Sample sent to laboratory at Thiruvalla to ascertain cause of death
The sudden mass turtle deaths in different parts of the district have sparked fears of disease outbreak as authorities remain clueless about the cause.
Scores of turtle carcasses have been spotted in paddy fields, ponds and canals at Kanjikuzhy, Muhamma, Cherthala, Mannancherry, Thakazhi, Edathua and Mararikulam since the beginning of July.
Sumi Joseph, Assistant Conservator of Forests (Social Forestry), Alappuzha, toldThe Hindu that the dead turtles include Softshell turtle and Indian black turtle. “The majority of carcasses are of Softshell Turtles. Death of a few Indian Black Turtles have also been reported from the district. The Animal Husbandry Department sent the carcass of a turtle to a laboratory at Thiruvalla for examination, but they could not ascertain the cause of death as the carcass was in a decayed condition. Now, a live turtle has been sent for investigation and we are awaiting a report from the Animal Husbandry Department,” Ms. Joseph said.
District chief veterinary officer Ansamma Joseph said that they were expecting lab test results in the next couple of days. “We have sent samples of turtles to the Avian Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Thiruvalla. We can establish the cause of death only after getting the lab results,” Dr. Joseph said.
Earlier last week, District Collector S. Suhas had directed the Animal Husbandry Department to look into the deaths and submit a report. Officials, however, said the number of turtle deaths had not been determined yet.
Not new to district
The disease outbreaks were not new to Alappuzha. In 2016, bird flu (avian influenza), caused by H5N8 virus, was detected among ducks in Kuttanad. Prior to that, H5N1 was reported in the district in 2014. On both occasions, several ducks died and thousands were culled to tackle the spread of the disease.
The Indian black turtle also known as Indian pond terrapin is classified as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Softshell turtle is found in rivers and other water bodies. It is a vulnerable species that feeds mostly on fish, amphibians and aquatic plants.
Updated most recently, likely for the final time, 2 August 2016.
The Great Dying wiped out at least 90% of the species on Earth due to an abrupt rise in global-average temperature about 252 million years ago. The vast majority of complex life became extinct. Based on information from the most conservative sources available, Earth is headed for a similar or higher global-average temperature in the very near future. The recent and near-future rises in temperature are occurring and will occur at least an order of magnitude faster than the worst of all prior Mass Extinctions. Habitat for human animals is disappearing throughout the world, and abrupt climate change has barely begun. In the near future, habitat for Homo sapiens will be gone. Shortly thereafter, all humans will die.
There is no precedence in planetary history for events unfolding today. As a result, relying on prior events to predict the near future is unwise.
I’m often accused of cherry picking the information in this ever-growing essay. I plead guilty, and explain myself in this essay posted 30 January 2014. My critics tend to focus on me and my lack of standing in the scientific community, to which I respond with the words of John W. Farley: “The scientific case is not dependent on citation of authority, no matter how distinguished the authority may be. The case is dependent upon experimental evidence, logic, and reason.” In other words, stop targeting the messenger.
A German-language version of this essay, updated 26 June 2014, is available in pdf form herewith my thanks to Wermer Winkler. A Russian version focused on self-reinforcing feedback loops, courtesy of Robin Westenra and colleagues, is here. A Polish version, updated often, is available here.
American actress Lily Tomlin is credited with the expression, “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” With respect to climate science, my own efforts to stay abreast are blown away every week by new data, models, and assessments. It seems no matter how dire the situation becomes, it only gets worse when I check the latest reports.
The response of politicians, heads of non-governmental organizations, and corporate leaders remains the same, even though they surely know everything in this essay. They’re mired in the dank Swamp of Nothingness. Margaret Beckett, former U.K. foreign secretary said in September 2008 on BBC America television~, with respect to climate change: “Will it harm our children? Will it harm our grandchildren? Actually, it’s a problem for us today.” As Halldor Thorgeirsson, a senior director with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said on 17 September 2013: “We are failing as an international community. We are not on track.” These are the people who know about, and presumably could do something about, our ongoing race to disaster (if only to sound the alarm). Tomlin’s line is never more germane than when thinking about their pursuit of a buck at the expense of life on Earth.
Worse than the aforementioned trolls are the media. Fully captured by corporations and the corporate states, the media continue to dance around the issue of climate change. Occasionally a forthright piece is published, but it generally points in the wrong direction, such as suggesting climate scientists and activists be killed (e.g., James Delingpole’s 7 April 2013 hate-filled article in the Telegraph~). Leading mainstream outlets routinely mislead the public.
In addition, the consolidation of the scientific publishing industry is accelerating, with expected, profit-based results. A paper published in the 10 June 2015 issue of PLoS One based on 45 million documents indexed in the Web of Science over the period 1973-2013 found that the top five most prolific publishers account for more than half of recent papers published.
Almost everybody reading these words has a vested interest in not wanting to think about climate change, which helps explain why the climate-change deniers have won. They’ve been aided and funded by the fossil-fuel industry, the memos from which “reveal decades of disinformation—a deliberate campaign to deceive the public that continues even today,” according to an in-depth analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists in July 2015.
Investigative journalist Lee Fang, writing for The Intercept on 25 August 2015, uncovers a relationship between climate-denying attorney Christopher Horner and big coal. Horner is an attorney who claims that the earth is cooling, is known within the scientific community for hounding climate change researchers with relentless investigations and public ridicule, and he often derides scientists as “communists” and frauds.
Horner is a regular guest on Fox News and CNN, and has been affiliated with a number of think tanks and legal organizations over the last decade. He has called for investigations of climate scientists affiliated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and NASA, and inundated climate researchers at major universities across the country with records requests that critics say are designed to distract them from their work.
The 20 August 2015 bankruptcy filing of Alpha Natural Resources, one of the largest coal companies in America, includes line items for all of the corporation’s contractors and grant recipients. Among them are Horner individually at his home address, as well as the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic, where he is a senior staff attorney.
Some university professors will promote climate-change denial for the right price. According to the 8 December 2015 issue of The Guardian, “An undercover sting by Greenpeace has revealed that two prominent climate skeptics were available for hire by the hour to write reports casting doubt on the dangers posed by global warming.” The professors in question are William Happer, the Cyrus Fogg Brackett professor of physics at Princeton University and Frank Clemente, professor emeritus of sociology at Pennsylvania State University.
Beyond Linear Change
I’m often told Earth can’t possibly be responsive enough to climate change to make any difference to us. But, as the 27 May 2014 headline at Skeptical Science points out, “Rapid climate changes more deadly than asteroid impacts in Earth’s past.” That’s correct: climate change is more deadly than asteroids.
Unimpressed with evidence and public opinion, some scientists forge on, illustrating that the progressive perspective often means progresssing toward the cliff’s edge. As reported in the 27 November 2014 issue of New Scientist, initial efforts to cool the planet via geo-engineering have taken shape and might begin in two years.
Wasdell’s analysis from September 2015 includes several noteworthy conclusions: (1) “Current computer estimates of Climate Sensitivity are shown to be dangerously low,” revealing (2) “an eight-fold amplification of CO2 forcing (in contrast to the three-fold amplification predicted by the IPCC climate modelling computer ensemble), (3) “the 2°C target temperature limit is set far too high” (emphasis in original), and (4) “anthropogenic change is at least 100 times faster than at any time in the Paleo record.” The report’s bottom line: “There is no available carbon budget. It is already massively overspent, even for the 2°C target.”
Further evidence of the conservative nature of the IPCC is revealed by a paper in the 8 January 2016 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans focused on warming of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean: “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth assessment of projected global and regional ocean temperature change is based on global climate models that have coarse (∼100 km) ocean and atmosphere resolutions. In the Northwest Atlantic, the ensemble of global climate models has a warm bias in sea surface temperature due to a misrepresentation of the Gulf Stream position; thus, existing climate change projections are based on unrealistic regional ocean circulation. Here we compare simulations and an atmospheric CO2 doubling response from four global climate models of varying ocean and atmosphere resolution. We find that the highest resolution climate model (∼10 km ocean, ∼50 km atmosphere) resolves Northwest Atlantic circulation and water mass distribution most accurately. The CO2 doubling response from this model shows that upper-ocean (0–300 m) temperature in the Northwest Atlantic Shelf warms at a rate nearly twice as fast as the coarser models and nearly three times faster than the global average.”
Less than two weeks later, a paper in the 19 January 2016 issue of Geophysical Research Letters addresses the issue of Sandy-like superstorms under the influence of a substantially warmer Atlantic Ocean. The abstract of the paper includes these lines: “we find that possible responses of Sandy-like superstorms under the influence of a substantially warmer Atlantic Ocean bifurcate into two groups. In the first group, storms are similar to present-day Sandy …, except they are much stronger, with peak Power Destructive Index (PDI) increased by 50–80%, heavy rain by 30–50%, and maximum storm size (MSS) approximately doubled. In the second group, storms amplify substantially …, with peak PDI increased by 100–160%, heavy rain by 70–180%, and MSS more than tripled compared to present-day Superstorm Sandy.”
Susanne Moser, a leading Santa Cruz-based climate change researcher, was quoted in the article: “We need transformational change. We don’t need more studies as much as we need to communicate the urgency …. We need to not debate forever.” A scientist admitting we don’tneed more study of an issue is stunning.
Regional warming events during the past 56,000 years were described in the 7 August 2015 edition of Science and led to the expectedly “unexpected” outcome: “Unexpectedly, rapid climate changes associated with interstadial warming events are strongly associated with the regional replacement/extinction of major genetic clades or species of megafauna.” In short, “it doesn’t bode well for the future survival of the world’s megafauna populations”. In this study, megafauna refers to animals exceeding 45 kg (about 99 pounds). Similarly, according to the abstract of a paper in the 17 June 2016 issue of Science Advances, “The causes of Late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions (60,000 to 11,650 years ago, hereafter 60 to 11.65 ka) remain contentious, with major phases coinciding with both human arrival and climate change around the world. The Americas provide a unique opportunity to disentangle these factors as human colonization took place over a narrow time frame (~15 to 14.6 ka) but during contrasting temperature trends across each continent. … We identify a narrow megafaunal extinction phase 12,280 ± 110 years ago, some 1 to 3 thousand years after initial human presence in the area. Although humans arrived immediately prior to a cold phase, the Antarctic Cold Reversal stadial, megafaunal extinctions did not occur until the stadial finished and the subsequent warming phase commenced some 1 to 3 thousand years later. The increased resolution provided by the Patagonian material reveals that the sequence of climate and extinction events in North and South America were temporally inverted, but in both cases, megafaunal extinctions did not occur until human presence and climate warming coincided.”
As reported by Robert Scribbler on 22 May 2014, “global sea surface temperature anomalies spiked to an amazing +1.25 degrees Celsius above the, already warmer than normal, 1979 to 2000 average. This departure is about 1.7 degrees C above 1880 levels — an extraordinary reading that signals the world may well be entering a rapid warming phase.” By July of 2015, Scribbler’s writing had become alarming — consistent with the situation — even though he still refused to accept the concept of human extinction as he adhered to 2 C as a target.
A paper in the 10 November 2015 issue of Nature Communications reports that the pace of past episodes of climate change is likely to have been underestimated. The abstract concludes: “A compilation of 194 published oceanic and continental temperature changes spanning the Ordovician period (476 Myr ago) to the present provides a holistic picture of the attainable magnitude and rate of both warming and cooling episodes through Earth history across a range of measurement timespans. We demonstrate that magnitudes and rates of geological temperature changes in this compilation exhibit power law scaling with timespan, emphasising how geological data alias (sic) short-term climate variability. Consequently, the true attainable pace of ancient climate change may be commonly underestimated, compromising our understanding of the relative pace (and severity) of both ancient and recent climate change.” In this case, the title of the paper tells the story: “Maximum rates of climate change are systematically underestimated in the geological record.”
Deniers of abrupt climate change are running out of arguments. We are in the midst of abrupt climate change. This event has ample precedence, as reported in the aforementioned paper in Nature Communications. Even voices from the mainstream media are catching up to the reality of abrupt climate change. An article in the 11 January 2016 issue of The New Yorkerpoints out the rapidity with which climate can change, leading to large numbers of dead humans: “One of the most important insights of recent studies is that, when the climate changes, it can do so swiftly and relentlessly. It is possible, in a human lifetime, to see sea levels rise and ice shelves break away, and, when they do, nothing about what happens next can be taken for granted. The climate record is full of sudden disasters.” Sea-level rise is proceeding at the fastest rate in the last 28 centuries, according to a paper in the 22 February 2016 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And record-setting hot years are attributed to anthropogenic climate change as far back as the 1930s, according to a paper in the 7 March 2016 online issue of Geophysical Research Letters.
Geoengineers will not be able to do away with rising seas, according to a paper published in the 10 March 2016 issue of Earth System Dynamics. The proposed approach of pumping water from the sea and storing it as ice on the continent of Antarctica will not delay sea-level rise. Rather, unless the seawater is pumped enormous distances at tremendous energy cost, the strategy will only accelerate the flow of the glaciers and it will all end up back in the sea again.
A study published in the 10 November 2015 issue of Nature Communications presents “geomorphological data that reveal the existence of a large buried paleodrainage network on the Mauritanian coast.” An article the same day in The Guardian includes these lines: “A vast river network that once carried water for hundreds of miles across Western Sahara has been discovered under the parched sands of Mauritania. … Water may last have coursed through the channels 5,000 years ago.” The Guardian quotes Russell Wynn at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, who was not involved in this study: “People sometimes can’t get their head around climate change and how quickly it happens.”
An article in press in the journal Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, presumably to appear in the February 2016 issue, reports on massive ice loss from the Mauna Loa Icecave in Hawaii. The icecave was surveyed in 1978, and then rediscovered by the authors of this study in 2011. Extensive measurements between 2011 and 2014 are reported as follows in the abstract: “Perennial ice still blocks the lava tube at the terminal end, but a previously present large ice floor (estimated 260 m2) has disappeared. A secondary mineral deposited on the cave walls is interpreted as the result of past sustained ice levels.”
According to an article published in the 28 December 2015 issue of Hawaii News Now, a 1978 article published in the “Limestone Ledger” included a meticulous map of the 656-foot-long cave, and vital information about where permanent ice was found. But after reading the piece, the researchers quickly noticed something: The 1978 survey, which included photos, showed a contiguous, walkable ice floor (known as the “skating rink”) and large ice blocks. In contrast, the team’s new survey of the cave showed far less permanent ice. The team said the “skating rink” was gone by the time they conducted their multi-year analysis. All of the former known ice blocks had melted away, too. And ice patches on the wall are now seasonal, rather than year-round. In short, the research team found that in three decades, much of the ice in the ice cave had disappeared.
A paper in the 3 February 2016 issue of Nature finds a long-sought “smoking gun” with respect to carbon storage in the deep ocean. As it turns outs, carbon was stored in the depths of the Southern Ocean when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were quite low. Further confirmation was published in the 9 May 2016 issue of Nature Communications: In the past 800,000 years of climate history, the transitions from interglacials and ice ages were always accompanied by a significant reduction in the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere. It then fell from 280 to 180 ppm (parts per million). Where this large amount of carbon dioxide went to and the processes through which the greenhouse gas reached the atmosphere again has been controversial. This paper reports a major carbon dioxide reservoir at a depth of 2000 to 4300 metres in the South Pacific and it reconstructs the details of its gas emission history.
If you’re too busy to read the evidence presented below, here’s the bottom line: On a planet 4 C hotter than baseline, all we can prepare for is human extinction (from Oliver Tickell’s 2008 synthesis in the Guardian). Tickell is taking a conservative approach, considering humans have not been present at 3.3 C or more above baseline (i.e., the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, commonly accepted as 1750). I cannot imagine a scenario involving a rapid rise in global-average temperature and also retention of habitat for humans. Neither can Australian climate scholar Clive Hamilton, based on his 17 June 2014 response to Andrew Revkin’s fantasy-based hopium. According to the World Bank’s 2012 report, “Turn down the heat: why a 4°C warmer world must be avoided” and an informed assessment of “BP Energy Outlook 2030” put together by Barry Saxifrage for the Vancouver Observer, our path leads directly to the 4 C mark. The conservative International Energy Agency throws in the towel on avoiding 4 C in this video from June 2014 (check the 25-minute mark). The 19th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 19), held in November 2013 in Warsaw, Poland, was warned by professor of climatology Mark Maslin: “We are already planning for a 4°C world because that is where we are heading. I do not know of any scientists who do not believe that.” Among well-regarded climate scientists who think a 4 C world is unavoidable, based solely on atmospheric carbon dioxide, is Cambridge University’s Professor of Ocean Physics and Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group in the Department of Applied Mathematics, Dr. Peter Wadhams (check the 51-second mark in this 8 August 2014 video), who says: “…the carbon dioxide that we put into the atmosphere, which now exceeded 400 parts per million, is sufficient, if you don’t add any more, to actually raise global temperatures in the end by about four degrees.” Adding to planetary misery is a paper in the 16 December 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluding that 4 C terminates the ability of Earth’s vegetation to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide. According to a story in the 6 December 2015 issue of the Washington Post: “With no government action, Exxon experts … [said] average temperatures are likely to rise by a catastrophic (my word, not theirs) 5 degrees Celsius, with rises of 6, 7 or even more quite possible.”
Finally, far too late, the New Yorker posits a relevant question on 5 November 2013: Is It Too Late to Prepare for Climate Change? Joining the too-little, too-late gang, the Geological Society of London points out on 10 December 2013 that Earth’s climate could be twice as sensitive to atmospheric carbon as previously believed. New Scientist piles on in March 2014, pointing outthat planetary warming is far more sensitive to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration than indicated by past reports. As usual and expected, carbon dioxide emissions set a record again in 2013, the 5th-hottest year on record (since 1850). Ditto for 2014 and 2015, the new hottest years on record. The previous top three hottest years (2010, 2005, and 2007) were influenced by El Niño events, which cause short-term warming of the Earth’s atmosphere.
According to Yvo de Boer, who was executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2009, when attempts to reach a deal at a summit in Copenhagen crumbled with a rift between industrialized and developing nations, “the only way that a 2015 agreement can achieve a 2-degree goal is to shut down the whole global economy.” Politicians finally have caught up with Tim Garrett’s excellent paper in Climatic Change.
From the Associated Press on 1 December 2014 comes a story headlined, “Climate funds for coal highlight lack of UN rules.” The article points out the difficulty associated with using tools from industrial civilization to address a predicament created by industrial civilization: “Climate finance is critical to any global climate deal, and rich countries have pledged billions of dollars toward it in U.N. climate talks, which resume Monday in Lima, Peru. Yet there is no watchdog agency that ensures the money is spent in the most effective way. There’s not even a common definition on what climate finance is.” The bottom line from this story: About a billion dollars intended to mitigate climate change has been used to fund coal-fired power plants, the worst emitter of carbon dioxide on the planet.
Writing for the Arctic News Group, John Davies concludes: “The world is probably at the start of a runaway Greenhouse Event which will end most human life on Earth before 2040.” He considers only atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, not the many self-reinforcing feedback loops described below. Writing on 28 November 2013 and tacking on only one feedback loop — methane release from the Arctic Ocean — Sam Carana expects global temperature anomalies up to 20 C 2050 (an anomaly is an aberration, or deviation from long-term average). Small wonder atmospheric methane can cause such global catastrophe considering its dramatic rise during the last few years, as elucidated by Carana on 5 December 2013 in the figure below.
Lest we believe our profoundly large geographic distribution grants us the ability to avoid extinction, the title of an article in the 1 August 2015 issue of Nature Communicationssets the record straight: “Geographic range did not confer resilience to extinction in terrestrial vertebrates at the end-Triassic crisis.” The study refers to a mass extinction event about 200 million years ago.
Changing our dietary habits won’t help, either. A paper published in the 24 November 2015 issue of Environment Systems and Decisions finds that switching from a typical U.S. diet to a healthier diet based on the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines accelerates environmental destruction. Seems vegetarianism has its costs, notably a large carbon footprint. In this case, the switch from ‘typical’ to ‘recommended’ comes with a 43% increase in energy use, “primarily due to USDA recommendations for greater Caloric intake of fruits, vegetables, dairy, and fish/seafood, which have relatively high resource use and emissions per Calorie.”
Melting of Greenland’s ice is linked to shrinking Arctic sea ice, according to a paper in the 26 February 2016 issue of Journal of Climate. Specifically, melting Arctic sea ice favors stronger and more frequent “blocking-high” pressure systems, which spin clockwise, stay largely in place and can block cold, dry Canadian air from reaching Greenland during summer. This phenomenon enhances the flow of warm, moist air over Greenland, thereby contributing to increased extreme heat events and surface ice melting.
A paper in the 9 June 2016 issue of Nature Communications includes data from the 2015 melt season. Titled “Arctic cut-off high drives the poleward shift of a new Greenland melting record,” the abstract reports, “we show that the persistence of an exceptional atmospheric ridge, centred over the Arctic Ocean, was responsible for a poleward shift of runoff, albedo and surface temperature records over the Greenland during the summer of 2015.” This finding is consistent with Jennifer Francis’ long-disparaged idea about the loopy, wavy jet stream. The paper’s abstract concludes: “The unprecedented (1948–2015) and sustained atmospheric conditions promoted enhanced runoff, increased the surface temperatures and decreased the albedo in northern Greenland, while inhibiting melting in the south, where new melting records were set over the past decade.”
According to a study published 8 April 2016 in the journal Science Advances, melting ice sheets, especially in Greenland, are changing the distribution of weight on Earth. As a result, both the North Pole and the wobble, which is called polar motion, have changed course. The north pole is on the run. It has taken a sharp turn to the east.
Habitat matters, too. Already, according to a paper published in the 28 August 2015 issue of Nature, “5.7% of the global total land area has shifted toward warmer and drier climate types from 1950–2010, and significant changes include expansion of arid and high-latitude continental climate zones, shrinkage in polar and midlatitude continental climates, poleward shifts in temperate, continental and polar climates, and increasing average elevation of tropical and polar climates.”
The abstract from a paper in the 6 May 2016 issue of Environmental Research Letters reads as follows: “Here, we present the first analysis of coastal dynamics from a sea-level rise hotspot in the Solomon Islands. Using time series aerial and satellite imagery from 1947 to 2014 of 33 islands, along with historical insight from local knowledge, we have identified five vegetated reef islands that have vanished over this time period and a further six islands experiencing severe shoreline recession. Shoreline recession at two sites has destroyed villages that have existed since at least 1935, leading to community relocations.”
A paper published in the 29 June 2016 issue of Nature reports that climate change is disrupting the seasonal behavior of Britain’s plants and animals. The research analyzed 10,003 long-term phenological data sets of 812 of the UK’s marine, freshwater, and land-based plant and animal species collected between 1960 and 2012 on everything from fish spawning to plant flowering. According to the final paragraph of the paper: “Our approach makes the simplifying assumption that climatic change has an overriding influence upon seasonality. Nevertheless, our results suggest that systematic differences in climate sensitivity could result in widespread phenological desynchronization.” Well, duh. Every species is well-adapted to a specific set of environmental conditions. Changing the conditions causes loss of habitat for every species. For some scientists, apparently this is a novel finding.
An article in the 3 July 2016 issue of the New York Times includes this brief, apocalyptic introduction: “Climate change is threatening the livelihoods of the people of tiny Kiribati, and even the island nation’s existence. The government is making plans for the island’s demise.” Four days later, the Timesreports about refugees leaving the shores of a former Bolivian lake: “The water receded and the fish died. They surfaced by the tens of thousands, belly-up, and the stench drifted in the air for weeks. … The birds that had fed on the fish had little choice but to abandon Lake Poopó, once Bolivia’s second-largest but now just a dry, salty expanse. Many of the Uru-Murato people, who had lived off its waters for generations, left as well, joining a new global march of refugees fleeing not war or persecution, but climate change.”
A study published in the 22 June 2016 issue of Earth and Planetary Science Letters reports that parts of the ocean became inhospitable for some organisms as the Earth’s climate warmed 94 million years ago. As the Earth warmed, several natural elements — what we think of as vitamins — depleted, causing some organisms to die off or greatly decrease in numbers. The decrease of these trace metals also suggests a global expansion of oxygen deficiency, which could lead to larger dead zones in bodies of water around the world, meaning little to no life could exist in those areas.
Afforestation and forest management are considered to be key instruments in mitigating climate change. But, as indicated by a paper in the 5 February 2016 issue of Science, the expansion of Europe’s forests toward dark green conifers has stoked global warming. The darkly colored evergreen have been planted for their ability to grow quickly with relatively little management, but their propensity to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide has been outstripped by their dark color. Thus, according to the abstract of the paper, “two and a half centuries of forest management in Europe have not cooled the climate.”
According to the plan presented in the 23 August 2013 issue of Scientific American, the nonnative plants, irrigated with increasingly rare fresh water pumped by increasingly rare fossil-fuel energy, will sequester carbon sufficient to overcome contemporary emissions. Never mind the emissions resulting from pumping the water, or the desirability of converting thriving deserts into monocultures, or the notion of maintaining industrial civilization at the expense of non-civilized humans and non-human species. Instead, ponder one simple thought: When the nonnative plants die, they will emit back into the atmosphere essentially all the carbon they sequestered. A tiny bit of the carbon will be stored in the soil. The rest goes into the atmosphere as a result of decomposition.
This essay brings attention to recent projections and self-reinforcing feedback loops (i.e., positive feedbacks). All information and sources are readily confirmed with an online search, and links to information about feedbacks can be found here~.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (late 2007):n1.8 C by 2100 (up to 4.5 C, depending upon emissions scenarios)
Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (late 2008): ~2 C by 2100
Later in 2008, Hadley Center’s head of climate change predictions Dr. Vicky Pope calls for a worst-case outcome of more than 5 C by 2100. Joe Romm, writing for Grist, claims, “right now even Hadley [Centre] understands it [> 5 C] is better described as the ‘business-as-usual’ case.”
United Nations Environment Programme (mid 2009): 3.5 C by 2100
Anyone who does not know what Latent Heat is will have a false sense of security. It is not hard to understand if I do not use physics jargon. Place on a hot stove a pot of cold water containing 1 kg of ice cubes. Stir the ice water with a long thermometer and take temperature readings. My question is: When will the thermometer begin to show a rise in temperature? Answer: After all the ice has melted. In other words, all the heat from the stove would first all go into melting the ice, without raising the water temperature. The amount of heat entering a system without raising the temperature of the system is called Latent Heat. It takes 80 calories of heat to melt one gram of ice. So in this case, the first 80,000 calories of heat from the stove went into melting the 1 kg of ice first. Only when the ice is all gone will the water temperature rise, and it will do so until it reaches 100C, when the water will begin to boil. Once again, Latent Heat comes into play, and the water temperature will stabilize at the boiling point – until all the water have changed from liquid to vapour, at which point the temperature of the dry pot will rise to the temperature of the flame itself. So how does this apply to Earth’s climate? Consider the Arctic Ocean to be a gigantic pot of ice water, and the sun as the stove. For as long as there is still sea ice to melt, the Arctic Ocean will remain relatively cool, in spite of the ever increasing solar heat entering the Arctic ocean due to ever decreasing ice cover. When the sea ice is gone in the summer, as early as the latter part of this decade, the Arctic Ocean’s temperature will steeply rise, and when it does, so will the global mean temperature, and all hell will break lose (sic).
Between now and then, the Arctic Ocean continues to warm up. Some parts are warming faster than others, and ice is still providing a tremendous cooling impact where it persists.
As it turns out, the so-called 40-year lag is dangerously conservative. A paper in the 3 December 2014 issue of Environmental Research Letters indicates that maximum warming from carbon dioxide emissions occurs about one decade after a carbon dioxide emission. Rising emissions during each of the last many decades points to a truly catastrophic future, and not long from now. According to a paper in the May 2015 issues of Geophysical Research Letters, the planetary warming potential of carbon dioxide outstrips its warming potential for individual use within two months, and the carbon dioxide’s cumulative radiative forcing exceeds the amount of energy released upon combustion by a factor of more than 100,000.
Guy Callendar pointed out the delayed influence of rising carbon dioxide on temperature in a 1938 paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society. The hand-drawn figure from the paper shown below clearly illustrates an irreversible rise in global-average temperature beginning about 1915, a few decades after the consumption of fossil fuels increased substantially. Callendar’s work was used by J.S. Sawyer in a 1972 paper published in Nature to predict an “increase of 25% CO2 expected by the end of the century … [and] … an increase of 0.6°C in the world temperature” with stunning accuracy.
Broadening the Perspective
Astrophysicists have long believed Earth was near the center of the habitable zone for humans. Recent research published in the 10 March 2013 issue of Astrophysical Journalindicates Earth is on the inner edge of the habitable zone, and lies within 1% of inhabitability (1.5 million km, or 5 times the distance from Earth to Earth’s moon). A minor change in Earth’s atmosphere removes human habitat. Unfortunately, we’ve invoked major changes.
Let’s ignore the models for a moment and consider only the results of a single briefing to the United Nations Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen (COP15). Regulars in this space will recall COP15 as the climate-change meetings thrown under the bus by the Obama administration. The summary for that long-forgotten briefing contains this statement: “THE LONG-TERM SEA LEVEL THAT CORRESPONDS TO CURRENT CO2 CONCENTRATION IS ABOUT 23 METERS ABOVE TODAY’S LEVELS, AND THE TEMPERATURES WILL BE 6 DEGREES C OR MORE HIGHER. THESE ESTIMATES ARE BASED ON REAL LONG TERM CLIMATE RECORDS, NOT ON MODELS.”
In other words, near-term extinction of humans was already guaranteed, to the knowledge of Obama and his administration (i.e., the Central Intelligence Agency, which runs the United States and controls presidential power). Even before the dire feedbacks were reported by the scientific community, the administration abandoned climate change as a significant issue because it knew we were done as early as 2009. Rather than shoulder the unenviable task of truth-teller, Obama did as his imperial higher-ups demanded: He lied about collapse, and he lied about climate change. And he still does.
How long will the hangover persist, after we’re done with the fossil-fuel party? According to University of Chicago oceanographer David Archer: “The climatic impacts of releasing fossil fuel CO2 to the atmosphere will last longer than Stonehenge,” Archer writes in his January 2008 book The Long Thaw. “Longer than time capsules, longer than nuclear waste, far longer than the age of human civilization so far.” A paper in the 8 February 2016 online issue of Nature Climate Change points out the long-term impacts of ongoing changes in Earth’s climate: “Here, we argue that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries … need to be placed into a long-term context that includes the … next ten millennnia, over which time the projected impacts of anthropogenic climate change will grow and persist. This long-term perspective illustrates that policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems and human societies — not just for this century, but for the next ten millenia and beyond.”
The 17 December 2015 issue of Nature includes a paper describing shifts in the assembly of plants and animals. The bottom line of the abstract: “Our results suggest that the rules governing the assembly of communities have recently been changed by human activity.” What the authors fail to point out, of course, is that the human activity coincided with agriculture (i.e., civilization). Attributing the damage to humans is an error. Attributing the damage to civilized humans would be more accurate.
According to a paper published 29 December 2015 online issue of Reviews of Geophysics, agriculture by humans 7,000 years ago likely slowed a natural cooling process. This paper settles a decade-long debate regarding the role of humans in global warming during the Holocene. In the absence of civilization, Earth would have entered the early stages of a natural ice age.
Self-Reinforcing Feedback Loops (also see analysis here)
By 15 December 2013, methane bubbling up from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean had sufficient force to prevent sea ice from forming in the area. Nearly two years after his initial, oft-disparaged analysis, Malcolm Light concluded on 22 December 2013, “we have passed the methane hydrate tipping point and are now accelerating into extinction as the methane hydrate ‘Clathrate Gun’ has begun firing volleys of methane into the Arctic atmosphere.” According to Light’s analysis in late 2013, the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere will resemble that of Venus before 2100. The refereed journal literature tackles the topic of hothouse Earth with a paper in the 9 February 2016 issue of Nature Communications: “Water-rich planets such as Earth are expected to become eventually uninhabitable, because liquid water turns unstable at the surface as temperatures increase with solar luminosity. Whether a large increase of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases such as CO2 could also destroy the habitability of water-rich planets has remained unclear. Here we show with three-dimensional aqua-planet simulations that CO2-induced forcing as readily destabilizes the climate as does solar forcing. The climate instability is caused by a positive cloud feedback and leads to a new steady state with global-mean sea-surface temperatures above 330 K” (330 Kelvin is about 57 C, compared to today’s temperature of about 15 C). Two weeks after Light’s 2013 analysis, in an essay stressing near-term human extinction, Light concluded: “The Gulf Stream transport rate started the methane hydrate (clathrate) gun firing in the Arctic in 2007 when its energy/year exceeded 10 million times the amount of energy/year necessary to dissociate subsea Arctic methane hydrates.” The refereed journal literature, typically playing catch-up with reality, includes an article in the 3 February 2014 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surfaceclaiming, “Sustained submergence [of these sediments] into the future should increase gas venting rate roughly exponentially as sediments continue to warm.” Not surprisingly, the clathrate gun began firing in 2007, the same year the extent of Arctic sea ice reached a tipping point. Abundant evidence supporting the firing of the clathrate gun was collated and presented here on 9 September 2012. Further confirmation the clathrate gun had been fired came from Stockholm University’s Örjan Gustafsson, who reported from the Laptev Sea on 23 July 2014: “results of preliminary analyses of seawater samples pointed towards levels of dissolved methane 10-50 times higher than background levels.” Jason Box responds to the news in the conservative fashion I’ve come to expect from academic scientists on 27 July 2014: “What’s the take home message, if you ask me? Because elevated atmospheric carbon from fossil fuel burning is the trigger mechanism poking the climate dragon. The trajectory we’re on is to awaken a runaway climate heating that will ravage global agricultural systems leading to mass famine, conflict. Sea level rise will be a small problem by comparison.” Later, during an interview with Vice published 1 August 2014, Box loosened up a bit, saying, “Even if a small fraction of the Arctic carbon were released to the atmosphere, we’re fucked.” Trust me, Jason, we’re there.
Simultaneous with the Laptev Sea mission, several large holes were discovered in Siberia. The reaction from an article published in the 31 July 2014 issue of Nature indicates atmospheric methane levels more than 50,000 times the usual. An article in the 4 August 2014 edition of Ecowatch ponders the holes: “If you have ever wondered whether you might see the end of the world as we know it in your lifetime, you probably should not read this story, nor study the graphs, nor look at the pictures of methane blowholes aka dragon burps.”
According to researchers quoted in the 22 September 2015 issue of The Siberian Times, the rare media outlet that is willing to address abrupt climate change in a meaningful manner, those massive craters on the Yamal Peninsula are, in fact, created by the release of methane. Furthermore, more craters are expected due to eruptions as permafrost continues to melt.
The importance of methane cannot be overstated. Increasingly, evidence points to a methane burst underlying the Great Dying associated with the end-Permian extinction event, as pointed out in the 31 March 2014 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Malcolm Light reported on 14 July 2014: “There are such massive reserves of methane in the subsea Arctic methane hydrates, that if only a few percent of them are released, they will lead to a jump in the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere of 10 degrees C and produce a ‘Permian’ style major extinction event which will kill us all. Apparently a 5 C rise in global-average temperature was responsible for the Great Dying, according to Michael Benton’s book on the topic. In that case, the rise is temperature requires tens of thousands of years.
Discussion about methane release from the Arctic Ocean has been quite heated (pun intended). Paul Beckwith was criticized by the conservative website, Skeptical Science. His response from 9 August 2013 is here.
Robert Scribbler provides a terrifying summary 24 February 2014, and concludes, “two particularly large and troubling ocean to atmosphere methane outbursts were observed” in the Arctic Ocean. Such an event hasn’t occurred during the last 45 million years. Scribbler’s bottom line: “that time of dangerous and explosive reawakening, increasingly, seems to be now.”
3. Peat in the world’s boreal forests is decomposing at an astonishing rate (Nature Communications, November 2011)
4. Ozone, a powerful greenhouse gas, also contributes to mortality of trees (Global Change Biology, November 2011). Tree mortality reduces uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide and instead accelerates the contribution of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Forest dieback resulting from atmospheric ozone is the primary topic addressed by Gail Zawacki at Wit’s End.
Analysis of tropospheric data has linked elevated levels of ozone with Indonesian forest fires, according to a paper in the 13 January 2016 issue of Nature Communications. Like methane, ozone is a potent but short-lived greenhouse gas. As indicated in the abstract: “This study suggest a larger role for biomass burning in the radiative forcing of climate in the remote TWP (Tropical Western Pacific) than is commonly appreciated.”
According to a paper in the 3 March 2016 issue of The Cryosphere, the darkening of the Greenland ice sheet started becoming significantly less reflective of solar radiation from around 1996, with the ice absorbing 2% more solar energy per decade from this point. “Future darkening is likely underestimated,” according to the paper’s abstract.
It’s not just Antarctica spewing methane hydrates from beneath the ice. Ice sheets may be hiding vast reservoirs in the Arctic, too, as reported in the 7 January 2016 issue of Nature Communications. As reported in the abstract, “recent dating of methane expulsion sites suggests that gas release has been ongoing over many millennia. Here we synthesize observations of ~1,900 fluid escape features — pockmarks and active gas flares — across a previously glaciated Arctic margin with ice-sheet thermomechanical and gas hydrate stability zone modelling. Our results indicate that even under conservative estimates of ice thickness with temperate subglacial conditions, a 500-m thick gas hydrate stability zone — which could serve as a methane sink — existed beneath the ice sheet. Moreover, we reveal that in water depths 150–520 m methane release also persisted through a 20-km-wide window between the subsea and subglacial gas hydrate stability zone. This window expanded in response to post-glacial climate warming and deglaciation thereby opening the Arctic shelf for methane release.”
According to a paper in the 6 October 2015 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences comes a paper describing how the 0.5 C rise in global-average temperature associated with the Medieval Climate Anomaly — commonly called the Medieval Warm period — contributed to substantial increase in area burned. According to the abstract: “Warming of ∼0.5 °C ∼1,000 years ago increased the percentage of our study sites burned per century by ∼260% relative to the past ∼400 y.”
A paper in the 12 October 2015 issue of Nature Geoscience reports that the Antarctic ice is melting so fast that the stability of the whole continent could be at risk by 2100. No surprise about that long-into-the-future date, of course. But the paper uses two emissions scenarios to predict a doubling of surface melting of the ice shelves by 2050 and, with one emissions scenario, Antarctic ice shelves would be in danger of collapse by century’s end.
According to a paper published in the 26 November 2015 issue of Nature Communications, “Outlet glaciers grounded on a bed that deepens inland and extends below sea level are potentially vulnerable to ‘marine ice sheet instability’. This instability, which may lead to runaway ice loss, has been simulated in models, but its consequences have not been directly observed in geological records. Here we provide new surface-exposure ages from an outlet of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet that reveal rapid glacier thinning occurred approximately 7,000 years ago, in the absence of large environmental changes. Glacier thinning persisted for more than two and a half centuries, resulting in hundreds of metres of ice loss.”
In a Heinrich Event, the melt forces eventually reach a tipping point. The warmer water has greatly softened the ice sheet. Floods of water flow out beneath the ice. Ice ponds grow into great lakes that may spill out both over top of the ice and underneath it. Large ice damns (sic) may or may not start to form. All through this time ice motion and melt is accelerating. Finally, a major tipping point is reached and in a single large event or ongoing series of such events, a massive surge of water and ice flush outward as the ice sheet enters an entirely chaotic state. Tsunamis of melt water rush out bearing their vast floatillas (sic) of ice burgs (sic), greatly contributing to sea level rise. And that’s when the weather really starts to get nasty. In the case of Greenland, the firing line for such events is the entire North Atlantic and, ultimately the Northern Hemisphere.
As one result of the polar vortex, boreal peat dries and catches fire like a coal seam (also see this paper in Nature, published online 23 December 2014, indicating “the amount of carbon stored in peats exceeds that stored in vegetation and is similar in size to the current atmospheric carbon pool”). The resulting soot enters the atmosphere to fall again, coating the ice surface elsewhere, thus reducing albedo and hastening the melting of ice. Each of these individual phenomena has been reported, albeit rarely, but to my knowledge the dots have not been connected beyond this space. The inability or unwillingness of the media to connect two dots is not surprising, and has been routinely reported (recently including here with respect to climate change and wildfires) (July 2013)
Tropical rain forests, long believed to represent the primary driver of atmospheric carbon dioxide, are on the verge of giving up that role. According to a 21 May 2014 paper published in Nature, “the higher turnover rates of carbon pools in semi-arid biomes are an increasingly important driver of global carbon cycle inter-annual variability,” indicating the emerging role of drylands in controlling environmental conditions. “Because of the deforestation of tropical rainforests in Brazil, significantly more carbon has been lost than was previously assumed.” In fact, “forest fragmentation results in up to a fifth more carbon dioxide being emitted by the vegetation.” These results come from the 7 October 2014 issue of Nature Communications. A paper in the 28 December 2015 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates Amazon forest could transition to savanna-like states in response to climate change. Savannas are simply described as grasslands with scattered trees or shrubs. The abstract of the paper suggests that, “in contrast to existing predictions of either stability or catastrophic biomass loss, the Amazon forest’s response to a drying regional climate is likely to be an immediate, graded, heterogeneous transition from high-biomass moist forests to transitional dry forests and woody savannah-like states.”
For the first time scientists have investigated the net balance of the three major greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide — for every region of Earth’s land masses. The results were published in the 10 March 2016 issue of Nature. The surprising result: Human-induced emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from ecosystems overwhelmingly surpass the ability of the land to soak up carbon dioxide emissions, which makes the terrestrial biosphere a contributor to climate change.
An abstract of a paper to be published in the April 2016 issue of Biogeochemistry includes these sentences: “Rising temperatures and nitrogen (N) deposition, both aspects of global environmental change, are proposed to alter soil organic matter (SOM) biogeochemistry. … Overall, this study shows that the decomposition and accumulation of molecularly distinct SOM components occurs with soil warming and N amendment and may subsequently alter soil biogeochemical cycling.” In other words, as global temperatures rise, the organic matter in forests appears to break down more quickly, thereby accelerating the release of carbon into the atmosphere.
A paper in the 26 November 2015 issue of Science Express indicates millennial-scale shifts in plankton in the subtropical North Pacific Ocean that are “unprecedented in the last millennium.” The ongoing shift “began in the industrial era and is supported by increasing N2-fixing cyanobacterial production. This picoplankton community shift may provide a negative feedback to rising atmospheric CO2.” One of the authors of the papers is quoted during an interview: “This picoplankton community shift may have provided a negative feedback to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide, during the last 100 years. However, we cannot expect this to be the case in the future.”
For the first time, researchers have documented algae-related toxins in Arctic sea mammals. Specifically, toxins produced by harmful algal blooms are showing up in Alaska marine mammals as far north as the Arctic Ocean — much farther north than ever reported previously, according to a paper in the 11 February 2016 issue of Harmful Algae. The abstract indicates, “In this study, 905 marine mammals from 13 species were sampled including; humpback whales, bowhead whales, beluga whales, harbor porpoises, northern fur seals, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, ringed seals, bearded seals, spotted seals, ribbon seals, Pacific walruses, and northern sea otters. Domoic acid was detected in all 13 species examined and had the greatest prevalence in bowhead whales (68%) and harbor seals (67%). Saxitoxin was detected in 10 of the 13 species … These results provide evidence that … toxins are present throughout Alaska waters at levels high enough to be detected in marine mammals and have the potential to impact marine mammal health in the Arctic marine environment.”
24. Jellyfish have assumed a primary role in the oceans of the world (26 September 2013 issue of the New York Times Review of Books, in a review of Lisa-ann Gershwin’s book, Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean): “We are creating a world more like the late Precambrian than the late 1800s — a world where jellyfish ruled the seas and organisms with shells didn’t exist. We are creating a world where we humans may soon be unable to survive, or want to.” Jellyfish contribute to climate change via (1) release of carbon-rich feces and mucus used by bacteria for respiration, thereby converting bacteria into carbon dioxide factories and (2) consumption of vast numbers of copepods and other plankton.
Another indication of a warming ocean is coral bleaching. The third global coral bleaching event since 1998, and also the third in evidence, ever, is underway on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. According to Australia National News on 28 March 2016, a survey of the Great Barrier Reef reports 95% of the northern reefs were rated as severely bleached, and only 4 of 520 reefs surveyed were found to be unaffected by bleaching.
27. Earthquakes trigger methane release, and consequent warming of the planet triggers earthquakes, as reported by Sam Carana at the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (October 2013)
The mechanism underlying methane release in these systems is poorly understood. If sunlight drives the process, as suggested by a paper in the 22 August 2014 issue of Science, then amplification is expected over time as ponds and lakes are increasingly exposed.
Water bodies within Africa’s interior are adding significantly to the overall release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, according to a paper in the 20 July 2015 online edition of Nature Geoscience. Specifically, “total carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse-gas emissions [are] … about 0.9 Pg carbon per year, equivalent to about one quarter of the global ocean and terrestrial combined carbon sink.”
A paper in the 29 October 2015 issue of Limnology and Oceanography also addresses the issue of methane release from lakes. A write-up for the general public titled, “Global Warming Will Progress Much More Quickly Than Expected, Study Predicts” includes this line: “The findings suggest we have a ‘vicious circle’ ahead of us in which the burning of fossil fuels leads to higher temperatures, which in turn trigger higher levels of methane release and further warming.” This is a fine explanation for a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
Citing two recent journal articles, a paper in the 19 November 2015 issue of Yale Environment 360 concludes, “the world’s iconic northern lakes are undergoing major changes that include swiftly warming waters, diminished ice cover, and outbreaks of harmful algae.” The lakes include Lake Baikal, “the deepest, largest in volume, and most ancient freshwater lake in the world, holding one-fifth of the planet’s above-ground drinking supply. It’s a Noah’s Ark of biodiversity, home to myriad species found nowhere else on earth.”
According to a paper in the 1 February 2016 issue of Nature Geoscience, ponds less than a quarter of an acre in size make up only 8.6% of the surface area of the world’s lakes and ponds, yet they account for 15.1% of carbon dioxide emissions and 40.6% of diffusive methane emissions.
29. Mixing of the jet stream is a catalyst, too. High methane releases follow fracturing of the jet stream, accounting for a previous rise in regional temperature up to 16 C in less than 20 years (Paul Beckwith via video on 19 December 2013).
30. Research indicates that “fewer clouds form as the planet warms, meaning less sunlight is reflected back into space, driving temperatures up further still” (Nature, January 2014)
31. “Thawing permafrost promotes microbial degradation of cryo-sequestered and new carbon leading to the biogenic production of methane” (Nature Communications, February 2014). According to a paper in the 21 October 2015 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,: “The observed DOC [dissolved organic carbon] loss rates are among the highest reported for permafrost carbon and demonstrate the potential importance of LMW [low–molecular-weight] DOC in driving the rapid metabolism of Pleistocene-age permafrost carbon upon thaw and the outgassing of CO2 to the atmosphere by soils and nearby inland waters.”
37. A huge hidden network of frozen methane and methane gas, along with dozens of spectacular flares firing up from the seabed, has been detected off the North Island of New Zealand (preliminary results reported in the 12 May 2014 issue of the New Zealand Herald). The first evidence of widespread active methane seepage in the Southern Ocean, off the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, was subsequently reported in the 1 October 2014 issue of Earth and Planetary Science Letters.
43. Dark snow is no longer restricted to Greenland. Rather, it’s come to much of the northern hemisphere, as reported in the 25 November 2014 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research. Eric Holthaus’s description of this phenomenon in the 13 January 2015 edition of Slate includes a quote from one of the scientists involved in the research project: “The climate models need to be adding in a process they don’t currently have, because that stuff in the atmosphere is having a big climate effect.” In other words, as with the other major self-reinforcing feedback loops, dark snow is not included in contemporary models.
44. The “representation of stratospheric ozone in climate models can have a first-order impact on estimates of effective climate sensitivity.” (Nature Climate Change, December 2014)
48. According to a paper in the 19 January 2015 issue of Nature Geoscience, melting glaciers contribute substantial carbon to the atmosphere, with “approximately 13% of the annual flux of glacier dissolved organic carbon is a result of glacier mass loss. These losses are expected to accelerate.”
50. Arctic warming is amplified by phytoplankton under greenhouse warming (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 12 May 2015). Temperatures in the Arctic are warming considerably faster than the global average, largely because of diminishing sea ice. According to this research, the biogeophysical effect of future phytoplankton changes amplifies Arctic warming by 20%.
51. Cryptogamic covers, which comprise some of the oldest forms of terrestrial life, have recently been found to fix large amounts of nitrogen and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They are sources of greenhouse gases, notably including nitrous oxide and methane, with higher temperatures and enhanced nitrogen deposition contributing to amplification (Global Change Biology, 7 July 2015).
53. “Observations show that glaciers around the world are in retreat and losing mass” (Journal of Glaciology, July 2015). According to the final lines of the abstract: “Glaciological and geodetic observations (~5200 since 1850) show that the rates of early 21st-century mass loss are without precedent on a global scale, at least for the time period observed and probably also for recorded history, as indicated also in reconstructions from written and illustrated documents. This strong imbalance implies that glaciers in many regions will very likely suffer further ice loss, even if climate remains stable.”
54. From a paper in the 1 September 2015 issue of Nature Communications comes evidence that increased ocean acidification drives irreversible, large increases in nitrogen fixation and growth rates of a key group of ocean bacteria known as Trichodesmium. Trichodesmium is one of the few organisms in the ocean that can “fix” atmospheric nitrogen gas, making it available to other organisms. It is crucial because all life — from algae to whales — needs nitrogen to grow. Climate change could send Trichodesmium into overdrive, with no way to stop, thus reproducing faster and generating lots more nitrogen. Without the ability to slow down, however, the bacteria has the potential to gobble up all its available resources, which could trigger die-offs of the microorganism and the higher organisms that depend on it. The change is projected to be irreversible and large even after being moved back to lower carbon-dioxide levels for hundreds of generations. According to the abstract of the paper: “This represents an unprecedented microbial evolutionary response, as reproductive fitness increases acquired in the selection environment are maintained after returning to the ancestral environment.”
55. The extinction of megafauna both at land and at sea has led to a shortage of mega manure (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 26 October 2015). As a result, the planet’s composting and nutrient-recycling system is broken. Other factors have contributed to extinction of large animals, too, but the role of megafauna poop in ecosystem function has been little studied in the past.
58. According to a paper in the 18 December 2015 issue of Science Advances, “Many large tropical trees with sizeable contributions to carbon stock rely on large vertebrates for seed dispersal and regeneration, however many of these frugivores are threatened by hunting, illegal trade, and habitat loss. … we found that defaunation has the potential to significantly erode carbon storage even when only a small proportion of large-seeded trees are extirpated.” In other words, climate change that causes loss of habitat for animals reduces the ability of tropical forests to store carbon, thus creating a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
59. From the 22 December 2015 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences comes a paper pointing out the link between Arctic sea ice and regional precipitation. The abstract of the paper includes the following lines: “Global climate is influenced by the Arctic hydrologic cycle, which is, in part, regulated by sea ice through its control on evaporation and precipitation. … We find that the independent, direct effect of sea ice on the increase of the percentage of Arctic sourced moisture … likely result in increases of precipitation and changes in energy balance, creating significant uncertainty for climate predictions.” In other words, to quote the lead author of the paper, “If you remove sea ice from an Arctic area, you open up the ocean to the atmosphere, and evaporate more water, which forms precipitation.”
60. The terrestrial biosphere is a net source of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, according to a paper in the 10 March 2016 issue of Nature: “We find that the cumulative warming capacity of concurrent biogenic methane and nitrous oxide emissions is a factor of about two larger than the cooling effect resulting from the global land carbon dioxide uptake from 2001 to 2010. This results in a net positive cumulative impact of the three greenhouse gases on the planetary energy budget.”
Vladimir Romanovsky, a UAF geophysics professor who monitored ice wedge degradation for the study at a site in Canada, said the overall conclusions of the study were striking. In an interview coincident with publication of the paper, he said, “We were not expecting to see these dramatic changes. … Whatever is happening, it’s something new for at least the last 60 years in the Arctic.”
63. According to a paper published 22 June 2016 in Nature Communications, there’s a strawberry-colored algae blooming in the northern reaches of Earth. As more algae bloom, more snow thaws. And, nourished by the unfrozen water, even more of the microorganisms are able to grow. And so on. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop of the irreversible variety. I’ll quote from the abstract: “(R)ed snow, a common algal habitat blooming after the onset of melting, plays a crucial role in decreasing albedo. Our data reveal that red pigmented snow algae are cosmopolitan as well as independent of location-specific geochemical and mineralogical factors. The patterns for snow algal diversity, pigmentation and, consequently albedo, are ubiquitous across the Arctic and the reduction in albedo accelerates snow melt and increases the time and area of exposed bare ice. We estimated that the overall decrease in snow albedo by red pigmented snow algal blooms over the course of one melt season can be 13%. This will invariably result in higher melt rates.”
As nearly as I can distinguish, only the latter three feedback processes are reversible at a temporal scale relevant to our species. Once you pull the tab on the can of beer, there’s no keeping the carbon dioxide from bubbling up and out. These feedbacks are not additive, they are multiplicative: They not only reinforce within a feedback, the feedbacks also reinforce among themselves (as realized even by Business Insider on 3 October 2013). Now that we’ve entered the era of expensive oil, I can’t imagine we’ll voluntarily terminate the process of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic (or anywhere else). Nor will we willingly forgo a few dollars by failing to take advantage of the long-sought Northwest Passage or make any attempt to slow economic growth.
Climate-change projections have vastly underestimated the role that clouds play, meaning future warming could be far worse than is currently projected, according to research published in the 8 April 2016 edition of Science. According to the paper’s abstract: “Global climate model (GCM) estimates of the equilibrium global mean surface temperature response to a doubling of atmospheric CO2, measured by the equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS), range from 2.0° to 4.6°C. Clouds are among the leading causes of this uncertainty. Here we show that the ECS can be up to 1.3°C higher in simulations where mixed-phase clouds consisting of ice crystals and supercooled liquid droplets are constrained by global satellite observations. The higher ECS estimates are directly linked to a weakened cloud-phase feedback arising from a decreased cloud glaciation rate in a warmer climate.”
Researchers compared drought predictions for the second half of the 21st century with reconstructions of drought conditions dating back to the 11th century and found that the Central Plains and Southwest U.S. could experience the driest conditions in nearly a millennium. The results were published 12 February 2016 in Science Advances. The abstract concludes: “Notably, future drought risk will likely exceed even the driest centuries of the Medieval Climate Anomaly (1100-1300 CE) in both moderate (RCP 4.5) and high (RCP 8.5) future emissions scenarios, leading to drought conditions without precedent during the last millennium.”
Greenhouse-gas emissions keep rising, and keep setting records. According to 10 June 2013 report by the International Energy Agency, the horrific trend continued in 2012~, when carbon dioxide emissions set a record for the fifth consecutive year. The trend puts disaster in the cross-hairs, with the ever-conservative International Energy Agency claiming we’re headed for a temperature in excess of 5 C. The U.S. State of the Climate in 2013, published 17 July 2014 as a supplement to the July 2014 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, concludes:
Earth may well be headed for an ocean nearly devoid of life. All life on Earth arose from the ocean. As the ocean goes, so do we. According to Robert Scribbler on 28 August 2015, shades of a Canfield ocean induced by hydrogen sulfide in “odd-smelling, purple-colored waves appearing along the Oregon coastline are a sign that it may be starting to happen.” Scribbler quotes Peter Ward’s book, Under a Green Sky:
Finally we look out on the surface of the great sea itself, and as far as the eye can see there is a mirrored flatness, an ocean without whitecaps. Yet that is not the biggest surprise. From shore to the horizon, there is but an unending purple colour – a vast, flat, oily purple, not looking at all like water, not looking anything of our world. No fish break its surface, no birds or any other kind of flying creatures dip down looking for food. The purple colour comes from vast concentrations of floating bacteria, for the oceans of Earth have all become covered with a hundred-foot-thick [30m] veneer of purple and green bacterial soup.
The 28 August 2015 edition of Beach Connection attributes the purple waves to an abundance of a jellyfish-like creature called a salp. The jury is still out.
Then See Where We’re Going
The climate situation is much worse than I’ve led you to believe~, and is accelerating far more rapidly than accounted for by models. Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges, in a press release dated 6 June 2013, potentially lethal heat waves on the near horizon. Piling on a month later, the World Meteorological Organization pointed out that Earth experienced unprecedented recorded climate extremes during the decade 2001-2010, contributing to more than a 2,000 percent increase in heat-related deaths. Even the United States federal governments admits, in a report dated 4 April 2016, that climate change is making Americans sick. Specifically, the report concludes that “global warming will make the air dirtier, water more contaminated and food more tainted. It warned of diseases such as those spread by ticks and mosquitoes, longer allergy seasons, and thousands of heat wave deaths. Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy said if that’s not enough, climate change affects people’s mental health, too.”
On the topic of the spread of deadly disease, a paper in the 18 January 2016 online issue of Trends in Parasitology includes the following lines in the abstract: “Intensification of food production has the potential to drive increased disease prevalence in food plants and animals. Microsporidia are diversely distributed, opportunistic, and density-dependent parasites infecting hosts from almost all known animal taxa. They are frequent in highly managed aquatic and terrestrial hosts, many of which are vulnerable to epizootics, and all of which are crucial for the stability of the animal–human food chain. Mass rearing and changes in global climate may exacerbate disease and more efficient transmission of parasites …. strong evidence exists for an increasing prevalence of microsporidiosis in animals and humans, and for sharing of pathogens across hosts and biomes.”
A paper in the 10 June 2016 issue of Science Advances points out that the effects of climate change in one place can radiate all over the world. The abstract of the paper concludes: “Since 2001, the economic connectivity has augmented in such a way as to facilitate the cascading of production loss. The influence of this structural change has dominated over the effect of the comparably weak climate warming during this decade. Thus, particularly under future warming, the intensification of international trade has the potential to amplify climate losses if no adaptation measures are taken.”
On the topic of rapidity of change, a paper in the August 2013 issue of Ecology Letters points out that rates of projected climate change dramatically exceed past rates of climatic niche evolution among vertebrate species. In other words, vertebrates cannot evolve or adapt rapidly enough to keep up with ongoing and projected changes in climate. Furthermore, microbes in soil — organisms that exert enormous influence over our planet’s carbon cycle — may not be as adaptable to climate change as most scientists have presumed, according to a paper published 2 March 2016 in PLOS One: “This study capitalized on a long-term reciprocal soil transplant experiment to examine the response of dryland soils to climate change. The two transplant sites were separated by 500 m of elevation on the same mountain slope in eastern Washington state, USA, and had similar plant species and soil types. We resampled the original 1994 soil transplants and controls, measuring CO2 production, temperature response, enzyme activity, and bacterial community structure after 17 years.” The bottom line, according to a write-up at Phys.org: “The scientists found less adaptability than they expected, even after 17 years. While the microbial make-up of the samples did not change much at all, the microbes in both sets of transplanted soils retained many of the traits they had in their “native” climate, including to a large degree their original rate of respiration.” In other words, even the smallest of organisms are not able to keep up with changes in climate. Rather, biological activity in soils is relatively constant in the face of large rapid changes in climate.
How critical is Arctic ice? Whereas nearly 80 calories are required to melt a gram of ice at 0 C, adding 80 calories to the same gram of water at 0 C increases its temperature to 80 C. Anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions add more than 2.5 trillion calories to Earth’s surface every hour (ca. 3 watts per square meter, continuously).
According to a paper in the 22 February 2016 online issue of Geophysical Research Letters, “permafrost thaw is equally important as fire history to explain” changes in percent tree cover (PTC) during the 2000-2014 period. In addition, “at the southern margin of the permafrost zone, PTC loss due to permafrost thaw outweighs PTC gain from postfire regrowth. These findings emphasize the importance of permafrost thaw in controlling regional boreal forest changes over the last decade.”
Observations made since 1999 indicate that in some locations, acidity has already surged past levels researchers didn’t expect to emerge until the year 2100, due in part to “extreme aragonite undersaturation.” Aragonite is a form of calcium carbonate that is pervasive in the ocean. It tilts ocean chemistry toward the base level of the pH scale. Carbon in the water tilts the pH scale toward the acid level. The degree to which the water is saturated with aragonite is a marker of overall calcium levels — and a marker of acidification caused by increasing loads of carbon in the water.
A metaanalysis of 632 published experiments published in the 12 October 2015 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences quantified the direction and magnitude of ecological change resulting from ocean acidification and warming and found simplication as the rule. According to the abstract: “Analysis of responses in short- and long-term experiments and of studies at natural CO2 vents reveals little evidence of acclimation to acidification or temperature changes, except for microbes. This conceptualization of change across whole communities and their trophic linkages forecast a reduction in diversity and abundances of various key species that underpin current functioning of marine ecosystems.”
It’s not merely scientists who know where we’re going. The Pentagon is bracing for public dissent over climate and energy shocks, as reported by Nafeez Ahmed in the 14 June 2013 issue of the Guardian. According to Ahmed’s article: “Top secret US National Security Agency (NSA) documents disclosed by the Guardian have shocked the world with revelations of a comprehensive US-based surveillance system with direct access to Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft and other tech giants. New Zealand court records suggest that data harvested by the NSA’s Prism system has been fed into the Five Eyes intelligence alliance whose members also include the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.” In short, the “Pentagon knows that environmental, economic and other crises could provoke widespread public anger toward government and corporations” and is planning accordingly. Such “activity is linked to the last decade of US defense planning, which has been increasingly concerned by the risk of civil unrest at home triggered by catastrophic events linked to climate change, energy shocks or economic crisis — or all three.” In their 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the U.S. military concludes~: “Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating.”
Director of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States John Brennan delivered a speech 16 November 2015 at the Opening Session of the Global Security Forum 2015, held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He addressed climate change, and I apologize for his misogyny in these lines: “Mankind’s relationship with the natural world is aggravating these problems and is potential source of crisis itself. Last year was the warmest on record, and this year is on track to be even warmer. Extreme weather, along with public policies affecting food and water supplies, can worsen or create humanitarian crises. Of the most immediate concern, sharply reduced crop yields in multiple places simultaneously could trigger a shock in food prices with devastating effect, especially in already-fragile regions such as Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Compromised access to food and water greatly increases the prospect for famine and deadly epidemics.”
“Climate warming is predicted to reduce omega-3, long-chain, polyunsaturated fatty acid production in phytoplankton,” according to the title of a paper in the 12 April 2016 online edition of Global Change Biology. These essential fatty acids are vital to the health of all vertebrates, with a direct relationship to cardiovascular and immune system health, as well as neurological function, vision, and reproduction.
The situation on land is worsening, too, as a result of climate change. Rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have reduced protein in goldenrod pollen, a key late-season food source for North American bees. The title of a paper in the 13 April 2016 issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B tells the story: Rising atmospheric CO2 is reducing the protein concentration of a floral pollen source essential for North American bees.
Oversized inflatable plastic eels dangle from the ceiling of a supermarket in Tokyo as late afternoon shoppers inspect the real thing – beautifully packaged and prominently displayed – on the shelves below.
In specialist restaurants run by generations of the same families, diners eat sweetened broiled eel, which is thought to take the edge off the heat and humidity of a Japanese summer.
These annual rites are performed in honour of a dish that has been part of the culinary landscape for centuries. But Japan’s appetite for Anguilla japonica – Japanese freshwater eel – has come at a price.
Eel stocks are a fraction of what they were in the 1960s, and conservationists say continued overconsumption could condemn the animal to the same fate as the Pacific bluefin tuna.
The plight of the eel has come into sharper focus as Japan prepares to mark the Day of the Ox in the lunar calendar – two days that this year fall on 20 July and 1 August – traditionally considered the hottest days of the year.
Overfishing of juvenile glass eels, which are transferred to farm ponds where they are fed until they reach maturity, has led to record price rises, forcing restaurants to post notices apologising to customers for charging them significantly more each year for a simple kabayaki.
The market price for adult eels rose to a record ¥5,300 (£36) a kg in March, about one and a half times higher than last year, according to the Union of Eel Farmers Cooperatives of Japan.
Japan, which consumes an estimated 70% of the world’s freshwater eel catch, transferred just 14 tons of larvae into farming ponds this season – almost a third less than last year – owing to poor catches.
The decline in stocks has been accelerated by illegal fishing, according to Kenzo Kaifu, a professor at Chuo University in Tokyo and an expert on eel conservation.
In a commentary for the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, Kaifu noted that up to 63% of the eel catch in Japanese domestic waters in 2015 was traded illegally, either by unlicensed fishermen or those who had exceeded their quota.
The Day of the Ox, Kaifu said, “might be the perfect opportunity to think a little more deeply about the eel problem we’re facing, and make it a topic of conversation”.
On those and other sweltering days throughout the midsummer, people are drawn to skewered fillets of eel that are dipped in a soy-based sweet sauce, cooked slowly over charcoal and served on rice.
The dish, which is rich in vitamins, is eaten to provide a much-needed energy boost at the height of summer; some believe the smoke from an eel cooking on the grill gives an immediate pick-me-up.
Last month, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan agreed to leave the upper limit on catches of juvenile eels unchanged, to the dismay of conservation groups. China, which has the biggest single annual quota of 36 tons, much of which it exports to Japan, routinely shuns multinational efforts to restrict catches.
Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora are expected to discuss the increasingly precarious future of the freshwater eel at a meeting next May.
Some retailers are already taking action. The supermarket chain Aeon said it would stop procuring Japanese eels whose origin and journey through the supply chain was not properly documented. Instead it will switch to short-fin eels, a cheaper variety commonly found in Indonesia, according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
Some eel farmers are fattening their stocks so a single fish produces enough meat for two dishes, despite concerns that the bigger bones, which are usually barely perceptible, will put off some diners.
Despite advances in farming methods, it is still not possible to raise eels from birth to maturity. Fisheries have to catch juvenile eels in the wild before transferring them to farm ponds.
Campaigners are calling on consumers to resist the urge to eat Japanese eels this summer and throughout the year.
“Even though there is a severe shortage, Japan, Taiwan, Korea have together decided not to reduce the catch quota next season,” said Kazue Komatsubara, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Japan.
“The fishery agency said there was no scientific evidence to support a reduction in catches. But Japan could reduce its catch quota by itself to help the eel population recover. It has to take responsibility as the biggest market for the Japanese eel.
“The only way to avoid supporting illegal fishing and to be a responsible consumer who supports sustainable fishing is to stop buying eels.”
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Throughout history humans have wiped out animal populations. Have we learned from our mistakes? It seems not, with creatures from a songbird to pangolins and bluefin tuna now facing extinction by way of the dinner table
A 225kg, two-metre flightless Australian bird, the Genyornis newtoni, was eaten to extinction 50,000 years ago. “We consider this the first and only secure evidence that humans were directly preying on now-extinct Australian megafauna,” says Gifford Miller, the associate director of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “We have documented these characteristically burned Genyornis eggshells at more than 200 sites across the continent.”
The majority of Australia’s megafauna, including a two-tonne wombat and 500kg kangaroo, also disappeared soon after the arrival of humans.
We all know about the dodo, the flightless bird with no natural predators that was discovered on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in 1507 and was extinct by 1681. Sailors hunted them for meat or indiscriminately killed them, and rats ate their eggs.
Steller’s sea cow was discovered in the Bering Sea in 1741 and gone by 1768. They were enormous, docile, manatee-like marine creatures that couldn’t submerge, and they fell victim to seal hunters.
Passenger pigeons were once numbered in the billions in North America, and their migrating flocks would darken the sky for days. Enter the European settlers, and the birds were totally gone by the early 1900s.
Have we learned from our mistakes? Has hindsight helped prevent humans from eating endangered species?
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of endangered species, 1,414 species of fish, or 5 per cent of the world’s known species, are at risk of extinction. A study on bushmeat has shown that 301 mammals are at risk from hunting. This includes 168 primates, 73 hoofed animals, 27 bats and 12 carnivores. There are also 21 rodents and 26 marsupials on the list.
China is moving from being the world’s biggest producer to being the world’s biggest consumer, and its appetite for exotic foods is unmatched. The yellow-breasted bunting is being driven to extinction because diners in southern China refuse to stop eating the songbird, despite the threat of large fines. Locals believe eating it can boost sexual vitality and detoxify their bodies. It was put on the endangered list, but this has done nothing to stop its numbers falling drastically.
Here are four other species that are facing extinction by way of the dinner table.
Pangolins are nocturnal mammals that eat ants and termites. They are the only mammals with keratin scales and they can emit a harmful chemical similar to a skunk. All eight species of pangolin are threatened with extinction. Four are vulnerable, two are endangered and two are critically endangered.
In Africa they are hunted for food and traditional medicine. Unfortunately, they are also a delicacy in southern China and Vietnam. There’s an unfounded belief in East Asia that ground-up pangolin scales can stimulate lactation, cure cancer and asthma.
It is believed that more than one million pangolins have been illegally trafficked in the past year, making it the world’s most trafficked animal.
All pangolin species are protected and there is an international ban on trade. This rarity, sadly, only pushes the price up, and the continued illegal trade is annihilating their numbers.
Perfectly evolved as a predator, the bluefin is one of the fastest fish in the ocean and can hit speeds of more than 60 kilometres per hour when hunting. The Atlantic bluefin grows up to 4.6 metres long and weighs up to 680kg. Bluefin species range from vulnerable to critically endangered. The increase in demand for sushi and sashimi has resulted in rampant overfishing, and despite international agreements and convention, its numbers are dropping.
The fish is being farmed to alleviate the pressure, but bluefin tuna grow very slowly, so large fish fetch very high prizes, especially in Japan. Because tuna migrate over long distances and hunt in the mid ocean, they aren’t protected by countries’ exclusive economic zones and fishing quotas.
3. Chinese giant salamander
It grows to nearly two metres and weighs up to 50kg, and is the largest amphibian on the planet. It is (yes, you guessed it) considered a delicacy in China and is being used (yes, again) in traditional Chinese medicine. Its family can be seen in fossil records going back more than 170 million years, but today it is critically endangered.
The population has declined by 80 per cent over three generations.
It is heavily farmed in China – in 2011 there were reportedly 2.6 million salamanders in farms in Shaanxi province alone, compared with the wild population for the whole country of 50,000. Farming brings its own problems, including the spreading of viruses to the wild population and the pollution of rivers.
Their fossil record dates back 200 million years to the Triassic era. During their time on earth, they have survived two, possibly three major events that wiped out a lot of the planet’s life.
Most species of sturgeon are at risk of extinction today. The Beluga sturgeon has been overfished for its eggs (caviar), which are considered a delicacy and command ridiculously high prices.
The emergence of China as a wealthy consumer could be the beginning of the end of the sturgeon. It has been projected by the China Sturgeon Association that China will consume 100 tonnes of caviar every year by 2020, accounting for one-third of the world’s total. China also produces one third of all the world’s caviar.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service banned the importation of Beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea in 2005. A year later the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species suspended all trade. The following year, the trade ban was partially lifted. The fish is listed as critically endangered. It takes 20 years to reach maturity, and harvesting the eggs necessitates killing the fish.
Known as the rice bird in southern China, where it is a luxury sought after by gourmets, the previously common yellow-breasted bunting was last year listed as critically endangered. Experts blame its rapid decline on illegal trade
A once common songbird, the yellow-breasted bunting was listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature late last year. Shockingly, only 14 years ago it had still been categorised as a “species of least concern”.
The population is estimated to have plummeted by 90 per cent since 1980, and experts suspect the reason for the rapid decline in numbers of the bird, once seen widely in Hong Kong, is its popularity as a delicacy among diners in southern China.
Efforts by the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, and an international network of academics, environmentalists and bird watchers, may well prove crucial in saving the migratory species from extinction.
Its traditional range covers a huge geographical area. Its breeding grounds are spread across northern Russia, as far east as Japan and, until recently, as far west as Finland. Each year, it migrates south through China. Some stay in the country for the winter, while others journey on to Southeast Asia.
“Currently, we have little idea precisely where the yellow-breasted buntings go,” says Wieland Heim, an expert in bird migration ecology at the University of Münster in Germany. “Pinpointing exact locations and mapping migration routes will help analyse the causes of this extreme decline.”
In a bid to save the bird, Heim and a team of volunteers travel annually to wetlands in Muravioka Park, in the far east of Russia, to monitor the yellow-breasted buntings breeding.
“Myriads of mosquitoes, man-made fires, and floating bogs make the visits challenging,” Heim says. “To reach the birds we have to cross the moving bogs. It’s easy to fall underneath. Things are worse in July when the ice beneath melts, leaving the bogs afloat on water around 1.5 metres deep.”
Last year, the team attached geolocating devices to three yellow-breasted buntings, helping to provide a clearer picture of their movements. The yet-to-be published research reveals a migration route over China and on to Myanmar, where the birds waited out the harsh northern winter.
“This year we will fit more geolocators to further breeding populations and analyse land-use changes in the locations along these birds’ migratory routes. This should help us explain, then hopefully stop, the decline,” Heim says.
When the first crop of rice was first planted in [Hong Kong’s] rejuvenated [Long Valley] in 2009, 11 yellow-breasted buntings visited the area. Numbers have crept up and now we see around 20 a year
“They spend about three months in China, settling on the ground to moult in areas where illegal trapping is known to occur,” he adds. It is this trapping that is thought to be the major cause of the rapid fall in the bird’s numbers.
“The yellow-breasted bunting is often caught in the north of China,” explains Fu Wing-kan, assistant manager of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society’s China Programme. “The birds are killed, plucked, frozen and then transported by road or rail to the south to be sold as a delicacy.”
Consumer demand is fed by the belief that eating the yellow-breasted bunting bestows medicinal benefits and is nourishing, like “ginseng in heaven”, Fu says. Dining on the endangered bird is also said to be something of a status symbol.
“With no mention on restaurant menus, the trade operates undercover. Customers place orders in advance. Birds are then delivered from off-site storehouses,” Fu adds.
It wasn’t always such a secretive activity. Quoting earlier research from the University of Münster, Fu recalls how, in the early 1990s, Sanshui city in China’s Guangdong province held an annual food festival where diners eagerly consumed hundreds of thousands of yellow-breasted buntings. Then, in 1997, the Chinese government made trapping the birds illegal.
“Today, China’s revised Wildlife Protection Act outlaws hunting, selling and consuming wild animals without a permit. The yellow-breasted bunting is protected as a species of significant ecological, scientific and social value,” Fu says.
However, trade in the species is known to have continued into the new millennium. Additionally, Beijing-based bird watcher and blogger Terry Townsend reported last year that yellow-breasted buntings were being offered for sale on the Chinese e-commerce website Taobao.
“For between HK$135 [US$17] and HK$270 it was possible to buy a live yellow-breasted bunting. It’s likely this was for the caged bird trade, rather than consumption,” Townsend says. The birds are difficult to breed in captivity, he says, and he is certain the birds were caught in the wild.
After Townsend raised the alarm on his birdingbeijing.com website, a representative of Taobao’s parent, Alibaba Group (which also owns the South China Morning Post), got in touch to express the company’s concern and tell him that the offending posts had been removed.
“They said their procedures concerning spotting wild birds for sale were under review, and they would be happy for users to send them links to any posts of concern,” Townsend says.
As the little yellow and brown birds fly south, one of the destinations they visit for rest and recuperation is Hong Kong’s largest swathe of agricultural land, Long Valley. Here, near Sheung Shui in the northern New Territories, an innovative conservation project involving 28 local farmers is contributing to the species’ survival.
Entitled Nature Conservation for Management for Long Valley, and co-organised by the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society and The Conservancy Association, a charity, the project aims to ecologically manage and monitor the area, and provide education about its importance.
Working alongside five of the older farmers, project manager Yeung Lee-ki oversees Long Valley’s Eco-paddy Club. The farmers are able to take care of the rice paddy once it is planted, but find the initial planting and harvesting a considerable physical challenge. This is where the Eco-paddy Club comes in.
Members pay a small fee to help plant and harvest rice following the principles of organic farming. In exchange, “they learn about the growing process and receive a proportion of the crop at the season’s end”, Yeung explains. A hectare has been planted and the rice sells out each year, generating income to support the project.
“By promoting local agriculture, we hope to also provide habitat for the yellow-breasted bunting,” Yeung adds, because the rice paddies are a perfect habitat for the birds.
The project’s own data shows some ecological success. “When the first crop of rice was first planted in the rejuvenated valley in 2009, 11 yellow-breasted buntings visited the area. Numbers have crept up and now we see around 20 individuals a year,” Yeung says. “Long Valley now hosts over half of the bird species recorded in Hong Kong, and 42 per cent of our amphibians.”
The Long Valley project also involves tagging visiting yellow-breasted buntings with identity rings to support other researchers’ data in migratory patterns. Additionally, it is working closely with conservation groups in southern China to raise awareness of the bird’s plight, and encourage people to report illegal consumption and stop eating the buntings.
Yeung is hopeful for the future given that many conservationists have joined the initiative to save the bird. “We don’t want to see the species die out, and really hope our measures will save the yellow-breasted bunting,” she says.
The birds tagged by Heim’s team journeyed on to northern Myanmar to complete their winter migration. There, local environmentalists are equally concerned about the critically endangered species. Being hunted for food is, once again, blamed for the decline.
In Myanmar, too, information is lacking about the exact movements and habits of the birds once they settle in the country.
Thiri Dae We Aung, a representative of the country’s Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association, is proposing a comprehensive survey of yellow-breasted buntings starting this coming winter, and hopes to raise awareness of their plight in upcoming workshops.
Environmentalists along the length of the migratory bird’s flight path are battling to work out how to save the species as it teeters on the brink of extinction. Individuals and businesses can support them by refusing to buy the birds and to not facilitate the sale of them.
When I discovered the ocean, the things in the ocean that you don’t see anywhere else … I fell in love!
TIPS FOR BEGINNERS:
Sometimes it’s difficult for men to take you seriously as a scientist or an engineer. They are used to these fields being a men’s area. But if you treat others the way you would like to be treated, chances are you’ll have some success and be treated with respect. Rather than trying to act like a man, just be yourself.
Sardines and groupers gather for feeding time at the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.
Off the shores of the East Cape region of Baja California Peninsula in Mexico, the turquoise waters are home to more than 800 species of marine life, from corals, fish and sea turtles, to dolphins.
Having spent over 7,000 hours submerged in the sea, and with more than five decades of marine research experience, 82-year-old oceanographer Sylvia Earle, dubbed “Her Deepness”, should have seen it all. However, the marine biologist is still surprised by what she sees every time she dives into this part of the ocean, known as the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.
“I’ve been in Cabo Pulmo at least a dozen times over the years. Every time, I see something I’ve never seen before,” says Earle, who has been on underwater expeditions to oceans all round the world – from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and from the Indian to the Atlantic to the Pacific – for the last 50 years. “This time, it’s the sardines. I’ve never seen so many of these little fish gathered together. The other thing that is new for me even though I have spent thousands of hours underwater – I’ve never seen so many groupers together in one place. This was not a breeding aggregation. This was a feeding aggregation. They’re all there because lunch was being served.”
Groupers gather in the waters. Earle has dived into the waters of Cabo Pulmo at least a dozen times over the years, and each time she sees something she has not seen before.
Before this part of the Gulf of California was declared a national marine park in 1995, the Cabo Pulmo sea – once called the “aquarium of the world” by legendary explorer Jacques Cousteau – was heavily overfished and ruined by unrestrained tourism activities. Thanks to the efforts of the local community and conservation groups, the area has been gradually recovering and is now recognised as a Hope Spot under Earle’s global initiative, Mission Blue.
A National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, Earle has dedicated her whole life to exploring the ocean and, in recent years, protecting it by launching Mission Blue with the TED Prize (a US$1 million award) she won in 2009.
According to Mission Blue, while about 12 per cent of the land on Earth is under protection – such as sites designated as national parks – less than six per cent of the oceans is under such protection. Mission Blue encourages people all over the world to identify and nominate marine areas that are critical to the health of the oceans as Hope Spots. The aim is to protect these areas by raising public awareness, building collaborations, coordinating expeditions and advocating for legal protection.
“When you look at what’s happening to the world right now – the decline of the atmosphere, the changes in the oceans, the loss of forests and wildlife – you become really discouraged,” says Earle, Rolex’s ambassador since 1982.
Sunrise on the Sea of Cortez (Baja California) at the beach at Hotel Vidasoul, south of Cabo Pulmo
With a long history of supporting exploration and conservation projects, the Swiss luxury watchmaker is now sponsoring Mission Blue, along with a partnership with National Geographic backing pioneering explorers to safeguard the oceans, poles and mountains.
Earle adds, “But you could also say, ‘Well, now we know we have problems … We didn’t know what we could do to change the trajectory but now we know.’ We learned with whales: if you stop killing whales, there’s a chance they can recover.”
Given her tremendous contribution to safeguarding the world’s oceans, and to science, Earle has earned a long list of accolades. She led the first all-female team of aquanauts on a two-week research stay in the underwater laboratory Tektite II in 1970. In 1979, she set a women’s diving record of 381 metres to the ocean floor near Oahu.
She was the first woman appointed as chief scientist of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1990. It has never been easy for women to excel in the world of science, which has always been dominated by men – especially in the old days when Earle started out. Earle revealed in a previous interview that she was once denied a teaching assistant job because of her gender. When she went on a six-week expedition in the Indian Ocean in 1964, she was the only woman out of 71 crew members.
WHEN YOU LOOK AT WHAT’S HAPPENING TO THE WORLD RIGHT NOW, WITH THE DECLINE OF WHAT’S HAPPENED TO THE ATMOSPHERE, THE CHANGES IN THE OCEANS, THE LOSS OF FORESTS AND THE LOSS OF WILDLIFE, YOU GET REALLY DISCOURAGED. BUT YOU COULD ALSO SAY, ‘WELL, NOW WE KNOW WE HAVE PROBLEMS’
“Sometimes it’s difficult for men to take you seriously as a scientist or an engineer. They are used to these fields being a men’s [area]. But if you treat others the way you would like to be treated, chances are you’ll have some success and be treated with respect,” says Earle, who was pictured on the cover of Time magazine last September as a woman who is changing the world. “If you want to be respected as a scientist, you have to act like a scientist. Have a good sense of humour – it always helps. And rather than trying to act like a man, just be yourself,” she says. “Be the best you can possibly be or what you are aspiring to be, whether [you want to be] a singer, a pilot, a scientist, or a mathematician.”
There has been tremendous progress in science since the 20th century, and the same applies to the status of women in society. “Things are changing. It happens as communication becomes more open, and we see how others live and see successful people from different ethnicities and backgrounds and of different gender,” she says.
Over the years, Sylvia Earle has witnessed how the oceans have been affected by human behaviour, such as overfishing, illegal dumping, plastic pollution and climate change.
Born in New Jersey, Earle developed an interest in nature when she was a child. She later moved to the west coast of Florida where she developed a passion for the sea.
“When I discovered the ocean, the things in the ocean that you don’t see anywhere else … I fell in love!” recalls Earle, who received a phycology doctorate from Duke University in 1966. “Of course, we’re all in this together … But the biggest parts of the world are the oceans – which we know the least about, and are likely the most important for the future of everything we care about.”
Over the years, she has witnessed how the oceans are affected by human behaviour, such as overfishing, illegal dumping, plastic pollution and climate change. “I dived in the waters near Hong Kong in 1980. I haven’t been back recently. But we have more problems now than in 1980. Plastic pollution is everywhere, and people seem to think the oceans are the best places for discarding what they don’t want on land. The oceans have become great dumping sites,” she says.
Sylvia Earle believes that it’s not too late to reverse the damage humans have inflicted on the Earth.
“Eating fish that have been swimming in contaminated waters means that you get contaminated. We’re in a big circle. We put bad things into the oceans, they come right back to us.”
Earle believes that it’s not too late to reverse the damage humans have inflicted on the Earth. “Our success as a species has come about because we have learned things and we have passed that knowledge along. Each new generation has the chance to be better prepared than the one before,” she says.
“We [can make Earth healthy again] because we still have sharks, and there are still groupers and there are still tuna. We still have a chance if we stop killing so many of them and try to understand the value in protecting them – that’s where
Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.
The new research shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.
The new analysis shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Other recent research shows 86% of all land mammals are now livestock or humans. The scientists also found that even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing.
The study, published in the journal Science, created a huge dataset based on almost 40,000 farms in 119 countries and covering 40 food products that represent 90% of all that is eaten. It assessed the full impact of these foods, from farm to fork, on land use, climate change emissions, freshwater use and water pollution (eutrophication) and air pollution (acidification).
“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” said Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems,” he said. “Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.”
The analysis also revealed a huge variability between different ways of producing the same food. For example, beef cattle raised on deforested land result in 12 times more greenhouse gases and use 50 times more land than those grazing rich natural pasture. But the comparison of beef with plant protein such as peas is stark, with even the lowest impact beef responsible for six times more greenhouse gases and 36 times more land.
The large variability in environmental impact from different farms does present an opportunity for reducing the harm, Poore said, without needing the global population to become vegan. If the most harmful half of meat and dairy production was replaced by plant-based food, this still delivers about two-thirds of the benefits of getting rid of all meat and dairy production.
Cutting the environmental impact of farming is not easy, Poore warned: “There are over 570m farms all of which need slightly different ways to reduce their impact. It is an [environmental] challenge like no other sector of the economy.” But he said at least $500bn is spent every year on agricultural subsidies, and probably much more: “There is a lot of money there to do something really good with.”
Labels that reveal the impact of products would be a good start, so consumers could choose the least damaging options, he said, but subsidies for sustainable and healthy foods and taxes on meat and dairy will probably also be necessary.
One surprise from the work was the large impact of freshwater fish farming, which provides two-thirds of such fish in Asia and 96% in Europe, and was thought to be relatively environmentally friendly. “You get all these fish depositing excreta and unconsumed feed down to the bottom of the pond, where there is barely any oxygen, making it the perfect environment for methane production,” a potent greenhouse gas, Poore said.
The research also found grass-fed beef, thought to be relatively low impact, was still responsible for much higher impacts than plant-based food. “Converting grass into [meat] is like converting coal to energy. It comes with an immense cost in emissions,” Poore said.
The new research has received strong praise from other food experts. Prof Gidon Eshel, at Bard College, US, said: “I was awestruck. It is really important, sound, ambitious, revealing and beautifully done.”
He said previous work on quantifying farming’s impacts, including his own, had taken a top-down approach using national level data, but the new work used a bottom-up approach, with farm-by-farm data. “It is very reassuring to see they yield essentially the same results. But the new work has very many important details that are profoundly revealing.”
Prof Tim Benton, at the University of Leeds, UK, said: “This is an immensely useful study. It brings together a huge amount of data and that makes its conclusions much more robust. The way we produce food, consume and waste food is unsustainable from a planetary perspective. Given the global obesity crisis, changing diets – eating less livestock produce and more vegetables and fruit – has the potential to make both us and the planet healthier.”
Dr Peter Alexander, at the University of Edinburgh, UK, was also impressed but noted: “There may be environmental benefits, eg for biodiversity, from sustainably managed grazing and increasing animal product consumption may improve nutrition for some of the poorest globally. My personal opinion is we should interpret these results not as the need to become vegan overnight, but rather to moderate our [meat] consumption.”
Poore said: “The reason I started this project was to understand if there were sustainable animal producers out there. But I have stopped consuming animal products over the last four years of this project. These impacts are not necessary to sustain our current way of life. The question is how much can we reduce them and the answer is a lot.”
The asteroid impact that ended the age of the dinosaurs also released so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the planet warmed up by about 5 degrees Celsius — and the hot spell persisted for roughly 100,000 years.
That’s according to a new study in the journal Science that offers a cautionary tale about how Earth’s climate will react to the carbon dioxide that’s being pumped into the atmosphere now by the burning of fossil fuels.
Scientists have long wondered about the long-term environmental effects of the notorious Chicxulub impact that occurred about 65 million years ago, when a space rock more than 5 miles wide slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula. The crash must have produced a blast of intense heat that vaporized rock and set off massive wildfires.
A vast cloud of ash and soot then must have blocked the sun for months, years, or decades, ushering in a global winter that killed off plants and animals (including non-avian dinosaurs) in a mass extinction. After the skies cleared, researchers believe the planet must have warmed up because all of those fires and zapped minerals put lots of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
But evidence of those environmental effects has been hard to discern from the geologic record. “To date, there’s really been no good empirical estimates on what temperature is doing following the impact, in terms of hundreds of thousands of years,” says Page Quinton, a geologist at the State University of New York at Potsdam.
She worked with Ken MacLeod, a paleontologist at the University of Missouri, Columbia, to look at one possible recorder of temperatures — oxygen isotope signatures — from fossils of fish that were alive way back when. The bits of fish remains are so small, they just look like grains of sand or crud.
“But under the microscope, they are unequivocally fish fossils. They’re these millimeter or half-millimeter long little teeth, and under the microscope they are gorgeous,” says MacLeod, adding that they also find tiny fish scales or bits of bone.
The researchers painstakingly searched for them in pounds of rock from El Kef, Tunisia, a site that is famous for having well-preserved rock layers that span the time periods both before and after the asteroid impact. Julio Sepulveda, a geologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, worked with M.H. Negra of the University of Tunis to collect the samples from a deep trench dug into a hillside.
“We basically have to go very carefully looking at layer by layer until we find a very characteristic layer that is red in color. It is at most a centimeter thick,” Sepulveda says. “That contains all the material that came from the impact itself, from the body that impacted our planet. It’s kind of reddish in color, because of the metals that are present.”
He says his team retrieved rock from several feet below this layer and a couple feet above it.
By analyzing the fish fossils inside, researchers determined that global temperatures were stable for a long time before the asteroid impact, but then, afterwards, temperatures quickly rose and stayed about 5 degrees Celsius warmer for about 100,000 years.
MacLeod says it’s notable that the impact pumped up carbon dioxide over a short time span that, geologically speaking, is comparable to what humans have been doing in burning fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
“The atmosphere was loaded for a very brief interval of time, and the consequences of that change in atmospheric composition lasted for 100,000 years,” MacLeod says. “So it illustrates, I think, really strongly, even if we went back to 1850 levels of carbon dioxide emission, it’s going to take a 100,000 years for the carbon dioxide that we’ve already put in the atmosphere to cycle through the Earth’s systems.”
Brian Huber, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History who wasn’t part of the research team, says this paper is real step forward in understanding temperature changes around the time of this mass extinction event. And he agrees that the results have implications for thinking about the future.
“I think the stunning result of this is that this temperature warming after the impact persisted for 100,000 years,” Huber says. “It’s, to me, stunning and a little bit frightening about the course of what happens with burning so much coal, so much petroleum, in just a few decades.”
An asteroid that may be longer than a football field will get uncomfortably close to our planet soon, experts say.
Scientists are keeping a close eye on an asteroid of significant size that will pass quite close the Earth soon. Asteroid 2010 WC9, which was first detected back on Nov. 30, 2010 by the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona, is back for another visit, and it will be passing at an incredible close distance of about half the distance the moon is from us.
When it was first spotted back in 2010, astronomers were not able to predict when it might be back because of unclear data on its orbit. But on May 8, eight years later, astronomers spotted the asteroid again and identified it as long-lost 2010 WC9. It will be closest to Earth at 6:05 p.m. Eastern time on May 15, when it will be just 126,000 miles from Earth.
The asteroid will blast past Earth at an incredible 28,000 miles per hour, and it will be between 60 and 130 meters. That would make it likely bigger than the Chelyabinsk meteor, which was about 65 feet long (only about 20 meters) and damaged thousands of buildings when it struck the city back in 2013.
You’ll actually be able to watch it live when it does fly past, thanks to Northolt Branch Observatories.
“We have discussed the unusual object 2010 WC9 with EarthSky! Check out the link below for that, with more information about this asteroid, why it is special, and how you can see it yourself,” states their Facebook page. “If you want to watch the asteroid from your couch, you can do that, too: We plan to broadcast live from the telescope on the evening of May 14th (the day before closest approach), provided that weather allows it! We will share details about that on our Facebook page, on Monday.”
“Asteroid 2010 WC9 will safely pass at about half’s the moon’s distance on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. Estimates of its size range from 197 to 427 feet (60-130 meters), making the May 15 pass one of the closest approaches ever observed of an asteroid of this size,” states website EarthSky. “This asteroid was “lost” and then found again. The Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona first detected it on November 30, 2010, and astronomers watched it until December 10, when it became too faint to see. They didn’t have enough observations to track its orbit fully and so predict its return. On May 8, 2018 – almost eight years later – astronomers discovered an asteroid and gave it the temporary designation ZJ99C60. Then they realized it was asteroid 2010 WC9, returning.”
Daniel Bamberger of Northolt said on his Facebook page that the object had been imaged twice.
“We imaged this object twice: First on May 9, when it was still known by its temporary designation ZJ99C60; then again on May 10, after it was identified as asteroid 2010 WC9, which had been a lost asteroid for eight years,” he wrote. “It is still a faint object of 18th magnitude, but it is brightening very rapidly: 2010 WC9 will be brighter than 11th magnitude at closest approach, making it visible in a small telescope!”
The following is a Wikipedia excerpt on near-Earth objects.
A near-Earth object (NEO) is any small Solar System body whose orbit can bring it into proximity with Earth. By definition, a Solar System body is a NEO if its closest approach to the Sun (perihelion) is less than 1.3 astronomical units (AU). If a NEO’s orbit crosses the Earth’s and the object is larger than 140 meters (460 ft) across, it is considered a potentially hazardous object (PHO). Most known PHOs and NEOs are asteroids.
Known NEOs include more than seventeen thousand near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), more than one hundred short-period near-Earth comets (NECs), and a number of solar-orbiting spacecraft and meteoroids, large enough to be tracked in space before striking the Earth. It is now widely accepted that collisions in the past have had a significant role in shaping the geological and biological history of the Earth. NEOs have become of increased interest since the 1980s because of greater awareness of the potential danger some of the asteroids or comets pose, and methods of mitigation are being researched.
Based on the orbit calculations of NEOs, the risk of future impacts is assessed on two scales, the Torino scale and the more complex Palermo scale, both of which rate a risk of any significance with values above 0. Some NEOs have had positive initial Torino or Palermo scale ratings after their discovery, but as of March 2018, more precise calculations based on subsequent observations led to a reduction of the rating to or below 0 in all cases.
Since 1998, the United States, the European Union, and other nations are scanning for NEOs in an effort called Spaceguard. The initial aim of cataloging at least 90% of NEOs that are at least 1 kilometer (km) wide—about 0.62 miles (mi), which would cause a global catastrophe in case on an impact on Earth—had been met by 2011. In later years, the survey effort has been expanded to objects as small as about 140 m (460 ft) across, which still have potential for large-scale, though not global, damage.
Due to their Earth-like orbits and low surface gravity, NEOs are easy targets for spacecraft. As of March 2018, five near-Earth comets and three near-Earth asteroids have been visited by spacecraft, and probes are en route to two more NEAs. Plans to mine NEAs commercially have been picked up by a private company.
A new study partly-sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.
Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.”
The independent research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The HANDY model was created using a minor Nasa grant, but the study based on it was conducted independently. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.
It finds that according to the historical record even advanced, complex civilisations are susceptible to collapse, raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilisation:
“The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.”
By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.
These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”
Currently, high levels of economic stratification are linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with “Elites” based largely in industrialised countries responsible for both:
“… accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”
The study challenges those who argue that technology will resolve these challenges by increasing efficiency:
“Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”
Productivity increases in agriculture and industry over the last two centuries has come from “increased (rather than decreased) resource throughput,” despite dramatic efficiency gains over the same period.
Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharrei and his colleagues conclude that under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today… we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.” In the first of these scenarios, civilisation:
“…. appears to be on a sustainable path for quite a long time, but even using an optimal depletion rate and starting with a very small number of Elites, the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society. It is important to note that this Type-L collapse is due to an inequality-induced famine that causes a loss of workers, rather than a collapse of Nature.”
Another scenario focuses on the role of continued resource exploitation, finding that “with a larger depletion rate, the decline of the Commoners occurs faster, while the Elites are still thriving, but eventually the Commoners collapse completely, followed by the Elites.”
In both scenarios, Elite wealth monopolies mean that they are buffered from the most “detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners”, allowing them to “continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.” The same mechanism, they argue, could explain how “historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases).”
Applying this lesson to our contemporary predicament, the study warns that:
“While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ in support of doing nothing.”
However, the scientists point out that the worst-case scenarios are by no means inevitable, and suggest that appropriate policy and structural changes could avoid collapse, if not pave the way toward a more stable civilisation.
The two key solutions are to reduce economic inequality so as to ensure fairer distribution of resources, and to dramatically reduce resource consumption by relying on less intensive renewable resources and reducing population growth:
“Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.”
The NASA-funded HANDY model offers a highly credible wake-up call to governments, corporations and business – and consumers – to recognise that ‘business as usual’ cannot be sustained, and that policy and structural changes are required immediately.
Although the study based on HANDY is largely theoretical – a ‘thought-experiment’ – a number of other more empirically-focused studies – by KPMG and the UK Government Office of Science for instance – have warned that the convergence of food, water and energy crises could create a ‘perfect storm’ within about fifteen years. But these ‘business as usual’ forecasts could be very conservative.