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Executive Summary for April 27th

In this week’s roundup, we write about the status of President Trump’s NOAA nominee, a new study showing surprising levels of plastic pollution in Arctic sea ice, and the world’s longest penguin dives.

Published on April 27, 2018 Read time Approx. 2 minutes

Report: Trump’s NOAA Appointment Adrift at Sea

This week, the Washington Post reports that it’s been one year and 95 days since Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) still lacks a Senate-confirmed administrator – the longest the agency has gone without a leader.

More importantly, according to the article, it increasingly looks like Trump’s controversial appointee, Barry Myers, may never get confirmed. Democrats and several former NOAA chiefs have objected to Myers, who has no science background, and whose previous role as chief executive of the private firm AccuWeather presents conflicts of interest. Senate Republicans may not find the appointment a high enough priority to push through a vote.

The NOAA is currently led by acting administrator Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography and U.S. Navy alum who has enjoyed more general support and has kept a relatively low political profile. And in an unusual move, considering the Trump administration’s actions to scale back several national monuments, the United States Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA, recently defended one Obama administration-designated marine monument in a lawsuit from fishing groups.

Plastic Pollution Frozen in Arctic Sea Ice

Warming sea ice presents plenty of problems for Arctic wildlife. Scientists just added another: all the microplastic pollution that may be released with the melt.

Researchers at Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research, sampled ice cores from five Arctic Ocean areas in 2014 and 2015. Analysis showed unexpectedly highly concentrations of microplastics in some samples – two to three times higher than what had been previously measured. The particles consisted of tiny bits of plastic packaging, paint, polyester, nylon and even a material used to make cigarette filters. They found 17 kinds of plastic.

The purpose of the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, was to determine how much plastic concentrations varied in ice and where plastics might come from. Their analysis found that a good portion of the fragments were likely transported from the middle of the Pacific Ocean – i.e. the infamous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” But fragments of paint particles from ships and nylon from fishing nets could have come for the Arctic region. These kinds of local sources, the study cautions, may only increase as the melting Arctic opens up to more commercial activities.

What Drives the World’s Longest Penguin Dive?

Scientists recently reported the world’s longest penguin dive at more than 32 minutes, but they don’t understand what is pushing the marine birds to stretch their bodies’ limits.

The findings were somewhat of an accident, since the researchers tagged non-breeding emperor penguins in the Antarctic, when they had originally intended to track breeding individuals. The 20 tagged nonbreeders traveled farther and dove deeper than would seem possible, given that their bodies seem to run out of oxygen at around eight minutes. Previously, the longest recorded penguin dive was around 27 minutes.

“What we don’t know at this point is if it’s becoming harder [for them] to find food and they have to dive deeper, or for some reason they are veering off course and they can’t find an ice hole, and if they can’t find an ice hole, they can’t come up to breathe,” study author Kim Goetz, from New Zealand’s National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research, told the Guardian. The researchers’ next step is to use cameras to try to figure out what the penguins were hunting for that was worth the endurance feat.

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