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The Perilous Migration of Birds through Cities

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How many birds flying into buildings die,

Thinking the glass reflection is the sky. —   with a nod to Kansas poet Madeleine Aaron

Bird migration is a wondrous and majestic phenomenon.  One may witness flocks of colorful songbirds sweeping the skies, geese gliding in a V-shape of beautiful symmetry, or a great hawk soaring above and diving for prey at 120 miles per hour.

About half of all birds in the world migrate, and even the smallest may travel remarkably long distances. Incredibly, the tiny hummingbird can fly nonstop 600 miles over the Gulf of Mexico. Some round-trip migrations can wind their way for as long as 44,000 miles.

Most songbirds migrate at night, and nocturnal travel makes their journey particularly perilous in light of human development. Birds face many obstacles along the way, including extreme weather events and lack of habitat. Yet, one particularly tragic and preventable peril remains: human-made structures.

Scientists estimate an astounding upper-level figure of 1 billion birds that die in the U.S. each year from building collisions. Making matters worse, 40 percent of the world’s bird species are already in decline. In the last decade alone, four birds became extinct and four more are “on the verge of extinction.”  Nearly one in five bird species in Europe is at risk of extinction

Artificial light from buildings draws migratory birds like a beckoning siren, luring them toward lit cities where skyscraper glass reflections are plentiful and deadly. What appear to be skies and trees turn out to be deceptive reflections, and as the birds glide toward the images, they slam into glass. Many are killed instantly, while some are seriously wounded.

Scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have investigated light pollution and bird migration patterns in major U.S. cities to determine where collision risks are highest. They report that the median light exposure to birds in cities is 24 times higher than the countrywide average. Chicago tops the list of dangerous U.S. cities for birds, followed by Houston and Dallas. This is true for both fall and spring migrations. Other dangerous metropolises include New York, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Los Angeles.

The central region of the U.S. happens to be a superhighway for bird migrations. Every spring and fall, over 5 million migrating birds comprised of 250 species pass over Chicago, where the city’s glass skyscrapers and artificial light become a death trap. Scientists from the Field Museum in Chicago have been counting dead birds at just one building (McCormick Place) since 1978. By 2002, the numbers had totaled 29,842 birds from 140 species. Chicago clearly has to be a major focus for conservation efforts during migration periods, as should the other hazardous cities identified in the study.

Another useful lesson from the Cornell study is one of timing, and this can help birds in many geographic regions of the U.S. Particularly crucial is the ability to pinpoint specifically when the birds face the greatest risks in each region. Fine-tuning the weeks when help is most needed can have a substantial impact on saving birds.

Researchers discovered that while a migration may continue over a six-month period, it “occurs in sporadic waves,” with the vast majority of birds passing through dangerous locales on just a few nights. Half of all migratory birds each season passed a metro location on approximately 7 to 10 nights during their migrations. This means helping birds, even for a period as short as a week, can have a significant impact. Really though, we must do more.

How Can We Lower the Rate of Bird Collisions?

For low-rises and high-rises, minimizing artificial window light is highly beneficial. This can be done by turning out the lights at night, drawing curtains and blinds, using a small lamp on a table rather than bright ceiling lights and introducing lights with motion sensors in office buildings.

Additionally, participating in Lights Out projects during peak migration times saves many birds. For the average reader, this is as simple as turning the lights out after 11 pm during fall and spring migration months. For building owners, minimizing exterior lighting is also essential. Lights Out programs are being organized in many major cities and have saved thousands of birds. A two-year study by the Field Museum using McCormick Place in Chicago found that turning off the lights resulted in an 83 percent reduction in bird window-collision deaths.

Chicago Bird Collision Monitors rescues injured birds and counts fatalities each morning during migration. Notably, they rescued an injured peregrine falcon (on the endangered list) that was restored to health and released. “We know that before all buildings were participating consistently in Lights Out, there was a foggy night in 2002 when many birds were migrating where a single building was reported to kill over a thousand birds in one evening,” said Annette Prince, the program’s director. “Chicago Bird Collision Monitors worked with buildings to get better participation in Lights Out and by 2004, saw 100 percent participation in light reduction so that subsequently we have never had a single building kill so many birds at once.” 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a live bird migration map, so one can view in real time when birds are migrating through one’s locale and be cognizant of light pollution during peak days. It is important to note that turning lights out whenever possible is also beneficial outside of migration periods, as scientists have shown that substantial numbers of collisions can and do occur outside of migration periods, even in winter.  

Bird-friendly architecture for new construction is essential, as is mandatory legislation. Additionally, adding bird-safe architecture to green building certification standards is recommended by scientists. The extent to which architectural changes can affect bird collision incidence is illustrated by the recent renovation of New York’s Javits Center – a building previously responsible for the most bird deaths per year in New York. To help mitigate the problem, architects replaced dark-mirrored glass with glass that had a subtle fritted pattern, and also added a green roof for nesting. The project was a remarkable success, reducing bird collisions by 95 percent.  Other architectural strategies are installation of UV-coated glass, translucent glass and indented windows with shutters. Legislation requiring implementation of these strategies is crucial to saving birds from collisions.

Chicago proposed bird-friendly building legislation at the beginning of the year.  The ordinance would limit the percentage of transparent or reflective glass that can be used in new and renovated construction exteriors. Specifically, it would require that from the ground to 36 feet up, at least 95 percent of the exterior cannot be covered in glass, or must use glass containing frosting, etching or screens.  Nonessential exterior lighting would also be required to automatically shut off after 11 pm. Chicago’s legislation was introduced by Alderman Brian Hopkins and is supported by Bird Friendly Chicago. It is expected that real estate developers will oppose the bill. Michael Cornicelli, executive vice president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, communicated that the portion of the bill requiring adoption of bird-friendly architecture to renovations of existing buildings would be “a potential sticking point.” San Francisco and Toronto already have bird-friendly legislation in place to serve as a model.

On a national level, U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat who is also a Chicago resident, has reintroduced the Bird-Safe Buildings Act (H.R. 919), which he has tried four times to pass since 2010. Dr. Christine Sheppard, director of American Bird Conservancy’s Glass Collisions Program, notes, “The legislation would help address one of the greatest human-caused threats to birds. Although this legislation is limited to federal buildings, it’s a very good start that could lead to more widespread applications of bird-friendly designs and use of bird-smart glass solutions.” 

When enacted, these bills will reduce bird collision deaths, and in the next few months, we will see how they fare.  

In the meantime, researchers recommend that residents take a few of the following precautions to help minimize window collisions: angling windows to reduce reflection, keeping indoor vegetation away from windows, installing netting, ultraviolet-reflecting glass or decals spaced closely together.  And of course, simply turning out the lights helps. 

These same strategies can be used in any city around the world where migratory birds traverse.  Collectively, we can reduce the incidence of bird collisions and help the many already threatened species to have a better chance of survival.

In the coming months, look to the sky and around you. Stop awhile and you will hear birdsong, more in the morning but also during the day; wee warblers with deceptively loud melodies, cardinals singing their sweet song, and if you look carefully you might catch a glimpse of a puff of bright yellow, the source of that surprising volume. These and others are growing families and enriching our lives before they prepare for the thousands of miles long autumn journey to their winter homes.

Author’s note: first published in Truthout.org

Meena Miriam Yust is an attorney based in Chicago, Illinois. Educated at Vassar College and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, she published a draft Migratory Insect Treaty with commentary in the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law.

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Green Planet

Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems

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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. 

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Green Planet

Human activity the common link between disasters around the world

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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.

Arctic-Texas link

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.

Root causes

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.

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Green Planet

Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution

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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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