Syndicate content
Updated: 4 years 2 weeks ago

Black carbon

June 2, 2012 - 11:00pm

Black carbon is the fancy name for soot. And like carbon dioxide, it’s causing changes in the Arctic climate.

View the NOAA Video on Black Carbon.

Black carbon comes from the burning of fossil fuels, like coal and diesel, and from forest fires, and cookstoves. The majority reaching the Arctic comes from North America and Eurasia.

Studies suggest that black carbon is contributing to the acceleration of sea ice melting in the Arctic.  Loss of this ice would lead to more rapid warming and possibly irreversible climate change.

Black carbon is dark in color and warms the Earth in two ways:  When it’s in the air, the particles absorb sunlight and generate heat in the atmosphere.  This can affect cloud formation and rain patterns.  When it covers snow and ice, the sun’s radiation is absorbed instead of being reflected back into the atmosphere. This again generates heat and speeds up melting.

It’s like wearing a black shirt on a sunny day.  You’re going to feel hot. To stay cooler, you would wear a light-colored shirt that would reflect the sun’s warmth.

Scientists from around the world are studying black carbon from all possible angles.  They’re using ships, snowmobiles, weather balloons, as well as manned and unmanned aircraft to collect data.

The instruments on board measure the total numbers of particles in the atmosphere, including the number of soot particles, and chemicals that can identify where the soot comes from.  They also measure incoming radiation from the sun and the reflectivity of snow and ice covered surfaces.  Newly fallen snow is also analyzed to trace where the black carbon is coming from.

The bad news is that black carbon is contributing to the acceleration of sea ice melting in the Arctic. The good news is that since black carbon is a particle and not a gas, it doesn’t last very long in the atmosphere.  This means reducing the amount people produce can have immediate effects on the rate of climate change.

Scientists are hopeful that their research findings from the Arctic will help world leaders develop strategies for change, so that black carbon can no longer leave a dirty footprint on our world.

Amur River

June 1, 2012 - 10:45pm

The Amur River, considered the Earth's tenth largest watercourse, has its headwaters in western Manchuria and mouth at the Strait of Tartary, which connects the Sea of Japan with the Okhotsk Sea. Much of its length defines the border between Russia and China.

Although the generally level topography has made this basin vulnerable to heavy exploitation by agriculture, the region boasts many endemic species of fish, and its wetlands are important to a number of species of rare and endangered birds.

The Amur River became contaminated by a massive toxic release on the Chinese side of the catchment basin in 2005, which effects still linger to the current time. Similarly there are extensive deposits of mercury in Amur River sediments, residual from the central planning poor management practises of the communist Soviet era.


The length of the Amur River is 2825 kilometers, a river that boasts a myriad of islands, notably in the locale of the Sungari River confluence. The drainage area of the Amur Basin amounts to approximately 1,855,000 square kilometers. Most of the flow occurs in the spring-summer floods driven by snowmelt and in the summer-autumn floods driven by monsoonal rains; winter is thus the low flow season within the basin Headwaters of the Amur River are formed by the confluence of the Argun and Shilka Rivers at an elevation of approximately 303 metres in western Manchuria. Thence the Amur flows generally eastward and forms a border between Russia and China in an immense southeast arc.

At Huma, the Amur is joined by a major tributary, the Huma River, after which point the Amur flows generally south. Subsequently the Zeya River merges its flow and adds appreciably to the volume and width of the Amur. The northwest part of the Zeya-Bureya Plain was formed at the lower reaches of these two major tributaries and the Amur mainstem.

In the discharge zone of the Strait of Tartary, seawater near Sakhalin Island has a notably low salinity, likely due to the Amur freshwater plume and the mixing zone currents within the strait. Satellite imagery reveals that the waters of the Amur carry a high sediment load from the river mouth, with elevated sediment loads being clearly visible as far north as the Bay of Sakhalin.

Water quality

The Amur River has experienced notable episodic water pollution events, particularly in the year 2005. Particular contaminants of concern include benzene, benzopyrene, nitrobenzene, anthracene and pyrene. The 2005 incident occurred as a massive pollutant release in the Songhua River in China, with major health risk impacts to the Russian city of Khabarovsk.


The persistence of mercury contamination in Amur River bottom sediments is a major issue, arising from historic cinnabar mining in the basin and poor waste management practises, especially in the communist Soviet era, where industrial development was placed ahead of sound conservation practises.

There is a notable undersaturation of carbon dioxide in the Okhotsk Sea, likely due to hyperactive photosynthetic activity in the Amur Estuary. Such a circumstance could be an attractive sink for carbon capture and storage projects needing a natural sink for CO2.

Notably elevated concentrations of silicon dioxide are present within the Amur Basin soils, particularly in Brunozem crust materials as well as silicon powder in floodplain and meadow steppe soils. 

Aquatic biota

The largest native demersal fish species in the Amur River is the 560 centimeter (cm) long kaluga (Huso dauricus); demersal biota are those that inhabit the bottom of a surface water body. Another large demersal fish found in the Amur is the 300 cm Amur sturgeon (Acipenser schrenckii), a taxon which is endemic to the Amur basin. The green sturgeon (Acipenser medirostris) is a 250 cm demersal fish native to the Amur.

Other demersal endemic fish species (all in the concubitae family) of the Amur Basin are Iksookimia longicorpa, I. koreensis, I. hugowolfeldi, Cobitis melanoleuca melanoleuca and the Puan spine loach (Iksookimia pumila).

Carp family members that are endemic to the Ussuri River (a tributary of the Amur) and Lake Khanka are the small scale carp (Plagiognathops microlepis) and the black amur (Mylopharyngodon piceus). Carp species that are endemic to the Amur mainstem, Ussuri River and Lake Khanka are the black amur bream (Megalobrama terminalis) and Solitov's sheat-fish (Silurus soldatovi).

One of the large benthopelagic river fish of the Amur Basin is the 200 cm yellowcheek (Elopichthys bambusa); benthopelagic taxa are those living near the bottom of the river water column. The 122 cm Mongolian redfin (Chanodichthys mongolicus) and the 112 cm bighead carp (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis) are other large native benthopelagic fish found in the basin.

Terrestrial ecoregions

Amur River ecosystems. Source: World Wildlife Fund.

  1. Okhotsk-Manchurian taiga
  2. Ussuri broadleaf and mixed forests
  3. Trans-Baikal Bald Mountain tundra
  4. East Siberian taiga
  5. Da Hinggan-Dzhagdy Mountains conifer forests
  6. Manchurian mixed forests
  7. Amur meadow steppe
  8. Suiphun-Khanka meadows and forest meadows
  9. Changbai Mountains mixed forests
  10. Northeast China Plain deciduous forests
  11. Nenjiang River grassland
  12. Mongolian-Manchurian grassland
  13. Daurian forest steppe
  14. Trans-Baikal conifer forests


The Northeast China plain deciduous forests ecoregion comprises China's largest wetland; these marshy areas support many endangered species of birds including the red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis). The plains narrow between the Changbai Mountains to the east and grasslands to the west. Here, Mongolian oak (Quercus mongolica) is an important oak species with Daurian birch (Betula dahurica) and the shrubs bushclover (Lespedeza bicolor) and hazel (Corylus heterophylla). Deciduous forests dominate the plains along the Songhua River in this most extreme northeastern corner of China. More arid sites, such as south-facing slopes along with ruderal areas tend to support an association of Q. mongolica and Betula dahurica, while Acer spp. and Betula spp. thrive in wetter locations. Scrublands and the understory of drier more open forest stands support thorny shrubs such as Daurian buckthorn (Rhamnus dahuricus), hawthorn (Crataegus pinnatifida) and Daurian rose (Rosa dahurica).

The Amur meadow steppe covers a considerable amount of the middle reaches of the Amur Basin. This extensive meadow and wetland has resulted from the meandering of the Amur through the Amur-Heilong Valley over millennia. The most pristine wetlands are found at the Arkhara lowlands in the vicinity of the Bureya River mouth.

Part of the lower Amur Basin intersects the Ussuri-Wusili meadow and forest meadow ecoregion. The Bohai and Churgene civilizations may have caused the formation of fire tolerant meadows and Mongolian oak woodland communities. The valley was probably both a refuge and biogeographical corridor for many species during the late Pleistocene glaciation. This explains the very high level of species diversity and the presence of floral relicts. Rare and endangered animals include Siberian tiger, Far Eastern leopard. Many fish are endemic to Lake Khanka or the Ussuri, and Lake Khanka is an important site for migrating birds in eastern Asia. Certain globally rare cranes and ibises are resident here.

Prior to the emergence into the mouth taiga, the Amur River runs through a portion of the Ussuri mixed and broadleaf forests ecoregion.

The Okhotsk-Manchurian taiga is the ecoregion covering the lowest reach of the Amur River catchment. This taiga boreal forest represents the northernmost occurrences of Manchurian species.


Human habitation in the Amur Basin has been analyzed and dated to at least as early as the Neolithic Period using the proxy of obsidian extraction and trading. The chief source of high quality volcanic obsidian has been validated by neutron activation and X-ray fluorescence. That extraction locus has been shown to be the Obluchie Plateau, located in the middle reach of the Amur River, supplyied the entire middle and lower parts of the Amur River basin during [prehistory].

Obsidian derived from the Basaltic Plateau source, in the lower reach of the Amur (situated in the present day Primorye Province) was found to have been exploited in the Early Neolithic (13,000 to 9000 BC).  At the Suchu Island site of the Early Neolithic (cf 6600 to 5200 BC), obsidian from the more distant site Shirataki (outside of the Amur Basin) on Hokkaido Island was established. It is noteworthy that obsidian trade was evident between Hokkaido and Sakhalin Islands (outside the Amur Basin) as early as 17,000 to 16,000 BC. Sedentary agriculture in the Amur Basin can be dated to as early as 2800 to 2600 BC based upon cultivation of Proso millet (Panicum miliaceum), foxtail millet (Setaria italica) and beefsteak plant (Perilla frutescens) in the Primorye.

Moreover, some of the earliest regional extraction of obsidian derived from Baekdu Mountain, slightly south of the Amur Basin. This source was deployed about 23,000 to 18,000 BC, implying that the Amur Basin was one of the last areas to be settled by humans in this portion of east Asia.

  • Anastasiya Abrosimova. Igor Zhabin and Vyacheslav Dubina. 2008. Influence of Amur River discharge on hydrological conditions of the Amurskiy Liman and Sakhalin Bay of the Sea of Okhotsk during spring-summer flood. V.I.Il’ichev Pacific Oceanological Institute, Vladivostok, Russia
  • Vladimir Nikolaevich Bashkin and Robert Warren Howarth. 2002. Modern biogeochemistry. Springer Publishing. 561 pages books.google.com
  • Fishbase. 2010. Species in Amur
  • Michael D.Glascocka, Yaroslav V.Kuzminb, Andrei V.Grebennikovc, Vladimir K.Popovc, Vitaly E.Medvedevd, Igor Y.Shewkomude, Nikolai N.Zaitsevf. 2011. Obsidian provenance for prehistoric complexes in the Amur River basin (Russian Far East). Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 38, Issue 8, August 2011, Pages 1832–1841
  • N.A.Gvozdetskii and N. I. Michailov. 1978. Physical Geography of the USSR. Asian Part. Mysl, Moscow.
  • F.S.Kot, K.G.Bakanov and N.A.Goryachev. 2010. Mercury in bottom sediments of the Amur River, its flood-plain lakes and estuary, Eastern Siberia. Environ Monit Assess. 168(1-4):133-40.
  • V. B. Kozlovskii. 1978. Selected Features of the Water Dynamics in the Area of the Amur River Mouth, Tr. Gos. Okeanogr. Inst., No. 142, 93–99
  • Yaroslav V.Kuzmin. 2008. Geoarchaeology of prehistoric cultural complexes in the Russian Far East: Recent progress and problems. Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific  Prehistory Association
  • N. I. Lobanova. 1987. General Characteristic of the Mixing Zone in the Amur River Mouth. Tr. DVNII, No. 130, 33–44 (1987).
  • Kon-Kee Liu, Larry Atkinson and Renato Quiñones. 2010. Carbon and Nutrient Fluxes in Continental Margins: A Global Synthesis. 741 pages Google eBook
  • M.A.Peschurof. 1858. Description of the Amur River in eastern Asia. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London: Volume 2. Royal Geographical Society (Great Britain)   Google eBook
  • Chittaranjan Ray and Mohamed Shamrukh. 2010. Riverbank Filtration for Water Security in Desert Countries. 303 pages. Springer Publishing. books.google.com

Sea turtle migration clarified

June 1, 2012 - 10:45pm

New insights by researchers reveal how young loggerhead sea turtles stay on course during one of the longest and most spectacular migrations on Earth.

Questions About Incredible Sea Turtle
Migration Answered by Scientists

Immediately after emerging from their underground nests on the lush beaches of eastern Florida, loggerhead sea turtles scramble into the sea and embark alone on a migration that takes them around the entire North Atlantic basin. Survivors of this epic migration eventually return to North America's coastal waters.

The most comprehensive perspective to date on precisely how young loggerheads navigate their transoceanic migration was recently published in two complementary papers produced by a research team led by Kenneth J. Lohmann, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

See Science Nation Video

How they get there

The team's most recent paper argues that young loggerheads, which begin their migrations as tiny two-inch-long hatchlings, likely advance along their open-sea route through a combination of strategic swimming interspersed with passive drifting on favorable ocean currents. By swimming only in places where they are in danger of being carried off course and drifting passively in other areas where ocean currents move in the same direction that the turtles want to go, young loggerheads can migrate long distances on limited energy stores.

Approximate migratory route of Florida loggerheads around the Sargasso Sea. The migratory pathway coincides with the warm-water current system known as the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre.
Credit: Kenneth Lohmann, Department of Biology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


"Young turtles probably rely on a strategy of 'smart swimming' to optimize their energy use during migrations," Lohmann said. "The new results tell us that a surprisingly small amount of directional swimming in just the right places has a profound effect on the migratory paths that turtles follow and on whether they reach habitats favorable for survival."

The research, published in the June 2012 issue of The Journal of Experimental Biology, was partially funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The findings--which were based on computer simulations combining ocean currents and 'virtual turtles' swimming for various period of time--challenge a long-standing belief that young sea turtles drift passively and that their distribution is determined entirely by ocean currents. "Most researchers have assumed that, because ocean currents in some places move faster than young turtles can swim, the turtles cannot control their migratory paths," Lohmann explained. "This study shows otherwise."

"The research team's results have important implications for 'weakly moving animals,' including larval fish, butterflies and ballooning spiderlings," said David Stephens, a program director at NSF. They suggest that even small amounts of effort from these creatures can have big effects on where they end up, and how they get there.

Stephens continued: "All those things that we've thought of as 'just drift along with the current' might, after all, have a lot of control over where they're going, with minimal effort!"

This discovery may be particularly useful in understanding commercially important creatures, such as fish and crab, that have weakly swimming larvae that, like turtles, have often been assumed to drift passively, added Lohmann. An improved understanding of their movements may lead to better fisheries management.

How they steer

A related paper published last month by Lohmann's team explains how young Florida-hatched loggerheads know where they are and in what direction to steer as they migrate around the North Atlantic basin. The paper, which appears in the April 2012 issue of Current Opinion in Neurobiology and describes research funded by NSF, reports that the turtles are guided at least partly by an inherited "magnetic map."

The Earth's magnetic field differs slightly in different geographic areas. The turtles' magnetic map enables them to instinctively and wondrously use differences in these fields as navigational markers that serve as equivalents to road signs for turtles in the open sea. Each change in the magnetic field elicits a change in the turtle's swimming direction, which in turn steers the turtle along its migratory route at each location.

The new paper summarizes a decade of research in which scientists investigated the turtles' magnetic map, using laboratory experiments in which young loggerheads were exposed to magnetic fields that exist along the natural migratory route. Amazingly, the direction that turtles swam in the lab in response to various magnetic fields matched observations of the steering decisions made by turtles when swimming through comparable magnetic fields in the ocean. The results indicate the turtles' brains are hard-wired to navigate their migratory routes from birth.

"The results also indicate that turtles obtain both latitude and longitude-like information from the oceanic magnetic field," said Stephens. "They may thereby obtain much richer spatial representations from magnetic fields than do humans with their compasses."

Why migrate?

Tiny loggerhead hatchings are born small and defenseless, said Dr. Lohmann. Unable yet to make deep dives, they can only swim slowly along the ocean's surface. Their limitations make them easy targets for predatory fish swimming below them and for hungry birds searching out their next meals from above. Such turtle predators are particularly abundant in shallow, coastal areas.

Scientists believe that loggerhead hatchlings attempt to dash from danger-filled coastal zones--in nature's version of a football maneuver known as a "Hail Mary pass"--into the relative safety of the open sea largely to avoid their enemies. Eating and growing in the open ocean where predators are less abundant, the turtles migrate slowly and wait until their larger size reduces their chances of being attacked by coastal predators, before they return to coastal North American waters.

Nevertheless, the odds are still stacked against the survival of any particular loggerhead hatchling. Estimates suggest that only about one in four thousand hatchlings from Florida survives to adulthood.

Conservation implications

All species of sea turtles are listed as threatened or endangered. The new research may provide insights that are helpful in conservation, Lohmann said.

For example, different populations of loggerheads around the world are likely to have different magnetic maps, Lohmann explained, with each map specific to a particular migratory pathway in one part of the world. If loggerheads in one geographic area go extinct, it will probably be impossible to replace them with turtles from another area, because the new arrivals will lack the inherited instructions needed to navigate within and from their transplanted homes.

In addition, conditions that impair the functioning of turtles' magnetic sense may jeopardize survival. Lohmann says that in Florida and elsewhere, a common conservation practice is to surround turtle nests on the beach with wire cages to protect the turtle eggs from raccoons. But such cages also distort the local magnetic field, and may thereby compromise the ability of hatchlings to navigate after they emerge from their nests.

May 14, 2012

Media Contacts

Program Contact

Principal Investigator

Related Website

Yenisei River

May 30, 2012 - 10:20pm

The Yenisei River rises in Mongolia and discharges to the Kara Sea. Also known by the name Yenisei-Angara River System, the catchment area ranks the Yenisei Basin as the fifth largest drainage area on Earth, at 2,580,000 square kilometres. Under a strong continental climatic influence, the basin is subject to very wide seasonal temperature variations, with some locations such as Krasnoyarsk subject to summer temperatures regularly exceeding 30 degrees Celsius and winter temperatures typically below minus 30 degrees Celsius; moreover, northern portions of the catchment attain winter extremes below 60 degrees Celsius, while southern reaches are frequently above 40 degrees Celsius in summer.

Since the industrialization of the region by the communist Soviet government beginning in the 1950s the Yenisei and other major Siberian rivers have become the most polluted of the Arctic discharging rivers.

Geological history

During the most recent ice age during the Weichselian Glaciation, ice sheeting prevented the current discharge of the Yenisei to the Kara Sea, through formation of the Barents-Kara Ice Sheet. Consequently during the recent peak of glacial advance around 80,000 years ago, the Yenisei flowed southward to contribute to the vast West Siberian Glacial Lake.


Conventionally the Yenisei is divided into three principal reaches.

  1. The upper Yenisei consists of the portion of the river extending from the headwaters to the Tuba River.
  2. The middle Yenisei runs from the Tuba confluence to the inflow from the Angara River, the uppermost reach of which feeds Lake Baikal.
  3. The lower Yenisei extends from the Angara confluence to the discharge at the Kara Sea.

The middle Yenisei has been stripped of most of its natural environment, through construction of the massive Krasnoyarsk hydroelectric power plant in 1967 and extensive concomitant industrial and miltary development during the communist era leading to large scale water pollution.

Below Krasnoyarsk the steep Yeniseikiy Kryazh Mountains are a dominant feature of the right bank all the way to the confluence with the Angara. Further downstream beyond the inflow with the Nizhnyaya Tunguska River, the Yenisei width ranges from two to five kilometres, then forming a braided channel form.

The Yenisei has an average water depth of 14 metres over its entire course; in winter, the totality of the surface of the northern reaches are completely frozen for many months. Flow in the Yenisei River is subject to flooding in the spring and summer, propelled by high seasonal rainfall and snowmelt. Sediment load of the river temporally tracks high flows, such that the greatest silt loads are carried in the spring and early summer; however, most of the sediment deposition occurs in the lower.

The Siberian Arctic rivers are the most polluted Arctic inflows, discharging over one hundred times the pesticide and herbicide loads of North American and Scandinavian rivers. This trend was initiated with the communist regime and its program of centrally planned large scale military and industrial use of the Yenisei River.

Considerable heavy metal discharges occur from the Yenisei to the Kara Sea, notably copper and nickel, whose concentrations can be traced back to peaks during the 1970s and 1980s, when the Soviet Government utilized many industrial sites along the Yenisei for military and industrial development during the Cold War. Further legacy of this Soviet era is considerable radioactive sediment at the bottom of the middle and lower Yenisei.

Aquatic biota

Notable native demersal fish species in the Yenisei River include the 200 centimeter (cm) long Siberian sturgeon (Acipenser baerii), the 85 cm tench (Tinca tinca), the 125 cm sterlet sturgeon (Acipenser ruthenus) and the 35 cm Arctic flounder (Liopsetta glacialis).

Example native benthopelagic fish species in the Yenisei Basin are the 19 cm Siberian gudgeon (Gobio cynocephalus) and the 14 cm stone sculpin (Paracottus knerii).

More than 100 taxa of benthic invertebrates have been identified in the stretch of the Yenisei between the mouth of the Angara and the Krasnoyarsk hydroelectric plant; moreover, there is evidence of invasion of Lake Baikal benthic inverebrates downriver reaching as far as Krasnoyarsk, expanding their historic range and leading to ecological disruption in the Yenisei. Notably, the amphipods Gmeloides fasciatus and Philolimnogammarus viridis have migrated downriver and have become dominant benthic alien species not only in the mainstem Yenisei, but also in certain tributaries such as the Kan River.

Terrestrial ecoregions
Ecorgions of the Yenisei Reiver basin. Source: World Wildlife Fund
  1. Taimyr-Central Siberian tundra
  2. Yamai-Gydan tundra
  3. East Siberian taiga
  4. West Siberian taiga
  5. West Siberian hemiboreal forests
  6. South Siberian forest steppe
  7. Sayan montane conifer forests
  8. Sayan Alpine meadows and tundra
  9. Trans-Baikal conifer forests
  10. Selenge-Orkhon forest steppe
  11. Daurian forest steppe

East of the mouth of the Yenisei is located the Taimyr central Siberian tundra. This ecoregion has frozen ground for the majority of the year. In the northern reach on the Taimyr Peninsula is the only location outside of North America where muskox are found; this mammal was extirpated in Asia around the time of Christ, but has recently been successfully reintroduced.

West of the mouth of the Yenisei is situated the Yamai-Gydan tundra. This tundra ecoregion of western Siberian tundra extends to the Ural Mountains at the west. Mapped boundaries of the Yamai-Gydan tundra correspond to the montane and lowland tundra of the Yamalagydanskaya vegetation province.

South of the Yamai-Gydan tundra ecoregion lies a vast coniferous forest ecoregion known as the West Siberian taiga, that extends from the Urals to the Yenisei River. In general, the ecoregion boundaries correspond to Kurnaev’s taiga in the Western Siberian province from the Ural Mountains to the Yenisei River. However, Kurnaev’s taiga east of the Yenisei River was attached to the East Siberian taiga ecoregion, since the Yenisei is considered a significant biogeographic boundary in most sources. This ecoregion contains both boreal forests and Arctic taiga.

East of the Yenisei the companion ecoregion to the West Siberian taiga is the East Siberian taiga ecoregion, which is one of the most expansive on Earth. The East Siberian taiga spans more than twenty latitudinal degrees and over fifty longitudinal degrees, ranging as far east as the Lena River. Larch forests are dominant due to their ability to tolerate the broad temperature extremes. As is the case of the West Siberian taiga, the east counterpart is relatively stable and intact, largely due to the sparse population of the region.

There are many endemics at the species and genus levels in the East Siberian taiga. Central Yakutia is considered one of the endemism centers in Siberia. The flora of eastern Siberia manifest over 2300 species. Flora of vascular plants of Central Siberian plateau include 1010 species. More than 650 species have been found in Olekminskij Zapovednik alone. Endemics of Cental Yakutia include: Adenophora jacutica and Polygonum amgense. Other eastern Siberia endemics found here are: Megadenia bardunovii, Oxytropis calva, O. leucantha, Viola alexandroviana, Senecio lenensis, Salix saposhnikovii, Juncus longirostris, Gastrolychnis angustifolia ssp. tenella, Caltha serotina,Papaver variegatum, Draba sambykii, Thymus evenkiensis, Potentilla jacutica, Artemisia czekanowskiana. Endangered plant species include: Cypripedium macranthon, Calypso bulbosa, Orchis militaris and Cotoneaster lucidus. Avian species include the hooded crow (corvus cornix), Arctic warbler (Phylloscopus borealis) and the blackheaded greenfinch (Carduelis ambigua).


Paleolithic peoples inhabited the banks of the Yenisei near present day Krasnoyarsk, leaving archaeological finds of Mousterian stone tools and bones of a number of regionally extinct megafauna, including Elephas primigenius, Rhinoceros tichorhinus, Bos primigenius, Bos priscus, Equus caballus, as well as the regionally surviving species of Rangifer tarandus.

Ancient nomadic tribes subsisted near the banks of the Yenisei, whose present day survivors include the Ket and Yugh peoples. It is also worthwhile to note that ice bridge immigrants arriving in North America around 15,000 years ago are likely to have come from Siberia, possibly from the Yenisei basin.

  • A.P.Abaimov, J.A.Lesinski, O.Martinsson, and L.I.Milyutin. 1998. Variability and ecology of Siberian larch species. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Department of Silviculture. Report 43.
  • Fishbase. 2010. Species in the Yenisei
  • M.I.Gladyshev and A.V.Moskvichev. 2001. Baikal Invaders Have Become Dominant in the Upper Yenisei Benthofauna. Doklady Biological Sciences Volume 383, Numbers 1-6, 138-140. Springerlink Publishing
  • C. Michael Hogan. 2009. Hooded Crow: Corvus cornix, GlobalTwitcher.com, ed, N. Stromberg
  • Vyacheslav Ivanov and Vladimir Toporov. 1973. Towards the Description of Ket Semiotic Systems. Semiotica. The Hague, Prague, New York: Mouton) IX (4): 318–346.
  • Ola M.Johannessen, Vladimir A.Volkov, Lasse H.Pettersson. 2010. Polar Seas Oceanography: Radionuclides in the Arctic. 500 pages.  Springer Publishing.  Google eBook
  • S.Kurnaev. 1990. Forest regionalization of the USSR (1:16,000,000). Department of Geodesy and Cartography, Moscow.
  • J.Mangerud et al. 2004. Ice-dammed lakes and rerouting of the drainage of northern Eurasia during the Last Glaciation. Quaternary Science pp. 1313–1332
  • Gero von Merhart. 1923. The Palaeolithic Period in Siberia: Contributions to the Prehistory of the Yenisei Region.  www.jstor.org
  • Ruediger Stein et al. 2003. Siberian river run-off in the Kara Sea, Proceedings in Marine Sciences, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 488 pages
  • B.K.Sharma. Water Pollution. Krishna Prakashan Media. books.google.com

Measuring personal environmental exposures

May 30, 2012 - 10:20pm

Increasingly, tools and methodologies have begun to emerge that hold promise for capturing information about at least some of the environmental exposures that an individual may come into contact with over the course of a lifetime

This article, written by Kellyn S. Betts*, appeared first in Environmental Health Perspectives—the peer-reviewed, open access journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The article is a verbatim version of the original and is not available for edits or additions by Encyclopedia of Earth editors or authors. Companion articles on the same topic that are editable may exist within the Encyclopedia of Earth.

Characterizing Exposomes: Tools for
Measuring Personal Environmental Exposures

[Exposures] that cause chronic diseases usually take place years, perhaps decades, before disease is diagnosed. Biomarkers collected at single points of time therefore cannot tell the whole story of how disease occurs in an individual. For that, one must look to the “exposome,” or the compilation of exposures experienced over an individual’s lifetime. But efforts to link environmental exposures to disease have been stymied by the difficulty of accurately measuring those day-to-day exposures and the substances that are present in people’s bodies.

The term “exposome” was initially coined in 2005 by Christopher Wild,1 who now directs the International Agency for Research on Cancer, in recognition of the failure of genetic factors to explain most variability in human diseases. The exposome concept reflects the reality that people are exposed to potentially health-impairing agents from both pollution and nonpollution sources, including industrial chemicals, combustion emissions, radiation, heat/cold, noise, and food. The exposome also includes behavioral factors, such as activity levels and responses to stress. Finally, an individual’s exposome includes his or her microbiome,2 or vast personalized assembly of commensal microbes. All these exposures and factors can vary over the course of a day, not to mention over the weeks, months, and years that make up a lifetime.

A person’s exposome is the sum total of the many exposure factors that fill the days, months, and decades of that person’s lifetime—the exposures to chemicals, radiation, heat/cold, noise, food, stress, and other environmental agents; the health behaviors and activities; and the unique profile of commensal bacteria that make an individual an individual.

In the last few years, tools and methodologies have begun to emerge that hold promise for more easily capturing information about at least some of the environmental exposures that an individual may come into contact with over the course of his or her lifetime. The new tools come from a wide range of disciplines—some of which fall outside the usual domain of environmental health—and they are already helping researchers amass data on real-world exposures. These tools also hold promise for conducting studies that uncover unexpected links between environmental exposures and disease.

Several of the most promising tools and approaches were discussed at a workshop of the National Academies’ Emerging Science for Environmental Health Decisions committee in December 2011.3 Some of these tools are already helping researchers get a handle on how environ-mental factors contribute to important health risks, including cardiovascular disease and cancer, says Steve Rappaport, director of the Center for Exposure Biology at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, who organized the workshop.

Measuring External Exposures

Tools for measuring the exposome are aimed at assessing exposures that take place both outside the body (the “exposure dose”) and inside (the “absorbed dose”); both are important for determining whether an environmental agent causes actual harm, says Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). For example, as some studies have shown, such as research involving measurements of arsenic in soil, house dust, and urine,4 a big increase in external exposure may not necessarily result in a major increase in internal exposure. At the same time, if you can’t tell where an internally measured chemical came from, it’s impossible to prevent the exposure.

Some of the new tools for measuring external exposures capitalize on the fact that the majority of the world’s citizenry—approximately 5.9 billion people—are cell phone subscribers.5 Cell phones already contain components that make them suitable for collecting key information associated with environmental exposures, points out Michael Jerrett, an associate professor in the Environmental Health Sciences program at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. These instruments include ambient light meters, Global Positioning System sensors, and accelerometers, which measure movement. The latter two instruments can indicate when people travel by motor vehicle, which can be a major source of exposure to air pollutants, he says.

In an unpublished pilot study in Barcelona, Jerrett has been testing cell phones’ suitability for tracking environmental exposures. Students’ movements, as tracked by cell phones and other wearable devices, are overlaid on models developed by the city’s Energy Agency and others to predict air pollution levels. Jerrett says measurements collected via cell phones compare quite favorably with those taken by equipment that has traditionally been used to measure personal exposures, which was often the size of a backpack.

Another way that cell phones can help researchers is by interfacing with devices that collect important exposure-related information. One promising device is the Bluetooth-enabled SensPod monitor, which collects data on ozone, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, noise, and ultraviolet radiation. In Copenhagen, Jerrett says, a network of individual cyclists travel through the city with SensPods mounted on their bikes. The monitors inform the cyclists about their personal exposures as they move through the city, and the data can be uploaded to an application that compiles them into a pollution map. Users can pair their SensPods with an Android smartphone via a mobile application that lets the two devices communicate and share data with the larger network of SensPod users. People in more than 20 countries in Europe, Asia, and North America are using the mobile sensors, according to Sensaris, the company that makes the devices.6 It’s no stretch to imagine investigators using these devices for research purposes.

Among the investigators working to expand the array of chemicals that can be detected by handheld sensors is Nongjian (NJ) Tao, director of the Center for Biosensor and Bioelectronics at the Arizona State University Biodesign Institute. He has created a wireless, wearable device the size of a cell phone that is capable of sensing petroleum-derived hydrocarbons, such as benzene, toluene, ethylene, and xylene (all of which are known or suspected human carcinogens7). Field-testing at an Arizona State waste management facility showed that the sensor could detect acid vapors associated with waste management, including phosphoric acid and hydrochloric acid. Tao says his devices have proven sufficiently sensitive to detect benzene, toluene, ethylene, and xylene at concentrations of 1 ppb, comparable to commercially available detectors.

Click for Larger Image.

Physical exertion is an important consideration when measuring exposure, because activity levels can affect how much of a pollutant a person inhales. In one study of different travel modalities, people riding bicycles inhaled more than 8 times as much air per minute as people driving cars and half again as much air as people who walked.8 Of course, the answer to avoiding exposures is not to exercise less—rather, smart technology may someday advise travelers on small behavioral tweaks (such as falling behind the traffic ahead or taking a slightly different route) that could significantly reduce exposure to pollutants. P2 Photography

The tests Tao has conducted to date may be useful for evaluating personal exposures because they can generate results similar to those shown by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitoring systems. At the same time, the handheld devices can identify peaks the stationary monitors might miss. Tao is gearing up to begin pilot-testing the monitors in epidemiologic studies.

Another important aspect of personal exposure revolves around individuals’ levels of exertion. Stephen Intille, an associate professor in the College of Computer and Information Science and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University, led the development of the Wockets system, a wearable device capable of recording people’s physical activity. Such data are important to exposure assessment because physical exertion can change the dose of pollution a person receives. In one study, people driving a car or riding in a bus inhaled about 4.5 L air per minute, whereas subway riders inhaled 10 L/min, people walking inhaled 23 L/min, and cyclists inhaled 37 L/min.8

Intille’s Wockets are different from consumer-targeted wearable activity monitors, such as heart-rate monitors and pedometers, in that they provide continual data on the type, intensity, duration, and location of the wearer’s upper- and lower-body physical activity for months at a time. They also collect data on compliance so that researchers know whether the monitors are being used. The Wockets were initially designed with input from a group of self-described “nontechnophile” volunteers aged 22 to 82 to ensure they are easy enough for even the least tech-savvy study participant to use. Intille’s team has also created “reminder” applications for Android phones and Windows mobile software to prompt participants to comply with research protocols. He hopes to have collected enough data to verify that the Wockets work as promised by the end of 2012.

Because the data from personal sensors such as the ones Sensaris produces can be posted online in near real time, it sets the stage for what Jerrett calls “participatory sensing networks” fed by inputs from wired citizens. (Although the Wockets data also are available very quickly, access to these data will be strictly controlled by the researchers, Intille stresses.) Whether the data come from individuals or centralized monitoring stations, they have great educational potential, Intille says—people participating in the network could learn about potential exposures associated with any given point in space and time, and having detailed data on exposures may also enable researchers to design interventions to reduce exposures, which could be programmed into smart devices.

“It’s one thing to know where people are exposed or how much people are exposed to, but once you know that as well as something about their behavior, you may be able to help them change their exposure levels,” Intille says. For example, smart technology might reveal when small changes in behavior (such as staying farther away from the cars ahead of you in traffic or walking a slightly different route) could effect significant changes in exposure to pollutants that exacerbate asthma, he points out. However, Intille and Jerrett agree that important privacy issues need to be worked out before these concepts can be fully realized.

Internal Exposure Data

A major advantage of focusing on the internal exposome is that you don’t necessarily need to know exactly what you’re looking for in order to find something important to human health, Rappaport says. “By comparing complex patterns of chemical signals detected in the blood of healthy and diseased persons, it is possible to pinpoint particular chemicals whose levels are higher or lower in the people with disease,” he explains. This, he says, holds promise for helping scientists ferret out and characterize the heretofore unknown risk factors that underlie a large portion of the burden of chronic disease.

Technologies for collecting internal exposome data include efforts using blood plasma, urine, feces, and cells from inside one’s cheek or nostril. Some of these technologies already exist for other purposes. For example, Rajeshwari Sundaram, an investigator at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, points out that over-the-counter fertility monitors used by couples seeking to become pregnant can be useful for collecting hormonal data from women of child-bearing age. Sundaram is involved in the National Institutes of Health’s Longitudinal Investigation of Fertility and the Environment (LIFE) study, which is using the monitors to capture daily changes in levels of reproductive hormones in a group of women who are trying to become pregnant. The LIFE study, which also involves men, is investigating how exposure to a variety of endocrine-disrupting compounds affects hormonally driven issues such as semen quality, time to pregnancy, infertility, pregnancy loss, gestation duration, and birth size.9

Another project under way to collect internal exposome data is headed up by Avrum Spira, a pulmonologist at Boston University. Spira is looking at gene-expression profiles in the human airway as signatures of internal exposure to smoke from tobacco and cooking fires. The group is currently focused on studying airway expression of the small noncoding RNA sequences known as microRNAs, or miRNAs, which regulate the genetic response to smoking.10 Spira’s group’s work is based on the hypothesis that cigarette smoke and other inhaled exposures alter epithelial cell gene expression throughout the respiratory tract11 and that variability in this gene-expression response is associated with risk for developing lung disease.12 One of the group’s ongoing projects is to identify novel miRNAs in the airway that may ultimately serve as biomarkers for detecting lung cancer based on a sample that can be easily captured through the nose or mouth. The team is also investigating whether exposure to burning biomass, such as through cooking fires, alters gene expression in these cells.

One of the most unexpected findings to result from an internal exposome investigation was published last year, when a group led by Stanley Hazen, head of the Cleveland Clinic’s Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation section, gained attention for identifying a potential role in cardiovascular disease risk played by consumption of choline and other nutrients in concert with the microbiome.13 According to Hazen, the microbiome is particularly important because it is a filter of what he calls our largest environmental exposure—what we eat—and is a major contributor to our internal exposure.

Hazen is the principal investigator in a clinical study that is following more than 10,000 patients in a bid to identify small molecules in blood plasma and related pathways that predict an increased risk for major cardiovascular events such as heart attacks. By studying samples from 150 randomly selected people who experienced a heart attack or stroke in the three years following enrollment, together with age- and sex-matched control subjects, Hazen’s group detected a host of candidate compounds associated with cardiovascular risk.

The investigation revealed that when animals and people consume diets rich in choline (a compound abundant in meat, poultry, and eggs), their gut microbes can transform the choline to trimethylamine. Trimethyl-amine is rapidly metabolized in the liver to trimethyl-amine N-oxide (TMAO). Hazen found that mice with higher TMAO levels had accelerated thickening of the artery walls due to accumulation of cholesterol, compared with mice with lower TMAO levels. Hazen’s group further demonstrated that a cocktail of broad-spectrum antibiotics could suppress intestinal flora in mice and prevent production of atherogenic TMAO from the choline in ingested egg yolk lecithin.13

Click for Larger Image. The microbiome is particularly important because it is a filter of perhaps our largest environmental exposure—our diet. Moreover, different intestinal bacteria can convert contaminants into new forms that may be more or less bioavailable than the original compound. Variations in individuals’ microbiomes could help explain why different people have different levels of susceptibility to environmentally influenced diseases. Ralph Crane

Hazen also reported that in a group of nearly 2,000 cardiovascular disease patients and controls, plasma TMAO levels predicted the future risk of cardiac events independent of traditional risk factors. 13 This suggests that a person’s microbiome profile could affect his or her heart-attack risk as much as or more than diet. It also could help explain why some people can get away with eating cholesterol-rich diets and others can’t—maybe those with gut flora that are poor at making TMAO are at less risk from eating high-fat diets, Hazen says. Although choline is an essential micronutrient crucial for brain development, many people may be getting too much of it, adds Hazen, in part because of the widespread use of lecithin in commercial baked goods to keep them soft and chewy.

There are at least 10 other examples where researchers have used an untargeted “omics” screening approach—such as that used by Hazen’s group—to identify potential markers of disease, Rappaport says. “By accumulating the biologically active chemicals from these studies in a library of potential environmental hazards, future investigators will be able to determine whether these chemicals are involved in a host of diseases whose origins are currently unknown,” he says.

Managing the Data

To truly characterize the exposome, how-ever, these internal and external measurement modalities must be inte-grated. Although external exposures don’t lend themselves to the untargeted omics approach that has led to recent advances involving the internal exposome, Rappaport stresses that air and water pollution and other external factors, such as exercise and stress, contribute to human diseases and must be controlled. “This will require more and better methods for simultaneously monitoring multiple targeted external stressors and, in time, for combining external measurements with internal exposomes,” he says.

The ability to compare samples taken before and after any manifestations of disease are present is an obvious advantage to studying the exposome. Rappaport says investigators can move the science forward by developing prospective cohort studies that collect data on external stressors while also obtaining and storing blood or other biospecimens for future measurements of internal exposomes.

Accordingly, Nathaniel Rothman, head of molecular studies at the National Cancer Institute, says the 40–50 general prospective cohort studies currently under way throughout the world have a variety of biological samples and history information available that scientists may be able to use in future exposome studies. Studies where repeat samples have been taken may prove especially useful, he notes. Birnbaum adds that the NIEHS maintains a huge library of biological specimens from studies conducted by intramural investigators. Suzanne Fitzpatrick, senior science advisor in the Office of the Chief Scientist at the Food and Drug Administration, points out that the samples collected during drug trials may be available for use by other researchers, too. Paul Elliott, chairman of epidemiology and public health medicine at Imperial College London School of Public Health, says the United Kingdom is considering a proposal to repurpose the facilities built for drug testing in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games to invest in what he called “exposomic” research.

Chirag Patel, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine, thinks the comprehensive connection of environmental factors to disease is now possible using the high-throughput analysis methods common in genome-based investigations. His proof of concept for such so-called environment-wide association studies used blood serum and urine samples from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) cohorts from 1999 through 2006. In 2010 his group reported unexpected associations between type 2 diabetes and environ-mental exposures to heptachlor epoxide and ©-tocopherol.14 They also found associations with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—which have previously been linked to this form of diabetes—and with pesticides. Investigators elsewhere have hypothesized that these chemicals might increase risk of obesity and metabolic diseases.

More recently, Patel’s group used the same techniques with NHANES data to screen for associations between environmental chemicals and blood lipids.15 The preliminary findings suggest that higher levels of triglycerides and lower levels of “good” high-density lipoprotein cholesterol may be linked with higher concentrations of fat-soluble contaminants such as PCBs and dibenzofurans. Patel says these associations merit more investigation, although he also makes it clear that the potential for confounding and reverse causal biases needs to be investigated via longitudinal and followup studies. That is, because the studies are cross-sectional in nature, it is entirely possible that the associations are a consequence of disease rather than a cause.

In the longer-term future, Patel envisions a time when improvements in our ability to measure both the internal and external exposomes will enable investigators to assess hundreds to thousands of different factors in connection to specific diseases or health states. To use that information to discover associations with disease, he foresees that new analytical and informatics methods will be required. This was an issue in early genomics studies, and it eventually led to a proliferation of new statistical techniques and the field of bioinformatics, he points out.

Birnbaum, for one, is cautiously optimistic about the promise of environment-wide association studies. “Genetic factors are inherently less complicated than environ-mental factors,” she stresses. “We may need some additional tools to deal with the environment. While bioinformatics is doing a great job now with the genetic information, I think we have a long way to go, and we need a lot more bioinformatics approaches and understanding to deal with the wealth of information that will come from the exposome.”

References and Notes

1. Wild C 2005. Cancer Epidemiol Biomar Prev. Complementing the genome with an “exposome”: the outstanding challenge of environmental exposure measurement in molecular epidemiology. pp. 1847–1850. http://dx.doi.org/10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-​05-0456

2. Betts K.. A study in balance: how microbiomes are changing the shape of environmental health. Environ Health Perspect 119(8):A340–A346. 2011. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.119-a340

3. Emerging Technologies for Measuring Individual Exposomes [workshop], Washington, DC, 8–9 Dec 2011. Washington, DC:The National Academies (2012). Available: http://nas-sites.org/emergingscience/wor​kshops/individual-exposomes/ [accessed 5 Mar 2012].

4. Kavanagh P, et al. Urinary arsenic species in Devon and Cornwall residents, UK. A pilot study. Analyst 123(1):27–29. 1998. http://dx.doi.org/10.1039/A704893I

5. The World in 2011: ICT Facts and Figures [website]. Geneva, Switzerland:International Telecommunication Union (2011). Available: http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/facts/2011/​material/ICTFactsFigures2011.pdf [accessed 5 Mar 2012].

6. Sensaris. Discover our SensPods [website]. Crolles, France:Sensaris (2012). Available: http://www.sensaris.com/products/senspod​/ [accessed 5 Mar 2012].

7. NTP. Report on Carcinogens, 12th Edition. Research Triangle Park, NC:National Toxicology Program, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2011). Available: http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/twelfth​/roc12.pdf [accessed 5 Mar 2012].

8. de Nazelle A, et al. Improving health through policies that promote active travel: a review of evidence to support integrated health impact assessment. Environ Intl 37(4):766–777. 2011. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2011.​02.003

9. Buck Louis GM, et al. Heavy metals and couple fecundity, the LIFE Study. Chemosphere; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.​2012.01.017 [online 4 Feb 2012].

10. Schembri S, et al. MicroRNAs as modulators of smoking-induced gene expression changes in human airway epithelium. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 106(7):2319–2324. 2009. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.080638310​6

11. Spira A, et al. Effects of cigarette smoke on the human airway epithelial cell transcriptome. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 101(27):10143–10148. 2004. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.040142210​1

12. Spira A, et al. Airway epithelial gene expression in the diagnostic evaluation of smokers with suspect lung cancer. Nature Med 13(3):361–366. 2007. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nm1556

13. Wang Z, et al. Gut flora metabolism of phosphatidylcholine promotes cardiovascular disease. Nature 472(7341):57–63. 2011. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature09922

14. Patel CJ, et al. An environment-wide association study (EWAS) on type 2 diabetes mellitus. PLoS ONE 5(5):e10746. 2010. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0​010746

15. Patel CJ, et al. Systematic evaluation of environmental factors: persistent pollutants and nutrients correlated with serum lipid levels. Int J Epidemiol; http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ije/dys003 [online 15 Mar 2012].

Editor's Notes
  • *Kellyn S. Betts has written about environmental contaminants, hazards, and technology for solving environmental problems for publications including EHP and Environmental Science & Technology for more than a dozen years.
  • Citation: Betts KS 2012. Characterizing Exposomes: Tools for Measuring Personal Environmental Exposures. Environ Health Perspect 120:a158-a163. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.120-a158
  • Online: 01 April 2012


Arctic offshore oil exploration spill response planning

May 29, 2012 - 10:14pm

Worldwide, oil and gas companies are being forced by resource declines to drill in less accessible areas, and the Arctic is their newest frontier.

This article, written by Charles W. Schmidt*, appeared first in Environmental Health Perspectives—the peer-reviewed, open access journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The article is a verbatim version of the original and is not available for edits or additions by Encyclopedia of Earth editors or authors. Companion articles on the same topic that are editable may exist within the Encyclopedia of Earth.

Offshore Exploration in the Arctic:
Can Shell’s Oil-Spill Response Plans Keep Up? 

All around the world, oil and gas companies are being forced by resource declines to drill in less accessible areas, and the Arctic is their newest frontier. The geology above the Arctic Circle—that is, everything above latitude 66.56°N—holds an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or 22% of the world’s undiscovered1 conventional resources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.2 It’s thought that these resources lie predominantly under Arctic seas, which have recently become easier to reach due to significant reductions in seasonal ice cover associated with global climate change.3 Norway, Russia, Canada, Denmark, and other northern countries are in various stages of developing offshore Arctic programs, and diplomatic squabbles have broken out over territorial rights extending all the way to the North Pole.

Between 1980 and 2000 Alaska accounted for an average one-fifth of U.S. oil production.4 But with oil flowing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline falling by more than two-thirds since a peak in 1988,4 the recent pressure to drill in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) off the state’s north coast has been relentless. Alaska derives at least 90% of its revenues from oil,5 so law makers in that state—supported by much of the state’s population—have pushed hard for offshore authorization. The federal government has also indicated its support, in 2011 expressing a commitment to facilitate development in the OCS region and to expedite offshore permitting in Alaska, assuming that “safety, health, and environmental standards are fully met.”6

Now the United States has taken a big step toward opening the seas off Alaska to a new round of oil and gas exploration. In a major breakthrough for the petroleum industry and loss for drilling opponents, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) in February 2012 approved Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc.’s oil-spill response plan for the Chukchi Sea, which provides habitat for polar bears, walruses, and other wildlife, and a hunting ground for Alaska Natives who still go whaling in seal-skin boats.7 Six weeks later the company’s spill-response plan for the adjoining Beaufort Sea also was approved.8

Click for Larger Image.  Shell must cease drilling well before the water freezes over lest a late-season blowout cause oil to accumulate under the ice through the winter.   © Steven J. Kazlowski/Alamy

Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith says DOI approval of the plans puts the company on track to launch exploration in the region this summer (final permits to drill must still be obtained). But many critics contend it’s not possible to drill safely in the region, given the isolation and harsh weather, and they question how well the plans will protect Arctic health in the event of a spill.

Native Health Concerns

Access to the Alaska OCS has been blocked in recent years mainly by lawyers representing Alaska Natives, who argue that apart from its ecological consequences, offshore drilling could hurt the traditional livelihoods, health, and well-being of these local residents. The Inupiat people have hunted bowhead whales and other marine species in Arctic waters for well over 2,000 years, and half their caloric intake comes from subsistence sources of meat.9 Health studies of the native population have associated the oil industry’s expansion in the North Slope to disruption of the traditional subsistence lifestyle, contributing to rising rates of type 2 diabetes, metabolic problems from changing diets, substance abuse, suicide, and asthma.9


Click for Larger Image. A second drill rig engaged in Beaufort Sea exploration—the Kulluk—could begin drilling a relief well in the Chukchi within a week should attempts to kill a worst-case blowout fail.
© Tom Doyle

Meanwhile, during fall migration bowhead whales have been documented to travel up to 18 miles to avoid sounds they don’t like,10 potentially putting them beyond safe reach of a hunt that is crucial to the Inupiat’s cultural identity. “For every additional mile a whaler has to travel, there’s more potential for injury or a potentially catastrophic event,” says Thomas Lohman, an environmental resource specialist in the North Slope Borough11 Department of Wildlife Management.

The 2011 exploration season was blocked in part by Alaska Native health concerns having to do with Shell’s air permits sought from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).12 In that case, lawyers argued successfully that ships in the offshore drilling fleet—particularly icebreakers—would emit excessive amounts of nitrogen oxides, respiratory irritants linked with heart disease. (That issue has been resolved by Shell and the EPA, and final air permits for the Kulluk and Noble Discoverer rigs were issued in October 2011 and February 2012, respectively.13,14) According to Smith, Shell will deploy best-available pollution-control technology on its drill rigs, and all its aircraft in the region will use ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, which substantially cuts emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.15

   Click for Larger Image.

Adapted from maps by Shell7 and BOEMRE.36

Lohman concedes that Shell has worked hard and spent a lot of money to address local concerns. “There’s more of a partnership and dialogue now with the company than there used to be,” he says. “But what comes up again and again when you talk to local communities is the oil-spill scenario. People worry what will happen to their food supply if things really get out of control.”

Exploring the OCS

Scientists believe the geology underlying the Chukchi and Beaufort seas contains a short-term energy bonanza: 23.6 billion barrels of oil and 104.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to recent government estimates.16 (By comparison, the United States will consume an estimated 7.3 billion barrels of oil in 2012.17) Exploration involves drilling just a few wells to confirm that the predicted size and dimensions of the resource—estimated with seismic technology—are correct. Shell’s current plans for the Chukchi Sea are to drill up to six wells over the next two years in what’s known as the Burger Prospect, about 70 miles offshore in roughly 140 feet of water. The company also plans to drill four wells over two years in the Beaufort Sea at a shallower depth, pending further DOI review.

Unlike development and production (the year-round process of constructing the necessary facilities and extracting oil and gas for delivery to market), exploration will happen only in summer, when the seas are mostly ice-free.18 Shell’s oil-spill response plans were developed specifically for conditions expected from July 15 to the end of October, but the vessels and equipment are designed to work past this period if needed, with contingencies for prolonged cleanup through late fall, Smith says.

With more than $4 billion invested in offshore Arctic infrastructure, research, and leases,19 Shell has been seeking approval for OCS exploration every summer since 2006. But given that northern seas offer some of the most challenging drilling conditions on Earth20 in an area that’s also home to an array of vulnerable and iconic species of wildlife, the company’s plans have drawn heavy scrutiny from federal agencies and a wide range of passionate stakeholders. Drilling opponents and some oil-spill veterans assert that the extreme cold, storms, high waves, winds, darkness, and fog that occur routinely in the region could challenge spill cleanup, particularly in the event of a late-fall blowout, when ice begins to gather.21 What’s more, OCS waters are exceedingly remote—roads, airports, port facilities, housing, and other infrastructure needed to support a large-scale spill response are few and far between.16

Smith responds that Shell’s oil-spill response plans are the most far-reaching developed by the company yet for any of its global operations. As required by the DOI in the wake of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the plans describes worst-case discharges of 25,000 barrels of oil per day in the Chukchi7 and 16,000 barrels per day in the Beaufort.8 These figures, which Smith says reflect the likely pressures and other characteristics of the respective reservoirs, are considered more realistic than the 5,500 barrels per day that was considered in earlier plans. Also in response the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the DOI requires that Shell have access to a “capping stack” to stanch subsea oil flows in the event that other shutoff systems fail (the BP blowout was eventually contained by such a device) in addition to capabilities to capture and collect oil from the capping stack, and ready access to a rig that could kill a blowout by drilling a relief well.

Differences from Deepwater Horizon

Multiple factors play in Shell’s favor in the OCS, says Peter Velez, Shell’s global emergency response manager. For instance, unlike BP’s ill-fated Macondo Prospect, site of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, which occurred 5,000 feet underwater, Shell’s proposed sites off Alaska are in less than 150 feet of water, making them more accessible to divers and remotely operated vehicles deployed during spill response, he says. Moreover, well pressures at the proposed sites aren’t expected to exceed 3,000–4,000 psi, compared with the Macondo well’s pressure of almost 15,000 psi, making a blowout less likely to occur, Velez says.

All the same, to avoid the risk of a late-season blowout, the DOI’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)22 required that Shell cease drilling into known hydrocarbon zones in the Chukchi Sea by September 24, just over a month before ice is expected to begin covering the proposed sites.23 (Drilling in the Beaufort Sea, according to the BOEM, must also be suspended by August 25 to avoid interfering with whale hunts by the Nuiqsut and Kaktovik people but may resume after the hunters have reached their quota.24) Commenting on the Chukchi plan upon its approval, James A. Watson, director of the DOI Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said, “After an exhaustive review, we have confidence that Shell’s plan includes the necessary equipment and personnel prestaging, training, logistics, and communication to act quickly and mount an effective response should a spill occur.”25

If Shell’s summer exploration confirms that the oil resource is economically viable, then not just Shell but also other companies will begin planning in earnest for year-round development, suggesting that at some point in the future the OCS may be populated by numerous drill rigs operating simultaneously. Shell’s plans describe spill responses under “varying ice conditions,” but importantly, they don’t address the near-total ice cover anticipated during midwinter development, which Smith says is at least a decade away.

How to address oil accumulating under completely frozen seas—a nightmare scenario, many scientists say—remains somewhat of an open question. “My concern is that year-round development will require adequate capacity to respond to spills in icy, dark conditions. And so far, I haven’t seen a demonstration of that capacity anywhere,” says Roger Rufe, a retired vice admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard, who served as district commander in Alaska from 1992 to 1995. Commenting on spill cleanup during midwinter, Smith responds, “We’re looking at this now, but we haven’t made any fixed decisions about what we’re going to do. What I can say is that whatever plan we produce will be completely transparent, and it will undergo the same scrutiny as the response plan for summer exploration that we have now.”

During the Deepwater Horizon disaster, thousands of response workers and hundreds of air- and seacraft were deployed from the Gulf’s highly developed coastline. Moreover, the response was coordinated by a consortium of oil companies, each contributing resources and manpower to the cleanup effort. But in the Alaskan OCS, Shell has to rely on its own, much more limited resources, which in the Chukchi include the drill rig itself (the Noble Discoverer, making its way to the OCS from New Zealand at press time), an oil-spill response vessel (the Nanuq, which carries smaller workboats, booms, storage for recovered oil, and a dispersant system), a pair of large barges that carry oil skimmers and storage capacity for recovered oil, an Arctic storage tanker (the Affinity, with 513,000 barrels of storage space, to be positioned within 240 nautical miles of the Noble Discoverer), and an assortment of shoreline protection equipment, landing craft, and other work boats. A second drill rig engaged in Beaufort Sea exploration—the Kulluk—could begin drilling a relief well in the Chukchi within a week should attempts to kill a worst-case blowout fail, Velez says.

Blowout Prevention

Blowouts start with what’s known as a kick, or a blast of pressurized oil and gas that suddenly bursts up the wellbore and into the drill pipe. A five-story blowout preventer (BOP) built over the wellhead should activate “blind shear rams” that cut the drill pipe, seal the well bore, and kill the well.7,8

But that doesn’t always happen: in the Gulf of Mexico BP fatefully relied on a BOP with just one blind shear ram, which failed to engage, leaving nothing to stop a full-scale blowout on 20 April 2010. Eleven workers lost their lives when the rig exploded, and the rogue well released 4.9 billion barrels (205.8 million gallons) of oil into the sea before it was killed nearly three months later.26 For backup in the Arctic, Shell’s BOP will have not one but two blind shear rams, and if they fail, the 100-ton capping stack ideally will land on the dysfunctional BOP and either seal the well completely or divert the gushing oil to a container ship.7,8

As of this writing, Shell’s Arctic capping stack is still under construction; the company plans to test it in the Pacific Ocean off Seattle, much to the dismay of environmental activists who say it should be tested in the Arctic OCS. “Testing in Washington could answer a few logistical questions about how it would be deployed,” says Layla Hughes, an attorney and senior program officer with the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic team in Juneau. “But it doesn’t give a sense of the real-world limitations of using the capping stack in the Arctic in bad weather.”

Shell claims its oil-spill response will kick into gear within an hour of a blowout. The company divides its worst-case scenario into icy and non-icy conditions, which is important because ice cover dictates how and whether the company can deploy booms and skimmers for so-called mechanical oil-spill recovery.

Booms float on the surface and act as barriers to prevent oil from spreading. They can also be used to gather oil into thick U-shaped pools, so it can be burned on the surface (“in-situ burning”) or pulled out of the water by skimmers for storage. Shell plans to use fire-resistant booms and two types of skimmers: weir skimmers, which suck oil and water off the surface like a vacuum cleaner (the oil is separated later), and brush skimmers, which spin in the water and trap oil on rotating fibers.

Booms don’t work when sea-surface ice cover exceeds 30%, claims Stein Erik Sørstrøm, research manager with SINTEF (Stiftelsen for Industriell og Teknisk Forskning, or Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research), an independent research organization based in Trondheim, Norway. But he also points out that, at a high enough percentage of cover, ice can itself act as a sort of boom. (Sørstrøm directed SINTEF’s Joint Industry Project Oil in Ice program, a collaboration of six multinational oil companies, including Shell, that investigated oil-spill response scenarios in the laboratory and then in Arctic seas halfway between Norway and the North Pole.)27

According to SINTEF’s research findings, booms and skimmers work best in calm, ice-free conditions. But at wind speeds over 22 knots, oil starts sloshing over the booms, while ice buildup clogs skimmers and reduces their efficiency.7 Shell’s Chukchi plan asserts that from July to September, wind speeds average 10–13 knots in a prevailing northeast direction that carries oil away from shore.7

In-Situ Burning

When heavy weather gets in the way of mechanical recovery, Shell’s plans shift chiefly to nonmechanical methods: namely, in-situ burning and the use of chemical dispersants. Both of these methods are contingent on approval from the Coast Guard, which by federal law is in charge of the response (although it does not actually perform the cleanup).

Under optimal conditions, in-situ burning can remove 85–95% of the oil, but that depends on a number of factors.28 In particular, the oil needs to be fresh, meaning that its combustible volatile fractions haven’t yet been lost to evaporation. Oil weathers over time, leaving less combustible fractions behind. It also mixes with water, making it less able to ignite—oily emulsifications won’t burn if they contain more than 25% water.29 High winds can also make it difficult for crews to ignite floating oil. A 2011 report by the Ottawa, Ontario–based firm S.L. Ross Environmental Research, Ltd., which consults to both industry and the Canadian government, claims that in-situ burning isn’t possible in open water with waves higher than 1.5 meters or at wind speeds of more than 20 knots,29 conditions that occur routinely in the OCS.

Click for Larger Image. An Inupiaq hunter uses an oar to listen for passing whales in the Chukchi Sea. Environmental resource specialist Thomas Lohman acknowledges that Shell has worked hard to address local concerns, but adds, “What comes up again and again when you talk to local communities is the oil-spill scenario. People worry what will happen to their food supply if things really get out of control.”

© Steven J. Kazlowski/Alamy


On the other hand, cold Arctic temperatures limit evaporation, and this slows weathering, according to Sørstrøm. And although it’s not expected during summer, ice coverage of up to 80% also favors in-situ burning, because it dampens waves and concentrates oil into dense floating pockets. At higher coverage, ice blocks access to the oil, but Shell has contingencies for that: its plans call for “ice management,” or using ships to hold the ice at bay or break it into smaller pieces. When ice coverage becomes so extensive that cleanup isn’t no longer possible, the plans call for halting the response until spring.

“We’ve done experiments showing that oil encapsulated in ice will remain [unweathered] through the winter,” says Steve Potter, vice president and director of S.L. Ross. “So when the ice melts, the oil will appear on the surface, and you can deal with it then.”

Shell’s plans claim that oil encapsulated in ice won’t come in contact with wildlife. But Richard Steiner, a conservation biologist with Anchorage consulting service Oasis Earth, counters that there’s a lot of microbial life in the interface where floating ice meets the sea, and that this layer also is the site of a great deal of “primary production,” or the conversion of aquatic carbon dioxide into life-sustaining organic molecules. Moreover, the floating sheet of ice that makes up the sea surface will travel, he says, and spread the oil when it melts.

Chemical Dispersants

Chemical dispersants make up the third leg of Shell’s spill response plans. Shell intends to rely mainly on a product used during the Deepwater Horizon response: Corexit→ 9500. This combination of petroleum distillates, surfactants, and stabilizers allows oil to mix more easily into water, where it can be degraded by marine bacteria. During the Deepwater Horizon blowout, BP applied Corexit directly at the gushing wellhead on the seafloor; Shell intends to apply it mostly from the air, specifically from a Lockheed C-130 Hercules military plane or from a vessel.7,8 But chemical dispersants aren’t preapproved for use in Alaska and would be considered only when other response measures aren’t working, according to the Alaska Regional Response Team, which is charged with developing contingency plans to coordinate multiagency disaster responses.30

Meanwhile, Ken Trudel, a senior environmental scientist with S.L. Ross, says investigators don’t have much information about how dispersants might work under real-world Arctic conditions. SINTEF conducted the first significant field tests, showing that Corexit applied from floating vessels onto both fresh and week-old oil achieved dispersing efficiencies of greater than 90% (aerial spraying wasn’t evaluated).31 But targeting oil between ice floes was challenging, that study found. “When you’ve got oil on open water, all you have to do is spray it,” Trudel says. “But when the oil’s between ice floes, you have to find it, spray the dispersant right on to the oil, and then it’s harder to find out if it’s working because you can’t see it as well.”

According to Trudel, dispersants work best on fresh oil in choppy seas that mix the chemicals into the water. Shell plans to create turbulence with its vessels’ propellers if the seas are icy or flat, and to use dispersants only until several days after the blowout is contained.

Both dispersant use and in-situ burning have ecological consequences. Some studies suggest that chemically dispersed oil can be more toxic to marine life than undispersed oil,32 although this remains an open area of research. And according to a November 2010 report commissioned by the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. Arctic program, charred residues left over from in-situ burning aren’t as toxic as the original oil, but they’re hardly benign.32 Shell’s plans call for manually removing as much of this residue as possible7,8—a laborious process involving strainers, nets, sorbents, and skimmers—but whatever sinks to the bottom can contaminate benthic ecosystems.32

Although Shell’s plans describe detailed contingencies for cleanup in ice, Smith emphasizes that summer exploration will occur in open water and nearly perpetual daylight. During this time, the main limiting factors will be wind, waves, and fog (which reduces visibility for aerial dispersant application), each of which becomes increasingly problematic as the season progresses.30

Weather conditions in the Beaufort Sea could make it impossible to mount any oil-spill response whatsoever 22% of the time in July, 41% of the time in August, and 56% of the time in September.29 That increase over time results mainly from daylight losses that become more pronounced as fall draws near—daylight starts to lessen in September, and darkness rules the region from November through mid-February.7 Potter says aerial dispersant application isn’t advisable in darkness. “You could spray at night, but you would probably waste a lot of dispersant,” he explains. “Without visual sighting from small planes and communication with the application aircraft, it’s hard to target the slick.” (He adds that this logistical problem “seems solvable, technically, and is an area of ongoing research.”)

Ready for Prime Time?

The question remains, however, whether these or any other oil-spill response plans will fulfill their purpose when the time comes. A report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) as this article went to press notes that, although the oil industry has improved its capability to respond to subsea blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico, these improvements may not be enough to overcome all the environmental and logistical challenges associated with drilling in the Arctic. Moreover, the report indicates that although the DOI has instituted more rigorous requirements for companies’ oil-spill response plans since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the department has not documented a consistent procedure for evaluating these plans and ensuring that companies can actually carry them out.33

The GAO report echoed a 2011 report commissioned by DOI Secretary Kenneth Salazar to assess the state of the science on offshore Arctic drilling, which revealed significant unknowns about how oil and gas activities might affect local ecology. That report also raised major questions about whether oil companies could respond adequately to a major spill in the region.34

As Shell finally moves toward summer exploration, its work in the OCS is expected to attract tremendous public attention. In February 2012 the Noble Discoverer drill rig was boarded by protesters in New Zealand, notably by actress Lucy Lawless (who, ironically, appeared as a gas station attendant in a Shell commercial 20 years ago35). And in March, Greenpeace activists in Finland raided two Shell icebreakers bound for the Chukchi Sea. Smith expects that protesters will try to raid Shell’s ships in the OCS this summer.

But it’s highly improbable that Shell will spill any oil, at least in significant amounts, this year. Drilling just a few wells under mainly sunny skies and in more or less ice-free seas doesn’t constitute the real threat to the Alaskan OCS. Exploration merely sets the stage for the much greater threat that comes later, at the point of development. Shell’s plan may have satisfied the DOI’s requirements for a limited venture this summer. But questions about how the oil industry will protect this fragile ecosystem and the people who live there if development begins full-tilt remain unanswered.


1. “Undiscovered” resources are believed to exist, based on knowledge of an area’s geology, but have not actually been tapped.

2. Budzick PWashington, DC:Office of Integrated Analysis and Forecasting, U.S. Energy Information Administration (19 Oct 2009). Arctic Oil and Natural Gas Potential. Available: http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/analysispaper/ar​ctic/index.html [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

3. NSIDCBoulder, CO:National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado (updated 29 Nov 2011). State of the Cryosphere: Is the Cryosphere Sending Signals about Climate Change? [website]. Available: http://nsidc.org/cryosphere/sotc/sea_ice​.html [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

4. Resource Development Council 2012. Anchorage, AK:Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc. Alaska’s Oil & Gas Industry [website]. Available: http://www.akrdc.org/issues/oilgas/overv​iew.html [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

5. Alaska Department of RevenueTax Division: Tax Types [website]. Juneau:State of Alaska (2012). Available: http://www.tax.alaska.gov/programs/sourc​ebook/index.aspx [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

6. Office of the President of the United States. Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future. Washington, DC:Office of the President of the United States (30 Mar 2011). Available: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/​files/blueprint_secure_energy_future.pdf [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

7. Shell. Chukchi Sea Regional Exploration Oil Discharge Prevention and Contingency Plan. Anchorage, AK:Shell Gulf of Mexico, Inc. (revised May 2011). Available: http://www.alaska.boemre.gov/fo/ODPCPs/2​010_Chukchi_rev1.pdf [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

8. Shell. Beaufort Sea Regional Exploration Program Oil Spill Response Plan. Anchorage, AK:Shell, Inc. (May 2011). Available: http://www.bsee.gov/OSRP/Beaufort-Sea-OS​RP.aspx [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

9. Wernham A.. Inupiat health and proposed Alaskan oil development: results of the first Integrated Health Impact Assessment/ Environmental Impact Statement for proposed oil development on Alaska’s North Slope. EcoHealth 4(4):500–513. 2007. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10393-007-0132-2

10. NOAATakes of Marine Mammals Incidental to Specified Activities; Marine Geophysical Survey in the Central Gulf of Alaska, June, 2011. Fed Reg 76(138):18174. 2011. Available: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles ​/2011/04/01/2011-7487/takes-of-marine-ma​ mmals-incidental-to-specified-activities​ -marine-geophysical-survey-in-the-centra​l#p-63 [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

11. Alaska’s boroughs function roughly similarly to other states’ counties.

12. Schmidt CW. Arctic oil drilling plans raise environmental health concerns. Environ Health Perspect 119(3):A116–A117. 2011. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.119-a116

13. EPA. Shell Kulluk Air Permit–Beaufort Sea [website]. Seattle, WA:U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 10 (updated 2 Apr 2012). Available: http://yosemite.epa.gov/r10/airpage.nsf/​Permits/kullukap/ [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

14. EPA. Shell Discoverer Air Permit–Chukchi Sea [website]. Seattle, WA:U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 10 (updated 2 Apr 2012). Available: http://yosemite.epa.gov/R10/airpage.nsf/​Permits/chukchiap/ [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

15. DOE. Alternative Fuels & Advanced Vehicles Data Center. Alternative & Advanced Vehicles:Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel [website]. Washington, DC:Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), U.S. Department of Energy (updated 8 Jul 2011). Available: http://www.afdc.energy.gov/afdc/vehicles​/diesel_low_sulfur.html [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

16. MMS. Planning Area Resources Addendum to Assessment of Undiscovered Technically Recoverable Oil and Gas Resources of the Nation’s Outer Continental Shelf, 2006. MMS Fact Sheet RED-2006-02. Washington, DC:Minerals Management Service, U.S. Department of the Interior (Jul 2006). Available: http://www.boemre.gov/revaldiv/PDFs/NA20​06BrochurePlanningAreaInsert.pdf [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

17. EIA. International Energy Outlook 2011. DOE/EIA-0484(2011). Washington, DC:U.S. Energy Information Administration (Sep 2011). Available: http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/ieo/pdf/048​4(2011).pdf [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

18. Schmidt CW. Cold hard cache: the Arctic drilling controversy. Environ Health Perspect 118(9):A394–A397. 2010. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.118-a394

19. Infrastructure includes Arctic-capable drillships, a fleet of support vessels, other equipment, scientific research, personnel, and planning and other services in anticipation of Shell’s exploration programs.

20. Conditions offshore of Alaska during the summer drilling season are relatively mild compared with those of other northern seas. However, the Arctic is quite harsh during the winter.

21. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice coverage fluctuates throughout the year, typically peaking around March before melting to its lowest levels by September. The center manages and distributes cryospheric data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

22. BOEM is one half of the agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service. In June 2010 the Minerals Management Service was reorganized and renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Sixteen months later, the agency was once again reorganized and split into BOEM and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

23. Re: Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. (Shell) Revised 2012 Outer Continental Shelf Lease Exploration Plan, Chukchi Sea, Alaska (EP) for OCS Leases Y-2280, Y-2267, Y-2321, Y-2294, Y-2278, and Y-2324. Letter from David W. Johnston to Susan Childs. Anchorage, AK:Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (16 Dec 2011). Available: http://www.boem.gov/uploadedFiles/2011_1 ​2_16_10_58_33_BOEM%20Letter%20of%20Condi​ tional%20Approval%20to%20Shell%20for%20C​ hukchi%20Sea%20Exploration%20Plan%281%29​.pdf [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

24. Re: Shell’s Revised OCS Lease Exploration Plan, Camden Bay, Beaufort Sea, Alaska (EP) Dated May 2011 and Supporting Information. Letter from Jeff Walker to Susan Childs. Anchorage, AK:Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (4 Aug 2011). Available: http://alaska.boemre.gov/ref/ProjectHist​ory/2012Shell_BF/2011_0804_soi.pdf [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

25. DOI. Obama Administration Announces Major Steps toward Science-Based Energy Exploration in the Arctic [press release]. Washington, DC:U.S. Department of the Interior (17 Feb 2012). Available: http://www.doi.gov/news/pressreleases/Ob ​ama-Administration-Announces-Major-Steps​ -toward-Science-Based-Energy-Exploration​-in-the-Arctic.cfm [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

26. Atlas RM, Hazen TC. Oil biodegradation and bioremediation: a tale of the two worst spills in U.S. history. Environ Sci Technol 45(16):6709–6715. 2011. http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/es2013227

27. JIP Oil in Ice. Oil Spill Response for Arctic and Ice-Covered Waters. Trondheim, Norway:Joint Industry Program Oil in Ice (2009). Available: http://www.dfdickins.com/pdf/jip-oil-in-​ice_print-a41.pdf [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

28. Buist I, et al. In situ burning. Pure Appl Chem 71(1):43–65. 1999. http://dx.doi.org/10.1351/pac199971010043

29. S.L. Ross Environmental Research, Ltd. Spill Response Gap Study for the Canadian Beaufort Sea and the Canadian Davis Strait. Ottawa, Ontario:S.L. Ross Environmental Research, Ltd (12 Jul 2011). Available: http://www.aleutiansriskassessment.com/d ​ocuments/A2A6V0_-_SL_Ross_Environmetal_R​ esearch_Limited_-_Spill_Response_Gap_Stu​ dy_for_the_Canadian_Beaufort_Sea_and_the​_Canadian_Davis_Strait.pdf [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

30. DEC. Prevention & Emergency Response. Juneau:Division of Spill Prevention and Response, Department of Environmental Conservation, State of Alaska (2012). Available: http://dec.alaska.gov/spar/perp/plans/uc​.htm [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

31. Daling PS, et al. Development and Testing of a Containerized Dispersant Spray System for Use in Cold and Ice-Covered Areas. Oil-in-Ice JIP Report No. 13/ARCTECH P4. Trondheim, Norway:SINTEF Materials and Chemistry (29 May 2010). Available: http://www.sintef.no/project/JIP_Oil_In_​Ice/Dokumenter/publications/JIP-rep-no-1​3-Development-of-spray-arm-final.pdf [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

32. The Pew Environment Group. Oil Spill Prevention and Response in the U.S. Arctic Ocean: Unexamined Risks, Unacceptable Consequences. Philadelphia, PA and Washington, DC:U.S. Arctic Program, The Pew Environment Group (Nov 2010). Available: http://www.pewtrusts.org/our_work_report​_detail.aspx?id=61733 [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

33. U.S. GAO. Interior Has Strengthened Its Oversight of Subsea Well Containment, but Should Improve Its Documentation. GAO-12-244. Washington, DC:U.S. Government Accountability Office (2012). Available: http://democrats.energycommerce.house.go​v/sites/default/files/documents/Report_O​ilGas_GAO_03.29.12.pdf [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

34. Holland-Bartels L, Pierce B, eds. An Evaluation of the Science Needs to Inform Decisions on Outer Continental Shelf Energy Development in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, Alaska. U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1370. Anchorage, AK:U.S. Geological Survey (23 Jun 2011). Available: http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1370/ [accessed 12 Apr 2012].

35. Shell [video]. Posted by kiwikid74, 22 Feb 2009. Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWoojruPp​CE [accessed 2 Apr 2012].

36. BOEMRE. Chukchi Sea—Outer Continental Shelf Lease Ownership. Anchorage, AK:Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, U.S. Department of the Interior (31 Aug 2011). Available: http://www.alaska.boemre.gov/Maps/2011_c​k.pdf [accessed 12 Apr 2012].

Editor's Notes


Indoor swimming and hormones in boys

May 28, 2012 - 10:00pm

This article, written by Bob Weinhold*, appeared first in Environmental Health Perspectives—the peer-reviewed, open access journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The article is a verbatim version of the original and is not available for edits or additions by Encyclopedia of Earth editors or authors. Companion articles on the same topic that are editable may exist within the Encyclopedia of Earth.

Can Indoor Swimming Alter Hormones in Boys?

Swimming is generally considered an excellent form of exercise, and indoor swimming is common, especially in winter. However, there is evidence that swimming in a chlorinated indoor pool can cause respiratory irritation or [genotoxicity] in some people.1 A recent study suggests another possible consequence: altered levels of hormones in boys.2

The study population consisted of 199 primarily white boys aged 14-18 years who swam regularly in indoor and/or outdoor chlorinated pools, and 162 similar boys who swam most frequently in an indoor pool disinfected with copper–silver ionization (but also swam at times in indoor or outdoor chlorinated pools). The authors compared serum levels of several testicular hormone biomarkers between the two groups: inhibin B, total and free testosterone, sex hormone–binding globulin, luteinizing hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, and dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate.

The boys who swam the most in indoor chlorinated pools had concentrations of inhibin B and total testosterone about 20% lower than those of boys who swam in the pool disinfected with copper–silver ionization, and the former were about 3 times more likely than the latter to have abnormally low concentrations of these hormones. The effects were more pronounced for exposure before age 7 than before age 10 (after which no significant changes were seen), and adverse effects were associated with swimming as little as 30 minutes every 2 weeks.

Click for Larger Image. Having swum in an indoor chlorinated pool before age 7 was associated with the greatest hormonal changes in teenage boys.  Andre Bonn/Shutterstock.com  

There were no significant hormonal changes in boys who swam in outdoor chlorinated pools. These were primarily backyard pools that study coauthor Alfred Bernard, a professor of toxicology at Catholic University of Louvain, says tend to be less prone than public pools to have elevated concentrations of urine and other organic matter. That means less chlorination by-products are formed.

Bernard and coauthor Marc Nickmilder, also of Catholic University of Louvain, accounted for factors such as age, body mass index, time of day of blood sampling, smoking status, having been breastfed, consumption of tap or bottled water since babyhood, insecticide use, residential proximity to a busy road, and participation in certain other sports. There are several limitations to the study, such as the lack of many types of measurements of water quality and disinfection by-products in the pools and the absence of data on testis size and other indicators of each boy’s pubertal status. The clinical significance of the hormonal changes identified is therefore unclear.

The authors speculate the hormonal changes may have occurred because of exposure to chlorination by-products that permeate the scrotum and affect the testes. The authors explain that the skin of the scrotum is quite permeable for some substances and may be especially so in the warm, wet conditions of a pool. They can’t definitively say that the hormone reductions observed will cause reproductive harm, but they conclude that the potential for reproductive problems such as reduced sperm production is plausible.

The study seems well conducted, despite its limitations, says Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, a research professor at the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL). But he is surprised that the adverse impacts are limited to just inhibin B and total testosterone, because luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone are typically considered to be involved in similar pathways. He says it is important to remember, in evaluating these findings, that epidemiological studies on disinfection by-products and semen quality have shown little or no effects, and that swimming offers significant health benefits through physical activity.

Shanna Swan, a professor of preventive medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, finds the study intriguing but unconvincing due to factors such as the different hormone effects after swimming in indoor and outdoor pools, which tend to have roughly similar chlorination treatment. She also pointed to the paucity of evidence from other studies supporting the idea that the doses the boys received could do such damage,3 and she says effects from bath water exposures should have been considered. Bernard says those data weren’t available and that bath water likely is different from pool water due to the presence of fewer organics such as urine. But he agrees the variable is important and says it is something he plans to test in the future.

Cristina Villanueva, an investigator at CREAL, thinks the study’s findings seem plausible in the context of limited evidence from other studies. But she also remains wary: “This hypothesis has barely been evaluated in humans. Consequently, given that this is the first epidemiological study on the topic, interpretation should be cautious until confirmed in new studies.”

Further research would be helpful, says David Savitz, a professor of epidemiology at Brown University: “While there is no suggestion [in this study] of changes that result in severe deficiencies, on a population level there is a range of fertility potential, and any influence that reduces the capability for the entire exposed population will cause clinically identifiable problems in a subset.”

References and Notes

1. Schoeny R.. Disinfection by-products: a question of balance. Environ Health Perspect 118(11):A466–A467. 2010. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1003053

2. Nickmilder M, Bernard A.. Associations between testicular hormones at adolescence and attendance at chlorinated swimming pools during childhood. Int J Androl 34(5 pt 2):e446–e458. 2011. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2605.2011.01174.x

3. Nickmilder and Bernard cite seven animal studies and two epidemiological studies. Another is: Potter CL, et al. Effects of four trihalomethanes on DNA strand breaks, renal hyaline droplet formation and serum testosterone in male F-344 rats. Cancer Lett 106(2):235–242 (1996); http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/88449​78

Editor's Notes
  • *Bob Weinhold, MA, has covered environmental health issues for numerous outlets since 1996. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
  • Citation: Weinhold B 2012. Can Indoor Swimming Alter Hormones in Boys? Environ Health Perspect 120:a18-a18. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.120-a18
  • Online: 01 January 2012


Bathymetric Data Viewer

May 23, 2012 - 9:03pm

NOAA has made sea floor maps and other data on the world’s coasts, continental shelves, and deep ocean available for easy viewing online through its Bathymetric Data Viewer. Anyone with Internet access can now explore undersea features and obtain detailed depictions of the sea floor and coasts, including deep canyons, ripples, landslides, and likely fish habitat.

The new online data viewer compiles sea floor data from the near shore to the deep blue, including the latest high-resolution bathymetric (sea bottom) data collected by NOS’s Office of Coast Survey primarily to support nautical charting.

“NOAA’s ocean bottom data are critical to so many mission requirements, including coastal safety and resiliency, navigation, healthy oceans and more. They are also just plain beautiful,” said Susan McLean, chief of NOAA’s Marine Geology and Geophysics Division in Boulder, Colo.

McLean’s division is part of NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center, responsible for compiling, archiving and distributing Earth system data, including Earth observations from space, marine geology information and international natural hazard data, and imagery. NGDC’s sea floor data have long been free and open to the public in original science formatting, but that often required the use of specialized software to convert the data into maps and other products.

The new interface makes exploration easy and intuitive, using a “color-shaded relief” technique to depict bathymetric data and derived maps and models. For example, a user can zoom into Delgada Canyon, one of a series of deep canyons off the northern California coast between Fort Bragg and Eureka. The sea floor descends steeply from shallow yellows into dark blues and purples.

NOAA’s latest sea floor data, Office of Coast Survey gridded bathymetry data, are archived and displayed in the new viewer through an open source file format known as BAG (Bathymetry Attributed Grid), developed by the Open Navigation Surface Working Group.

The critically endangered dusky gopher frog, Lithobates sevosus

May 21, 2012 - 8:55pm

Amphibian species worldwide are in rapid decline. One of the most common reasons for this decline is the spread of the chytrid fungus. The dusky gopher frog Lithobates sevosus is more threatened than any other species of amphibian found in the United States; L. sevosus has been listed as a Critically Endangered Species by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and as Endangered by the US Endangered Species Act. However, in contrast with many other amphibian species L. sevosus is not affected by the chytrid fungus. Therefore it is important to understand the unique requirements of this species in each stage of its life cycle as well as the variety of factors to which it is vulnerable. The synonym Rana sevosa is commonly encountered in the historical literature on the taxon dusky gopher frog.


Terrestrial surroundings are vital to amphibians as they provide habitat outside of the breeding season, in addition to a means of migration to [breeding ponds]. During the breeding season, Lithobates sevosus requires temporary, upland ponds. For the remainder of the year this species occupies longleaf pine ecosystems, which are maintained by periodic fires. While in the terrestrial habitat, L. sevosus utilizes burrows, predominantly those excavated by the gopher tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus. These burrows provide dusky gopher frogs with protection from predators and unfavorable weather conditions, and also serve as a source of food supply. The suppression of natural fires has caused modification in the longleaf pine ecosystem by promoting tree growth where they formerly did not occur. This alteration contributes to a decreased density of available burrows which negatively impacts L. sevosus and other species that depend on these refuges.

Demography and distribution

There are two known, documented populations of dusky gopher frogs. The more well-known population consists of approximately 100 adults and is located at Glen’s Pond in Harrison County, Mississippi. The second population is located at Mike’s Pond in Jackson County, Mississippi. These two populations are geographically isolated from one another at a distance of about 32 km.

In 2000, the dusky gopher frog was found throughout the region known as the Coastal Plain in the Florida panhandle and extended throughout Alabama and Mississippi. By the following year the distribution had been critically reduced to a single known location in De Soto National Forest in Harrison County, Mississippi. The Mike’s Pond population, which consists of fewer than fifty individuals, may no longer exist.

Biotic interactions

Though the dusky gopher frog is critically endangered, the southern leopard frog Lithobates sphenocephalus is neither reduced nor endangered. The possibility of competition between the southern leopard frog, which is widely distributed throughout the southeastern United States, and the dusky gopher frog has been considered as a cause for decline. However, there has been no evidence found to support the hypothesis, as observations indicated an increase in the survival of dusky gopher frog tadpoles in aquatic enclosures with southern leopard frog tadpoles.


The dusky gopher frog breeds in temporary, upland ponds. Outside of the breeding season they occupy nearby longleaf pine forests and utilize burrows made by small mammals and the gopher tortoise as well as holes left by tree stumps. This species has been observed at rest outside of selected burrows in the soil and in direct sunlight. Observations of L. sevosus movements outside of the breeding season found that adult individuals travel relatively short distances of under 300 m and most of their movements are associated with rainfall events. Less information is known on the movement behaviors of juvenile dusky gopher frogs, though observations of the closely related Rana capito have shown juveniles to emigrate much greater distances. Since gopher frogs breed from winter to early spring, L. sevosus does not hibernate.

The reproductive success of the breeding season may depend on the water levels and length of time that such levels are maintained. A hydroperiod must have a duration of at least 195 days in order for L. sevosus tadpoles to complete metamorphosis. An inefficient length of time likely results in tadpole mortality. The cause of a short hydroperiod is often linked to an insufficient amount of annual rainfall.


Many amphibians have an assortment of antimicrobial peptides in their skin secretions that serve as a method of defense which are released as a response to injury. Seven histamine-releasing peptides of the four families brevinin-1, ranateurin-2, esculentins-1 and esculentins-2 are present in the skin secretions of the dusky gopher frog. These peptides were shown to hinder growth of two strains of bacteria, M. luteus and E. coli. While there were no differences in antimicrobial behaviors of peptides between male and female specimens, an additional histamine-releasing peptide was observed in female skin secretions. An immunomodulatory peptide Tyrosine Arginine, the second member of a newly discovered class of peptides associated with formation of various types of blood cells was also isolated in L. sevosus. Genetic variation of the single remaining L. sevosus population has been compared to two closely related species, Rana capito and Rana areolata, since no other metapopulations of L. sevosus were available for comparison.

Genetic variation was found to be lower in L. sevosus than the non-isolated populations they were compared to. L. sevosus had less genetic variation in individual loci and both lower observed heterozygosity, referring to having two or more genes on the same chromosome, and expected heterozygosity for six of seven loci. L. sevosus was the only species of the three to show an allele frequency shift as a result of losing low-frequency alleles that indicated a recent bottleneck occurred in this species.

Human interaction

Human activities, such as deforestation, development and controlled burning are known to have negative effects on amphibians. The longleaf pine ecosystem is maintained by periodic fire, so mortality due to fires is not of main concern. The habitat around Glen’s Pond has been clearcut and there are indications that this area was utilized by the dusky gopher frog prior to alteration but has been avoided since. The development of a retirement community 200 miles north of Glen’s Pond was initiated in 2001, in addition to the clearcut site. Other construction plans have been proposed in nearby areas that include a dam, sewage treatment plant and highway expansion. It is likely that the distribution of the dusky gopher frog has been reduced by surrounding areas of development. This species may also be exposed to fertilizer run-off and affected by recreational activities.

Conservation and management

Movements of L. sevosus outside of the breeding season suggest that adjacent forests be protected in addition to the breeding area. A buffer zone of 1000 m of land around ponds may be sufficient to incorporate the longleaf pine ecosystems. There are two ponds near Glen’s Pond which are not being utilized by the dusky gopher frog but could potentially be colonized if these areas are protected from human development, runoff, and other disturbances.

Movements of the gopher frog may be a good comparison to determine if emigration behavior of juvenile frogs are affected by fire-suppressed habitat within a longleaf pine ecosystem. Juvenile gopher frogs are more likely to utilize areas maintained by fires and avoid areas where hardwoods occurred, a characteristic of a fire-suppressed area. Areas maintained by fires often contain a greater density of available burrows than areas affected by fire-suppression. Juveniles may return to natal pond if suitable terrestrial habitat is unavailable or inaccessible. Movement behaviors of R. capito also suggest that amphibians may utilize unpaved roads during emigration, which cause the frogs to become more vulnerable to vehicles.

L. sevosus tadpoles have a higher success rate in open-canopy temporary ponds than shaded areas. Since these types of ponds rarely occur in Mississippi, prescribed fires may be used to open up closed-canopy ponds. This approach would have to be done carefully as to avoid negative impact on the habitat and requires that this be done in an area that is historically open.

The utilization of well water to maintain levels of Glen’s Pond is a potential solution for the premature decrease in water levels. There have been successful studies with the supplementation of well water, though further research is required before this method can be implemented as a conservation strategy.

The loss of genetic diversity in the isolated Glen’s Pond population of L. sevosus suggests the necessity for conservation strategies to focus on an increase in genetic variation. To do so, egg masses raised in captivity should be sampled and selected for genetic diversity by genotyping a small number of eggs in each mass before being introduced into Glen’s Pond. Individuals of the Mike’s Pond population could also be transplanted into Glen’s Pond to increase genetic variability. Since it is not known whether or not the Mike’s Pond population persists, the area should continue to be surveyed for dusky gopher frog individuals. Captive populations could also be transplanted into the wild since wild populations are drastically reduced.


Since the survival of this species depends on the availability of longleaf pine habitats, it is vital to educate the public on the importance of protecting these areas from urban development. Besides education, the most important method of management of L. sevosus is to protect the entire inhabited area, meaning Glen’s Pond and the surrounding forests. Further research should be done on the movement patterns and behavior of dusky gopher frogs to ensure the entire inhabited area is protected from development and other human activities. Since this species has been shown to do poorly in response to human activity, it is vital to provide a habitat with limited human interaction. L. sevosus is also sensitive to chemical runoff, so the protected area must be far enough from development that runoff does not enter the buffer zone.

Further research should also be done to find any possible remaining individuals from the Mike’s Pond population. In addition, suitable habitats located nearby either of the two ponds must be searched for dusky gopher frog individuals. Since the distribution of this species once extended throughout the southern United States, suitable habitats in their former range should be found for population reintroduction. To increase genetic diversity, individuals from the Glen’s Pond location and those raised in captivity could be relocated to Mike’s Pond or other suitable habitats within the protected area. Studies must be done prior to translocation to ensure the potential habitats meet the requirements of L. sevosus and that their presence would not disrupt other species.

Decreased hydroperiod poses a major threat to the reproductive success of L. sevosus, so it is vital to pursue the possibility of well water usage to supplement pond levels. Further research should focus on the rate of survival in individuals following metamorphosis in well water and potential effects of pH alteration. This method should be repeated in natural settings as well as in a laboratory setting to explore all potential outcomes. Since L. sevosus is a Critically Endangered species, closely related species should be used in place during experimental procedures that require the use of live specimens. Previous experiments have used leopard frog tadpoles in place of dusky gopher frogs, since this species is not currently in decline.

A controlled fire regime must be thoroughly researched before being implemented. The objective of conservation for this species should focus on protecting suitable habitat without degrading the habitat or negatively affecting other species. Longleaf pine ecosystems are necessary for the survival of dusky gopher frogs yet this habitat has been up to 98% reduced due to fire-suppression. Since natural fires do not occur frequently enough to support the open-canopy habitat preferred by L. sevosus, a well-planned fire regime, in addition to tree removal, could benefit this species.


Several factors are responsible for the reduction of the population of the dusky gopher frog. Therefore, no single conservation method can be expected to reverse the population decline. The integration of several well-planned methods significantly increases the potential for this species to persist. After efforts have been made to understand the unique requirements of the species, a strategy must be developed that focuses on maintaining suitable habitat for each life stage of L. sevosus and to increase genetic diversity. Also, the importance of public education on species decline should not be overlooked in the design of a conservation plan for this unique species.


Anonymous 2000; 2000. Legislation & conservation.Herpetological Review 31(3):131-131.

Graham, C., A. E. Irvine, S. McClean, S. C. Richter, P. R. Flatt, and C. Shaw. 2005. Peptide tyrosine arginine, a potent immunomodulatory peptide isolated and structurally characterized from the skin secretions of the dusky gopher frog, Rana sevosa. Peptides 26(5):737-743.

Graham, C., S. C. Richter, S. McClean, E. O’Kane, P. R. Flatt, and C. Shaw. 2006. Histamine-releasing and antimicrobial peptides from the skin secretions of the dusky gopher frog, Rana sevosa. Peptides 27(6):1313-1319.

Hammerson, G., S. C. Richter, R. Siegel, L. LaClaire, and T. Mann. 2004. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, . Available from http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/58714/0 (accessed October 17 2011).

Jones, M. S., B. Stiles, L. J. Livo, and B. Christman. 2000. Natural history notes: Anura. Herpetological Review 31(2):99-99.

Richter, S. C., and R. E. Broughton. 2005. Development and characterization of polymorphic microsatellite DNA loci for the endangered dusky gopher frog, Rana sevosa, and two closely related species, Rana capito and Rana areolata. Molecular Ecology Notes 5(2):436-438.

Richter, S. C., B. I. Crother, and R. E. Broughton. 2009. Genetic consequences of population reduction and geographic isolation in the critically endangered frog, Rana sevosa. Copeia (4):799-806.

Richter, S. C., J. E. Young, R. A. Seigel, and G. N. Johnson. 2001. Postbreeding movements of the dark gopher frog, Rana sevosa Goin and Netting: Implications for conversation and management. Journal of Herpetology 35(2):316-316.

Roznik, E. A., and S. A. Johnson. 2009. Canopy closure and emigration by juvenile gopher frogs. Journal of Wildlife Management 73(2):260-268.

Roznik, E. A. and S. A. Johnson. 2009. Burrow use and survival of newly metamorphosed gopher frogs, Rana capito. Journal of Herpetology 43(3): 431-437.

Seigel, R. A., A. Dinsmore, and S. C. Richter. 2006. Using well water to increase hydroperiod as a management option for pond-breeding amphibians. Wildlife Society Bulletin 34(4):1022-1027.

Thurgate, N. Y., and J. H. K. Pechmann. 2007. Canopy closure, competition, and the endangered dusky gopher frog. Journal of Wildlife Management 71(6):1845-1852.

Environment & Security

May 18, 2012 - 7:53pm

Environmental security refers to the protection of important ecosystem services and assurance of a supply of natural resources, including water, soil, energy, and minerals, in order to enable continued economic and social well being."

The Expanding Definition of National Security

This broader view of national security reflects the fact that new global pressures now threaten the well being and resilience of both human society and the natural environment. These pressures include population growth, increased demand for energy and materials, and competition for access to land, water, minerals, and other vital natural resources. The resulting impacts include changes in global climate and degradation of clean air and water, soil, forests, and wetlands, all of which have the potential to compromise energy security, food security, supply chain security, and other domestic and international concerns. Today the vitality of our ecosystems is already seriously threatened. According to the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 15 of 24 important global ecosystem services are being degraded or used unsustainably (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).

Future global ecosystems will be under even greater pressure when by 2050 global population will reach about 9 billion, some 30 percent higher than the 2000 population. Poverty alleviation and rising affluence in developing nations will inevitably increase the demand for natural resources. The boom in Asian economies is well under way, while in Africa another billion people are ready and eager for economic expansion [See Africa's economic growth].

The essence of global security is acquisition of economic well-being and social justice for all. Hence, the challenge ahead is to create global conditions that foster economic growth and human well being in a sustainable manner. How can society address these growing social and environmental pressures in ways that sustain economic growth, assure an adequate supply of natural resources, protect human health and safety, and avoid domestic and international conflicts?

Background and History of Environment and Security

The linkage between environment and security has a long history, underscored by events such as the oil embargo of 1972 that led to gas rationing around the world. Both academic and government experts have worked hard to understand how environment and security can be managed in a coordinated fashion.

The widely-known 1972 “The Limits to Growth” report by the Club of Rome called attention to the risks associated with natural resource scarcities and continuing deterioration of environmental quality (Meadows et al.). It pointed out connections with an array of socio-economic problems (population growth, urbanization, migration, etc.), particularly in developing countries, that could lead to security-relevant threats or even to the outbreak of violent conflicts

A decade later in “Redefining Security,” Richard Ullman identified a number of environmental problems that could potentially lead to security implications. His list included earthquakes, conflicts over territory and resources, population growth, and resource scarcity, particularly oil (Ullman 1983).

To avert these security implications, Ullman argued for redefinition of the threat to national security to include “disturbances and disruptions ranging from external wars to internal rebellions, from blockades and boycotts to raw material shortages and devastating ''natural'' disasters such as decimating epidemics, catastrophic floods, or massive and pervasive droughts.”

The link between environment and security became more evident in the 1987 UN Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) – also known as the Brundtland Commission – report, Our Common Future (UN 1987). This was the first international report to refer explicitly to the connection between environmental degradation and conflict. Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who chaired the Commission, strongly believed that the traditional definition of security, which relied primarily on a military response to threat, was inadequate for dealing with environmental issues that demand non-military responses.

The WCED report advanced the idea that "The whole notion of security as traditionally understood – in terms of political and national threats to sovereignty – must be expanded to include the growing impacts of environmental stress – locally, nationally, regionally, and globally."

The Brundtland Report advanced the vision that “it is possible to construct an economically sounder and fairer future based upon policies and behavior that can secure our ecological foundation.” Hence, future challenges have to be met with a new model that effectively links policy and science in the context of basic food and energy needs, natural resource management, public health and safety, and economic development.

Beginning in the 1990s, the linkage of environment and security began to appear in high-level U.S. policy statements. The National Security Strategy is a document prepared periodically that states U.S. foreign and security policy objectives and seeks to inform the American public and policymakers worldwide of these objectives and strategies. All past national security documents can be downloaded from The Defense Strategy Review Page. The 1992 Strategy advanced the notion that the United States “whenever possible in concert with its allies, to […] achieve cooperative international solutions to key environmental challenges, assuring the sustainability and environmental security of the planet as well as growth and opportunity for all.

Public awareness of the scale and importance of environmental and security issues were further advanced by Norman Myers (1993) and Thomas Homer-Dixon (1993.) In one article Myers wrote (1993):

National security is no longer about fighting forces and weaponry alone. It relates increasingly to watersheds, croplands, forests, genetic resources, climate, and other factors rarely considered by military experts and political leaders, but that taken together deserve to be viewed as equally crucial to a nation’s security as military prowess.

Also in 1993 the Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon writing in Scientific American argued that environmental change could be a cause of serious national conflict. The article in turn led to a New York Times op-ed, which was widely circulated in the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency. The article prompted then Vice President Al Gore to invite him to Washington.(Floyd, 2010.) In another landmark publication, Robert Kaplan in 1995 portrayed environment degradation and conflict over resources (such as water) as potential causes of international conflict that can only be controlled if the environment is made a national security issue. Kaplan called the environment as the “national security issue of the early twenty-first century” (Kaplan 1995.) He argued that “the political and strategic impact of surging populations, spreading disease, deforestation and soil erosion, water depletion, air pollution and, possibly, rising sea levels in critical, overcrowded regions will be the core foreign policy challenge from which most others ultimately emanate, arousing the public and uniting assorted interests left over from the cold war.”

This article resonated with a number of important government officials. Former CIA director James Woolsey wrote that the Kaplan article was carefully studied by President Clinton and had captured the imagination of Vice President Gore, who instructed Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Timothy E. Wirth to fax the article to all U.S. embassies. (Floyd, 2010)

Environmental Intelligence Gathering

As the link between environment and security grew, then Senator Al Gore recognized the importance of linking the collection and synthesis of scientific data from the public and intelligence domains. Gore contacted then CIA director Robert Gates about mutually initiating supportive projects. Gates, in turn was supportive and discussions that followed led to the creation of science based group called MEDEA. The name MEDEA was chosen by CIA official Linda Zall for the character in Greek mythology who helped Jason and the Argonauts steal the Golden Fleece (Richelson 1998)

All of the scientists in MEDEA were given access to highly classified intelligence-gathering data and information. The scientists were allowed to study archival data and suggest innovative uses of CIA resources for scientific research. MEDEA scientists were able to access U.S. spy satellite data and studied about two dozen ecologically sensitive sites around the world. They hoped to generate significant results to help with environmental research, particularly with respect to global warming.

In a review of MEDEA activities Jeffrey Richelson (1998) called the MEDEA “scientists in black,” noting that MEDEA was unique in that never before had the intelligence community worked so openly with a group of scientists outside the government. For scientists the unrestricted dissemination of data is the norm. For the intelligence community, data and information is restricted to those who "need to know." MEDEA research results tried to bridge this gap.

While MEDEA was discontinued by the Bush administration, the CIA has reactivated the program as part of a new CIA focus on the implications of climate change on U.S. national security. In 2009 CIA director Leon Panetta said, “Decision makers need information and analysis on the effects climate change can have on security. The CIA is well positioned to deliver that intelligence.” (CIA 2009)

At the same time, the CIA was involved in creating the Center on Climate Change and National Security. The mandate of this new center was less on the science of climate change than on the national security impact of phenomena such as desertification, rising sea levels, population shifts, and heightened competition for natural resources.

U.S. EPA Engagement

Accompanying this growing interest in environmental security, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to expand its own programs in science and technology and laid the groundwork for linking security and sustainability. EPA was prompted to engage in environmental security by its Science Advisory Board (SAB), a group of eminent non-government scientists. Administrator Administrator Bill Reilly (1989-1992) had asked the SAB to look beyond the horizon and anticipate environmental problems that may emerge in the 21st century. In its January 1995 report, the SAB stated, “global environmental quality is a matter of strategic national interest that must be recognized publicly and formally.” The board further observed that “international competition for natural resources like ocean fish and potable water may pose as much of a threat to intentional political stability as an interrupted oil supply does today” (U.S. EPA 1995).

An important aspect of the SAB report was their recommendation that the US develop strategic national policies linking national security, foreign relations, environmental quality, and economic growth. The SAB stated, “EPA should begin working with relevant agencies and organizations to develop strategic national policies that link national security, foreign relations, environmental quality, and economic growth.” In addition, the report called for an “early warning system” to identify potential future environmental risks.

At that time, the term “environmental security” had different meanings in different agencies. The Department of State often referred to it as “environmental diplomacy.” The Department of Defense referred to “preventive defense” as alleviating environmental problems before they became a cause for military conflict. EPA was less concerned about the environment leading to conflict, and hence defined environmental security as a “process whereby solutions to environmental problems contribute to national security” (U.S. EPA 1999).

At the time of the SAB report, EPA’s role in environmental security was just beginning. While EPA had significant expertise in assessing traditional environmental risks – such as chemicals and toxics – assessing environmental security risks was a new challenge. In contrast, the CIA had already embraced the concept of identifying future risks, and had held numerous meetings to identify potential environmentally-related risks (often called “flash points”) that could have potential adverse impact on U.S. national security.

EPA’s involvement in environmental security was further strengthened by problems related to Soviet dumping of radioactive waste in the Arctic. In dealing with such issues it was clear to EPA that they needed an environmental security strategy, as well as a partnership with the Department of Defense and other agencies. During the mid 1990s, DOD, DOE, and EPA collaborated to forge a partnership on environment and security (Lloyd, 2010.)

Part of the stimulus for this joint planning was a DOD-CIA Environmental Security Conference held at the Department of State on June 15–16 1995. The conference was designed to explore the relationship between the civil, defense, and intelligence communities. The conference re-enforced the idea that the United States needed an environmental security strategy.

This was in turn reflected in the 1996 National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement, which noted, “The end of the Cold War fundamentally changed America’s security imperative. The central security challenge of the past half century – the threat of communist expansion – is gone.” (All US National Security Strategies are accessible at: http://www.comw.org/qdr/offdocs.html). The Strategy described a host of new national security problems that had emerged: “Large-scale environmental degradation, exacerbated by rapid population growth, threatens to undermine political stability in many countries and regions.”

Following the June 1995 meeting EPA, DOD, and later DOE began to explore idea of an environmental security initiative and a bilateral agreement. Alan Hecht, then Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator in the EPA Office of International Activities (now the Office of International Activities and Tribal Affairs) drafted the first version of a DOD-EPA action plan and a possible EPA-DOD agreement.

Twenty-First Century Challenges

In 2001, at the start of the Administration of George W. Bush, environment and security were further linked to social well being. The 2002 National Security Strategy stated, “A world where some live in comfort and plenty, while half of the human race lives on less than $2 a day, is neither just nor stable. Including all of the world’s poor in an expanding circle of development – and opportunity – is a moral imperative and one of the top priorities of U.S. international policy.”

Events in the decade from 2000 to 2010 were dominated by the 9/11 attack and subsequent war on terrorism. The events of 9/11 have sharpened the national debate on the meaning of security and on the root causes and means of preventing terrorism. Before 9/11, while there was prosperity in the West, there were warnings of dissatisfaction and instability in the rest of the world. In Africa, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, development had failed to improve the quality of life for 300 million people. Health, education, and social services in much of Africa were deteriorating.

Travel writer Paul Theroux, who as a young author lived in Africa in the 1960s, returned in 2000 to make an overland trek from Cairo to Capetown. His subsequent book observed that thirty years after he had lived in Africa as a young teacher, “Africa is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it –hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you can’t tell the politicians from the witch-doctors” (Theroux, 2002.) Before 9/11 Frank Carlucci, (a former Secretary of Defense) working with a RAND-convened panel of 54 American leaders in foreign and defense policy produced a number of recommendations for the new Bush Administration. (Carlucci et al 2000) One of his recommendations goes to the heart of the issues of environment and security:

"A host of new global challenges may soon require imaginative and sustained responses. These nontraditional challenges include uncontrolled migration across borders, international crime, pandemics like AIDs and malaria, and environmental degradation…. However, in this era, Developed nations have the resources and opportunity to ask themselves whether they want to live in a world where such problems continue to fester, or whether they will try to make a difference. This is primarily a matter of leadership and forming alliances between like-minded, relatively wealthy countries to begin a new ethos for the future that is not based solely on a short-term national model but that embraces a long-term global vision."

The essence of the above recommendation is that economic prosperity, environmental protection and social justice must be combined to ensure global security. In effect, the world needs a renewed focus on what is commonly known as the “three pillars” of sustainable development, depicted in Figure 1.

This vision has recently re-emerged in a 2011 policy paper by two staff members of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, which outlines a new National Strategic Narrative (Porter and Mykleby 2011). Within the concept of a new strategic narrative is the recognition of the need for a more sustainable society. The paper argues that it is time for the U.S. to re-focus its national interests and principles through the lens of the global environment of tomorrow. The paper asserts that it is time to move beyond a strategy of containment to a strategy of sustainment (i.e., sustainability); from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence; from a defensive posture of exclusion, to a proactive posture of engagement.

Dynamics of Environmental Security

Today societies exist in a complex and interconnected world, in which industrial and social development are closely linked to the use and protection of environmental resources. Capturing the linkages of economic development, environmental and social well-being, and national security is not easy. Figure 2 shows how the three pillars of sustainability are linked to each other domestically, and also shows important linkages to the international community. There are a variety of international relationships that keep this dynamic system in balance—trade and tourism, foreign investment, mutual aid and alliances, and education and migration. National security involves assuring the smooth functioning of these relationships, and avoiding disruptions due to natural or anthropogenic causes.

Figure 2. Dynamic resource flows related to environmental security

We use Figure 2 as a base upon which to highlight the impact of emerging economic and social drivers, and government and societal responses, which follow in Figures 3 and 4.

Figure 3 identifies three major drivers that threaten the continuity of both environmental resources and national security: Population growth, Economic growth, and Scarcity of resources, including energy, water, land, and minerals. These drivers are already placing stress upon the natural resource base, and the pressure of 9 billion people in 2050 will only increase the threats to global security and human well-being.

The overall ecological burdens of growth can be understood from the following equation, which isderived from the well-known IPAT equation(Chertow, 2001).

Total burden = population × ($GDP / capita) × (resources / $GDP) × (burden / resource unit)

The above equation holds whether the resources are fossil fuels and the burdens are greenhouse gas emissions, or whether the resources are material flows and the burdens are ecosystem service degradation. The first two factors are inexorably rising; and even if population growth slows, the GDP per capita will most likely continue to rise in developing nations. Thus, a fourth driver shown in Figure 3, a consequence of the above drivers, is climate and ecological disruptions. A 2008 report published by the CNA Corporation, a Pentagon-funded think tank, spoke of climate change as a “threat multiplier” that could lead to wide conflict over resources (CNA 2008).

Figure 3. Major drivers that threaten environmental security

Drawing on United Nations data and scenarios, the Global Footprint Network suggests that if current trends in population and consumption continue, by the 2030s, the equivalent of two Earths will be needed to support the world’s population.

How can society respond effectively to these drivers and avoid them leading to national and international conflicts? Figure 4 identifies four areas of response; namely, Regulations and Risk Management, Controlled Resource Extraction and Use, Infrastructure Development, and Poverty Alleviation. All but the last of these responses are closely tied to the mission of EPA.

Recognition of the need to manage resource use in an environmentally sound manner was central to the creation of EPA in 1970. The practice of risk assessment and management is a key underlying approach for setting environmental regulations and protecting human health. Similarly, risk management is utilized in security to analyze threats and countermeasures, and to support effective long range planning.

Figure 4. Responses to the drivers that threaten security

Failure to anticipate risks can have severe consequences, as exemplified by the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Offshore drilling will be an important future source of oil, especially in the pristine Arctic Ocean. In late 2010, Russian signed an Arctic Exploration Deal with Exxon. Other Western oil companies, recognizing Moscow’s openness to new ocean drilling, are now having similar discussions with Russia. Assuming that global demand for oil continues to rise, Russia could prove vital to world supplies in coming decades, now that it has surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer.

The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill reached a number of important conclusions relative to future oil safety and national security, two of which related to regulations and risk management. The commission’s report concluded that the risk assessments conducted by BP were insufficient (National Commission 2011). A risk assessment for the failed Macondo oil rig estimated that the most likely size of a large spill would be 4,600 barrels, yet more than 26,000 barrels were spilled over the rig’s 40-year production cycle –a gross underestimation of the potential risk.

At the same time, there was inadequate regulatory authority to evaluate risk independently. The Oil Commission found that government oversight was severely compromised. The agency in charge of promoting the expansion of drilling – resulting in over $18 billion in oil revenues – was also in charge of keeping it safe. Here, economics and financial profit clearly overshadowed risk and safety. Risk management and proper regulations are therefore key elements of responding to external drivers.

A second major response is exercising control over consumption of resources from the ocean and land for food, energy, and materials. During much of the past decade the consumption of food (and energy) staples including wheat, rice, corn and soybeans, has outstripped production. As a result, the once large stockpiles of these commodities have now seriously declined. The imbalance between supply and demand has resulted in two huge spikes of international grain prices since 2007 (Gillis 2011). Future grain production is likely to be adversely affected by climate change and associated weather extremes.

Similarly, logging and extraction of minerals such as coal, metals, and rare earths for industrial products must be approached with greater awareness of resource limits. Careful land use is necessary to protect the vital ecosystems that provide support for the U.S. economy. Failure to control resource extraction can lead to conflicts over food and fuel use, water, and mineral rights.

Development of infrastructure in cities is also a pressing need as more and more people move to urban areas. In the U.S., aging infrastructures, including roads, bridges, and pipelines, have been neglected for years, and pose safety risks. In other parts of the world, development of new infrastructure is sorely needed.

According to UN data, the world’s urban population is currently growing at four times the rate of the rural population. Between 1990 and 2025, the number of people living in urban areas is projected to double to more than 5 billion. If so, then almost two thirds of the world’s population will be living in towns and cities. An estimated 90 percent of the increase will occur in developing countries. Africa has the highest urban growth rate of all world regions: 5 percent per year. Such growth will not only place demands on current and planned infrastructure, including supply of clean water, but will also create challenges for protection of human health and safety.

Poverty alleviation is a key element of the UN Millennium Goals, and is closely tied to environmental security. 2.9 billion people world-wide currently survive on less than $2 a day, 2.6 billion without access to proper sanitation, 1.2 billion without access to safe drinking water, 924 million “slum dwellers,” 829 million chronically undernourished, 790 million lacking health services, 4 billion in developing countries with annual income less than $300, 191 million people unemployed and 39 million adults and children living with HIV/AIDS (Hecht, 2009.) And far more people are dying of malnutrition and disease than of conflict or war./p>

Harnessing Intellectual Capital

As illustrated above in Figure 3, there are many global economic and social drivers that could impact societal well being and natural resources, and in turn lead to international conflict. These drivers and stressors have been growing over time. The time is clearly at hand to for global society to work together in order to support a growing and sustainable economy, reduce environmental threats, and enhance international security.

How can this be done? Three fundamental sources of intellectual capital are available to strengthen the responses shown in Figure 4. These are science and technological innovation, enterprise strategies, and interagency collaboration.

Science and Technology: Today more than ever in the past, the constructive power of science and technology can propel humankind to new levels of global well being. In particular, the practice of sustainability science can help to anticipate problems, promote innovation, and support decision- making. A National Academy of Engineering report suggests that the path to sustainability “involves the creative design of products, processes, systems and organizations, and the implementation of smart management strategies that effectively harness technologies and ideas to avoid environmental problems before they arise” (Richards and Frosch 1997).

One area where sustainability science is crucial is protecting human health. Today global health impacts from toxic pollutants such as heavy metals, pesticides and radionuclides, are greater than previously thought. More than 100 million people are estimated to be at risk from toxic pollution at levels above international health standards. (McCartor et al. 2010.) In the Blacksmith Institute World’s Worst Pollutants Report 2010, McCartor identified six pollutants that threaten the health of millions of people: Lead, mercury, chromium, arsenic, pesticides, and radionuclides. This is a public health issue as salient as tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/ AIDS, and one that should receive considerable attention and resources.

The risks to human health posed by toxic pollution are largely a consequence of industrial activities, yet a thriving industrial base is essential for economic development and social well-being. This conflict can only be resolved through introduction of innovative technologies, including sustainable design and application of green chemistry principles. EPA has worked with many companies to help introduce “design for environment” strategies into their product development processes.

The need to advance sustainability science is evident across all federal agencies. As a report by the Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education of the National Science Foundation argued,

[e]nvironmental science must move beyond identifying issues and toward providing sound basis for the development of innovative solutions, effective adaption, and mitigation strategies.” The report added that to accomplish this goal “we urgently need to expand our capacity to study the environment as an integrated system that includes the human dimension (NSF Advisory Committee, 2009) Thus, the challenge ahead is to better coordinate science and technology, including international scientific cooperation, in order to advance our understanding of sustainable systems. This will requires integration of research on human health and pollution prevention with a broader understanding of the interdependence between socioeconomic systems and ecosystem services. An integrative approach will enable the global community to simultaneously enhance scientific knowledge, stimulate economic growth, and alleviate poverty, thus strengthening national security.

Enterprise Strategy: The strategic importance of enterprise sustainability has been elevated by a variety of forces, including the growing expectations of customers and other stakeholder groups, increasingly stringent environmental laws and regulations, and international environmental management system standards. In addition, companies have been confronted with a proliferation of sustainability rating schemes, eco-labels, and voluntary codes and principles (Hecht, 2009.)

In pursuit of shareholder value, leading companies have moved beyond compliance and risk management and adopted voluntary practices including corporate citizenship, pollution prevention, product stewardship, Design for Environment, and ultimately supply chain sustainability. The latter requires consideration of the entire product life cycle, from extraction of resources and processing of feedstocks to transportation, logistics, distribution, and end-of-life asset recovery. (Fiksel, 2009)

Why is this important and how does it relate to national security?

US businesses operating around the world are pioneering new models that protect natural resources, enhance social well being and increase the bottom line. For example the concept of “creating shared value” advanced by Michael Porter (2010) and practiced by Nestle and others is a good example of sustainable enterprise management that also improves quality of life. Serious efforts should be made to support business models that promote economic development while reducing overall stressors on the environment. The business world can, in effect, be a positive force advancing global security. In addition to cost reductions and productivity improvements, companies can raise the standards of people around the world and thus contribute to more sustainable society.

Another important emerging business trend is the growing awareness of enterprise resilience, defined as the capacity to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of a turbulent business environment. Enterprises can learn much from natural ecosystems, in which individual creatures and entire species are engaged in a constant struggle for food, security, survival, and growth. Living systems are complex, adaptive, and remarkably resilient. Similarly, resilient enterprises are able to anticipate surprises, recover from disruptions, adapt to changing needs, and innovate to take advantage of emerging opportunities. Indeed, resilience is the first step toward long-term sustainability. Moreover, the resilience of industrial supply chains is closely linked to the resilience of the communities and markets in which they operate. (Fiksel, 2007)

Much can be accomplished by forging new partnerships between government and the business community that focus on social responsibility, sustainability and resilience. For example, EPA and DOE are working with the Sustainability Consortium on product life cycle characterization. Similarly, Sandia Labs and the Department of Defense have worked with several industrial sectors to examine their vulnerabilities to disruptive events, including terrorist strikes and natural disasters. The ground is fertile for establishing a national compact on environmental security.

Interagency Collaboration:A 2010 Report from the Center for New American Security called for the creation of a Natural Security Community. The Report recognized that many government agencies are working on issues related to national security and that it was “important to cultivate…networks among security and environmental analysts” (Parthemore and Rogers 2010).

The intelligence community has been successful in creating a mechanism to assemble, analyze, and project future trends as a basis for planning national security. Today the National Intelligence Council (NIC) prepares far-reaching reports to anticipate critical trends and synergies. The NIC serves the intelligence communities as a focal point for midterm and long-term strategic thinking. Its many functions include helping policy makers to address specific questions and drawing upon non-governmental experts in academia and the private sector to develop long-term perspectives.

Today the NIC prepares many reports that examine global trends to 2025 and beyond. The goal of these reports is to provide US policymakers with a view of how world developments could evolve, identifying opportunities and potentially negative developments that might warrant policy action. These papers in turn stimulate a broader discussion of value to educational and policy institutions at home and abroad. NIC’s 2025 report reinforces the challenges facing society, stating that “Unprecedented economic growth, coupled with 1.5 billion more people, will put pressure on resources—particularly energy, food, and water—raising the specter of scarcities emerging as demand outstrips supply.” Such reports on environmental, economic, and social trends are also plentiful in the UN system and among international organizations. But in the U.S., no single group is compiling and integrating information about sustainability and security to support policy formulation. An integrated approach is needed that connects all agencies involved in the interface of energy, environment, security, and social issues. The existing National Security Strategy of the United States could be expanded to embrace sustainability and resilience practices, and thus form the basis for a more integrated National Security and Sustainability Strategy.


Since the first World Environment Conference in Stockholm in 1972, rich and poor countries have been divided by the notion of common but differentiated responsibility. The source of this division is a result of the massive demand on resources by the rich countries and the desire of the poor countries to emulate that pattern. Since 1972, the phrase “common but differentiated responsibility” has been included in almost all international environmental compacts and treaties. The same issue dominated discussion in Rio in 1992, then in Johannesburg in 2002, and in Copenhagen in 2009, and will be again in Rio in 2012. It has been assumed that global economic growth will inevitably result in increasing environmental burdens. As early as 1972 Russell Train argued that this need not be the case; that the “the US had learned that economic development at the expense of the environment imposes heavy costs to health and in the quality of life generally – costs that could be minimized by forethought and planning.”

While there is significant discussion about international efforts to promote green economy, the world is a long way from realizing this concept of mutually supportive economic growth and environmental protection. For Rio+20 and beyond, sustainability offers a strategic goal for the prosperity of all nations in the 21st century. Government and business partnerships can make this vision a reality.

In response to the drivers that threaten environmental security, this paper has outlined a number of strategic responses. The effectiveness of these responses will be measured in terms of four major outcomes, depicted in Figure 5:

  • Vitality and Resilience of ecosystems
  • Security and Quality of Life for communities, including public health and safety
  • Equity and Opportunity for disadvantaged groups, especially in developing nations
  • Continuity and Competitiveness of a nation's industrial base.

Conversely, failure to achieve an effective response will lead to adverse outcomes that pose threats to national security; namely, conflicts over resources such as land, water, energy, and materials; lack of readiness for climate change impacts, leading to economic disruptions and community displacement, adverse health events including spread of disease, and economic hardship that in turn threatens social stability. Given these vulnerabilities, it is critical that the U.S. develop an integrated strategy for responding to threats to national environmental security. Taking a systems view that recognizes the convergence of environmental protection and national security will enable a deeper understanding the potential interactions among drivers and responses. This will not only lead to improved security, but will reinforce economic competitiveness for U.S. industry and quality of life for U.S. communities.

Figure 5. Potential outcomes of an effective response strategy

  1. Carlucci, Frank, Robert Hunter, Zalmay Khalilzad, 2000, Taking Charge: A Bipartisan Report to the President Elect on Foreign Policy and National Security. Rand Corporation.
  2. CIA, CIA Opens Center on Climate Change and National Security, Press Release, September 25, 2009
  3. Chertow, M. R. “The IPAT Equation and Its Variants; Changing Views of Technology and Environmental Impact,” Journal of Industrial Ecology, 4.4 (2001): 13-29.
  4. CNA Corporation, 2007. National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. Alexandria, Va.: CNA.
  5. Fiksel, J. 2007. “Sustainability and Resilience: Toward a Systems Approach,” IEEE Management Review, Volume 35, No. 3, Third Quarter 2007, pp. 5-15.
  6. Fiksel, J. 2009. Design for Environment: A Guide to Sustainable Product Development. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  7. Floyd, Rita, 2010. Security and the Environment. Cambridge University Press.
  8. Gillis, J. 2011. A warming planet struggles to feed itself. The New York Times. June 5, page 1.
  9. Global Footprint Network. 2011. Just how big is the human footprint on earth? ( Accessed June 11, 2011).
  10. Hecht, Alan D. 2009. The Next Level of Environmental Protection. Sustainable Development Law and Policy, V 8, fall 2009.
  11. Homer-Dixon, Thomas F, Jeffrey H, Boutwell, and George W Rathjens, 1993. Environmental Change and Violent Conflict. Scientific America. February.
  12. Kaplan, R.1995. The Coming Anarchy. Atlantic Monthly. February.
  13. Norman Myers (1993) Environmental Security: What’s’ New and Different.
  14. McCartor, A.D. Becker et al. 2010. Blacksmith Institute’s World´s Worst Pollution Problems Report 2010. New York and Zurich: Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross.
  15. Meadows, D. H., J. Randers, and W.W. Behrens III.1972. The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.
  16. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Guide to the Millennium Assessment Reports. Accessed June 20, 2011.
  17. National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. 2011. The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future. January. Washington, D.C.: National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.
  18. Parthemore C. and W. Rogers. 2010. Sustaining Security: How Natural Resources Influence National Security. Center for New American Security.
  19. National Science Foundation Advisory, Committee for Environmental Research and Education, 2009. Transitions and Tipping Points in Complex Environmental Systems.
  20. Porter, Michael and Mark Kramer, 2011. The Big Idea: Creating Shared Value. Harvard Business Review, January-February.
  21. Porter, M., and P. Mykleby (“Mr. Y”). 2011. A National Strategic Narrative. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center.
  22. Richards D.J. and R.A. Frosch.1997. The Industrial Green Game: Overview and Perspectives. In: D. J. Richards (editor) The Industrial Green Game: Implications for Environmental Design and Management. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
  23. Richelson, J.T. 1998. Scientists in Black. Scientific American 278/2 (February): 48–55.
  24. Theroux, Paul, 2002, Dark Start Safari. Hamish Hamilton.
  25. Ullman, R. 1983. Redefining security. International Security 8:1, page 129 ff.
  26. UN General Assembly (1987) Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. United Nations General Assembly, New York
  27. U.S.EPA. 1999. Environmental Security: Strengthening National Security through Environmental Protection. September. 1160-F-99-001. Washington, D.C.: U.S. EPA.
  28. U.S. EPA. Science Advisory Board.1995. Beyond the Horizon: Using Foresight to Protect the Environmental Future. EPA-SAB-EC-95-007. January. Washington, D.C.: U.S. EPA.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the USEPA. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute Agency endorsement or recommendations for use.

Greenland glaciers and rising sea level

May 17, 2012 - 7:51pm

Researchers determine that although glaciers continue to increase in velocity,
the rate at which they can dump ice into the ocean is limited.

Analysis of Speed of Greenland Glaciers
Gives New Insight for Rising Sea Level

Changes in the speed that ice travels in more than 200 outlet glaciers indicates that Greenland's contribution to rising sea level in the 21st century could be significantly less than the upper limits some scientists thought possible. The finding comes from a paper funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA and published in the May 4, 2012, issue of the journal Science.

While the study indicates that a melting Greenland's contributions to rising sea levels could be less than expected, researchers concede that more work needs to be done before any definitive trend can be identified. Studies like this one are designed to examine more closely and in greater detail what is actually happening with the ice sheets, often using newer and more precise tools and thereby better defining the parameters that scientists use to make predictions, such as the upper limits of sea-level rise.

"This study provides more evidence that the rate at which these glaciers can dump ice into the ocean is indeed limited," said Ian Howat, assistant professor of Earth sciences and member of the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University, a co-author on the paper. "What remains to be seen is how long the acceleration will continue--but it appears that our worst-case scenarios aren't likely."

The fate of the Earth's ice sheets and their potential contributions to sea-level rise as the globe warms are among the major scientific uncertainties cited in the Fourth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This is in part because the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have historically been, and in large measure continue to be, relatively sparsely monitored, as compared to other parts of the globe. The faster the glaciers move, the more ice and melt water they release into the ocean.

In previous studies, scientists trying to understand the contribution of melting ice to rising sea level in a warming world considered a scenario in which the Greenland glaciers would either double or increase by as much as ten-fold their velocity between 2000 and 2010 and then stabilize at the higher speed.

This new study shows Greenland ice would likely move at the lower rate--a doubling of its speed--and contribute about four inches to rising sea level by 2100. The previous studies used the higher speed and estimated the glaciers would contribute nearly 19 inches by the end of this century.

In the new study, the scientists extracted a decade-long record of changes in Greenland outlet glaciers by producing velocity maps using data from the Canadian Space Agency's Radarsat-1 satellite, Germany's TerraSar-X satellite and Japan's Advanced Land Observation Satellite. They started with the winter of 2000-01 and then repeated the process for each winter from 2005-06 through 2010-11 and found that the outlet glaciers had not increased in velocity as much as had been speculated.

"So far, on average we're seeing about a 30 percent speedup in 10 years [of Greenland glaciers, which gives new insight for rising sea level]," said Twila Moon, a University of Washington doctoral student in Earth and space sciences and lead author of the paper documenting the observations.

"This study is a great example of the power of high-resolution data sets in both space and time, and the importance of looking carefully at as much data as possible in helping make the best predictions we can of future changes", said Henrietta Edmonds, program director for Arctic Natural Sciences in NSF's Office of Polar Programs. The scientists saw no clear indication in the new research that the glaciers will stop gaining speed during the rest of the century, and so by 2100 they could reach or exceed the scenario in which they contribute four inches to sea level rise.

The record showed a complex pattern of behavior. Nearly all of Greenland's largest glaciers that end on land move at top speeds of 30 to 325 feet a year, and their changes in speed are small because they are already moving slowly. Glaciers that terminate in fjord ice shelves move at 1,000 feet to a mile a year, but didn't gain speed appreciably during the decade.

In the East, Southeast and Northwest areas of Greenland, glaciers that end in the ocean can travel seven miles or more in a year. Their changes in speed varied (some even slowed), but on average the speeds increased by 28 percent in the Northwest and 32 percent in the Southeast during the decade.

Moon said she was drawn to the research from a desire to take the large store of data available from the satellites and put it into a usable form to understand what is happening to Greenland's ice. "We don't have a really good handle on it and we need to have that if we're going to understand the effects of climate change," she said.  "We are going to need to continue to look at all of the ice sheet to see how it's changing, and we are going to need to continue to work on some tough details to understand how individual glaciers change."

May 4, 2012

Media Contact

Program Contact