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The Weekly Anthropocene: December 7, 2022
A Dispatch from the Wild, Weird World of Humanity and its Biosphere
The Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) was hunted for its fur to the point of near-extinction in the 1800s, but has since rebounded massively, with over 4 million fur seals living on South Georgia Island (this may even be higher than their pre-exploitation population!). Now, a new study has chronicled a wave of young, primarily male fur seals venturing beyond their island stronghold, going much further south onto the Antarctic Peninsula, as far as Marguerite Bay. This seems to be beyond their historic home range (scientists are unsure), and may be due to climate change causing krill (the seals’ favorite prey) to be found further south, as well as less ice leaving more physical space for seals on the peninsula’s beaches.
While this is a great sign for the expanding, thriving fur seal population (new habitat!), researchers are concerned that these seal pioneers are having negative effects on the Antarctic Peninsula’s fragile coastal ecosystems, which aren’t ecologically “used to” their presence. Fur seals (pictured above, in a figure from the study) have been trampling the few vegetation patches that manage to survive in these conditions (mostly mosses, lichens, liverworts, and a few sparse grasses) and over-fertilizing lakes with their waste, leading to rapid eutrophication. Some teams have fenced off vegetated areas of particular scientific interest to protect them from the seals, but it remains an open question how and even if humanity should respond when species’ movement into new areas has unforeseen consequences. After all, it isn’t the fur seals’ fault that they’ve found pleasant new habitat to live in. And as Antarctica continues to warm, it would be positively absurd to try and prevent wildlife from moving there and creating thriving populations in the hope of keeping pristine an ecosystem adapted to a cooler past.
This kind of story is becoming increasingly common in the Anthropocene, particularly in polar areas where warming opens up new habitat. For example, as previously discussed in this newsletter, we’re likely going to be getting lots of new eelgrass and seaweed meadows in the Arctic Ocean. Salmon are expanding their range from the Pacific into the Arctic as well. It’ll be really ecologically interesting to see these developments!
The solar panels currently in use are overwhelmingly silicon-based photovoltaics (silicon PV), and they’ve been a civilization-transforming success: the International Energy Agency recently reported that renewables are on track to replace coal as the world’s largest source of electricity by 2025! However, researchers are still finding room for improvement, and several new types of solar panels are on the cusp of full commercialization. For example, perovskite-based solar panels are widely seen as an up-and-coming, even more efficient “next generation” that should join silicon in the global energy market within a few years.
Furthermore, a German solar company called Heliatek is at the commercial forefront of a rising new solar technology recently profiled in Science, known as “organic photovoltaics”1 (OPV). OPV may have a promising future as a third major solar technology, as its chemical structure allows for the creation of ultra-thin, ultra-light, flexible solar panels that can be deployed in places where conventional solar wouldn’t fit, like the sides of buildings and curved wind turbines (pictured, above). And because they’re thinner and lighter, they’re faster, cheaper, and less energy-hungry to manufacture. And OPV technology is rapidly getting more efficient. Heliatek’s current OPV panels convert 9% of the energy in sunlight to electricity, known as a 9% solar panel efficiency. For comparison, silicon PV panels are generally around 20% efficiency, and some new perovskite composites are around 30%. But in the lab, new OPV materials are nearing 20% efficiency, which when commercialized could boost OPV solar into full maturity as a climate change-fighting, clean energy-providing technology. Over the next decade, keep an eye out for thin-film solar panels on a curved surface near you!
The state of Maine has released their annual Maine Won’t Wait2 report, chronicling progress made in 2022 on the array of climate change mitigation and adaptation programs spearheaded by Governor Janet Mills’ administration. This year, in addition to the excellent report itself, the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future have created an awesome interactive dashboard of charts, maps, and clickable map points to showcase progress on metrics from public EV charging stations to new conserved land projects to clean energy workforce development grants to Maine towns’ climate resilience investments. Incidentally, this writer co-created the maps and charts in this year’s report and dashboard!
Under the Mills Administration, Maine has made some really impressive progress on climate action and the renewables revolution. The Pine Tree State has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions 25% below 1990 levels, reached 48% clean electricity (with a statutory goal of 80% by 2030), deployed over 350 public EV charging stations on its roads, and installed over 82,000 new electric heat pumps since 20193. Maine has also developed a rapidly growing new “Community Resilience Partnership” of over 100 towns and tribes working with the state to develop and fund climate action resilience projects, from flood warning systems to climate-smart zoning and street design to community solar arrays. (Here’s the map of the CRP projects specifically!).
If you’re interested in looking at a more in-depth visualization of Maine’s climate progress, check out the dashboard at maine.gov/climateplan/dashboard, or click the screenshot above!
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
In 2005, researchers discovered the Union Island gecko, a tiny lizard with colorful and intricate scale patterns native to the eponymous island in the Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. However (in a disturbingly common trend4 for many small, rare, and beautiful creatures like lizards, butterflies, and songbirds) the Union Island gecko became a target for the quasi-legal exotic pet trade as soon as it was discovered. The wild gecko population collapsed by 80% as collectors illegally plundered the island, and the future of the species looked bleak.
However, in 2018 the tide began to turn, as international conservation NGOs, the Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Forestry Department, and a scrappy local environmental group worked together to deploy anti-poaching patrols, camera surveillance, and better protected area management. A recent survey found that Union Island gecko numbers have risen from 10,000 in 2018 to over 18,000 in 2022! These fascinating living jewels now have a strong human community dedicated to helping them thrive in the Anthropocene. Great news!
The “organic” in OPV has nothing to do with the “organic” of “organic agriculture;” it’s the same “organic” used in the term “organic chemistry,” and here refers to “matter containing carbon atoms.”