Tag Archives: Canada

Fossil Friday: surprise teen Plesiosaurus found in ammonite mine in Alberta, Canada

Sometimes, even professional fossil-seekers can be surprised to find a fossil. That’s exactly what happened recently at the Enchanted Designs Ammonite Mine, south of Lethbridge, Canada, when workers (who mine for ammonite fossils) ran into a Plesiosaur fossil estimated to be around 75 million years old.

Image capture from a CTV coverage of the discovery.

This particular specimen was likely an adolescent at the time of its death judging from its size, local news outlets report.

Suddenly, Plesiosaurus

“The guys started scraping and noticed there were some vertebrae that appeared below the concretion line, and right away we knew we had a new fossil,” said Michael Shideler, manager of the Enchanted Designs Ammonite Mine.

Plesiosaurs were highly specialized marine dinosaurs. They had a small head on a very long neck, long tear-shaped bodies, a stumpy tail, and four wide flippers. They were pretty similar in shape to what you’d imagine the Loch Ness monster to be.

And just like with the Loch Ness monster, none of the workers at the mine expected to run into this fossil. The Enchanted Designs Ammonite Mine has been shut down during winter, so activity at the site is still picking up as the mining season is still fresh. One of the crews digging for ammonites there ran into a large and compact mass of material (a ‘concretion’) that stood out from the mine’s rock walls.

Based on the fossilized fragments recovered so far, the specimen was likely 7 meters (~23 ft) long when it died; almost half of that length is just neck. This would mean that the animal was still pretty young, likely an adolescent, when it met its end. Other plesiosaur specimens that we’ve recovered reach up to 14 m (46 ft) in length, with a similar neck-to-not-neck ratio.

What made the discovery particularly surprising is that marine reptile fossils are very rare in the Bearpaw Formation, which stretches through Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana, and into which the mine delves. Around 75 million years ago, when this formation was still on the surface, the area was the bottom of a shallow tropical sea. A large number of ammonites, fish and marine reptiles lived here, which is why the formation is such a rich source of fossils. However, this is the first time a specimen of this kind has been recovered from the mine.

The plesiosaur and other undetermined fossils have been collected and taken to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, where they will be removed from their rocky prisons for research.

These Canadian ice caps were estimated to melt by 2022 — they’re already gone

A paper published back in 2017 estimated that the St. Patrick Bay ice caps in Canada would disappear in 5 years due to climate change. We’re barely halfway through that time, and they’ve already melted.

Satellite images show the location where the St. Patrick Bay ice caps used to exist on the Hazen Plateau of northeastern Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada.
Image credits NSIDC.

NASA imagery shows that the ice caps have melted far faster than scientists predicted — 3 years instead of 5. That initial estimation was made by scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2017.

The melting of these caps should be a very clear warning that climate warming is picking up around the world, and shows the dangers of officials choosing to ignore or confound science consensus.

Melt rate — fast

The ice sheets spread over more than 10 square kilometers (around 4 sq miles) in total back in 1950. Mark Serreze, a geographer, NSIDC director, and lead author of the 2017 paper, remembers the striking view when he visited the area in 1982.

“When I first visited those ice caps, they seemed like such a permanent fixture of the landscape,” says geographer and NSIDC director Mark Serreze. “To watch them die in less than 40 years just blows me away.”

By the time Serreze started writing the paper, these ice sheets were only 5% of the size they were in 1959. Today, satellite images from NASA’s Terra satellite shows that no trace of this ice remains — and with the way things are progressing, it won’t be back in the foreseeable future.

The ice caps are part of a larger body of ice sheets in the Hazen Plateau on Ellesmere Island. This land stretches well into the Arctic and is one of the most northerly points in all of Canada. Two other glaciers that would often link with the now-melted pair, the Murray and Simmons ice caps, are faring better due to their high altitude. However, researchers think these two will also collapse soon, as their size was at 39% and 25%, respectively, of what they were in 1959.

This outline of the St. Patrick Bay ice caps, taken from the 2017 The Cryosphere paper, is based on aerial photography from August 1959, GPS surveys conducted during August 2001, and for August of 2014 and 2015 from NASA’s Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER).
Outline of St. Patrick Bay ice caps recorded over time.
Image credits NSIDC.

One thing I find particularly heartbreaking about this story is that Serreze and his team first started work in the Hazen Plateau around 1980 as they were trying to understand whether human activity was causing climate change. At the time, scientific consensus was not yet established on the issue, and some research suggested we were actually going through a period of global cooling (at least publicly — Shell knew).

So one of the sites that helped us prove once and for all that the way we do things is hurting the planet has been destroyed exactly because of that damage.

But it’s also a sobering wake-up call that the climate isn’t changing in the future — it’s changing right now.

“We’ve long known that as climate change takes hold, the effects would be especially pronounced in the Arctic,” says Serreze. “But the death of those two little caps that I once knew so well has made climate change very personal. All that’s left are some photographs and a lot of memories.”

Avian earworm: ‘viral’ bird song is shifting tune preferences among Canadian sparrows

Most birds have very distinct calls that usually stay the same, making it easy for bird watchers to recognize a species without seeing it. But the tunes can actually change, according to a new study, which tracked how the song of one sparrow went viral and ended up wiping out a historic bird song.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The study showed that the white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) from British Columbia to central Ontario have abandoned their traditional three-note-ending song in favor of a unique two-note-ending variant. Nevertheless, researchers still don’t know what made the new song so captivating.

“As far as we know, it’s unprecedented,” said in a statement senior author Ken Otter, a biology professor at the University of Northern British Columbia. “We don’t know of any other study that has ever seen this sort of spread through cultural evolution of a song type.”

An ornithological earworm

While rare, sometimes bird species do change their songs and this usually happens only in local populations, leading to regional dialects.

Back in the 1960s, the Canadian sparrows used to whistle a song that ended in a three-note triplet. By the time Otter moved to Canada in the 1990s the two-note ending was already present in local populations. “They were singing something atypical from what was the classic white-throated sparrow song across all of eastern Canada,” he said.

For their study, Otter and his team took advantage of a network of citizen scientist birders in North America, who had uploaded recordings of sparrow songs to online databases. This helped to track the doublet-ending song, which they found was spreading fast across Canada.

“Originally, we measured the dialect boundaries in 2004 and it stopped about halfway through Alberta,” Otter said. “By 2014, every bird we recorded in Alberta was singing this western dialect, and we started to see it appearing in populations as far away as Ontario, which is 3,000 kilometers from us.”

The researchers predicted that the sparrows’ overwintering grounds had something to do with the spread of the two-note ending. Juvenile males could have been picking up new songs when thy overwinter with birds from areas with other dialects, Otter argued.

To check if this was true, the researchers attached geolocators to the sparrows to see if western ones who knew the song might share it with eastern populations. This was indeed the case. Not only the song was spreading across the continent but it also was replacing the triple-note ending that had persisted for many decades.

The new song didn’t give male birds a territorial advantage over male counterparts, the study showed. Nevertheless, the researchers still want to continue looking at whether female birds have a preference between the two songs. “In many previous studies, the females tend to prefer whatever the local song type is,” said Otter.

Now, another type of song has appeared in a western sparrow population whose early spread may mirror that of the doublet-note ending. Otter is looking forward to continuing his investigation and check how this new song shifts in real-time, working alongside the network of citizen scientists.

“By having all these people contribute their private recordings that they just make when they go bird watching, it’s giving us a much more complete picture of what’s going on throughout the continent,” he said. “It’s allowing us to do research that was never possible before.”

The study was published in the journal Current Biology.

New fossil insect species points to a Canada-Australia land route 50 million years ago

A tiny fossil insect found near the city of Kamloops, British Columbia, points to a possible land connection between Canada and Australia.

The fossil (A, B) and a diagram of its venation (C).
Image credits Archibald, S. B., & Makarkin, V. N., (2020), The Canadian Entomologist.

Current relatives of this species live exclusively in Australia, the team explains, suggesting the possibility of a former connection between the two landmasses. The fossil, which the team describes as an insect from the “split-footed lacewing” family, is estimated to be 50 million years old.

Old ties

“These fossils are rare,” says Vladimir Makarkin of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok, corresponding author of the study describing the fossil. “This is only the fourth one found from this time-span world-wide, and it’s the most completely preserved. It adds important information to our knowledge of how they became modern.”

The discovery is the latest in a series of fossil finds that are pointing to a Canada-Australia connection, the team explains. Furthermore, it raises some interesting questions regarding the global movement of animals and how it is impacted by shifts in climate and the position of continents over time

The split-footed lacewing family is very poorly documented, although we do know that it survived for at least 66 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct. The fossil’s identity — a new genus and species, Epinesydrion falklandensis — was determined as belonging to the split-footed family from the hallmark network of veins covering its wings.

Previous fossil insects of comparable age found in British Columbia and Washington have ties to families that currently inhabit Pacific-coastal Russia to the west and Europe, as these northern continents all used to be connected.

“Fifty million years ago, sea levels were lower, exposing more land between North America and Asia, and the Atlantic Ocean had not widened, leaving Europe and North America still joined across high latitudes,” says lead author Bruce Archibald.

However, we don’t know of any ancient land route between British Columbia and Australia. Compared to its position today, the land down under was closer to Antarctica and farther from Asia, meaning that any migrating animals needed to travel over vast stretches of ocean to reach Canada’s west coast.

Archibald says that “a pattern is emerging that we don’t quite understand yet, but has interesting implications”. They hypothesize that the issue might be tied to climate. The forests of the ancient British Columbian temperate upland (when this lacewing lived) had mild winters, probably without frost days. The climate of modern Australia shares these mild winters even in temperate regions.

“It could be that these insect groups are today restricted to regions of the world where climates in key ways resemble those 50 million years ago in the far western Canadian mountains,” says Archibald.

The team explains that understanding this species’ life and how it ended up on both of these modern continents can help us better piece together the history of our climate and continents.

The paper “A new genus and species of split-footed lacewings (Neuroptera) from the early Eocene of western Canada and revision of the subfamily affinities of Mesozoic Nymphidae” has been published in the journal The Canadian Entomologist.

Canadian diamonds give researchers a glimpse into ancient continents

A chance discovery by diamond-prospecting geologists provides a glimpse into the Earth’s past.

Diamond embedded in a piece of kimberlite.
Image credits James St. John / Flickr

Diamond exploration samples from Baffin Island, Canada point to a never-before-seen part of the North Atlantic craton—an ancient part of Earth’s continental crust that stretches from Scotland to Labrador. The finding will allow researchers to better map the lost continents of Earth’s distant past.

A diamond in you

“For researchers, kimberlites are subterranean rockets that pick up passengers on their way to the surface,” explains University of British Columbia geologist Maya Kopylova. “The passengers are solid chunks of wall rocks that carry a wealth of details on conditions far beneath the surface of our planet over time.”

Kimberlite rocks form very, very deep in the Earth’s crust — similarly to diamonds — and are thus a staple of diamond prospectors around the world. After forming for millions of years at depths of between 150 to 400 kilometers, these rocks are sometimes pushed up to the surface by various geological processes, snatching diamonds along for the ride.

Kopylova and colleagues were analyzing samples from De Beers’ Kimberlite Province Chidliak in southern Baffin Island, when they noticed that the samples were peculiar. Their mineral makeup matched that in other portions of the North Atlantic craton, which is “so unique there was no mistaking it”. The mineral compositions of adjacent ancient cratons have “completely different mineralogies,” Kopylova explains.

Cratons are pieces of continents billions of years old that have remained stable over time and act as the kernel of today’s continents — think of them as anchors that today’s landmasses hold on to. Most cratons have been broken up and moved around by tectonics over time, but some still form the bedrock of modern tectonic plates like the North American plate. Knowing where the pieces of these cratons are today allows researchers to understand how they evolved and moved over time, in essence allowing them to map the evolution of our planet’s surface.

“Finding these ‘lost’ pieces is like finding a missing piece of a puzzle,” says Kopylova. “The scientific puzzle of the ancient Earth can’t be complete without all of the pieces.”

To the best of our knowledge so far, the continental plate of the North Atlantic craton broke apart some 150 million years ago, and the fragments spread from northern Scotland to southern Greenland and Labrador. the newly-discovered fragments would increase its known expanse by roughly 10%.

“With these samples we’re able to reconstruct the shapes of ancient continents based on deeper, mantle rocks,” says Kopylova. “We can now understand and map not only the uppermost skinny layer of Earth that makes up one percent of the planet’s volume, but our knowledge is literally and symbolically deeper.”

“We can put together 200-kilometer deep fragments and contrast them based on the details of the deep mineralogy.”

The paper “The metasomatized mantle beneath the North Atlantic Craton: Insights from peridotite xenoliths of the Chidliak kimberlite province (NE Canada)” has been published in the Journal of Petrology.

Oil company scraps plan for massive oilsands project in Canada following public backlash

Who says you can’t make a difference?

As the climate crisis looms, governments and companies should be held responsible for fossil fuel development, and this can lead to important changes. In the case of Canada, the criticism from environmental groups was such that a massive project ended up being canceled.

The site where the mine would have taken place. Credit: Teck Resources.

The oil company Teck Resources Limited announced yesterday its decision to cancel its Frontier Project, after nine years of planning. The company planned to build and operate an open-pit mine of oil sands in northern Alberta, extracting an estimated 260,000 barrels of bitumen oil per day.

As you might expect, the project would have come at a massive environmental cost. It would have meant clearing out 24,000 acres of boreal forest and releasing 4.1 megatons of climate-warming emissions per year for the next four decades.

That led to strong opposition from environmental groups. For several years, campaigns against the project have been opposed to the project, culminating in Indigenous-led rail blockades and similar types of civil disobedience.

Don Lindsay, chief executive of Teck Resources, sent a letter to government officials claiming investors and consumers were looking to governments to put “a framework in place that reconciles resource development and climate change, in order to produce the cleanest products” — something that he said “does not yet exist” in Canada.

“The growing debate around this issue has placed Frontier and our company squarely at the nexus of much broader issues that need to be resolved. In that context, it is now evident that there is no constructive path forward for the project,” he added, blaming indigenous groups for opposing the project.

Last year, a panel from federal and provincial government officials concluded the oil project would have “significant adverse environmental effects,” such as the “irreversible” destruction of peatland. Nevertheless, the panel said the economic benefits “justified” the environmental problems.

The company, with operations in Canada, the US, Chile, and Peru, had claimed the mine would have a lower emissions intensity than roughly half of all oil refined in the US. It had even vowed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 in all its mining operations across the world.

Canadian President Justin Trudeau was due to make a decision by the end of the month over the definitive approval or dismissal of the project. But the company decided for him in advance, canceling it. Trudeau has argued that supporting the fossil fuel sector and addressing climate change go “hand in hand.”

Reacting to Teck Resources’ decision, Canada’s natural resources minister Seamus O’Regan said the government is committed to “developing our natural resources sustainably and to creating good, middle-class jobs,” claiming a “strong economy and a clean environment have to go hand in hand.”

Conservatives in Canada were furious with the announcement, blaming Trudeau for the cancelation of the project, which they claimed would have boosted the economy of Alberta.

“It is what happens when governments lack the courage to defend the interests of Canadians in the face of a militant minority,” Alberta’s premier, Jason Kenney, said in a statement.

Trudeau responded with a vague statement, in a non-partisan style that aimed to displease as little as possible, but reiterated efforts to “ensure clean, sustainable growth for Canadians” and hopes to find a “quick and peaceful resolution” to rail blockades.

Canada is the fourth largest oil producer, supplying six million barrels a day. The oil sands represent 60% of that output. They are essentially a mixture of sand and clay soaked with a dense form of petroleum known as bitumen – highly difficult to extract and requires a lot of energy to do so.

Tyrannosaurus rex.

Largest T. rex skeleton ever found lived in Canada up to its early 30s

Researchers at the University of Alberta (UAlberta) have reported finding the world’s largest Tyrannosaurus rex and the largest dinosaur ever discovered in Canada — they named it “Scotty”.

Tyrannosaurus rex.

A T. rex skull (not Scotty’s).
Image credits Jill White.

The impressive skeleton spans 13 meters in length and, in true paleontologist fashion, was nicknamed for a celebratory bottle of scotch the night it was discovered. Scotty used to live in prehistoric Saskatchewan 66 million years ago. Judging from its leg bones, its discoverers estimate that it weighed some 8,800 kg while alive, making it bigger than any other carnivorous dinosaur whose fossil we’ve recovered.

King of kings

“This is the rex of rexes,” said Scott Persons, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biological Sciences at the UAlberta.

“There is considerable size variability among Tyrannosaurus. Some individuals were lankier than others and some were more robust. Scotty exemplifies the robust. Take careful measurements of its legs, hips, and even shoulder, and Scotty comes out a bit heftier than other T. rex specimens.”

The skeleton was first uncovered in 1991, when several paleontologists — including T. rex expert, UAlberta professor, and one of this study’s co-authors Phil Currie — were called in on the project. The bones were encased in hard sandstone, and it took the team over a decade to remove the bones from the stone without damaging them. Now, however, the researchers have been able to assemble and look at Scotty in its original shape.

Scotty’s size immediately made an impression on the team. It is the largest T. rex specimen, by both size and weight, that we have ever recovered. It is also, according to the team, the most senior dinosaur of the species that we have ever seen.

“Scotty is the oldest T. rex known,” Persons explains. “By which I mean, it would have had the most candles on its last birthday cake. You can get an idea of how old a dinosaur is by cutting into its bones and studying its growth patterns. Scotty is all old growth.”

“By Tyrannosaurus standards, it had an unusually long life. And it was a violent one. Riddled across the skeleton are pathologies — spots where scarred bone records large injuries.”

T. rexes tended to live very violent — and thus not very long — lives. Scotty, estimated to have been in its early 30s when it died, stands out as being quite old. It’s even more surprising that the dino reached this advanced age as its skeleton shows signs of broken ribs, an infected jaw, and a lot of battle scars — including, possibly, a bite from another T. rex on its tail.

“I think there will always be bigger discoveries to be made,” said Persons “But as of right now, this particular Tyrannosaurus is the largest terrestrial predator known to science.”

A new exhibit featuring the skeleton of Scotty is set to open at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in May 2019.

The paper “An Older and Exceptionally Large Adult Specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex” has been published in the journal The Anatomical Record.

Mercury.

Thawing Canadian Arctic permafrost is releasing “substantial amounts” of mercury into waterways

Well, I wasn’t expecting climate change to do that, to be honest.

Mercury.

Image credits Tavo Romann / Wikimedia.

Thawing permafrost in the Canadian Arctic is releasing record amounts of mercury into local waterways, according to ecologists from the University of Alberta. The effects are not properly understood right now, but mercury is known to be toxic compound (in high quantities) to both humans and other organisms.

Hg

“Concentrations of mercury were elevated for at least 2.8 kilometres downstream of thaw slumps,” says Kyra St. Pierre, who co-led the study. “This suggests that some mercury from thaw slumps may be transported for many kilometres through downstream ecosystems, and into larger waterways.”

Mercury (Hg) is a metal that occurs in a liquid form at room temperature. It’s toxic to most organisms in large quantities and tends to accumulate in food webs (i.e. it’s not processed in the body and gets passed on from prey to predator).

We don’t get much trouble from mercury since it’s simply not that abundant in most natural settings. However, it is in permafrosts — permafrost sediments are estimated to store more mercury than Earth’s oceans, atmosphere, and soil combined, the team report. As climate change thaws these permafrosts, the mercury stored therein becomes mobile and leaches into the surrounding environment.

The issue is exacerbated by increasing precipitation in the Canadian Arctic (also due to climate change), the team adds.

“Climate change is inducing widespread permafrost thaw,” explained St. Pierre. “In regions where this results in thaw slumping, this may release a substantial amount of mercury into freshwater ecosystems across the Arctic.”

For now, the exact implications of this mercury contamination remains unknown. The team says that organisms in the area might absorb the metal from the environment (through food and drinking water), however, they don’t yet have sufficient data to tell. It may well be that local plants and wildlife are absorbing mercury but at too low levels for it to be a threat to the food web. Of course, the opposite may also be true.

The results, the team says, highlight the need for further research on mercury cycling in regions experiencing active permafrost thaw. They also say more research is needed on if (and how) this mercury might enter food webs in surrounding ecosystems.

The paper ” Unprecedented Increases in Total and Methyl Mercury Concentrations Downstream of Retrogressive Thaw Slumps in the Western Canadian Arctic” has been published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Amazingly well-preserved Ice Age wolf pup found in Canada

Sometimes, scientists are fortunate enough to come across well-preserved animals, but this is just stunning. The remarkable remains of two Ice Age mammals, a wolf pup and caribou, were uncovered by gold miners in the Yukon territory in Canada. Even the skin and fur are preserved, and the finding is an extremely rare one.

“To our knowledge this is the only mummified ice age wolf ever found in the world,” Yukon government paleontologist Grant Zazula told the CBC.

The wolf pup remains uncovered near Dawson, Yukon. Photograph: Government of Yukon.

The caribou remains include the torso, head, and front limbs — but the wolf pup is even better. It’s essentially completely preserved, including everything from its tail to its head, skin, and fur. The miner who came across it thought it “maybe was a dog”.

The key to their conservation is the volcanic ash layer where they were found. The ash, which was dated to 80,000 years ago, isolated the remains from decay and decomposition.

“These are ashes that are found in the permafrost from volcanoes in Alaska that erupted during the ice age,” Zazula continued. “We think this is some of the oldest mummified soft tissue in the entire world.”

The mummified remains of the caribou. Photograph: Government of Yukon.

However, the period where the animals used to live also played a key role. Because the skin and fur are so well-preserved, Jan Zalasiewicz, a palaeobiologist at the University of Leicester, says that the cold climate also created conditions suitable for preservation.

“A drier and more arid climate would help to preserve skin and fur, and this typically happens when the climate gets colder,” he said. “The trick here is finding a means of freeze-drying the carcass in these arid conditions and burying it … you need to find a way to dry it and put it in the freezer very quickly.”

During the lifetime of these creatures, Canada was covered by thick ice, but Yukon managed to escape being covered by glaciers. The wolves and caribou likely roamed the area alongside wooly mammoths and fearsome felines such as the scimitar cats.

The specimens were discovered a month across by miners looking for gold. They have been carefully stored and maneuvered and will be sent to scientific labs for DNA and bone analysis which will offer more insight not only about the two creatures but also about the food they ate and the environment in which they lived.

Catherine McKenna.

At climate talks, Canada steps up while the US steps down

During this week’s UN climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, Canada announced its plan to completely phase out the use of coal in power plants. This move runs in stark opposition to the US’ current official stance on coal, as the Trump administration pursues a revival of the industry.

Catherine McKenna.

Canadian Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is currently attending the COP23 talks in Bonn, Germany, trying to convince the world to phase out coal power plants.
Image credits Chatham House / Imgur.

Two years ago, political leaders gathered at COP21, the annual UN climate change talks, were making history by effectively jump-starting the Paris Agreement. A year later, enough countries around the world had willingly signed themselves and their environmental goals under the agreement for it to enter into force. Things were looking up. For once, all the world was united under a common goal, and that felt amazing.

This year, however, could not have been farther from that sentiment. The Trump administration has moved again and again in favor of the very industries and fuels everyone else is trying to move away from. It’s also repeatedly threatened to leave the Paris Agreement, and in June that threat was carried out.

Disheartening as the US’ exit may be, world leaders aren’t giving up on the Paris Agreement. This year’s talks are taking place in Bonn, Germany, aiming to settle on the rules for how the accord should be implemented, how carbon will be measured, and how to keep countries accountable for their promised emission cuts.

On this backdrop, the withdrawal of the world’s largest economy is an opportunity for other countries to step up to the plate and take the initiative. Canada and the UK, two countries that committed to phasing out coal in the energy sector by 2030 and 2025 respectively, are already doing so.

“Canada is committed to phasing out coal. We’ve created an alliance with the U.K., we’re going to get other countries around the world to help support moving forward on a coal phase-out. Coal is not only the most polluting fossil fuel but it’s also terrible for health,” said Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna before flying to Germany for the talks.

“If the U.S. is going to step back, we’ve said we’re going to step up, and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.”

McKenna and her British counterpart Claire Perry, minister of state for climate change and industry, are making a common front against coal as a power source. Coal fuels around 40% of the world’s energy production (10% in Canada) and accounts for over 40% of global CO2 emissions — emissions that we could slash with ease given the strides green energy tech has been making recently.

So the duo is launching a joint campaign, calling on other countries to promise not to build any more unabated coal-fired plants and phase out those already in use. Unabated plants are the ones that don’t incorporate carbon capture or storage mechanisms that can keep emissions from reaching the atmosphere. McKenna further told The Canadian Press that the Canadian government wants to help developing countries reduce their reliance on coal, but no funds have so far been earmarked for the task.

Since Canada and the UK announced their coal phase-out campaign last month, Italy and the Netherlands have also joined. France has also set a coal phase-out target by 2025.

Coal in the south

The anti-coal initiative comes in direct conflict with those of the Trump administration. Last month, EPA’s chief Scott Pruit gutted the Clean Power Plan, a bill requiring states to cut emissions based on energy consumption and offering incentives for renewable power and energy efficiency, saying the “war on coal is over”. On Monday, US officials hosted an event as part of the Bonn talks where they basically said that as the world won’t be rid of coal overnight, we consider nuclear power and “clean coal” as ways to limit emissions. Protesters held up the event and managed to shut it down for 10 minutes with a flash mob song.

Still, despite the current administration’s best efforts, the US isn’t in the coal basked just yet. On Monday, 15 US governors joined Canada and Mexico in signing an agreement focusing on clean transportation, carbon pricing, and a reduction of coal-fired electricity.

“Let’s be clear, there are many different versions of the United States that are here,” McKenna told CBC News from Bonn.

The two countries are also trying to get China and India involved in the coal phase-out. Should their efforts prove successful, it would be a major step forward. De-coupling India’s growing economy from coal would save us a big headache in the future. China has imposed itself as one of the major players in clean energy lately. The two would probably not agree to an immediate phase-out of coal but any steps in this direction would be a great boost for global efforts to limit emissions.

Shark fin.

Most shark fins and ray gills sold in Vancouver come from threatened, trade-banned species

DNA sequencing of over 100 shark fins and manta ray gills in Vancouver has revealed that over half come from threatened species who are banned for trade under international law.

Shark fin.

Image via Pixabay.

As far as traditional Chinese delicacies go, shark fins are more on the expensive side. They’re used to make soups that can sell for over US$100 per bowl and are generally served during special occasions. Manta ray gill rakers, tiny filaments which these species use to filter nutrients out of water are used in traditional Chinese medicine, advertised as effective against all sorts of conditions from smallpox to cancer according to the conservation group Manta Ray of Hope.

The problem with them is two-fold. First, about a quarter of shark and ray species around the world are threatened due to overfishing, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Secondly, they’re sourced very inhumanely — shark fins, for example, are cut off from live animals which are then thrown back into the ocean where they die a slow, agonizing death. So the commercial use of these commodities sourced from several species of both shark and ray are banned for international trade in an effort to give the animals respite from commercial fishing, and allow them an opportunity to recover.

But that doesn’t mean people don’t still buy and sell them, according to a research team led by Dirk Steinke from the University of Guelph. They’ve tested over 100 samples of the items available for purchase in Vancouver, Canada, and report that over 71% belong to species that are considered endangered.

Fin-ding soup

Yokohama shark fin.

Dried shark fins on display in a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Yohokama.
Image credits Chris 73 / Wikimedia.

According to Steinke, Canada is the largest importer of shark fins outside of Asia. The Senate of Canada’s website reports that in 2015, the country imported some 114,540 kilograms (252,517 pounds) of fins, and the CBC cites Statistics Canada as saying this increased to 140,750 kilograms (310,300 pounds) of shark fins worth $3.08 million (of the total $11,3 million estimated global trade) in 2016.

Steinke’s research was in part prompted by the Vancouver Animal Defence League, which was concerned that fins from protected species were being sold locally. Because these fins are very expensive, the team used 71 dried fin samples collected in 2011 and 2012 by volunteers and University of Guelph researchers, and 54 ray gill plates obtained by scientists working with the Save Our Seas Shark Research Centre at the Nova Southeastern University from Hong Kong and mainland China.

“It took them awhile to get the money together because they’re not cheap,” Steinke said.

The samples were analyzed using DNA barcoding, a technique developed at the University of Guelph which allows for species to be pinpointed using relatively short bits of DNA. The drying process actually helped speed this along, Steinke said, as it helps preserve DNA in a usable form.

Overall, the team traced the samples back to 20 species of sharks and some 5 species of rays. Roughly 56% of them are on the IUCN Red List as endangered or vulnerable, and some 24% are close to threatened status. Seven of the shark species and all five ray species are also banned from international trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species treaty. It must be pointed out that the ban for most of these species went into effect between 2014 and 2017, which is after the samples were collected. However, the team did trace some samples back to species which did have protected status and was banned from trade at the time the samples were collected, such as the whale shark.

Banned but not gone

Chinese shark fin soup.

Chinese shark fin soup in Austin, Texas.
Image credits harmon / Wikimedia.

That last tidbit, coupled with the fact that there are “confirmed occurrence of these species’ body parts in recent trade suggests ongoing market demands,” the researchers wrote. Although almost three-quarters of shark and ray species are not considered threatened, are not banned from trade in Canada, and are not at risk of extinction, it’s “very frustrating, although not unexpected” that we see such a large percentage of banned species still up for trade — rarer types of fins will, after all, demand a higher market price, offering an incentive in their continued trade.

Compounding the problem is that authorities simply lack the means to meaningfully impose the ban. It’s virtually impossible to tell what species a dried fin belongs to simply by looking at it. Retailers can reliably expect to get off without being caught and fined, and along with the high price fetched by the fins selling illegal species “might still pay off,” Steinke says. DNA testing can reliably trace the source species, and is quite cheap at US$10 a pop — but it can take up to several weeks for a result.

Steinke hopes that raising awareness and lowering demand will wither the market and at least help some sharks make it out alive — and eventually stop it altogether. He also hopes the results (and ideally, public support for such measures) will goad politicians into banning shark fin sales on a larger scale. Similar bans are already in effect at a local level in over a dozen municipalities in Canada, but bills for a federal ban have already failed to pass in 2013 and 2016.

These animals have been around for longer than trees, and we’re killing them over what’s widely agreed to be a pretty tasteless soup. Traditions do have a very important role to play in human life, granted. But there’s a point where we have to take the reigns, a point beyond which getting bogged down in the past will make tomorrow less — and in this case, we’re literally eating the viability of tomorrow’s oceans. Although, that seems to be a very human-like take on a lot of very serious issues.

Third time’s the charm as far as bans go, hopefully.

The paper “DNA analysis of traded shark fins and mobulid gill plates reveals a high proportion of species of conservation concern” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

New fossil proves there was life on Earth hundreds of millions of years earlier than we’ve though

Fossils of bugs who lived at least 3,770 million years ago have been discovered by an international team of researchers — becoming the oldest known life forms on Earth.

It may not look like much, but this could be the earliest trace of life on the planet.
Image credits Dominic Papineau.

These fossils represent tiny tubes and filaments constructed by iron-metabolizing bacteria which were later encased in quartz layers in the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt (NSB), Quebec, Canada. The sedimentary rocks in the NSB are some of the oldest known on Earth, and likely formed around an iron-rich deep-sea hydrothermal vent system. A vent which would unknowingly make history — because this vent cradled some of the first organisms on Earth between 3,770 and 4,300 million years ago, an international research team reports.

“Our discovery supports the idea that life emerged from hot, seafloor vents shortly after planet Earth formed. This speedy appearance of life on Earth fits with other evidence of recently discovered 3,700 million year old sedimentary mounds that were shaped by microorganisms,” explained PhD student Matthew Dodd from UCL Earth Sciences and the London Centre for Nanotechnology.

Dodd is the first author of a study which describes the fossils and the results of a subsequent analysis performed on then by the team from UCL, the Geological Survey of Norway, US Geological Survey, The University of Western Australia, the University of Ottawa and the University of Leeds.

They systematically looked at how the tubes and filaments of hematite — a mix of iron and oxygen — could have been produced by non-biological processes, such as temperature or pressure shifts in the rock following burial, but found all these possibilities highly unlikely.

On the other hand, the structures share a characteristic branching seen in the constructs of iron-oxidizing bacteria living near hydrothermal vents today. They were found in association with graphite and minerals like apatite and carbonates — which are found in biological matter including bones and teeth and are frequently associated with fossils. Lastly, the team also found that the fossils were inside spheroidal structures that usually contain fossils in younger rocks. This suggests that the hematite structures formed as the iron-fixing bacteria fossilized.

“We found the filaments and tubes inside centimetre-sized structures called concretions or nodules, as well as other tiny spheroidal structures, called rosettes and granules, all of which we think are the products of putrefaction. They are mineralogically identical to those in younger rocks from Norway, the Great Lakes area of North America and Western Australia,” explained study lead, Dr Dominic Papineau (UCL Earth Sciences and the London Centre for Nanotechnology).

“The structures are composed of the minerals expected to form from putrefaction, and have been well documented throughout the geological record, from the beginning until today. The fact we unearthed them from one of the oldest known rock formations, suggests we’ve found direct evidence of one of Earth’s oldest life forms.”

Papineau said that this discovery helps us to not only understand the history of life on Earth, but also to identify traces of life elsewhere in the universe. Dodd adds that as the findings prove life developed on Earth at a time when both it and Mars held liquid water on the surface, “posing exciting questions for extra-terrestrial life.” He says that the team expects we’ll eventually find evidence of past life on Mars from around 4,000 million years ago.

“If not, Earth may have been a special exception,” he concludes.

Prior to this discovery, the oldest microfossils reported were found in Western Australia and dated at 3,460 million years old but some scientists think they might be non-biological artifacts in the rocks. It was, therefore, a priority for the UCL-led team to determine whether the remains from Canada had biological origins.

The full paper “Evidence for early life in Earth’s oldest hydrothermal vent precipitates” has been published in the journal Nature.

Vancouver's palms at English Bay during the winter. Credit: Flickr, Wendy Cutler.

How palm trees thrive in Vancouver despite the freezing Canadian weather

Vancouver's palms at English Bay during the winter. Credit: Flickr, Wendy Cutler.

Vancouver’s palms at English Bay during the winter. Credit: Flickr, Wendy Cutler.

Did you know you can find palm trees in Canada’s Lower Mainland? If you’re in Vancouver during the summer, you might forget where you are for a second as the warm weather and palm trees transport you to a Mediterranean paradise. But wasn’t Canada supposed to be freezing?

Vancouver is, in fact, the warmest of Canada’s major metropolitan cities in winter — by far. Like the rest of the British Columbia Coast, the city is tempered by the North Pacific Current, and the cold Arctic air which usually pounds the rest of Canada with heavy snow and freezing temperatures spares Vancouver. The city has the Rocky Mountains to thank for blocking the cold Arctic air.

As a result, winters are quite mild in Vancouver. Snows with depths greater than 1cm only occur 10 days a year compared to 65 days in Toronto. Instead, the city’s western maritime climate fosters wet and foggy weather. The weather can also be capricious. In a matter of days, the weather can move from warm and sunny to cold and frigid.

That’s not to say it doesn’t get freezing cold in Vancouver. The truth is, most palm tree species can’t survive outside all year round in Vancouver. However, according to Brian Quinn, the Vancouver manager of park operations, three or four species can. Most palms in the city are Trachycarpus fortunei, also known as windmill palms. These are native to China, Burma, North India where they grow in cold weather for a palm. Once established “they can withstand some pretty chilly weather,” said  David Tracey, an arborist and author of the Vancouver Tree Book.

English Bay during the summer. Credit: Flickr, Kyle Pearce.

English Bay during the summer. Credit: Flickr, Kyle Pearce.

The most outdoor palms you’ll find in the city is around English Bay, which is about two or three degrees F warmer than the rest of the city. You can spot around 60 palms here, all suited to below-freezing temperatures.

The palms are quite sturdy and can survive freezing temperatures provided ice does not form at the tops of the trees. If ice gets in the crown of the palm, it will kill it. It’s the only place where new growth occurs in this palm. This is how Vancouver lost two of its palms at English Bay in the last 20 years.

“We find that as long as the temperature doesn’t go below -12 C…at -12 C you start to see maybe a little damage. But those trees won’t be killed unless the temperatures go much below that,” said Douglas Justice, associate director of horticulture at UBC Botanical Garden.

Palms have become so popular in Vancouver that you can see them in people’s private backyards. Yet palms in the rest of the Lower Mainland don’t seem to be fairing nearly as well as in Vancouver. Higher elevation and areas further inland are not suitable for palms because of the cold wind during the winter.

canada justin trudeau

The Canadian government’s double standards: acting on climate but seeking to export more fossil fuels

canada justin trudeau

Credit: YouTube

Newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was one of the champions of last year’s COP21 climate talks in Paris. Trudeau and his Liberal government led by example, being very vocal and borderline aggressive in the fight against climate change. Twelve months later, despite concrete steps that currently put Canada on track of meeting its domestic greenhouse gas reduction targets, the government is also seeking to significantly expand its fossil fuel exports by opening new pipelines and a massive new natural gas exploitation project.

Swiping it under the rug

This twin pursuit has been called out by environmentalists who held a press briefing at COP22, Marrakech, Morocco.

“It is a serious concern when we see the international community not honouring their commitments and we are concerned Canada is still pursuing their fossil fuel projects,” Benson Ireri of theChristian Aid Africa said. “Developed countries have a moral obligation to honour the Paris Agreement.”

The panel references the Canadian government’s recent approval of a massive liquefied natural gas project in British Columbia. The $11 billion project will be one of Canada’s largest natural resource development project. Yet, despite the reassuring statements made by Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr that the new exploitation will respect 190 legally binding environmental conditions, the public wasn’t convinced. Rankled environmentalists and some First Nations expressed concerns that immense amounts of greenhouse gases will be expelled, while local fisheries and habitat will be threatened.

“I think Mr. Trudeau made the biggest mistake of his career … he’s not as straightforward of a guy as everyone perceived him to be,” said Donald Wesley, a hereditary chief with the Gitwilgyoots tribe, vowing also to pursue legal action.

“We’re trying to protect something here that belongs to the people of Canada.”

According to the COP22 panel, the Petronas LNG project in northern British Columbia will pump 4.3 million tonnes of equivalent CO2 emissions annually for decades to come.

Then, there’s the matter of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries, which the Liberal government currently in power supports. The KXL pipeline was blocked by U.S. President Barack Obama because it doesn’t meet his nation’s current pledges for reducing greenhouse emissions per the Paris Agreement. President-elect Donald Trump and his cabinet, however, favour KXL. Trump also has the backing of the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress and House of Representatives, and once he takes office in January, President Trump is expected to green-light the project. With both sides in accord, there doesn’t seem to be anything keeping KXL from moving forward.

All of this doesn’t seem to bode well with Canada’s pledge for cutting emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The government’s plan includes energy efficiency measures but also a nation-wide carbon tax  starting at $10 per tonne in 2018 but gradually incremented to $50 per tonne by 2022.

Catherine Abreu of Climate Action Network Canada stated in Marrakech, however, that Canada’s current plan indeed puts the nation well on track to meet its pledges. At the same time, though, its planned oil exports will not only offset, but possibly worsen the domestic progress.

In December, Minister Carr and the Liberal cabinet will decide whether or not to expand the Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain oil pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby, B.C.The $5.4-billion project would increase the capacity of the system to at least 890,000 barrels per day. This additional capacity will go to Asian markets. “It’s a goal of the government of Canada to expand its export markets,” Carr said in a statement.

A bigger Trans Mountain pipeline would add 14 to 17 million tonnes of equivalent CO2 emissions per year. To put things into perspective, Canada’s plans to cut emissions through a carbon tax will reduce emissions by some 18 million tonnes when fully implemented in 2022.

In other words, Canada seems to have no problem in meeting its emission reduction targets, but by exploiting new resources and exporting these to new markets, on a global level they might actually perform worse than a business as usual scenario. It seems unbelievable, but this cabinet pretends these new oil and gas exports will become someone else’s problem.

“Canada is on a pathway to reduce domestic emissions and meet the 2030 targets domestically while also increasing the amount of fossil fuels it exports,” Abreu said in a statement to the press.

“This contradiction is not lost on the countries that are experiencing sea level rise, drought, increased storms and other climate impacts.”

Canada is building the world’s longest trail, and it’s humongous

Are you a hiking addict? Then you’ll probably want to book a ticket for Canada in 2017.

Photo by Michael Gil.

The Trans Canada Trail – generally called the Great Trail – will be a 14,864-mile network. That’s almost 24,000 kilometers of pure awesomeness for you to hike on. The trail will be completed in 2017, as Canada celebrates 150 years of independence. Walking/hiking, cycling, paddling, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling are all encouraged.

Connecting over 400 community trails, the Great Trail starts in St. John’s, the capital and largest city in Newfoundland and Labrador, eastern Canada. It then moves on northwest just over the US border, close to Montreal and Ottawa, heading by Lake Huron and Lake Superior, through Calgary, the Canadian Rockies and reaching Vancouver. The trail does a split at Edmonton, with the other branch heading way north, in the true Canadian wilderness, through Yukon and ultimately reaching the base of the Nicholson Peninsula, a broad ice-covered peninsula where freezing temperatures are the norm.

Although I don’t imagine there’d be many volunteers willing to hike the whole thing from one end to the other, the trail is still a remarkable achievement, a real gift “from Canadians to Canadians”, as authorities have touted it. It’s estimated that four out of five Canadians live within 30 minutes of the trail.

The project involved not only government authorities but also thousands of volunteers, environmental organizations and municipalities. Therefore, no one technically owns the entire trail, which is rather a network of locally administered trail portions. But no one is thrilled by it.

Cyclists, for example, complain that the trail is erratic and hard to navigate in some sections. Furthermore, environmental groups have signaled that in some areas, the trail could threaten some habitats. Still, construction is going as planned and the whole thing will be connected next year. But the Trans Canada Trail president and CEO Deborah Apps said that the trail will never really be finished.

“2017 is just the beginning of our story. The Trail will never be complete. We will continue to build and improve this treasure for generations to come.”

Massive sinkhole opens up in Ottawa, thankfully without victims

A massive sinkhole formed in Ottawa, Canada on Wednesday 8th of June, leading to the collapse of one of the city’s busiest streets and damaging gas and water lines in the area. Gas, electrical and water services in downtown Ottawa are temporarily cut off and roadblocks set in areas of the city while authorities scramble to stabilize the area.

The sinkhole damaged the street and buildings in the area.
Image via reddit

First signs of the sinkhole forming were reported at around 10:30 local time on Wednesday near the Canadian Parliament building in downtown Ottawa, Canada. The area, which grew to a large section of the Rideau Street, eventually collapsed later in the day. The street has been closed off to most traffic for some time now — except for a few taxis, buses and pedestrians — due to ongoing construction works. Several nearby buildings had to be evacuated but there thankfully were no immediate reports of injury or deaths caused by the collapse.

Some suggest that the ongoing work on the underground railway system below Rideau Street may have lead to the collapse, but it is still unclear whether the ongoing project had something to do with the appearance of the sinkhole, said Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson. The city is largely built on a type of soil known as Leda clay or quick clay, known for its tendency to collapse. It’s not the first time such a collapse happened in the city; in 2014, a smaller sinkhole formed in an area east of the city, believed to have been caused by a failure in a water line. In 2010 a massive sinkhole suddenly collapsed in north-east Montreal, destroying an entire house and killing four people.

But no matter how it formed, authorities are now looking for solutions, trying to figure out the best way of patching up the massive sinkhole that is now causing a major disruption in one of Ottawa’s primary streets. City officials were forced to temporarily cut off some water, gas and electrical services in downtown Ottawa and roadblocks had been set up as well in different parts of the city for public safety.

“All hands are on deck to make sure the site is secured and no harm is done to any individual,” Watson told reporters on Wednesday.

Watson said they are planning to use a special type of concrete to help stabilize the sinkhole. This might take some time, however, and people should be prepared for some delays.

Video credits CBC News

 

Expert warns smart-cars will promote sex behind the wheel and distracted driving

Will widespread use of smart cars make roads safer or actually more dangerous? One Canadian expert is raising concerns that as automated systems take up the bulk of navigating tasks, drivers will keep their hands less on the driving wheel…and more on the person (persons?) next to them.

Image via scmp.com

Drop whatever you were doing and rejoice because science has delivered.

“I am predicting that, once computers are doing the driving, there will be a lot more sex in cars,” said Barrie Kirk of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence.

It truly is a wonderful time to be alive. But, before we go about congratulating and patting each other on the back in satisfaction, is this a good thing? I mean beyond the obvious fact that we all like to get it on.

There is legitimate concern around this question, not because of the cars themselves but because of the drivers. I see people texting or talking on the phone at the wheel — and these aren’t particularly enjoyable activities — every day, driving regular vehicles without any computers to watch the road for them. But if people trust their cars enough to handle themselves in traffic, they’ll throw their phones along with their pants on the back seat before you can say “responsible driving practices.”

“That’s one of several things people will do which will inhibit their ability to respond quickly when the computer says to the human, ‘Take over.'”

Canadian Press obtained several federal emails discussing Tesla’s self-driving cars under the Access to Information Act. In them, officials tasked with constructing the legislative framework for autonomous cars took up the issue in the briefing notes compiled for Transport Minister Marc Garneau after his appointment last fall.

“The issue of the attentive driver is … problematic,” one such email reads. “Drivers tend to overestimate the performance of automation and will naturally turn their focus away from the road when they turn on their auto-pilot.”

The emails cite several pieces of footage showing Tesla drivers doing anything else than paying attention to the road, such as reading a newspaper for example. Other videos show Tesla owners recording flaws in how the car’s autopilot system reacts to changes in road markings.

Therein lies the problem: Tesla itself made it clear that the autopilot system only has limited autonomy and functionality. It’s designed to work in tandem with a human, not to replace him. And people still behave like it’s their personal chauffeur. Transport Canada tested several semi-autonomous vehicles, such as Mercedes’ C-Class or the Infiniti Q50 (but not the Tesla so far,) the documents go on to detail. While they found the systems efficient at what they do, the technology is still in its infancy.

“It really needs to be emphasized that these vehicles are not truly self-driving,” officials said. They predicted that fully-autonomous cars and trucks are “still a few years away.”

Current vehicle safety standards don’t prohibit driverless cars from zooming on Canada’s roadways, and the country is now considering how to regulate such vehicles.

“But last month’s federal budget included money for Transport Canada to develop regulations around automated vehicle design. Those regulations, at least initially, would require that the vehicles are equipped with a ‘failsafe mechanism that can respond to situations when the driver is not available,'” CBC writes. “Ontario also set out some regulations, including a requirement that an expert in autonomous vehicles be in the driver’s seat and able to assume full control at a moment’s notice.”

The “failsafe mechanism” basically means that the car should be able to safely get out of traffic until a human assumes control — and that should be at the center of how we handle this I think. Because that “expert in autonomous vehicles,ready at a moment’s notice” part? I think that’s wishful thinking.

The whole point of having autonomous cars is that no driver is required, and people won’t be willing to wait, clutching the wheel, on the off chance they’re needed. It’s got to go all the way, or at least allow for a window of time in which the driver can analyze the situation, plan his movements and assume control. Assuming that a driver who may not have been paying attention to his or her surroundings can control a vehicle right off the bat is a tall order however, Kirk believes.

“People will not be able to respond in time.”

It’s a good thing that we come face to face with these issues now, before autonomous vehicles truly hit the roads. But they just aren’t here yet, so you’ll have to keep your eyes on the road until they do. And yes, your hands on the wheel, too.

 

Canadian study questions the efficacy of helmet legislation

A Canadian study, titled “Bicycling injury hospitalization rates in Canadian jurisdictions: analyses examining associations with helmet legislation and mode share” analyzed the link between cycling helmet legislation and recorded head injuries in various parts of the country. The findings put into question the efficacy of helmet legislation, and the researchers suggest that the best way to protect cyclists is for the government to provide infrastructure tailored to their needs.

Some cyclist’s needs may be more exotic.
Image via flikr

The researchers crunched recorded hospitalization data from 2006 to 2011 for different Canadian jurisdictions, some with mandatory helmet laws, some without. For the average of 3690 riders aged 12 and over admitted for medical care per year (or 622 hospitalizations per 100 million bike trips) in Canada, the study found no evidence that helmet legislation reduces had any effect on the reported head injury rate.

The study also found that female had “consistently lower” rates of hospitalization for both transport and sport cycling than their male counterparts — which the authors attribute to their lower inclination towards risk taking behavior — and areas with more intense cycling traffic (defined as a greater proportion of trips) saw lower injury rates.

“Helmet legislation was not associated with reduced hospitalization rates for brain, head, scalp, skull or face injuries, indicating that factors other than helmet laws have more influence on injury rates,” the authors write.

The paper notes that bicycling injury research is “dominated by helmet research,” but while helmet use is undoubtedly associated with reduced odds of head injury in an accident, “studies examining the effect of helmet legislation have shown more mixed results”.

“We found that hospitalization rates for traffic-related injuries were lower with higher cycling mode shares, a ‘safety-in-numbers’ association consistent with results elsewhere and for other modes of travel.”

“These results suggest that transportation and health policymakers who aim to reduce bicycling injury rates in the population should focus on factors related to increased cycling mode share and female cycling choices. Bicycling routes designed to be physically separated from traffic or along quiet streets fit both these criteria and are associated with lower relative risks of injury,” they conclude.

New Zealand adopted helmet laws in 1994, and is now the country that enforces this law most rigorously, with a 93% wearing rate.
However, the graph shows no direct correlation between usage and head injury from helmets alone.
Image via wikipedia

Roger Geffen, Director of Policy at the Cyclists’ Touring Club sees this as further evidence that relying on helmets alone for cycling helmets is a loosing bet:

“Once again researchers have unearthed evidence which casts doubts on the usefulness of cycle helmets. They not only provided limited protection – they are only designed for minor falls, not collisions – but there is also evidence that they may increase the risk of collisions happening in the first place, by making either drivers or cyclists less cautious, or indeed by increasing the risks of neck and other injuries.”

“What’s clear though is that there’s no justification for health or safety professionals to bang on about cycle helmets as if they were a panacea. Their focus needs to be on reducing the risk of collisions occurring in the first place, by reducing traffic volumes and speeds, creating safe and cycle-friendly roads and junctions, tackling bad driving and reducing the risks from lorries. That’s what will help achieve more, as well as safer, cycling, in order to maximize the benefits cyclists gain from ‘safety in numbers’.”

While the study in no way suggests that helmets shouldn’t be used by cyclists, they advocate the development of safer, more specialized environments for cyclists, and the usage of helmets as a last resort — just as drivers rely on safety belts to save their life when everything else fails.

Hopefully we’ll see governments take steps towards this sooner, rather than later.

Canadian fish know how to party: getting high on cocaine

Both prescription and illegal drugs such as morphine, cocaine and oxycodone have been found in surface waters in Canadian rivers. New research shows that wastewater discharged from wastewater treatment plants in the Grand River watershed of southern Ontario has the potential to contaminate sources of drinking water with these drugs.

Looking for traces of illegal drugs in water.
Credit: McGill University

The study, published in Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry, shows that while such substances are found in relatively limited quantities, their concentrations remained constant downstream from the source – a water treatment plant discharge.

The water treatment plant removes the bulk of contaminants from wastewater coming from a wide range of sources, be it households or chemical plants, before discharging it into the river. Further down, a drinking water treatment plant then further treats the water prior to consumption.

“Improving our wastewater treatment processes can help clean up our drinking water,” said lead author Prof. Viviane Yargeau, of McGill’s Department of Chemical Engineering. “While previous studies have shown that there are trace elements of various chemicals that remain in our drinking water, what is novel about this research is that we looked at the chemicals that are found in the water course between the wastewater treatment plant and the drinking water treatment plant. And what we found has some disturbing implications for the aquatic environment.”

“These results demonstrated a link between wastewater plant discharges and quality of potable water sources,” he added. “Although drinking water treatment plants remove most of the contaminants found in our drinking water, we believe that if improvements are made to wastewater treatment plants to protect the sources of drinking water, this will prove a more effective way of dealing with the problem in the long run — as this strategy would also protect the aquatic environment and all the plants, insects and fish that are found there.”

The next stage in Prof. Yargeau’s research will be a five-year project to look into how improvements of wastewater treatment and natural processes along rivers impact the presence of contaminants of concern in our drinking water.

Image: Tavis Ford

Unsatisfied by their government’s apathy, Canadian scientists propose their own climate policy

Image: Tavis Ford

Image: Tavis Ford

The conservative Canadian government headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has consistently moved the country away from sustainable practices and environmental accountability. In 2011, the government came under fire after it withdrew Canada from the Kyoto protocol, an international agreement which commits its parties by setting internationally binding emission reduction targets. It also disbanded the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy in 2012, a panel tasked with reporting to the government Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. While the government has also taken some measures aimed at curbing emissions, these have been largely insufficient. Disappointed, 71 Canadian scientists have authored their own climate policy recommendations for the nation.

“We believe that putting options on the table is long overdue in Canada,” write the 71 authors of the Sustainable Canada Dialogues report.

Recognizing that climate change has effects across multiple domains, the authors not only include climate scientists, but sociologists or political scientists. Catherine Potvin, a climate and policy researcher at McGill University in Montreal, was the organizer of the report. She says the aim is to encourage Canadians, and ultimately the government, to support “ambitious and thoughtful commitments to emission reductions”. Thus, the report seeks to create awareness in the wake of the scheduled talks in Paris, December of this year, where the world government will negotiate a global reduction in emissions target.

The authors detailed a policy road map for Canada to achieve 100% reliance on low-carbon electricity by 2035. They suggest cutting emissions 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and at least 80% of emissions by midcentury. This could be achieved by setting a price on carbon through tax or pollution permit trading system (like in the EU), adding more solar and wind power, and eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels. “There is no miracle cure that will fix the problem. It’s about taking small steps toward a longer goal,” Potvin said for Science.

Hopefully, the report will garner some attention and raise awareness on the issue. The idea that climate change is real and that there actual solutions to mitigating them needs to sink in for the laymen Canadian.

Graph illustrates how useless the Kyoto Protocol has been. Image: GC.CA

Graph illustrates how useless the Kyoto Protocol has been. Image: GC.CA