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According to a report by the EEA, the EU environment agency, one in every eight deaths in the bloc can be linked to pollution, specifying that air and noise pollution, as well as poor water quality and exposure to chemicals, contributes.

The report, described as a “major assessment on health and the environment in Europe,” found that a total of 630 000 premature deaths in the EU were attributable to environmental factors in 2012 (the latest year for which data is available). 

Air pollution contributed to 400 000 annual deaths in the EU, with noise pollution contributing to 12 000. The remaining deaths were linked to extreme weather events such as heatwaves. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that air pollution causes the death of millions of people around the world annually and accounts for a third of fatalities from strokes, lung cancer and heart disease. Noise pollution, it says, contributes to heart problems by raising blood pressure and stress hormones. 

However, premature deaths linked to air pollution have fallen from 1 million in 1990, and water quality throughout most of Europe has improved. 

The report added that poorer communities and vulnerable people were the hardest hit by pollution. “Poorer people are disproportionately exposed to air pollution and extreme weather, including heatwaves and extreme cold. This is linked to where they live, work and go to school, often in socially deprived urban neighbourhoods close to heavy traffic” it says.

“Socially deprived communities typically struggle under a triple burden of poverty, poor quality environments and ill health,” the EEA report said. 

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What Countries Are Most Affected? 

The report found that “the burden of environmental disease” is unevenly spread across Europe, with Eastern and south-eastern Europe being more polluted than the rest of the continent. It pointed to the fact that the percentage of deaths attributable to environmental factors ranges from a low of 9% in Norways and Iceland to 23% in Albania and 27% in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

The highest environmental contribution to deaths is in Romania at 19%. Other hard-hit countries include Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. In the UK, around 12% of deaths are linked to pollution. 

What Can We Do?

“Green and blue spaces” should be prioritised as they cool cities during heatwaves, alleviate flood waters and reduce noise pollution and support urban biodiversity, the report says. 

Other recommendations include reducing road traffic and removing fossil fuel subsidies. The European Commission has suggested introducing measures to encourage greater uptake of electric vehicles. 

In 2019, London introduced a Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) to limit vehicular emissions, which involves charging drivers more to use older vehicles in certain areas. Italy has the most low emissions zones- some permanent, many seasonal. Germany has 80 and the Netherlands and the UK have 14 each. 

Meanwhile, France has implemented a €20 million subsidy scheme to encourage more cyclists, whereby everyone will be eligible for bike repairs of up to €50 at registered mechanics.

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons 

As if the existing conditions were not alarming and dire enough, our oceans are about to face yet another survival threat. The emerging deep-sea mining industry is gearing up to open a new industrial frontier in the largest ecosystem of our planet. A number of private companies plan to lower gigantic machines to bulldoze and churn up the seabed, upsetting a delicate ecosystem balance we still know little about.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a United Nations body, has issued 29 exploration licenses and distributed to a handful of countries that sponsor private deep-sea mining companies. The licenses allow them to commercially exploit vast areas of seabed covering 1.3 million sq km of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.

Why Deep-Sea Mining?

Abyssal plains witness a complex combination of chemical and geological processes that lead to the formation of hydrothermal vents- deposits of chemically rich fluids including sulfide pouring up from beneath the seafloor.

These vents contain minerals like copper, nickel, manganese, zinc, lithium, and cobalt, which are the main raw materials for smartphones, wind turbines, solar panels, and electric storage batteries. Global demand for these minerals has spiked while supplies from terrestrial mining remain finite and hostage to geopolitical wrangling. For instance, demand for nickel currently sits at 2 million tonnes a year, and is expected to rise to 4 million by the end of next decade.

The supply of terrestrial minerals is predicted to last for only around 40 years, prompting companies to secure the supply of these resources from the seafloor.  

Countries like China, the UK, France, India, Germany, Russia, and Belgium, have now received the nod from ISA for deep-sea mining. Among these nations, China holds the largest sea mining exploration area of around 161,210 sq km, followed by the UK with an area of around 133,280 sq km.

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Upsetting the delicate ecosystem on the seabed could have grave effects for us in the future. Source: Global Ocean Commission

The Debate

The prospects of sea-bed mining have already been met with stark opposition from several environmental groups and scientists who predict the industry will cause colossal damage to marine ecosystems. By contrast, the ISA believes new technologies can minimise harmful impacts. 

Why is Deep-Sea Mining Bad?

A recent report by Greenpeace states that deep-sea mining risks potentially irreversible environmental harm, warming of ramified consequences even beyond the allotted mining zones.

Crucially, mining is going to deepen the current climate emergency by weakening the ocean’s ability to store carbon in its seafloor sediments. “Deep-sea sediments are known to be an important long-term store of ‘blue carbon’, the carbon that is naturally absorbed by marine life, a proportion of which is carried down to the seafloor as those creatures die,” the report says. “Deep-sea mining could even make climate change worse by releasing the stored carbon.” 

Machines excavating the seafloor will create sediment plumes, which could smother deep-sea habitats for kilometres. Apart from the direct removal of the seafloor habitat, it will also cause a release of toxins in the processes altering the chemistry of the waters. 

“The ships on the surface for the mining operation could release toxic vapours into the water, harming many ocean species for hundreds or even thousands of kilometres,” the report says.  “Noise generated by churning machinery risks harming and disturbing marine mammals like whales, while floodlighting areas of the dark deep ocean could cause permanent disruption to sea creatures adapted to very low levels of natural light.”

Potential impacts of deep-sea mining. Source: IUCN

Meanwhile, Michael Lodge, secretary general of ISA, says that the assumption of deep-sea mining inevitably causing large-scale irreversible environmental damage and ecosystem collapse seemed grossly exaggerated.

“The environmental management techniques that will be used by the Authority, contractors and sponsoring States are tried and tested,” he said. “They include environmental impact assessment, based on a collection of baseline data during exploration; long-term monitoring both during and after impact; use of best available technology to minimise impacts and risk mitigation measures.” He added that although 29 sea-exploration leases have been given out to various states, the area covered in the leases represent just a minuscule part of the entire ocean floor.

The Future of Deep-Sea Mining

The ISA is still drawing up environmental regulations on deep-sea mining, which are expected to be finished by July 2020. Industrial-scale mining cannot begin until then.

Conservationists demand the regulations should be effective enough to avoid serious and lasting harm to the environment. “We are facing a unique window of opportunity to ensure that potential impacts of these operations are properly assessed, understood and publicly discussed,” says Kristina Gjerde, Global Marine and Polar Programme senior advisor at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “Stringent precautionary measures to protect the marine environment should be a core part of any mining regulations.”

The latest campaign by WWF warns that man-made noise causes chaos in the Arctic marine ecosystem, where whales once thrived for thousands of years safely under the thick sea ice cover. Global warming cracked open the ice shields and let the men enter with their commercial ships, tourist cruises, and fuel exploration vessels.  Their unsettling noises damage whales’ hearing and impede their communication.

Earth’s northernmost waters are never quiet. Every day, the whistles of beluga whales and the grunts of humpbacks compose underwater symphonies in the Arctic Ocean. The natural orchestras that nurture the lives of Arctic whales are now disrupted by invasive and dangerous man-made noise.

Doom of the last acoustic refuge

Scientists once saw the Arctic Ocean as ‘the last acoustic refuge’ for marine mammals. But that was before the ice started melting exponentially.  An analysis of three decades of data by the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) reveals that the extent of Arctic sea ice loss in the last four years hit the highest rate ever.

The absence of thick ice prompted maritime traffic in the Arctic waters. In 2017, for the first time, a giant Russian commercial LNG tanker sailed across the northern route from Europe to Asia without the protection of an ice-breaker. The imminent doom of whales’ last natural sanctuary thus became obvious.

Currently, the four main trans-Arctic routes of commercial navigation see a steep increase in traffic year by year. In the northern route alone, the Russian government predicts, the cargo turnover would grow tenfold by 2020. WWF warns that Arctic sea traffic will quadruple by 2025.

There is an emerging trend of whale-watching tourism, cruise ships and boats carrying scores of travellers across the arctic waters- Skjálfandi Bay in the northern coast of Iceland draws more than 100 000 tourists every year. Whale-watching boats operate from 8 am to 11 pm all year round.

You might also like: Scientists Develop Biodegradable ‘Plastic’ From Marine Organisms

The Arctic sea ice extent is declining at a rate of 12.8 percent per decade since 1979 (Photo: National Snow and Ice Data Center)

The deadly noise

WWF explains that marine mammals heavily depend on acoustic information to survive the underwater environment where it’s always dark.

Research published in the scientific journal Biology Letters last year by oceanographer Ms. Kate Stafford and her team points out bowhead whales, an endangered Arctic whale species can sing up to 24 hours to attract mates during breeding season. Analysing five years of data Ms. Stafford, Associate Professor at the University of Washington, reveals that bowhead whales make new and diverse songs each year.  The round-foreheaded belugas—nicknamed as “the canaries of the sea”– are considered the most vocal among whale species. They use diverse clicks, whistles, and clangs to communicate, navigate and locate food. The humpback whales, on the other hand, compose new tunes each year to mate- like the behavioral pattern of the bowhead whales.

The man-made noise of ships overlaps the vocal frequency of whales and interrupts their communication. It hampers their navigation and cripples their ability to detect dangers. Sounds to them are like eyes to human. Man-made noises mask their senses.

Many whales stop singing when heavy ships pass by. Although some other species like the begulas try to overcome their challenge by changing their vocalisation level, the increasing number ships may soon exhaust them.

Industrial activities such as oil and gas exploration pose a great danger to them. Seismic air guns used for searching fuel deposits generate intense, acoustic impulse signals. The noise is louder than a jet’s take-off and can travel over 2,000 miles. Marine mammals experience temporary or permanent hearing loss when they get exposed these air gun blast—just like a human.

A 2017 study highlighted that air gun blasts can double the death rate of zooplankton, jellyfish, shrimps and sea snails.  The result is a disturbed oceanic food chain with the whale species, which feed on these small creatures, face starvation.


Humpbacks are known for ‘singing’ to attract mates. (Photo by Thomas Kelley/Unsplash)

Solution

In their campaign, WWF urges the eight Arctic States, including Canada, Norway, Russia, and the US, to take action to stop the noise pollution. Experts have suggested practical solutions to the problem. 

One simple step for mitigation is to slow down ships’ speed. Belén García Ovide, a Spanish marine biologist, who studied acoustic effects on whales for more than five years, says a boat’s speed is the biggest single factor of noise intensity in the ocean. Research published last year in Acoustic Society of America also sees the potentials in reducing acoustic masking by lowering cruise ships’ speed from 25 knots to 15 knots (equivalent to about 17 mph to 11.5 mph).

Quiet-ship technology is also an efficient way to deal with the noise. However, WWF points out existing technologies, which are designed to produce quiet military vessels, are either too expensive or unfit for the size of commercial ship engines.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), in charge of leading the implementation of ship-quieting technology, drafted a set of voluntary guidelines in 2014. The implementation of these guidelines might yield some positive results. WWF recommends regulations such as limiting vessels’ access to port facilities if they cannot meet noise level requirements.

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