1) As sea star wasting disease continues to ravage sea star populations, scientists race to identify solutions
2) New Belgium releases open source toolkit for breweries to follow their carbon neutral lead
3) Op-ed by Abby Hagen: New Jersey sees worst flooding in history by Hurricane Ida
You may have grown up calling them starfish, but they are actually not fish at all. They are echinoderms more common to say a sea urchin, a species that have a uniquely powerful relationship with as you’ll find out in this piece. You also may remember seeing them at the beach as a kid, but not so much anymore.
Since 2013, they have been dying off in mass quantities due to an epidemic of sea star wasting disease. To the point that many of the 20 different species are nearing extinction. Particularly on the North American Pacific Coast, where sea stars serve a critical role as keystone species in kelp forests ranging from Alaska down through Mexico.
This is not the first known plague of sea star wasting disease, but it is by far the worst scientists have ever seen. Because there has been limited research done on them, breeding in captivity to help alleviate population declines has never really been an option. Until now. Recent breakthroughs may enable us to save sea stars, and the kelp forests that rely on them.
THE STAR OF THE FOREST
Sea stars are fascinating creatures. Take the Sunflower Sea Star, one of the species now classified as critically endangered, with upwards of 99% of their populations all but evaporated in just the last 8 years. Sunflower sea stars can be up to 3 feet wide and 15 pounds heavy. They feed on sea urchins, often swallowing them whole and spitting out the shells.
Without sea stars around, sea urchin populations are exploding beyond what marine ecosystems can bear. Purple sea urchin populations have increased 10,000x just from 2014 to 2019. And with it, they are devouring our kelp forests. Kelp forests sequester 20x more carbon than a terrestrial forest. They also provide critical habitat for so many different species ranging from sea lions to octopus. Furthermore, they are a highly regenerative form of vegetation, making them a great target for more sustainable marine agriculture.
Losing kelp forests has a similar effect to losing coral reefs. Oceans would produce less oxygen, less biodiversity, and sequester less carbon.
Without sea stars, kelp forests are being decimated by urchins. In Northern California, 95% of their bull kelp forests have disappeared, just like the sea stars.
SEA STAR WASTING DISEASE
The impacts of sea star wasting disease are quite horrific. Within a matter of just days, an otherwise healthy, thriving sea star will start to form lesions, deflate, and quite literally break apart, die and melt into a puddle of mush. It’s almost like watching a human go through leprosy but over a matter of hours instead of years.
Originally, scientists believed that a densovirus was the culprit driving the massive declines starting in 2013. However recent studies show that there is correlation but not causation, and in fact it may be the wasting disease itself that harbors the densovirus settling in.
It appears to be the mass changes in our oceans brought on by climate change that are in fact killing these species. The warming ocean is carrying with it less oxygen, as well as harboring more bacteria which survive in warmer conditions. Add in even more bacteria stemming from things like algae blooms and waste water runoffs. These bacteria then latch onto the sea star. The sea star has to use it’s own oxygen supply to fight them off, is unable to quickly replace it, and then suffocates. In the process of suffocation it’s brain starts sending confusing signals to its arms to detach, something that is normal when there is a targeted wound or injury. It’s extremely sad to watch unfold. You quite literally see this animal suffering and clamoring for life, only to succumb each and every time.
Hope is on the horizon. A ton of research is being poured into this space. Scientists can now estimate the age of sea stars which they couldn’t do before, their feeding behaviors are better understood, as well as their breeding and life cycles.
James Hodin, senior science researcher at the University of Washington is one of a few folks who has finally crossed the chasm of successfully breeding sea stars in captivity, which will be a key step towards supporting their recovery.
One interesting nugget, for example, is that recovery may be more successful by only breeding to the larvae stage in captivity and then releasing them into local waters, as opposed to taking them all the way into adult stage.
This is just another example of how the adverse effects of climate change are damaging entire marine ecosystems that all of us rely on, as well as how individual species play such a critical role in keeping those ecosystems alive and warrant protection accordingly.
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CARBON NEUTRAL BEER GOES OPEN SOURCE
We chat a lot about needing companies to step up and lead the way in creating more sustainable products in a proactive way rather than “waiting” for consumer demand to shift enough to do so reactively.
Well, New Belgium should get some kudos for setting a strong example. Following making their trademark beer, Fat Tire, the first certified carbon neutral beer by 2030, they recently released an open-source toolkit for any brewery to use to do the same. A sign that they don’t want sustainability to be an unfair advantage for them in the market, but would rather see carbon neutrality as a commodity if more brands adopt a plan for getting there.
The adverse effects of climate change will have a particularly meaningful impact on beer. So if you love beer, you should be prioritizing climate action! Hops and barley are the two main ingredients behind most beers. Well, barley supplies are being decimated by droughts, and warmer temperatures and late season rains are spurring pre-harvest sprouting of barley, making it useless for malt. Meanwhile, hops are being tainted by things like wildfires, altering the flavor completely.
To demonstrate just how bad beer would be if climate change continues at this pace, New Belgium actually made and is actively selling a horrible beer. It’s called Torched Earth. You can buy it here. It uses more drought resistant grains lie buckwheat and millet, a smoke infused water, and hop & malt extracts.
Here is a video showcasing just how bad Torched Earth tastes:
The toolkit they make available offers the following steps:
- Measure your Footprint – they break this down into (1) Direct – stuff like how you make your beer, your transportation fleet, etc., (2) Indirect – stuff like your electricity footprint, and (2) Supply Chain – from source agriculture to where you get your cans. They also list universities with great Green House Gas Accounting Programs to find interns to help. And an Excel tool to use.
- Set Carbon Neutral Goal – set your goal. At the minimum they suggest reducing emissions from 1 & 2 above by 55% by 2030, moving your Top 5 Suppliers into a Sustainable Supplier Program and ensuring your packaging is 100% recyclable (although not sure if they are accounting for the small amount that actually gets recycled in the end)
- Reduce Your Emissions – create an internal task force, prioritize projects, model out reductions
- Buy Carbon Offsets – eeek! We don’t love Offsets, BUT, they do provide guidelines to use and urge 3rd party verification
- Advocate for Strong Climate Policy – lean on local, state, or national legislators and private governance orgs
- Achieve Certification – get it from a 3rd party, they say usually costs ~$10k per brand per year
Overall this is a big step forward. Not only making sustainability a priority, but handing over a blueprint to all of your competitors to do the same. New Belgium gets a ton of credit here.
If we are being critical, we don’t love simply looking at Carbon Neutral frameworks as the target, since this only tells part of a companies environmental story (the carbon part, but there are many others) and as usual, it’s using Offsets as part of the recipe. Whereas we would like to see carbon neutral plans be required to be offset free.
That will take time, and we should applaud any big company making strides in the right direction, encouraging others to do the same, and hope they continue to do even more in the years ahead. With New Belgium’s leadership, we are confident they will!
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The following piece is an op-ed written by Abby Hagen
I go to Boston University, but I call Union, NJ home. The insane flooding in my town during Hurricane Ida was devastating, and unfortunately my town was not alone. 7 other counties in NJ were deemed disaster zones by FEMA, places where flooding like this has never hit so hard. I am currently in Boston, so I didn’t experience the storm firsthand, but my family, friends, and community did. Seeing the way people’s whole lives have been turned on their axis hurts. Some of my close friends and people I grew up around lost everything. People had to spend the night in or on top of cars with flood waters rushing through the streets, rising in the darkness. People lost their lives. Still, those who could lend a helping hand did, and once again, all over the areas impacted by the storm, we saw people coming together and supporting each other. Our reactions to natural disasters can be touching and a reminder of the beauty in humanity, but we shouldn’t find complacency in the positives of the aftermath unless we do everything we can to help protect our communities from the uncertain future that climate change has in store for us.
Time and time again we see cities and towns get pummeled by natural disasters. We predict the storm, we prepare, then we react. Time and time again we suffer destruction and then rebuild. Nothing we do to prepare is enough, and in the wake of the disasters, we fix what is broken, not address the root of the problem.
It is increasingly frustrating to watch the government ignore the need for new infrastructure. There is ample evidence that climate change will increase the intensity of natural disasters, and even AFTER the nation experienced devastating events in the past, little action was taken to address the very obviously outdated infrastructure of our nation. If Hurricane Ida taught us anything, it should be that even the places you least expect, therefore least prepared, will be impacted by increased storm intensity. We need to look at our infrastructure everywhere and spend the money to equip and brace communities for natural disasters. This means assessing the individual needs and concerns of the different parts of our country. California’s infrastructure issue is different from Florida’s, but both places must make changes in order to avoid escalated devastation from wildfires or hurricanes.
The solution seems easy: identify the weakness and then fix it before it becomes a bigger problem. For example, when paving new roads, use permeable pavement rather than the old run-of-the-mill pavement to save lives in the future. If you’re concerned about money, just think about how much it cost FEMA to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina; $114.5 billion dollars is a lot of money. 7 Years later, FEMA spent $56 Billion Dollars in relief after Hurricane Sandy. Now, FEMA will spend billions of dollars in relief after Hurricane Ida in locations that have been previously assisted after events we should have learned from. We keep spending money to rebuild, but we do not do enough to prevent devastation from occurring again. We can’t stop a natural disaster, but we can definitely get out ahead of it. It will cost a lot up front, but in the long run, reassessing and refreshing our infrastructure to align with the realities of our future will save money. It’s an investment, and betting on climate change being a threat for a long time in the future is a smart move.
Our cities as we know them will not be able to withstand the future of natural disasters on this planet. Preventative and protective measures must be taken if we want to get ahead of the impacts of climate change, because climate change is at the core of our troubles. We know pollution in its many forms is the main driver of our climate crisis. If we take huge steps to reduce our CO2 emissions, move toward sustainable energy, and mitigate our destructive practices, we can slow down the effects of climate change in the future. Unfortunately, the consequences of our actions 10-15 years ago are being felt now. Even if we make a change tomorrow, those emissions from years ago will still be felt. However, If we act now and reduce our footprint on this planet today, in 10-15 years the impacts could be a lot less severe than they would be if we wait to intervene any longer.
We still have time to act on the climate crisis. While many have already lost so much, many more people’s lives can be saved if we just address reality: climate change is real and we are already feeling its effects, but it is still manageable. There is still hope, but only if we act NOW.