If you have ever seen the 1986 film “Stand By Me”, then you are already very familiar with what a parasite is. The notorious leech scene in the film makes your skin crawl every time you watch it, and as disturbing as it is to watch, somehow you can’t look away. If you haven’t seen the iconic film, maybe you know what leeches are anyway. Leeches are parasitic worms that live in water or on land and suck the blood of birds, frogs, fish, and larger organisms- like Gordie Lachance- if they get the opportunity. Leeches are just one type of commonly known parasite, though, and their portrayal in the media has definitely made the term “parasite” synonymous with “bad”, but there’s more to parasites than meets the eye.
But Don't Parasites Suck?
Now, we aren’t saying that blood-sucking parasites are a favorable companion for humans, but we do want to get you thinking about other parasites and why they are important to the balance of our planet. Parasitic relationships are ones where an organism, the parasite, lives off of another organism, the host organism, causing it harm and death. Some well known parasites include barnacles, fleas, or tapeworms. Lyme disease is caused by ticks, a parasite that tends to live in grassy, woody areas.
While parasites may seem frightening and can be harmful, when you look at their behaviors and how they adapted, you may just appreciate the beauty of their existence. Most people understand the predator- prey dynamic of a food web pretty well, but parasites don’t fit neatly into those categories. There are these “holes”, so to speak, in the evolutionary adaptations of certain animals, and that is where these parasites have evolved to succeed. They’re kind of opportunists, they get creative with how they survive. For example, Namatamorph worms live in crickets, but need to be in the water to mate, so they have adapted a means to influence the cricket’s brain, getting them to jump into streams where the trout then become food for trout. So, while one organism dies, it is just fulfilling its role in the food web by becoming food for the trout, and that is all thanks to the parasite.
Everything Serves SOME Purpose
With that said, parasite conservation is extremely important. Their role in ecosystems can vary from population regulation to simply keeping a balance in the food web, like in the case of the Namatamorph worm/cricket scenario. Of all of the animals that we know about, approximately 40% are parasites. Even with that type of abundance, parasite conservation is extremely difficult because there hasn't really been an interest in parasite studies in the past. Skylar Hopkins, an ecologist at North Carolina State University, put together a team of scientists interested in parasite ecology and conservation. In 2020 the team published the “first ever global plan for saving parasites in a special issue of the journal Biological Conservation,” which was quite the challenge. Hopkins notes that after looking all the time, for YEARS, she could only find two useful data sets of historical data for parasites. It is so important to conservation efforts to have historical records of organisms, because otherwise we can’t know how their role in their environment has changed over time. And if we don’t know that, it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out how to help them in the present.
There is so much that we don't know about parasites, but their survival and conservation is just as critical to human survival as the conservation of megafauna is. Without parasites keeping population regulated, there could be population booms in certain species, kickstarting a series of events which could result in the crash of other species. Everything on this planet has a specific role, and parasites are no exception. There definitely are some parasites that scientists don’t have a particular interest in saving, like the Guinea worm, which grows to adulthood in a person’s leg and exits -painfully- through the foot. While humans might be better off without THOSE types of parasites, the idea of parasite eradication is a major inhibitor to parasite conservation. Humans don’t necessarily need to like parasites or think that they're cute, but changing the narrative and highlighting their importance to the planet is a start for conserving millions of species of parasites critical to their ecosystems. Scientists aren’t asking you to LOVE parasites, but rather stop our war against them and appreciate their value to our ecosystem.
New Technology is Helping Reduce Locust Swarm Destruction
If you were to describe a locust swarm to someone for the first time, they might seriously believe it was straight out of a fictional movie, a distant planet, or even a nightmare.
Locusts are large grasshoppers that live on almost every continent of the world. Most of the time, these bugs live a solitary, sedentary lifestyle that is typical for the grasshopper family. However when heavy rains, cyclones and storms appear, bug breeding conditions turn favorable and the locusts populations increase. As they increase, these bugs become crowded, and turn from muted brown color and a relatively harmless, solitary state to bright yellow and a gregarious state. These locusts then, well...swarm, and do so in groups of more than 15 million insects per square mile.
The swarms devastate the crops in their path and inflict major agricultural and economic damages, striping entire areas of their vegetation. Some swarms will consume the equivalent amount of food in a single day as more than 13,000 people. In East Africa and many other places, climate change is exacerbating the wet weather that used to be less frequent. In fact, ten years ago, there may have been between 0-1 cyclones coming off the Indian Ocean, while now there are around 8-12 a year.
History (Not) Repeating Itself
In 2018, two large cyclones in Saudi Arabia led to an 8,000 fold increase in locust populations. By mid 2019, the same swarm was pushed into the Horn of Africa due to winds, and was boosted by a wet Autumn there. A disaster, as you can imagine.
While the fight against climate change is a long term battle, the economic impact that these swarms inflict is a right now problem. So when the swarms hit in 2020 and billions of locusts descended upon East African countries that had not seen the swarms for decades, Dr. David Hughes and his team set out to minimize impact with modern day technology.
21st Century Solutions
Some other countries that deal with smaller, seasonal locust swarms actually have a team of locust trackers who are trained to identify the insects and what stage of their life cycle they are currently in. Using a tablet based program, these trackers are able to prevent damage by using their data to design appropriate control strategies.
This software, while great, was not available for use in nations outside their area, and for places without trained locusts trackers. The solution? An accessible smartphone app called eLocust3m, which Dr. Hughes and his team were able to create in less than a month. The app presents photos of locusts at different stages of their life cycle, which users can help diagnose what they are seeing in the field. Upon submission, exact GPS coordinates are then automatically recorded while the photos are double checked.
Amid the 2020 swarms, the app was a huge success, with over 240,000 locust records submitted in the last year in East Africa. But how is all this data used to help control swarms? Essentially, the data is analyzed geographically and provided to trained government locust trackers. It tells them where in the swarm are the young locusts, so they can focus spraying their pesticides in these areas, stopping them before they have time to mature, multiply, and spread into Uganda and South Sudan like the year prior. They have 28 aircrafts to do so now, and in February alone these aircrafts in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia flew the equivalent of 2 times the circumference of the globe.
Since February 2020, the F.A.O estimates that this effort in East Africa averted $1.5 billion in agricultural damages. This saved the livelihood of 34 million people.
This new crowdsourcing technology is just the beginning, and can potentially serve as a model for other climate related disasters.
You've heard a few stories from us about carbon capture and have probably seen it popping up in other places - the notion of reducing the carbon in the atmosphere by literally taking some out. The most common technology in this space is Direct-Air-Capture (DAC), however putting the high costs aside for a moment, there is a lot of debate over how and where to store it once we do.
However there was a new breakthrough announced this week from the company Planetary Hydrogen that potentially changes the paradigm of carbon capture completely. They have found a way to turn carbon into sodium bicarbonate, which is very helpful for oceans, while producing a by-product of pure hydrogen, a valuable resource. While there is still much to prove, the model looks really promising!
Our Oceans Need Help
The oceans serve as super valuable environmental controls for us. For one they capture about 90% of the heat on the planet's surface. They also sequester roughly 1/4 of our carbon emissions. However, we've been taxing them way too much. Rising sea levels and rising temperatures have caused the ocean to acidify, and this is bad news on multiple fronts. It's killing corals, many other plant and animal species, and is throwing off the carbon cycle it naturally provides us.
We could explain this to you in writing, but this video here really does a much better job than we could do.
Give the Ocean An......Antiacid?
Well, yeah! That's exactly what we need to do. Enter Planetary Hydrogen.
In a nutshell, they are using renewable electricity to power electrolysis (separating Hydrogen from Oxygen in water), combining that with a mineral salt to create a mineral hydroxide as a waste product (meaning "HO", leaving 1 H molecule leftover) which then binds with CO2 to form sodium bicarbonate, which when released into the ocean helps to lower acidity and gets stored long term safely in the ocean.
In addition, we get valuable Hydrogen, which is used in things like ammonia, hydrogen fuels, food processing, and more. For every 40 kg of CO2 they can store away, they produce 1 kg of H.
Everyone seems to win. The atmosphere, the oceans, and we get a valuable resource in pure hydrogen. There is still a long way to go to make this cost efficient and work at scale, but it's the most promising form of carbon capture we've seen yet!
This past March 11th marked the 10 year anniversary of the horrible earthquake and tsunami that struck Fukushima and rattled Japan. A 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami 50-feet high that struck the Japanese town.
Over 18,000 people died, but perhaps the biggest challenge was the triple meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Over 160,000 people had to be evacuated and Japan is still recovering from this disaster.
One of the ongoing issues has been over 1m tonnes of water that is sitting at the nuclear site. Without clearing it, Japan says they can not proceed with repairing the city and decommissioning the plant. So they've decided to dump the water into the ocean. Question is, just how contaminated is it?
Contaminated vs. Treated
Japanese officials led by prime minister Yoshihide Suga say that they have treated the water of all dangerous levels of radioactive waste and only trace elements of tritium remain, a radioactive element they say poses no danger in small amounts. There is simply no way to fully remove tritium which everyone agrees, the question though is whether or not this poses a problem or not.
There is LOTS of opposition. China, Taiwan, South Korea all vehemently oppose the dump saying this will harm local oceans and fishing and business on many fronts. Just the perceived risk alone they worry will drive folks away from buying local fish and possibly hurt Japanese seafood exports as a whole. Greenpeace Japan also opposes the action, and there are many activist groups fighting it with protests.
The one player who seems to agree with the decision is.....the US? Ugh, yeah. Apparently. The US Secretary of State said they support the decision and the water does not seem to pose any long term threats. However, reading the between the tea leaves here.....the US really wants to keep Japan as a close ally in its battle with China on, well everything, so this feels a bit more political than scientific. Frustrating.
It seems this decision is inevitable. The site of the Fukushima plant is just 35 miles away from some of the event locations for the upcoming Summer Olympics, so we suspect this won't be the last time we hear about this.