NASA via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NASA via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Turn Guantánamo Into a Marine Research Station, Scholars Say

NASA via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NASA via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

President Obama entered office with a promise to close the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility. As his time in office draws to a close, the president is trying to make good on that promise, announcing prison closure plans last month. Two academics have suggested that, if the prison does close, it be transformed into a marine research station and peace park. They published an op-ed outlining their recommendations this week in the journal Science.

The words “Guantánamo Bay” tend to provoke images of violence and human rights violations, but conservation biologist Joe Roman and military law expert James Kraska say the bay has much, much more to offer. Years of isolation and intensive conservation efforts have been terrific for Cuba’s environment and wildlife, Roman said in a press statement, turning the bay into more than just an “accidental Eden,” with coral reefs, wildlife, and fish “unparalleled in the Caribbean.”

Spiny lobster like those found in Cuban waters. Image credit: Claire Fackler, NOAA via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Roman and Kraska say that if the prison goes, the naval base will follow, leaving behind perfectly good buildings that could easily be converted to a jointly owned Cuban-American research station. "Cuba has great conservation scientists," Roman says. "They just don't have money or equipment."

The authors also propose dedicating the surrounding land and water to threatened Cuban manatees and hawksbill sea turtles.

"This model, designed to attract both sides, could unite Cuba and the United States in joint management, rather than serve as a wedge between them," the scholars wrote, "while helping meet the challenges of climate change, mass extinction and declining coral reefs."

"Guantánamo could become the Woods Hole [a renowned oceanographic center] of the Caribbean," Roman said in a statement. "This could be a powerful way for the Obama administration to achieve the president's 2008 campaign promise to close the prison—while protecting a de facto nature reserve and some of the most important coral reefs in the world."

Will the idea take? It seems unlikely, but Roman and Kraska have hope. "For the next generation," they write, "the name Guantánamo could become associated with redemption and efforts to preserve and repair the environment and international relationships."

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Everyday Household Items Made From Black Plastic Can Be Harmful to Human Health
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It would be difficult to get through an entire day without coming into contact with plastic, but too much exposure to certain kinds of the material could pose a health risk, according to new research. A study by the University of Plymouth in England has revealed "significant and widespread contamination" of everyday items containing black plastic, such as thermos cups, toys, coat hangers, and Christmas decorations, Co.Design reports.

Black plastic isn't widely recycled because its dark pigment makes it hard for many plastic sorting facilities to detect it via infrared radiation. Nevertheless, the plastic parts of old electronic devices like laptops and music players are often repurposed into common household items. Researchers used X-ray fluorescence spectrometers to examine 600 black plastic items and found the presence of additives that can be harmful to human health, such as bromine, antimony, and lead. Historically, bromine has been used in electronic devices to prevent them from catching fire, but they’re not suitable for food containers or other items (like children's toys) that can come into contact with one's mouth. Their findings were published in Environment International.

"Black plastic may be aesthetically pleasing, but this study confirms that the recycling of plastic from electronic waste is introducing harmful chemicals into consumer products," the study's author, Andrew Turner, said in a statement released by the university. "That is something the public would obviously not expect, or wish, to see and there has previously been very little research exploring this."

As Co. Design points out, the greatest concern is cooking utensils, especially food containers. In the UK, some businesses have vowed to stop using black plastic, including supermarket chains Waitrose and Tesco. In Toronto, some businesses are considering swapping out their black plastics (like coffee cup lids) for materials that can be recycled more easily.

Another University of Plymouth study from January found toxic elements in second-hand children's toys, including bromine, lead, and other substances that can be toxic over time. Beyond the risk to human health, black plastic also harms the environment and introduces contaminants to beaches, the researchers found.

[h/t Co.Design]

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Climate Change Is Making It Hard for Bears to Hibernate Through the Winter
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What was once a rare sight—a bear wandering outside its den before springtime—has become increasingly common, thanks to climate change. As The New York Times reports, warming temperatures are waking American black bears from hibernation earlier than ever, and in some cases, preventing them from settling down for the winter in the first place.

Hibernation is a vital part of the black bear's life cycle. When awake, a bear must consume at least 11 to 18 pounds of food per day to maintain a healthy body weight. Withdrawing for the winter allows it to survive the food scarcity that comes with the colder months.

But as climate change promotes certain extreme weather patterns in the western U.S., the region's black bear population has begun to act differently. Last year the Pine Nut Mountains in Nevada saw unusually high levels of snowfall, and the excess moisture produced an abundant pine nut crop. This past winter, snowfall in the area hit near-record lows, leaving the pine nuts exposed on the ground for a longer period. The prolonged access to food in the area meant some bears started hibernating later or just never got around to it.

Many of the bears that did eventually crawl into their dens were woken up ahead of schedule this year. According to a 2017 study, for every 1°C that minimum winter temperatures rise, bears hibernate six days fewer. In January 2018, temperatures in the Pine Nut Mountains reached 5.4°C above the 20th-century average for the region.

Some years bears emerge from hibernation during droughts, which are exacerbated by climate change, and food is hard to come by. When that's the case, bears may end up on private property, raiding people's trash cans and bird feeders and sometimes breaking into their homes. Fatal bear attacks on humans aren't common: The more likely scenario is that the so-called problem bear will be euthanized. Bear management groups will often try other strategies, like capture and release and aversive conditioning, before resorting to this option. Nonetheless, dozens of bears are euthanized by states each year.

Black bears aren't the only ursine species being forced to adapt to global warming. In the Arctic, polar bears are losing the sea ice they need to hunt marine mammals, and many of them are moving onto land in search of prey. Climate change is pushing both species of bears toward human-populated territory, which means conflicts between the bears and people will only increase from here.

[h/t The New York Times]

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