Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Magpies outsmart the scientists studying them

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Australian scientists studying the behavior of magpies — the cheeky, social relatives of the crow — found themselves outwitted by their subjects, The New York Times reported.  

After spending half a year designing harnesses for the black-and-white birds that would hold tracking devices, the scientists fitted them on the magpies — with surprising results.  
“The first tracker was off half an hour after we put it on,” Dominique Potvin of University of the Sunshine Coast, told the Times. Potvin also detailed the experience in a study for Birdlife Australia.  

As the scientists watched, tracker-wearing magpies stood stock still while a fellow magpie searched out the harness’s one weak point — a small clasp — and opened it with its beak. Within three days, all of the magpies Potvin’s team had harnessed were free and untraceable, the Times reported.  

“At first it was heartbreaking,” Potvin told the Times, noting that they soon realized they had stumbled on an exciting new cognitive behavior.   

This flexibility of magpies to problem-solve through social interactions has been key to sustaining their populations as Australian landscapes have undergone changes, according to Potvin. 

“They’ve managed to figure things out in a new way,” he told the Times. 

Today we’ll look at calls for the U.S. government to follow through with decadesold promises to clean up the country’s polluted waterways. Then we’ll turn our attention to the biggest wildfires, which destabilize the ozone layer but release far less carbon dioxide than we had feared. 

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin.    

Let’s get to it. 


50% of US waterways impaired by pollution: report 

A half century after the passage of federal Clean Water Act, 50 percent of U.S. river and stream miles are so polluted that they are classified as “impaired,” a new report has found.   

Not only are 50 percent of these waterways impaired, but so, too, are 55 percent of lakes, ponds and reservoirs and 25 percent of bays, estuaries and harbors — meaning that none of these resources are suitable for public uses, according to the report.   

These findings, published by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project, marked both the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act and four decades after the law’s deadline for making all U.S. waters “fishable and swimmable.” 

First words: “The Clean Water Act should be celebrated on its 50th birthday for making America’s waterways significantly cleaner,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former director of civil enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement.    

“However, we need more funding, stronger enforcement, and better control of farm runoff to clean up waters that are still polluted after half a century,” Schaeffer added.   

A crowning un-achievement? Enacted in 1972, the Clean Water Act directed more than $1 trillion into developing wastewater treatment plants and improving water quality of during first three decades.  

But the legislation, which the report authors described as “a crowning achievement of the environmental movement,” has failed to achieve its goals a half-century later, according to the report.   

Some unachieved Clean Water Act goals include securing “fishable, swimmable” waters across the country by 1983, as well as the elimination of pollution from navigable waters by 1985, the authors noted.   

Where did the data come from? The authors drew their conclusions by analyzing data available in the most recent Integrated Water Reports filed by individual states to the EPA. 
Within these datasets, they looked at the quantity of U.S. waters classified as impaired due to pollution: more than 700,000 miles of rivers, streams and creeks, more than 11 million acres of lakes, ponds and reservoirs and more than 19,000 square miles of bays, estuaries and harbors. 

Which states were the worst offenders? 

  • Indiana had the most miles of rivers and streams classified as impaired or unusable for swimming and water contact recreation.
  • Florida ranked first for total acres of lakes classified as impaired for swimming and aquatic life.
  • California topped the charts for most river and stream miles listed as impaired for drinking water.
  • Louisiana ranked first for the most estuaries considered impaired for any use.
  • Delaware had the highest percentage (97 percent) of rivers and streams listed as impaired for any use.
  • Iowa experienced major runoff problems, with 93 percent of its assessed river and stream miles impaired for swimming and recreation.


The Environmental Integrity Project slammed the EPA for neglecting its duty under the Clean Water Act to review and update technology-based standards for pollution control systems used by industries.   

By 2022, two-thirds of the agency’s industry-specific water contamination limits had not been revised in three decades, despite the law’s requirement that reviews occur every five years, according to the report.   

In response to the findings, an EPA spokesperson told Equilibrium that the “EPA is aware of the report and will review.”    

Need for consistency and runoff control: The report authors suggested a variety of additional solutions for improving the current situation, such as calling upon Congress to close a Clean Water Act loophole that allows for agricultural runoff and other “non-point” pollution sources — or pollution that does not originate from one identifiable source.  

They also proposed the creation of more consistent, universal guidelines for waterway impairment classifications nationwide. 

Targeted funding to address disproportionate impacts: As states begin to receive funds allocated toward water in November’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, the authors stressed that lawmakers should target the money toward water pollution control.  

Such funds, they explained, should go particularly toward lower-income communities of color, who have long suffered disproportionate impacts from pollution. 

To read the full story, please click here


More wildfires risk destabilizing ozone, snowpack

Australia’s enormous “Black Summer” fires in the winter of 2019 and 2020 disturbed the gases of the upper atmosphere beyond anything seen in the past 15 years — with impacts that are poorly understood but likely destructive to the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer. These findings highlight the broad risk posed by the world’s largest wildfires — including those in the United States, where destructive fires have become four times larger and three times more frequent since 2000.   

First words: The influx of smoke from severe fires “resulted in extreme disturbances in stratospheric gas concentrations, including increases in chlorine-bearing compounds, which have the potential to destroy ozone,” scientists studying the Australia bushfires wrote on Thursday.   

Big smoke means big fire: Specifically the terrifying form of fire known as pyrocumulonimbus, which can send plumes of superheated ozone-destroying smoke to the borders of space, and which “can affect climate and atmospheric composition in currently ill-defined ways,” the team studying the Australia bushfires reported.  

These fires are getting bigger and more common: The Western and Eastern U.S. saw fire frequencies double between 2005 to 2018, compared to the previous decades, according to a study Tuesday in Science Advances covered in The Hill’s Changing America. The Great Plains saw a fourfold increase during this time, the study found.  

“Projected changes in climate, fuel and ignitions suggest that we’ll see more and larger fires in the future. Our analyses show that those changes are already happening,” lead author Virginia Iglesias, of the Earth Lab at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), said in a statement.   

CIRES is a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado Boulder.  

What else did they find? Iglesias’s team found that large fires in the 2000s tended to cluster in certain heavily burned areas, were more likely to occur at the same time as other fires and burned around four times as much area as in the previous decades.  

They also found that fires were moving into new areas that had no history of burning, suggesting broader and potentially irreversible changes to the American landscape. 


The CIRES survey looked at years 2005-2018 — meaning that the statistics were already stark before the record-setting fire years of 2020 and 2021 were included.   

And even as fires get worse, people are continue to move into fire zones across the West, like the new Denver neighborhoods that burned over New Years, as we reported.  

“These convergent trends, more large fires plus intensifying development, mean that the worst fire disasters are still to come,” coauthor William Travis, deputy director of CIRES’ Earth Lab, said in a statement.  

Elder trees offer aid: During hot, dry Western summers, the melting snow from mountain snowpack serves as a kind of battery that helps hydrate forests, lowering the risk of destructive fire.  

Another study published on Tuesday found that the biggest, oldest trees — which also tended to be the most fire resistant — helped shade snowpack, keeping it from melting off too quickly. 

“Snow is a key resource for fresh water supply and ecosystem function,” according to a statement from first author Michaela Teich of Austria’s Federal Research and Training Centre for Forests, Natural Hazards and Landscape.  

“Our study highlights that conserving big trees — the very trees that often survive forest fires — in forest ecosystems where fire is part of the ecological cycle can help facilitate both,” Teich added.  

That makes the conservation of large, old trees with big canopies essential to maintaining snowmelt for as long as possible, the scientists found.  

Some rare good news: Even when huge destructive fires happen — like California’s enormous Creek Fire in September 2020 — they may not release nearly as much carbon dioxide as previously thought, a study in the journal Forests has found

While some studies have suggested that such severe fires burn up between 65 and 80 percent of tree biomass — all of which would end up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide — a team from Oregon State University found that this was wildly overestimated. 

How overestimated? While some branches were burned up entirely, the scientists found that only 0.5 percent of live trees went up in smoke. While many were still killed, the slow process of natural composition could keep their carbon stable for centuries — whereas, if they’re logged to create biomass energy, they would enter the atmosphere almost immediately. 

The scientists suggested that the discrepancy in how much carbon dioxide is generated by wildfires came from an overreliance on remote observation and computer modeling — which risked erroneously pushing climate policy toward questionable solutions like biomass. 

Last words: “We suggest that researchers and policy makers avoid using combustion rates not based on field study as they appear to overstate the wildfire emissions used in carbon emissions reporting,” coauthor Dominick DellaSala said in a statement.  

“This can potentially misdirect climate mitigation policy,” he added.


Thursday Threats 

The unsustainability of life under siege.  

‘It is hell:’ siege of Ukrainian city squeezes those left inside 

Economic impact of war in Ukraine to hit world’s poorest hardest: OECD 

  • The economic impact of the war in Ukraine could take a particularly devastating toll low-income individuals, as energy and food prices surge and global economic growth plummets, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said on Thursday, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. 

Microplastics from European rivers may accumulate in Arctic Ocean: study 

  • Floating microplastics known to accumulate in parts of the Arctic Ocean, as well as in the Nordic Seas and Baffin Bay, likely originate in European rivers, according to a study in Scientific Reports, which has revealed the source of this pollution for the first time. 


Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Friday.


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