Scientists Suggest an Environmentally Conscious Way to Deal With Land Mines: Blow Them Up

Raul Arboleda, AFP/Getty Images
Raul Arboleda, AFP/Getty Images

Land mines left over from conflicts can have disastrous consequences for the environment. Most of these bombs contain volatile TNT, and when these chemicals are released they contaminate the surrounding soil and water, poisoning the plants and animals that depend on those natural resources [PDF]. A lot of time and money is invested in deactivating leftover land mines in a clean and safe way, but new research published in PLOS ONE suggests that bomb squads may be better off blowing them up.

As Gizmodo reports, the study, conducted by Australian and Scottish researchers, shows that detonating land mines ends up causing less harm to the environment than deactivating them and removing them from the ground. At first this might seem counterintuitive: How can a large explosion do less damage to the environment than a bomb that never goes off? But the violent impact of the bomb is ultimately what allows for cleaner soil.

When a land mine is detonated, that explosion disrupts the surrounding soil, causing it to become loose and porous. The new air pockets in the dirt leave room for bacteria to squirm through and consume pollutants, a process called bioremediation. Researchers found that the site of a detonated land mine had lower levels of TNT after six weeks than the site of a deactivated one, thanks to greater activity from these toxin-munching bacteria.

Previous research had mainly examined the effect of detonation on the exterior of soil aggregates. This study is the first to investigate the effects of landmine blasts on the soil's interior structure, and the findings could lead to better methods of bioremediation in polluted sites, the authors note in the study.

Land mines are a major threat in areas touched by war. There’s still no one technique used by bomb squads to sniff them out (drones and rats are just a couple of the tools currently in play), but when they are located, the new research may change the way these explosives are handled.

[h/t Gizmodo]

The Tree That Inspired Dr. Seuss's The Lorax Has Fallen Over

Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The Truffula trees at the center of The Lorax may have been a product of Dr. Seuss's imagination, but it's believed they were inspired by a real-life tree in La Jolla, California. Nearly 50 years after the environmental parable was published, Smithsonian reports that the iconic Monterey cypress has fallen.

The tree had grown for 80 to 100 years in what is today Ellen Browning Scripps Park in Southern California. It was clearly visible from the observation tower where Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, lived in La Jolla following World War II.

While the children's book author and illustrator never stated that the tree inspired his work, locals started referring to it as "The Lorax Tree." The resemblance it bears to Seuss's Truffula is undeniable: Both have skinny trunks with whimsical curves and thick, fluffy canopies of foliage concentrated at the top.

In The Lorax, the Truffula trees are threatened by the Once-ler, who wants to chop them down and turn them into garments called Thneeds. The title character "speaks for the trees" and conveys the book's environmentalist message.

Unlike the Truffula, La Jolla's Monterey cypress appeared to be in no danger until it recently toppled over. Arborists aren't sure what caused the collapse, as they hadn't noticed any prior health issues with the tree except for some termites. The past year's uncharacteristically wet winter and the effect it had on the surrounding soil may have played a role, so experts are looking into that possibility.

Most of the tree has been removed from the area, and the city plans to plant another tree in its place. There are also plans to salvage and repurpose the trunk from the fallen tree, though they haven't been made official.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Tourists Are Picking Apart Britain's Oldest Tree

Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Fortingall Yew in the Fortingall churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland has seen a lot. Since it started growing at least 2000 years ago, it's been present for the Roman settlement of Scotland, the shift from paganism to Christianity, and the country's induction into the United Kingdom. But after standing for millennia, the ancient tree is facing its greatest threat yet. Tourists are removing twigs and branches from the tree to take home as souvenirs, and the tree is under so much stress that it's spontaneously changing sexes, Atlas Obscura reports.

Because of how the tree grows, it's hard to date the Fortingall Yew precisely. It comprises several separate trunks that have hollowed out over the years, making it easier for the tree to support itself in its old age. Based on historical measurements and 19th-century ring counts, the yew has been around for at least two millennia, but it could date back as far as 5000 years. That makes it the oldest tree in Britain and one of the oldest living things in Europe.

That impressive title means the tree gets a lot of visitors, not all of whom are concerned with extending its lifespan even longer. A stone and iron wall built in the Victorian era encloses the tree, but that hasn't stopped people from climbing over it to break off pieces or leave behind keepsakes like beads and ribbons.

As the abuse adds up, the tree has responded in concerning ways. It sprouted red berries this spring, a sign that the tree is transitioning to a different sex for the first time in its life. Yew trees are either male or female, and sex changes among the species are incredibly rare and misunderstood. Some botanists believe it's a reaction to stress. The change may be a survival mechanism intended to increase the specimen's chances of reproducing.

Scientists aren't sure why this particular yew, which was formerly male, sprouted berries on its upper branches, an exclusively female characteristic, but they've collected the berries to study them. The seeds from the berries will be preserved as part of a project to protect the genetic diversity of yew trees across the globe.

In the mean time, caretakers of the Fortingall Yew are imploring visitors to be respectful of the tree and keep their hands to themselves.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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