Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Changing World with the Changing Climate: Part I

            Climate change has become a popular discussion topic in the news over the past ten years. While it was initially a controversial topic, there is very little controversy today that climate change is indeed happening. This is the first of three parts that will explain how the changing climate is affecting life on Earth. Each section will focus on a different “sphere” of the Earth, and this first section will focus mainly on atmosphere.

                                             (Emily Gertz, NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center)

            Scientists have observed that the temperatures have been rising which is now being linked to the changes in weather through a pretty simple process. Richard Houghton states that as “the climate gets warmer, you put more moisture into the atmosphere, and it just gets a little more violent...There’s a lot more energy around… that comes out in unexpected ways, generally not to the betterment of gardens and forests and so on.” The rise in energy in the atmosphere not only causes more extreme weather but also influences other climate changes such as El Niño. El Niño is an irregular climate pattern that brings warm waters to a normally cold Pacific current. The pattern only happens once every few years, but the rising temperatures could cause El Niño occurrences to double over the next 100 years. This pattern typically causes intense rains in the Pacific, which is not healthy for an area that has been experiencing drought. When an area has been experiencing drought and receives very heavy rainfall, the area can experience runoff and floods much quicker due to lack of saturation in the ground. In 2013, California’s rains were not only intense but also brief. California had its driest year and its 12th warmest year on record. 
              Many scientists do not believe that these record breaking years will stop anytime soon. The California drought has been occurring due to the melting Arctic Circle. Michael Mann states that “’given the very large reductions of Arctic sea ice, and the heat escaping from the Arctic ocean into the overlying atmosphere, it would be surprising if the retreat in Arctic sea ice did *not* modify the large-scale circulation of the atmosphere in some way.’” Therefore, the loss in Arctic sea ice is a cause in a weather pattern shift that is now causing droughts in California. If the doubling of El Niño events is added to this equation then the west coast may have some future flooding disasters in its future. This list of cause and effects keeps tracing back to the rising temperatures, the cause of the melting Arctic sea ice. The big problem is the rising air temperatures are not scheduled to slow down anytime soon. Climate models predict temperatures in the 22nd century show that the global temperature may be 10°C higher in 2100! Therefore, if rising temperatures are indeed the main cause for climate change then people around the world need to come together to try to reverse this trend; otherwise, by the year 2100, the landscape of the world may look a little different than how it looks today.
            The topic that is still in high debate is what or who is causing the rising temperatures, and although the question remains unanswered, there is more proof that the climate is changing as the temperatures rise. The main source of the debate is the human influence. There is very little doubt that humans are indeed influencing the climate change, and the only way to find out the degree of the human influence is to start changing our habits, but I will dig into that more in my second section of this three-part blog!
            As the climate changes, it alters the weather patterns, and the rising temperatures provide more energy that causes stronger weather to occur. This is how the atmosphere has been changing due to climate change. The next two sections of this three-part blog will observe two other “spheres:” the biosphere (humans and animals) and the lithosphere/hydrosphere (land and oceans).

Friday, February 21, 2014

Hydraulic Fracking and the Environment

Hydraulic fracking or “fracking” as it is more commonly known is on the rise throughout not only America but the world.  This process is a method used for the extraction of oil by use of drilling and injecting a fluid into deep underground shale formations to build up pressure to eject the petroleum product out.  This process has shown great promise in extracting this hard to reach oil, though the environmental impacts are hard to miss.  

The main concern and interest to many environmentalist is if the oil or fracking waste water would contaminate the available underground drinking water.  The wells are drilled anywhere from 1000 to 4000 feet deep and even be drilled horizontally extracting as much oil as possible.  The problem of concern to many is leaky wells that could potentially contaminate thousands of gallons of viable water.  Though precautions are made such as lining the wells with steel pipe as well concrete, skeptics argue that the ever-changing earth crust could crack the lining.  Recent evidence has supported that groundwater contamination is prevalent in areas around these fracked wells.  In Pennsylvania, a Duke University chemical engineer by the name of Robert Jackson has found methane contamination in 115 out of 141 residential drinking water wells (Fischetti, 2013). Homes farther than a mile away show six times less contamination than homes closer to the fracked wells showing very strong evidence of the water supply being contaminated. 
Not only are skeptics worried about the water supply but also evidence in the correlation of fracking in the U.S. with that of the ever-increasing earthquakes being recorded.  Nearly 450 earthquakes magnitude 3.0 and larger occurred in the four years from 2010-2013, over 100 per year on average, compared with an average rate of 20 earthquakes per year observed from 1970-2000 (Ellsworth, Robertson, Hook, 2014).  This increasing seismic activity though is disputed since there is no way to directly correlate between the earthquakes and fracking as it could potentially just be a natural occurrence.  Earthquakes may or may not be caused by the fracking but the large amount of wastewater produced from the wells are confirmed and acknowledged.  The EPA is now getting involved and regulating the water going in and out of the fracking wells, citing that disposal of the wastewater at municipal wastewater facilities are not capable of proper disposal.  Much dispute has been placed over this idea due to the new legislation is “killing” jobs, which to some is put above the environment.  The ever debate of the economy against the EPA shows up at these fracking wells as well as in congress.
Now the practice and politics of fracking is spreading throughout the world and Australia is taking on the problem first hand.  Australia is known to be a huge reservoir for these natural oil rich shale formations, though water on the other hand is not so rich and protected.  Australian experts have noted that it the practice is safe but officials are turning to America to look what it has done to our society. 
Fracking in general, as seen has created many jobs and rich amounts of oil, but in all the practice may be harming our environment.  In what respect are we going to sacrifice our valuable drinking water for oil.  In my opinion I would prefer a nice drink of water rather than a gallon of oil.  The research is not strong enough yet to confirm or deny the science behind fracking, though the question of if we are willing to put something as valuable as our own drinking water at risk is question we should all ask ourselves.  

Loss of Biodiversity due to Human Population Growth

A growing concern for many environmentalists is the increased risk for threatened/endangered species to become extinct due to human population growth and density. As the world population continues to exponentially increase, more and more pressures are being exerted on our natural environment. With more people in the world, more land is needed to feed, house, and provide energy for them. As these basic human needs increase, ecosystems and habitats worldwide are taking a hit. Population growth rates are especially high in developing countries such as Africa and Northern regions of SouthAmerica. In these areas, ecosystems that once flourished are now being turned into agricultural lands in order to feed the mouths of a growing population. In these areas of the world that are quickly developing, many species are becoming threatened and/or endangered.

As the world gains more knowledge on the effects of population growth, conservation efforts are struggling to keep up. Although the amount of protected land worldwide has increased, we are still seeing a decline in overall species diversity. This is because human population growth causes more problems than just taking up space. Along with this exponential growth comes over-exploitation, pollution, invasive species, and climate change. These issues only cause the loss of species diversity to increase at alarming rates. The Millennium Development Goals aim to one day not only stop increasing extinction rates, but also reverse them. The goals for 2010 were not met, sadly, but new goals remain in effect for 2015.

                             An extinct Western Black Rhino, last seen 2006

Human life is nevertheless linked with species diversity and if we do not make efforts to halt our negative impacts, we too might face extinction. More specifically, it is birds and mammals that will feel our impact first due to reasons such as overuse of resources, fragmented habitats, and habitat destruction. 1 out of 8 bird species are threatened to extinction along with 1 out of 4 mammal species. This loss of diversity will not only affect the ecosystems they inhabit, but also human life. It is very dangerous to mess with food chains within ecosystems as everything is linked and if one species disappears, this could have large negative impacts on the remaining species in that ecosystem.

As nations continue to grow, there is an estimated 10.8% increase in species threatened to extinction by 2050. This number will only continue to rise if conservation efforts are not taken seriously. Even with conservation efforts, if human population is not kept in check, species diversity will continue to decrease. As most countries continue to increase in population size, a handful are moving in the opposite direction. Some 21 countries showing a decrease in population growth will begin to see a decrease in species threatened. We can only hope to follow in these countries’ footsteps and put a cap on population growth in order to protect the environment we came from.

Not only does increasing population growth and density negatively affect flora and fauna, but life expectancy does too. This would be considered an indirect effect on the loss of species diversity. As quality of life increases, we use more resources, which we obtain from the natural environment. Quality of life and life expectancy can be directly correlated in this instance. A longer human lifespan means more time spent on the planet and therefore a larger carbon/ecological footprint, which directly affects/harms our ecosystems.

One way to help our ecosystem is to cut back on the number of children born. This means that countries whose populations are increasing at alarming rates need to implement family planning systems that make obtaining contraceptives easy. By educating and empowering women, they will better be able to determine if the time is right for childbearing. Reducing our population growth rate is the main step in attempting to conserve our natural environment. By doing so, many other problems caused by population growth/density will start to alleviate, such as pollution, deforestation, over-exploitation, and climate change. When we start to learn of our impact on the environment, the solution to help fix it seems very simple.         

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What is the deal with GMOs?

These individuals are holding signs supporting
GMOs.  The one reads "I love Monsanto."

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants and animals that have had their genetic makeup altered.  This is typically done by adding various genes, from bacteria, viruses, or other animals/plants.  Consumers have very strong opinions about these products.  Still, there is minimal evidence available,
regarding the effects GMOs.

 It is important to know whether these products are good or bad.  By this I mean understanding how they impact the environment, wildlife and humans.  However, much of the information found about GMOs tends to be opinionated or biased; it usually stems from personal feelings. 

I did find one article that provides a “level-headed assessment of the evidence.”  Furthermore, within this piece, there is information about the effects of genetic modifications on human health, the environment and economy.  Yet, after reading all of the material, it is still difficult to make a firm decision of whether GMOs are completely good or bad.

            Another article I read offered beneficial and unfavorable support from GMO studies.  One risk of these crops is the potential of cross-pollination with non-GM plants.  This is detrimental because some consumers (such as China or other large scale patrons) do not want certain genes within their products.  Wheat farmers are especially worrisome of the possibility of cross-pollination because wheat is now (and since 2005) a non-genetically modified crop.  If a wheat field becomes contaminated, there is a possibility for that farmer to lose profit.

On the other hand, the GM crops are beneficial due to their “biologically insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant” and nutritious characteristics.  
Golden Rice is an instance in which the valuable properties of GMOs can be observed.  Scientists at the International Rice Institute say that their combination of rice, corn and bacteria is beneficial because it contains a large amount of Vitamin A.  This vitamin is essential for vision and has been deficient in the past among many third world countries.  Golden Rice is also considered advantageous because it is composed mostly of rice, which is consumed by at least half of the world’s population.
About eighty percent of the world is currently using genetically modified organisms.  Many locations, such as Asia, Europe, the U.S., Honduras allow for food alterations.  Honduras is the only country of Central America using GMOs, mostly due to the food crisis.  The rest of the region continues to grow conventional crops.  In the area near Uganda, only four countries allow the use of genetically modified crops: Egypt, Sudan, Burkina and South Africa.  There are other countries that completely ban the changing of genes.
Overall, genetically modified organisms are either completely accepted or rejected.  I personally prefer the non-GM products.  This is because I believe that there are more cons than pros, such as the potential harmful effects within humans (allergens) and the environmental damage (the recent decline of milkweed and monarchs).

There is some good news.  Even though, GMO labeling is not required in the United States, there is a way to avoid altered food: buying organic.  According to the Organic Foods Production Act, certified organic foods are only allowed to be GMO-free.
One concern with determining GMO-free foods is confusing organic with natural foods.  If you prefer food which has not been altered, then it is best to stick with organic options. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Blast Fishing

             Blast fishing is categorized into two main techniques of fishing, cyanide and dynamite fishing. Both of these techniques destroy the tropical aquatic ecosystems that are not easily renewable. Blast fishing destroys much of the coral reefs either by bleaching or by brute force. By destroying the habitat, it decreases the diversity of populations in the ecosystem. 98% of the Philippines’ reefs are being seriously threatened by human activity today, but blast fishing remains a top technique for fishing in the region.
Text Box: Dynamite Fishing in Tanzania

Dynamite fishing, as shown in the picture to the right, can be a very dangerous fishing technique. It can cause many accidents including loss of limbs to the fisherman. Coral degradation through destructive fishing practices states that dynamite alone is not the only thing used in blast fishing. Fisherman also use homemade bombs, potassium nitrate, gasoline, fertilizer, and sugar. Fisherman will throw lit dynamite into the open waters where fish live. This shocks the fish to where they float making it easier for the fisherman to collect the stunned fish. Dynamite fishing is inexpensive and effective. The bombs cost on average 1-2 U.S. dollars and they receive between 15 and 40 dollars for the fish collected. Blast fishing can destroy 10-20 square meters and large craters. In the Philippines, blast fishing is a widely used fishing technique.

                Cyanide fishing destroys thousands of hectares of essential coral reef habitats each year. Cyanide fishing is the process of crushing a cyanide tablet into a squirt bottle and squirting the solution into the water surrounding a fish. The fish becomes stunned from the poison to make it easier to capture. This allows the fish to be sold on the market alive. The market for live fish trade is booming, making hundreds of million each year. 50-60% of the trade fish from the Philippines and Indonesia are captured by cyanide fishing. Also 25% of aquarium fish are caught by cyanide and also 44% of tropical fish used for human consumption tested positive for cyanide.

                Fishing with cyanide may be great for the market but it is not good for the ecosystem. 330,000 pounds of cyanide are put into the Philippine reefs every year. This technique bleaches the corals and also effects other organisms in the environment. The recovery of corals from blast fishing is several hundred years, making this technique unsustainable.  There are laws against cyanide fishing but 14% of reefs continue to be destroyed each year in the Philippines.

Ways to prevent cyanide fishing include teaching the fisherman alternative methods of fishing and enforcing the laws more strictly,  promoting coral reef habitats by tourism, and also not buying tropical aquatic fish that have been caught by cyanide. Not ordering live tropical fish from restaurants helps lower the demand for cyanide fishing. Cyanide can be tested in fish but it is not tested often. Testing more frequently would help to catch the fisherman using this technique and fine them so they are less likely to use cyanide fishing again. To help preserve the reefs and ecosystem diversity, set up private areas where fish farms and coral can grow without the immediate danger of blast fishing.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Plight of the Monarch Butterfly

A monarch butterfly feeding milkweed at one of the 7,450 Monarch Watch way
stations spread along migratory routes.

The monarch migration is the largest insect migration in the world.  Every year, millions of monarch butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to the Oyael fir forests in central Mexico to overwinter.  This year is different: monarch populations have plummeted.  Monarch butterfly colonies in Mexico are now covering only .67 hectares of forest, and the population is down by almost 44% from last year’s record low of 1.19 hectares.  There are approximately 50 million butterflies per hectare, so this year Mexico could be down to about 30 million total butterflies. The monarch population has been declining for the past 15 years, by as much as 81% between 1999 and 2010, and a recent study indicates that the long-term survival of the species may be in doubt. 

The total annual area occupied by overwintering monarch butterflies from 1994 through 2014 has declined significantly. The all-time smallest area was reported during the 2013–2014 overwintering season.

Life History
      The monarchs begin their migration in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, where they feed on milkweed until metamorphosing into adults.  The migration involves a unique genetic directional imprint that is still not understood by scientists.  At the Rocky Mountains, the monarchs divide into eastern and western migratory populations.  The eastern group overwinters in Mexico, while the western group overwinters in California.  In March, before beginning their journey back, the males die.  The females travel north, each only living for a couple hundred miles, and their final task is to lay their eggs on milkweed.  The trip back north involves four generations of adult butterflies; each feeds on flowers throughout their trip before breeding and dying.  The monarch that returns to California or Mexico the following year is actually five generations removed from their last ancestor that wintered there.    

Why are the monarchs disappearing?
There are three major factors involved in the butterfly decline: severe weather, deforestation in Mexico, and most importantly, the growth of herbicide-based agriculture, which destroys milkweed. 
Milkweed is the only food of the monarch caterpillar, so if milkweed disappears, then it only makes sense that the monarchs will too.  According to the director of Monarch Watch, an organization that monitors U.S. populations, we’ve lost approximately 100 million acres of monarch habitat due to corn and soybean fields since 2000, while millions more are being lost to development.  These fields of crops are genetically modified to resist herbicides.  When the fields are sprayed with herbicides, the milkweed present in the fields is killed.  It’s been estimated that 60% of milkweed has been eliminated from the grassland ecosystem.  Herbicides also kill wildflowers, the monarchs’ source of nectar.  The nectar is essential to build up fat that the monarchs need for their migration. 
 In addition to herbicides and genetically modified crops, severe weather plays a role in the declining monarch populations.  The cold spring in 2013 held up the migration last year, which affected the monarchs breeding schedule.  Also, in 2002, the overwintering grounds in Mexico had the worst storm ever recorded.  It was estimated that approximately 75% of the monarch population was killed that year due to freezing rain and snow. In Texas, in 2012, there was a major drought.  Texas is along the path of migration, and the monarchs need to feed on nectar during their journey.  The drought caused an insufficient supply of nectar due to the death of wildflowers, and an insufficient supply of nectar can’t support the monarchs while they over winter.
Deforestation and illegal logging in the monarchs overwintering site in Mexico was a major threat to the Monarch, and aided in their decline.  The logging leads to a deterioration of the forest.  In 2007 the Mexican government began to enforce the laws and provide economic alternatives to communities.    
Other threats to the monarch include the misguided attempt at planting the wrong variety of milkweed, which could assist in the decline of monarchs.  People are planting a species of tropical milkweed, which doesn’t die during the winter.  This would allow the monarch to have year-around food and have no need for migration.  Also, the monarchs are susceptible to a deadly parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirra, due to staying in one place for many generations.  This disease spreads when the infected butterflies drop spores on milkweed plants, which are eaten by caterpillars. 

Conservation Efforts: A Brighter Future?
A major project was taken on by Monarch Watch in hopes to increase the monarchs’ numbers.  Nearly 7,450 “way stations,” milkweed-rich areas, have been planted along migration routes on the East and West Coasts to increase feeding and breeding spots. At the University of Minnesota, a coalition of nonprofits and government agencies called Monarch Joint Venture is funding research and conservation efforts.  Other ideas are on the table, such as to push for federal legislation to stop state highway departments from mowing roadsides and to plant wildflowers and milkweed in those areas.
Although the butterflies in Mexico are the same species as the butterflies in California, California has seen an increase in wintering butterflies over the past five years.  According to experts, this increase is a result of conservation efforts.  With conservation efforts in place, there is hope for the monarch.