Raging Oceans, Dying Pollinators, And Then The Virus

Authors: Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

If the coronavirus is life-threatening, and almost all of the USA is in varying levels of lockdown, the speed of its arrival and impact should at least remind us of the fragility of life — not just for our own species but on the planet itself.  Of course, Donald Trump disbanded the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense.  Set up after the Ebola scare, its job was to deal exactly with the type of threat we are facing; that is, to prepare for, lead  and coordinate resources to deal quickly and effectively with the emergency — its absence is yet another reason for the White House’s lackluster response.    

Then there is man-induced climate change.  The Antarctic hit a record 64.9F (18.3C) last month surpassing the previous high of 63.5F (17.5C) set in 2015.  Three days later on February 9th, the same measuring research station experienced an astounding 69.35F (20.75C) (livescience.com).  Perhaps it is to be expected when we are pumping CO2 to record levels in the atmosphere.  Current measurements are 413 ppm (Feb., 2020), a rise of 100ppm over 1950 figures (climate.nasa.gov/evidence/). 

Global warming is also blamed for hot Australian summers and the deadly forest fires in South Australia fueled by drought and extreme heat.  Most distressingly, these destroyed the entire habitats of several animal species and cost the lives of an estimated billion animals. 

One bright note is a stand of conifers (the Wollemi Pine) dating back to the dinosaurs has been saved through the extraordinary efforts of firefighters who dropped water and flame retardant from airplanes into the single canyon where they exist.  Millions of years ago, they were common across the ancient Gondwana supercontinent. 

Greenland and Antarctica are now losing ice at a six-times faster rate than in the 1990s raising sea levels and threatening coastal areas.  The rise of 17.8 mm since 1992 has been 60 percent due to Greenland and the rest to Antarctica (Nature, Dec 10, 2019).  Scientists now expect an extra 17mm (6.7 inch) rise in sea levels above current projections by 2100, and massive flooding of coastal areas, already experiencing very early signs (Greenland and Antarctica Ice Melt — BBC).   But that is small potatoes in comparison with the Denman Glacier in East Antarctica. 

This massive glacier has retreated 5 km (about 3 miles) in the last 22 years reports a new study appearing in Geophysical Research Letters (Science Daily, March 23, 2020).  From 1979 to 2017, it has lost a cumulative 268 billion tons.  Of particular concern to researchers is the ground surface underneath which renders the glacier more susceptible to global-warming collapse.  This vast ice sheet has the potential by itself to raise sea levels by 1.5 meters (5 feet).

While global warming is causing a speedup of many ocean currents, an anomaly is the consequence of Greenland ice melt reaching the Atlantic at the origins of the Gulf Stream current.  Reducing salinity, it impacts its driver, namely, the sinking salt water (Science, Feb. 7, 2020, p.612) weakening the current — its  beneficence accounting for the relatively benign winters in Britain and Ireland and extending as far north as Iceland, Norway and southern Sweden

At the same time, an analysis of data from the Argo array, some 4000 floats deployed across the globe to collect data, indicates an acceleration in currents, particularly in the tropics and the Southern Ocean (Science Advances, Feb 5, 2020).  Global warming is the likely cause spurring ocean winds to speed currents, although proof awaits more data collection.  A speed-up of currents and rising sea levels paints a picture of a rising, raging sea threatening coastal communities (National Geographic, Oct, 15, 2019) that have been popularized by developers in living memory.

The ecosystem is also threatened in other ways, particularly through the demise of pollinator species — on whom we, too, depend for our necessary crops.  A recent paper (Science February 7, 2020, p.626) reports widespread decline in bumble bee populations in North America and Europe.  Warming temperature is the likely culprit.  A temperature rise beyond the tolerable limits for bumble bees necessitates migration, often to areas that had been too cold for them before but have warmed up now to be tolerable.

Unfortunately, the rate of extirpation has exceeded that of colonization causing widespread decline.  The resulting consequences to plant species deprived of the ecosystem services of this pollinator are clearly unfavorable — if not disastrous — but have yet to be surveyed.

Meanwhile, wild bee species are in decline worldwide.  A halving from an estimated 6700 species in the 1950s to a shocking 3400 in the 2010s was reported in Science News (January 22, 2020).  While previous bee studies have addressed declining populations, the evidence collected had been limited to industrially developed Europe and North America.  The significance of the new research is its global scope.

In Thailand, for example, the ground nesting bee, Megachili bicolor, is fast losing habitat to expanding urbanization and agriculture.

With more scientists entering the field, the total number of bees observed by them has increased as one would expect.  But sadly, the number of species recorded keep plummeting on most continents.  The exception has been Australia where bee species first rose from 300 to 500 in the 2000s.  Then in the 2010s they fell back to 300.  What was once seen as a trend only in advanced countries is now global, and thousands of species have become either very rare or extinct. 

Bees and other insects like butterflies are vital in that they pollinate 75 percent of our most important crops.  Now butterflies are also under threat.  The monarchs in the US are the victims of herbicides like glyphosate, and global warming upsets their seasonal migration patterns.  They are also losing habitat, the loss estimated at 165 million acres in the US reports the Center for Biological Diversity.

Of the two migratory populations of monarchs, the western population numbered 1.2 million in the 1990s and the eastern about a billion.  These numbers have dropped drastically to a critical 30,000 in the west  and 225 million in the east.  Since 2018 when these winter counts were taken, the numbers in the west have declined further this year to a little over 29,000.

Now we have the coronavirus giving modern humans an intimate foretaste of their ecological vulnerability.  As it is easily transmissible, the situation can turn quickly into an out-of-control pandemic.  If  it affects 70 percent, as an expert recently predicted (CBS News), of the world’s population of about 8 billion, it will infect 5.6 billion people.  Assuming a 1 percent death rate, which is on the low side of recent estimates, it results in 56 million fatalities — not unlike WW2.  The same figures applied to the US yield 2.3 million deaths.      

One might be forgiven for wondering if it is not Mother Earth’s Gaian response to destructive human activity.  Could it even be just the initial onslaught?  Now that is a frightening thought. 

Authors’ Note:  An earlier version of this article appeared on Counterpunch.org

Dr. Arshad M. Khan
Dr. Arshad M. Khan
Dr. Arshad M. Khan is a former Professor based in the US. Educated at King's College London, OSU and The University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. Thus he headed the analysis of an innovation survey of Norway, and his work on SMEs published in major journals has been widely cited. He has for several decades also written for the press: These articles and occasional comments have appeared in print media such as The Dallas Morning News, Dawn (Pakistan), The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and others. On the internet, he has written for Antiwar.com, Asia Times, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, Eurasia Review and Modern Diplomacy among many. His work has been quoted in the U.S. Congress and published in its Congressional Record.