Tsunami threats, heat-tolerant corals, COVID-19 and plastic: 3 stories you may have missed

© Lorenzo Puricelli

Editor's Note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. ‘It could happen anytime’: Scientists warn of Alaska tsunami threat 

A receding glacier could trigger one of the most devastating tsunamis in Alaska’s history. 

The Story: According to a new study, a melting glacier in the Prince William Sound near Anchorage, Alaska, could trigger a destructive tsunami within a few decades, reported Henry Fountain for The New York Times. As the glacier continues to melt due to rising global temperatures, several fissures have formed — threatening to collapse the entire structure.  Only one-third of the glacier’s slope is now supported by ice, while the rest is comprised of 500 million cubic meters (17 billion cubic feet) of rocks and dirt.  In a NASA-funded project, researchers modeled the potential impact of the glacier’s collapse and discovered that it could trigger a tsunami several hundred feet high, which could cause widespread destruction across the entire region. 

The Big Picture: Prince William Sound is a popular destination for fishing boats, hunters and tourists — and as many as 500 visitors and the local residents of this region could be at risk from a landslide-induced tsunami, according to officials in Alaska. Along with melting glaciers in the Arctic, climate change could also trigger more frequent earthquakes and tsunamis worldwide, research shows. These catastrophic events can cause long-lasting damage to coastal ecosystems — and threaten the lives and jobs of billions of individuals living along coastlines around the world. 

Read more here.

Heat-tolerant algae could help save the world’s coral reefs, according to a new study.

The Story: Researchers in Australia recently developed a new way to help coral reefs adapt to warming ocean temperatures by creating a strain of heat-tolerant microalgae, reported for the BBC. As sea temperatures warm and ocean acidification increases, coral reefs expel the algae that helps them produce energy — a process known as coral bleaching. After exposing the lab-grown algae to warmer temperatures over four years, the scientists discovered that it could withstand more heat than most strains found in the ocean — and could support coral reefs in the face of climate breakdown.

The Big Picture: "Climate change has reduced coral cover, and surviving corals are under increasing pressure as water temperatures rise,” said the study’s lead author, Patrick Brueger. Coral bleaching has impacted more than 75 percent of the planet’s coral reefs from 2014 to 2017 — and these events are becoming more frequent as climate breakdown accelerates, research shows. Introducing heat-tolerant algae could help save the planet’s coral reefs, which support more fish species per unit hectare than any other marine environment.

Read more here.

Countries and businesses are rolling back their commitments to reduce plastic consumption during the pandemic. 

The Story: Experts are concerned that the coronavirus pandemic could derail years of progress to limit plastic consumption and implement plastic restrictions in the United States, reported Luke Denne for NBC News. Citing hygiene concerns over reusable bags — which could have been exposed to COVID-19 — California and several other states have temporarily overturned their single-use plastic bag bans, flooding the U.S. market with new sources of consumer plastic derived from oil

The Big Picture: “[The pandemic has] created a base for brands or consumers to not be as focused on those environmental goals and really just focus on whatever’s cheaper,” said Eadaoin Quinn, a recycling official for EFS Plastics, a North American recycling company. Currently, more than 40 percent of all plastic is single-use — and 13 million metric tons (more than 28 billion pounds) of plastic waste is added to the world’s oceans every year. This marine plastic is known to kill seabirds, threaten sea turtle populations and even pollute food ingested by humans, making it imperative for countries and businesses to maintain commitments to reduce plastic waste.

Read more here.

News Spotlight

Developed by a group of engineering students in California, a solar-powered boat known as “FRED” could help vacuum plastic pollution littering the world’s oceans.

Read more here


Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Plastic pollution on a beach (© Lorenzo Puricelli)

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