The phenomenon of a random pattern of winds coalescing into a hurricane may not be caused by global warming, but warmer ocean temperatures powering it up is entirely possible. Hawaii is experiencing one of the two worst hurricanes in its history, and last week Kerala in India, was flooded almost in its entirety by a record-breaking monsoon season leaving a million people homeless.
Not only is CO2 rising to levels not seen heretofore in several million years, but the human fingerprint is indelible and irrefutable. The consistent delta 13C negation proves it through the absence of this carbon isotope in the fossil fuels used. Magnifying the problem are the newly-observed increasing amplitudes of the tropospheric temperature cycle; here the researchers refer to the trigger of ‘external forcings’ implying a human hand.
Like Rip Van Winkle, Donald Trump is fast asleep, seemingly unaware of the window for action on climate change closing, while he recommends increased coal consumption — a preposterous throwback supported by Republicans in Congress. What will it take to stir him from his sleep of childish vain glory?– water balloons thrown at Mar-a-Lago by a 100,000 demonstrators strikes a suitably puerile note …
Our global temperatures are up 1.2 degrees Celsius changing weather patterns. The dry spells are longer and worsened by high temperature records in numerous places including Portugal and Greece. And the world seems to be burning up: Wildfires in Greece, Australia, Central Africa, eastern China, Brazil and in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, 71,449 wildfires occurred here in 2017 burning 10 million acres.
Each year over 300,000 people die as a consequence of wildfires, over half that number in Sub-Saharan Africa, the less-developed countries suffering disasters the worst. Now that Trump has cut the budget for Regional Climate Centers, which generate the weather early warning information helping to control and prevent wildfires, the U.S. might be adding more to this macabre body count.
Extended dry spells are followed by rain, pouring down in the copious quantities carried by warmer air, and in weather-events once uncommon but now more frequent. The refrain, ‘We have never experienced this before’ is repeated often — in Japan last month, in Kerala last week, and in Hawaii now … Hawaii, which also had 50 inches of rain earlier this year. Weather events supposed to occur once in a hundred years are destined to become more frequent.
Monsoon floods as in Kerala are an annual event on the Indian subcontinent but not in their present devastating form. In 2010, the Indus in Pakistan flooded in biblical proportions: 20 million people were displaced, 2000 died, and one-fifth of Pakistan’s land area was affected. The long-term problem, however, is scarcity as warming affects its source, the ice-melt in the Himalayas.
Climate change will force cooperating and understanding between countries or will lead to devastating wars. Both India and Pakistan use the Indus and its tributaries. The Mekong river is shared by six countries, and upstream China has built dams causing problems downstream. The Nile was monopolized by Egypt but now Ethiopia is building a dam upstream.
The world has to find a way to deal purposefully with climate change and in the peaceful sharing of resources. Consequences otherwise are too unsettling to contemplate.
How Genetics and Pollution Are Threatening Wild Dolphins
Dolphins are beautiful, highly intelligent and uncannily human in their interactions. Yet, they also have a language we humans cannot fully hear, and a culture that is in some ways similar to our own, and in others, a complete mystery.
Like us, they have circles of friends and acquaintances, with different greetings for different individuals, as if by name. They travel swiftly within a home range of about 100-square kilometers but can go further when they want to. They have the sleek design of a jet plane fuselage and the intelligence that comes with a 1,600-gram complexly structured brain. (The human brain is 1,300 grams.)
Found in almost all the world’s oceans, they communicate with friends and family through clicks and whistles, and echolocation allows them to view the world around them. They pass on knowledge of culture and tools through the generations from mother to daughter, a matrilineal line that preserves and protects their heritage.
Approximately 40 species of dolphins exist. Many belong to the Delphinidae (ocean dolphin) family, including the orca; others live in rivers. Collectively, there are approximately 90 species of cetaceans, the order comprising whales, dolphins and porpoises.
Scientists analyzing the dolphin brain have determined that, like us, they possess a very complex neocortex — a region of the brain linked to awareness, emotions, problem-solving and other human-like abilities. Further, the limbic (emotional) system in some species is even more complex than humans.
These sensitive creatures have made the headlines in the past few months. An endangered orca known as Tahlequah mourned the tragic loss of her baby, carrying her dead calf for a record 17 days and 1,000 miles on what some have deemed a “tour of grief.”
Shortly following Tahlequah’s tragedy, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service regarding the species of orca on the West coast of the US that has become critically endangered. The suit alleged that the agency has neglected to establish habitat protection for the orcas. With only 75 of these orcas left, the population is the lowest it has been in 30 years.
Meanwhile, a combination of factors is threatening the very survival of these animals.
Genetics and Pollution
A recent study published in the journal Science delivers a serious warning as to the likelihood that dolphins and other marine mammals could be extirpated by pollutants. The discovery concerns an evolutionary change to DNA approximately 53 million years ago, which makes cetaceans particularly sensitive and therefore vulnerable.
Their bodies underwent various gradual changes during this evolutionary period. One of these changes was the alteration of DNA that codes for a particular enzyme known as PON1. Scientists believe the enzyme’s metabolic processes were no longer needed for a life underwater. Terrestrial mammals, by contrast, maintained the intact DNA and its enzyme, which humans have to this day.
But 53 million years later, the genetic change has become marine mammals’ Achilles’ heel, thanks to human invention. The enzyme has a second function — an ability to defend against neurotoxins found in pesticides. Without PON1, these animals are unable to break down the neurotoxin and can be poisoned.
Dolphins and other sea creatures with the PON1 problem are thus defenseless against agricultural runoff containing pesticides. Part of the reason the endangered infant orcas off the coast of California are having trouble is this kind of pollution. Marine mammals by the Florida coast are at risk as well, as scientists sampling waterways have found significant levels of chlorpyrifos pesticide contamination.
Dolphins have also been disappearing from areas around the globe they once inhabited, such as off the coast of Argentina. There, where dolphins were once common, only “a single resident population” is believed to be left. Heavy metal contamination and overfishing are likely contributors the decline. Elevated levels of lead, zinc, copper and cadmium have been found in mollusks, crustaceans and sea lions, as well as elevated levels of mercury, cadmium, zinc and copper in bottlenose dolphins. Metals pass from mother’s milk to the baby, resulting in the newborn dolphin having a weakened immune system and a lower probability of survival. The bottlenose dolphin is believed to be a common species globally and consequently people are less concerned about it than they should be; in certain localities these dolphins are quietly disappearing, as along the Argentinian coast. Scientists warn that the Argentina study “provides an example of how the failure to recognize local population declines can threaten the national (and eventually the international) status of a once common marine species.”
To be sure, dolphins are facing similar toxic threats around the world. While metal pollution off the coast of Argentina is assumed to have resulted from decades-old mine waste, it is by no means unique to South America. Scientists examining the waters of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, discovered high levels of toxic metals including bromine, lead, mercury and cadmium. The toxins came from plastics, some of which had been banned or restricted decades ago, indicating the toxins remain in the environment for years. Plastic pollution is especially pervasive in oceans that dolphins inhabit – estimated at 150 million metric tons, with 8 million more tons added annually. Tellingly, a Malaysian dolphin was found dead after digesting nine pounds of plastic bags.
Chemicals can have a lasting and sometimes irreversible impact on the environment. Without containment, poisons that were banned years ago seep out of landfills, into streams and oceans, permanently contaminating water. For some species, a death sentence has already been passed. Change has come too late for the orca variety of dolphin, also known as the killer whale. This is the sad revelation recently published in the journal Science regarding polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and orcas. PCBs banned more than 30 years ago have leached into the oceans, and killer whales as apex predators are “the most PCB contaminated mammals in the world,” say the researchers, who found some of the killer whales had 1,300 milligrams per kilo of PCBs in their blubber – 50 milligrams per kilo has been shown in previous research to be sufficient to cause infertility and serious immune system problems. As with metals, mothers pass the PCBs on to their babies through milk. The researchers predict that “PCB-mediated effects on reproduction and immune function threaten the long-term viability of [more than] 50% of the world’s killer whale populations.” They forecast a population collapse of orcas near industrialized regions, as well as in regions where orcas feed on larger prey. In short, half of the world’s orcas will be gone in just a few decades.
Some dolphin species are already very close to extinction. The Yangtze River dolphin, also known as “baiji,” has lived in the river for 20 million years. There were thousands in the 1950s, but in the year 2000, there were a mere 13. By 2006, scientists pronounced the species extinct after an unsuccessful six-week hunt by conservationists. Its current status is either extinct or near extinction — in 2016, some amateurs believe they may have seen a baiji, although they are not certain. The baiji would be the first dolphin made extinct by humans, in this case through pollution, dam-building, overfishing and boat traffic.
Dolphins face threats from climate change as well. Twelve dolphins were washed ashore in one week this summer in Florida, as a result of a red tide disaster, due in part to rising temperatures, with six killed in 24 hours. Such numbers have usually been an annual loss in the past.
Dolphins face a particular and cruel peril in Japan. The town of Taiji holds an annual dolphin “drive hunt” in which more than 1,000 dolphins are massacred each year. Hunters find a pod of dolphins and first create a clamor to disrupt the dolphins’ sonar, upsetting the dolphins and driving them into a cove, where they are then killed one by one, as the water in the cove turns red.
Even when dolphins are captured and kept in captivity, they react to their surroundings.
Dolphin Intelligence and the Future of the Animal Population
That dolphins are highly emotional is well-known. Peter — a dolphin kept in captivity after being moved to a smaller facility and permanently separated from the regular keeper he loved — fell into depression. Dolphins do not breathe air automatically the way humans do; each breath must be made consciously. A dolphin who has lost the will to live does not swim to the surface for his next breath. This was the fate of Peter; imprisoned and friendless at the new facility, he did not swim up for air and was found lifeless on the tank floor.
The emotional intelligence of dolphins reveals that trauma and separation will hurt dolphin families for years to come. The bloody waters of Taiji might hold the carcasses but not all the casualties. The many Peters of the world, having lost loved ones forever, can also lose the will to live.
At the 2010 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, scientists pondered the ethical and policy implications of dolphin intelligence. Neurobiologist Lori Marino argued that they may be Earth’s second-smartest creature. One can only agree.
A philosopher at the meeting proposed that dolphins perhaps ought to be considered “nonhuman persons.” He marvels at how, in addition to emotions and self-awareness, dolphins have personalities, exhibit self-control and even treat others ethically.
If a dolphin species becomes extinct, we lose not only a beautiful animal but a society and its culture. Dolphin habitat often spans the seas of many countries. Preserving them at home only to have them slaughtered on another shore is heart-wrenching. Preserving them abroad only to see them poisoned by pollution here is equally tragic. Countries must work together to ensure the survival of dolphins who swim beyond our borders, particularly as risks are compounded by climate change and pollution. The killing of whales for commercial purposes has been banned for many years. At the very least, this can be extended to their cousins now that we know they are under threat.
Pesticide use has to be regulated, particularly along the coasts to minimize PON1-related neurotoxic poisoning. Allowing a 53-million-year-old Achilles’ heel to be shot with the dart of human invention would be a tragedy. Minimizing plastic pollution is essential to dolphins as well. Preventing further PCB leakage into the oceans must also be a priority to save the orca populations, half of which are already facing collapse due to PCB-poisoning.
We have already witnessed the long-lasting effects of chemical runoff, from the decades-old plastic-derived toxins in Lake Geneva, to the 30-year-old PCBs seeping into oceans around the world. Once waters are contaminated, no one can go back. It is already too late for some orcas. Consequently, while we still can, we must prevent further contamination.
If nations can work together to minimize ocean pollution and affect laws to prevent chemical runoff, perhaps then Tahlequah and her fellow orcas will have greater success with the next generation of calves, and our children and grandchildren will continue to know the pleasure of seeing an orca or a bottlenose dolphin leap magnificently from the ocean.
Author’s note: this article first appeared in Truthout.org.
Does the Latest IPCC Report Offer Hope For Earth
Hurricanes and storms on both sides of the Atlantic appeared to encore the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. It had just concluded the finalization of a special report on the impact of a 1.5 degree Celsius global warming above preindustrial levels. Meeting in Incheon, South Korea (October 1-5), its three working groups of experts and government officials have huddled and jousted to strike a consensus on what will be necessary to restrict warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius when the globe is already up one degree. What will earth be like with this level of warmth and what will happen if we fail?
Two earlier versions (January and June 2018) of the report were depressing to frightening. They were made available for about a month for comment by experts and interested parties. The real problem is a narrow window because human activity in the world emits 40 billion tons of CO2 per year — about 90 times the emission from volcanoes. At some point, there will be enough in the atmosphere where the 1.5 degree rise will be a foregone conclusion. While guesswork to some extent, it appears we have about 12 years before we exhaust the ‘carbon budget’; if we accept a 2C rise the date is 2045.
The tone may have been softened in the second report, but there is ‘substantial’ certainty the 2 degrees C target of the 2015 Paris Agreement, once considered safe, would be dangerous for humanity. As the agreement also required governments to pursue efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, the remit to IPCC was to prepare a report comparing the consequences of the two alternatives as well as the feasibility and effort required to limit the rise to the lower figure. The final report released on Oct 8, 2018 reviews 30,000 publications.
The fact that parts of the earth are already warmer than the 2 degree C figure and the results are observable should be a driver for governments. In the Arctic, for example, where temperatures have risen up to 3 degrees C, the effort has seen chunks of icebergs breaking off and polar bears having difficulty in catching seals because of fewer blowholes — where they normally wait in ambush. Current temperatures are higher than they ever have been in the past two millennia.
For low-lying Pacific Islands the 1.5C goal is critical for many there would lose habitat and some islands are expected to disappear under the 2C target. The Maldives in the Indian ocean are partly under water, and some Pacific islands have already disappeared as average world sea levels rise by 3 mm a year. Yet Tuvalu has become an exception and its land area, studied from 1971 to 2014, is growing. Eight of its nine atolls are found to be still rising, increasing the “area by 29 percent, even though sea levels in the country rose by twice the global average.”
Even so the consequences of the earth already being 1 degree C higher than preindustrial times are apparent in the proliferation of extreme weather events. Unduly powerful hurricanes as in Puerto Rico or Houston, record-breaking forest fires in the U.S. and Australia, monsoons in South India this year that in Kerala have been the worst in this century, and the record temperatures in northern Europe are a few examples. Last week the 155 mph Category 5 Hurricane Michael, 5 mph short of Category 6, devastated the Florida panhandle and continued its destruction onward into Georgia and beyond. It was the strongest to hit this part of Florida since records began in 1881. On the other side of the Atlantic within a week, storms and hurricanes battered Europe: Hurricane Leslie in Portugal, storm Callum in Britain and heavy rains in France causing flash floods in the Aude region of south-west France. All of which can be expected to worsen as the earth’s mean temperature rises, increasing in both frequency and intensity.
The IPCC report presents four pathways (p.19 Executive Summary) each with net zero CO2 emissions within the next quarter century. The least interventionist scenario utilizes only afforestation to remove CO2. The report is optimistic in demonstrating synergies (p.27) with sustainable development goals. That CO2 removal technologies known as direct air capture (DAC) are also being developed successfully adds to the optimism.
At the same time the warnings are clear. All the options require a rapid decarbonization of the fuel s:upply i.e. no fossil fuels — coal just about gone by 2050 and three-quarters of the energy from renewables (p.19 after four pathways graphs). The risks for fisheries and coral reefs will remain high (p.13) even with the 1.5C scenario and coastal populations and farming will be worse off than now. Severe weather consequences can be expected to worsen. But all that is the world to be. Hence the argument for the most interventionist scenarios where the atmospheric CO2 is eventually reduced.
For all this the need to act now is clear in the facts and numbers.
Author’s Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on counterpunch.org.
Air pollution linked to “huge” reduction in intelligence
Air pollution can have a “huge” negative effect on cognitive intelligence – especially amongst older men – according to a study released this past August.
The research is one of the first of its kind to focus on the links between air pollution and cognition in older people. It was undertaken by scientists at Peking University in Beijing, China and Yale University in the U.S. and was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. In particular, it found that long-term exposure to air pollution may impede overall cognitive performance.
The researchers’ sample set included a panel of over 25,000 people across 162 randomly chosen counties in China. The study was also based on daily readings for three atmospheric pollutants, namely sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter smaller than 10 micrometers (PM10) where the participants lived.
The research found that that accumulative exposure to air pollution impedes cognitive performance in verbal and math tests. It found that as people age, the negative effect becomes particularly pronounced on verbal scores, especially for men while, “the gender gap is particularly large for the less educated.” One of the reasons why the researchers suggest that older men with less education were worst affected by chronic exposure to air pollution is because those subjects often work in outdoor, manual jobs.
The scientists concluded that, “The damage on the aging brain by air pollution likely imposes substantial health and economic costs, considering that cognitive functioning is critical for the elderly for both running daily errands and making high-stake decisions.” Given this damaging effect of air pollution on cognition, particularly on the aging brain, “the study implies that the indirect effect on social welfare could be much larger than previously thought.”
“Polluted air can cause everyone to reduce their level of education by one year, which is huge,” Yale School of Public Health’s Professor Xi Chen, one of the report’s authors, said in an interview published in The Guardian.
The study also suggests that air pollution increases the risk of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
“Air pollution is a significant threat to public health and this study highlights the negative effect that such pollution may have on the ageing brain,” said Soraya Smaoun, Air Quality Coordinator at UN Environment. “A better understanding of the critical links between air pollution and health for policies and investments supporting cleaner transport and power generation, as well as energy-efficient housing and municipal waste management can reduce key sources of outdoor air pollution.”
According to the World Health Organization, seven million people die each year from exposure to polluted air, both indoor and outdoor. The three biggest killers which are associated to air pollution are stroke (2.2 million deaths), heart disease (2.0 million) and lung disease and cancer (1.7 million deaths).
The World Health Organization’s air quality database shows that that 97 per cent of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet air quality guidelines presently. However, the percentage is much lower in higher income countries – 40 per cent.
What is being done about air pollution?
A worldwide movement to address air pollution is gradually taking shape and growing. Breathe Life – a global campaign headed by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the World Health Organization and UN Environment – is supporting a range of cleaner air initiatives that cover 39 cities, regions and countries, reaching over 80 million people.
Most major cities are still struggling to keep air pollution within acceptable levels as set out by the World Health Organization guidelines. However, by instituting policies and programmes to reduce transport and energy emissions, and by encouraging the use of clean energy, cities are leading change and improving the lives of a large number of people.
In 2018, the World Health Organization found that more than 57 per cent of cities in the Americas and more than 61 per cent of cities in Europe had seen a fall in both PM10 and PM2.5 particulate matter between 2010 and 2016.
The rise of renewable energy is also ideally positioned to make a big difference, with investment in new renewable sources outstripping fossil fuel investments every year.
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