Friday, May 6, 2016

The Beetles' Invasion: A Tiny Terror for Forests

            Winter of 2015 has been one of the hottest winters on record for a significant portion of northern United States (1).  The warmer winter is likely a result of the increase in climate change caused by the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  As a result from the warm winter, beetles have not been killed from the cold and have traveled north into Canada (1, 2).  Similarly, beetles are attacking forests worldwide such as Poland, China, and Nepal (3, 4, 5).  Beetles pose a significant threat to forests due to several forests dying off causing a huge environmental impact.  Beetles are a serious threat to the forest ecology because some of them are highly invasive while others are overfeeding due to densely packed forests and warmer conditions.
            Beetles are a severe problem for forests worldwide.  Beetles feed on the resins beneath the tree’s bark, which is one of the tree’s first defenses against predators, and make distinct S-shaped patterns below (2).  If the tree senses there are invaders, the tree will activate cell death, where the beetle is burrowing, releasing a toxin (2, 5).  In the meantime, the female beetle is feasting and laying eggs beneath the bark (5).  Although the toxin is enough to kill the female beetle and her offspring, if there are large swarms of beetles, the tree is certain to die (2).  Once the tree experiences death, the eggs will hatch into the larvae and they will continue to burrow during the winter until they grow to adulthood (5).  The cycle can then begin anew and infect several other trees, effectively killing the forest.  An infestation can be called an epidemic when at least one percent of the total growing population is afflicted (5).  An epidemic can easily wipe out an entire forest destroying both homes for several animals and renewable resources for people.
            Scientists have several explanations are to what is fueling the beetle invasion. Firstly, warmer temperatures and humid conditions have contributed to the increase of beetles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).  The forest density being overcrowded is also lending for more trees to be infected (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).  Overcrowding is when there are too many trees all in a small amount of space which can allow for the transmission of disease and especially beetles to ravage the forest.  Tree health and age are other factors that allows for trees to be more susceptible (3, 4, 5).  Aside from the common explanations as noted above, “arid climate, strong winds, low rainfall, sparse vegetation” and human interference have created favorable conditions for species to survive and carry disease (4).  In addition, little attention has allowed the species to boom and quickly extinguish forests (3, 4).  A lack of natural enemies for both native and invasive species has also contributed to the tree death (5).
Mountain Pine Beetle
            Invasive species have been a significant issue for several forests.  These species choke out native species due to competition and a lack of predators.  The southern pine beetle is an invasive species that originated in southern United States (1).  Typically, the northeastern winters have kept the beetles at bay due to them not being able to survive a temperature of negative eight
degrees Fahrenheit (1, 2).  The beetles are closely related to the mountain pine beetle, which is also destroying forests in northern United States and even extending into Canada and the boreal forest (1, 2).  The mountain pine beetle is native to the United States but an invasive species for British Columbia.  The beetle is slowing gnawing its way through the forests and causing a great deal of damage to the timber industry in Canada (2). Since the 1990s, approximately 60 million acres of British Columbian forest has been destroyed by the mountain pine beetle (2).
            Not all beetles have been invasive.  In fact, a number of native species have drastically
Bird's eye view of Bialowieza Forest. 
The browned trees are attacked by beetles
increased and have been the culprit of tree death.  A primeval forest, the Bialowieza Forest, located on the border of Poland and Belarus, has been ravaged by the bark beetle which has chewed through several spruce trees affecting over 4,000 hectares (3).  Currently, people are petitioning to cut down affected trees to stop the spread of beetles, which is the worst infestation on record (3).  However, the forest is a national park barring the cutting of trees and local environmentalists are fiercely fighting against the petition (3).  There is also a beetle epidemic in China.  The Asian longhorned beetle is one of the most destructive species of beetle has destroyed 80% of poplar stands planted in the Three North region of China (4). Sadly, the life of the poplar stand was slashed to a ten year average in areas infested with the Asian longhorned beetle (4).  Finally, in Nepal, the heartwood borer has been attacking Sal trees (5).  Despite being a native species, Nepal’s forests are on the decline (5).
 There are several proposed ideas in order to remedy the beetle epidemic. Firstly, cutting down infected trees would prevent the beetles from moving to another tree.  In addition, thinning the forest will reduce the amount of spaces the beetles can spread to and less competition increase the health of the forest (3, 5). China has suggested using biopesticides to control the beetles without harming the forest and pheromones to deter the beetles from finding potential trees (3). 
Beetles are pose a serious threat to the health of forests worldwide.  The increase in temperature, humidity, and overcrowded forests created conditions for beetles to thrive.  In doing so, forests around the world are declining.  However, there are conservation possibilities to control beetles from feasting on forests.  Although there is a looming invasion for the US, efforts are being made to save the forests.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The (Monarch) Butterfly Effect
              When people hear about endangered species they usually think of elephants or pandas.  They never imagine that an insect species would potentially be listed as endangered.  Eastern monarch butterflies are quickly declining in North America and can completely disappear within the next 20 years (courant).  The belief is that this species is declining because of loss of wintering habitat, climate change, increased pesticide use and genetically modified crops (courant).  And since 1990, 970 million monarch butterflies have vanished (washingtonpost).  In fact, monarch butterflies are reaching a quasi-extinction point.  This quasi-extinction is a term used when there are potentially not enough individuals for reproduction (courant).  This species may not seem all that important, but it is an environmental indicator species that informs us about the condition of the environment (courant).  The loss of this species can mean that other species will soon be in decline, including humans (courant).  Many organizations understand the importance of this species and have contributed significant funds to conserve them.  Fish and Wildlife agency is providing $2 million to plant milkweed and raise awareness about the need for this plant (washingtonpost). They are also planting 200,000 acres of milkweed from Texas to Minnesota where 50 percent of monarchs migrate (washingtonpost). Government agencies are not the only group to donate money and effort to saving these butterflies.  A chemical company in Louisiana created a garden waystation for the monarch (washingtontimes).  This garden supplies milkweed for passing butterflies to feed on and lay their eggs on (washingtontimes).  It is also certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation (washingtontimes).  Nonprofit organizations want to see success in saving the monarch butterfly as well.  A lawsuit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Food Safety against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for not following the Endangered Species Act (biologicaldiversity).  This lawsuit will force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a final decision regarding the protection status with the monarch butterfly (biologicaldiversity).  Monarch butterflies are not the only insects that need attention and assistance.  Recently, the rusty-patched bumblebee was considered to be put on the endangered species list (takepart).  Its populations have decreased by 95% and will continue to decline unless action is taken immediately (takepart).  Honeybees pollinate a third of the world’s food supply which is why it is so vital to protect these organisms (takepart).  The same things that are affecting monarch butterflies (pesticide use, habitat loss, etc.) are also affecting these honeybees (takepart).
As monarch butterfly and honeybee populations continue to decline, we are losing more of the world’s food supply.  Action needs to be taken now or the impacts will be detrimental with the loss of these species.


Monday, May 2, 2016

World Wide Water Quality Issues

There is a worldwide issue about water quality in potential drinking water resources increasing at an outstanding rate. About 1 billion people lack access to a safe drinking-water supply and about 2 million deaths annually attribute to unsafe water, sanitation, and hygiene according to WHO World Water Day 2010. The most affected countries are usually those in Africa and the Middle East (i.e. Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Chad, Cambodia, Laos, Haiti, Ghana, India, Rwanda, and Bangladesh) who are in dire need of clean water.

One major issue in the United States is the Flint Water Crisis in Michigan where the city of Flint switched their water resource from Detroit’s system of procuring water from Lake Huron to the Flint River in order to save money. The plan backfired as the water from the river was corrosive which lead to the contamination of lead into the supply and created a serious public health danger. There were tests on drinking water at various homes in Flint which showed extremely high levels of lead from 104 to 397 parts per billion via NY Times
The lead could potentially spread and expose people to Legionnaires’ disease (respiratory disease caused by Legionella bacteria which infects the lungs possibly causing pneumonia, shortness of breath, cough, muscle aches, and diarrhea). Water out of faucets came out in an orange color due to the erosion of the iron pipes. With the population in Flint about 100,000 civilians, millions of bottles of water needs to be shipped in in order for citizens to have clean drinking water for the time being. This also creates another environmental issue with the amount of empty water bottles and what to do with them (MLive).

Situations like the evaporating of Bolivia’s second largest lake, Lake Poopo, can force the government to change water resources like Flint, Michigan’s government did. The drying up of lakes does not only affect humans but also wildlife as well. With the water level being down to 2% of its former water level, field biologists say that about 75 species of birds have disappeared from the lake. 
The carcass of a bird on the dried ground of lake PoopĆ³.
The carcass of a bird on the dried ground of lake PoopĆ³.
 Photograph: David Mercado/Reuters

Hypotheses on why this could have happened are: increased water temperature, wind speed, and the amount of moisture in the air; but regardless of the reason, people’s livelihood have been affected from their use of the lake (The Guardian). The quantity of water relates directly to water quality because if a resource is used up, another has to be found to replace it and that new water resource may or may not be clean or purified enough to drink and utilize.

In Delhi, India about 70% of water in the capital is unfit to drink. The water is contaminated with sewage water and is very harmful to health. The population of Delhi is over 18 million people, which in terms of water quality is a major issue due to the extremely high population and the extremely high contamination percentage in the water. (India Today)

The amount of available drinkable water is one thing, the quality of that drinkable water is a major issue that the world will have to deal with in the near future as we try to not deplete our water supplies.

The ocean isn't an all-you-can-eat buffet

It is all the hype that eating seafood is healthier for you, but could our desire for it actually be harmful to the oceans and us?  
Not only do 3 billion people around the world rely on fish to provide them with protein, but 10-12 percent of the global population is supported by the aquaculture and fishing industry (Hance). In the Pacific Islands alone, 50 to 90 percent of their protein is sourced from fish (O’Gorman). Clearly, the seafood industry is a staple in the livelihoods of many inhabitants across the globe and with the global seafood demand expecting to grow to 50 million tons by the year 2025, the conditions of the ocean need to be addressed (O’Gorman).
In 2015, the Living Blue Planet released a report with shocking results showing that between 1970 and 2012 the marine populations of fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals have declined by 49 percent (Marshall). Do you like bonito, tuna, or mackerel? Well, their populations have seen a decline of 74 percent between 1970 and 2012 (Marshall). Many factors can be attributed to these declines. Climate change is warming the oceans and causing habitat loss due to acidification and plastic pollution is finding its way into marine animal systems (Marshall). The most detrimental factor leading to these declines though is that of overfishing and illegal fishing. According to Wyatt Marshall of The Vice, around 29 percent of the fisheries across the oceans are overfished, 61 percent of the fisheries have been completely exhausted, and 12 to 28 percent, or $23 billion worth, of the global fish catch is attributed to illegal fishing (Marshall).  
The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) collects fish catch data from nation’s across the globe annually, but doesn’t include data from sport fishing, illegal fishing, or bycatch (Carrington). New studies have shown that the FAO’s numbers are far from what they should be due to this exclusion of data (Carrington).  Damian Carrington of The Guardian says that new studies show that the amount of fish catches are decreasing globally at rates three times more than what FAO’s research provides (Carrington). At the fore front this sounds like people are fishing less, creating a decline in fish catches per year, but Professor Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia assures that this decline is caused by countries overfishing and exploiting their fisheries (Carrington). Professor Callum Roberts of the University of York (United Kingdom) suggests that overfishing and fishery exploitation by large fishing industries is having a detrimental effect on developing countries whose people rely on fish for their nutritional and financial livelihoods (Carrington).
Not only are the oceans being depleted of fish and other marine animals, but much of the seafood caught is being wasted. Each year the United States catches 4.7 billion pounds of seafood and an astounding 44 percent, or 2.3 billion pounds, of that seafood is wasted (Kessier). If those numbers don’t mean much to you, take into consideration that those 2.3 billion pounds that are wasted each year could actually provide 12 million women or 10 million men with the protein that they need each year (Kessier). If we break down that 2.3 billion pounds of waste by culprit we find that 51 to 63 percent is wasted by people throwing away unfinished or old seafood items, 16 to 32 percent is wasted as bycatch, and 13 to 16 percent is wasted when unwanted portions are thrown out during distribution and retail operations (Kessier).
As marine animal numbers decline and seafood demand increases, the outlook for the ocean doesn’t seem too bright. A variety of measures can be taken to help reduce the decline of fish and other marine animals in the oceans as well as reduce the amount of seafood wasted. Establishing areas of the ocean as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), improving marine management, and encouraging sustainable aquaculture and fishing industries are a few of the solutions to the loss of marine animals (Hance). Some of the measures to reduce waste include encouraging the consumption of parts that are not commonly eaten on a fish and implementing programs to reduce bycatch (Kessier). The ocean is a significant resource for humans, providing food and contributing to our livelihoods, but if we just dive in and take whatever we want without considering the consequences, we may find ourselves in a world of trouble.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Was fog in the forecast today? Smog and Solutions

            Smog is a hot-button topic for several countries around the globe as the world continues to burn fossil fuel.  There are reports of dangerous smog occurring in France, Indonesia, and most recently China to name a few.  The term “smog” was first coined in 1905 by Dr. Henry Antoine Des Voeux by combining the words “smoke” and “fog” to describe the hazardous haze (3).  Normally, the acceptable level of air pollutants, including smog, is around 25 to 30 micrograms before it becomes dangerous (1).  Likewise, based on the air quality index, anything over 200 is considered to be unhealthy (4).  Both Delhi and Beijing have violated the acceptable level of air pollutants with numbers exceeding 300 micrograms of smog and Indonesia has a number of 983 on the air quality index (1, 4).  As a part of the Global Burden of Disease Project, scientists say more than 5.5 million people worldwide are dying prematurely per year due to the smog (1).  Breathing in the smog at unsafe levels can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, cancers, and respiratory irritation (1).  Smog causes severe and lasting effects on the ecosystem but can also cause drastic economic losses due to countries having to shut down production to prevent people from being exposed (2, 3). The elderly as well as children are the most vulnerable to the smog’s often deadly effects (1).
There are several case studies to examine where the smog has gotten out of control. In Indonesia, plantations have farmed over peatland and when the farmland is dried out, it is burned for the next planting season which is outlawed by the government (4).  However, plantation owners who part-took in it this season caused a thick haze that spread across Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia (4).  The haze is augmented by this year’s El Nino which has created drier conditions for the fires to continue to burn (4).  In Paris, smog has affected the quality of air. A prediction was made by air quality control monitors that the smog would reach unsafe levels in March of 2015 (5). In China, there was a week-long epidemic of smog which shut down the country due to unsafe levels in 2013 in Beijing (3). In 2015, China issued its first “red alert” because the air quality index was 308 (2). Due to the alert, schools, businesses, and factories were shut down and motorists were forced off the roads to wait for the smog to clear (2).  China has among the world’s worst air due to the perpetual burning of coal from the industry (2).
Comparison of a smoggy and clear day in Beijing, China 
More can be done but these countries in each case study have been putting forth effort to clean up their act.  In Indonesia, personnel worked tirelessly to put out the flames by dropping water over the inferno and coercing rainfall by using chemicals (4).  In addition, seven executives of plantation companies were arrested for starting fires and face a fine of roughly $700,000 and up to ten years jail time (4). In France, drivers were temporarily banned from the roads, barring emergency vehicles and electric cars (5).  Furthermore, all public transportation was free for the period in curb the possible air pollution (5).  Although precautionary, France has been actively trying to combat the on-going smog by discouraging motorists.  China is beginning to battle smog after issuing a red alert unlike earlier in the year when an orange alert, meaning limited exposure to the outdoors, was issued (2). China’s code system, which is a part of their plan to reduce the smog, was strengthened in 2013 to hopefully gain a grasp on the situation (2). 

The research article by Shi, et al, 2016, offered some options for the world to decrease smog.  Firstly, monitoring the air and scientific research are invaluable to assess the problem (3).  Next would be creating and implementing policies, similar to Indonesia and China, and then evaluating if the policies are aiding (3).  The authors also suggested economic incentives such as carbon taxes or tax breaks for clean energy and educating the public to lessen emissions (3).  Finally, advancements in a cleaner technology should be implemented as well as change societal norms through less consumption of conventional livestock and greener celebrations (3). There is support from people globally for more aggressive policies to prevent the smog from worsening (1, 5).  Despite this, people globally need to change their attitude towards smog to correct it.  Education is needed and incentives would easily complement the cause.  The “airpocalype” can be stopped only if everyone pitches in and reduce emissions (2).

The Lengthening of the Wildfire Season due to Climate Change

The last couple of year’s wildfires have made more appearances in the news with their frequency and magnitude of devastation.  A wildfire is defined as an uncontrolled, quickly spreading fire in an area of combustible vegetation that is unwanted or unplanned. A wildfire season is when wildfires are more likely to occur, which is usually from the spring when the snow melts until full foliage is present. Thirty-five Years of meteorological data has recently been published and confirms a lengthening in the season of wildfires (NASA, 2015). The study observed four variables that affect the length of fire seasons temperature, humidity, precipitation, and wind speed. A combination of high temperatures, low humidity, rainless days, and high winds make wildfires more likely to spread and lengthens fire seasons (NASA, 2015). Research found that fire seasons in parts of the western United States and Mexico, Brazil, and East Africa face wildfire seasons more than a month longer than they were 35 years earlier.

Figure 1.1 Changes in Fire Season Length 1979-2013 (NASA)

The overall 18.7% length increase worldwide is attributed to more rain-free days and hotter temperatures (Cochrane, 2015). The longer season in The United States is attributed to changes in the timing of snowmelt, vapor pressure, and the timing of spring rain, which all are linked to global warming and climate change. Not only are seasons becoming longer but it was found that they are becoming more frequent regardless of length.

Figure 1.2 Changes in Frequency of Long Fire Seasons 1979-2013 (NASA)

The researchers found that the number of rain-free days has increased by 1.31 days per decade. The average temperature on vegetated land increased by 0.185 degrees per decade, while the annual relative humidity dropped by 0.127 percent per decade. Conversely, the mean annual precipitation worldwide is the same, according to Cochrane. "It's still the same amount of rainfall, just concentrated in fewer days." This means more dry days when conditions are agreeable to burning (Cochrane, 2015).
Increased wildfire seasons lead to more destruction of not only woodlands and other habitats but in property and the relocations of people’s lives. This all leads to substantial investments in fire suppression by the government (CNBC, 2015). Since 2000 the US Forest Service has doubled its spending from 540 million dollars to 1.7 billion dollars (Goldenburg, 2013).  To feed this needed fund to suppress fires the US government is pulling funding from other Forest Service areas to compensate, in turn leaving these other groups short on funds. The Deferred Maintenance and Infrastructure Improvement program is projected to lose 95% of its budget, Roads 46%, Facilities 68%, and other such areas as recreation, and habitat management (USDA Forest Services, 2015). 

As the wildfires burn they add more CO2 into the atmosphere contributing to the global warming which is enabling these fires to occur. Future outlooks show a somewhat cyclic effect of increased funds needed to fight increased fires which are increasing preferable conditions for future wildfires. Currently the only ways to limit the potential damage is public education on potential fire starters, cheaper more effective fire retardants, and a better allocation of funds.