Category Archives: ECOLOGICAL-ENVIRON

Disasters concerning ecosystem collapse, species extinction

Laundry Lint Pollutes the World's Oceans

Laundry Lint Pollutes the World’s Oceans – ScienceNOW.

There’s nothing subtle about dryer lint: Clean the fluffy, gray mat off the filter or risk a fire. Washer lint, however, is sneaky. Nearly 2000 polyester fibers can float away, unseen, from a single fleece sweater in one wash cycle, a new study reports. That synthetic lint likely makes its way through sewage treatment systems and into oceans around the world. The consequences of this widespread pollution are still hazy, but environmental scientists say the microscopic plastic fibers have the potential to harm marine life.

The existence of so-called microplastics in marine environments is not, in itself, a revelation. Larger bits of plastic, such as those in the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, gradually break down into microscopic fragments. And minute plastic fibers have turned up before in treated sewage and on beaches. But no one had looked at the issue on a global scale, says ecologist Mark Browne of University College Dublin.

So Browne and his team recruited far-flung colleagues on six continents to scoop sand from 18 beaches. (The scientists had to wear all natural-fiber clothing, lest their own garments shed lint into the samples.) Back in the lab, the researchers painstakingly separated the plastic from the sand—a process that involved, among other things, hand plucking microscopic fibers from filter papers. A chemical analysis showed that nearly 80% of those filaments were made of polyester or acrylic, compounds common in textiles.

Not a single beach was free of the colorful synthetic lint. Each cup (250 milliliters) of sand contained at least two fibers and as many as 31. The most contaminated samples came from areas with the highest human population density, suggesting that cities were an important source of the lint.

Cities come with sewers, and Browne’s team thought the plastic fibers might enter the ocean via sewage. Sure enough, synthetic lint was relatively common in both treated wastewater and in ocean sediments from sites where sewage sludge had been dumped. In all the samples, the fibers were mainly polyester and acrylic, just like the ones from the beaches.

Finally, the researchers wanted to see how synthetic lint got into sewage in the first place. Given its polyester-acrylic composition, they thought clothing and blankets were a good bet. So they purchased a pile of polyester blankets, fleeces, and shirts and commandeered three volunteers’ home washing machines for several months. They collected the wastewater from the machines and filtered it to recover the lint. Each polyester item shed hundreds of fibers per washing, the team reports in the 1 November issue of Environmental Science and Technology.

A polyester sweater may seem cozy and innocent on a winter day, but its disintegrated fibers could be bad news in marine environments, Browne says. Other studies have found that microplastics in the ocean absorb pollutants such as DDT. And Browne’s own work has shown that filter-feeding mussels will consume tiny plastic particles, which then enter the animals’ bloodstreams and even their cells. If the same thing happens in nature, the plastic fibers could “end up on our dinner plates,” incorporated into seafood, Browne warns.

There is still no direct evidence that the fibers—pollutant-tainted or otherwise—harm marine life, but Browne says it’s worth figuring out. He argues that the fibers are “guilty until proven innocent” and says that textile and washing machine manufacturers, as well as sewage treatment plants, should be looking for ways to keep the fibers out of the ocean. Garments that shed less lint, or filters that trap the fibers, might help.

ScienceNOW sent a copy of the study to Patagonia, one popular maker of fleece sweaters. No one was able to review the study and comment before deadline, but spokesperson Jess Clayton said that Patagonia does intend to follow up on the findings with Polartec, its primary supplier of fleece.

Christopher Reddy, an environmental chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, says it’s still hard to tell where lint pollution fits in the spectrum of environmental problems. It won’t “trump CO2 in the atmosphere” as a priority issue, but he calls the new results “provocative” and says they should trigger follow-up studies that measure the effects of the fibers on marine life. “It never ceases to amaze me that we continue to find more pollutants entering the coastal environment,” he adds. “What else is out there we may be missing?”

Bleak Prospects for Avoiding Dangerous Global Warming

Bleak Prospects for Avoiding Dangerous Global Warming – ScienceNOW.

The bad news just got worse: A new study finds that reining in greenhouse gas emissions in time to avert serious changes to Earth’s climate will be at best extremely difficult. Current goals for reducing emissions fall far short of what would be needed to keep warming below dangerous levels, the study suggests. To succeed, we would most likely have to reverse the rise in emissions immediately and follow through with steep reductions through the century. Starting later would be far more expensive and require unproven technology.

Published online today in Nature Climate Change, the new study merges model estimates of how much greenhouse gas society might put into the atmosphere by the end of the century with calculations of how climate might respond to those human emissions. Climate scientist Joeri Rogelj of ETH Zurich and his colleagues combed the published literature for model simulations that keep global warming below 2°C at the lowest cost. They found 193 examples. Modelers running such optimal-cost simulations tried to include every factor that might influence the amount of greenhouse gases society will produce —including the rate of technological progress in burning fuels efficiently, the amount of fossil fuels available, and the development of renewable fuels. The researchers then fed the full range of emissions from the scenarios into a simple climate model to estimate the odds of avoiding a dangerous warming.

The results suggest challenging times ahead for decision makers hoping to curb the greenhouse. Strategies that are both plausible and likely to succeed call for emissions to peak this decade and start dropping right away. They should be well into decline by 2020 and far less than half of current emissions by 2050. Only three of the 193 scenarios examined would be very likely to keep the warming below the danger level, and all of those require heavy use of energy systems that actually remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. That would require, for example, both creating biofuels and storing the carbon dioxide from their combustion in the ground.

“The alarming thing is very few scenarios give the kind of future we want,” says climate scientist Neil Edwards of The Open University in Milton Keynes, U.K. Both he and Rogelj emphasize the uncertainties inherent in the modeling, especially on the social and technological side, but the message seems clear to Edwards: “What we need is at the cutting edge. We need to be as innovative as we can be in every way.” And even then, success is far from guaranteed.

EPA Plans to Issue Rules for Fracking Wastewater

EPA Plans to Issue Rules for Fracking Wastewater: Scientific American.

 

Image: NETL.gov

The EPA took another step toward tightening oversight of hydraulic fracturing today, announcing it would initiate a process to set national rules for treating wastewater discharged from gas drilling operations.

Until now, the agency has largely left it to states to police wastewater discharges. Some have allowed drillers to pump waste through sewage treatment plants that aren’t equipped to remove many of the contaminants, leading to pollution in some rivers and to problems at drinking water facilities.

Cynthia Dougherty, EPA’s director of ground water and drinking water, told a Senate panel today that the agency has an important role to play in bolstering state standards.

“I wouldn’t say they’re inadequate,” she said of states’ regulations, “but they could use the help.”

When drillers frack a gas well, they inject thousands of gallons of chemicals, some of which are highly toxic even at low concentrations. When the fluid comes back up, it carries extremely salty water that can contain heavy metals and radioactive elements.

In Western states, most drilling wastewater is injected deep underground for permanent storage. There are fewer injection wells in the East, however, so much of the waste from drilling in the Marcellus Shale? was initially discharged into surface waters.

The EPA has the authority to issue permits for such discharges, but current rules allow shale gas drillers to pass their waste through public sewage plants even if those plants are not equipped to remove pollutants. (There are currently no rules covering wastewater from coalbed methane drilling, a type of gas production that drills into coal seams, so those wastes can be discharged without treatment.)

For years, Pennsylvania allowed growing volumes of wastewater to flow into the state’s rivers. As ProPublica reported two years ago, the water’s high salt and mineral content was believed to have elevated pollutant levels in some streams. It also may have clogged industrial equipment, killed fish and caused contamination in drinking water.

In March, the EPA sent a letter to environmental officials in Pennsylvania expressing alarm at high pollutant levels in the wastewater that was being discharged into the state’s waterways. The agency urged the state to increase monitoring. The next month, the state asked drillers to stop discharging waste unless it was properly treated. By June, state officials said that no waste was being discharged without full treatment.

In an email to ProPublica, the EPA said that concerns about releases in Pennsylvania and “other information” led the agency to initiate the process to set new national rules. The agency said about 22 billion gallons of wastewater from coalbed methane drilling go into surface waters across the country each year. The EPA does not have data on how much shale gas wastewater is being discharged nationwide.

“This is just a really good opportunity to be able to track the amount and the content of the waste at these wells,” said Jason Pitt, a spokesman for the Sierra Club. “You really can’t treat these chemicals as they come up without really knowing what’s in them.”

The Independent Petroleum Association of America issued a statement today saying it would work with the EPA to develop new standards and noted that drillers are increasingly cleaning and reusing their wastewater. Officials in Pennsylvania and at the EPA have said that increased recycling has been an important factor in reducing wastewater discharges.

The EPA said it would propose wastewater rules for coalbed methane drilling in 2013. Similar rules covering shale gas will come a year later, after the agency gathers more data on discharges.

The plan is one of several recent moves to increase federal oversight of fracking. Earlier this year, the EPA proposed rules that would limit air emissions from fracking operations. The Interior Department?, which regulates drilling on federal lands, has said it will issue rules covering fracking within the month.

 

From ProPublica.org (find the original story here); reprinted with permission.

 

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  1. 1. JamesDavis 04:28 PM 10/21/11
    All of this drilling from wells and mines that is causing the waste water pollution should be shut down and not allowed to continue and no new permits issued until the EPA has these rules in place. It doesn’t make sense to wait a hundred years before regulating these dangerous polluting companies. Them dragging their heels as long as they have have cost many lives and ego systems. A job is not worth that many human and animal lives or endangering human health. They can wait until the EPA has these rules in place and when these companies disregard these rules, like they do in West Virginia, there should be at least a $50 to $100 million dollar fine or every rule they break or disreguard. I bet they will follow the rules then.

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  2. 2. David Russell in reply to JamesDavis 10:56 PM 10/21/11
    The EPA will be extinct shortly. The current congress has made it a mission to destroy the EPA and any other regulatory commission in place and because they hold the purse strings it will happen either overtly or covertly by simply not funding it. Meanwhile Republicans shed crocodile tears over the long overdue reduction of NASA which might actually cause jobs and allow for new and creative manufacturing in both vacuum and microgravity environments not to mention a possible venture in sharing space with the public.

    A lot of that will depend on us getting off our butts and start to use Carbon for more than burning and that included CH4. Two Nobel prizes were awarded for graphene and now quasi-crystals have taken another one. What else is happening but very under the radar is the growth of nanotubes, diamond seeding (creating 2K diamonds from small seeds in high pressure carbon rich atmospheres) and the use of carbon composites as both metallic type materials and ceramics that are more malleable and yet harder than steel, titanium etc.

    There was an article in Dec 2010 describing the creation of H2 and O2 at rates of 3000 times the input and in a just in time type of production based on knowledge that was presented in 1993. What was new is that the process is on demand, prolific and sustainable. The upside is that both products burn and oxidizing H2 creates water as the waste product.

    Artificial leaves are being developed using Si which is interesting but again Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Iron and Sulfur are abundant, cheap and could create fuels that burn clean, materials that are lighter, conductive, semi-conductive and non-conductive with the current materials science we have developed using nano tubes and graphine.

    Will this get funded? Probably not because the political system is bought and paid for by big oil, pharmaceuticals, Wall Street and not by the people that are doing this research. There was some very interesting science being done by MIT where viruses were being custom tipped to create all kind of materials that had the above qualities and the only known use I have heard of to date was the military using them for batteries.

    We have real science that is in the works and in some cases mature but will the EPA and other regulatory sectors will be starved to allow the crap to continue.
    So excuse my pessimism, but I am trying to save enough quarters to buy a congressman.

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  3. 3. JamesDavis in reply to David Russell 08:35 AM 10/22/11
    I know, David; it is a shame that we have all this science and the republicans are killing it all. You forgot to mention the nuclear auto that GM killed…GM is controlled by the republicans. That car could get over 300,000 miles on 8 grams of thorium. 100 or a 1,000 grams of thorium could power your house or business, probably, forever.

    There is great hopes for graphine batteries, but again it is being underfunded by the republicans.

    I have a whole jar of quarters if you want them.

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  4. 4. hallmen0601 09:52 AM 10/22/11
    Maybe, just maybe we should stop relying on the federal government to fix locally fixable problems and elect civil SERVANTS who will actually do their jobs for the pay they receive. Companies need to do the same and are much more easily controlled and FORCED to do business correctly, morally, ethically and monetarily feasible. The EPA is in way over their heads and in need of being controlled to enforce rules and gers already in place. They are not here to take over price fixing and negotiating FOR unions so the Federal Government may covertly rule through back-door politics and smile while stealing your empowerment that can and will develop the new technologies for peace and prosperity belonging to the many, not the few legal thieves in corporate dominance and political back-door payoffs scandals.

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  5. 5. innovation 02:43 PM 10/23/11
    There are several problems with your line of reasoning. First, these shale fields extend over the area of several states. In order to compete with one another, states will face significant pressure to lower environmental standards. Second, the pollution caused by this practice, if allowed to continue in its current form, will continue to cross state lines as it contaminates entire river systems and watersheds. Finally, these fields, and the resources they contain, are arguably matters of national security as the represent large portion of our current reserves. Given these arguments alone, we’re faced with issues that are clearly in the federal domain.

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  6. 6. eco-steve 05:29 PM 10/23/11
    America has a big problem. Republicans refuse to acknowledge the environmental, and especially climatic damage done by US industries. They are just plain lazy and egoistical, expecting that God will take the necessary measures in their place. God only helps those that helps themselves, not those that help themselves to other people’s ressources…. It may well result in UN embargos on american exports….The world will not clear up the mess in their place!

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  7. 7. HowleyGreen 09:01 PM 10/23/11
    What about requiring all U.S. Senators and Congressmen to pass a basic, high-school level science exam before they can take their oath of office. They can pick their science: biology, chemistry, physics, geology. Doesn’t really matter. We don’t need them all to be scientists. Just familiar with the scientific method.

    John Howley
    http://www.HowleyGreenEnergy.com

Crop scientists now fret about heat not just water

NewsDaily: Crop scientists now fret about heat not just water.

By Christine StebbinsPosted 2011/10/24 at 10:49 am EDT

CHICAGO, Oct. 24, 2011 (Reuters) — Crop scientists in the United States, the world’s largest food exporter, are pondering an odd question: could the danger of global warming really be the heat?

Haze from forest fires engulfs La Paz city, August 23, 2010. REUTERS/David Mercado

For years, as scientists have assembled data on climate change and pointed with concern at melting glaciers and other visible changes in the life-giving water cycle, the impact on seasonal rains and irrigation has worried crop watchers most.

What would breadbaskets like the U.S. Midwest, the Central Asian steppes, the north China Plain or Argentine and Brazilian crop lands be like without normal rains or water tables?

Those were seen as longer-term issues of climate change.

But scientists now wonder if a more immediate issue is an unusual rise in day-time and, especially, night-time summer temperatures being seen in crop belts around the world.

Interviews with crop researchers at American universities paint the same picture: high temperatures have already shrunken output of many crops and vegetables.

“We don’t grow tomatoes in the deep South in the summer. Pollination fails,” said Ken Boote, a crop scientist with the University of Florida.

The same goes for snap beans which can no longer be grown in Florida during the summer, he added.

“As temperatures rise we are going to have trouble maintaining the yields of crops that we already have,” said Gerald Nelson, an economist with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) who is leading a global project initially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to identify new crop varieties adapted to climate change.

“When I go around the world, people are much less skeptical, much more concerned about climate change,” said David Lobell, a Stanford University agricultural scientist.

Lobell was one of three authors of a much-discussed 2011 climate study of world corn, wheat, soybean and rice yields over the last three decades (1980-2008). It concluded that heat, not rainfall, was affecting yields the most.

“The magnitude of recent temperature trends is larger than those for precipitation in most situations,” the study said.

“We took a pretty conservative approach and still found sizable impacts. They certainly are happening already and not just something that will or might happen in the future,” Lobell told Reuters in an interview.

CONCERNS GROWING

Scientists at an annual meeting of U.S. agronomists last week in San Antonio said the focus was climate change.

“Its impact on agriculture systems, impacts on crops, mitigation strategies with soil management — a whole range of questions was being asked about climate change,” said Jerry Hatfield, Laboratory Director at the National Soil Tilth Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

“The biggest thing is high night-time temperatures have a negative impact on yield,” Hatfield added, noting that the heat affects evaporation and the life process of the crops.

“One of the consequences of rising temperatures … is to compress the life cycle of that plant. The other key consequence is that when the atmosphere gets warmer the atmospheric demand for water increases,” Hatfield said.

“These are simple things that can occur and have tremendous consequences on our ability to produce a stable supply of food or feed or fiber,” he said.

Boote at the University of Florida found that rice and sorghum plants failed to produce grain, something he calls “pollen viability,” when the average 24-hour temperature is 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius). That equates to highs of 104 F during the day and 86 F at night, he said.

The global seed industry has set a high bar to boost crop yields by 2050 to feed a hungry world. Scientists said that the impact of heat on plant growth needs more focus and study.

“If you look at a lot of crop insurance claims, farmers say it is the lack of water that caused the plant to die,” said Wolfram Schlenker, assistant professor at Columbia University.

“But I think it’s basically different sides of the same coin because the water requirement of the plant increases tremendously if it’s hot,” he said.

“The private sector understands the threats coming from climate change and have significant research programs in regards to drought tolerance. They focus less on higher temperatures, but that’s a tougher challenge,” Nelson said.

“We are responding with a number of initatives…the primary one is focusing on drought tolerance,” said John Soper, vice president in charge of global seed development for DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred, a top U.S. seed producer.

Pioneer launched a conventionally bred drought-tolerant corn hybrid seed in the western U.S. Corn Belt this spring, selected for its yield advantage over other varieties.

“We have some early results in from Texas that show that is exactly how they are behaving. They currently have a 6 percent advantage over normal products in those drought zones,” Soper said.

Roy Steiner, deputy director for agricultural development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said the foundation is focused on current agricultural effects of climate change.

“It’s amazing that there are still people who think that it’s not changing. Everywhere we go we’re seeing greater variability, the rains are changing and the timing of the rains is creating a lot more vulnerability,” Steiner said.

“Agriculture is one of those things that needs long-term planning, and we are very short-cycled thinking,” he said. “There are going to be some real shocks to the system. Climate is the biggest challenge. Demand is not going away.”

Significant ozone hole remains over Antarctica

Significant ozone hole remains over Antarctica.

Ozone levels in the atmosphere above the South Pole dropped to a seasonal low of 102 Dobson Units Oct. 9, tied for the 10th lowest in the 26-year record. The ozone layer helps protect the planet's surface from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Every year, an ozone hole forms above the Antarctic for several weeks, because of environmental conditions and the presence of ozone-depleting chemicals. (Credit: NOAA)

ScienceDaily (Oct. 20, 2011) — The Antarctic ozone hole, which yawns wide every Southern Hemisphere spring, reached its annual peak on September 12, stretching 10.05 million square miles, the ninth largest on record. Above the South Pole, the ozone hole reached its deepest point of the season on October 9 when total ozone readings dropped to 102 Dobson units, tied for the 10th lowest in the 26-year record.

The ozone layer helps protect the planet’s surface from harmful ultraviolet radiation. NOAA and NASA use balloon-borne instruments, ground instruments, and satellites to monitor the annual South Pole ozone hole, global levels of ozone in the stratosphere, and the humanmade chemicals that contribute to ozone depletion.Watch movie online The Transporter Refueled (2015)

“The upper part of the atmosphere over the South Pole was colder than average this season and that cold air is one of the key ingredients for ozone destruction,” said James Butler, director of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division in Boulder, Colo. Other key ingredients are ozone-depleting chemicals that remain in the atmosphere and ice crystals on which ozone-depleting chemical reactions take place.

“Even though it was relatively large, the size of this year’s ozone hole was within the range we’d expect given the levels of manmade, ozone-depleting chemicals that continue to persist,” said Paul Newman, chief atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Levels of most ozone-depleting chemicals are slowly declining due to international action, but many have long lifetimes, remaining in the atmosphere for decades. Scientists around the world are looking for evidence that the ozone layer is beginning to heal, but this year’s data from Antarctica do not hint at a turnaround.

In August and September (spring in Antarctica), the sun begins rising again after several months of darkness. Circumpolar winds keep cold air trapped above the continent, and sunlight-sparked reactions involving ice clouds and humanmade chemicals begin eating away at the ozone. Most years, the conditions for ozone depletion ease by early December, and the seasonal hole closes.

Levels of most ozone-depleting chemicals in the atmosphere have been gradually declining since an international treaty to protect the ozone layer, the 1987 Montreal Protocol, was signed. That international treaty caused the phase out of ozone-depleting chemicals, then used widely in refrigeration, as solvents and in aerosol spray cans.

Global atmospheric models predict that stratospheric ozone could recover by the middle of this century, but the ozone hole in the Antarctic will likely persist one to two decades beyond that, according to the latest analysis by the World Meteorological Organization, the 2010 Ozone Assessment, with co-authors from NOAA and NASA.

Researchers do not expect a smooth, steady recovery of Antarctic ozone, because of natural ups and downs in temperatures and other factors that affect depletion, noted NOAA ESRL scientist Bryan Johnson. Johnson helped co-author a recent NOAA paper that concluded it could take another decade to begin discerning changes in the rates of ozone depletion.

Johnson is part of the NOAA team tracks ozone depletion around the globe and at the South Pole with measurements made from the ground, in the atmosphere itself and by satellite. Johnson’s “ozonesonde” group has been using balloons to loft instruments 18 miles into the atmosphere for 26 years to collect detailed profiles of ozone levels from the surface up. The team also measures ozone with satellite and ground-based instruments.

This November marks the 50th anniversary of the start of total ozone column measurements by the NOAA Dobson spectrophotometer instrument at South Pole station. Ground-based ozone column measurements started nearly two decades before the yearly Antarctic ozone hole began forming, therefore helping researchers to recognize this unusual change of the ozone layer.

NASA measures ozone in the stratosphere with the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) aboard the Aura satellite. OMI continues a NASA legacy of monitoring the ozone layer from space that dates back to 1972 and the launch of the Nimbus-4 satellite.


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Chronicling the Ecological Impact of C. Columbus

Chronicling the Ecological Impact of Columbus’ Journey | Magazine.

Columbus’ discovery of the New World unleashed centuries of geopolitical turmoil. But humans weren’t the only creatures whose fortunes were forever altered. Entire species of plants and animals either thrived or suffered as well. In the book 1493, author (and Wired contributor) Charles C. Mann traces the far-reaching biological consequences of Columbus’ journey across the ocean blue. “There is a Rube Goldberg aspect to this,” Mann says. “Things are connected in ways that you would never expect.” And just as with human societies, some organisms came out on top, while others were radically subjugated. Here are a few key flora and fauna and how they weathered the storm.

  1. PLANTAINS ENABLE FIRE ANTS. The African plantain is plagued by insects called scale. Back in Africa, however, predators help combat these scavengers. But when the fruit was brought to Hispaniola, it received no such aid. So the bugs proliferated—along with fire ants, which fed on the other insects’ sugary excrement. Both pests thrived until their unchecked appetites destroyed the local plantain crop.
  2. RUBBER CONQUERS ORCHIDS. For centuries, orchids thrived in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The damp terrain and omnipresent mist provided the perfect environment for the moisture-loving epiphytes. But when rubber trees from the Amazon rain forest were imported to southern China, their thirst for water dried out the soil. The once-plentiful morning fog began to disappear. Soon the orchids started to as well.
  3. EARTHWORMS STARVE TREES AND POWER UP MAIZE. Before being brought to the US, the common earthworm aided farmers in England by humbly tilling their soil. But once transplanted, the wrigglers’ tu nneling disrupted the nutrient-absorbing fungi on the roots of sugar maples, causing the trees’ decline. And by aerating the newly cleared land, the worm allowed crops like maize to grow year-round.
  4. POTATOES BATTLE NEW FOE. In its Andean motherland, the resilient potato grew in all shapes and sizes. But as the mighty tuber spread across the globe, its varieties dwindled to a monoculture—an easy target for opponents in adopted lands. None was quite so vicious as the Colorado potato beetle. Carried to North America in the manes of traveling horses, the bug became a permanent scourge to the plant in regions around the world.

Seaweed Kills Corals by Touch

Seaweed With a Deadly Touch – ScienceNOW.

 

Green plague. In Fiji, rarely fished reefs (top) abound with colorful corals, but seaweeds start their invasions in exploited locales (bottom)

“Attack of the killer seaweed” may sound like a cheesy horror flick, but for many coral species, murderous multicellular algae have become real-life villains. A new study of reefs in the South Pacific suggests that some algae can poison coral on contact. This chemical warfare may be increasing the pressure on struggling reef communities worldwide, researchers say.

Along the reefs dotting Fiji, overfishing has pitted corals against algae in a battle royale. On swaths of coastline where fishing is restricted, corals such as the tall and branching Acropora millepora rule, says study co-author Mark Hay, a marine ecologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

But where Fijians spear lots of herbivores such as bird-beaked parrotfish, few fish remain to prune back the region’s seaweeds, a blanket term for many types of big algae. These algae then creep in, extending their tendrils over close to 60% of the ocean bottom, Hay estimates, and turning waters a sludgy green. Such “seaweed-covered parking lots” aren’t unique to Fiji, either, he says.

Recent studies have hinted that this ocean greenery may be carrying out a subtle chemical war on sensitive reefs. To investigate this covert struggle, Hay and colleagues strung eight different species of Fijian seaweed across growing corals, including A. millepora colonies. True to the researchers’ suspicions, many of these algal species seemed to wield a poison touch. In less than 2 weeks, the test coral often began to discolor and even die where it rubbed against the seaweeds, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Faux seaweeds made of plastic had no such effect.

Hay and colleagues then mashed up several of these seaweeds to identify their killer concoction. The key ingredient turned out to be chemicals called terpenes, which some algae use to sicken fish that feed on them. Terpene extracts alone killed off corals, the researchers found. But some algae seemed to be more liberal with their toxins than others, Hay notes. When one particularly nasty specimen called turtle weed (Chlorodesmis fastigiata) rubs against A. millepora, for instance, wide bands of dying tissue girdle the coral.

This seaweed is so nasty, in fact, that most marine herbivores avoid it on sight—except for one species of rabbitfish that quivers with excitement every time it spots this not-so-common algae. That interaction highlights the importance of prudent fishing practices, he adds. If Fijians developed a particular taste for that one rabbitfish, for instance, turtle weed might begin to grow out of control, launching its bid for world, or at least South Pacific, domination. Hay would like to work with Fijians to identify and protect the herbivores most responsible for trimming back deadly seaweeds, giving sensitive corals a fighting chance.

“It’s certainly a novel finding,” says John Bruno, a marine ecologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. But not all seaweeds are poisonous, he adds. Many scientists argue that algae—toxins or no—rarely kill off adult corals en masse. Instead, these opportunistic organisms may simply be capitalizing on the slow death of the invertebrates due to pollution, climate change, or other factors. He adds, however, that the seaweeds Hay and colleagues studied would likely be exceptionally toxic to young, coin-sized corals that have yet to grow big and hale.

Terpenes from seaweed are almost certainly not the only reason for the mysterious global decline of corals, says Jennifer Smith, a marine ecologist at the University of California, San Diego. Most scientists rank overfishing, pollution, and warming oceans among the biggest overall contributors. But corals may suffer from other nasty tricks played by seaweed. In a 2006 study, Smith and colleagues sleuthed out that some California algae could take the epidemic route to domination. In the lab, these seaweeds leak huge quantities of dissolved carbon that then fuels the spread of potentially infectious microbes on coral surfaces. “You can imagine that [algae and corals] have evolved over the years different mechanisms for battling each other and fighting these turf wars,” Smith says.