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Hello, again everybody. My name is Matt Simon. I’m a Science Journalist at WIRED. This is a sort of break out extended session of what we just did for WIRED 25 which is a conversation about these big environmental challenges that earth is facing right now. And with us again […]

Hello, again everybody. My name is Matt Simon.

I’m a Science Journalist at WIRED.

This is a sort of break out extended session

of what we just did for WIRED 25

which is a conversation about these

big environmental challenges that earth is facing right now.

And with us again is Isla Myers Smith.

She is a global change scientist

at the university of Edinburgh, I believe.

Is that correct?

And we also have the dynamic duo of micro-plastic research

D and Steve Allen are currently on their boat.

In our prep call we just talked for about 10 minutes about

the way that you do research on a boat

and sail around the world.

So that’s good as well,

but this is going to be a more in depth conversation,

taking some questions

mostly as well.

But I wanted to just start things off.

First of all, thanking you again for being here

and talking about what I think unites

your two areas of research, which is first of all,

the geography, when we’re talking about the Arctic

which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet

as Isla is researching, but the Allens are also looking

at how micro-plastics are blowing around the world,

particularly up into the Arctic

which used to be this pristine area.

What also unites that is this idea of fossil fuels,

creating climate change

and fossil fuels also making plastics.

And I think it would be good if we could get

into some questions and maybe some foundational questions

from viewers, for each of you.

And I think for Isla, it would be best to start

with a question from John Williams.

And this is I think a really good one.

It’s a very complicated question

largely speaking in the earth systems

but what is the single most critical

evidence that leads you to believe

that current climate conditions are caused

by human activity?

So when we’re thinking about climate change

in the Arctic and elsewhere,

the main factor that we think is causing the warming

of the planet is this change in the atmosphere.

So the fact that we’ve been putting

different greenhouse gases

carbon dioxide is one of them

methane and others up into the atmosphere.

And it kind of in the WIRED 25 talk

I talked about how shrubs trap the snow layer

and that warms the soil.

It’s the same premise.

When you put more of these greenhouse gases

in the atmosphere

you’re basically making a big blanket around the planet.

And we talked about how the earth is

is sort of a ball within a bubble.

And so you’re making this sort

of outer edge of that bubble thicker.

And so when the sun’s heat comes

through space and hits the planet, it’s bounces back

off of that blanket and stays within the system.

But when we’re thinking about climate change in the Arctic,

there’s a bunch of other factors going on.

So this idea of polar amplification

so more warming happening in the Arctic

than elsewhere on the planet.

And a lot of that is to do with these albedo feedback.

So reflectance feedbacks with kind of again,

sort of links to the snow thing that I was talking

about before.

But in the winter time in the Arctic,

the surface of the planet up there is white

from snow and ice.

And if that snow and ice is melting off earlier

in the spring and coming back later in the fall,

that means the sort of darker part of the year

for the surface of the planet becomes longer.

And it’s kind of like a sunny day

when you’re wearing your t-shirt or whatever,

if you’re wearing a dark t-shirt you feel warmer

in the sun than if you’re wearing a white tee shirt,

it’s that same premise.

So as we’re losing ice and snow from the top of the planet

and this summer was the second smallest extent

of sea ice currently at the moment.

So the changes are happening really rapidly

particularly with sea ice.

Then all of that’s trapping more heat in the system.

It warms the Arctic

but it also warms the planet as a whole.

So those are two of the main factors that sort

of we’re thinking are leading

to the warming that’s going on.

And we’re still trying to build a better understanding

of what the changes that are happening right now will mean

in the future in terms of climate warming.

Great. Thank you for that.

That’s great explanation.

And I should ask them also mention

that for folks who are on the zoom call

you can actually add a question to the chat feature.

And we’ll try to get that asked.

I guess I should say that not in the past voice,

I will try to ask that question

But turning to Steve and D to talk about micro-plastics.

And I think this is a really important question

that actually you and I talked about last week

from Michael Errands.

Oh, excuse me.

From Chris Kona is the growing use

of compostable bio-plastics in urban centers

making a dent in the distribution of micro-plastics.

What’s the deal with these bio-plastics?

There’s no evidence that there’s any benefits to them,

but we do have evidence that they can be as toxic

or even more toxic than traditional plastics.

So the idea that we can create something that looks

and feels like plastic and makes us feel good

because it says it’s bio on the back.

It doesn’t work in reality.

If it looks like plastic, it feels like plastic.

It is a plastic.

It’s just going to break down

into smaller particles faster maybe.

So we wind up with more micro-plastic particles

flying around the place rather than less.

There’s a theory that

the compostable bags can be composted in your backyard.

And then if you throw the bio biodegradable product out

to your car window, not saying that anybody would

ever do that, but you know, if you throw it out or

you don’t put it into the waste management system

in an appropriate way.

So it gets mismanaged.

The natural environment will break it down

back into its original cabin back road.

So what happens is in nature, there is a cabin backbone.

That’s a certain length when you take a form.

So whether it be petrochemicals

or whether it be organic materials

so your starch, or like your potato starch

or corn starch or your bamboo and you plasticized it

what you’re effectively doing is

creating what was originally a natural carbon chain

and turning it into a polymer that is longer

than anything that naturally exists in the environment.

And we don’t have a natural environmental way

of breaking those polymers back to what they used to be.

So there isn’t a system that exists in our environment

that allows that to return back to where it came from.

It’s not there. It’s a human created polymer.

So anything that’s got the word plastic in it

has this backbone.

So even though it says, it’s bioplastic

you have to put it into a really specific management system.

That’s an incineration system

that’s over a certain heat or compost system.

That’s an industrial compost system to

be able to allow these, to break

down your back backyard compost system, can’t do it.

It doesn’t get hot enough.

It doesn’t have the right microbes.

It’s not possible

for that to actually do what it says on the tin.

And this is some of the it’s been labeled green washing

in environmental plastic world

because the information about how this actually works

isn’t being passed on past science.

It needs to kind of go out to everybody else,

but it hasn’t got there yet.

Yeah. This kind of comes back to something we talked about

on the previous panel,

talking about the personal responsibility here

that I think is pushed onto consumers

in particular, when it comes to recycling.

I think that the industry have made a very

concerted effort decades ago to say, Hey, you consumers

if you’re the problem, why aren’t you recycling?

And we’ll just keep pumping

out all this plastic, as long as you take care of it.

But this whole time

there was an NPR piece a couple weeks ago, they’ve gotten

to some documentation that the plastics companies knew all

along that these weren’t recyclable in any economic way

which is what you need to do to get this

to scale up and have everything be really recyclable.

I was wonder if you could speak

to that, that again, to this point that, you know

there are things that we can do

as consumers, but this requires a larger change.

This kind of planetary change when it comes

to tackling this planetary problem.

Yeah, I think that’s the, you hit the nail on the head.

The consumer never drove his plastics boom.

There was always the petrochemical

companies who wanted to sell their chemicals

or sell their oil in another fashion.

So, you know, we never asked to have our fruit

and vegetables wrapped in plastic.

That was just one day it was there and we didn’t complain.

So they just kept doing it.

And, you know

whilst plastics are very useful to us with,

the electric cables in your house, they make cars lighter.

So they use less fuel, all wonderful things.

But you know

40% of the plastic we use is single

use plastic that just gets thrown away

and it’s not going to be recycled.

Most of it can’t be recycled.

It’s too thin.

It doesn’t hold value.

And at best it’s going to be recycled maybe once or twice.

And then they just make it

into a park bench where it sits there and gives

off whatever chemicals it had in its, during his lifetime

plus big starts leaking micro-plastics as it ages.

So I think the way forward now is

that the public needs to let the politicians know

that we’ve had enough and then it’s time for change.

Then we can affect real policy.

And the first policies that need to come in is honesty

in labeling, tell us what actually can be recycled.

And is it likely to be recycled

because some plastics while it’s perfectly possible

it can’t be done in your country?

Well that’s not much use,

so it’s going to be landfill anyway.

Right. Or it’s going to be incinerated

which is going to add to all those problems.

The more we burn the more greenhouse gases we get out of it.

Yeah. I mean, yeah.

You have to vote with your feet

and ask for change.

And we somehow have to make the people

that are creating these plastics responsible to some level.

And that’s a political argument.

we can, as individual citizens, we can voice our reason

and our want but the plastic bodies

and fracking is a huge input into plastic.

They’re building entire fracking developments

across the world specifically to

create the petroleum that’s required to make plastic.

They’re not being used for car fuel or anything.

That’s not all of them,

but there are some that are like only for plastic.

So somehow we have to stop that and

create this in a different way.

So we’re not saying that all plastic is bad

cause it’s not well, take that back.

We’re not saying that all plastic can’t be managed

and we need to get rid of all of it.

There is an element of toxicity in all plastic

in the very nature it’s created.

But what we need to do is become more educated about

where we want to use this in a responsible way.

And the stuff that we’re not responsibly managing

needs to be driven by the policies

and the science to shift how we manage it.

So this leaky waste management system that we have

just can’t continue.

Cause it’s having a seriously detrimental impact

in our environment.

Yeah. Quick follow up question for you there.

Before I turn to climate change question for Isla.

Paul Woolley is asking are thermoplastics totally

non-recyclable?

No thermo-plastics or thermoset plastics are recyclable.

There’s many different types.

I mean, if you actually look under that banner of plastic

there are thousands, hundreds of thousands

of different types of plastics

with different recipes.

But basically thermoset plastic can be melted down

and reshaped.

But only so many times before it starts to get weaker.

And if there’s any sort of contamination

in the waste stream, then it becomes very weak.

And because of that

and also the chemicals that may be contaminating it as well

generally you can’t use recycled plastic

for food grade products

because you’re not really sure about the history.

There’s only a couple

of countries in the world where they have barcode readers

on the recycling machines.

So when you put your plastic bottle in, it reads the barcode

and says, that’s what the plastic isn’t safe.

They can reuse for food grade,

but pretty much everything else it can’t be

because you just don’t know what’s in there.

The definition of plastic is a bit like

using the word insect.

Like they were so many different types

of plastics with so many different compositions.

It’s a bit like saying, well, a plastic is an insect.

We’ve got so many species out there

that it’s just not funny.

Hmm. Speaking of insects.

Thanks for that segue.

I have a question for Isla.

I think, I don’t know how much

of this you’re looking at up in the Arctic, when it comes

to the ecology

Miler Hudson was asking

where did all the insects go?

If that isn’t necessarily

a concentration on your work up there

and the ecology about some other species dynamics

that you’re seeing up there.

And of course with the greening that you’re studying

but also, you know, larger mammals and things like that.

So to start off with,

that there’s plenty of insects where I work

and they’re mostly mosquitoes.

It’s a very mosquito part of the world.

So every summer as the snow melts and the sea ice melts

and the landscape goes green, the tundra comes to life.

And one of the things that emerges are all sorts

of different species of insects.

And it is a very diverse part of that system.

Interesting to bring that up because

I also work at global scales.

And one of the questions that we’ve been looking at

is how biodiversity is changing around the planet.

And we have been looking into the sort of insect.

Sometimes it’s called the insect Armageddon

sort of question.

And the latest on that is that actually

if you put together all the different data sets

for the monitoring, that’s going on right now

there are some places where insects seem to be declining

but there’s also a lot

of places where insects are increasing

and the declines and the increases

are sort of balancing out.

So there’s probably

on mass, there’s no net change in insects that we can detect

in the monitoring that we’re doing.

But a key point there is that there’s tons

of insects species on the planet

and most of them aren’t being monitored appropriately.

And that’s totally true in the Arctic.

So there’s, it’s only handful

of people who really work in detail on Arctic insects.

Some of them are colleagues of mine.

And the work that they’re doing is vitally important

because the insects are this really key part

of the food chain.

So I’m mostly studying the plants at the sort of bottom

of the food chain and it’s the insects are the next step up.

And it’s the songbirds and all the different wildlife depend

on those insects for their food resources

and some birds breeding each summer.

It’s the insects that give them the

energy to raise their chicks each year.

So I’ve done a tiny bit of work on the insect side

of the story, but really what we’re interested in

in the Arctic is the timing of when insects emerge.

So if the growing seasons are getting earlier

are the insects also emerging earlier?

And does that mean that there could possibly be mismatches

between when the birds are nesting

and when the insect resources are available?

So that’s one of the questions we’re trying to get at also

on the plant side of that equation is how the timing

of different events for the different species and parts

of the food chain might be changing and what the knock

on effects of that might be.

Great. Building, a little bit on that.

And another question for you Isla

about climate change aspect

this is a very interesting one

from Michael Aaron asking what major economic

and human migration shifts do you see

in the next 10 years due to global climate change.

And to that, I think I’ll add

it’d be great to hear also what you’re seeing as far

as the shifting of species, you know,

plant communities, that sort of thing.

So not just humans needing to migrate,

but plants and animals as well.

Yeah. So the human migration part of the story,

isn’t my area of expertise, but I think generically

what we’re expecting is that people are going to move away

from places that are more difficult for them to live.

So a particular one would be areas

that are experiencing more severe droughts.

And this year in particular, if we think about

the fire seasons that we’ve had

that have been really intense in Australia,

in the West coast, North America

even in the Arctic as well in the Boreal forest.

And so if you’re living in a fire prone ecosystem

in future, you might choose not to live in those areas.

And other things would be intense storms.

And we were just talking about just before this call

how more frequent storms and a longer storm period

within the year, it can influence coastal communities.

So you’ve got various places on the planet.

They’re probably going to get harder for people to live in.

And if those people have the resources, they’re going to try

and move out of those places

to places where it’s easier to live your lives.

In the Arctic

there are lots of people living in the Arctic.

And I don’t think

that the people I talked to are that keen to move.

So they’re wanting to, you know,

try limit the change as much as they can

and adapt to the changes that are going on.

And the Arctic peoples are very knowledgeable

about climate change impacts in their system.

And one of the sort of elements to our research

is collaborating with a local people

and incorporating their observations

into the research that we’re doing

and working with them directly on the science.

So that’s the sort of other side of the story.

So now I’ll flip over to what other species might be doing.

So in the Arctic

we’re working on tracking how plants are changing

and how the animals that feed on those plants,

the plants being the habitat for those species

might be shifting as well.

And so what we predict is that

as the climate warms a different

species that were previously limited

by the really harsh conditions

in the tundra ecosystems that I study

they might be able to move northward

but it’s quite hard to track that.

So you’ve got this really massive part

of the planet where there aren’t

that many researchers on the ground tracking things.

So we don’t have as clear

of a picture as we do in say focal research sites

where we can monitor the same bit

of tundra in the same species each summer.

But what it looks

like is happening is these shrub species that we study

they do seem to be moving northward a bit as best

as our records allow.

And they’re becoming more abundant

in the places that they already existed.

And along with that, we’re seeing

some wildlife species potentially moving northward.

So some of the charismatic ones that

have been recently sort of published

and also the local people have observations

for our both moose and beavers.

So moose and beavers tend to

use to hang out in the Boreal forest.

So where the trees grow South

of the tree line and what we’re seeing

in recent years, are moose going up North of the treeline

and beavers crossing over the Brooks range in Alaska

and coming out on the North slope of Alaska.

So those are species that normally would be found

in the forest that are seen happy

up in the more woody tundra

where there are more shrubs in the current day

and things that both moose and beaver really like willows.

One of the species that I study

and that the willows are increasing.

And so maybe that’s why these

species are able to move northward.

Great. Thank you for that.

Thank you very much.

So moving from the far North to South Florida

of all places, great question from Richard Wescom.

We took part in a beach cleanup

in South Florida two weeks ago that collected 110 pounds

of trash in an hour, a significant majority of it

plastic, mostly bottles and bottle caps.

How big a deal is ocean pollution in terms

of the wider plastics/pollution problems?

Steve and D I think this would be a great opportunity

if you wanted to talk about

the micro-plastic aspect of this as well

specifically, your really interesting stuff

interesting study about how micro-plastics actually coming

out of the ocean and onto land.

Yeah. We have a fair idea that we’re getting a lot

of plastic coming out of the rivers from our street drains

and things into the ocean.

But when it goes into the ocean, we tend to lose it.

We can’t find where all this tens of millions of tons

of going in every year.

We can’t find it.

So recently there’s been some research that showed it

in the deep sea sediments and in the currents

and continually moving around.

And we also tested the atmosphere of sea breeze to see

whether the plastics could also be jumping back out

of the sea into the air again.

And we found that, yeah, it’s cycling in and out

of the ocean.

We’ve made some rough estimates

130 or a thousand tons are coming out every year

into the air.

I think that’s a gross underestimation of

What’s actually happening, but yeah

we need to do a little more research to prove that

but yeah, beach cleanups.

Yeah. We highly encourage them

that we have a friend who works for the national parks

in Norway who does regular cleanups with the teams.

And they’re getting tens of thousands

of tons when they do a beach, which is just staggering.

And most

of that’s from commercial fishing, but yeah, around cities

and things, obviously, if it goes on the ground

it’s gonna wash into the drain that goes in the drain.

It’s down the river, river to sea.

It’s just a, you know, we already know this happens.

So perhaps prevention is better than beach cleanups.

Well, please, please keep cleaning up the beach.

But yeah there’s a study that came out recently

that suggested that

while we know that there’s an awful lot of plastic floating

on the surface of the ocean and it either stays

in the surface and the gyres, or it lands up sinking down

into the sediment in the water column.

But it ejects, as Steve was saying back up

into the atmosphere.

So as the bubble bursts

these tiny little micro and nano-plastics disburse up

into the air

and then get like, they travel all over the world.

Cause once you’re above 10 meters, you can go anywhere.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s North

or South pole, Arctic, Antarctic or up to India.

But what they’re also showing is

that the amount of plastic in soil.

So in our agricultural systems, in our urban systems

in our remote areas

the amount of plastic in soil is to be as concerning

as the amount of plastic that we currently have floating

on the surface of the earth.

They were suggesting

that it’s almost a 50/50, that we’ve got so much plastic.

That’s actually

within our terrestrial system, that it’s comparable

to what we’ve been finding floating around in the ocean.

So we used to think that the ocean was our garbage dump.

That was where all the plastic went.

What we’re finding is it’s a cycle

and that the ocean is basically spitting the plastic back

out, back at us in smaller particles

and that this material is being found everywhere.

So yeah, it’s large,

but it’s not the only place that plastic is.

And it’s not necessarily the most

polluted plastic environment that there is.

So we have about five minutes left

and I wanted to end it again

on hopefully like a, an up note as best we can.

And I think maybe actually to bring your two spheres

of research together, looking at the Arctic

as kind of a bellwether of the health of the planet.

So Isla you’ve mentioned

you have the polar amplification is warming much faster

but Stephen and D you’re studying

micro-plastics that are both blowing and up there.

And there was also a study out about a month ago.

I think that found that ocean currents

are taking more micro-plastics up there

and depositing them in ocean sediments.

So I think to close out,

I was hoping to get perspectives from both of you,

with your groups about looking at the Arctic

as kind of this personal sacred place

ecologically speaking, environmentally speaking

what we can learn from the health of that place

and how we might be able to inform policies to

make that only the Arctic better place

a cleaner place, but the world as well.

Excellent. Big questions right there.

I’ll have a go.Start off with you and then turn it over.

Arctic is one of the more remote parts of the planet

in one perspective.

So you don’t have the dense human populations that you have

in a lot of other parts of the planet,

but there are people there

and it’s their traditional territory and their land.

And I think it is a definitely a sacred place

for those people.

And I’ve been really lucky to have the opportunity to go

up to the Arctic each summer.

And for me, it’s an incredibly special place.

And I know

that so many people don’t get that opportunity to be there

but I’ll just from my personal experience.

There’s something magical when you go

up above tree line into those fast open landscapes

something that really connects strongly

with me, but then you do see these changes

and I’ve been working in Arctic ecosystems.

I think it’s almost

for two decades, depending on when you start counting

but I can see the changes

with my own eyes in the systems in which I work.

So it’s rapid dramatic change

that when you’re there on the ground.

Yeah. You can definitely see it.

And it’s related to the climate change

and changes in sea ice and changes in ocean circulation.

And there are plastic waste

on the beaches at my field site as well.

So yeah, what we’re doing when we’re living

at more Southern latitudes and the

way we’re polluting our environment is having impacts

across the planet.

Even the most remote places are being impacted.

And I think both of our research sort of illustrates

that those impacts and so to sort of connect

and make change with how we can think forward

and try and protect those places as best we can.

I think it is really important to try

and connect, even if you’d never get to go

to the Arctic yourself, look at pictures that have

yeah. Do some research on what it’s like up there.

And then think about some

of the sort of policy implications of what’s going on.

So I’ll mention something semi political

in the US right now we’re opening

up potentially oil exploration

in the Arctic national wildlife refuge.

And that’s an area that’s just right next

to where I do my Arctic research.

And that area was set aside

for wildlife as the name would suggest.

And so if we bring oil exploitation

into that area, we’re going to bring more pollution directly

to the Arctic, and it will have impacts particularly

on the migratory caribou herds.

So we as citizens of different countries have a

chance to sort of ask our policy makers to try

and set aside as much as we can of the Arctic

but also other remote places on this planet.

So they’ll still be micro-plastics

and other things moving into those systems, but we can try

and keep other human exploitation out as best we can.

And remember that they’ll be remote.

They still people living there and who depend

on those ecosystems and their voices really matter as well.

Yeah, I think probably just to add

to that would be that we can’t ignore the Canary

in the coal mine and the Arctic is that for us, you know

it’s the first thing to feel

the effects it’s showing the effects quite strongly

that what we’re doing is just evil

and we need to change our habits.

We’ve got to do it fast.

And yeah, I think policy changes.

That’s where I’m going to go next.

We’re already documenting what’s happening to the planet.

We can see it.

Isla can see it.

And I think in general, the public can see it too.

And nobody wants to live in a rubbish dump.

Nobody wants to live in a bushfire area or a flooding area.

That’s going to get worse every year.

So I think everybody already knows

there’s a bit of denialism out there

and hopefully they’ll get over it and come

to the fact that we are making a change and it’s not good.

We can’t just keep thinking that there isn’t a way

for plastic there isn’t, you might be sending it overseas

but you’re getting it back in your air and your food.

So, you know, this is unsustainable for anybody.

And I think people genuinely know that it’s not sustainable.

We have to make a change.

Nobody wants to live in a garbage dump.

Yeah. And the Arctic as is the top of the mountain.

So we do a lot of stuff

on very high remote areas, these remote areas are sentinel.

They show the impact of the changes that we do

in our environment first and in very expressive ways.

So the bugs and the species

that are the ecosystems that we have

in places like the Arctic, they react

and illustrates the impact that could potentially happen

all over the globe.

If we don’t stop the change

or modify our behavior to change

what the change is going to be.

So the plastic that lands up in the Arctic

lands up being in the water,

in the sediment, it goes into your ice.

Basically the ice acts like a sponge to collect plastic.

It gets onto your tundra.

It’ll be eaten up

and it’ll change the species dynamics of how they function

and which species are more dominant and not

because of the chemicals that are exuded out

of the plastics and how they eat them and things like that.

So as that shifts, this is kind of like a torch.

It’s like a headlight showing this is what’s happening

in these really remote areas.

This is going to be so much worse when we

it comes into a city.

So when it’s no longer, it’s not happening in the sentinel

like highlight areas, when it actually comes to happen

to us, the problem is going to be multiple times bigger.

So it’s basically, it’s an indicator to say

guys, you need to actually look

at this are showing a change here just

because it’s in a really remote area that you are not in.

Doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen to you.

It’s happening and it’s happening there.

Therefore it is actually going to happen to you.

And this is a warning sign to say

Hi, can you please do something different?

Right. Well, thank you for all that.

That’s fantastic information.

It’s, great to be able to talk

to you more and this, this extended session.

Thanks again

for taking the time for those

of you out there who want to learn more

about the work of these fantastic researchers

they appear regularly on wired.com and my story.

So you can look them up there.

So I’ll just say, we’ll sign off and thank you to D

and Steve and Isla very much for taking the time.

I really appreciate it.

Thanks Matt. A pleasure.

Thanks everyone. Thank you

Cheers. Bye

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