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Around the World, Olive Trees Are In Trouble

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Olive oil, whether grocery store shelf variety or a high-end specialty import, is guaranteed to occupy space in almost every American pantry—which makes the problems currently facing Italian and Spanish olive growers our problem, too. Home to 95 percent of the world’s olive groves, the temperate Mediterranean region of Europe has recently been plagued by flies, flooding, drought, and bacterial infestation. It's a wave of misfortune approaching Biblical proportions.

First came the pests: Bactrocera oleae, the aptly named olive fruit fly. The insects merrily repopulated among Italy’s trees during this past olive season, as eggs laid in the fruit hatched into larvae that consumed it, before growing to maturity and starting the cycle over and over again. The Puglia region suffered doubly, not only from its native pests, but also a foreign bacterial infection called Xylella fastidiosa, suspected to be an accidental import from Costa Rica. The bacteria—already infamous as the bane of California vineyards and Brazilian citrus groves—is now taking Italian trees hostage, subjecting fruit-bearing plants to slow, diseased deaths. Almond, oleander, and cherry trees have also been found to harbor the undesirable bacteria, although olive trees are the main victims. Though a desperate plan by the EU has already designated 25 miles of the surrounding area in southern Italy as “buffer zones,” they been forced to cull thirty-five thousand olive trees to date, with up to a million more potentially at stake.

The fact that Spain and Italy alone are responsible for so much of the world's olive oil production can be attributed to their ideal olive-growing climate: long, hot summers and cool, but not cold, winters. However, olives, like most living things, tend to suffer in extremes, like flooding and hail in Italy and major drought in Spain. All told, the International Olive Council anticipates a global shortage of olive oil that no amount of good weather in other countries can compensate for.

Although the United States is the biggest olive oil consumer outside the European Union, accounting for 10 percent of total global olive oil use, we seem to be a nation more of takers than givers. Even the unusually generous recent bounty from California olive growers will only contribute to less than one percent of worldwide production [PDF]–so much for buying local. It’s enough to drive olive oil prices up significantly, as if the market weren’t already incredibly profitable for culinary fraudsters. It may be time to start stocking up on extra-virgin, just in case – but even that solution is only good for about a year. In the meantime, may fate soon have mercy on the olive trees.

[h/t National Geographic]

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11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

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Switzerland Flushes $1.8 Million in Gold Down the Sewer Every Year
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Switzerland has some pretty valuable sewer systems. As Bloomberg reports, scientists have discovered around $1.8 million worth of gold in the country's wastewater, along with $1.7 million worth of silver.

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology examined sewage sludge and effluents, or discharged liquid waste, from 64 water treatment plants and major Swiss rivers. They did this to assess the concentrations of various trace elements, which are "increasingly widely used in the high-tech and medical sectors," the scientists explained in a press statement. "While the ultimate fate of the various elements has been little studied to date, a large proportion is known to enter wastewater."

The study, which was recently published online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, revealed that around 94 pounds of gold makes its way through Switzerland's sewage system each year, along with 6600 pounds of silver and high concentrations of rare metals like gadolinium and niobium. For the most part, these metals don't harm the environment, researchers say.

With gold and silver quite literally flowing through their sewers, is there any way that Switzerland could turn their wastewater into wealth? Scientists are skeptical: "The recovery of metals from wastewater or sludge is scarcely worthwhile at present, either financially or in terms of the amounts which could be extracted," the release explains.

However, in the southern canton of Ticino, which is home to several gold refineries, the "concentrations of gold in sewage sludge are sufficiently high for recovery to be potentially worthwhile," they conclude.

Switzerland is famous for its chocolate, watches, and mountains, but it's also home to major gold refineries. On average, around 70 percent of the world's gold passes through Switzerland every year—and judging from the looks of it, much of it goes down the drain. As for the sewer silver, it's a byproduct of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, which is a cornerstone of Switzerland's economy.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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