No balloons at the celebration for the Beach Chair Scientist …

Today is the fourth birthday of the Beach Chair Scientist blog. Despite the fact that some companies label latex balloons as ‘biodegradable’ and therefore, ‘safe’ for the environment, I will not be decorating any birthday celebration with balloons. Balloons blow! What has been widely spread is that latex balloons breakdown at ‘the same rate as an oak leaf from a tree‘. First, let me explain ‘latex’. Latex is a white tree sap of rubber particles from the plant, Hevae brasiliensis. After it is processed it becomes rubber. Rubber, as we know, is used in a variety of products because of its strong resilience and tear resistance. Balloons are made from latex (essentially, liquid rubber) once colors are added.

It just would not feel like a celebration for Beach Chair Scientist because I have been to countless beach clean-ups and see those latex and mylar balloons, as well as the strings that are tied to them, along the shoreline. Balloons are just not following the path that balloon manufacturers want us to believe. It may be true that research done in a controlled setting proves that when latex balloons rises to almost 30,000 feet they will freeze and bust into tiny slivers that fall back to earth. However, there are just too many natural factors (e.g., trees, wind) that impede balloons from rising to that height prior to losing their helium and flaying to the earth whole. Not to mention that even if latex balloons do break apart into tiny shards the tiny shard are still detrimental to the ocean. According to Sea Turtle Foundation, “Most balloons are made from ‘biodegradable’ latex, which degrades on exposure to air. However degradation can take up to six months and balloons floating in seawater can take up to twelve months to degrade”. In many areas it is illegal for mass balloon releases. Please check out your area for the local laws on balloons.

Here are ten examples of balloons affecting the ocean ecosystem:  

  1. On a New Jersey beach a sperm whale was found dying because it had a balloon in its stomach halting the passage of food.
  2. At a clean-up was on an island 5 miles out to sea – the distance cleaned at the 4 sites we targeted was about 1/2 mile of shoreline – in southern Maine this past June over 550 pounds of marine debris were found, including 232 pieces of debris (9 of which were balloons and one was found right next to a gull’s nest).
  3. Birds will collect plastic debris for their nests, and unknowingly construct death traps for their young.
  4. Balloons, plastic straws, plastic bottles, plastic bags, and metal beverage cans were found to be the most abundant type of marine debris litter as a 10-year national survey completed in 2008.
  5. Most of the trash found along the California coast during a 2003-2010 survey was 82% land-based plastics, including plastic bags, plastic bottles, balloons and straws.
  6. Fishing gear fragments, packaging materials, balloons, bottle caps, and straws were found to be the most common items found during a Cape Cod survey that collected 5,829 items along one-kilometer.
  7. A leatherback turtle starved to death because a latex balloon was stuck in its stomach. After the turtle necropsy, the only thing found in its intestines was three feet of nylon string attached to a balloon.
  8. Animals can become entangled in balloon ribbons and string, restricting their movement and their ability to feed.
  9. Bottlenose dolphins in California, loggerhead turtles in Texas, and a green turtle in Florida were all found dead after ingesting latex balloons.
  10. In the UK, Risso’s dolphins in French waters and fulmars in the North Sea are known to ingest balloons.

If you’re still keen on celebrating with balloons try to do activities where you can control them and not have them released into the atmosphere. You can put prizes inside them or decorate them or play games. Below are are alternatives for decorating and commemorating without balloons. Check out the background image from Orlando Sentinel with the juvenile loggerhead turtle swimming close to the floating balloons.

One last thing, if you’re in the DC area Saturday, July 21st and would like to join me during a stream clean-up with United By Blue please feel free to come along! It’s a great event co-sponsored by Subaru and fun for the whole family. Read this article about my first experience volunteering with them. Please feel free to drop me a line at or leave a comment below if you have anything else you like to add to this post or just a question in general.

Sea level rise is settled fact

“Some scientific conclusions have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of being found wrong is vanishingly small. Such conclusions are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities … strong evidence on climate change underscores the need for actions to reduce emissions and begin adapting to impacts.”
America’s Climate Choices, U.S. National Academy of Science, National Research Council, 2011

Climate change is taking place and poses considerable risks for us. Among these risks are the detrimental impacts related to sea level rise. And for those of us along the Atlantic coast the impacts may hit sooner rather than later. According to a recently published study by researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), sea levels from Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod (a 620-mile Atlantic coast ‘hot spot’) are rising more rapidly than anywhere on Earth – at the speed of three to four times faster than the global average. The study found that since 1990, sea levels have risen approximately 0.08 inches (2 millimeters) to approximately 0.14 inches (3.7 millimeters) a year along the ‘Atlantic coast hot spot’ while the global average for the same time period was 0.6 millimeters to 1 millimeter per year.

The study also noted that sea levels will rise 9 inches by 2030, 18 inches by 2050, and four-and-a-half feet by 2100 globally. Experts at the USGS, as well as other scientists, agree that this increase is due to climate change and other factors. However, according to Asbury Sallenger, the USGS oceanographer who led the study, “sea levels will rise an additional 8 inches to 11 inches in the Atlantic coast hot spot”. Just last week the National Research Council noted that sea levels along California will rise one foot in the next twenty years. Sinking land masses along the California coast and climate change was said to be the cause of that sea level rise.

But what is the cause of the additional increase of 8 inches to 11 inches in sea level rise along the ‘Atlantic coast hot spot’? This can be attributed to the slowing of Atlantic currents by the influx of freshwater into the salty Atlantic Ocean. Melting glaciers from the Greenland Ice Sheet send freshwater into a conveyor belt current (known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) which cause variations in temperature, salinity, and the speed of currents all of which affect sea level rise as warming oceans expand.

Ultimately, this study proves that sea levels have risen since 1990 regardless of the cause. It also provides a call for communities along the Atlantic coast to start planning for sea level rise as many densely-populated cities (Boston, Providence, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Norfolk-Virginia Beach) can be found along the ‘Atlantic coast hot spot’ and could see an increase in damages from storm surge.

Here is a list of 50 Things to Reduce Climate Change that will help reduce emissions that attribute to sea level rise. After all, it is not just the impacts from sea level rise, but our health, rainfall, agricultural crop yield, energy supply, as well as other beautiful natural ecosystems that are all affected by climate change.

USGS Researchers used long-term data from tidal gauges along the coast and computer simulations designed at calculating the effects of climate change for their study. The study was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.