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Executive Summary for December 15th

In this week’s roundup, we report on the latest warming trends in the Arctic, how efficiently one marine organism shreds up plastic bags, and a new U.S. effort to overcome technological barriers to offshore wind development.

Published on Dec. 15, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Arctic Winter Sea Ice Is at Lowest Levels on Record

In its annual Arctic Report Card, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that sea ice was at its lowest winter maximum extent since the satellite record began in 1979. Sea ice also continued to thin during 2017, which was the Arctic’s second warmest this century.

“This year’s observations confirm that the Arctic shows no signs of returning to the reliably frozen state that it was in just a decade ago,” Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program, said at a press conference this week.

In 2017, the winter sea ice maximum was 8 percent lower than the average in 1981 to 2010, while the summer minimum was 25 percent lower. In 1985, thicker ice that is more than one year old comprised 45 percent of ice cover, whereas in 2017, it only made up 21 percent. The report found that compared to historical estimates, the rate of sea ice decline and warming temperatures is higher than at any other time in the last 1,500 years (and likely longer than that).

The Arctic Ocean also continued to warm in 2017. Temperatures in the Barents and Chukchi seas were up to 4 degrees C warmer than average, leading to increases in ocean’s productivity at the base of the marine food web, the report said.

“This year’s Arctic Report Card is a powerful argument for why we need long-term sustained Arctic observations to support the decisions that we will need to make to improve the economic well-being for Arctic communities, national security, environmental health and food security,” acting NOAA administrator Timothy Gallaudet said in a statement.

The Incredible Ocean Plastic Shredder

A single plastic bag may not seem like a big thing, but if it winds up in the ocean, it can become more than a million tiny plastic bits, according to a new study.

The research, published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, looked at how marine wildlife contributes to the formation of microplastic pollution. It found that a particular amphipod that lives off Europe’s coastal waters, Orchestia gammarellus, can shred a shopping bag quickly and efficiently.

In a lab and on the shoreline, researchers at the University of Plymouth studied the amphipod’s interactions with plastic bags. It didn’t matter if the bag was conventional plastic or biodegradable – they still ripped it up. If the bag had accumulated a biofilm of organic matter on it, the rate was four times faster.

The study adds to growing evidence that marine wildlife interact with ocean plastic in a variety of harmful ways, sometimes ingesting it or becoming entangled, sometimes helping to break it down or spread it around. The research shows how easy it is for even a single bag to create pollution that becomes widely dispersed in the marine environment.

U.S. to Fund Offshore Wind R&D Collaboration

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced $18.5 million in financing for a new public-private consortium focused on research and development aimed at reducing the cost of offshore wind energy as well as an additional $2 million allocated to U.S. national laboratories.

The DOE said that it aims to build momentum in the industry after the first commercial offshore wind project, the Block Island Wind Farm, went online off the coast of Rhode Island in late 2016. A number of additional larger offshore projects are also in various stages of planning, although the U.S. lags far behind several European countries in the commercial development of these technologies. The department noted that the U.S. faces unique and particular R&D challenges that it needs to overcome, including how wind developers should grapple with Atlantic hurricanes and deep water that requires floating foundations.


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