Animals can be beautiful; they can be sleek, graceful, powerful, or just plain adorable, even cuddly. A field of wild flowers chanced upon can take your breath away. Wordsworth so moved by ‘a host of golden daffodils’ put pen to paper, and we are richer for his poem. And tourists in their thousands visit coral reefs for their stunning beauty and sea life. So it is distressing when scientists confirm our gut feelings about the human footprint on this natural environment.
Few people know that March 3 was World Wildlife Day, or this coming Sunday (April 22) is Earth Day — perhaps Trump sucking up all the media oxygen is responsible. The fact remains, world wildlife is under serious threat, and in ways we can’t even imagine — not forgetting the eventual disaster due to climate change, unless the world wakes up.
Not so long ago Science, the voice of AAAS America’s largest science body, published three papers describing the harmful, even devastating, impact of modern human presence.
The first is a mammoth global study spanning the four major continents and New Zealand. Authored by over one hundred scientists, it follows the movements of 57 mammalian species through the GPS-tracking of 803 individuals. It finds a strong negative effect of the human footprint on animal movement.
The scientists develop a human footprint index (HFI) comprising multiple aspects of human influence: built environment, croplands, pastures, nighttime lights, roads, waterways, railroads, population density, etc. On the animal side, they note and separate the effects of resource availability and body mass on vagility (migration distances) — larger species travel further as do carnivores.
They then compute animal movement as the distance between subsequent GPS locations over nine time scales ranging from one hour to 10 days. At each time scale and for each individual, they calculate the median (middle range) and longest distance movements. These procedures point to the thoroughness of their research.
Overall the findings indicate a decline in movement of mammals in high HFI areas ranging on average from one-half to one-third of their movement levels in areas without human presence. For example, the median displacement of carnivores over the 10 day period in high HFI areas was only about half when compared to zero impact regions. And the long distance movement over the same period in HFI areas was down to a third, averaging 6.6 km versus 21.5 km. The impact on feeding and breeding then is clearly severe.
The authors note the consequences for ecosystem function globally, the effects being critical for wildlife conservation and also in the spread of disease. In the latter aspect, the authors warn that “reduced vagility may go beyond ecosystem functioning to directly affect human well-being.” In their understated words it means dangers of animal extinction and human epidemics.
Most of us always assume all bees are good. Apparently not, as a couple of scientists explain. So as we reach for that honey jar … ; it all depends on where it came from. That is the contention of the second piece which assesses the impact of managed honey bees on wild bees and other pollinators.
Pointing to the rapid global growth in managed bee colonies and the attention devoted to them, the authors believe this focus reduces efforts to preserve wild pollinators so necessary for wild plants and flowers. In fact, high densities of such bees worsen the decline of these wild pollinators, and have also been linked to the spread of disease via shared wild flowers. Long term this is a worsening threat to wild plants and flowers, many facing extinction.
The authors identify managed honeybees and their honey production and pollination of commercial crops as an agricultural issue, not an ecological one. They advocate restriction of managed honey beehives in protected-ecological areas to reduce their harmful effects noting that half of all European wild bees are threatened with extinction.
The theme for Earth Day is End Plastic Pollution. If one ever wondered what can happen to a plastic bag discarded carelessly, the following research has a surprising and worrying answer.
This third Science article looks at plastic waste entering the oceans, often through catchment areas into rivers feeding into the ocean. It assesses the influence of such waste on disease in reef-building corals. The authors survey 159 coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific, a region containing 55.5 percent of global reefs and 73 percent of the human population living within 50 km of a coast — about a quarter billion people.
An estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste pollutes the oceans each year. A model based on a high end figure of 8 million estimates that more than a quarter of this is pouring in from just 10 rivers, eight in Asia. Of these the Yangtze alone dumps 1.5 million metric tons each year. The river waste is a result of mismanagement and clearly can be reduced given resources and better waste collection and disposal practices.
In the oceans, microbes hitch a ride on the plastic, living longer and increasing their chances of landing on an unfortunate host. The authors have measured plastic items per 100 square meters. The count can vary from a low of 0.4 in Australia to a high of 25.6 in Indonesia. Size of human population in coastal regions, good management or mismanagement of plastic waste disposal are all factors in the amount of waste entering the water.
The authors estimate 80 percent of marine plastic debris originates from land, thus offering a possibility of significant reduction through better waste management. They develop a prediction model showing that by 2025 the waste will almost double in low-income countries like Myanmar but will edge up just 1 percent in Australia. In total, they estimate a colossal 11.1 billion plastic items entangled on reefs across the Asia-Pacific region and expect the number to increase 40 percent by 2025 without stronger waste management intervention.
The study results are striking. The likelihood of disease rises from 4 percent in areas free of plastic to an average of 89 percent when the coral has such debris. Another issue is coral structural complexity which underpins micro-habitats for reef-reliant organisms. Unfortunately, the study finds that plastic debris is up to 8 times more likely to affect reefs with greater structural complexity. This lack of habitat can devastate fisheries through a drop in productivity by a factor of three. Thus public awareness here could be a critical factor.
The parrots in the local pet store are almost always at risk. It is human encroachment the owner tells us. Forests are cut down, reducing habitat and food sources, and diminishing parrot populations. Farmers plant crops in the cleared areas. The parrots may or may not eat these but are perceived as a threat and often killed, further endangering them.
Once upon a time, millions of rhinos roamed across Africa and Asia; now about 30,000 survive, and many species are extinct or about to be. Sudan, the last male northern white rhino lived at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya together with his daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu. He was 45, equivalent to 90 in human age, and quite infirm. Earlier this year, when his condition deteriorated to the extent he was unable to stand, the vets decided to euthanize. Hope lies with in vitro fertilization, and in the genetic material the vets collected from him. At some future date, it might be possibly to use this to create an embryo with stem cell technology.
The engaging, lovable and cuddly koala is in danger from environmental effects. its unusual diet of eucalyptus leaves carry a toxin it can usually handle, but increased CO2 levels reduce nutrition and eating more leads to ingesting more poison. Add to this the Australian drought drying the leaves, leaving little moisture and resulting in kidney damage.
The human footprint also threatens the snow leopard, most closely related to the tiger not its namesake. Ranging across the high mountain areas of central Asia, China and Mongolia, and revered in Kyrgyzstan, it has become a victim of human-wildlife conflict. The herders whose livelihood depends on their sheep, goats and yaks do not take kindly to raiding snow leopards. But their natural prey, the wild ungulates are suffering sharp declines due to competition with domestic herds. Yet this animal is an example of what a concerted effort to save a species can accomplish. Its status has been upgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’.
Altogether, these studies and cases convey a stark warning. They show that environmental degradation is the promise of a dismal future in which mammalian wildlife is scarce, wild pollinators and consequently wild flowers and plants are sparse, and beautiful coral reefs succumb to plastic waste-borne bacteria depleting reef-supported fisheries. This is our legacy unless we take a step back to reassess human wants for their impact on the environment.
Author’s note: A version of this article appeared in Common Dreams
Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems
Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion. This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th. The weather service holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast. In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.
While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour. That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.
Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died. Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton. The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000. However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely.
Following Ida was hurricane Larry. Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north. These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists. Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity. They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013. This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.
Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern. This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes. Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.
For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard. Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland. In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals.
Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future. The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals. It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa. Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean.
The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.
All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon.
Human activity the common link between disasters around the world
Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.
The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.
A consequence of human influence
The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.
Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.
Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.
An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.
This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.
COVID and the Cyclone
Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.
In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.
When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.
The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.
The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.
Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.
The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.
“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”
Solutions also linked
However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.
The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.
Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution
Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.
1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment
It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.
Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.
Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.
2) The main causes
Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.
Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.
Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.
Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.
3) This is an urgent issue
The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.
On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.
4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector
On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.
Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.
Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.
5)…and it is our responsibility, as well
At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.
Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.
The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.
How clean is your air?
You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.
The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.
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