Marijuana cultivation can stress the environment, but regulation is difficult when its legal status isn’t clear. Photo credit: Shutterstock
The movement to legalize marijuana use and cultivation is picking up steam across the U.S. In California medical marijuana has been legal since 1996, while recreational use—though still not legal—is widely accepted with possession of small amounts a minor misdemeanor. Since then, multiple other states have followed on California’s footsteps in legalizing the popular plant or at least decriminalizing it.
But it’s still technically a banned drug at the federal level. So rules governing its use, distribution and growing are uneven, and unevenly enforced. And, according to a new scientific study, that’s not good for the environment.
A team of scientists from theNature Conservancy, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and University of California Berkeleypublished a studythis week,High Time for Conservation: Adding the Environment to the Debate on Marijuana Liberalization, in the journalBioscience, explaining the ways in which a consistent national policy on pot could benefit the environment.
“The policy debate, which has focused on the public health and criminal outcomes of liberalization, has largely neglected another notable source of societal harm arising from widespread marijuana use: the environmental harm associated with its commercial-scale cultivation,” it says.
Its main point: growing marijuana has a series of negative environmental impacts that are worsened by black market and semi-legal growing, which make regulations harder to enact and enforce. By making it fully legal, regulations could be enacted governing its cultivation to mitigate these impacts. It points out that even in California, where 60-70 percent of the pot consumed in the U.S. is grown, black market production flourishes.
“Like all forms of agriculture, marijuana cultivation has implications for natural resources that should be part of the current and future policy discussion,” the report explains. “However, regulation designed to mitigate environmental harm is more difficult to implement for marijuana cultivation than for other agricultural activities because of its unique and evolving legal status. Although many U.S. states are legalizing recreational and medical marijuana possession and use, it remains illegal at the federal level, putting the industry in a semi-legal gray area in these states. This status separates marijuana from fully legal agricultural commodities and greatly complicates regulation of the industry.”
“The combination of limited water resources, a water-hungry crop, and illegal cultivation in sensitive ecosystems means that marijuana cultivation can have environmental impacts that are disproportionately large given the area under production,” it concludes.
High Time for Conservationenumerates ways in which marijuana cultivation stresses the environment, stresses that could be more easily managed with complete legalization.
Growing pot is extremely water-intensive, a major issue in adrought-stricken statelike California. Outdoor-grown marijuana in California’s north coast region requires about twice as much water as the region’s other major irrigated crop, wine grapes. “We’re only starting to get a handle on these numbers,”said one of the study’s co-authors, Berkeley ecohydrologst Sally Thompson. “This is criminal activity, so it’s dangerous to monitor the impact. But even if the numbers are off, we are still talking about significant quantities of water.” Meanwhile, indoor cultivation is an energy hog; it “can require extensive energy inputs with potentiallynegative effects on climate,” the study says.
That water use can impact endangered species. “Compared with more established forms of agriculture on the north coast, where abundant winter stream flow is sometimes captured and stored locally in ponds or tanks for later summer use, marijuana cultivation is typically irrigated with summer and fall surface water diversions directly from headwater streams and springs,” the report points out. “These diversions are localized in smaller, sensitive watersheds that are hotspots ofbiodiversity—and particularly aquatic biodiversity. Surface water diversions for marijuana cultivation have been documented to significantly reduce or eliminate already low stream flow during California’s Mediterranean-type dry summer season, particularly during drought years, and therefore threaten the survival of rare and endangered salmonids, amphibians and other animals.”
The use of pesticides on marijuana plantations pollute watersheds and is a threat to wildlife. “Pesticides, used heavily in black-market cultivation on public lands, make their way into terrestrial food chains, posing significant risks to mammalian and avian predators,” says the report. More than 80 percent of dead Pacific fishers in the region were found to have been exposed to rodenticides used to control rats in black-market marijuana cultivation, it points out. And “The heavy use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and petroleum fuels in both semi-legal and black-market cultivation can also contaminate watersheds.”
The built infrastructure of marijuana cultivation can present a threat to the surrounding environment. “Land terracing, road construction and forest clearing for both semi-legal and black-market marijuana plantations remove native vegetation and increase erosion,” write the authors. “Erosion increases fine-sediment loading into streams, damaging spawning and rearing habitat for salmon and trout, such as federally endangered coho salmon.”
Humans leave their mark on the ecosystem too, an impact likely to be exacerbated by trying to avoid detection in black-market growing. Trespassing and camping on public or tribal lands for months at a time, they poach wildlife for both sport and sustenance. In addition, “Nonbiodegradable trash and human excrement are commonly dumped around black-market marijuana cultivation sites on public and tribal lands.”
The report says that the “clandestine nature of the business” makes it hard to get a grasp on the facts surrounding marijuana production in California and that semi-legal status “greatly complicates local authority to regulate the medical market and sets the industry apart from traditional agriculture.” Further, the conflict between state and federal standards “encourages secrecy and invisibility among producers for both the semi-legal medical and black markets, leading to lower levels of voluntary compliance with existing environmental regulation.”
The report authors suggest that as legalization spreads, some of the tax revenues collected by the states should be aimed at preventing and mitigating the environmental impacts of cultivation.
“In order to overcome barriers to participation, however, incentive strategies will likely only be feasible where the legal status of production is clarified,” they say. “The current levels of ambiguity and secrecy surrounding the industry impede the revelation of associated environmental impacts, as well as the creation and implementation of solutions. ”
In 1974, a bored teenager picked up a book about bees in the library. Immediately fascinated by bees and the people who loved and cared for them, she went to work for a commercial beekeeper in New Mexico. “I never looked back,” Dr. Marla Spivak says.
#1 Dr. Marla Spivak: Raising awareness of the declining bee population
Spivak, who now holds a doctorate in entomology from the University of Kansas, has recently turned her efforts to raising awareness of the declining bee population over the last decade, a situation with serious consequences.
“Bees are the most important pollinators of flowering plants, which includes most fruits, vegetables and nuts in our diet,” she says. “Our nutrition, health and food supply depend on bees.”
In her lab at the University of Minnesota, Spivak breeds bees for hygienic behavior.
“Hygienic bees are able to detect diseased and parasitized brood—immature bees—and weed them out of the nest,” she says. The Bee Squad, an extension and outreach program that runs from the lab, provides beekeeping services to businesses and helps educate and mentor urban beekeepers. But for those of us who aren’t scientists or beekeepers, Spivak offers a much simpler way to help bees: “Plant flowers.”
#2&3 Rob & Chelsea McFarland: Welcoming bees to the city
Rob and Chelsea McFarland didn’t choose the bees; the bees chose them. “One day, we were out in the garden and a swarm showed up,” they say. Years later, the founders of the Los Angeles nonprofit HoneyLove are dedicated to training urban beekeepers and raising awareness of bees in cities.
As they learned more about—and fell in love with—honeybees, the McFarlands realized promoting bee habitat in cities was an important part of health and food sustainability.
“We need to grow more of our food closer to home. That means growing food in the urban environment,” Rob says. “That means honeybees.”
Cities can even provide a safe haven for bees, Chelsea adds. “There are fewer pesticides in the city than in the traditional farmland setting,” she says. “Our bees are actually healthier in the city.”
HoneyLove’s mission is to spread that message through outreach and media presence. If there’s something he hopes they accomplish, Rob says, it’s “that the narrative has been changed from fear of bees to one of really embracing bees and welcoming bees into our community.”
#4 Lori Ann Burd: Taking the fight to Washington, DC
In the battle for conservation, it’s nice to have someone like Lori Ann Burd on your side. Burd is the environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a veteran activist turned seasoned lawyer.
After advocating against Keystone XL and mountaintop-removal coal mining, Burd is now fighting the chemical industry’s use of pesticides, notably neonicotinoids.
“They’re a new class of insecticide in which the entire plant is insecticidal,” Burd explains. “The plant is fine, but all parts of it are poisonous to bugs.”
In March, Burd helped draft a letter urging President Obama to take action against the widespread use of these poisons and filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to fulfill its obligations under the Endangered Species Act.
“It’s hard to overestimate the importance of pollinators,” Burd says. “One out of three bites of food that we take requires pollination. What I’m trying to do is help people understand that the fate of humans is intertwined with the fate of all species.” And when asked what keeps her going in the face of constant challenge, she replies, “Winning.”
#5 Sarah Hatton: Activist’s message beautifully written in dead bees
Sometimes you can’t understand the battle until you see the bodies. Quebec-based artist and beekeeper Sarah Hatton’s mathematical arrangements of dead honeybees are an entrancing and sobering reminder that human activity, like the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, is responsible for the death of bees on a mass scale.
After losing two of her own beehives, Hatton coped bytransforming her dead bees into art. As the project gained attention, she saw the opportunity to raise awareness and help people understand the implications of bee colony collapse. Now other beekeepers donate their own casualties to her work.
Alaska’s Columbia Glacier is almost 20 kilometers shorter than it was in 1980. Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Wikimedia Commons
The glaciers of Alaska are melting and retreating: the chief cause isclimate changeand the loss of ice is unlikely to slow, according to a new study by U.S. scientists.
They calculate that the frozen rivers of the Pacific coast of America’s northernmost state are melting fast enough to cover the whole of Alaska with 30 centimeters of water every seven years.
Since Alaska is enormous—it covers 1.5 million square kilometers and is the size of California, Texas and Montana put together—this adds up to a significant contribution tosea level rise.
“The Alaska region has long been considered a primary player in the global sea level budget, but the exact details of the drivers and mechanisms of Alaska glacier change have been stubbornly elusive,” saidChris Larsen, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and lead author of a study inGeophysical Research Letters.
Taxonomy of change
Scientists from the University of Alaska and theU.S. Geological Surveyanalyzed studies of 116 glaciers in the Alaska region over a 19-year-period to estimate the rate at which ice melted and icebergs calved.
They used airbornelidarremote sensing technology and other techniques, historical data and a global glacier inventory to establish a kind of taxonomy of glacier change.
The Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound had retreated more than 19 kilometers because of iceberg calving and had thinned by 450 meters in height since 1980. But, unexpectedly, tidewater glaciers—those that end in the ocean—seemed to make comparatively little contribution to sea level rise.
“Instead we show that glaciers ending on land are losing mass exceptionally fast, overshadowing mass changes due to iceberg calving, and making climate-related melting the primary control on mountain glacier mass loss,” Larsen said.
He and his colleagues calculated that Alaska islosing ice at the rate of 75 billion metric tons a year. Such research is just one more piece of careful cross-checking in the great mosaic of climate research: another systematic confirmation that overall, glaciers are not losing ice in response to some natural cycle of change of the kind that occasionally confuses the picture for climate science.
The agency at work is largely global warming as a response to the steady rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide as a consequence of the burning of fossil fuels.
But although the mountains of the temperate and tropic zones bear only a tiny percentage of the planet’s ice, their melting accounts for almost a third of the sea level rise currently measured by oceanographers, and this melting will go on to become a big contributor to the sea levels later this century.
Geophysicists and glaciologists have established thatthe glaciers of the tropical Andesare at risk, and in the Himalayan mountain chain glaciers seem to be ininexorable retreatwith consequences that could bedevastatingfor the many millions in the Indian subcontinent and in China who rely on seasonal meltwater for agriculture.
Glaciers are by definition hard to study—they are high, cold and in dangerous terrain—and such research is inevitably incomplete: the scientists, for instance, excluded glaciers smaller than three square kilometers. But together these small patches of flowing ice account for 16 percent of Alaska’s glaciated landscape. The 116 glaciers in the survey together added up to only 41 percent of the state’s glaciated area.
But the pattern established by the Fairbanks team suggests that melting will accelerate with climate change.
“Rates of loss from Alaska are unlikely to decline, since surface melt is the predominant driver, and summer temperatures are expected to increase,” said Dr Larsen.
“There is a lot of momentum in the system, and Alaska will continue to be a major driver of sea level change in the upcoming decades.”
Aloe water has become an increasingly popular drink choice for health-minded individuals looking to eschewsugary drinkslike soda andVitaminwater. But is it as good as everyone seems to be saying? Does it reallyhelp your skin, boost your immune system and more as many claim.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is backed by governments and the International Energy Agency (IEA) as one of the best methods of reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and saving the planet from overheating.
The problem is that despite this enthusiasm and the fact that CCS (also called carbon sequestration) is technically possible, it is not happening. It is cheaper and easier to build windand solar farms to produce electricity than it is to collect and store the carbon from coal-powered plants’ emissions.
For years CO2 has been used by injecting it into old oil wells to extract more fuel, but the cost of building new plants just to store the gas is proving prohibitive.
Hundreds of plants were expected to be up and running by 2030, but so far none has been built. Despite this, the IEA and governments across the world are relying on CCS to save the planet from climate change.
For example, official policy in the UK still envisages up to 50 industrial plants and power stations using CCS being linked to CO2 pipelines which would inject the gas into old oil and gas wells, removing it from the atmosphere forever.
But research by Mads Dahl Gjefsen, a scientist at the TIK Centre of Technology, Innovation and Culture at the University of Oslo, Norway, says pessimism prevails within the industry about the future of carbon capture and storage in both the U.S. and the European Union (EU).
Cost too high
Collecting liquid carbon dioxide by pipeline from large plants powered by coal is designed to allow steel, cement and chemical industries to continue to operate without making climate change worse.
But the cost is proving so high that plants are not being built. This is partly because the penalties imposed by governments in the form of a carbon tax or charges for pollution permits are so low that there is no incentive for carbon capture.
Another problem is that the technology for removing carbon from fossil fuels, either before or after combustion, uses 40 percent more fuel to achieve the same amount of power.
In conferences designed to promote the technology enthusiasts wonder how long they can continue, despite the “fine promises” that it was this technology that would save the oil and gas industry, Gjefsen says.
He gives the example of Norway, which has invested billions of kroner in the research and development of CCS. In 2007 the former prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, said that CCS would be “Norway’s moon landing.”
However, a full-scale treatment plant at the industrial site at Mongstad never came to fruition. The technology proved too energy-intensive and costly for large-scale use.
Four years of study and talking to industry insiders and environmental organizations, some of which have backed CCS, show the arguments for carbon capture differ from country to country, but in none of them is the technology taking off, he reports.
Gjefsen says that in America the major political restrictions on emissions never materialized. The only way that sufficient incentives could be provided to hasten the development of CCS is if emission cuts were imposed and the polluter made to pay.
In the EU, emission quotas were so generous that it was difficult to finance CCS because the price of carbon was so low.
They all accept the IEA estimate that to achieve a 50 percent cut in global CO2 emissions by 2050 (widely believed to be equivalent to limiting the increase in global temperature to two degrees Celsius), CCS will need to contribute nearly one-fifth of emissions reductions, across both power and industrial sectors.
The IEA has also estimated that by 2050 the cost of tackling climate change without CCS could be 70 percent higher than with it. The message from EU estimates is similar: 40 percent higher without CCS by 2030.
Let me explain. A team of ecologists has proven that temperature, not just genetics, plays a role in determining the sex of Australian bearded dragons. Their findings were published today in the journal Nature. (more…)