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Executive Summary for January 19th

In our weekly news roundup, 2017 was the warmest year on record for the ocean, some big brands pledge to reduce plastic packaging and there’s a big oil slick spreading near China.

Published on Jan. 19, 2018 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

2017 Was Warmest Year on Record for the Global Ocean

Researchers with the Chinese Academy of Sciences declared last year the warmest year for the ocean since reliable temperature record-keeping began in 1958, according to a study released on Thursday.

The analysis applied to the top 6,600ft (2,000m) of water and found the most warming occurred in the Atlantic and Southern oceans. The ocean absorbed almost 700 times more heat than all of China’s electricity generation for 2016, the authors said. The last five years have also been the warmest five years for the ocean, they found.

The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration echoed the finding this week, telling the Washington Post that the amount of heat stored up to 2,300ft (700m) in depth was also the highest on record last year. More generally, the NOAA said 2017 was the third warmest on record when considering global air and ocean surface temperatures.

Because the ocean warms more slowly than the atmosphere, the recent heat records are less influenced by weather patterns and El Niño or La Niña events and indicate the long-term trend, the Chinese study noted. Consequences of a warming ocean include sea level rise, ocean acidification, coral bleaching and oxygen loss. A study also released recently also found that global warming was making more regional or localized ocean “heat waves,” which can kill marine life and harm ecosystems, 53 times more like to occur.

Plastics, Plastics, Plastics

Several larger retailers announced new goals to deal with their plastic waste following the recent release of plastic reduction strategies in both the United Kingdom and the European Union.

British supermarket chain Iceland said it would eliminate plastic packaging in all its own-brand products by 2023, and the U.K. restaurant chains Wagamama and Pret a Manger said they will stop providing customers with plastic straws. McDonald’s promised to eliminate using styrofoam by the end of this year in all its locations, as well as source all its packaging from “renewable and recycled” sources by 2025.

The moves came as U.K. prime minister Theresa May announced a 25-year environment plan, with the goal of eliminating all “avoidable” plastic waste by 2042. Many experts quickly criticized the proposal as big on rhetoric but lacking any firm commitment or plans to introduce legislation requiring businesses to take action. Unrelated to the plan, the U.K. ban on microbeads also went into effect this month.

The European Union also announced its strategy to reduce plastic waste this week, and it received slightly better reviews than the U.K. for its more ambitious target of making all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030. It also aims to ensure that at least 55 percent of the packaging is recycled by 2025 and “take measures to restrict the use of microplastics in products.” The plan includes financing to make the transition to more ocean-friendly materials.

China’s Oil Spill Disaster

As United States coastal regions worry about the risks of the Trump administration’s plan to expand offshore drilling, China offers a cautionary tale. Last Sunday a tanker carrying 1 million barrels of light crude oil sank in the East China Sea, about 180 miles (290 km) from the coast. Its 32-person crew is presumed dead.

Figures from the Chinese State Oceanic Administration released on Wednesday estimated that the spill covered an area of 39 square miles (101 sq km), according to Reuters. The oil is spreading in four separate slicks. The University of Southampton’s computer modeling predicts that oil-polluted water could also reach Japan’s coast within a month, although there are plenty of uncertainties because no one is sure how much of the oil will evaporate or burn. Several scientists warned that seafood fished from the area could be risky to eat, the Guardian reported.

In an opinion piece on Bloomberg, journalist Adam Minter noted that this area of China’s waters may not have much seafood left for anyone to eat; most fishers bypass it because it is already so overfished.

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