Happy Winter Solstice!  Here’s some environmental and green science news to bring cheer to Christmas, and any light festival in grey Seattle and beyond…

Great News for Greater Seattle and the Pacific Northwest

Despite hostility toward public transit projects by the Trump administration, the Puget Sound region just secured the largest national Federal Transit Administration grant since Trump took office, allowing single rail to extend Northward to Lynnwood. Despite rising costs, $1.2 billion in federal money should secure the future of the extension.

Seattle’s soda-tax collections have topped $16 million in 9 months, surpass first-year estimate.  This measure literally may wean people from sugary drinks linked to type-2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and tooth decay. The soda industry spent $20 million ramming through their recently passed anti-local rights initiative 1634, using deceptive advertising (pretending soda taxes focused on staple foods). While this prevents other cities from enacting similar legislation, Seattle is finding a fairly gentle way to encourage more healthy diets.

Meanwhile regionally, a recent agreement should boost the survival of young salmon while limiting the financial hit to hydropower.  The agreement, supported by states, tribes and federal agencies is expected to change how water is spilled at Columbia and Lower Snake River dams. The measure adheres to a recommendation from Governor Jay Inslee’s orca task force to boost spill as a near-term way to increase the survival of chinook salmon, the primary food of critically endangered resident orca whales.  This agreement, recorded in Portland, may immediately aid the 2019 salmon migration season, and remains in place through 2021.

Great News for America

Nationally, having hiked gorgeous portions of the Appalachian Trail, I am thankful that courts are blocking a pipeline across adjacent national forests and the trail itself. The Trump administration and a pipeline company (Dominion Energy) tried to start digging up forests without proper environmental reviews. But a three judge panel in Richmond, VA declared that the US Forest Service “abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources” when it issued permits for the pipeline.  The underground pipeline would have required the clear-cutting of trees across the trail (to prevent roots from damaging the pipeline); it would have created landslide risks. And in the past, similar pipelines have ruptured and exploded after landslides, damaging sensitive terrain and water near the Trail.  The judges quoted Dr Seuss’ The Lorax, stating that the National Forest Service had to “speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

In our consumer-driven economy, consumers favor lower carbon-footprint grocery items when they are clearly labelled, according to a study just published in Nature Climate Research, whose parent company publishes affiliated, famous journals geared toward the environmentally curious, including Nature and Scientific American.  The study, led by international researchers, provided shoppers with labelled cans of food, for example soup cans containing beef and lower-carbon vegetarian soups.  “When consumers were aware of how much greenhouse gas was emitted to produce each can, they bought the low-emissions option more often.”

Great News Internationally

Internationally, negotiators from the European Parliament and Council reached a provisional agreement right before Christmas to curtail the use of plastic products such as cigarette butts, straws, bottles, and cutlery.  If this provisional agreement is enacted into law, it may prevent 22 billion Euros of damage from plastic pollution, according to EcoWatch.  The new rules would ban throwaway plastics for which there are readily available and affordable alternatives. The law goes after single-use flatware and chopsticks, plates, straws, polystyrene food and drink containers, plastics that break into micro-fragments, and cigarette butts with plastic components.

The world’s first “no kill eggs” are for sale in Berlin.  Currently, 4-6 billion male chicks are slaughtered every year, and sometimes ground live into compost. But German scientists found an easy way to determine a chick’s gender before it hatches, and less than two weeks after incubation.  So sometime soon, we may save some resources spent heating and housing unwanted chick eggs while also preventing acts of cruelty billions of times over.

Great Scientific Discoveries

A weird but pleasant science tale:  Scientists have accidentally created a mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles, according to the British newspaper, the Guardian. The discovery in 2016 of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic, at a waste dump in Japan, sparked the research. Scientists have now revealed the detailed structure of the crucial enzyme. “The mutant enzyme takes a few days to start breaking down the plastic – far faster than the centuries it takes in the oceans. But the researchers are optimistic this can be speeded up even further and become a viable large-scale process.”  About 1 million plastic bottles are sold each minute around the globe, with only about 14 percent recycled.

Without altering our DNA, perhaps we can develop more “mutant humans” who mostly consume liquids in zero waste and reusable containers…

Meanwhile, from the same newspaper’s excellent environmental reportage:  Scientists have just discovered that life can exist very deep in the earth’s subterranean biosphere, with living organisms surviving more than 5 kilometers below land and sea. And so the earth is far more alive than previously thought, according to “deep life” studies that reveal a rich ecosystem beneath our feet that is almost twice the size of all the world’s oceans.  In a weird twist for optimistic news stories inspired by festivals of light:  Some of these extremely low-energy organisms may live for millennia, while requiring no light whatsoever.  “Scientists have been trying to find a lower limit beyond which life cannot exist, but the deeper they dig the more life they find.”