Huge discovery about Global Warming shocks scientists

Huge discovery about Global Warming shocks scientists

An astonishing new study claims that there may be a ticking time bomb right under our toes, as the soil could be responsible for significant carbon emissions.

A remarkable new study published in the journal Science indicates that carbon emissions from warming soils could be a lot higher than we previously thought, and it could result in a chain of events that would greatly intensify global warming. Researchers found that there was a major uptick in carbon production in microbes found within soil at the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts.

Scientists used underground cables to heat some of the soil plots in the forest, raising the temperature by about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, while unheated plots were set aside as control for the experiment. After about 10 years, scientists measured again and found that carbon emissions from heated soil had greatly increased. After a seven year period where emissions declined again, the carbon emissions went on an upward trajectory once again for six more years.

In the final three years of the study, the carbon emissions from the soil went down again. Both times there was a decline in emissions, scientists think that the microbes were simply adjusting to the new temperatures, and as a result they think that it is just the calm before the storm, as it were. The 26-year study is the biggest of its kind and could result in breakthroughs in how we study and understand global warming and climate change.

The full statement from the Marine Biological Laboratory follows below.

After 26 years, the world’s longest-running experiment to discover how warming temperatures affect forest soils has revealed a surprising, cyclical response: Soil warming stimulates periods of abundant carbon release from the soil to the atmosphere alternating with periods of no detectable loss in soil carbon stores. Overall, the results indicate that in a warming world, a self-reinforcing and perhaps uncontrollable carbon feedback will occur between forest soils and the climate system, adding to the build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by burning fossil fuels and accelerating global warming. The study, led by Jerry Melillo, Distinguished Scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), appears in the October 6 issue of Science.

Melillo and colleagues began this pioneering experiment in 1991 in a deciduous forest stand at the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts. They buried electrical cables in a set of plots and heated the soil 5° C above the ambient temperature of control plots. Over the course of the 26-year experiment (which still continues), the warmed plots lost 17 percent of the carbon that had been stored in organic matter in the top 60 centimeters of soil.

“To put this in context,” Melillo says, “each year, mostly from fossil fuel burning, we are releasing about 10 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere. That’s what’s causing the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and global warming. The world’s soils contain about 3,500 billion metric tons of carbon. If a significant amount of that soil carbon is added to the atmosphere, due to microbial activity in warmer soils, that will accelerate the global warming process. And once this self-reinforcing feedback begins, there is no easy way to turn it off. There is no switch to flip.”

Over the course of the experiment, Melillo’s team observed fluctuations in the rate of soil carbon emission from the heated plots, indicating cycles in the capacity of soil microbes to degrade organic matter and release carbon. Phase I (1991 to 2000) was a period of substantial soil carbon loss that was rapid at first, then slowed to near zero. In Phase II (2001-2007), there was no difference in carbon emissions between the warmed and the control plots. During that time, the soil microbial community in the warmed plots was undergoing reorganization that led to changes in the community’s structure and function. In Phase III (2008-2013), carbon release from heated plots again exceeded that from control plots. This coincided with a continued shift in the soil microbial community. Microbes that can degrade more recalcitrant soil organic matter, such as lignin, became more dominant, as shown by genomic and extracellular enzyme analyses. In Phase IV (2014 to current), carbon emissions from the heated plots have again dropped, suggesting that another reorganization of the soil microbial community could be underway. If the cyclical pattern continues, Phase IV will eventually transition to another phase of higher carbon loss from the heated plots.

“This work emphasizes the value of long-term ecological studies that are the hallmark of research at the MBL’s Ecosystems Center,” says David Mark Welch, MBL’s Director of Research. “These large field studies, combined with modeling and an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the role of microbial communities in ecosystem dynamics, provide new insight to the challenges posed by climate change.”

“The future is a warmer future. How much warmer is the issue,” Melillo says. “In terms of carbon emissions from fossil fuels, we could control that. We could shut down coal-fired power plants, for example. But if the microbes in all landscapes respond to warming in the same way as we’ve observed in mid-latitude forest soils, this self-reinforcing feedback phenomenon will go on for a while and we are not going to be able to turn those microbes off. Of special concern is the big pool of easily decomposed carbon that is frozen in Artic soils. As those soils thaw out, this feedback phenomenon would be an important component of the climate system, with climate change feeding itself in a warming world.”

Collaborators in this study include S.D. Frey, M.A. Knorr, and A.S. Grandy of the University of New Hampshire’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment; K.M. DeAngelis of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst’s Department of Microbiology; W.J. Werner and M.J. Bernard of the Marine Biological Laboratory; F.P. Bowles of Research Designs in Lyme, N.H.; and G. Pold of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.

Melillo, J.M. et al (2017) Long-Term Pattern and Magnitude of Soil Carbon Feedback to the Climate System in a Warming World. Science DOI:

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery – exploring fundamental biology, understanding marine biodiversity and the environment, and informing the human condition through research and education. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution and an affiliate of the University of Chicago.

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Bad day for walrus: Service Determines Pacific Walrus Does Not Require Endangered Species Act Protection

October 4,
2017

Contact: Andrea Medeiros,
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found that the Pacific walrus does
not require protection as threatened or endangered under the Endangered
Species Act (ESA). The finding follows a comprehensive review and analysis
of the best available scientific information concerning the species, as
well as local and traditional ecological knowledge of Alaska Native peoples.

The Pacific walrus is found throughout the continental shelf waters of the
Bering and Chukchi seas and occasionally in the East Siberian Sea and
Beaufort Sea. In its review, the Service paid particular attention to the
impact to the species of the ongoing loss of sea ice in the walrus’s range.

While walruses use sea ice for a variety of activities, including breeding,
birthing, resting and avoiding predators, they have shown an ability to
adapt to sea ice loss that was not foreseen when the Service last assessed
the species in 2011. Given these behavioral changes, the Service determined
that it could not predict, with confidence, future behavioral responses of
the species beyond 2060. Accordingly, that date was used as the limit for
determining whether the walrus was likely to become endangered within the
“foreseeable future,” under the ESA. Beyond that time, predicting
behavioral responses becomes too speculative to be considered best
available science for the purposes of a listing determination.

“Our decision not to list the Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species
Act at this time is based on a rigorous evaluation of the best available
science, which indicates the population appears stable, and the species has
demonstrated an ability to adapt to changing conditions,” said Fish and
Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Greg Sheehan. “If future
circumstances warrant or new information comes to light, we can and will
re-evaluate the Pacific walrus for ESA protection. In the meantime, the
species will continue to be federally protected under the Marine Mammal
Protection Act.”

Other stressors that were identified in 2011, including subsistence
harvest, have declined. The Pacific walrus population appears to be
approaching stability with reproductive and survival rates that are higher
than in the 1970s–1980s.

The Pacific walrus will continue to receive protection in the U.S. under
the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Protections afforded under the
MMPA include prohibitions on the harvest, import, and export of the Pacific
walrus or walrus products, except by Alaska Natives for subsistence and
handicraft creation and sale. In addition to monitoring the population, the
Service will continue to work with the State of Alaska, coastal communities
and other partners to conserve the Pacific walrus population and minimize
the impacts of stressors where possible.

The decision today is the Service’s final action regarding a petition
submitted to the agency in 2008 to list the Pacific walrus. For more
information regarding this decision, please visit:
https://www.fws.gov/alaska/fisheries/mmm/walrus/esa.htm.
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Global Food Crops Also Face Earth’s Sixth Great Mass Extinction

http://www.truth-out.org/buzzflash/commentary/global-food-crops-also-face-earth-s-sixth-great-mass-extinction

LORRAINE CHOW OF ECOWATCH ON BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

Coffee 0927wrp optCoffee beans. (Photo: United Nations)Article reprinted with permission from EcoWatch

Human civilization utterly depends on our precious food supplies, but the planet’s sixth mass extinctionof plants and animals currently underway is also threatening the world’s food crops, according to a new report from Bioversity International.

“Huge proportions of the plant and animal species that form the foundation of our food supply are just as endangered [as wildlife] and are getting almost no attention,” Ann Tutwiler, director general of Bioversity International, wrote in an article for the Guardian.

“If there is one thing we cannot allow to become extinct, it is the species that provide the food that sustains each and every one of the seven billion people on our planet,” she said.

According to the report, 940 cultivated species are already threatened. Tutwiler emphasized the impact on popular foods and commodities:

“Take some consumer favorites: chips, chocolate and coffee. Up to 22% of wild potato species are predicted to become extinct by 2055 due to climate change. In Ghana and Ivory Coast, where the raw ingredient for 70% of our chocolate is grown, cacao trees will not be able to survive as temperatures rise by two degrees over the next 40 years. Coffee yields in Tanzania have dropped 50% since 1960.”

Additionally, of the estimated 5,538 plant species counted as food, just three—rice, wheat and maize—provide more than 50 percent of the world’s plant-derived calories.

“Relying so heavily on such a narrow resource base is a risky strategy for the planet, for individual livelihoods and for nutritious diets,” the report states.

As the Guardian pointed out, a disease or pest can sweep through large areas of monocultures, like during the Irish potato famine when a million people starved to death.

Tutwiler noted that the world’s incredible diversity of wild or rarely cultivated species—such the beta carotene-rich gac fruit from Vietnam or the vitamin A-filled Asupina banana—”can be a source of affordable, nutritious food—provided we don’t let it disappear.”

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“This ‘agrobiodiversity’ is a precious resource that we are losing, and yet it can also help solve or mitigate many challenges the world is facing,” she said. “It has a critical yet overlooked role in helping us improve global nutrition, reduce our impact on the environment and adapt to climate change.”

In an interview with FoodTank, Tutwiler commented on how agribusiness and the Western diet has also contributed to the world’s loss of biological diversity of food:

“From the production side, a focus on ‘feeding the world’ rather than ‘nourishing the world’ has led to a focus on a handful of starchy staples that has contributed to an increase in land planted with maize, wheat, and rice from 66 percent to 79 percent of all cereal area between 1961 and 2013.

On the consumption side, there is a growing global tendency towards Western diets and processed convenience foods. Diets are based more and more on major cereals, plus sugar and oil. So these now dominate our agricultural production. Of the 30,000-ish plant species that can be used as food, today only three—rice, wheat, and maize—provide half the world’s plant-derived calories and intakes of pulses, fruits, and vegetables are low.

At the same time, the same pressures that are driving the sixth mass extinction of wild biodiversity are also affecting agricultural biodiversity—habitat transformation, deforestation, invasive species, and climate change. They also lead to disruption in pollinators and natural pest control. Loss of wild biodiversity can lead to erosion of genetic diversity (like the wild relatives of crops, which are a valuable source of traits for breeding), which reduces options for breeding new plant varieties better adapted to climate change.”

Bioversity International’s new 200-page report, “Mainstreaming Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems,” highlights how governments and companies should protect and encourage agrobiodiversity to tackle wider global problems such as poverty, malnutrition, environmental degradation and climate change.

Scientific Study Predicts Global Mass Extinction Event Possible by 2100

http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/42082-scientific-study-predicts-global-mass-extinction-event-possible-by-2100

Thursday, September 28, 2017
By Dahr JamailTruthout | Report

(Photo: Chris)Our CO2 output is on track to annihilate life on Earth. (Photo: Chris)

The planet has experienced five mass extinction events. The worst, the Permian Mass Extinction event 252 million years ago, annihilated more than 95 percent of all life on Earth. It coincided with a significant increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).

The Permian Mass Extinction is the perfect example of what happens when you inject too much CO2 into the atmosphere. The way in which the oceans absorbed this CO2, and subsequently acidified, was the primary kill mechanism for that event.

Disturbingly, a scientific paper published last week in the journal Science Advances, titled “Thresholds of Catastrophe in the Earth System,” shows that if humans continue adding carbon to the oceans as we are on course to do, a global mass extinction event could be triggered by 2100.

Oceans as Killing Fields

The oceans are where the majority of life on Earth exists. There are more plants and animals in them than anywhere else.

The Science Advances study places the carbon threshold necessary to trigger another oceanic mass extinction event at 310 gigatons — and notes that we are already halfway there. Worst-case predictions show that humans could add 500 gigatons of carbon to the oceans by 2100 if we continue on with business as usual.

To see more stories like this, visit “Planet or Profit?”

The paper’s lead author, MIT’s Daniel Rothmantold Motherboard that if humanity crosses that carbon threshold, it will move the planet “to the other side of the stability boundary.” He added that there won’t be an apocalyptic and immediate die-off of species the moment that threshold is crossed; it might take 10,000 years for the disaster to unfold.

Every mass extinction event thus far has been marked by a major disruption of the planet’s carbon cycle. Now, too, the driver of the extinction threat is increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Previous mass extinction events usually saw this increase caused by volcanism. The Permian Mass Extinction, for example, was triggered when volcanism in Siberia caused magma to be introduced into peat and coal deposits which then released a massive amount of CO2 into the atmosphere and then the oceans.

Humans have already added 155 gigatons of carbon to the oceans since 1850, and could double that in just the next 83 years, or sooner. The current rate of carbon emissions is 11 gigatons released into the atmosphere annually, with 2.6 gigatons of that being absorbed into the oceans. This gives us around 80 years until we cross the threshold of triggering the next mass extinction event, according to the study.

Therefore, the pace of carbon being added to the atmosphere and ocean right now is already faster than it was during the Permian, by far the worst mass extinction event on Earth.

Meanwhile, the pH of oceans has dropped a stunning 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution began, and it is acidifying now at the fastest pace it ever has.

2012 study showed that oceans are acidifying faster than they have in the past 300 million years, which means they are already acidifying at higher speeds than they did during the Permian.

Another study showed that species are going extinct at a rate 1,000 times faster than the normal background rate.

“Five times in the Phanerozoic [the past 542 million years], more than three-fourths of marine animal species have vanished in mass extinctions,” reads the introduction of the study. “Each of these events is associated with a significant change in Earth’s carbon cycle.”

How humans are driving the sixth mass extinction

Scientists have been warning for decades that human actions are pushing life on our shared planet toward mass extinction. Such extinction events have occurred five times in the past, but a bold new paper finds that this time would be fundamentally different. Fortunately, there’s still time to stop it.

Death on a pale horse is one of the traditional four horsemen of the apocalypse from Revelations.
 A detail from Gustave Dore’s image of death on a pale horse. Death is one of the traditional four horsemen of the apocalypse from Revelations. Scientists have identified four fundamental ways in which the Sixth Mass Extinction is different from those in the past: the four horsemen of the Sixth Mass Extinction as it were. Illustration: Gustave Dore

Periodically, in the vast spans of time that have preceded us, our planet’s living beings have been purged by planetary catastrophes so extreme they make your typical Ice Age look like the geological equivalent of a stroll in the park. Scientists count just five mass extinctions in an unimaginably long expanse of 450 million years, but they warn we may well be entering a sixth.

According to a bold new paper in The Anthropocene Review, this time would be different from past mass extinctions in four crucial ways – and all of these stem from the impact of a single species that arrived on the scene just 200,000 years ago: Homo sapiens.

“There is no point in apportioning blame for what is happening,” said lead author and geologist, Mark Williams, with the University of Leicester, since humans “didn’t deliberately engineer this situation.”

“Rather we have to recognise that our impact is game-changing on this planet, that we are all responsible, and that we have to become stewards of nature – as a part of it, rather than behaving like children rampaging through a sweetshop,” Williams noted.

Some scientists argue that amphibians are already experiencing a mass extinction. The golden toad has not been seen since 1989 and is believed extinct, possibly due to a combination of habitat loss and the chytrid fungus which has wiped out amphibians around the world. It's believed the chytrid fungus was delivered via international travelers.
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 Some scientists argue that amphibians are already experiencing a mass extinction. The golden toad has not been seen since 1989 and is believed extinct, possibly due to a combination of habitat loss and the chytrid fungus which has wiped out amphibians around the world. It’s belived the chytrid fungus was delivered via internaitonal travelers. Photograph: Conservation International/PA

The impacts of a still-avoidable sixth mass extinction would likely be so massive they’d be best described as science fiction. It would be catastrophic, widespread and, of course, irreversible. In the past, it has taken life ten to thirty million years to recover after such an extinction, 40 to 120 times as long as modern-looking humans have been telling tales by firelight. Moreover, Williams and his team argue that future changes driven by humanity may go so far as to create not just a new epoch in geologic history – such as the widely-touted Anthropocene – but a fundamental reshaping of Earth on par with the rise of microbes or the later shift from microbes to multicellular organisms.

“Fundamental changes on a planetary system scale have already begun,” said co-author Peter Haff, a geologist and engineer with Duke University. “The very considerable uncertainty is how long these will last – whether they will simply be a brief, unique excursion in Earth history, or whether they will persist and evolve into a new, geologically long-lasting, planetary state.”

But what are these “fundamental changes” that would makes this mass extinction different from the previous five?

“Episodes of global warming, ocean acidification and mass extinction have all happened before, well before humans arrived on the planet,” co-author Jan Zaleasiewicz, a paleobiologist with the University of Leicester, said. “We wanted to see if there was something different about what is happening now.”

Turns out there is.

Meet the four horsemen of the Sixth Mass Extinction

A firefighter holds a water pipe as they extinguish a fire on burned peatland and fields in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia. The air pollution or haze has been an annual problem for the past 18 years in Indonesia. It's caused by the illegal burning of forest and peat fires on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo to clear new land for the production of pulp, paper and palm oil. Singapore and Malaysia have offered to help the Indonesian government to fight against the fires, as infants and their mothers are evacuated to escape the record pollution levels.
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 A firefighter holds a water pipe as they extinguish a fire on burned peatlands in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia. The air pollution or haze has been an annual problem for the past 18 years in Indonesia. It’s caused by the illegal burning of forest and peat fires on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo to clear new land for the production of pulp, paper and palm oil. Singapore and Malaysia have offered to help the Indonesian government to fight against the fires, as infants and their mothers are evacuated to escape the record pollution levels. Photograph: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

The team of geologists and biologists say that our current extinction crisis is unique in Earth’s history due to four characteristics: the spread of non-native species around the world; a single species (us) taking over a significant percentage of the world’s primary production; human actions increasingly directing evolution; and the rise of something called the technosphere.

The first real change is what the authors of the study call the “global homogenisation of flora and fauna.” Basically what this means is that you can eat tomatoes in Italy, hunt oryx in Texas, ride horses in Chile, curse cane toads in Australia, dig earthworms in eastern North America and catch rats in the Galapagos. None of these things would have been possible without human intervention: our penchant for globetrotting has brought innumerable species to new habitats, often wreaking havoc on existing ecological communities and sometimes leading to extinctions.

Secondly, over the last few centuries, humans have essentially become the top predator not only on land, but also across the sea. No other species in the past can claim such a distinction. In doing so, humanity has begun using 25 to 40% of the planet’s net primary production for its own purposes. Moreover, we have added to this the use of fossil fuels for energy, essentially mining primary production from the past.

“It’s not hubris to say this,” Williams contended. “Never before have animal and plants (and other organisms for that matter) been translocated on a global scale around the planet. Never before has one species dominated primary production in the manner that we do. Never before has one species remodelled the terrestrial biosphere so dramatically to serve its own ends – the huge amount of biomass in the animals we eat.”

Thousands of shark fins line a street, obstructing traffic in Hong Kong, China. Sharks have long been one of the top predators in the oceans, but they have been usurped by humans. Today, they are among the most threatened of marine species worldwide due to overfishing largely for their fins.
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 Thousands of shark fins line a street, obstructing traffic in Hong Kong, China. Sharks have long been one of the top predators in the oceans, but they have been usurped by humans. Today, they are among the most threatened of marine species worldwide due to overfishing largely for their fins. Photograph: Paul Hilton/Paul Hilton/EPA/Corbis

Thirdly, humanity has become a massive force in directing evolution. This is most apparent, of course, in the domestication of animals and the cultivation of crops over thousands of years. But humans are directing evolution in numerous other ways, as well.

“We are directly manipulating genomes by artificial selection and molecular techniques, and indirectly by managing ecosystems and populations to conserve them,” said co-author Erle Ellis, an expert on the Anthropocene with the University of Maryland. He added that even conservation is impacting evolution.

“As human management of ecosystems and populations increases, even when aimed at conservation, evolutionary processes are altered. To sustain processes of evolution that are not guided by human societies intentionally and unintentionally will require a sea change in management approaches.”

Finally, the current extinction crisis is being amplified by what the researchers call the technosphere.

Technosphere?

Peter Haff coined the term technosphere just last year. He defines the technosphere as “the global, energy consuming techno-social system that is comprised of humans, technological artifacts, and technological systems, together with the links, protocols and information that bind all these parts together.”

Basically, the technosphere is the vast, sprawling combination of humanity and its technology. Haff argues that in our thousands of years of harnessing technology – including the first technologies like stone tools, wheels and crops – the technology itself has basically begun to act practically independently, creating a new sphere (i.e., like the biosphere or atmosphere or lithosphere), but like nothing the planet has ever seen before.

“I would argue that domesticated animals and plants, as well as humans, are parts of the technosphere,” said Haff. “These are in effect manufactured by the technosphere for its own use on the basis of genetic blueprints appropriated from the biosphere.”

Electronic waste in Agbogbloshie dump, Accra, Ghana. E-waste trash pickers risk their health in search of metals they can sell.
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 Electronic waste in Agbogbloshie dump, Accra, Ghana. E-waste trash pickers risk their health in search of metals they can sell. Photograph: Andrew McConnell / Alamy/Alamy

We’ve reached a point, according to Haff, where we can’t just shut technology off. As such, the technosphere as a whole is elevated above humanity.

“In this sense, the technosphere already generates its own living tissue, thus integrating with biology,” noted Haff.

Although, humans were the original progenitors of this technology, we have, in effect, lost control. Like Doctor Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s great novel, not only has our creation asserted its own agency, but it now wields its power over us.

Although the paper relies heavily on the idea of the technosphere as a primary driver of both the extinction crisis and current geological changes, not every researcher in the study agreed with the idea.

“I am a dissenter on the use of this term…I would have eliminated it if it were up to me alone. I find the term ‘technosphere’ neither appropriate nor accurate…It makes it appear that technology is the defining element of human alteration of the Earth system,” Ellis said, adding that “humans and societies create and sustain technologies, not the other way around – though of course there is a tight coupling of societies with technologies.”

Ellis called such an idea not only “inaccurate,” but defeatist.

“[The concept of the technosphere] is politically and socially disenfranchising and alienating people and societies – and their potential to guide, at least to some degree, this global human force behind the anthropocene.”

To Ellis the key is not the rise of technology, but rather humanity’s incredibly rich social life. He maintains that our “ultrasocialness” is the major driving force behind the changes on the planet we are witnessing today.

Pig carcasses hanging in an abattoir in Yorkshire, England. Demand for meat, which is rising globally, is a significant driver of deforestation, habitat destruction and climate change.
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 Pig carcasses hanging in an abattoir in Yorkshire, England. Demand for meat, which is rising globally, is a significant driver of deforestation, habitat destruction and climate change. Photograph: FLPA/John Eveson/REX

“It was behaviorally modern humans, with their ultrasocial behaviors and complex societies that spread across the Earth, became increasingly larger scale societies, ultimately gaining the capacity to transform the entire Earth. Technology is not the driver of Earth system change – social change is the cause of this.”

But Haff insists that technology, not modern humans, is the “new and enabling ingredient” for global transformation – including the potential for mass extinction.

“The technosphere is not meant as a stand in or short hand for a supposed ‘novel human force’ in the earth system,” he explained. “The name ‘technosphere’ arose in part to discourage such an idea. There exists no such human force. What is present, and novel, is the collective system of many people and much technology.”

Like Nothing the Earth Has Ever Seen

Regardless of whether scientists stress the role of humans or technology in transforming the planet, the researchers all agree that the arrival of modern Homo sapiens has transformed the planet. But how much?

“If humans were to go extinct tomorrow, then our impact on the biosphere would be recognisable as an epoch boundary – like the boundary between the Pleistocene and Holocene,” Williams pointed out. “After us, a few tens to hundreds of thousands of years in the future, the biosphere would find a new equilibrium without us, and probably with its biodiversity largely intact.”

Trucks and machinery along routes within the Suncore Oil Sands site near to Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta. Canada's tar sands is one of the largest industrial projects on the planet, turning boreal forest, rivers and bogs into a scarred landscape.
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 Trucks and machinery along routes within the Suncore Oil Sands site near to Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta. Canada’s tar sands is one of the largest industrial projects on the planet, turning boreal forest, rivers and bogs into a scarred landscape. Photograph: David Levene

Or as the paper puts it: “if the technosphere were to collapse what would remain is physical evidence of its history, as a preserved stratigraphic signal in the rocks. This will include a short-lived event bed of ‘urban strata’ and related deposits, recording rapid technospheric evolution and deep roots via preserved tunnels, mines and boreholes; a climate perturbation that might last [100-200,000 years] and a permanent reconfiguration of the biosphere…resulting from the effect of trans-global species invasions and a moderate- to large-scale mass extinction event.”

Okay, but what if we don’t go extinct anytime soon?

“If the changes made to the biosphere by humans continue to accelerate and are sustainable, and if our interaction with the technosphere becomes a major component of Earth’s future trajectory, then the changes can be argued to be really fundamental,” Williams added.

The scientists argue then that the changes would be so extreme, and so unlike anything that the Earth has ever seen before, that it could represent a geological shift as big as the rise of microbes on the planet or the rise of multicellular organisms. For example, imagine a world where humans and their technology effectively control the global temperature through geo-engineering or a world where humans wholeheartedly and deliberately manipulate evolution for their own (or the technosphere’s) ends.

Zaleasiewicz said that while some researchers argue that such changes could turn out all right, most argue the still-developing Anthropocene “will mostly be a very bumpy ride for humanity, and for life in general, as it evolves,” adding that “previous perturbations of the Earth system have seen both winners and losers, so perhaps that is a more realistic scenario.”

So, WTF Do We DO?

The researchers are clear: we can’t go back in time, to some pre-human, arguably pristine environment.

“There is no ‘ending’: the challenges of the Anthropocene are permanent,” said Ellis. “Humanity and nature are inextricably coupled for the foreseeable future.”

Moreover, according to Zaleasiewicz, the momentum is not on our side.

The dead body of a Indian rhinoceros, which was killed by poachers this year in Assam, India. Several rhino species are on the edge of extinction due to demand for their horns.
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 The dead body of a Indian rhinoceros, which was killed by poachers this year in Assam, India. Several rhino species are on the edge of extinction due to demand for their horns. Photograph: Anuwar Ali Hazarika / Barcroft I/Anuwar Hazarika / Barcroft India

“There’s clearly a rapidly moving – and accelerating – dynamic involved, and it can be argued that this is needed and inevitable to feed, clothe and shelter and extra two to three billion people over the next few decades.”

However, even with all that, the scientists say it’s not too late to avoid a total mass extinction and ecological meltdown.

“We are not in a mass extinction event yet, and it’s very important to emphasise that, because it means we can still make changes,” said Williams.

The scientists agree that to avoid mass extinction – and tackle the current environmental crisis – is possible but will require large-scale changes not only in how society operates but how humans view their relation to the natural world.

“It’s about recognising that we are stewards of nature and that every action we make will have an effect on the biosphere somewhere,” said Williams. “If at a very basic level we could get people to make that connection then we would have fundamentally changed human behavior.”

But how do we do this?

“I think there are parallels with getting people to recognize that ‘drunk driving’ is a mistake or ‘wearing a seatbelt is a good thing,’” Williams went on. “I remember the campaigns from the 1970s and though this might sound glib, it’s fundamental to the problem. Humans are the problem, but they are also the solution.”

Ellis agreed that humans must move on from the view that we are somehow separate from nature (or that nature somehow exists separate from us) and, instead, embrace our role as “permanent shapers and stewards of the biosphere and the species within it.”

He also sees several positive trends underway, including urbanisation, rising awareness of the plight of biodiversity, the increasing potential for societies to create change at large scales and the possibility of decoupling of the global economy from ecosystem destruction.

The baiji, or Yangtze river dolphin, was declared functionally extinct in 2006. The species, which has swam the Yangtze for some 20 million years, was the first cetacean to go extinct due to human activities. Overfishing, habitat destruction, electrofishing, boat traffic, dam-building and pollution all likely played a role in the species' demise.
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 The baiji, or Yangtze river dolphin, was declared functionally extinct in 2006. The species, which has swam the Yangtze for some 20 million years, was the first cetacean to go extinct due to human activities. Overfishing, habitat destruction, electrofishing, boat traffic, dam-building and pollution all likely played a role in the species’ demise. Photograph: AFP

“Still, the large scale of modern societies is daunting,” Ellis cautioned, “and for these trends to reach their full potential will require far greater strategic effort – just letting things happen will not yield a better future.”

According to him practical solutions “will require a combination of conservation, restoration, rewilding, engineering, emergence, and design.”

“We must recognize that there is no option to ‘leave the Earth alone,’ “ Ellis added. “The responsibility for the future of the planet is ours now.”

It’s a big responsibility – bigger than any other species on Earth has ever faced – and so far we’ve hardly proved ourselves up to it. But there is still time. And time means hope – but not without action.

The world as we know it is about to end — again — if you believe this biblical doomsday claim

 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/09/17/the-world-as-we-know-it-is-about-to-end-again-if-you-believe-this-biblical-doomsday-claim/?utm_term=.4c89d7f5cdc6
 September 17 at 3:52 PM

Sept. 23 is 33 days since the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, seen here over Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Some people believe that is significant. (George Frey/Getty Images)

A few years ago, NASA senior space scientist David Morrison debunked an apocalyptic claim as a hoax.

No, there’s no such thing as a planet called Nibiru, he said. No, it’s not a brown dwarf surrounded by planets, as iterations of the theory suggest. No, it’s not on a collision course toward Earth. And yes, people should “get over it.”

But the theory has been getting renewed attention recently. Added to it is the precise date of the astronomical event leading to Earth’s destruction. And that, according to David Meade, is in six days — Sept. 23, 2017. Unsealed, an evangelical Christian publication, foretells the Rapture in a viral, four-minute YouTube video, complete with special effects and ominous doomsday soundtrack. It’s called “September 23, 2017: You Need to See This.”

Why Sept. 23, 2017?

Meade’s prediction is based largely on verses and numerical codes in the Bible. He’s honed in one number: 33.

“Jesus lived for 33 years. The name Elohim, which is the name of God to the Jews, was mentioned 33 times [in the Bible],” Meade told The Washington Post. “It’s a very biblically significant, numerologically significant number. I’m talking astronomy. I’m talking the Bible … and merging the two.”

And Sept. 23 is 33 days since the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, which Meade believes is an omen.

He points to the Book of Revelation, which he said describes the image that will appear in the sky on that day, when Nibiru is supposed to rear its ugly head, eventually bringing fire, storms and other types of destruction.

The book describes a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” who gives birth to a boy who will “rule all the nations with an iron scepter” while she is threatened by a red seven-headed dragon. The woman then grows the wings of an eagle and is swallowed up by the earth.

The belief, as previously described by Gary Ray, a writer for Unsealed, is that the constellation Virgo — representing the woman — will be clothed in sunlight, in a position that is over the moon and under nine stars and three planets. The planet Jupiter, which will have been inside Virgo — in her womb, in Ray’s interpretation — will move out of Virgo, as though she is giving birth.

To make clear, Meade said he’s not saying the world will end Saturday. Instead, he claims, the prophesy in the Book of Revelation will manifest that day, leading to a series of catastrophic events that will happen over the course of weeks.

“The world is not ending, but the world as we know it is ending,” he said, adding later: “A major part of the world will not be the same the beginning of October.”

Meade’s prediction has been dismissed as a hoax not only by NASA scientists, but also by people of faith.

Ed Stetzer, a pastor and executive director of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center, first took issue with how Meade is described in some media articles.

“There’s no such thing as a Christian numerologist,” he told The Post. “You basically got a made-up expert in a made-up field talking about a made-up event. … It sort of justifies that there’s a special secret number codes in the Bible that nobody believes.”

Meade said he never referred to himself as a Christian numerologist. He’s a researcher, he said, and he studied astronomy at a university in Kentucky, though he declined to say which one, citing safety reasons. His website says he worked in forensic investigations and spent 10 years working for Fortune 1000 companies. He’s also written books. The most recent one is called “Planet X — The 2017 Arrival.”

Stetzer said that while numbers do have significance in the Bible, they shouldn’t be used to make sweeping predictions about planetary motions and the end of Earth.

“Whenever someone tells you they have found a secret number code in the Bible, end the conversation,” he wrote in an article published Friday in Christianity Today. “Everything else he or she says can be discounted.”

That is not to say that Christians don’t believe in the Bible’s prophesies, Stetzer said, but baseless theories repeated and trivialized embarrass people of faith.

“We do believe some odd things,” he said. “That Jesus is coming back, that he will set things right in the world, and no one knows the day or the hour.”

The doomsday date was initially predicted to be in May 2003, according to NASA. Then it was moved to Dec. 21, 2012, the date that the Mayan calendar, as some believed, marked the apocalypse.

Morrison, the NASA scientist, has given simple explanations debunking the claim that a massive planet is on course to destroy Earth. If Nibiru is, indeed, as close as conspiracy theorists believe to striking Earth, astronomers, and anyone really, would’ve already seen it.

“It would be bright. It would be easily visible to the naked eye. If it were up there, you could see it. All of us could see it. … If Nibiru were real and it were a planet with a substantial mass, then it would already be perturbing the orbits of Mars and Earth. We would see changes in those orbits due to this rogue object coming in to the intersolar system,” Morrison said in a video.

Doomsday believers also say that Nibiru is on a 3,600-year orbit. That means it had already come through the solar system in the past, which means we should be looking at an entirely different solar system today, Morrison said.

“Its gravity would’ve messed up the orbits of the inner planets, the Earth, Venus, Mars, probably would’ve stripped the moon away completely,” he said. “Instead, in the intersolar system, we see planets with stable orbits. We see the moon going around the Earth.”

And if Nibiru is not a planet and is, in fact, a brown dwarf, as some claims suggest — again, we would’ve already seen it.

“Everything I’ve said would be worse with a massive object like a brown dwarf,” Morrison said. “That would’ve been tracked by astronomers for a decade or more, and it would already have really affected planetary objects.”

Some call Nibiru “Planet X,” as Meade did in the title of his book. Morrison said that’s a name astronomers give to planets or possible objects that have not been found. For example, when space scientists were searching for a planet beyond Neptune, it was called Planet X. And once it was found, it became Pluto.

Stetzer, the pastor, encouraged Christians to be critical, especially in an information era marred with fake news stories.

He took issue with a Fox News story with a headline that appears to give credence to the doomsday theory — and was published in the Science section under the label “Planets.”

“Every time end-of-the-world predictions resurface in the media, it is important that we ask ourselves, Is this helpful?’ ” Stetzer wrote. “Is peddling these falsehoods a good way to contribute to meaningful, helpful discussions about the end of times?”

Julie Zauzmer contributed to this story.

Read more:

‘Black moon’ rising: No, it’s not the apocalypse

More people searched the Bible for “end times” because of same-sex marriage than because of Trump

Don’t panic, humanity’s ‘doomsday’ seed vault is probably still safe

U.S. official tied to jaguar death to remain hidden

http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/investigations/2014/10/15/us-official-tied-jaguar-death-remain-hidden/17339983/

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Six years after Arizona’s only wild jaguar was unlawfully trapped and killed, a judge has ruled that the public does not have a right to know the identity of a federal ­wildlife official who allegedly covered up evidence during the criminal probe.

That legal decision emerged last month in U.S. District Court just before settlement of a public-records lawsuit filed against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by the Arizona Daily Star.

The litigation stems from the 2009 death of a jaguar known as Macho B, which was captured near the Mexican border by a trapper hired by the Arizona Game and Fish Department to conduct research on bears and mountain lions.

State and federal wildlife officials initially asserted the snaring was accidental.

However, after Macho B was collared, released, became ill and had to be euthanized, a ­whistle-blower disclosed that female jaguar feces was used to lure the male cat.

 Macho B: Death of a jaguar

The trapper, Emil McCain, was convicted of illegally taking an endangered species and sentenced to five years of probation.

The Arizona Republic revealed in a 2012 special report that criminal investigators referred other suspects for prosecution, including Erin Fernandez, the federal Fish and Wildlife employee responsible for jaguar conservation.

McCain alleged that state and federal jaguar overseers were complicit in Macho B’s capture and in an attempted coverup.

According to heavily redacted investigative records obtained by The Republic at the time via a request under the Freedom of Information Act, Fernandez had been advised by McCain and state wildlife officials that he was attempting to catch a jaguar, and she sent a ­congratulatory e-mail ­after Macho B was snared.

Fish and Wildlife agents alleged in their report that Fernandez had obstructed justice by concealing or destroying records and that her ­conduct constituted fraud and false statements. The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute, and she remained on her job.

After The Republic story appeared, Star Publishing Co. and reporter Tony Davis sued the ­government to obtain about 230 pages of the investigative report that had been withheld, as well as names of Fish and ­Wildlife officials.

The newspaper argued that the public has an overriding interest in government accountability and transparency.

In an order just prior to settlement, U.S. District Judge Cindy Jorgenson said officially disclosing the names of Fernandez and other Fish and Wildlife employees “does not greatly advance the public interest” and “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion” of their privacy.

The settlement papers indicate that Fish and Wildlife released some materials sought by the Daily Star and agreed to pay $50,000 in legal fees, without admitting any fault.

None of the litigants could be reached for comment.

On the Road to Extinction: Maybe it’s Not All About Us

https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/15/on-the-road-to-extinction-maybe-its-not-all-about-us/

Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

It is crystal clear—unlike the smoky skies where I live–to most of us who are willing to consider the facts: this summer’s ‘natural’ disasters have been seeded anthropogenically.  Wildfires in the northwestern United States and Canada, in Greenland, and in Europe are often referred to in the media as ‘unprecedented’ in size and fury. Hurricanes and monsoons, with their attendant floods and destruction, are routinely described as having a multitude of ‘record-breaking’ attributes. No one reading this is likely to need convincing that humans –our sheer numbers as well as our habits—have contributed significantly to rising planetary temperatures and thus, the plethora of somehow unexpected and catastrophic events in the natural world. I’d like to include earthquakes, particularly those in Turkey (endless) and Mexico (massive), in this discussion, and while intuition tells me that there is a connection between them and climate change, research to support this supposition is just emerging, so for the nonce I will leave the earthquakes out of it.

Our proclivity for advancing our own short-term interests has made a mess of things from the beginnings of this current iteration of civilization. Irrigating the Fertile Crescent, which was not very fertile prior to the ingenious innovation of bringing water from the mountains down into the dusty plains, opened the way for a massive increase in food production and a concomitant population rise. Cities grew and became kingdoms. After a reasonably good run, though, irrigation led to salination of the soil and ultimately left it sterile and useless (for agriculture) once again. Many people and their livestock starved or were forced to migrate in large numbers. Great idea, irrigation.

The internal combustion engine seemed a brilliant response to the need to move more commodities more efficiently as the Industrial Revolution created both increased product and demand. Though not necessarily so intended, the automobile initially offered humans wildly expanded freedom and ease. It also led to pumping the innards out of the Earth, filling the atmosphere with CO2, and oil-grabbing wars that left hundreds of thousands of people dead.  Another great idea with a few minor issues that did not get worked out ahead of time.

Plastic.  Now there is an incredible invention. Tough, pliable, lightweight, eternal…this stuff filled a myriad of needs. And conveniently, it could be produced using the fossil fuels we were already extracting for those internal combustion engines. Sadly, we never imagined it would come to microscopic plastic filaments in our drinking water, our sea salt, and even our beer. Not to mention in the bellies of just about anything that lives in the Earth’s oceans.

The list of creative inventions designed to make our lives better is long and varied, but almost inevitably, given enough time, our interference (or improvements, if you prefer) upon the natural state of things comes back to bite us.  And hard.  Fukushima could easily head up that list; most of us would have no trouble adding to the tally of follies flowing from Homo sapiens’ clever life hacks.

If you delve into the motivation behind these ‘advances’ there is generally a desire on the part of people to make life safer or more comfortable or easier in one way or another.  Maybe for themselves and their tribe, or their class, or their nation, but still—the impetus does not tend to flow from a place of malignity. We simply use our big brains to see what is adversely impacting our species (or sub-group thereof) and devise a fix for it. How could that possibly go so wrong?

Hindsight, they say, is always more acute than foresight. Could this be because we do not understand fully how our world works?  Is it possible that we lack a lot of critical information about the ways in which this planet’s life forms and forces are interwoven and connected?  Maybe our superior intelligence, while it has been billed as a powerhouse in the problem-solving department, does not really have the scope of vision that would ensure that problems—solved–stay solved?  Hmmm…might there be an issue with hubris here?  And how do we solve that?

What appear to be straightforward challenges that should yield to linear corrections are in fact predominantly multifaceted and many layered. We see only what we see—because we do have limits in terms of perception– and we act upon that. No real fault there. But you do something over and over and over and get consistent results, you keep being bitten by your brilliant solutions. Quick gains, long-term disasters: this is a pretty common human story. Are we capable of examining it? Even acknowledging it?  Of recognizing that our anthropocentrism and self-assurance may be doing us more harm than good despite (or possibly because of) our fêted cognitive capacities?

So here we are: the summer of 2017 with the arctic ice melting, the temperatures rising, the oceans rising and acidifying, our non-human companions on the planet going extinct like nobody’s business. We thought about ourselves from the get-go.  From the beginning of known human history, we wanted better lives, longer lives, happier lives. For ourselves. We used our gifts to reach for what we wanted, like toddlers, with no sense of the bigger world around us, no notion of the consequences of our actions. No awareness of the unfathomable complexity and the perfection of balance represented by the environment we inhabit.

Or, no will to act from that awareness. Because in all fairness, someone has always pointed to it. Not everyone thought situating nuclear power plants on earthquake faults was a bright idea. And no doubt there was someone back in Sumer who advised stridently against the moving of mountain waters to the fields in the valley.  But the collective, or the powers that own the collective, were not interested in anything that thwarted short-term gains.

We have careened along, from one improvement to another, many of them requiring their own fix a bit down the road.  Now we look at super-storms and mega-fires and what do we see?

Unfortunately, as is almost always the case, we see our own interests and little else.  I have been perusing reports and commentary from a wide variety of sources and there is a lot of factual information: the size of the fire, how many miles per hour the winds are blowing, how many acres are still uncontained, or in thrall to the winds and rain. Then, there are stories about losses. Photos and videos and details about homes destroyed, businesses wiped off the map, human injury and death.

But do we talk about the other life forms affected by these human-accelerated events in nature?  In nature, I repeat.  Do we read or talk or hear about the animals who die?  The trees lost? The sea life and habitat ruined? Yup, there are bits and pieces about the animals that belong to us, which are, like our houses and businesses and automobiles, more possessions.  Pets, livestock, even zoo animals are considered.  How do we shelter the cheetah at the Miami Zoo?  Or what about the Cuban dolphins airlifted out of danger to a safe place on the opposite side of the island? Heartwarming, I suppose, and good for those dolphins, but what happened to the wild ones in the sea?

Here is the thing: we helped make these disasters because we always thought about ourselves and neglected to consider the balance of life.  Because our needs were far and away more important to us than the spotted salamanders’.

And maybe that is true. Maybe our lives are more valuable than all the other lives. Who am I to say?  I too am human and subject to the same hubris and shortsightedness as everyone else.

Still…if something is not working, I ask: why keep doing it?  Even if you have no natural affinity for the pine martens who die in the fires or the sandpipers who are flung to their deaths in the monsoons, pragmatism would suggest a change in practice.

We can’t prevent the suffering and dying of wild life, and the Earth herself, when confronted by the unleashed forces of fire and water, but we can include them in our assessment of the cost. We might even grieve for them. Their losses are indeed ours, and if we do not see them or their importance to our lives, if we continue to either ignore and/or dominate all other life on this planet, it won’t be long till we join them.

This piece of writing is, in a ridiculously small way, an attempt to acknowledge those losses that have gone unseen. It isn’t much, but I invite you to join me in taking a few minutes to honor and mourn those who have died in this summer’s conflagrations and deluges. We won’t know much about most of them, but we do know that they lived and we know that they died.  And that we are all diminished by their deaths.

Opinion: How humans can avert mass extinctions of animals

[warning: this is a bullshit editorial in so many ways. The authors basically trash Paul Erlich and praise trophy hunting as a way to save animals from extinction (no mention of how twisted, destructive or hedonistic it is). This would all be a bad joke, if it wasnt so sad and maddening…]

 

Editorial Board

For millions of years, Australia had no human inhabitants. When people finally arrived there some 45,000 years ago, the continent had 24 different creatures weighing 100 pounds or more. Within a few millennia, 23 were wiped out.

In his book “Sapiens,” Yuval Noah Harari notes: “Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo Sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinction. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.”

From all indications, we are not about to be dethroned. A new study published in a journal of the National Academy of Sciences says nearly 200 species have vanished in the past century, and 9,000 have seen substantial reductions in their numbers. Only 7,000 cheetahs are left, and the population of West African lions is down to 400. Scientists suggest that Earth is well into the sixth mass extinction of the last half-billion years.

We are seeing “a massive erosion of the greatest biological diversity in the history of Earth,” which negatively affects the resources that sustain human life, says the article. The authors call for a reversal of “human overpopulation” and “overconsumption, especially by the rich.” One of the scholars, Paul Ehrlich of Stanford, told The Washington Post, “I am an alarmist.”

But the alarmism may be overdone. Ehrlich is infamous for erroneously predicting imminent mass global famine in his 1968 book “The Population Bomb.” Humans turned out to be more adaptive and resourceful than he expected then, and there is no reason to believe they won’t act to prevent the catastrophe being predicted now.

Climate change is one significant factor in the loss of creatures, and the nations of the world have entered into an accord to combat it by curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Even without the participation of the United States, that effort is bound to do some good — and it can be done without hobbling economic growth.

A materially richer world is likely to be a more ecologically conscientious one. “The countries that are wealthiest do the most to protect habitat and species health,” says Reed Watson, executive director the Property and Environment Research Center, a think tank in Bozeman, Mont.

That’s because conservation is one of the things people come to value more and more as their disposable income grows. Poor nations can’t afford to worry so much about the plight of animals because they are preoccupied with feeding and housing people.

Humans are good at finding ways to protect the environment and our fellow creatures when the need is there. When the federal Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, it designated 9 million acres of land as wilderness. Today, we have nearly 110 million acres that provide unspoiled habitat for innumerable species.

Other federal lands such as national parks and forests are also protected from most forms of development — amounting to more than one-seventh of all the land in the country. Neighboring residents have learned that they can profit from tourists who come to hike remote woodland trails and see grizzly bears, eagles and wolves. All this is the fruit of prosperity, not poverty.

One challenge in saving species is devising methods that encourage humans to see animals as an asset, not a burden or danger. American bison, once hunted almost to extinction, have rebounded partly because ranchers raise them for food. Ocean fisheries have been rebuilt by limiting the annual harvest while granting fisherman transferable rights to a share of it — thus giving them a stake in conservation.

Namibia has boosted the number of black rhinoceroses, once down to six, to more than 1,400, reports NPR, while doubling the numbers of both cheetahs and elephants. It has also virtually eliminated poaching. How? By enabling communities to establish conservation areas and administer them in ways that benefit the people living there. One element that PERC’s Watson acknowledges is “counterintuitive” is regulated trophy hunting, which generates income that rewards locals for protecting iconic species.

The report provides a sobering picture of how much irreversible damage could be done to worldwide biological diversity. Unlike other creatures, humans can consciously shape the future for generations to come. We should use ingenuity for the benefit of the countless creatures with which we share the Earth. That would also be good for our species.

Copyright © 2017, Chicago Tribune

Noise Pollution May Be the Final Straw for a Critically Endangered Whale

Southern Right Whale

Marine animals like this southern right whale are being hammered with noise pollution and it’s only going to get worse.

Tomas Kotouc/Shutterstock

The sea is lovely, dark and deep — but it’s not quiet. In recent decades, the explosive growth of manmade noise from ships, sonar activity and oil drilling has created a new class of worries for marine animals and the scientists who study them. In the United States, researchers and activists are renewing a long-stated concern that the noise from oil exploration may be too much to bear for the last remaining North Atlantic right whales.

In a few months, the U.S. Atlantic coast may get another layer in its cacophony of ocean noise: the dynamite-like blasts of seismic airguns, which are used to search for oil and gas deposits buried beneath the seabed. In April, 28 right whale scientists warned President Obama that seismic airgun blasting will come at a high cost to whales’ ability to eat, rest, communicate and reproduce. With only 500 North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) left alive, this may “substantially increase” the risk of extinction.

Ships can tow dozens of seismic airguns behind them during a survey, each airgun emitting bursts of sound every 10 to 12 seconds, up to 24 hours a day. These surveys can last anywhere from days to months. While the Obama administration put the East Coast off-limits to oil and gas drilling until 2022, seismic airgun blasting has not yet been shelved.

The government could approve permits for seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic as early as this summer. And oil companies could deploy these devices immediately after receiving approval, said Ingrid Biedron, Ph.D., a marine scientist at Oceana.

One of the big concerns some biologists have is not just how loud these sounds are, but how far they can travel. Aaron Rice, Ph.D., an expert on bioacoustics at Cornell, explained that airgun noise can travel hundreds if not thousands of miles. “At our recording units off the coast of Virginia, we may be picking up seismic surveys off the coast of Brazil,” he said. In today’s world, “there are very few, if any, truly quiet locations around the planet.”

Biedron explained what life on the Atlantic coast sounds like for a right whale. “There’s a constant din of noise, and that’s on a good day,” she said. “On a bad day it’s probably more like a barrage of sound and ships, clickers and radar. It’s like having a rock concert in your back yard for the rest of your life.”

Can You Hear Me Now?

Like people, right whales are a talkative lot. And, like us, right whales need to hear and be heard. Their most common vocalization, the lilting up-call, is the cetacean equivalent of saying “I’m over here.” These calls are so common, in fact, that a series of buoys equipped with microphones north of Cape Cod listen for up-calls to alert ships when right whales are nearby.

Females likely use these calls to alert males when they’re in a romantic mood, or to summon wandering calves back to safety. Areas under consideration for seismic airgun blasting overlap with the only known calving ground for this species.

Sound may play other, more exotic roles in right whale life. Scientists still need to confirm these ideas, Biedron cautions. But some researchers think that right whales can listen for the different sounds that come from land and use it to navigate. Others suspect that North Atlantic right whales may use a variation of their up-call to tell neighbors when they find plankton — an altruistic strategy that animals could adopt when food is abundant but unpredictably distributed. However, the deep rumble of ships or the blasts of seismic airguns can drown out these calls.

Manmade noise likely hurts whales in physical ways too. According to Rice, dozens of studies across different species of vertebrates confirm that noise increases stress hormones, which in turn suppress the immune system. “If you’re really stressed out,” he said, “you’re more likely to get sick.”

Pay Attention

Ship strikes and getting tangled in fishing gear remain the leading cause of death for North Atlantic right whales. But, “in the case of the right whale, it may be death by a thousand cuts, of which sound pollution is one of those cuts,” said Rice. “Sound plus entanglements, or sound plus ship strikes, may be more problematic than either of those two threats on their own.”

Now, despite decades of protection, the prognosis for these whales is still grim. Their numbers grew slowly from the 1990s to 2010, but there are signs that they may once again be on the decline. “The population is so precarious” Biedron said, “that even the loss of just several females per year could make them tip towards extinction.”

Government and industry officials have taken steps to cut down on underwater noise pollution, including developing new alternatives to seismic airguns, “quieting” ship engines,  and considering regulations that limit the volume from commercial ships. But current efforts aren’t enough.

Rice expressed little hope for the future of the North Atlantic right whale. But a promising sign, he added, is that noise pollution is beginning to get the attention it deserves in the European Union, Canada and increasingly, the U.S. Biedron had a less gloomy outlook. “I’m optimistic,” she said. “But we need to remain vigilant. If we stop paying attention, they will likely go extinct.”