Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution

Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution
The largest of these plastic bits are 5 millimeters long, roughly the size of a kernel of corn. (File/Shutterstock)
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Updated 24 February 2020

Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution

Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution
  • Some of the plastic found in the sea is from car tire wear washed off the road
  • Those studying the phenomenon are worried about the health of creatures living in the ocean

PORTLAND, Ore: Tiny bits of broken-down plastic smaller than a fraction of a grain of rice are turning up everywhere in oceans, from the water to the guts of fish and the faeces of sea otters and giant killer whales.
Yet little is known about the effects of these “microplastics” — onsea creatures or humans.
“It’s such a huge endeavor to know how bad it is,” said Shawn Larson, curator of conservation research at the Seattle Aquarium. “We’re just starting to get a finger on the pulse.”
This week, a group of five-dozen microplastics researchers from major universities, government agencies, tribes, aquariums, environmental groups and even water sanitation districts across the US West is gathering in Bremerton, Washington, to tackle the issue. The goal is to create a mathematical risk assessment for microplastic pollution in the region similar to predictions used to game out responses to major natural disasters such as earthquakes.
The largest of these plastic bits are 5 millimeters long, roughly the size of a kernel of corn, and many are much smallerand invisible to the naked eye.
They enter the environment in many ways. Some slough off of car tires and wash into streams — and eventually the ocean — during rainstorms. Others detach from fleeces and spandex clothing in washing machines and are mixed in with the soiled water that drains from the machine. Some come from abandoned fishing gear, and still more are the result of the eventual breakdown of the millions of straws, cups, water bottles, plastic bags and other single-use plastics thrown out each day.
Research into their potential impact on everything from tiny single-celled organisms to larger mammals like sea otters is just getting underway.




Because plastic is made from fossil fuels and contains hydrocarbons, it attracts and absorbs other pollutants in the water, such as PCBs and pesticides. (File/Shutterstock)


“This is an alarm bell that’s going to ring loud and strong,” said Stacey Harper, an associate professor at Oregon State University who helped organize the conference. “We’re first going to prioritize who it is that we’re concerned about protecting: what organisms, what endangered species, what regions. And that will help us hone in ... and determine the data we need to do a risk assessment.”
A study published last year by Portland State University found an average of 11 micro-plastic pieces per oyster and nine per razor clam in the samples taken from the Oregon coast. Nearly all were from microfibers from fleece or other synthetic clothing or from abandoned fishing gear, said Elize Granek, study co-author.
Scientists at the San Francisco Estuary Institute found significant amounts of microplastic washing into the San Francisco Bay from storm runoff over a three-year sampling period that ended last year. Researchers believe the black, rubbery bits no bigger than a grain of sand are likely from car tires, said Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist at the institute. They will present their findings at the conference.
Those studying the phenomenon are worried about the health of creatures living in the ocean — but also, possibly, the health of humans.
Some of the concern stems from an unusual twist unique to plastic pollution. Because plastic is made from fossil fuels and contains hydrocarbons, it attracts and absorbs other pollutants in the water, such as PCBs and pesticides, said Andrew Mason, the Pacific Northwest regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program.
“There’s a lot of research that still needs to be done, but these plastics have the ability to mine harmful chemicals that are in the environment. They can accumulate them,” said Mason. “Everything, as it goes up toward the top, it just gets more and more and the umbrella gets wider. And who sits at the top of the food chain? We do. That’s why these researchers are coming together, because this is a growing problem, and we need to understand those effects.”
Researchers say bans on plastic bags, Styrofoam carry-out containers and single-use items like straws and plastic utensils will help when it comes to the tiniest plastic pollution. Some jurisdictions have also recently begun taking a closer look at the smaller plastic bits that have the scientific community so concerned.
California lawmakers in 2018 passed legislation that will ultimately require the state to adopt a method for testing for microplastics in drinking water and to perform that testing for four years, with the results reported to the public. The first key deadline for the law — simply defining what qualifies as a micro-plastic — is July 1.
And federal lawmakers, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, last week introduced bipartisan legislation to establish a pilot research program at the US Environmental Protection Agency to study how to curb the “crisis” of microplastic pollution.
Larson, the conservationist at the Seattle Aquarium, said a year of studies at her institution found 200 to 300 microfibers in each 100-liter sample of seawater the aquarium sucks in from the Puget Sound for its exhibits. Larson, who is chairing a session at Wednesday’s consortium, said those results are alarming.
“It’s being able to take that information and turn it into policy and say, ‘Hey, 50 years ago we put everything in paper bags and wax and glass bottles. Why can’t we do that again?’” she said.


American, Russians dock at ISS in flight honoring first man in space

American, Russians dock at ISS in flight honoring first man in space
Updated 10 April 2021

American, Russians dock at ISS in flight honoring first man in space

American, Russians dock at ISS in flight honoring first man in space
  • Launch timed with 60th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's historic flight
  • It was also the 40th anniversary of the first launch of NASA’s space shuttle

MOSCOW: A trio of Russian and American space travelers launched successfully and reached the International Space Station on Friday.
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov blasted off as scheduled at 12:42 p.m. (0742 GMT, 3:42 a.m. EDT) aboard the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft from the Russia-leased Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan.
They docked at the station after a two-orbit journey that lasted just over three hours.
It is the second space mission for Vande Hei and the third for Novitskiy, while Dubrov is on his first mission.
The launch came three days before the 60th anniversary of the first human flight to space by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and the 40th anniversary of the first launch of NASA’s space shuttle.
“When we started, we were competing with each other and that was one of the reasons we were so successful at the beginning of human space flight,” Vande Hei said at a pre-flight news conference Thursday. “And as time went on, we realized that by working together we can achieve even more. And of course, that’s continuing to this day and I hope that it will continue into the future.”
The three will work on hundreds of experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science.
On the International Space Station, they are joining NASA’s Kate Rubins, Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, Russians Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi.
Rubins, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov arrived in a Soyuz ship in October; Hopkins, Glover, Walker and Noguchi — the crew of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience — joined them in November.


NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter dropped on Mars’ surface ahead of flight

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter dropped on Mars’ surface ahead of flight
Updated 04 April 2021

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter dropped on Mars’ surface ahead of flight

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter dropped on Mars’ surface ahead of flight
  • The ultra-light aircraft had been fixed to the belly of the Perseverance rover, which touched down on the Red Planet on February 18

WASHINGTON: NASA’s Ingenuity mini-helicopter has been dropped on the surface of Mars in preparation for its first flight, the US space agency said.
The ultra-light aircraft had been fixed to the belly of the Perseverance rover, which touched down on the Red Planet on February 18.
“MarsHelicopter touchdown confirmed!” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tweeted Saturday.
“Its 293 million mile (471 million kilometer) journey aboard @NASAPersevere ended with the final drop of 4 inches (10 centimeter) from the rover’s belly to the surface of Mars today. Next milestone? Survive the night.”
A photograph accompanying the tweet showed Perseverance had driven clear of the helicopter and its “airfield” after dropping to the surface.
Ingenuity had been feeding off the Perseverance’s power system but will now have to use its own battery to run a vital heater to protect its unshielded electrical components from freezing and cracking during the bitter Martian night.
“This heater keeps the interior at about 45 degrees F (7 degrees Celsius) through the bitter cold of the Martian night, where temperatures can drop to as low as -130F (-90 degrees Celsius),” Bob Balaram, Mars Helicopter Project chief engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wrote in an update on Friday.
“That comfortably protects key components such as the battery and some of the sensitive electronics from harm at very cold temperatures.”
Over the next couple of days, the Ingenuity team will check that the helicopter’s solar panels are working properly and recharging its battery before testing its motors and sensors ahead of its first flight, Balaram said.
Ingenuity is expected to make its first flight attempt no earlier than April 11, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory tweeted.
Ingenuity will be attempting to fly in an atmosphere that is one percent the density of Earth’s, which makes achieving lift harder — but will be assisted by gravity that is one-third of our planet’s.
The first flight will involve climbing at a rate of about three feet (one meter) per second to a height of 10 feet (three meters), hovering there for 30 seconds, then descending back to the surface.
Ingenuity will be taking high-resolution photography as it flies.
Up to five flights of gradual difficulty are planned over the month.
The 1.8-kilogram rotorcraft cost NASA around $85 million to develop and is considered a proof of concept that could revolutionize space exploration.
Future aircraft could cover ground much quicker than rovers, and explore more rugged terrain.


A digital library offers Saudis affordable access to scholarly research

A digital library offers Saudis affordable access to scholarly research
Updated 22 March 2021

A digital library offers Saudis affordable access to scholarly research

A digital library offers Saudis affordable access to scholarly research
  • Saudi students, researchers and professionals will soon benefit from a vast new digital library of academic literature
  • Zendy’s creator Kamran Kardan says his ed-tech start-up will help the MENA region develop knowledge-based economies

DUBAI: A Dubai-based edutech start-up has launched a digital library for researchers in Saudi Arabia — the first subscription-based library for scholarly literature of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Academic literature is usually hidden behind expensive paywalls or restricted to those who are affiliated with big organizations. Now Zendy, developed by Knowledge E, is offering users affordable access to scholarly works from around the world.

In step with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 development agenda and its efforts to foster a culture of research, innovation and entrepreneurship, Zendy will give students, professionals and hobbyists access to thousands of articles, e-books and scholarly resources.

Zendy will seek to streamline the often cumbersome process of accessing academic texts online. (AFP)

“Zendy is a massive online library available to every single individual in the region,” Kamran Kardan, Knowledge E founder and CEO, told Arab News.

“If you take a look at the current status of how you can access academic content, books, journals and literature related to that, it’s very cumbersome,” he said.

“You have to be a part of a larger institution, university or organization like the ministry of health, or a place where they can actually afford access to the content. And not all institutions can afford access to all the multiple publishers that are available out there.”

Zendy’s aim is to break down barriers to scholarly discovery by providing individuals with affordable access to the world’s latest research and literature — drawing inspiration from the evolution of music and television consumption.

“The whole idea stemmed from what’s happening to the entertainment and music industry, like Netflix and iTunes, and applying it to academic content, making it affordable,” Kardan said. “So, the whole idea was to open all of that content up and make it affordable, on a monthly subscription or an annual cost.”

ZENDYFACTS

  • Zendy first launched in Jordan in late 2019.
  • Digital library hosts over 120,000 publications.
  • Subscribers in the UAE, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

With a background in publishing at Oxford University Press in the UK, Kardan has made it his mission to promote open access and to help higher education institutions discover new research strategies through various business frameworks. He moved to Dubai 15 years ago to promote scholarly access among universities, businesses and consortiums across the region.

“When I moved in 2006, it was the start of a transition from the print world to electronic,” he said. “Libraries were predominantly shelves full of books and journals and, if you could imagine a researcher who was trying to find something, it was such an effort to go through all these different indexes that you have available.

“To actually find all the relevant information you were looking for was a task of its own.”

Kamran Kardan, Knowledge E founder and CEO. (Supplied)

In the years that followed, Kardan worked with consortiums in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to provide scholarly access on a national level. “Many universities did not have that much access during those days,” he said.

“I remember a university in Kuwait where I had one of the most complete collections of journals from one of the top publishers and going through that transition of moving everything to online — providing more digital libraries to the region was the story of those days.”

Beyond the evolution of digital infrastructure itself, publishing has also had to account for the slow pace of cultural change, with many people continuing to prefer books in paper format for all manner of reasons, including the simple aesthetic of touch and smell.

So far, most of Zendy’s content is only available in English, although some is offered in French and other languages, with the objective of linguistically diversifying further in the near future.

“The idea is to have a comprehensive online library at the fingertips of every single person,” Kardan said. “It is no longer an issue that you can’t afford it, no matter where you’re located, if you’re not part of a larger institution. We don’t target institutions, we target individuals.”

Zendy will seek to streamline the often cumbersome process of accessing academic texts online. (AFP)

After launching in Jordan in 2019, Zendy spread out to the UAE, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain and, from this month onward, it will be available in Saudi Arabia. The online library has since accumulated thousands of users across the Arab region, hosting over 120,000 publications including more than 30,000 journals and 30,000 e-books.

Zendy also allows users to save searches, export citations and navigate easily according to material type, subject, publication title, language and more.

“You can search, find the article, download the PDF and you can use it as many times as you want,” Kardan said.

“We would like to have more publishers, and this is something that is growing. We have three of the top five publishers in the world and you can imagine that, for publishers that have existing business models with organizations, it is difficult to shift and make everything accessible to all individuals.

“So, it’s also a great step for publishers and that’s why we want to break this barrier.”

To access content, users sign up for a free trial period before choosing between a monthly or annual subscription. Zendy’s business model is based on revenue sharing with publishers based on usage. And, true to Kardan’s ideals, some content will remain free to all.

“There is a portion of free content that will be available in open-access format around the world in a few months’ time,” he said. “So, individuals who are happy with free content can keep that. And then in order to have access to the more premium content, users will need to sign up to Zendy Plus, which is what is currently available.”

Zendy will seek to streamline the often cumbersome process of accessing academic texts online. (AFP)

Kardan hopes Zendy will have a big impact on the countries of the MENA region, playing a role in the creation of diversified, knowledge-based societies and economies. He is confident that providing easy access to information, open to all, is one way of achieving this goal.

“We are also involved in other ways of building that in terms of conducting workshops in academia and building capacity,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how small you are, you can still make a change. In whatever we do as a company, we try to make that change and impact and we think that Zendy is one of those that has the potential to have a global impact.”

Although in its early stages in Saudi Arabia, subscribers include entrepreneurs and healthcare professionals, such as doctors and nurses. Kardan’s goal is to scale up the platform into a global operation in order to allow easier access to content to many more people around the world.

There are also plans to include videos, book summaries and magazines down the line.

“It’s really to increase readership in all of those areas and to shift this literature world online,” he said. “For me, success is to eventually look back and see what impact I was able to have on the people and society around me.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


US charges Swiss ‘hacktivist’ for data theft and leaks

US charges Swiss ‘hacktivist’ for data theft and leaks
Updated 19 March 2021

US charges Swiss ‘hacktivist’ for data theft and leaks

US charges Swiss ‘hacktivist’ for data theft and leaks
  • Kottmann had described the most recent hack and leak of camera footage from customers of California security-camera provider Verkada as part of a “hacktivist” cause of exposing the dangers of mass surveillance
  • The indictment says Kottmann also hacked the Washington state Department of Transportation, an automobile manufacturer and a financial investment company

SEATTLE: The Justice Department has charged a Swiss hacker with computer intrusion and identity theft, just over a week after the hacker took credit for helping to break into the online systems of a US security-camera startup.
An indictment against 21-year-old Till Kottmann was brought Thursday by a grand jury in the Western District of Washington.
Federal prosecutors said Thursday that Kottmann, of Lucerne, Switzerland, was initially charged in September on a range of allegations dating back to 2019 involving stealing credentials and data and publishing source code and proprietary information from more than 100 entities on the web.
Kottmann had described the most recent hack and leak of camera footage from customers of California security-camera provider Verkada as part of a “hacktivist” cause of exposing the dangers of mass surveillance.
Acting US Attorney Tessa Gorman rejected those motives in a statement Thursday.
“These actions can increase vulnerabilities for everyone from large corporations to individual consumers,” Gorman wrote. “Wrapping oneself in an allegedly altruistic motive does not remove the criminal stench from such intrusion, theft, and fraud.”
Kottmann didn’t immediately return an online request for comment Thursday.
Swiss authorities said they had raided Kottmann’s home in Lucerne late last week at the request of US authorities.
The indictment ties a number of hacks to Kottmann over the past year, including one targeting an unnamed security device manufacturer based in the Seattle region and another affecting a maker of tactical equipment.
In several cases, prosecutors said Kottmann improperly used valid employee credentials to gain access to source code databases. The indictment says Kottmann also hacked the Washington state Department of Transportation, an automobile manufacturer and a financial investment company.
The indictment doesn’t mention last week’s high-profile hack of Verkada, which drew attention because it exposed live camera feeds and archived video footage from schools, jails, factories, gyms and corporate offices.
Kottmann, who uses they/them pronouns, told The Associated Press last week they belonged to a group nicknamed APT-69420 Arson Cats, a small collective of “primarily queer hackers, not backed by any nations or capital but instead backed by the desire for fun, being gay and a better world.”
Kottmann has previously attracted attention for leaking hacked material to expose security flaws, including from US chipmaker Intel last year.

 


NASA completes engine test firing of moon rocket on 2nd try

NASA completes engine test firing of moon rocket on 2nd try
Updated 19 March 2021

NASA completes engine test firing of moon rocket on 2nd try

NASA completes engine test firing of moon rocket on 2nd try
  • Test could pave way for sending of rocket segment to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center to prepare it for launch

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: NASA completed an engine test firing of its moon rocket Thursday, after the first attempt in January ended prematurely.
This time, the four main engines of the rocket’s core stage remained ignited for the full eight minutes. Applause broke out in the control room at Mississippi’s Stennis Space Flight Center once the engines shut down on the test stand.
NASA officials called it a major milestone in sending astronauts back to the moon, but declined to say when that might occur or even whether the first test flight without a crew would occur by year’s end as planned.
John Honeycutt, NASA’s program manager for the Space Launch System or SLS rocket, said everything seemed to go well in Thursday’s test firing. “The core stage ... got an A-plus today,” he told reporters.
During the first test, the engines fired for just a minute, automatically cut short by strict test limits that were relaxed for the redo. Valve issues also had to be resolved prior to Thursday’s countdown.
With this critical test finally finished — and assuming everything went well — NASA can now send the rocket segment to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center to prepare it for launch.
Noting they’re taking it one step at a time, officials declined to say whether this first SLS launch will occur by year’s end as had been planned or will bump into 2022. The SLS rocket will send an empty Orion capsule to the moon and back.
The four engines tested Thursday actually flew into orbit on NASA’s space shuttles and were upgraded for the more powerful SLS system. The orange core stage is reminiscent of the shuttle’s external fuel tank, which held the liquid hydrogen and oxygen that fed the main engines.
Boeing built the core stage, which stands 212 feet (65 meters.)
The Trump administration had pressed for a moon landing by astronauts by 2024, a deadline increasingly difficult if not impossible to achieve at this point. The current White House has yet to issue a revised timeline.
NASA Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk said the space agency is conducting an internal study to determine a schedule for the astronaut moon landings — “what we can optimally do” based on budgets. The review will take a few months, he noted.