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Dying Wildlife on a Warming Planet

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Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad M. Khan

The emaciated polar bear, a sorry remnant of magnificence, raiding garbage cans in an iconic, even infamous photo, is one consequence of global warming.  As the September (2019) National Geographic cover story displays depressingly, Arctic ice collected over winter is sparser, thinner, and now disappears completely during summer in parts of Canada.  If the effects of global warming are staring us in the face, then only the woefully or willfully ignorant – like Trump – can ignore them.  

One more aspect of warming on Arctic ice has been reported recently.  As we know, two-thirds of an iceberg lies under water.  As sea water warms, melt increases and scientists have made measurements to discover that submerged parts of icebergs and glaciers entering the sea are melting significantly more than was previously believed, contributing to rising sea levels.

Researchers are warning that permafrost collapse in the Arctic is releasing nitrous oxide, methane, and carbon dioxide.  The store is vast: nearly 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon lies trapped in the frozen soils of the permafrost region as a result of decaying organic matter over millennia.  That is almost double the quantity in the atmosphere.

The environmental costs of global warming appear in yet other unexpected ways.  A new paper in Science reports the threat to coral reef reproduction.  Free-spawning marine species synchronize spawning as a way to ensure reproduction.  In this way the gametes developed are so numerous that some escape their predators, ensuring species survival.  Global warming is now affecting this reproductive synchrony, threatening coral reef recovery.

Rising ocean temperatures impact fish, plankton and crustaceans, in turn affecting the creatures that feed on them.  So now sea birds, like the puffin, are struggling to stay alive.  These are striking birds with black and white plumage, bright orange legs and feet, and, during the mating season, orange beaks.  This past May, it was estimated that between 3,150 and 8,500 puffins starved to death in the Bering Sea, their emaciated bodies washing ashore on the Pribilof Islands, some 300 miles west of mainland Alaska.  Prior to the mass deaths, there was a documented period of elevated sea surface temperatures in the eastern Bering Sea according to scientists.  The unfortunate result was a shift in zooplankton composition and in forage fish distribution, both food sources for the puffin.

In Iceland, too, puffins are in trouble.  Researchers discovered that thousands of puffin chicks had died from starvation in the summer of 2018.  It turns out rising ocean temperatures have pushed cold-water fish farther north leaving the baby pufflings with little to eat.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) as vulnerable on its red list.  

Rising ocean temperatures are also affecting food availability and the habitat of many Arctic creatures, including the walrus, polar bear, gray whale, arctic fox, and ice seal.  Some are starving to death, some wandering long and far in search of food.  Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt seals at their breathing holes.  When the sea is not covered in ice, breathing holes become unnecessary as the seals can come up anywhere for air, and are no longer easy for polar bears to snatch up.  The World Wildlife Fund has reported a 40% drop in number of the southern Beaufort Sea polar bears between 2001 and 2010.   Worse still, scientists forecasting global polar bear populations estimate a high probability that 30% of polar bears worldwide will be gone by 2050.

Declining sea ice is also harming seals. Baby harp seals lie on the ice during their fragile first few weeks of life.  Without a thick and stable span of ice, seal pups may drown or be crushed by broken ice.  In 2007, a then surprising 75 percent plus of pups died due to thin ice conditions; in 2010, nearly all.  “Some years, when there’s poor ice in a given pupping ground, essentially all of the pups don’t make it,” says Duke marine biologist David Johnston.  As temperatures continue to rise, seal survival becomes precarious.

The Pacific walrus population is in decline with only 129,000 animals left.  Due to climate change, the floating summer ice that walruses used to haul themselves upon to rest is now way up north.  Consequently the animals are swimming ashore and taking to land in huge numbers.  Unfortunately their feeding grounds are far away from shore, forcing a 250 mile round trip.  In addition to exhaustion from traveling long distances and food scarcity, walruses also face threats from being on the beach in vast crowds.  In 2014, 35,000 walruses were seen together on the shore near Point Lay, Alaska.  The animals, which can weigh as much as 1.5 tons, can be frightened easily by loud noises like airplanes, causing stampedes and mass deaths by trampling, especially of young calves – as many as 500 in one incident.  If ice continues to diminish, their future looks bleak.  

Then there are the gray whales.  Their favorite crustacean is the amphipod – a small flat morsel with segments and antennae resembling a grasshopper.  These lipid-rich crustaceans are devoured by whales in bulk.  Over the past 30 years, as currents have warmed and sea ice has melted, amphipod populations have declined in the Bering Sea whale feeding area.  As a result, gray whale mothers and babies have had no choice but to swim north through the Bering Strait and far into the Arctic Ocean in search of an alternate food supply.  They are so hungry they are eating krill and mysid shrimp, but as it takes an enormous quantity to match the calories of lipid-rich amphipods, the whales remain hungry.

The North Atlantic right whale, a species federally classified as endangered, is also affected by the rising ocean temperatures.  The Smithsonian reports that right whales eat more than 2,000 pounds each day, mostly copepods.  Their favorite copepod, the Calanus finmarchicus, has dramatically declined because some of the deep waters of the north Atlantic have warmed almost 9 degrees Fahrenheit since 2004, forcing right whales to migrate elsewhere in search of food.  Several right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters in recent months, and a sixth dead whale was found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in July of this year.  The steep rise since 2010 in the deaths of these whales from shipping vessel strikes as well as entanglement with fishing gear is attributed to the animals moving into new and unexpected areas where speed restrictions for vessels are not in place.  With some 400 right whales left (out of 500 in the early 2000s) and about 100 breeding females, the species may face extinction if these trends continue.  Researchers are hoping to use satellite technology to detect whales in new territory, allowing for faster responses in moving fishing nets and large vessels.

Creatures large and small face threats from melting ice.  Lemmings are like hamsters of the tundra – small, furry rodents with faces and whiskers as adorable as the childhood pet.  In winter, northern Norway lemmings burrow under the snow for insulation and protection from prey.  During good snow seasons, they reach population peaks and their young prosper.  But in Norway in recent years, rising temperatures are causing repeated thawing and icing periods resulting in poor snow conditions for the lemmings.  The resulting altered and reduced population cycles mean lemmings are no longer reaching population peaks. 

The arctic fox relies on lemmings as a primary food source, and scientists believe lemming decline has contributed to sharp declines and breeding failures in the arctic fox population of Norway.  Arctic foxes also face threats from the red fox, a larger more aggressive animal, which historically lived south of the arctic fox habitat.  Due to climate change and warming of the Arctic, however, the red fox is encroaching on arctic fox areas.  Warming is also converting the tundra to shrublands, a habitat the red fox desires.  The poor arctic fox faces loss of habitat, decreased food availability, increased competition for food, and possible displacement by the red fox.  And with the Arctic continuing to warm, these changes will only become more extensive.  Small wonder then that the arctic fox often has to travel long and hard to find food.  One female captured all our hearts as it traveled 3,500 km from Norway to Canada in 76 days, its remarkable journey including 1,512 km on sea ice.

These few examples demonstrate the impact of global warming on diverse forms of life — from coral reefs and lemmings to the right whale.  We learn that changes in plankton and tiny crustaceans can starve a giant whale and diminishing ice cover can cause polar bears to lose their primary food source, and we begin to register the intimate interconnectedness in the web of life.  Human well-being too is tied to this chain of life.  If fish decline, so does a food source for humans and the water birds that feed on fish, and as insect pollinators decline, so do our crops and the plants around us.  A study suggests that 40% of insect species are in decline.  And the U.S. and Canada have lost three billion birds since 1970.  In this anthropocene age, humans are not rapacious owners but stewards of our planet, holding it in trust for succeeding generations.  It is what the young led by Greta Thunberg are forcefully making clear to their elders.   

Author’s note: This piece first appeared in CommonDreams.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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The problems of climate change, part 2

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As we continue to examine the studies on climate change that is raising the average temperature of the planet, it must be said that the impact of temperature on production efficiency at too low or too high temperatures negatively affects production efficiency and causes significant economic losses.

Outdoor workers are more severely threatened by high temperature heat waves due to prolonged exposure to excessively hot environments. When the high temperature (33°C) lasts for ten days, the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases in the outdoor worker group increases by 149%.

The 2020 China report by the prestigious journal ‘The Lancet’ calculated that in 2019 Chinese outdoor workers lost about 0.5% of their potential working hours due to high temperatures, thus causing a 1% loss of the country’s gross domestic product (126 billion dollars), which is equivalent to China’s total annual budget for science and technology.

Heat does not only affect physical health, but also mental health such as emotions, etc. In 2020 Patrick Baylis published an article in the Journal of Public Economics, one of the leading economic journals, to identify people’s latent preference for temperature. He used the public’s emotional expressions on Twitter from June 2014 to October 2016 as a source of information to construct daily, monthly and annual data on working days, holidays, and time trends specific to worker status. He noted people’s emotional response to temperature in the work environment. People’s emotions are generally negative in relation to normal temperature trends (20-25 °C), and people’s mood index drops from 0.1 to 0.2 or more on hot days (35-40 °C).

The influence of temperature also affects the sociability index.

Furthermore, Baylis used the exogenous impact of income (quarterly salary changes or parking fines, speeding fines, etc.) to economically measure this emotional response. He found that the economic value of a deviation for large differences in temperature affects the mutual willingness index between people. The willingness to invest money to reduce the maximum daily temperature from 30-35°C to 20-25°C is between 11.94 and 4.77 dollars (depending on salary or the amount of fines incurred).

It is worth noting that the accumulation of negative emotions will cause more social problems, such as depression, suicide, instigation of criminal activities and aggravation of human conflicts. In 2018 Marshall Burke, Felipe González, Patrick Baylis, Sam Heft-Neal, Ceren Baysan, Sanjay Basu and Solomon Hsiang edited a paper in “Nature Climate Change” that analysed the relationship between suicide rates and high temperatures. The results showed that for every 1°C increase in the average monthly temperature, suicide rates in US counties and in some cities in Mexico increased by 0.7% and 2.1%.

In 2013 Solomon M. Hsiang, Marshall Burke and Edward Miguel published a paper in “Science”, after reviewing the relevant literature, and found that extreme weather conditions can easily lead to individual and group violent crimes and property crimes, as well as political turmoil in poor countries and personal aggression and violence.

Such behaviours will increase with high temperatures. Moreover, the resulting extreme rainfall has widened the income gap by affecting agricultural production. The authors discussed the related mechanisms of change in the state of affairs, including climate change, which will alter the supply of resources, as well as exacerbate social inequality and cause human conflicts. This will also reduce socio-economic productivity, thus weakening the monitoring of government agencies and suppressing the control of crime intensity.

Population migration and fast urbanisation caused by climate change will lead to competition for very limited local resources. Climate change will affect people’s physiological mechanisms and reduce their ability to make rational judgements. People will become more abusive and confrontational, which in turn will lead to greater destabilisation.

The 2015 study by Matthew Ranson (2014) published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management also shows that a high-temperature climate will trigger more criminal activity and it is estimated that, between 2010 and 2099, the social costs of criminal activity in the United States due to climate change will reach between 29 and 78 billion dollars.

In summary, the impact of climate change on human health and socio-economic development cannot be underestimated. Consequently, climate change is a global challenge that defies national borders and urgently requires close cooperation among all countries. On December 12, 2015 at the Conference held in the French capital on climate change, the Paris Agreement was adopted, calling for global action against climate change.

It has become an important part of human history following the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Rio de Janeiro 1992) and the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. It is the third milestone in international case law to address climate change, planning a new path for global climate research.

The main objective is to keep the global average temperature increase in this century within 2°C and bring the global temperature increase within 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level.

The People’s Republic of China, a responsible developing country, has always attached great importance to tackling climate change. On September 3, 2016, China formally adhered to the Paris Agreement and became the twenty-third country to complete ratification. In September 2020, President Xi Jinping solemnly declared at the General Debate of the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations that the People’s Republic of China will enhance its efforts to collaborate on climate improvement, strive to peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 (Green Development, regarded as indispensable to building a green civilization, as indicated by the decarbonization targets), as well as “actively respond to climate change” as early as the 14th Five-Year Plan 2021-2025.

According to the 2019 Annual Report on China’s Climate Change Policies and Actions, published by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment led by Huang Runqiu, China’s carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) decreased by 4% in 2018, with a 45.8% cumulative decrease since 2005, which is equivalent to a reduction of 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, non-fossil energy accounted for 14.3% of total energy consumption, thus substantially reversing the fast growth in carbon dioxide emissions, and made an important contribution to the response to global climate change.

However, more effective policies and measures are still needed to ensure the fulfilment of the 2060 commitment and to minimise the health burden of climate change on the world’s population.

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Sink or swim: Can island states survive the climate crisis?

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The aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Barbuda. UNDP/Michael Atwood

Small island nations across the world are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, and their problems have been accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has severely affected their economies, and their capacity to protect themselves from possible extinction. We take a look at some of the many challenges they face, and how they could be overcome.

Low emissions, but high exposure

The 38 member states and 22 associate members that the UN has designated as Small Island Developing States  or SIDS are caught in a cruel paradox: they are collectively responsible for less than one per cent of global carbon emissions, but they are suffering severely from the effects of climate change, to the extent that they could become uninhabitable.

Although they have a small landmass, many of these countries are large ocean states, with marine resources and biodiversity that are highly exposed to the warming of the oceans. They are often vulnerable to increasingly extreme weather events, such as the devastating cyclones that have hit the Caribbean in recent years, and because of their limited resources, they find it hard to allocate funds to sustainable development programmes that could help them to cope better,for example, constructing more robust buildings that could withstand heavy storms.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the economic situation of many island states, which are heavily dependent on tourism. The worldwide crisis has severely curtailed international travel, making it much harder for them to repay debts. “Their revenues have virtually evaporated with the end of tourism, due to lockdowns, trade impediments, the fall in commodity prices, and supply chain disruptions”, warned Munir Akram, the president of the UN Economic and Social Council in April. He added that their debts are “creating impossible financial problems for their ability to recover from the crisis.”

Most research indicates that low-lying atoll islands, predominantly in the Pacific Ocean such as the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, risk being submerged by the end of the century, but there are indications that some islands will become uninhabitable long before that happens: low-lying islands are likely to struggle with coastal erosion, reduced freshwater quality and availability due to saltwater inundation of freshwater aquifers. This means that small islands nations could find themselves in an almost unimaginable situation, in which they run out of fresh water long before they run out of land.

Furthermore, many islands are still protected by reefs, which play a key role in the fisheries industry and balanced diets. These reefs are projected to die off almost entirely unless we limit warming below 1.5 degrees celsius

Despite the huge drop in global economic activity during the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of harmful greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere increased in 2002, and the past six years, 2015–2020, are likely to be the six warmest on record.

Climate finance (climate-specific financial support) continues to increase, reaching an annual average of $48.7 billion in 2017-2018. This represents an increase of 10% over the previous 2015–2016 period. While over half of all climate-specific financial support in the period 2017-2018 was targeted to mitigation actions, the share of adaptation support is growing, and is being prioritized by many countries. 

This is a cost-effective approach, because if not enough is invested in adaptation and mitigation measures, more resources will need to be spent on action and support to address loss and damage.

Switching to renewables

SIDS are dependent on imported petroleum to meet their energy demands. As well as creating pollution, shipping the fossil fuel to islands comes at a considerable cost. Recognizing these problems, some of these countries have been successful in efforts to shift to renewable energy sources.

For example, Tokelau, in the South Pacific, is meeting close to 100 per cent  of its energy needs through renewables, while Barbados, in the Caribbean, is committed to powering the country with 100 per cent renewable energy sources and reaching zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Several SIDS have also set ambitious renewable energy targets: Samoa, the Cook Islands, Cabo Verde, Fiji, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Vanuatu are aiming to increase the share of renewables in their energy mixes, from 60 to 100 per cent, whilst in 2018, Seychelles launched the world’s first sovereign blue bond, a pioneering financial instrument to support sustainable marine and fisheries projects.

The power of traditional knowledge

The age-old practices of indigenous communities, combined with the latest scientific innovations, are being increasingly seen as important ways to adapt to the changes brought about by the climate crisis, and mitigate its impact. 

In Papua New Guinea, local residents use locally-produced coconut oil as a cheaper, more sustainable alternative to diesel; seafaring vessels throughout the islands of Micronesia and Melanesia in the Pacific are using solar panels and batteries instead of internal combustion; mangrove forests are being restored on islands like Tonga and Vanuatu to address extreme weather as they protect communities against storm surges and sequester carbon; and in the Pacific, a foundation is building traditional Polynesian canoes, or vakas, serving as sustainable passenger and cargo transport for health services, education, disaster relief and research.

Strategies for survival

While SIDS have brought much needed attention to the plight of vulnerable nations, much remains to be done to support them in becoming more resilient, and adapting to a world of rising sea levels and extreme weather events.

On average, SIDS are more severely indebted than other developing countries, and the availability of “climate financing” (the money which needs to be spent on a whole range of activities which will contribute to slowing down climate change) is of key importance. 

More than a decade ago, developed countries committed to jointly mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 in support of climate action in developing countries; the amount these nations are receiving is rising, but there is still a significant financing gap. A recently published UN News feature story explains how climate finance works, and the UN’s role.

Beyond adaptation and resilience to climate change, SIDS also need support to help them thrive in an ever-more uncertain world. The UN, through its Development Programme (UNDP), is helping these vulnerable countries in a host of ways, so that they can successfully diversify their economies; improve energy independence by building up renewable sources and reducing dependence on fuel imports; create and develop sustainable tourism industries, and transition to a “blue economy”, which protects and restores marine environments.

Fighting for recognition

For years, SIDS have been looking for ways to raise awareness of their plight and gain international support. As the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in 1990, they successfully lobbied for recognition of their particular needs in the text of the landmark UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) two years later.

Since then, the countries have continued to push for a greater emphasis on ensuring that international agreements include a commitment to providing developing countries with the funds to adapt to climate change. An important step was ensuring that climate change negotiations address the issue of “loss and damage” (i.e. things that are lost forever, such as human lives or the loss of species, while damages refers to things that are damaged, but can be repaired or restored, such as roads or sea walls etc.).

SIDS continue to urge developed nations to show more ambition and commitment to tackling the climate crisis, and strongly support calls for a UN resolution to establish a legal framework to protect the rights of people displaced by climate change, and for the UN to appoint a Special Rapporteur on Climate and Security, to help manage climate security risks and provide support to vulnerable countries to develop climate-security risk assessments.

•SIDS have also advocated for eligibility to development finance to recognize the vulnerabilities they face, including from climate change hazards. The UN will release its recommendations in a report due to be released in August 2021.

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Wildfires in Turkish tourist regions are the highest recorded

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forest fire

Turkish fires in tourist regions are the hottest in history, due to which thousands of tourists evacuated as the nation fights over 50 blazes from the Aegean Sea resort. On Thursday, according to satellite data given to the Guardian, the heat intensity of flames in Turkey was four times greater than anything in the nation recorded. At least 4 people have been slain by blazes that spread across Antalya, causing a fleet of boats to rescue thousands of vacationers from their hotels.

The conditions in and throughout the country were tinder-dry at sites for scores of additional blazes. Turkey’s 60-year temperature record had been broken the previous week when Cizre, a town in the south-east, registered 49.1C.

The pictures of damage in Turkey on social media add up to fears about the increasing fury of extreme weather in a climate-disrupted world after fatal heat waves in America, floods in Europe and China, and Siberian fires.

The popular Aegean resorts surrounded by slopes, forests, and agricultural areas turned to ash are reported in local media. In the province of Bodrum, Muğla, 80 hectares (197 acres) of land and air were torched. In the summer, wildfires are typical in Turkey, but the blazes have been extraordinary for the last two days. The EU Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service satellite analysis shows a heat intensity of around 20 gigawatts on Thursday, up 4 times the daily maximum for fires.

Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service stated “these figures are not as large as the past 19 years. He continued that the fire smoke near Antalya was now moving to Cyprus. Residents in the cities concerned said that reporters never saw such a thing. Ibrahim Aydın, a farmer, said he was almost killed while fighting the flames, and he lost all of his cattle. “All I had on the floor was burnt. He said Daily Sabah, “I lost lambs and other animals.” “This was not common. It was like hell.

The firemen fought over 50 blazes around the country. Dozens of the smoke were admitted. As the news spread, #PrayForTurkey appeared on Twitter trend with devastating photos and maps that displayed over two dozen around the country. Government ministers secularized, however, that the reason may be incendiary assaults by the Kurdish separatist PKK movement. Wider climatic trends that are rising fire hazards in Turkey and abroad have been noted in a few domestic studies. Climate scientists have long foreseen that increasing temperatures and variations in precipitation due to human emissions will impact the Mediterranean worse. According to the latest study of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the future wildfire danger in Southern Europe is expected to grow.

Levent Kurnaz, The Turkish climate scientist, stated current climatic conditions for easy inflammation were established. “There is very hot and dry weather. This helps begin fires. Our minor error leads to a major calamity,” he tweeted.

Singer Dua Lipa bemoaned the fact that the world must understand that climate change is read in Turkish response to wildfires. Dua sent prayers to Turkey on Friday via Instagram where flames were devastated by wildfires. “Pray for Turkey”. We weep on our wretched world.

She added, “We have to face the facts. PROTECT OUR MOTHER. Turkey I’, with you.”

The trend is expected to continue this year. The World Weather Organization stated that severe heat in Italy, Greece, Tunisia, and Turkey is reaching the entire Mediterranean region, with forecasts of temperatures even higher than 40C. It has called for measures to avoid difficulties with health and water supplies.

It is anticipated that the heat waves in Southern Europe will last into next week, with certain projections that it might be some of the worst on record. In the weeks ahead, the Turkish weather bureau has little chance of reprieve. The temperatures of Ankara and numerous other locations will be over 12C next week than the norm in August. Southern Greece was already affected by wildfires, requiring rural evacuations outside the western port of Patras. In Bulgaria and Albania, Blazes are also documented. In North Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, and portions of Romania and Serbia, high-temperature warnings were issued. In Italy, Portugal, Spain, and portions of North Africa, the EU has issued its highest fire-risk alert. Further east, on Thursday in Lebanon, a big fire broke out, killing one person.

In tourist regions, villages and some hotels were evacuated, and the film showed people fleeing through fields when flames closed in their houses. In Antalya’s Mediterranean resort zone and the Mugla district of the Aegean resort, Pakdemirli claimed flames are still blazed. There were four people killed by wildfires on the south coast of the nation. On Friday, following the evacuation of dozens of communities and hotels, firefighters fought burns for the third day. We can hope that part of the fire would be contained this morning, but although we cautiously claim it is improved, we can still say it’s controlled. The wildfires broke out somewhere else in the region, with more than 40 winds and high temperatures in Greece during the previous 24 hours. On Tuesday, a pine forest north of Athens was burned and more than a dozen residences were damaged before the fire came under control. In the hilly north of Lebanon, fires burnt vast areas of pine forests this week, killing a firefighter at least and causing several inhabitants to evacuate

“Right now, the risks are quite significant; if these temperatures persist we might begin to see more fire over the following weeks.”  

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