Ooooh, hello dear English speaking-reading-hearing listener, welcome back to me, @sciencemug, the blog/podcast/twitter&instagram accounts/entity behind the unsuccessful e-shop stuffngo on zazzle.com which tells you science stories while air-guitar playing heavy-metal songs but instead of air is using helium so every gesture is high pitched and funny and the metal is lighter, aaand which talks to you thanks to the voice, kidnapped via a voodoo-wireless trick, from a veeery very very dumb human.
Aaand which does all of this in Eng?ish, a language that is to proper English what a complete lack of logic is to something you can easily distill from the just mentioned helium-guitar playing thing.
Today I’m gonna tell you a story ‘bout pollution on high.
Sooo, dear listener, you probably already heard that the top of the world, Mount Everest, if full of crap by now. Meaning not that it has become an unbearable arrogant mount full of itself always bragging for being the tallest of them all (at least above sea level), nope, meaning that, given the massive amount of people that climb it every year (since 1953), well, it is now full of human garbage.
Aaand, dear listener, you probably also already heard that space, around our planet, is by now full of garbage too. There’s in fact a lot of space junk orbiting our world: old satellites, pieces of rockets, debris of various sizes and nature, in conclusion objects in the millions that are a constant real serious threat for whoever and whatever is or is going to orbit Earth nowadays.
But the pollution on high I am going to tell you about today, dear listener, is none of the above.
And it is not even the pollution people that are high produce when smoking dope or other garbage of the kind...
No, dear listener, I am going to talk of a kind of pollution you find in the sky, in the atmosphere, but that you wouldn’t expect at all, of all the pollutants you can think of, to find up there.
And above all, to find in the rain that comes down from up there…
You wanna know what this pollutant is?
Eeeh, let’s start from the beginning then.
The US. Geological Survey, the United States “sole science agency for the Department of the Interior”, publishes a report (R) which I’ll call ReportX, since I’m not telling you its actual title as it would be a major give away about the mysterious atmospheric/rain pollutant this whole episode/post is about, and I want to keep the suspense going as long as possible.
|"ReportX about rain pollution": free pic by John-Mark Smith on Pexels; Adapted by @sciencemug|
Anyway, ReportX is written by Gregory Wetherbee, an expert of Environmental Science, Austin Baldwin, an hydrologist [that is a dude who studies “how water moves across and through the Earth’s crust” (source: Boureau of Labor and Statistics)], and Professor James Ranville, a chemist and geochemist of the Colorado School of Mines. We’ll call ‘em the ReportX Guys (aaaah such a clever and witty blog/podcast I am!).
The ReportX Guysare involved with the “National Atmospheric Deposition Program/National Trends Network (NADP/NTN)” (R) where the NTN “is the only network providing a long-term record of precipitation chemistry across the United States” (source NADP).
More specifically this organization collects precipitation samples of the previous week's precipitation (rain, snow, sleet) from across the US, then passes them to the “Central Analytical Laboratory (CAL) at the Wisconsin State State Laboratory of Hygiene (WSLH)” (source NADP) where the samples are analyzed to check, among other things, their pH, and their calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, sulfate, nitrate, chloride, and ammonium presence.
Moreover, the National Trends Network (the NTN) has a bunch of other sub-networks which analyze respectively concentrations and depositions of mercury (MDN, AMNet) and ammonia (AmoN).
Another sub-network of the NTN is the one of our three researchers, the “Network for Urban Atmospheric Nitrogen Chemistry (NUANC)” (R), which collects “[a]tmospheric wet deposition samples” (R) (as above stated rain, snow, sleet) from a study area in Colorado, US. This study area counts 8 spots: 6 in the Denver-Boulder urban corridor and 2 in the contiguous Colorado Front Range.
Now, I am a brainless dumb blog/podcast and geography is not my strong point (my strong point being basically standing in front of the dark screen of any device I find waiting for any of the Rorschach Inkblots to spontaneously appear like a subatomic particle in the quantum foam in order to discuss with it about the secret humanity’s destruction plan hatched by super-dimensional utterly evil but unquestionably charming beings which incipit - of this doomsday plan - has been the creation, on planet Earth, of that ghastly abomination that pizza with pineapples is). So, in short, geography not my thing, hence I must clarify things here.
Ok, as just said, the study area of our ReportX Guys includes 6 sites in the Denver-Boulder urban corridor and 2 in the contiguous Colorado Front Range.
Let’s start with the Colorado Front Range.
Colorado is one of the states of the United States. It is roughly in the middle of the US, more toward the west. It has flat lands in the center east, called Great Plains, and mountains in the center west, called Southern Rocky Mountains (of course both Grait Plains and Rocky Mountains are not only in Colorado).
Part of those Southern Rocky Mountains is the Front Range, a mountain range that is in the central portion of said Colorado, hence the Colorado Front Range
Now let’s pass to the Denver-Boulder urban corridor.
The study area from which our ReportX Guys get the data is (see the map on the report (R)) roughly a square with more or less Denver at its right bottom corner. Denver is the capital of Colorado, and Boulder is a city about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north west Denver.
So dear listener, in other and extremely simplified terms, roughly the right half of the square study area is the urban corridor, while the left half is the mountainous part. As for the total surface of such study area, well, it is about (stress on the “about”) 6000 square kilometers (more or less 2300 square miles), that is to say, for instance, almost 8 times New York, 5 times Rome, 3 times Tokyo or about 1/3 of Beijing.
Let’s take stock of the situation, then: three researchers, aka the ReportX Guys, collect samples of water fallen down from the sky with the goal to investigate atmospheric nitrogen. And the ReportX Guys get the samples in 8 different places of a specific area of Colorado, in the USA.
Now, one of these places, which our rainy researchers call CO98, is a very remote one, faraway from cities and the urban contest in general; it is in fact deep inside a National Park (the Rocky Mountain National Park), in a place called Loch Vale, at an elevation of 3159 meters (10364 feet), namely more or less that of the top of Mount Etna, the tallest (and, incidentally, largest) active volcano of Europe.
So, in conclusion, the atmospheric wet deposition samples collected by the ReportX Guys at site CO98 are from an extremely secluded area, pretty above the sea level, and way out all kind of city stuff.
Now, our three researchers follow the NTN procedures and collect all the 8 sites samples from collection buckets, with the volumes of the samples ranging from about 1 third of a liter to almost 3 liters (R). The ReportX Guys then send the samples to the above mentioned Central Analytical Laboratory where they are carefully filtered by filters with less than half a millionth meter pore size, that is about 200 times smaller than the average diameter of a human hair (ref).
Via such filtration our researchers “obtain particulates assumed to be washed from the atmosphere (washout). The filters [are] dried, weighed, and manually analyzed with a binocular microscope fitted with a digital camera […] [Moreover four] deionized water rinses of the sampling system [are] analyzed as blanks.” (R).
So, dear listener, at this point I ask you, what do you expect to see when observing under a good microscope a sample of super filtered water fall down from the sky, and in one case even from the sky above a secluded site at 3 kilometers of altitude and located deep inside a wide national park?
The answer after the commercial break!
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So, dear listener, there are super-filtered rain-snow-sleet water samples under a microscope.
What did you expect to see? I personally would expect to see, I dunno, maybe some pieces of rainbow, a lost tribe of tiny pink and white geography savvy little aliens staging an extra-solar version of ‘Take Shelter’, and maybe, maybe, if in luck, the most elusive entities of the whole universe, the socks that disappear from the washing machine.
But, as already reminded you before, I am not in possession of any part of a central nervous system, no brain here, thus everybody else, included drunk ants and Malaysian trolls which are notoriously dramatically short sighted, would probably expect to see nothing but water.
Well, dear listener, Mr and Ms “everybody else” (along with ants and trolls) would be very surprised.
Unpleasantly surprised. And pretty scared too. As the ReportX Guys probably are, when they put their 3 pairs of eyes on the microscope.
Because they finally see what their mysterious X stands for: plastic! (Well, you’re right dear listener, technically, as the X stood for the title of the report, it should be “It is raining plastic” (R) (that is the actual title of the Report indeed), but bear with me, “ReportItisrainingX Guys” would have been too long a stage name to be carried around all this time in the post/episode…)
Anyway, yup, dear listener, the three researchers find plastics “in more than 90 percent of the samples”, including those coming from site CO98, which means that probably “wet deposition of plastic is ubiquitous and not just an urban condition” (R).
Now I just quote the report: “plastic materials [are] mostly fibers that [are] only visible with magnification, approximately 20–40 times (X).
Fibers [are] present in a variety of colors; the most frequently observed color [is] blue followed by red>silver>purple>green> yellow>other colors. Plastic particles such as beads and shards [are] also observed with magnification. More plastic fibers [are] observed in samples from urban sites than from remote, mountainous sites.” (R)
Now you, dear clever listener, are probably thinking that maybe those plastic fibers are pieces of the filters used to filter the water samples… Eeeh nope, buddy, not the case, since, as the researchers state in the report, “[i]n the four blank samples [the four water rinses of the sampling system mentioned before], there was one small translucent fiber observed that might have been plastic. Translucent and white materials, which are the colors of the sampling apparatus, [have been therefore] disregarded in the analyses.” (R)
|"It is raining plastic": free pic by michael podger on Unsplash; Adapted by @sciencemug|
Ok, you say, it rains plastic, ugly ugly puzzling tragic truth. But at least for sure the plastics found in the samples of the CO98 site have been brought there by winds and storms from the urban areas of Colorado… Eeeh not necessarily, nope, buddy. To investigate that possibility the researchers use in fact a state of the art model from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the science driven US agency that provides “weather forecasts, severe storm warnings, and climate monitoring” (source: NOAA).
The model in question is HYSPLIT, which “is a complete system for computing simple air parcel trajectories, as well as complex transport, dispersion, chemical transformation, and deposition simulations.” (source: NOAA).
Our three rainy researchers use the model “for 24 hours prior to each [CO98] sample collection at 500-, 750-, and 1,000-meter altitudes” (R) in order to perform an “air mass back-trajectory analysis for [the] site samples” (R) and find that “[u]rban areas are southeast [...] of site CO98, but plastic deposition [is] more positively identified for westerly storms than easterly storms” (R). So basically plastics on CO98 are not coming from the Denver-Boulder urban corridor, but from where there are other mountains way before getting to other cities...
Oooook, dear listener, let’s recap: three researchers that are studying nitrogen in the atmosphere, as an unexpected byproduct of their investigation get something unsettling and horrid: the evidence that it is raining plastic!
And not only it is raining plastic from the skies above your polluted cities, but also from the skies above mountainous sites at high elevations that are in the middle of national parks and far away from urbanization.
So the three researchers write the Report about this ugly truth, and exhort to create the technology and protocols that allow to get to “a routine capability to calculate plastic wet-deposition loads” (R) and stress on the fact that nobody knows how exactly “these plastic materials are accumulating and being assimilated in the environment and biota [and that nobody knows either] the potential effects of these materials on biota” (R) (biota: plant and animal life) and therefore also on all of you, dear human being listeners.
‘Cause, you know, if rain contains plastic, chances are, to say the least, that you drink plastic and that you eat plastic. And I don’t think you get healthier for that...
Ooook, till next time pal, and if you spare some time and feel like doing it, please rate this podcast, and/or leave a comment on the blog, and/or take a tour on my stuffngo (sNg) e-shop on zazzle.com so you can see if there’s something you like!
The Report this post is about (R)
Wetherbee, G.A., Baldwin, A.K., and Ranville, J.F. (2019). It is raining plastic (Reston, VA: U.S. Geological Survey).