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Journal: The Science of the total environment


Beavers are the archetypal keystone species, which can profoundly alter ecosystem structure and function through their ecosystem engineering activity, most notably the building of dams. This can have a major impact upon water resource management, flow regimes and water quality. Previous research has predominantly focused on the activities of North American beaver (Castor canadensis) located in very different environments, to the intensive lowland agricultural landscapes of the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe. Two Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) were introduced to a wooded site, situated on a first order tributary, draining from intensively managed grassland. The site was monitored to understand impacts upon water storage, flow regimes and water quality. Results indicated that beaver activity, primarily via the creation of 13 dams, has increased water storage within the site (holding ca. 1000m(3) in beaver ponds) and beavers were likely to have had a significant flow attenuation impact, as determined from peak discharges (mean 30±19% reduction), total discharges (mean 34±9% reduction) and peak rainfall to peak discharge lag times (mean 29±21% increase) during storm events. Event monitoring of water entering and leaving the site showed lower concentrations of suspended sediment, nitrogen and phosphate leaving the site (e.g. for suspended sediment; average entering site: 112±72mgl(-1), average leaving site: 39±37mgl(-1)). Combined with attenuated flows, this resulted in lower diffuse pollutant loads in water downstream. Conversely, dissolved organic carbon concentrations and loads downstream were higher. These observed changes are argued to be directly attributable to beaver activity at the site which has created a diverse wetland environment, reducing downstream hydrological connectivity. Results have important implications for beaver reintroduction programs which may provide nature based solutions to the catchment-scale water resource management issues that are faced in agricultural landscapes.

Concepts: Hydrology, Beaver, European Beaver, Beavers, Castoreum, Fur trade, North American Beaver, Keystone species


The widespread distribution of unconventional oil and gas (UO&G) wells and other facilities in the United States potentially exposes millions of people to air and water pollutants, including known or suspected carcinogens. Childhood leukemia is a particular concern because of the disease severity, vulnerable population, and short disease latency. A comprehensive review of carcinogens and leukemogens associated with UO&G development is not available and could inform future exposure monitoring studies and human health assessments. The objective of this analysis was to assess the evidence of carcinogenicity of water contaminants and air pollutants related to UO&G development. We obtained a list of 1177 chemicals in hydraulic fracturing fluids and wastewater from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and constructed a list of 143 UO&G-related air pollutants through a review of scientific papers published through 2015 using PubMed and ProQuest databases. We assessed carcinogenicity and evidence of increased risk for leukemia/lymphoma of these chemicals using International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) monographs. The majority of compounds (>80%) were not evaluated by IARC and therefore could not be reviewed. Of the 111 potential water contaminants and 29 potential air pollutants evaluated by IARC (119 unique compounds), 49 water and 20 air pollutants were known, probable, or possible human carcinogens (55 unique compounds). A total of 17 water and 11 air pollutants (20 unique compounds) had evidence of increased risk for leukemia/lymphoma, including benzene, 1,3-butadiene, cadmium, diesel exhaust, and several polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Though information on the carcinogenicity of compounds associated with UO&G development was limited, our assessment identified 20 known or suspected carcinogens that could be measured in future studies to advance exposure and risk assessments of cancer-causing agents. Our findings support the need for investigation into the relationship between UO&G development and risk of cancer in general and childhood leukemia in particular.

Concepts: Cancer, Assessment, Leukemia, Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, Benzene, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Carcinogen, International Agency for Research on Cancer


Microplastic is considered a potential threat to marine life as it is ingested by a wide variety of species. Most studies on microplastic ingestion are short-term investigations and little is currently known about how this potential threat has developed over the last decades where global plastic production has increased exponentially. Here we present the first long-term study on microplastic in the marine environment, covering three decades from 1987 to 2015, based on a unique sample set originally collected and conserved for food web studies. We investigated the microplastic concentration in plankton samples and in digestive tracts of two economically and ecologically important planktivorous forage fish species, Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) and European sprat (Sprattus sprattus), in the Baltic Sea, an ecosystem which is under high anthropogenic pressure and has undergone considerable changes over the past decades. Surprisingly, neither the concentration of microplastic in the plankton samples nor in the digestive tracts changed significantly over the investigated time period. Average microplastic concentration in the plankton samples was 0.21±0.15particlesm(-3). Of 814 fish examined, 20% contained plastic particles, of which 95% were characterized as microplastic (<5mm) and of these 93% were fibres. There were no significant differences in the plastic content between species, locations, or time of day the fish were caught. However, fish size and microplastic in the digestive tracts were positively correlated, and the fish contained more plastic during summer than during spring, which may be explained by increased food uptake with size and seasonal differences in feeding activity. This study highlights that even though microplastic has been present in the Baltic environment and the digestive tracts of fishes for decades, the levels have not changed in this period. This underscores the need for greater understanding of how plastic is cycled through marine ecosystems. The stability of plastic concentration and contamination over time observed here indicates that the type and level of microplastic pollution may be more closely correlated to specific human activities in a region than to global plastic production and utilization as such.

Concepts: Time, Fish, Atlantic Ocean, Baltic Sea, Ocean, Herring, Clupeidae, Sprattus


Potential for habitat restoration is increasingly used as an argument for reintroducing ecosystem engineers. Beaver have well known effects on hydromorphology through dam construction, but their scope to restore wetland biodiversity in areas degraded by agriculture is largely inferred. Our study presents the first formal monitoring of a planned beaver-assisted restoration, focussing on changes in vegetation over 12years within an agriculturally-degraded fen following beaver release, based on repeated sampling of fixed plots. Effects are compared to ungrazed exclosures which allowed the wider influence of waterlogging to be separated from disturbance through tree felling and herbivory. After 12years of beaver presence mean plant species richness had increased on average by 46% per plot, whilst the cumulative number of species recorded increased on average by 148%. Heterogeneity, measured by dissimilarity of plot composition, increased on average by 71%. Plants associated with high moisture and light conditions increased significantly in coverage, whereas species indicative of high nitrogen decreased. Areas exposed to both grazing and waterlogging generally showed the most pronounced change in composition, with effects of grazing seemingly additive, but secondary, to those of waterlogging. Our study illustrates that a well-known ecosystem engineer, the beaver, can with time transform agricultural land into a comparatively species-rich and heterogeneous wetland environment, thus meeting common restoration objectives. This offers a passive but innovative solution to the problems of wetland habitat loss that complements the value of beavers for water or sediment storage and flow attenuation. The role of larger herbivores has been significantly overlooked in our understanding of freshwater ecosystem function; the use of such species may yet emerge as the missing ingredient in successful restoration.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Agriculture, Plant, Wetland, Ecosystem, Beaver, Herbivore, Biome


Present day lead pollution is an environmental hazard of global proportions. A correct determination of natural lead levels is very important in order to evaluate anthropogenic lead contributions. In this paper, the anthropogenic signature of early metallurgy in Southern Iberia during the Holocene, more specifically during the Late Prehistory, was assessed by mean of a multiproxy approach: comparison of atmospheric lead pollution, fire regimes, deforestation, mass sediment transport, and archeological data. Although the onset of metallurgy in Southern Iberia is a matter of controversy, here we show the oldest lead pollution record from Western Europe in a continuous paleoenvironmental sequence, which suggests clear lead pollution caused by metallurgical activities since ~3900cal BP (Early Bronze Age). This lead pollution was especially important during Late Bronze and Early Iron ages. At the same time, since ~4000cal BP, an increase in fire activity is observed in this area, which is also coupled with deforestation and increased erosion rates. This study also shows that the lead pollution record locally reached near present-day values many times in the past, suggesting intensive use and manipulation of lead during those periods in this area.

Concepts: Copper, Erosion, Tin, Neolithic, Prehistory, Bronze Age, Smelting, Iron Age


Urban wastewater treatment plants (UWTPs) are among the main sources of antibiotics' release into the environment. The occurrence of antibiotics may promote the selection of antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) and antibiotic resistant bacteria (ARB), which shade health risks to humans and animals. In this paper the fate of ARB and ARGs in UWTPs, focusing on different processes/technologies (i.e., biological processes, advanced treatment technologies and disinfection), was critically reviewed. The mechanisms by which biological processes influence the development/selection of ARB and ARGs transfer are still poorly understood. Advanced treatment technologies and disinfection process are regarded as a major tool to control the spread of ARB into the environment. In spite of intense efforts made over the last years to bring solutions to control antibiotic resistance spread in the environment, there are still important gaps to fill in. In particular, it is important to: (i) improve risk assessment studies in order to allow accurate estimates about the maximal abundance of ARB in UWTPs effluents that would not pose risks for human and environmental health; (ii) understand the factors and mechanisms that drive antibiotic resistance maintenance and selection in wastewater habitats. The final objective is to implement wastewater treatment technologies capable of assuring the production of UWTPs effluents with an acceptable level of ARB.

Concepts: Gene, Natural selection, Bacteria, Evolution, Antibiotic resistance, Sewage treatment, Microorganism, Penicillin


Tritium concentrations in Japanese precipitation samples collected after the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant (FNPP1) were measured. Values exceeding the pre-accident background were detected at three out of seven localities (Tsukuba, Kashiwa and Hongo) southwest of the FNPP1 at distances varying between 170 and 220km from the source. The highest tritium content was found in the first rainfall in Tsukuba after the accident; however concentrations were 500 times less than the regulatory limit for tritium in drinking water. Tritium concentrations decreased steadily and rapidly with time, becoming indistinguishable from the pre-accident values within five weeks. The atmospheric tritium activities in the vicinity of the FNPP1 during the earliest stage of the accident was estimated to be 1.5×10(3)Bq/m(3), which is potentially capable of producing rainwater exceeding the regulatory limit, but only in the immediate vicinity of the source.

Concepts: Water, Precipitation, Nuclear fission, Nuclear power, Desalination, Sustainable energy, Tritium


Anthropogenic activity is affecting the global climate through the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) e.g. CO2 and CH4. About a third of anthropogenic GHGs are produced from agriculture, including livestock farming and horticulture. A large proportion of the UK’s horticultural farming takes place on drained lowland peatlands, which are a source of significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. This study set out to establish whether raising the water table from the currently used -50cm to -30cm could reduce GHGs emissions from agricultural peatlands, while simultaneously maintaining the current levels of horticultural productivity. A factorial design experiment used agricultural peat soil collected from the Norfolk Fens (among the largest of the UK’s lowland peatlands under intensive cultivation) to assess the effects of water table levels, elevated CO2, and agricultural production on GHG fluxes and crop productivity of radish, one of the most economically important fenland crops. The results of this study show that a water table of -30cm can increase the productivity of the radish crop while also reducing soil CO2 emissions but without a resultant loss of CH4 to the atmosphere, under both ambient and elevated CO2 concentrations. Elevated CO2 increased dry shoot biomass, but not bulb biomass nor root biomass, suggesting no immediate advantage of future CO2 levels to horticultural farming on peat soils. Overall, increasing the water table could make an important contribution to global warming mitigation while not having a detrimental impact on crop yield.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Agriculture, Soil, Irrigation, Fossil fuel, Coal, Greenhouse gas, Global warming


Accurate estimates of chlorophyll-a concentration (Chl-a) from remotely sensed data for inland waters are challenging due to their optical complexity. In this study, a framework of Chl-a estimation is established for optically complex inland waters based on combination of water optical classification and two semi-empirical algorithms. Three spectrally distinct water types (Type I to Type III) are first identified using a clustering method performed on remote sensing reflectance (R(rs)) from datasets containing 231 samples from Lake Taihu, Lake Chaohu, Lake Dianchi, and Three Gorges Reservoir. The classification criteria for each optical water type are subsequently defined for MERIS images based on the spectral characteristics of the three water types. The criteria cluster every R(rs) spectrum into one of the three water types by comparing the values from band 7 (central band: 665nm), band 8 (central band: 681.25nm), and band 9 (central band: 708.75nm) of MERIS images. Based on the water classification, the type-specific three-band algorithms (TBA) and type-specific advanced three-band algorithm (ATBA) are developed for each water type using the same datasets. By pre-classifying, errors are decreased for the two algorithms, with the mean absolute percent error (MAPE) of TBA decreasing from 36.5% to 23% for the calibration datasets, and from 40% to 28% for ATBA. The accuracy of the two algorithms for validation data indicates that optical classification eliminates the need to adjust the optimal locations of the three bands or to re-parameterize to estimate Chl-a for other waters. The classification criteria and the type-specific ATBA are additionally validated by two MERIS images. The framework of first classifying optical water types based on reflectance characteristics and subsequently developing type-specific algorithms for different water types is a valid scheme for reducing errors in Chl-a estimation for optically complex inland waters.

Concepts: Estimator, Optics, Water, Spectrum, Type, Mean absolute percentage error, The Band


The persistence of chemicals is a key parameter for their environmental risk assessment. Extrapolating their biodegradability potential in aqueous systems to soil systems would improve the environmental impact assessment. This study compares the fate of (14/13)C-labelled 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and ibuprofen in OECD tests 301 (ready biodegradability in aqueous systems) and 307 (soil). 85% of 2,4-D and 68% of ibuprofen were mineralised in aqueous systems, indicating ready biodegradability, but only 57% and 45% in soil. Parent compounds and metabolites decreased to <2% of the spiked amounts in both systems. In soil, 36% of 2,4-D and 30% of ibuprofen were bound in non-extractable residues (NER). NER formation in the abiotic controls was half as high as in the biotic treatments. However, mineralisation, biodegradation and abiotic residue formation are competing processes. Assuming the same extent of abiotic NER formation in abiotic and biotic systems may therefore overestimate the abiotic contribution in the biotic systems. Mineralisation was described by a logistic model for the aquatic systems and by a two-pool first order degradation model for the soil systems. This agrees with the different abundance of microorganisms in the two systems, but precludes direct comparison of the fitted parameters. Nevertheless, the maximum mineralisable amounts determined by the models were similar in both systems, although the maximum mineralisation rate was about 3.5 times higher in the aqueous systems than in the soil system for both compounds; these parameters may thus be extrapolated from aqueous to soil systems. However, the maximum mineralisable amount is calculated by extrapolation to infinite times and includes intermediately formed biomass derived from the labelled carbon. The amount of labelled carbon within microbial biomass residues is higher in the soil system, resulting in lower degradation rates. Further evaluation of these relationships requires comparison data on more chemicals and from different soils.

Concepts: Evaluation, Soil, Environmental remediation, C, Bioremediation, Impact assessment, Extrapolation, Environmental impact assessment