GeoLog

General Assembly

GeoTalk: “Grown-ups are not focusing on the plastic problem, not as much as I want them to”

GeoTalk: “Grown-ups are not focusing on the plastic problem, not as much as I want them to”

Lucie Parsons, a ten-year old girl from the small village of Walkington, in England, is on a personal mission to save the environment from plastic pollution. After seeing on the BBC Blue Planet II documentary how litter in the ocean is damaging ecosystems, she decided to take action. Now she gives talks and is co-researcher in her mother’s PhD on climate change and the youth voice. Lucie has come to the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna with her mother, Katie Parsons, to tell scientists that children want to be involved in addressing environmental issues.

Unless the flow of plastics and industrial pollution into the world’s oceans is reduced, marine life will be poisoned by them for many centuries to come.

David Attenborough, The Blue Planet II: Episode 4, BBC One

 

How did you learn about the impact of plastic pollution in the oceans and marine life?

L: Through Blue Planet. I saw an episode about a whale and her calf, and how the contamination poisoned the whale’s milk. When I saw that I got really, really upset so I wrote a poster about it. Then I asked my mummy and daddy to photocopy it so that I might be able to put it around the village. I read and watched documentaries to learn more, and I found out that it is a big problem. I wanted to do something about it.

So you started giving talks… 

L: Katy Duke, the head of the [aquarium] Deep in Hull, got in touch with daddy because she saw my poster.

K: I tweeted Lucie’s poster to show what she had done after she was so moved by the documentary. The CEO of the Deep saw that and contacted us to ask if Lucie would like to give the opening talk at the European Union of Aquarium Curators Conference, which the Deep were due to host.

What do you tell people in your talks?

L: I have done two conferences and talks, also at schools. I have also been interviewed for the radio and profiled by the Earth Day Network. In my talks I basically tell people how bad the problem is, what it is doing to the animals and what they can do to help.

Here at the EGU General Assembly people were really touched by your presentation. Do you think your talks make people take action? 

K: Gilles Doignon, from the European Commission for Environment, was really moved about what Lucie had said at the Deep. He promised her that he would get the aquariums to sign up to a plastic pledge.

L: And he managed to do it.

K: He said that, thanks to Lucie, thousands of turtles will be saved. This is where she got her inspiration from to carry on. If she can talk and say the things she has done, even if just one or two people do something about it, that creates a knock-on effect.

Why do you think children should be involved in the fight against climate change?

L: Children are the next generation; when they get older they will take over the work grown-ups have done. So they should start now. Children can do the same things as grown-ups, there is not really a difference with helping, you need to get as many people to help as you can get.

K: Getting schools and individual children involved in science will make it real and manageable, part of life. Otherwise much science ends up in dusty journals. We need people to live it and understand it.

Are grown-ups doing enough?

L: I think they should be doing a tiny bit more. They are not really focusing on the problem, not as much as I want them to.

You have talked to politicians before, why do you think it is important to talk to scientists also?

K: When Lucie was affected by Blue Planet she luckily had me and her dad to help her. But other children will have their passion stopped unless they have an adult who supports them. Some schools don’t do environmental education, it is not within many curriculums, and some parents might not carry on informing their children.

There is amazing science going on and some scientists who communicate get through to the children. There is a youth rising at the moment. Children are interested, they want to know and they want to be involved. But, how? Scientists have to continue feeding the information to the children and involve them in citizen science so they will carry on with that passion.

What can people do to help?

L: Inform other people, go on litter picks and map the areas where they found the litter to help prevent more litter. With my friends and my family, we have cleaned three areas so far in my village and we are mapping them to feed in the data about where we found the litter. Also, stop using single-use plastics.

Is there any other documentary, book or podcast you would recommend to people who want to learn about plastic pollution in the oceans?

L: Drowning in Plastic. We have watched about three quarters of that.

K: You are enjoying that, aren’t you?

L: Yes… Well, I wouldn’t say we are enjoying it.

Interview by Maria Rubal Thomsen, EGU Press Assistant

First evidence of microplastics on mountain glaciers

First evidence of microplastics on mountain glaciers

We tend to think of glaciers as spotless pristine settings. But “if plastic is everywhere, why not on the surface of glaciers?” This occurred to Roberto Sergio Azzoni, a professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Milan in Italy, who decided to find the answer to this question for himself. At the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna, Azzoni and his team presented the first evidence ever of microplastic contamination on alpine glaciers.

The study was conducted on Forni Glacier, one of the largest valley glaciers in the Italian Alps. The beautiful ice sculpted valley, home to World War I historical sites and a  popular hiking route, attracts hundreds of trekkers and alpinists every year. Assuming on-site human activity could be a source of pollution, the team decided to collect the first sediment samples there.

It turns out they were right: the results showed that the samples contained on average about 75 particles of microplastic per kilogram of sediment. This level of contamination is comparable to what is observed in marine and coastal areas in Europe. Extrapolation of this data suggests that there may be between 131 and 162 million plastic particles present on the surface of Forni Glacier, fibers and fragments combined.

The precise origin of the particles is hard to define. Likely, some of the pollution had been carried by air masses from densely urbanized areas surrounding the Alps. However, researchers think most of the plastic has a local origin, since the most common polymer found in the samples was polyester, a component used in technical clothing and equipment for hikers.

For that very reason, in order to avoid contaminating the supraglacial sediment samples during the field campaign, research participants wore only 100% cotton clothes and wooden clogs, a challenging outfit for hiking a glacier.

In order to avoid contaminating the supraglacial sediment samples researchers had to wear 100% cotton clothes and wooden clogs. (Credit: Roberto Sergio Azzoni)

Now, the team plans a follow-up study that will classify the plastic particles more precisely and help determine the origin of the pollutants.

This current study also opens the door to new research on how microplastic contaminants on the surface of alpine glaciers disperse when the ice melts. Although Forni Glacier does not feed drinking water sources down valley, in other locations fibers and fragments could enter the trophic chain and impact ecosystems.

Azzoni notes that hopefully this preliminary study will increase public interest on the topic and raise awareness of the fragility of glaciers. Human activity is producing long-lasting changes to the Earth’s surface that will affect many generations to come, now we can confirm that mountain glaciers are not an exception.

By Maria Rubal Thomsen, EGU Press Assistant

At the Assembly 2019: Friday highlights

At the Assembly 2019: Friday highlights

The conference is coming to a close and there’s still an abundance of great sessions to attend! Here’s our guide to getting the most out of the conference on its final day. Boost this information with features from EGU Today, the daily newsletter of the General Assembly – download it here.

Union-wide sessions

The final day of the conference kicks off with the last two Union sessions. The first session, Mountain Building, Volcanism, Climate and Biodiversity in the Andes: 250 years after Alexander von Humboldt (US2: 08:30–12:15 in Room E1), pays tribute to the 250th anniversary of the birth of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the intrepid explorer of the Andes and other regions in the world, and the most famous scientist of his time. This symposium will recognise Alexander von Humboldt’s legacy by reviewing the state-of-the-art studies of the coupled lithosphere – atmosphere – hydrosphere – biosphere system with a focus on the Andean mountain belt.

The second and last Union session will focus on Past and future tipping points and large climate transitions in Earth history (US3: 16:15–18:00 in Room E1), The aim of the session is to point out the most recent results concerning how a complex system as the climate of the Earth has undergone many tipping points and what is the specificity of the future climate changes. You can follow both sessions on twitter #EGU19US if you’re not attending, tune in with the conference live stream.

Medal lectures

Be sure to also attend the last two medal lectures of the assembly:

Ilya Usoskin giving the 2018 Julius Bartels Medal Lecture (Credit: EGU/Foto Pfluegl)

Short courses

The last leg of short courses offers insight into new technologies, tips for publishing your work, and advice on how to develop your career and engage with the public. Here are a few of the short courses you can check out today:

Scientific sessions

The four final inter- and transdisciplinary events also take place today, covering all sorts of interesting topics, from climate sciences to geodiversity and geoheritage. Here are the last cross-disciplinary events:

It’s your last chance to make the most of the networking opportunities at the General Assembly, so get on down to the poster halls and strike up a conversation. If you’re in the queue for coffee, find out what the person ahead is investigating – you never know when you might start building the next exciting collaboration! Here are some of today’s scientific highlights:

Today we also announce the results of the EGU Photo Competition! Keep an eye on EGU’s blog and social media pages to find out who the winners are.

What have you thought of the Assembly this week? Let us know at www.egu2019.eu/feedback and help make EGU 2019 even better.

We hope you’ve had a wonderful week and look forward to seeing you in 2019! Join us on this adventure in Vienna next year, 3–8 May 2020.

Groundwater springs harbour hidden viruses

Groundwater springs harbour hidden viruses

In many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, groundwater springs are a vital, precious source of water. They are also a reservoir of disease. Research presented at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna reveals that groundwater reservoirs in Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda contain diverse communities of viruses – including those that present a risk to human health.

The work, carried out by IHE Delft in the Netherlands and a number of local universities, is the first to find such extensive virus communities in groundwater. Amongst the 25 virus families found were pox and herpes viruses, responsible for a number of skin infections. Papillomavirus, which causes several types of cancer, was also present in the water. And this is just a fraction of what’s likely to be out there – other methods are likely to reveal many more, scientists involved with the new research say.

According to the new findings, the reason for this plethora of pathogens is poor sanitation in areas where freshwater percolates down from the surface and recharges the groundwater supply. Here, the viruses persist for several years before being discharged at the surface.

The virus communities were identified by extracting DNA from the groundwater. This graphic shows how they enter the groundwater and the local population. Credit: IHE Delft

Better sanitation and safe water supplies are needed to address the issue, but there aren’t always enough resources to tackle both. In areas like Kampala (Uganda) as much as 60% of the population relies on groundwater as a source of water. Simply switching to another source is not an option – there are none available.

In Accra (Ghana) and Kampala – groundwater systems are quite confined, covering an area that closely matches the distribution of the community. This means you can use a local approach to groundwater management, and develop something that works well for the communities living there.

Hydrogeolologist Jan Willem Foppen and his team take time to learn from the community, identifying pathways for the future together – an approach called transition management. Each pathway leads to small interventions, that the team can learn from. “When you work with a community and co-create knowledge, you get beautiful and unexpected results,” says Foppen.

For Foppen, the enthusiasm of the local population towards this approach is one of the most rewarding parts of the job: “we see this being replicated in other communities in Ghana and in Kampala, that is the biggest compliment we can get.”

This is still much to uncover about these virus communities. For example, scientists don’t yet know whether the viruses are dead or alive. 70% of the DNA found in the springs was unidentifiable. What’s more there is a whole separate group of viruses – RNA viruses – that haven’t even been studied yet.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Press Assistant