Plastic Ocean

Despite years of warnings, numerous studies, and shocking images, the volume of plastic now found in the oceans of the planet have reached unprecedented levels. Is there anything we can do to turn the tide, or is it too late?

Shockingly, the latest study on plastic levels in our oceans reveals a mass of 2.3 million tons of plastic has invaded the planet’s water, made up of a staggering 171 trillion microplastic particles. While decades ago we looked to the sky and saw clouds of pollution created by burning fossil fuels, car exhausts and industrial smoke, beneath the waves a new “plastic smog” has been growing. And the news gets worse – the increase in plastic particles has been increasing at an unprecedented rate since 2005.

This recent study was based on water data collected over a 40 year period from over 12,000 monitoring stations around the world. Eight to ten million tons of general plastic waste is dumped in the oceans each year, but the microplastics (fine particles) the make up the plastic smog are creating a much bigger problem. They’re easily ingested by marine life, but also seep toxic chemicals into the water, changing the chemical nature of the water and altering the fragile ecosystem of marine life. And the volume of plastic waste is likely to increase by 2.6 times by 2040 unless something drastic is done to change our obsession with plastic and the careless way we discard it. While “fishing” plastic out of the oceans might help reduce the level of larger plastic waste, it doesn’t make much of a difference to the microplastic pollution.

“It is much higher than previous estimates,” study co-author Lisa Erdle, director of science and innovation at the environmental non-profit 5 Gyres explained. “We clearly need some solutions that have teeth.” Meaning we have no alternative but to limit and reduce the amount of plastic we produce and waste.

“Cleanup is futile if we continue to produce plastic at the current rate, and we have heard about recycling for too long while the plastic industry simultaneously rejects any commitments to buy recycled material or design for recyclability,” said study co-author Marcus Eriksen.

As well as microplastics, it seems that the amount of sewage in the ocean has also reached an unhealthy level. In an article in ‘Environmental Sciences & Technology,’ it was found that the spray from the ocean around San Diego’s Imperial Beach contained sewage bacteria, effecting the air people in the area breathed and increasing the risk of E Coli, Salmonella, and Norovirus.

When will we take action to prevent our careless disregard for the planet we call home?

Turning Waste into Fuel

Two problems seem to be plaguing the planet and our survival as a species – the ever growing mass of plastic waste we produce, and our dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. But surprisingly there could be one solution that solves both problems at the same time. And even better – it’s solar powered!

Researchers at the University of Cambridge claim that they have created a machine that takes CO2 as well as plastic waste and turns it into fuel using solar power. Their “Photoelectrochemical” system uses two compartments inside a reactor, one for greenhouse gases, and one for plastic waste. A light absorber called Perovskite and a chemical catalyst are then used to absorb enough light from the sun to convert the waste into carbon, a basic fuel.

“What’s so special about this system is the versatility and tunability — we’re making fairly simple carbon-based molecules right now, but in the future, we could be able to tune the system to make far more complex products, just by changing the catalyst,” explained Cambridge chemist Subhajit Bhattacharjee.

“Generally, CO2 conversion requires a lot of energy, but with our system, basically you just shine a light at it, and it starts converting harmful products into something useful and sustainable,” added coauthor Motiar Rahaman.

As well as carbon based fuels, the Photoelectrochemical system was also able to convert plastic bottles and CO2 into synthetic gas, and glycolic acid. Synthetic gas is an important part of liquid fuels.

On a side note, the Perovskite and catalyst combination could also help transform the solar power industry by making solar panels more productive and efficient in converting sun light into power.

But they’re not stopping there. While the system would be valuable in removing waste products from the planet and at the same time creating a fuel, the team at Cambridge believe that within the next five years they will be able to adapt the Photoelectrochemical system to transform other, more complex, materials and possibly create a solar recycling plant.

“Developing a circular economy, where we make useful things from waste instead of throwing it into landfills, is vital if we’re going to meaningfully address the climate crisis and protect the natural world,” explained Professor Erwin Reisner, a scientist at Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry. “And powering these solutions using the sun means that we’re doing it cleanly and sustainably.”

Humanity Time Bomb

With global warming and violent conflict around the world, it’s not surprising that the question of humanity’s future longevity on planet Earth is being asked. But, while we speculate in response to news headlines, Stanford Scientists are taking a more clinic approach and have come to the conclusion that civilization will end in the “next few decades.”

This comes following a recent appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes program where scientists discussed global mass extinction. Stanford Biologist Tony Barnosky, suggested that, through his work examining fossil records and ecosystem changes, current extinction rates are roughly 100 times higher than typically seen at any other point in Earth’s four billion year history.

Earth is currently experiencing the worst mass extinction event since the dinosaurs. Although the Earth may continue to turn after extinctions, life on the planet does not. But will that include humans?

Paul Ehrlich published a book in 1968 called ‘The Population Bomb’ where he addressed overpopulation and mass extinction. Today, over 50 years later, his predictions are becoming more and more real.

Even if the human race survives its society will crumble because of changes in habitat destruction, soil infertility and changes in our food chain. It’s all down to too many people and too much consumption. “Humanity is not sustainable,” explained Paul Ehrlich. “To maintain our lifestyle (yours and mine, basically) for the entire planet, you’d need five more Earths.”

“It is too much to say that we’re killing the planet, because the planet’s gonna be fine,” added Tony Barnosky. “What we’re doing is we’re killing our way of life. There are five times in Earth’s history where we had mass extinctions, at least 75% of the known species disappearing from the face of the Earth. Now we’re witnessing what a lot of people are calling the sixth mass extinction where the same thing could happen on our watch.”

And this warning is only repeated by other experts. In fact, it’s more unlikely that you find an expert who doesn’t think we’re in an extinction crisis, than does.

The World Wildlife Fund’s research found that life on Earth was sustainable in the year 1970 when there were 3.5 billion people on the planet. Today there are 8 billion people – a number which is growing at an alarming rate and forcing animals to different parts of the planet in an attempt to survive. The research also added that since 1970, 69% of global wildlife has collapsed. Humans have taken over 70% of the planet as well as 70% of the freshwater, pushing other animals, and plants, into extinction.

Could things change? Mexican ecologist Gerardo Ceballos believes the only solution would be to save the one third of Earth that is currently wild and is involved in a scheme to pay farmers to stop cutting the forests in Guatemala. But these small scale schemes need to be scaled up 10,000 times to have any chance of making a difference.

Paul Ehrlich’s thoughts for the future: “there’s no political will to do any of the things that I’m concerned with, which is exactly why I and the vast majority of my colleagues think we’ve had it; that the next few decades will be the end of the kind of civilization we’re used to.”

Space Cave Dwellers

Fancy living in a cave in space? That appears to be the potential solution for astronauts looking to live on Mars. The Geological Society of America has identified nine different potential caves that they believe could be viable for colonization should astronauts reach Mars.

The environment on the surface of Mars is known to be harsh so protection from the elements is essential, and naturally occurring caves could provide an immediate answer. With temperatures dropping to below minus 148 degrees Fahrenheit, exposure to harsh solar radiation and even the danger posed by meteorites, it’s no wonder a cave could be the solution!

The potential nine habitable caves have been narrowed down from over one thousand identified, based on factors including distance from potential landing sites, as well as elevation level.  It’s also important that the caves extend underground, allowing enough space for astronauts, their equipment, as well as supplies. The next stage is to maneuver the NASA rovers into the area to get a surface-level look.

Once suitable caves have been located, a team of planetary scientists from the Washington Academy of Sciences suggest settlements are constructed into the caverns lava tubes. This would provide potentially 82 percent protection from solar radiation. The idea of building in the lava tubes is not a new one – as recently as 2017, Japan’s space agency made the same suggestion for Moon settlement.

The moon is certainly a lot more accessible than Mars, but the problems are very similar. The moon has no atmosphere resulting in temperature variations and radiation risks. Lava tubes are structurally very stable. Once the lava has stopped and drained out, the remaining tubes are strong solid structures, often large enough to house a city.

A potential lunar base has been identified near Marius Hills, a set of volcanic domes which as yet have an unknown depth. The US government has been noted to say the “the moon was ‘a vital strategic goal’ that would improve our ability to travel further than ever before” – possibly hinting at a colonized Mars.

Earlier this year NASA researchers discovered “pits” in the moon surface that maintain a temperature of 63 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to the normal surface temperature range of between minus 280 and positive 260 degrees. The pits are shaded from the Sun, trapping heat during the night whilst protecting it from heat exposure during the day. These pits could protect astronauts and might even join to cave structures capable of providing homes.

Researchers are looking into the possibility of using remotely operated robots and drones to explore the pits and cave systems further.

“Humans evolved living in caves, and to caves we might return when we live on the Moon.”

Alien Ocean Wreckage

Avi Loeb, a professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is a firm believer that alien life exists, despite his peers sometimes rolling their eyes with disbelief. In 2021 Loeb suggested that it was possible that an alien civilization had seeded the Earth with sensors to monitor its potential for habitation. This suggestion was linked to something called “Oumuamua” – an interstellar object that entered our solar system in 2017. Oumuamua was discovered by Robert Weryk at the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii when he observed it passing close to the sun. He estimated it to be about 100 to 1,000 metres long, red in color, and exhibiting non gravitational acceleration. It was thought to be a remnant of a disintegrated rogue comet. However Loeb was convinced that Oumuamua was something much, much more, and that it was actually monitoring Earth for signals from probes left on the planet in the past.

However, his latest suggestion concerns a meteor which struck the Earth in 2014. Small meteors often enter our atmosphere but disintegrate harmlessly as they travel into our atmosphere. Loeb’s meteor was about two feet long but broke into fragments before entering the South Pacific Ocean.

“It moved very fast, roughly 40 kilometers per second when it exploded in the lower atmosphere,” Loeb told the Associated Press. Loeb believes that the meteor may be extraterrestrial in origin, based on his speculation that the strength of the meteor was twice as tough as that of an iron meteorite. In 2019 Loeb’s findings were rejected, but more recently a memo from the US Space Command seems to add some weight to Loeb’s theory, confirming the meteor originated from a different solar system.

Loeb has now launched a privately funded expedition to search the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean with a magnet sled, to retrieve samples of the meteor from a 40 square mile area.

“The ideal scenario is that in addition to tiny fragments, we would find a piece of an advanced technological device, like the hundredth version of the iPhone,” Loeb told Salon. “I would love to press a button on such an object.”

The scientific community is not convinced. Science writer Ethan Siegel said: “The alien technology hypothesis is so far-fetched that there is no scientific reason to consider this as anything other than someone with no evidence crying wolf when there is no wolf that we have ever seen before.”

Professor Avi Loeb is currently looking for investors for his expedition, called The Galileo Project, and is hoping to raise 1.5 million dollars.

Alien Signals

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not, both are frightening.”- Arthur C. Clarke

Astrophysicists have been meticulously working to detect interplanetary lifeforms for decades. The prospect of extraterrestrial presence has always piqued the curiosity of scientists and as a result, they are tirelessly engaged in their attempt to locate evidence. However, the certainty of ‘life beyond earth’ might have been proved via a recently detected strong radio signal.

To achieve success in decade-long research for an alien broadcast, numerous technologies have been introduced to catch a signal from a distant world. One of these advanced inventions includes China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST), nicknamed ‘Sky Eye’, which is regarded as the largest radio telescope in the world. It came into existence in 2019 with an aim to deep scan space for extraterrestrial life by receiving radio signals. 

On June 15th, an unusual narrow-band radio signal was picked up by the Sky Eye. The announcement sparked excitement however, scientists exercised caution stating that this finding was preliminary and yet to be thoroughly analyzed. 

As mentioned in the original paper, the signal was located from the direction of an exoplanet within the habitable zone of Kepler-438, acknowledged as a doppelganger of earth. However, the habitability of Kepler-438 has not been confirmed yet. The suspicious signal was discovered during the targeted alien-hunting mission. Furthermore, the paper stated that the signal was monitored for 20 minutes, demonstrating that it was approaching from an orbital celestial body, most likely the earth-like exoplanet. 

“These are multiple narrow-band electromagnetic signals distinct from the past,” said Zhang Tongjie, chief scientist at Beijing Normal University’s China Extraterrestrial Civilization Research Group. “The team is currently conducting more research,” he stated. “The possibility that the unusual signal is radio interference is also very strong, and it has to be confirmed and ruled out further. This might be a lengthy process.”

Nevertheless, this isn’t the first time that scientists have been baffled by a mysterious signal. In the year 1977 a search executed by the Big Ear telescope at Ohio State University discovered a mind-bogglingly brief electromagnetic burst that blazed at a frequency that scientists believe could be utilized by alien civilizations. However, the proceeding searches revealed that the signal could have been received from a sun-like star located in the constellation Sagittarius.

Dan Werthimer, a researcher at the Beijing Normal University SETI poured cold water on the signal possibilities and remarked “All of the signals received by SETI researchers thus far have been generated by our own civilization, not by another civilization. Observing SETI from the surface of our planet is becoming increasingly difficult. As more transmitters and satellites are created, radio pollution is increasing. Some radio bands are no longer available for SETI.”

In addition, Zhang Tongjie spoke to the Chinese government-affiliated publication Science and Technology Daily. “It may take some time to verify one way or the other, but even if the signal turns out to be interference, it will provide vital information for our future SETI investigations.”