The World’s Beaches in a State of Flux

Beaches. You love them, I love them, everyone loves them. In fact, 1.5 billion people or about 20% of the worlds population live along them and the coast.  And if you don’t live on them you probably enjoy visiting them as they’re huge hot spots for tourists. Beaches are typically very industrialized and booming with infrastructure, meaning high economic value. About 31% of all beaches, not along the arctic poles, are sand beaches. The thing is, these beaches are extremely variable and are constantly changing. In a recent study published by Scientific Reports, a group of researchers found that the majority of sandy beaches around the world are in flux. What this means is that many of the beaches are either eroding away or  are in accretion (growing).

Over the course of 30 years (1980-2016), the study found that 24% of the worlds sandy beaches are eroding by more then an average depth of 0.5m/yr a year, that 17% of the worlds sandy beaches are eroding by over a depth of 1m/yr, and that 27% are experiencing accretion rates of over 0.5m/yr. The study found that less then half of the worlds sand beaches are stable (48%), with all the rest changing in size, some at massive rates.

Although it may seem counter intuitive, the private, government protected beaches around the world are the ones most susceptible to erosion. And the highly industrialized, tourist beaches are most commonly undergoing accretion. The reason behind this is almost entirely due to human intervention. For the huge, public tourist ones, governments have been implementing ways in which to manually regrow the beaches. The two main ways this is done is by protecting them with different types of sea walls, concrete structures built to reduce erosion, or by dredging, where offshore boats literally take sand from the ocean and spray it back onto the beach.

Boat dredging a beach.                              Photo by David Morgan

The study also found that the two main reasons for beaches eroding was also anthropologically caused. The first being sand mining and subsidence, meaning sand is being mined from shorelines for industrial use. The second being big coastal structures such as harbors and ports causing incoming sediment to the beaches to be blocked off.

The take away; beaches are drastically changing and its mainly in part to humans. Much of the worlds population lies along the coast lines and its important to be informed about what is happening to them. This study was one of the first global studies done in order to show what’s happening to specific sand beaches all over the world as well as explain the reasons behind them. Lastly, the study found that for the most part protected beaches are quickly eroding away, raising cause for serious concern.

Who knows how these rates of change will be affected as sea level continues to rise, for more information about the study visit .


Luijendijk, A., et al. 2018. The State of the Worlds Beaches. Scientific Reports 8. 6641: 10-38.

The Deep Space Gateway Just Keeps Getting Better!

Picture of the Perseid Meteor Shower of 2015.

More Deep Space Gateway! What were you expecting? In February 2018, Researchers at NASA from the NASA Johnson Space Center have started thinking about even more applications of the Deep Space Gateway. The next proposed addition is to characterize comets and asteroids though the collection of cosmic dust in the space between the Earth and the Moon (cislunar). Every year the earth moves through debris streams of dust and small particles from comets and asteroids crossing into Earth’s orbit. These debris areas create what we commonly call meteor showers. By using a device installed on the DSG, we could figure out the composition of a dozen or more comets and asteroids without leaving the space around our moon. The Deep Space Gateway is a perfect fit for this experiment because cosmic dust samples are not very large, and its permanent orbit allows for long collection periods. The current working name for the device is the Dust Analyzer.

The team gave both a science description and instrument operation for the device. Using the Dust Analyzer, the researchers will be able to analyze the elemental and potentially isotopic composition of comets and asteroids. Since we can already identify the parent object of many areas of cosmic dust, measuring the composition of these areas will give us detailed information about a large number of the asteroids in cislunar space. The researchers said that the experiment will give light to two things. The first is that the data will help provide information on the origins of never before researched asteroids. Also, the results will increase the scientific value of NASA’s Cosmic Dust collection by mapping its contents to individual comets and asteroids. Even the experimental process used by the Dust Analyzer is cool! The Analyzer would create dust debris that hits it at high velocity and that dust would be converted into ionized gas for analysis! There’s a lot of fascinating ideas coming from the Deep Space Gateway, so I can’t wait to see which ideas are presented next and what actually gets implemented!




Fries, M., Fisher, K. 2018. Direct Characterization of Comets and Asteroids via Cosmic Dust Analysis from the Deep Space Gateway. NASA Technical Reports Server. 20180002181.

The True Swine of America

Wild Boar

Invasive species put a huge stress on local environments and bring with them many problems, especially when it comes to native species. Invasive species are those not native to an area, and are typically introduced to new regions through human intervention. One of the most problematic invasive species today is the wild boar. Although only native to Eurasia and Northern Africa, wild boar can currently be found in every continent in the world excluding Antarctica. They were first introduced to the United States by Spanish explores in the 16th and 18th centuries and have since spread all across the southern parts of the country.

Wild pigs are pose a huge problem in the United States. Each year the U.S Department of Agriculture spends 20 million dollars for the purpose of repairing agricultural and structural damages caused by wild boars. The boars themselves are extreme generalists in diet and habitat meaning they can survive in many different climates and eat a huge range of plants and animals. They also reproduce prolifically and are known as ecosystem engineers meaning they are disruptive to their habitats as they tend to root and wallow the soil. Lastly, these feral hogs tend to populate some of the most bio diverse areas of the the United States (California and the Southeast), and thus disrupt many already imperiled species.

A study done under the USDA-APHIS-Veterinary Services found that 141 imperiled species across the U.S are susceptible to wild boar encounters and impacts. By using previously population spread data for boar and native species, researchers found that 72.7% of imperiled species in the U.S have wild pig range overlap and thus are susceptible to them. Crustaceans being predicted to be most at risk. The study also found that the Southeast, Southwest, and Pacific Southwest regions of the U.S have the biggest boar populations with boars spanning 72.9%, 62.6%, 41.3% of each area respectively.

Within the study the researchers also note that the wild boars are expected to continue their expansion of the United States and expect over 1,000 more watersheds to be infested with them by 2025. Furthermore, the scientists noted that no studies have ever effectively take into account the damages brought along by the many diseases and parasites the boars carry or of resource competition with other species they cause. Thus, many of their estimates for boar impacts and costs could be underestimated.

In conclusion, wild boars are destroying regional species and are taking over many ecosystems. Its clear that more research needs to be done on the full extent of their damages to local habitats as well as in ways humans can stop these beasts from continuing to terrorize the worlds environments. For more information visit


McClure, M. L., et al. 2018. A globally-distributed alien invasive species poses risks to Unites States imperiled species. Scientific Reports, 8 (5332).


Increasing salinity throughout U.S. waters

A study published in January of this year, takes a close look at what is causing increased levels of salinity and alkalinity in waterways across the nation. The freshwater salinization syndrome, as they call it, has the potential to impact ecosystems, infrastructure, and the quality of our drinking water. The syndrome can be linked to multiple factors, but human created factors are most influential.

As observed by 232 United States Geological Survey (USGS) sites, 66% of streams and rivers show a statistical increase in pH. This increase is caused by excess salts being dissolved in the water from human use of brines and agricultural fertilizers. This phenomenon is most common in the eastern and midwestern U.S., but also very prominent in other regions. In the northeast, this has caused a trend of increased sodium and chloride levels in surface and groundwater, most likely due to the heavy amount of brine that is applied in the winter months. For the midwest, this increased pH comes from fertilizer and irrigation runoff with high a potassium content, from agricultural lands. In other regions, weathering and mining waste can cause such elevated pH.

High levels of pH caused by increased alkalinity and salinity, can have adverse effects for humans, plants, and marine life that depend on the water. Road salts, a contributor of this, are known to have far reaching ecological impacts, such as reduced fish size and inability to support vegetation in waters and on land. This study acknowledges the harmful effects of excessive use of salts and their unfortunate existence in our streams and rivers. Only 2.5% of water on the planet is fresh, drinkable water for humans, so we ought to care a lot about keeping that small percent clean. Treatment plants can only remove so many pollutants from our waters, and the process of removing salt from water is even more difficult and costly. When applying fertilizers in the spring, or brine in the winter, it is essential that you use as little as possible to prevent further harm to our streams and rivers.



Sources: Kaushal, S. S., Likens, G. E., Michael, P. L.Utz, R. M., Haq, S., Gorman, J., and Grese, M. (2018) Freshwater salinization syndrome on a continental scale. PNAS 115: E574-E583.

Invasive bug causes concern in Pennsylvania

An adult Spotted Lanternfly can be 1” long and 1/2” wide. Photo from Rutgers Entomology.

The Spotted Lanternfly, Lycorma delicatula, is an invasive insect that has made its way to the Eastern United States. Originally from China, India, and Vietnam, this pest has proved destructive in Korea and now possibly Pennsylvania too. Officials warn that it could greatly impact agriculture and logging.

A study recently done in Korea, determined the potential distribution of the Lanternfly based on existing data from its native homes and in Korea. Researchers observed that the plant hopper has been increasing in Korea since 2006 due to the warm climate and increasingly warmer winters that allow for their eggs to survive. In 2008 and 2009 it was responsible for severe damage to agriculture, particularly sappy fruit trees.

The study used the software CLIMEX to determine where the pest might invade next, based on the effects of climate change. They saw increased settlement in warmer climates and higher, faster hatching rates. With a warming climate, more areas of the world are going to prove hospitable to the invasive insect. That may be the cause of the bugs appearance in Pennsylvania, which was also indicated to occur from the study. 

A group of nymphs and adults on a tree. To grow, the nymphs must feed on host trees. Photo from Penn State.

In 2014, the existence of Lycorma delicatula was confirmed in Berks County, Pennsylvania and it has now invaded several neighboring counties. It prefers woody plants, such as trees. Using its sucking mouth parts, the insect will remove sap from plants, leaving behind a substance that can cause mold. The Tree of Heaven is a known host, and the weeping wounds they develop after a visit from the Lanternfly may attract other insects. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has reached out to locals to identify and report sightings of the insect. Visit their website to see what you can do to help prevent the Spotted Lanternfly from spreading even further across America.


Sources: Jung, J., Jung, S., Byeon, D., Lee, W. (2017)  Model-based prediction of potential distribution of the invasive insect pest, spotted lanternfly Lycorma delicatula (Hemiptera: Fulgoridae), by using CLIMEX. Journal of Asia-Pacific Biodiversity 10: 532-538.





Scared of Asteroids? You Shouldn’t Be

Image of Chariklo, the first Asteroid known to have a ring system.

Everyone has a secret fear that the Earth will be destroyed by an Asteroid impact, right? On February 28th, Bill Cooke, a member of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, delivered a presentation on the threat of asteroids to Earth.  Cooke began his talk with a description of the Asteroid Belt.  Unlike the jam packed area seen in standard science fiction movies, the actual asteroid belt is 500 million miles wide and contains thousands of asteroids spaced about a million miles apart. These asteroids can be classified by their contents into six different types (C – Carbonaceous, S – pyroxene and olivine, D/P – primitive, M – Iron, and E – Enstatite). The terminology of the asteroid also changes based on its size and location. Meteoroids are chunks of rock and ice out in space which are about the size of a boulder. Meteors are meteoroids that disintegrate in Earth’s atmosphere, while meteorites are what is left of a meteoroid if it makes it to the surface of the Earth. Cooke even explains how to classify meteors based on their brightness.  Fireballs are meteors that are brighter than Venus, and Superbolides are meteors that are brighter than a full Moon.

All of this information becomes important once Cooke gets into the nitty gritty of his discussion on history’s famous meteorite falls. There have been several recent events including the meteorite falls in Peekskill, NY in 1992, in Park Forest, IL in 2003, as well as the February, 2013, Chelyabinsk meteorite. The Chelyabinsk meteorite didn’t strike anyone, but over 1600 people were injured from associated glass and debris.  However, there HAVE BEEN examples of people being directly struck by meteorites. A record exists of a friar being killed by a “stone from the clouds,” and in 1992 a small boy in Uganda was hit by a small fragment and was not injured.

Cooke then talked about how there have only been four major meteorites throughout history (Chelyabinsk included) that have actually caused significant damage. The danger from meteorite impacts is quite small, and there are people protecting us from these rocks. Yes, we would all love it to be Superman, but alas it is just a group of scientists! Scientists at NASA have conducted many different surveys on the rocks floating around in space. The International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG) work together to determine the impact time, location and severity of asteroids, as well as potential deflection mission plans. The U.S.’s policy current policy is to attempt to deflect any meteoroid larger than 50 meters.  For smaller impacts, our plan is just to evacuate the impact zone. So all of this being said, your irrational fear of being hit by a meteor should be calmed! The scientists are protecting you.




Cooke, B. 2018. The Asteroid Threat to Earth. NASA Technical Reports Server: M18-6549.

There’s a Reason They’re Called Floodplains

Since the start of mankind, rivers have played a vital piece in fostering colonies and settlements. The Mississippi is no different. The 3,800 kilometer long river and its floodplains host many farms and population centers. To help protect this infrastructure, river controlling devices such as levees, dams, and walls line the exterior of the river to help prevent flooding events. However, new studies show that these barriers might be causing higher frequencies and magnitudes of massive flooding events.

Research done across a number of different colleges, including Northeastern University, found that residents within the Mississippi floodplains could be in major trouble. By using a number of different methods including studying past stream flow data, past sedimentary samples, historical climate data, and current tree-ring lines, the researchers found that the river’s massive flooding events (100 year events) have increased by over 20%  and have seen an amplification of flood magnitudes over the last 500 years. They also found that 75% of this increase is due to human modifications of the river and its basin. The other 25% was found to be climate related.

Aerial view of flooding of the Mississippi in Arkansas 2011 (photo by Lance Cheung)

The confinement of the rivers channel which occurs in part to the levees, is good at alleviating small flood risks but hugely magnifies ones that are able to over top them. Anthropogenic modifications to the river’s channel which began to appear in the early 20th century was seen to have a direct correlation with these more powerful flooding events. The rivers manipulated channel allows for little room to expand during flooding events, in order to protect the many farmlands and cities which line the exterior of it. This less natural flow channel means that when floods actually do surpass the protections in place to stop them, they do far more damage then they would have had the walls not been there in the first place.

Further problems arise when economic costs come into play. Because the rivers banks are so highly populated its almost impossible to relocate infrastructure already in place which would allow the river to take a more natural course. The lower half of the Mississippi river in particular is most in danger to flooding and thus has higher economic problems which occur when events top the levees. The researchers who conducted the study also predict the magnitude and frequency of mass flooding events of the Mississippi river are only going to continue to grow. This leaves the government in a tricky spot, should we start funding huge, extremely difficult and costly relocation projects or further risk devastating flood hazards by continuing artificial channelization.

For more information visit


Munoz, S.E., et al., 2018. Climate control of Mississippi River flood hazard amplified by river engineering. Nature. 556, 95-98.

Coral Reefs getting Slammed, This Time Plastics are to Blame

Coral bleaching isn’t the only major issue affecting our coral reefs. Plastic waste is once again damaging marine life, this time in the form of the coral reefs. Scientists around the world including those at Cornell University and James Cook University in Queensland, Australia found that corals entangled in plastic are more likely to be infected with pathogens and diseases then ones which aren’t.  These scientists surveyed 159 coral reefs and visually examined over 120,000 individual corals all throughout the Asia pacific region. Of the corals surveyed, 1/3 of them were wrapped in at least one piece of plastic greater then 50mm amounting to 2.0-10.9 plastics per 100m2. It was then found that corals within the presence of plastic waste saw a likelihood of contracting a disease increase by more than a factor of 20 to 89.1 ± 3.2%. This is a significant jump from that of the normal rate in corals which is 4.4 ± 0.2%. Given the widespread distribution of plastic debris on coral reefs and the continued pollution rates,  by 2025 it was estimated that if everything continues as it is, over 15.7 billion plastic items will be wrapped up in coral reefs, meaning huge increases in mortality rates, which 3/4 of the plastic debris causing diseases eventually lead to.

Plastic bag on Coral
Plastic bag entangles in coral

With over 275 million people worldwide relying on coral reefs as food sources, this plastic waste is a major problem. The hard part is, plastics aren’t uni-formally distributed. More waste is found closer to poorer regions of the world, as they tend to recycle less and pollute more. These third world countries also tend to rely more heavily on the ocean, particularly coral reefs, as their main food source, thus this phenomenon is only gonna affect them to a higher degree. For example the study found Indonesia (a third world country) had the highest amount of plastic debris in their surrounding regions and thus also had the highest percentage of coral reefs in contact with plastics, compared to everywhere else studied

The overall impact? Not good. It has been stressed over and over again and will continue to be; waste management is a must. Decreasing amounts of debris that enter the ocean is imperative to marine life as well as our own. It is vital that we reduce the amount of plastic on our coral reefs and thus the associated diseases they cause.


Lamb J. B. et al., 2018. Plastic waste Associated with Disease on coral reefs. Science Vol. 359(6374): 460-462.

Another Incoming Climate Change Victim?

Ocean acidification, arguably climate change’s worst product where CO2 which has been released into the atmosphere is then absorbed by the ocean effectively lowering its pH level, is yet again being proven to negatively affect marine life. This time, a few researchers at the Tjärnö Marine Research Station in Sweden conducted a year and a half long experiment on ocean acidification’s affect on a marine invertebrate known as Balanus improvisus, a type of barnacle known to be sensitive to short term changes in ocean pH levels. The study took reared laboratory bread barnacles as well as field collected assemblages, and held some of each under normal ocean pH levels of 8.1 and  a more acidic level of 7.5. Their results, were sadly quite predictable. 

The acidification not only caused the barnacles mortality rate to heavily increase, but also led to reduced growth and reproduction rates. In fact, barnacles were even paired up with one another so as to increase breeding rates, yet still both the laboratory made and field collected samples held in the more acidic water, failed to produce any fertilized embryos. Though most of the surviving barnacles of the acidic water developed mature gonads ( organs used for reproduction) in the end they all failed to reproduce over the 16 months studied, meaning they were able to acclimate to their new environment, but only partially.

Group of barnacles

The two big aspects to take away here are firstly, that barnacles are ecologically important, economically important, and widely studied ecosystem engineers that if lost would be awful for marine environments and future studies on the health of environments. Secondly, that this study proves once again that climate change, specifically ocean acidification is detrimental to marine life across all aspects.  So much aquatic life is quickly disappearing due to this phenomenon as well as ocean temperature risings, both of which are direct products of global warming. Sadly, these invertebrate are just another example, in a sea of them (pun not intended), of the major issues that are headed our way if we don’t reduce our carbon emissions.


Anil A. C., 2018. Long term exposure to acidification disrupts reproduction in a marine invertebrate. PLoS One V. 13(2): 19-36.

Data Sharing; How it Helped These Tropical Bears

Although you may never have heard of them before now, Helarctos malayamus better known as Sun bears (yes, believe it or not moon bears exist too),  are the smallest species of bear in the world.  These bears can be found in tropical forest habitats in Southeast Asia, but are sadly on the IUCN vulnerable species list.

Yet another animal attempting to survive in our growing anthropogenic world, the Sun Bear has seen a population loss of over 30% in the last few decades. This decrease is almost entirely in part to deforestation, and researchers at the university of South Carolina have good reason to believe these number aren’t slowing down anytime soon.  Using data captured from 1,463 non-baited camera traps spanning over 31 field sites all within Sun bear territory, the team found that there’s a direct correlation between tree cover and sun bear presence.  The bears were only seen in areas with over 20% cover (over a span of 6km^2 from the camera) and were 146% more likely to be found in areas with 80%+ tree cover then that of only 20%+.

Sleeping Sun Bear
A sun bear snoozes on a tree

A very interesting aspect of their study was the camera traps, which work by turning on and recording every time they sense movement in the area in front of them, weren’t specifically set up to find Sun bears. They were setup for a number of other studies being done on other species. However, the camera data was borrowed and used to collect population information on the Sun Bears which in regards to the other studies, was a byproduct. This reuse of data led to the findings of strong evidence in support of diminishing Sun Bear numbers, and has the potential to do it time and time again with completely different species.

The future implications on this are endless. If studies using camera traps to interpret information on one specific species, were to share they’re data across the world to other researchers attempting to learn something about completely different species found in that area. Then potentially huge knowledge gaps on all types of animals could be filled, and this doesn’t even include the economic proficiency that would come of it.

The overall takeaway is that if so much can be learned about our small bear friends in Southeast Asia using recycled camera footage (and knowledge from experts), who knows what else could be learned about other animals in that footage or other camera trap studies.


Mousseau T., 2017. Projecting range-wide sun bear population trends using tree cover and camera-trap bycatch data. PLoS One NO 12(9): 56-68.







Microplastics; Yet Another Growing Environmental Catastrophe

Since their discovery in the mid 1970’s, plastic pollutants have increasingly become a major issue. Today millions of tons of plastic can be found in our oceans and rivers. ‘Plastic Islands’ which have formed from water currents, have been discovered floating around in the oceans. These islands can stretch for miles and continue to grow with every passing day, the biggest one the Great Pacific garbage patch is located off the coast of Hawaii.  Plastic pollutants are a major threat both aesthetically and biologically to the worlds water systems, and yet the threat extends past this.

Microscopic plastics pose the largest threat. Microplastics are those that range between 1-5 micrometers in length. They can either be intentionally manufactured, and made for use as raw material, pellets, microbeads, or by the slow degradation of bigger plastics in water environments. These pollutants can make their way into the water environment through a number of different ways including wastewater treatment plants, fisheries, cargo shipments, and urban runoff.  Scientists at the University of Bielsko-Baila in Poland noted that wastewater treatment plants (WWTP’s)  were one of the main sources that introduced micro plastics into freshwater, and that rivers were the main means of transporting these plastics into the ocean.  These ideas were backed up by stating that after treatment, wastewater was found to contain on average 8.6 particles and 4.9 fibers (microplastics which deteriorated from bigger plastics) per liter.

Small beads and tiny bits of plastic that are commonly found in the ocean.

But why does this matter, what’s so bad about a few bits of plastic floating around?

Well for one, plastics don’t dissolve and disappear, once manufactured they’re in the system for good.  As stated earlier, when these plastics make it into water, they disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces eventually becoming microplastics. Apart from the plastics being relatively displeasing to look at and causing economic loss in terms of tourism, the more serious issues come into play when water organisms mistake them for food. Plastic when ingested can be toxic and can cause all sorts of different issues, including rapid death. The problems continue when human consumption of these organisms is brought into play, and although the extent of these problems isn’t fully understood more research is currently being done to test the harmful causes of consuming seafood containing bits of plastic.

Plastic pollutants have been a long standing issue and as long as our ocean and waterways contain plastic, it will continue to be an issue. The hard part about plastics is even if we were to completely stop all production of them at once, the millions of tons of plastic in the ocean right now wouldn’t just disappear, they would continue to persist. Personally, I believe much more political action as well as scientific research needs to go in to figuring out how to find alternatives to plastic so as to lesson its impact on our environment. However, if consumption continues on the trend it has, microplastics will have something to say for ocean biodiversity and human health.


Mrowiec B., 2017. Plastic Pollutants in Water Environment. De Gruyter 28 NO 4(75):  51-55.