More than three billion people watched as rising carbon dioxide levels and consequent flooding of low-lying areas were depicted during the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics: Amsterdam, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Florida, Shanghai, Lagos, and Rio de Janeiro were shown disappearing under water due to a warming climate caused by human activity. As a gesture toward remedy, each of the 11,000 competitors from the world’s nations planted a seedling as they entered Maracanã Stadium. scientificamerican.com
The planet is already committed to an air temperature increase greater than 1.5°C over many land regions based on current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, according to new research published in July 2016 in the journal Scientific Reports. Research carried out by scientists from the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the University of Exeter indicated even if it was possible to keep carbon dioxide concentrations fixed at their current concentration of 400 parts-per-million, the planet would continue to warm over land in order to reach equilibrium. At the present time, the oceans are drawing down very large amounts of heat from the atmosphere. (For a visual depiction of how much warmth the oceans have taken on from 1900 to 2010, see nytimes.com/interactive). As the planet moves toward a stable climatic state, oceans will give up some of this heat and air temperatures over land areas will increase accordingly. Previous simulations of future climate stabilization have focused on the higher greenhouse gas concentrations expected as a result of climate inaction. sciencedaily.com
In coverage of the Louisiana flood tragedy of August 2016 it wasn’t hard to find climate named as a major factor. A New York Times article began, “Climate change is never going to announce itself by name. But this is what we should expect it to look like.” The article quoted David Easterling, a director at the National Centers for Environmental Information, which is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as saying that the amount of rain that fell “is consistent with what we expect to see in the future if you look at climate models.” nytimes.com On the CNN program “New Day,” Bill Nye told Chris Cuomo, “This is a result of climate change. It’s only going to get worse.” cnn.com A Vox.com headline read, “The Louisiana floods are devastating, and climate change will bring more like them. We’re not ready.” vox.com And at the Louisiana State University Law Center in a long article entitled, “Why was the Louisiana Flood of August 2016 so severe?”, Professor Edward Richards wrote: “The August 2016 storm had so much moisture to draw on because the Gulf of Mexico was at near record temperatures…. While it is impossible at this point in time to know how much the August 2016 rainfall was affected by climate change, it is clear that these events will be more common in the future. (Even if the overall climate in Louisiana is drier.)” law.lsu.edu
Naming climate change as the cause of a deadly outbreak of anthrax that occurred in northern Russia in August 2016 is easier than it would be elsewhere. With few people, few infectious diseases, little travel and trade, and record-high temperatures melting Arctic permafrost, the release of deadly anthrax spores from a thawing caribou carcass points a clear finger at global warming. Scientists estimate the animal died 75 years ago and had stayed frozen until now. The area of the anthrax outbreak was 18F (10C) hotter than average, with temperatures reaching 95F (35C). Anthrax, an infection caused by the bacterium Bacillum anthracis, can occur naturally in certain soils, with infection usually spread by grazing animals. Anthrax spores can survive in frozen human and animal remains for hundreds of years, waiting to be released by a thaw. In addition to releasing ancient microbes, melting layers of permafrost also release methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. theguardian.com-anthrax , theguardian.com/world and climatechangenews.com
ECOSYSTEMS AND BIODIVERSITY
They are thundering, trumpeting six-ton monuments to the wonder of evolution. These poetic and many more prosaic words have been written in recent weeks about the elephant—ancient, revered, and suffering great losses at this time. The Guardian, source of the quotation, is spending a year reporting on their plight. August 12 was World Elephant Day, launched in 2012 to bring attention to the rapid decline in numbers of Asian and African elephants. NY Times began the month of September 2016 reporting the Great Elephant Census.
The elephant population dropped 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to the Census, a $7 million undertaking financed by the philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and released to the public on August 31, 2016. During the project teams of researchers flew nearly 290,000 miles across Africa in several dozen airplanes. They found approximately 352,000 savanna elephants and accounted for an estimated 93 percent of all those remaining in the 18 countries surveyed, more than half in Botswana and Zimbabwe. They also counted elephant carcasses and found an estimated 12 for every 100 living elephants—an unsustainable level of deaths. In Asia, it is believed less than 50,000 elephants remain; more than half of them in India. In Africa, the larger of the two species is a step further from extinction. Less than half a million remain; they are particularly vulnerable in the western and central portions of the continent.
Ecologists define elephants as a “keystone species,” without which other life forms would be more imperiled. These giants distribute large quantities of seed over long distances. In Congo, scientists found forest elephants disperse 345 seeds per day from 96 species of plants, typically more than one kilometer from parent trees. As they damage trees, they open up areas to smaller herbivores and to carnivores who can then more easily catch prey. Elephants’ browsing of plants can reduce the fuel loads and the intensity of wildfires. Their defecation returns nutrients quickly to the soil.
Poaching is the greatest threat to the majestic animal, whose lineage goes back 60 million years. Ibrahim Thiaw, the deputy executive director for the United Nations Environment Program, said poaching “makes no sense on any level—moral, economic or political.” But the link between poaching and poverty is strong: rates of infant mortality and poaching activity clearly correlate. In Kenya, a poacher makes $3 per kilo of ivory, and hunters can make more money in the unregulated bush meat markets for the smoked meat than for the tusks. nytimes.com, theguardian.com-megaherbivores, theguardian.com-facts
The rapid loss of biodiversity and megafauna, in particular, is an issue that is right up there with, and perhaps even more pressing than climate change, in the opinion of Peter Lindsey, lion program policy initiative coordinator at conservation organization Panthera. In a new paper published July 27, 2016, in the journal BioScience, Lindsey and dozens of other conservation biologists from around the world wrote, “While the symbolic loss of such iconic species as elephants, rhinos or lions would be paramount, this loss would also have significant effects on the ecosystem.” Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientist Dr. Fiona Maisels, another co-author of the paper, said, “We’re only beginning to understand how vital these keystone species are to the health of rainforests and other species that inhabit them.” The study estimates roughly 60 percent of the world’s animals heavier than 33 pounds, or 15 kilograms, are at risk of disappearing: carnivores such as Bengal tigers and herbivores such as white rhinos and Western lowland gorillas. The experts cataloged the species in peril across six continents—all of the species across the globe that the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists as threatened with extinction. “The more I look at the trends facing the world’s largest terrestrial mammals, the more concerned I am we could lose these animals just as science is discovering how important they are to ecosystems and to the services they provide to people,” said lead author William Ripple, an ecologist at Oregon State University. The team outlined thirteen steps that could be taken to forestall the impending loss. Among them are acknowledging the scope of the problem, recruiting governments and nongovernmental organizations to stop practices that harm some of the species under threat, and finding ways to funnel the value of these megafauna into the (human) communities that live among them. In addition, big creatures could be reintroduced into areas from which they’ve been eliminated, using tested, scientifically validated approaches. sciencedaily.com, livescience.com, and bioscience.oxfordjournals.org
For most animals, adapting to climate change won’t mean evolving new ways to stay cool; it will mean moving to cooler habitats. The most commonly suggested solution to help species move is to create conservation corridors—to restore habitat in order to connect up existing natural patches. A recent study asked how many species we could save if we connected up all of the natural patches in the United States to allow free movement across inhospitable, human-impacted areas. The answer is that sometimes connecting these patches helps, and sometimes the species still cannot reach safe ground. Publishing in the June 2016 journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found the eastern states have only two percent of climate connectivity if humans don’t connect the patches. That means the species living in only two percent of the natural areas will be able to move to safer locations. By establishing corridors we can improve the rate to only 27 percent, because the East has fewer, smaller protected natural areas, and the older and lower Appalachian and Ozark Mountains do not provide cool enough destinations for many species to outrun climate change. The Southeast, which is a biodiversity hotspot with the highest diversity of amphibians in the country and home to a large diversity of plant, mammal, insect and bird species as well, should be a particular focus for corridor efforts. The western states have less human disturbance because they contain the majority of the parks and protected lands and the mountain ranges are quite cold. As a result, 51 percent of western species will be able to move to safer locations. The rate increases to 75 percent if natural lands are entirely connected. In Wyoming corridor planning that involved building tight fences along the highways and constructing highway overpasses and underpasses covered with native plants reduced wildlife-car collisions by as much as 85 percent. Jenny McGuire, a research scientist in the School of Biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said, “Armed with the knowledge of the types of places that most successfully allow species to outrun warming, we can make strategic decisions about corridor placement that will simultaneously benefit many species.” theconversation.com and pnas.org
A “cool” animated map shows escape routes for nearly 3,000 birds, mammals, and amphibians who will become US climate migrants—along with the lands that need preservation. The basis for the map, published in August by the Nature Conservancy, is a data set put together in 2013 by a group of climate scientists. In the densely populated US eastern states the map shows land animals choosing mountaintops, where they’re less likely to run into farms, towns, and cities. The western states offer more escape routes, although cool, high mountain peaks will still be the preferred path. The wiggling spirals on the map indicate high-elevation spots that could serve as refuges for species over the next century—or possibly turn into dead-end traps if the temperatures keep going up. Migratory birds are unlikely to rely on these natural corridors, but for resident birds the pathways will be important, as they tend to use interiors and avoid edges. The map shows the importance of establishing corridors enabling animals to reach safer ground—a task that land managers, urban planners, and anyone with a back yard can help to accomplish. audubon.org
For plants, seeds are the primary way to move in search of appropriate temperatures, and one study has demonstrated that the plants themselves can increase their rate of movement when they need to—by means of evolution. In normal times when plants detect advantage to moving a certain direction, they spread their seeds to advance a few feet per year. That pace won’t allow them to keep up with the expected velocity of climate change, however, and new research shows that plants can recognize and respond genetically to that challenge. A study published in July 2016 in the journal Science showed compared two populations of a small flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Within six generations the plants in the warmer-than-ideal conditions evolved the capacity to spread themselves 200 per cent farther than plants in a more hospitable place. The findings suggest that “evolution is not only a factor in movement, but that it can, in fact, accelerate the spread, and can do so predictably,” said Jennifer Williams, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia ‘s department of geography. “What our results suggest is that, with evolution, the species can move faster and faster because the traits that make them better at moving are becoming more common at the front of the invasion. In the case of our plants, in the evolving populations, their seeds can disperse a bit further.” sciencedaily.com
The mitigation effect of forests will likely be much smaller in the future than previously believed. A new study published in the journal Ecology Letters is the first to reveal the possible impact of a changing climate on the growth rate of trees. The research team, led by scientists at the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson, combined climate projections developed by the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) with historic tree-ring records based on samples covering the period 1900 to 1950 at 1,457 sampling sites across the continent. “We utilized a network of more than two million tree-ring observations spanning North America. Tree-rings provide a record into how trees that grow in different climates respond to changes in temperature and rainfall,” said co-author Brian Enquist, a professor in the UA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a fellow of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies in Aspen, Colorado. The study calls into question previous conclusions about how forests will respond to warmer average temperatures, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and shifting rainfall patterns. “In Alaska, for example, where trees have been projected to respond positively to warming temperatures under the boreal greening effect, we see that trees are now responding negatively instead,” commented senior author Margaret Evans, an assistant research professor in the UA’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research and the UA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “Trees in very high latitudes are limited by cold temperatures, so yes, in warmer years they grow more, but there is a tipping point.” Trees rapidly exposed to temperatures they have not experienced in their lifetimes and are not evolutionarily prepared for are more vulnerable to added stresses. As a result, a forest can go from being a climate asset to a carbon producer very quickly. eurekalert.org and sciencedaily.com
Wildfire risk in the Amazon for the dry season months of July to October 2016 now exceeds fire risk in 2005 and 2010. El Niño conditions in 2015 and early 2016 reduced rainfall during the wet season, leaving the region drier at the start of the 2016 dry season than any year since 2002, according to NASA satellite data. The forecast model developed in 2011 by scientists at University of California, Irvine and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is focused particularly on the link between sea surface temperatures and fire activity. Warmer sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific and Atlantic oceans shift rainfall away from the Amazon region. Data from the satellite mission shows greater soil water deficits in 2016 than previous drought years, too, and when trees have less moisture to draw upon at the beginning of the dry season, they become more vulnerable to fire. The team recently identified nine regions outside the Amazon where fire season risk can also be forecast 3-6 months ahead of peak fire activity. It may be possible to build operational seasonal fire forecasts for much of Central America and for many countries in Southeast Asia. nasa.gov
China has spent billions of dollars on the world’s largest reforestation program by converting 28 million hectares (69.2 million acres) of cropland and barren scrubland back to forest in an effort to prevent erosion and alleviate rural poverty. New research led by Princeton University and published in the journal Nature Communications finds that China’s Grain-for-Green Program overwhelmingly plants monocultures, however, and concludes that the single-species approach brings very limited biodiversity benefits and in some cases even harms wildlife. The team examined 258 publications, most in Mandarin, to determine the current tree composition within forests planted by the program. Although the program included a large number of species across China as a whole, they found that the majority of individual forests were planted with only one tree species, such as bamboo, eucalyptus, or Japanese cedar. Only three locations actually planted forest native to the area.
Next, the team conducted fieldwork in Sichuan Province in south-central China on bird and bee diversity across all seasons. Birds are sensitive to the types of trees, the overall age of the forest and the insects within the forest, and bees depend more on resources like pollen or nectar from the understory. Together the two provide a well-rounded picture of a forest’s biodiversity. In the province studied, monocultures contained fewer birds and fewer bird species than cropland, mixed forests contained more birds and bird species than the croplands, and bees suffered from reforestation monocultures due to the absence of flowers. To evaluate economic impacts of reforestation, the team interviewed 166 households and calculated the average annual cost of and income from different types of forests. Mixed forests yielded gains similar to those derived from monocultures, a result indicating mixed forests with their improved biodiversity are also economically satisfactory. The policy implication of the research would be that when reforestation results in mixed or restored native woodland, it provides multiple benefits to society, including preventing soil erosion, providing timber and sustaining wildlife. sciencedaily.com
Religion in the United States is equal to the 15th largest national economy in the world, according to a report published in September 2016 by Georgetown University in Washington, DC. “The Socioeconomic Contributions of Religion to American Society: An Empirical Analysis” estimates religious institutions have an economic worth of $1.2tn a year—more than the combined revenues of the top 10 technology companies in the United States, including Apple, Amazon and Google. The figure includes staff and overheads for more than 344,000 faith congregations; healthcare facilities, schools, daycare and charities; media; businesses with faith backgrounds; the kosher and halal food markets; and social and philanthropic programs. The report notes that more than 150 million Americans—almost half the population—are members of faith congregations, and cites an analysis by the Pew Research Centre which shows that two-thirds of highly religious adults had donated money, time or goods to the poor in the previous week, compared with 41% of adults who said they were not highly religious. As co-authors Brian Grim and Melissa Grim of the Newseum Institute in Washington conclude, “The faith sector is undoubtedly a significant component of the overall American economy, impacting and involving the lives of the majority of the US population.” The analysis did not take account of the value of financial or physical assets held by religious groups. theguardian.com