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A Guide to Pooping in the Galápagos Islands

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Galápagos National Park is an ecological treasure trove, a biological hoard guarded fiercely by conservationists. Visitors to the islands must abide by the park’s rules, which include not taking anything from the wilderness—or leaving anything behind.

The park is prized for both its mind-boggling biodiversity and its historical significance, for it was on those desolate, craggy shores and in those primeval forests that a young Charles Darwin observed and collected the unique plants and animals that would inspire his theory of evolution. The archipelago, mused the naturalist in his journal, “seems to be a little world in itself.”

Darwin’s research there transformed the islands into an object of scientific and cultural fascination, as well as a bucket-list destination. In 1978, UNESCO honored the archipelago and its living treasures by naming it the first-ever World Heritage site. Ninety-seven percent of the islands’ area was designated a national park; the remaining 3 percent was set aside for human habitation. The parklands and their inhabitants are truly wild, offering no shelter, no Internet access, and no bathrooms.

Which raises the question: How do you poop in the Galápagos Islands? You’ve got a few options, none of them luxurious. According to naturalist guide Fabian Bucheli, if a park tourist has an urgent need to go, he or she will be told to hold it (island visits last a maximum of four hours), or directed back to the tour boat or toward one of the islands’ few inhabited areas. Leaving isn’t always possible, however, and Bucheli admitted that in some cases he and other guides will simply “dig a hole and cover the sample.”

Why is pooping there such a big no-no?

That moment when the crap hits the sand is actually where things get interesting. Human poop contains millions of unique bacteria, not to mention the remains of non-native plants and animals. Our waste takes more than a year to biodegrade, and in that time a single human “deposit” has the potential to shift the future of entire ecosystems.

“Whatever you eat, whatever is inside you, you introduce," says Chuck Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona who also answers to “Dr. Germ.” Our fecal bacteria, he says, are a force to be reckoned with. The human gut has been described as “the densest bacterial ecosystem known in nature.” Of all the bacterial warriors in our bellies, Dr. Gerba believes that three in particular could cause problems in the Galápagos: Campylobacter, which can infect birds; Salmonella, which can infect reptiles and amphibians; and E. coli, which can infect just about everything.

When a disease passes from a non-human animal to a human, it’s known as zoonosis. Some of the most dreaded diseases in human history—anthrax, cholera, plague, and HIV/AIDS, for example—result from zoonotic infections. The reverse situation, in which human beings transmit disease to non-human animals, is far less considered. The field of reverse zoonosis is a young one, according to Dr. Gerba. “Everybody’s always worried about wildlife infecting us,” he says. “They never think about it the other way around.”

Whether we’re worried about it or not, it’s already happening. A 2012 study discovered that some land and marine iguanas and the islands’ famed giant tortoises harbored antibiotic-resistant E. coli and Salmonella bacteria. The affected populations had only one thing in common: proximity to human settlements or tourist sites. Years of isolation have rendered the park’s flora and fauna vulnerable to any disease we bring in from the outside world.

There’s also the issue of plants. For thousands of years, the immobile plant kingdom has relied upon the legs and wings of animals for dissemination. Birds, bears, and humans eat the plant’s ripe fruit and poop out the indigestible seeds, carrying the plant’s genes farther than they could have gone alone. Could plant matter in human feces introduce entirely new plant species to the Galápagos? It’s “a distinct possibility,” says Stephen Walsh, a professor of geography and the director of UNC’s Center for Galápagos Studies. “What has kept the islands so unique all these years is their isolation. But they are isolated no more, and the human imprint is dramatic.”

So What Can Be Done?

Poop problems are not unique to the Galápagos. To protect high-traffic wildlands and prevent the spread of human diseases, some U.S. parks now require hikers and campers to “pack out” their own waste in plastic bags. (Needless to say, these new regulations have not been enthusiastically embraced by park regulars.) Other parks have set up authorized toilet sites, which are emptied by unfortunate staffers on a regular basis.

The toilet issue even has its own Lorax. Conservationist and activist Kathleen Meyer has devoted her life to exploring and protecting our planet, but she’s best known as the author of the international bestseller How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art. Meyers is a strong proponent of “packing it out,” whether that means using a portable commode, a double-bagging system, or her own “Shhh!-it Kit,” which is still in its prototype phase.

Meyer’s methods are not without their detractors. If an iguana can turn a beach into a bathroom, the skeptics want to know, then why can’t we? One word: airplanes. The crucial difference between our poop and an iguana’s, says Meyer, is range. Other animals have limited territories, but we humans can fly around the world, bringing all our little nasties with us. The same isolation that makes the Galápagos Islands a desirable vacation spot transforms them into a volatile hub of international microbe activity.

The bottom line (no pun intended): when we set foot on islands like the Galápagos, we set in motion a chain of events that we cannot control. Our bodies are portable universes, teeming with galaxies of germs and tiny, strange creatures that Darwin would have loved to see.

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London's Sewer-Blocking 'Fatbergs' Are Going to Be Turned Into Biodiesel
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UK officials can't exactly transform the Whitechapel fatberg—a 143-ton trash mass lurking in London's sewer system—into treasure, but they can turn it into fuel. As The Guardian reports, Scottish biodiesel producer Argent Energy plans to convert parts of the noxious blockage into an environmentally friendly energy source.

For the uninitiated, fatbergs (which get their names from a portmanteau of "fat" and "icebergs") are giant, solid blobs of congealed fat, oil, grease, wet wipes, and sanitary products. They form in sewers when people dump cooking byproducts down drains, or in oceans when ships release waste products like palm oil. These sticky substances combine with floating litter to form what could be described as garbage heaps on steroids.

Fatbergs wash up on beaches, muck up city infrastructures, and are sometimes even removed with cranes from sewer pipes as a last resort. Few—if any—fatbergs, however, appear to be as potentially lethal as the one workers recently discovered under London's Whitechapel neighborhood. In a news release, private utility company Thames Water described the toxic mass as "one of the largest ever found, with the extreme rock-solid mass of wet wipes, nappies, fat and oil weighing the same as 11 double-decker buses."

Ick factor aside, the Whitechapel fatberg currently blocks a stretch of Victorian sewer more than twice the length of two fields from London's Wembley Stadium. Engineers with jet hoses are working seven days a week to break up the fatberg before sucking it out with tankers. But even with high-pressure streams, the job is still akin to "trying to break up concrete," says Matt Rimmer, Thames Water's head of waste networks.

The project is slated to end in October. But instead of simply disposing of the Whitechapel fatberg, officials want to make use of it. Argent Energy—which has in the past relied on sources like rancid mayonnaise and old soup stock—plans to process fatberg sludge into more than 2600 gallons of biodiesel, creating "enough environmentally friendly energy to power 350 double-decker Routemaster buses for a day," according to Thames Water.

"Even though they are our worst enemy, and we want them dead completely, bringing fatbergs back to life when we do find them in the form of biodiesel is a far better solution for everyone," said company official Alex Saunders.

In addition to powering buses, the Whitechapel fatberg may also become an unlikely cultural touchstone: The Museum of London is working with Thames Water to acquire a chunk of the fatberg, according to BBC News. The waste exhibit will represent just one of the many challenges facing cities, and remind visitors that they are ultimately responsible for the fatberg phenomenon.

"When it comes to preventing fatbergs, everyone has a role to play," Rimmer says. "Yes, a lot of the fat comes from food outlets, but the wipes and sanitary items are far more likely to be from domestic properties. The sewers are not an abyss for household rubbish."

[h/t The Guardian]

Great Britain's Last Snow Patch Is About to Disappear Completely for the First Time in a Decade

Until recently, it was easy to find snow in Great Britain at any time of the year—you just had to know where to look. In previous Septembers, the island has been home to as many as 678 snow patches, residual pockets of snow and ice whose climates and topographies keep them frozen through the summer. This year, though, only two of Britain's snow patches have survived the summer. And the island is now on track to be completely snowless by the end of the season, Atlas Obscura reports.

Snow patches vary in size and durability, with some melting completely by late summer and others remaining a permanent fixture of the landscape. Garbh Choire Mor—a steep glacial depression on top of Scotland's third-highest mountain, Braeriach—contains two of the oldest snow patches in Britain, known as the Pinnacles and the Sphinx. The Pinnacles snow patch dissolved into a puddle earlier this month, and the Sphinx snow patch, the last surviving snow patch in Great Britain, is expected to do the same in the next few days.

Scotland experienced uncharacteristically hot weather this summer, with temperatures creeping into the low 90s as early as May. But more significant than the sweltering summer was the dry winter that preceded it. Below-average snowfall last year meant this year's snow patches were already smaller than usual when temperatures started heating up. If the Sphinx snow patch does vanish before winter arrives, it will mark the first time in over a decade and just the sixth time in the last 300 years that England, Scotland, and Wales are without a single patch of snow.

The Sphinx snow patch, though currently a measly version of its previous self, is still visible for now. But Iain Cameron, a veteran "snow patcher" who writes an annual report on snow for the UK's Royal Meteorological Society, says it could be gone as soon as Wednesday, September 20.

He's currently camped out on Garbh Choire Mor, waiting to document the patch's final moments. You can follow his updates on Twitter.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]


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