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Executive Summary for February 9th

This week’s executive summary reports on January’s record low for polar sea ice, a new discovery of skates warming their eggs on hydrothermal vents and the shipping industry’s move to reduce air pollution.

Published on Feb. 9, 2018 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Caps on Shipping Emissions May Save 137,000 Lives a Year

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), which regulates shipping, is pushing forward with its plan to require reduced sulfur content in marine fuels by 2020, a move that will save lives around the world.

At a meeting of the IMO’s subcommittee on pollution prevention and response this week, secretary-general Kitack Lim said of the upcoming limits, “There is no turning back!,” according to written prepared remarks (exclamation point and all).

The emphasis alludes to the fact that the regulation is expensive for ship owners and operators, many of whom will struggle to meet its requirements. It requires sulfur content in marine fuels be reduced from 3.5 percent to 0.5 percent, meaning many ships will need to use more expensive low-sulfur fuels or install air scrubbers. The new limit was decided in 2016, and the 2020 deadline was sooner than many in the industry wanted.

A new study out this week calculated exactly how much the rules will help human health, however. Researchers projected 137,000 fewer air pollution-related deaths a year and 8 million fewer cases of childhood asthma. The authors, however, noted that 250,000 deaths a year will still be linked to shipping air emissions – a number that newer ship technologies using no fossil fuels at all would cut further.

Global Sea Ice Extent at Record Low in January

The new year didn’t turn over a new leaf for record-breaking sea ice retreat.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that January began and ended with record lows of sea ice extent in both the Arctic and Antarctic – setting a global record for the month since the beginning of the satellite record in 1979.

The center, in a blog post, noted how hard it is to accurately forecast sea ice conditions on a variety of timescales and get the information to those who need it – such as Arctic maritime operations and coastal communities. Its Sea Ice Prediction Network held a workshop at the recent Arctic Frontiers conference in Norway. “Longer-term seasonal ice forecasts are potentially useful to the polar marine industry but are not yet being relied upon,” the center said, noting that polar tourism and shipping traffic will only continue to grow.

Hydrothermal Vents: Nature’s Egg Incubator

Pacific white skates have devised an unheard-of way of warming their eggs on the frigid sea floor – incubating them in relatively cozy if extreme hydrothermal vent nurseries at depths that can reach 5,500ft (1,670m).

Scientists reported the discovery this week in the journal Scientific Reports. The behavior was discovered in 2015 from a remotely operated vehicle in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. The ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) recorded 157 egg cases within 500ft (150m) of two active black smoke chimneys and took a few back home for lab analysis. The smokers spew mineral-laden water heated to 750F (400C) or more. But by the time the water reaches the egg cases it cools to a comfortable (for skates) 36F. To the researchers’ knowledge, “this is the first time incubating behavior using a volcanic source is recorded for the marine environment.” (It’s extremely rare in general, even on land.)

The authors think the skates are using the heat to reduce the incubation time for their eggs, which at around four years is among the longest in the entire animal kingdom. It’s another example of how little scientists know about rich and unique hydrothermal vent ecosystems, even as they are in the sights of companies that want to mine the seabed for minerals.

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