Hawaii Just Voted to Ban Sunscreen That Harms Coral

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iStock

The widespread death of coral reefs across the planet's oceans in recent decades is the result of several factors—most of them human-made. Now, Hawaii's legislators have taken a major step toward keeping one notorious coral-killer out of its waters. As Gizmodo reports, Hawaii has passed the first law of its kind banning sunscreens with certain chemicals.

The compounds oxybenzone and octinoxate can be found in more than 3500 of the world's top sunscreen brands. Both serve a key role in chemical sunscreen formulas by protecting skin from UV rays, but once they've washed off into the water, they can have a devastating impact on marine life.

According to a 2015 study published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, oxybenzone hurts coral in two ways: It prevents coral larvae from developing normally, and it poisons the symbiotic algae that reside in coral. These algae provide coral with an oxygen source and help clear out their waste, as well as giving reefs their vibrant appearance. If the algae abandon the coral, the reef accumulates waste and gradually turns white—a process know as bleaching. A 2016 study found that octinoxate in addition to oxybenzone can stunt the growth of baby coral.

Sunscreen brands like L’Oréal claim the evidence isn't strong enough to justify the ban, but Hawaii lawmakers felt differently: On Tuesday, May 1, 72 of the state's 76 legislators voted in favor of it. Democratic Governor David Ige has yet to sign the bill into law, but Hawaiian businesses are already clearing their shelves of chemical sunscreens in anticipation of it.

The waters of Hawaii are home to more than 410,000 acres of coral reefs. The island chain also attracts millions of sunscreen-slathered tourists each year, making it a natural spot for the world's first-ever ban on harmful chemical sunscreens. Of all the sunscreen that melts off swimmers' bodies when they enter the ocean, 14,000 tons of it ends up in coral reefs. Banning oxybenzone and octinoxate won't solve the coral bleaching epidemic completely—global warming and ocean acidification are the biggest culprits—but it is a start.

Even if you don't live in Hawaii, you can still choose to buy sunscreen that's easier on the environment. Look for sunscreen brands with simple formulas that feature biodegradable, non-nano-size ingredients (super-tiny nanoparticles in sunscreen are thought to harm marine invertebrates). Instead of these compounds, the brand Stream2Sea uses titanium dioxide coated with alumina to protect against the Sun's rays.

[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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