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Visualizing the Prolific Plastic Problem in Our Oceans

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In February of 2018, a dead sperm whale washed up on along the picturesque shoreline of Cabo de Palos in Spain.

Officials noted that the whale was unusually thin, and a necropsy confirmed that the whale died from an acute abdominal infection. Put simply, the whale ingested so much plastic debris – 67 lbs worth – that its digestive system ruptured.

The Plastic Problem, Visualized

Today’s infographic comes to us from Custom Made, and it helps put the growing marine debris problem in perspective.

The Pacific's Prolific Plastic Problem

A Spiraling Problem

The equivalent of one garbage truck full of plastic enters the sea every minute and the volume of ocean plastic is expected to triple within a decade.

Every stray bit of trash that enters the ocean, from a frayed fishing net off the coast of the Philippines to a plastic bottle cap from an Oakland storm drain, all end up circulating in rotating ocean currents called gyres.

For this reason, the Pacific Gyre is now better known by another name: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Sum of Many Plastic Parts

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is often misrepresented online as a literal raft of floating trash stretching as far as the eye can see. The real situation is less visually dramatic, but it’s what we can’t see – microplastic – that’s the biggest problem. Tiny fragments of plastic pose the biggest risks to humans because it’s easy for them to enter the food chain after being ingested by marine life.

While derelict fishing gear such as nets and floats are a contributor to the problem, land-based activity accounts for the majority of the garbage circulating in the ocean. Most of the world’s countries have ocean coastlines, and with so many jurisdictions and varying degrees of environmental scrutiny, truly curbing the flow of plastic isn’t realistic in the near term.

No Solution on the Horizon

Garbage patches have formed deep in the middle of international waters, so there is no clear cut way to decide who is responsible for cleaning up the mess. Organizations like The Ocean Cleanup are researching ocean gyres and providing better insight into the extent of the plastic problem. The Ocean Cleanup is best positioned to make a real impact, though executing on their vision will require vast resources and substantial funding.

Nobody likes seeing whales wash up on shore, but for now, a fully-scaled solution may still far out on the horizon.

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Environment

The Carbon Footprint of the Food Supply Chain

According to the largest ever meta-analysis of food systems, the carbon footprint of different types of food in your diet can vary widely.

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Which Foods Have the Greatest Environmental Impact?

The quantity of greenhouse gases (GHGs) generated by our food can vary considerably across the global food supply chain.

In fact, the difference between specific food types can vary by orders of magnitude, meaning what we eat could be a significant factor impacting GHG emissions on the environment.

Today’s modified chart from Our World in Data relies on data from the largest meta-analysis of food systems in history. The study, published in Science was led by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek to highlight the carbon footprint across different food types across the world.

The Foods With the Highest Carbon Footprint

Worldwide, there are approximately 13.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) emitted through the food supply chain per year.

Across a database extending through 119 countries and 38,000 commercial farms, the study found that, unsurprisingly, beef and other animal products have an outsize effect on emissions.

For example, one kilogram (kg) of beef results in 60 kg of GHG emissions—nearly 2.5x the closest food type, lamb and mutton. In contrast, the same weight of apples produce less than one kilogram of GHG emissions.

Food TypeGHG Emissions per 1 kg Produced
Beef (beef herd)60 kgCO2e
Lamb & Mutton24 kgCO2e
Cheese21 kgCO2e
Beef (dairy herd)21 kgCO2e
Chocolate19 kgCO2e
Coffee17 kgCO2e
Prawns (farmed)12 kgCO2e
Palm Oil8 kgCO2e
Pig Meat7 kgCO2e
Poultry Meat6 kgCO2e
Olive Oil6 kgCO2e
Fish (farmed)5 kgCO2e
Eggs4.5 kgCO2e
Rice4 kgCO2e
Fish (wild catch)3 kgCO2e
Milk3 kgCO2e
Cane Sugar3 kgCO2e
Groundnuts2.5 kgCO2e
Wheat & Rye1.4 kgCO2e
Tomatoes1.4 kgCO2e
Maize (Corn)1.0 kgCO2e
Cassava1.0 kgCO2e
Soymilk0.9 kgCO2e
Peas0.9 kgCO2e
Bananas0.7 kgCO2e
Root Vegetables0.4 kgCO2e
Apples0.4 kgCO2e
Citrus Fruits0.3 kgCO2e
Nuts0.3 kgCO2e

When it comes to plant-based foods, chocolate is among the highest GHG emitters. One kilogram of chocolate produces 19 kg of GHGs. On average, emissions from plant-based foods are 10 to 50 times lower than animal-based types.

Bottom line, it is clear that the spectrum of emissions differs significantly across each food type.

Food Supply Chain Stages

The food supply chain is complex and nuanced as it moves across each stage of the cycle.

Although the steps behind the supply chain for individual foods can vary considerably, each typically has seven stages:

  1. Land Use Change
  2. Farm
  3. Animal Feed
  4. Processing
  5. Transport
  6. Retail
  7. Packaging

Across all foods, the land use and farm stages of the supply chain account for 80% of GHG emissions. In beef production, for example, there are three key contributing factors to the carbon footprint at these stages: animal feed, land conversion, and methane production from cows. In the U.S., beef production accounts for 40% of total livestock-related land use domestically.

On the other end of the spectrum is transportation. This stage of the supply chain makes up 10% of total GHG emissions on average. When it comes to beef, the proportion of GHGs that transportation emits is even smaller, at just 0.5% of total emissions.

Contrary to popular belief, sourcing food locally may not help GHG emissions in a very significant way, especially in the case of foods with a large carbon footprint.

The Rise of Plant-Based Alternatives

Amid a growing market share of plant-based alternatives in markets around the world, the future of the food supply chain could undergo a significant transition.

For investors, this shift is already evident. Beyond Meat, a leading provider of meat substitutes, was one of the best performing stocks of 2019—gaining 202% after its IPO in May 2019.

As rising awareness about the environment becomes more prevalent, is it possible that growing meat consumption could be a thing of the past?

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Environment

As the Worlds Turn: Visualizing the Rotation of Planets

Rotation can have a big influence on a planet’s habitability. These animations show how each planet in the solar system moves to its own distinct rhythm.

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As the Worlds Turn: Visualizing the Rotations of Planets

The rotation of planets have a dramatic effect on their potential habitability.

Dr. James O’Donoghue, a planetary scientist at the Japanese space agency who has the creative ability to visually communicate space concepts like the speed of light and the vastness of the solar system, recently animated a video showing cross sections of different planets spinning at their own pace on one giant globe.

Cosmic Moves: The Rotation of the Planets

Each planet in the solar system moves to its own rhythm. The giant gas planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) spin more rapidly on their axes than the inner planets. The sun itself rotates slowly, only once a month.

PlanetRotation Periods (relative to stars)
Mercury58d 16h
Venus243d 26m
Earth23h 56m
Mars24h 36m
Jupiter9h 55m
Saturn10h 33m
Uranus17h 14m
Neptune16h

The planets all revolve around the sun in the same direction and in virtually the same plane. In addition, they all rotate in the same general direction, with the exceptions of Venus and Uranus.

In the following animation, their respective rotation speeds are compared directly:

The most visually striking result of planetary spin is on Jupiter, which has the fastest rotation in the solar system. Massive storms of frozen ammonia grains whip across the surface of the gas giant at speeds of 340 miles (550 km) per hour.

Interestingly, the patterns of each planet’s rotation can help in revealing whether they can support life or not.

Rotation and Habitability

As a fish in water is not aware it is wet, so it goes for humans and the atmosphere around us.

New research reveals that the rate at which a planet spins is an essential component for supporting life. Not only does rotation control the length of day and night, bit it influences atmospheric wind patterns and the formation of clouds.

The radiation the Earth receives from the Sun concentrates at the equator. The Sun heats the air in this region until it rises up through the atmosphere and moves towards the poles of the planet where it cools. This cool air falls through the atmosphere and flows back towards the equator.

This process is known as a Hadley cell, and atmospheres can have multiple cells:

Hadley Cells

A planet with a quick rotation forms Hadley cells at low latitudes into different bands that encircle the planet. Clouds become prominent at tropical regions, which reflect a proportion of the light back into space.

For a planet in a tighter orbit around its star, the radiation received from the star is much more extreme. This decreases the temperature difference between the equator and the poles, ultimately weakening Hadley cells. The result is fewer clouds in tropical regions available to protect the planet from intense heat, making the planet uninhabitable.

Slow Rotators: More Habitable

If a planet rotates slower, then the Hadley cells can expand to encircle the entire world. This is because the difference in temperature between the day and night side of the planet creates larger atmospheric circulation.

Slow rotation makes days and nights longer, such that half of the planet bathes in light from the sun for an extended period of time. Simultaneously, the night side of the planet is able to cool down.

This difference in temperature is large enough to cause the warm air from the day side to flow to the night side. This movement of air allows more clouds to form around a planet’s equator, protecting the surface from harmful space radiation, encouraging the possibility for the right conditions for life to form.

The Hunt for Habitable Planets

Measuring the rotation of planets is difficult with a telescope, so another good proxy would be to measure the level of heat emitted from a planet.

An infrared telescope can measure the heat emitted from a planet’s clouds that formed over its equator. An unusually low temperature at the hottest location on the planet could indicate that the planet is potentially a habitable slow rotator.

Of course, even if a planet’s rotation speed is just right, many other conditions come into play. The rotation of planets is just another piece in the puzzle in identifying the next Earth.

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