the quality of each tuna’s meat, give it a high grade, this particular tuna could net around $2,800 wholesale in Japan, where it will be resold at great profit in a sushi restaurant.

It all looks like a typical day of tuna wrangling on the high seas, except that it’s not. Aboard are Lotus Vermeer, who manages the Pacific tuna program for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a US-based environmental organization. Also aboard are Michael Musyl, principal scientist of the Pelagic Research Group in Hawaii and a shark expert, and Ivan Sesebo, a tuna fishery observer, who works for an auditor hired by the boat’s owner, Hong Kong-based Luen Thai Fishing Ventures, to ensure compliance with fishing regulations.

Read the full story, and see a photo gallery, here.

Can you put a price on nature? A Californian nonprofit thinks it can

Chemical giant Dow is testing new software that crunches data to help assign monetary value to the natural world and calculate the environmental impact of its work

The Guardian

Everyone agrees that nature has value. It clothes, feeds and shelters us – and provides a spectacular playground. Yet we have never put a value on everything nature offers.5095

Now, environmental and sustainable business consultants want to change that by forcing corporate leaders to take stock of the economic impact of how they manage natural resources. By accounting for this so-called natural capital, the advocates hope to see more businesses adopting practices that are both good for the environment and long term profitability, especially as climate change will further deplete natural resources, causing their values to climb and increase the cost of running business. In a 1997 paper in Nature that first introduced the natural capital concept, the 13 researchers involved pegged the Earth’s worth at $33tn. A 2014 revision raised that figure to $134tn.

Assigning values to nature isn’t just good for business – the public and wildlife benefit too. Take the example of the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau, which is nearly wholly dependent on tourism. Revenue from scuba diving to view sharks alone accounts for 8% of the country’s gross domestic product. That means the small number of sharks in the prime dive areas are worth a great deal. In 2011, researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science calculated that a shark’s natural capital to the tourism industry is a remarkable $1.9m over its lifetime. The lifetime value of the sharks if they were part of a legal fishery would be less than 1% of that figure.

Read the full story here.

‘Tools for Grassroots Activism’ Is Patagonia’s Guide to Saving the World

Yvon Chouinard thinks environmental activists could learn a thing or two from businesspeople, even if—as he puts it—businesspeople are sleazeballs.

Outside

Outdoor recreation can be a gateway drug to environmental activism. It certainly was for Patagonia founder and co-owner Yvon Chouinard, as he writes in the introduction to Tools for Grassroots Activism, a book the adventure clothier published in February. In the early 1970s, a threat to Chouinard’s beloved Ventura County surf break mobilized him to join with others and take a stand against a development project. This, he writes, was when he “came to realize the power of an individual to effect major change.”patagonia-tools-for-grassroots-activists_h

Sure, Chouinard found success in Ventura—the development plan was defeated (the company he’d headquartered in Ventura not long before did pretty well for itself, too). But the reality is that for every victory, environmentalists lose big battles. This chagrins Chouinard, who believes many environmental organizations falter because they do not recognize what they are: a business selling a product. Just like he is. (Even though, he readily admits, many businesspeople are sleazeballs.) Instead of fleece jackets and aspirational lifestyles, environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) sell a vision of a wrong being righted, of clean air and water, of ecosystems in balance. Sure, they are profoundly different types of products, but selling them requires common tools: planning, strategy, marketing, organizing, technology, and money.

Framed that way, it doesn’t seem so outlandish that a massive clothing company would be qualified to write a guidebook for saving the environment. Still, I wanted to learn whether this how-to book could meet its lofty goal.

Read the full story here.

California’s Fish Are Ingesting Tiny Fibers from Your Favorite Jacket

New study finds that fish are ingesting large quantities of fibers that likely came off your outerwear in the wash and flowed into the sea.

Outside

Humanity dumps 8 million tons of plastic into the oceans each year, according to a study published early this year in Science. That’s a mind-blowingly large figure, but it still doesn’t account for the untold billions of tiny plastic fibers from synthetic apparel that leave your washing machine and enter rivers, lakes, and oceans through wastewater treatment plants. fish-microfiber-orange-jacket_h

These fibers, as well as tiny bits of degraded trash and microbeads from personal care products, have generated a long list of questions and concerns among environmental scientists. In a new study in Nature, Chelsea Rochman, a marine ecotoxicologist from the University of California, Davis, addressed one of the chief concerns: Are those fibers and other microplastics getting into our food system? The answer: Yes.

To reach this conclusion, Rochman and her colleagues purchased and dissected fish and bivalves from markets near Half Moon Bay, California, and compared their contents to those of fish and bivalves purchased from a market in Makassar, Indonesia. In both locations, more than half of the species and roughly a third of the individual fish and shellfish contained foreign objects—most of which were microplastics—that the fish and shellfish filtered from the water or mistook for food. But while none of the debris collected from the Indonesian samples were fibers, the researchers concluded that the majority of debris collected from fish and shellfish caught along the California coast were fibers from textiles. (The study did not distinguish between cotton and synthetic fibers, the latter of which are so prevalent in outdoor performance wear.)

Read the full story here.

The Invisible Nightmare in Your Fleece

Washing a single polyester jacket can send 1,900 tiny synthetic micro-fibers into waterways, where they can soak up toxins and get eaten by fish. So what is the outdoor industry doing about it?

Outside Magazine
August 2015

illustration_microfibers
Illustration by Laszlo Kubinyi

Gregg Treinish is dismayed about what is coming out of his washing machine.

“What I’m seeing is shocking. Every couple of weeks, I clean out the filter and put the contents in a 32-ounce Ball jar,” says the founder of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), a nonprofit that trains outdoor enthusiasts to collect data for environmental researchers. After roughly two months, Treinish says, “the bottle is more than half-full of the crap that would have otherwise been shed right into the waterway.”

That crap is thousands of synthetic fibers shed from Treinish’s clothing during wash cycles (he captures them in an aftermarket filter), and the waterway is Montana’s Gallatin River. Treinish, whose organization receives financial support from a number of outdoor-gear companies, recently launched a campaign to track the flow of those fibers into fresh water. He plans to share that data with his funders.

What’s so bad about a few plastic threads? In 2011, British ecologist Mark Anthony Browne published a study describing the discovery of micron-scale synthetic fibers, mostly polyester and acrylic, in sediments along beaches the world over, with the highest concentrations appearing near wastewater-disposal sites. That strongly suggested that the micro-fibers came from apparel, a hunch he checked by filtering 1,900 fibers found in the waste-water from washing a single fleece jacket. A similar study at VU University Amsterdam in 2012 estimated that laundry wastewater is sending around two billion synthetic microfibers per second into Europe’s waters.

KEEP READING

Outside: Surfers on Acid(ification)

It maps waves, predicts conditions, turns surfers into citizen scientists, and could be the data-collecting tool climate scientists need to study our rapidly acidifying oceans.

As the Internet of Things inches its way into every corner of our lives, no one would blame you for rolling your eyes at the suggestion that even a surfboard should be embedded with sensors and smartphone connectivity.smartphin

Don’t. That surfboard is real. And it’s helping scientists better understand the impact climate change is having on our oceans.

In 2010, Andrew Stern, a former professor of neurology at the University of Rochester who’s now an environmental filmmaker and advocate, realized that surfers could serve as citizen scientists. Simply based on how much time they spend in the ocean, they could help collect data while on the water.

One of his filmmaker friends had recently met Benjamin Thompson, a surfer pursuing a PhD in structural engineering at the University of California, San Diego. Thompson was studying fluid-structure interactions, research that involved embedding sensors into boards. “It was mostly about tracking the performance of board,” he says. Thompson’s goal: to help the surfboard industry make better boards, and maybe use sensors to help surfers better understand (and improve) how they surf.

Read the full story here.