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Dispatches : Exploration

The Flora Invading Antarctica

Plant-snow_flickrPhoto: Flickr/gailf548

A study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows how ecotourists, researchers, and others who are lucky enough to step foot on Antarctica might be leaving more than footprints. Seeds and other plant material hitch-hikes there by way of visitors' clothing and gear, and could one day wreak havoc on the Antarctic ecosystem.

The study was conducted through Stellenbosch University in South Africa during the 2007-8 summer season. The Stellenbosch researchers vacuumed the clothes and gear that 850 people had brought with them and they found 2,686 seeds, reports the Los Angeles Times. The seeds were not intentionally brought, they'd simply been stuck to shoes and in the creases of clothing and in other gear. 

Clearly, these seeds don't signify an immediate threat to the icy continent, but as the climate there warms, these seeds could turn into invasive plants, which may flourish and harm the ecosystem. Should animals, such as rats, also find their way to Antarctica, things could get really ugly for endemic fauna. 

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Black Bear Killings Near Alberta Tar Sands Increase Three-Fold

Trash_bear_ontarioBlack bear scavenges at a dump. Photo: Flickr/Mr Emprey

As the debate rages over the environmental costs and benefits of oil derived from the tar sands in northern Alberta, wildlife near a major extraction area is already coming out on the losing end.

Alberta wildlife officials killed 145 black bears last year within tar sands areas because the bears had become habituated to garbage. Nearly half of those bears were shot in the tar sands camps and facilities that have been erected around near Fort McMurray, a major tar sands production region, according to the Calgary Herald.  

Darcy Whiteside with the Canadian government's Alberta Sustainable Resources Council, told the newspaper that the number of black bears killed near Fort McMurray last year was three times as many as in 2010, and the highest number in recent history. 

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What Happens to All The Plastic in the World's Oceans?

Five_gyres_collectionResearchers wield the collection trawl  Photo: Stiv Wilson

Despite what you might have heard, there are no huge, visually striking debris fields of plastic shopping bags and PET bottles swirling around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But if that's the good news, the bad news is much worse: there are in fact five different garbage patches, or gyres, formed by wind-driven ocean currents, and they are filled with photo-degraded plastic bits that are potentially far more dangerous to marine life and insidious than barges of plastic trash would be.

Oh, and every once in a while one will find huge gnarly balls of discarded fishing nets and bottles and buckets and toothbrushes bopping along the currents.

These were among the findings that Leslie Moyer and Carolynn Box, research aids with the 5 Gyres Project, shared with a packed house at Patagonia's North Point retail store in San Francisco on Wednesday. Five Gyres is a research initiative that has spent the past few years sailing into the world's subtropical gyres to collect water samples and measure the amount of plastic pollution within each.

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The Next Big Conservation Tool? Pilotless Drones

Sgt_gerst_UAV_launchA U.S. Army sergeant launches a UAV. Photo: The U.S. Army

Ecologists and conservationists have long and frustrating lists of hurdles that keep them from doing field work. Aside from the wild, dangerous miles between them and the remote regions of the world they need to examine, there are unfriendly governments and armed militias. There's the high cost and complexity of traveling to remote jungles or tundras. And sometimes the act of transporting oneself to a research site can actually hurt the research -- in the Arctic, emissions from gas-powered snowmobiles can skew the air samples that researchers need to capture.

Enter, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), remotely controlled drones, equipped with camera, GPS and a range of other sensors, that have long used for military surveillance applications. Today, conservationists, ecologists and other environmental researchers are turning UAVs to do everything from mapping deforestation to counting wildlife to collecting data in disaster areas, such as offshore oil spills or accidents at nuclear energy plants.

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L.A. Unpaved a Parking Lot, Put Up a Wetland

La-wetlands-seth_stronginA rainless winter means little water at the new wetlands park. Photo: Seth Strongin/TheCity Project

In South Los Angeles, a former bus and rail transit station has been replaced by a nine-acre park that includes native trees and plant gardens, walking trails and ponds that will filter storm water, using bacteria and plants to pull out pollutants before the water is fed into a storm drain.

The park, a former Metropolitan Transit Agency yard at Avalon Boulevard and 54th Street, was unveiled earlier this month and is the result of a three year, $26 million project. Some of the funding came through a bond measure that voters approved in 2006. Residents say the South Los Angeles Wetland Park offers a welcome change to the highly industrialized neighborhood, and an official with the Environmental Protection Agency calls the park a model for other cities that need new ways to safely treat polluted stormwater runoff.

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