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Talking Points

Local News from All Over

Temperature Gauge

Climate Trauma

That climate change is affecting the environment and our physical well-being is common knowledge by now, but it now appears that global warming is also taking a significant toll on our mental health.

photo of people embracing, storm and flood damage evidentphoto Staff Sgt. James L. Harper JrAn emergency response officer and a Texas resident hug in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in Texas in 2008. New research suggests that climate change can lead to mental health issues, including trauma and shock following extreme weather events.

According to a new report by the American Psychological Association and the nonprofit ecoAmerica, climate change can lead to various mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.

These impacts can come immediately following extreme weather events or other natural disasters tied to climate change – such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – in the form of trauma and shock due to personal injuries, loss of a loved one, damage to or loss of personal property, or the loss of livelihood, the report says. Terror, anger, shock, and other intense negative emotions that can dominate people’s initial response may eventually subside, only to be replaced by post-traumatic stress disorder.

The researchers, who based their findings on a meta-analysis of data from dozens of previous studies on mental health and climate change, noted that among a sample of people living in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, suicide and thoughts of suicide more than doubled after the storm. Additionally, one in six people met the diagnostic criteria for ptsd, and 49 percent developed an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression.

The study found that impacts can also develop gradually as temperatures and sea levels rise over the course of decades, affecting agriculture, infrastructure, and livability, which in turn affect occupations and quality of life, and can force people to migrate. These effects may lead to loss of social support structures, loss of a sense of control and autonomy, as well as other mental health impacts such as feelings of helplessness, fear, and fatalism.

High levels of stress and anxiety are also linked to physical health effects, such as a weakened immune system. Global warming’s impacts can even cause stress that builds over time and eventually leads to substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and depression.

Both acute and long-term climate changes have been shown to elevate hostility and aggression between individuals and groups, the report says. Certain disadvantaged communities, such as Indigenous communities, children, and communities dependent on the natural environment can experience disproportionate mental health impacts.

“It all sounds quite drastic, but it’s not inevitable,” says Susan Clayton, one of the authors of the report. The key to combating these impacts, the researchers say, is building resilience. This includes expanding infrastructure for mental health programs in vulnerable communities and better preparing first responders to address mental health issues in the wake of a disaster.

“Individuals’ personal capacity to withstand trauma is increased when they are connected to their networks off- and online,” the report notes.

Table Talk

Cutting Carbon

A little less orange juice in the morning. A bit less milk with your cereal. A smaller portion of beef with dinner. It seems there are a few simple diet tricks that can – and have – significantly reduced the dietary carbon footprint of the average American.

According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), reduced consumption of everything from whole milk, to chicken, to canned tomatoes helped contribute to a 10 percent decline in the average American’s dietary carbon footprint between 2005 and 2014. Reduced demand for other products like frozen potatoes, pork, and high fructose corn syrup made a dent in emissions too. But there was one clear standout when it came to greenhouse gas emissions reductions: a 19 percent drop in beef consumption.

“Whether we realized it or not, Americans have been fighting climate change with their forks,” Sujatha Jahagirdar, a policy specialist with the NRDC’s Food and Agriculture Program, said in a statement. “As a nation, we have been increasingly eating less beef – a trend that’s not just better for our health, but the health of the planet.”

In total, diet-related changes helped Americans eliminate some 271 million metric tons (MMT) of greenhouse gas emissions between 2005 and 2014, equivalent to the annual tailpipe emissions of 57 million cars. Beef accounted for 185 MMT of avoided climate-warming pollution.

Of course, there’s still room for improvement. Americans continue to eat more beef and veal than most of the world, and while consumption of red meat may have declined over the past decade, appetite for carbon intensive diary products like cheese, yogurt, and butter increased over the same period.

The fight against global warming requires all hands on deck, and it seems each of us can do our small part by embracing a low-carbon diet.

Call of the Wild

A Laughing Matter

It’s no news flash that laughter is infectious. Anyone who’s collapsed in a fit of helpless giggles with a group of friends or family members can vouch for that. But among birds too?

It appears, kea parrots of New Zealand can trigger a playful mood among their cohort in a similar way to us humans.

Scientists from Austria’s Messerli Research Institute have discovered that the world’s only alpine parrots can make each other “laugh.” The parrots, they report in Current Biology, have a distinct “play call” that puts other parrots who hear it in a playful mood.

“We were able to use a playback of these calls to show that it animates kea that were not playing to do so,” says Raoul Schwing, who led the research team.

photo of a birdphoto Pixabay.comNew Zealand’s kea parrots have a special call that puts other parrots in a playful mood, much as laughter does among humans.

The researchers also found that upon hearing the play call, rather than joining birds already engaged in play, many kea started new games with other “non-playing birds” or started playing by themselves with an object, or performing aerial acrobatics. “These instances suggest that kea weren’t ‘invited’ to play, but this specific call induced playfulness, supporting the hypothesis that play vocalizations can act as a positive emotional contagion,” the researchers write. The scientists compared the kea play calls to a form of infectious laughter.

“The fact that at least some of these birds started playing spontaneously when no other birds had been playing suggests that, similar to human laughter, it had an emotional effect on the birds that heard it, putting them in a playful state.”

The parrots are the first non-mammals known to exhibit this “emotionally contagious” social phenomenon. Earlier studies had made similar findings for chimpanzees and rats.

The researchers now plan to explore the effects of play and play calls on kea social groups more generally. For the rest of us, the findings come as an intriguing reminder. As Schwing points out: “If animals can laugh, we are not so different from them.”

Safe to Swim

Thousands of shark-obsessed scuba divers flock to shark habitat hotspots across the world every year hoping to get face-to-face with these giant fish. Viewing options abound. There’s cage diving with white sharks in South Africa and Guadeloupe Island; shark feeding in the Bahamas, Mexico, and Fiji; swimming with massive whale sharks in the Philippines; diving with huge schools of hammerheads in Cocos Island and the Galapagos, and more.

photo of SCUBA divers underwater, with sharks swimming close byphoto Dan TheurerNew research indicates that human-shark interaction can occur without having long-term impacts on the sharks.

While it’s been difficult to gauge how sharks feel about this unsolicited attention, several studies in the past have shown that sharks more commonly swim away from people than toward them. And though it’s been unclear whether this translates into long-term effects on the fish – as in whether sharks steer clear of sites frequented by divers and if it affects their foraging and social behavior patterns – the general assumption by conservationists has been that it doesn’t help.

However, in a win of sorts for the multimillion dollar swim-with-sharks industry, new research shows that shark-watching tourism doesn’t necessarily undermine conservation goals. A new study by scientists at UC Santa Barbara and Florida International University Research says that human-shark interaction can take place without long-term effects on the sharks. The researchers found that there were no detectable differences in shark abundance or behavior between heavily dived and relatively undisturbed locations.

“We found that shark abundance and shark behavior were the same at sites with and without a long history of scuba diving,” says Jennifer Caselle, a research biologist at UCSB’s Marine Science Institute and coauthor of the study that was published in the Marine Ecology Progress Series.

Given that human impacts on shark populations has been ubiquitous and often devastating, this is certainly welcome news. But it doesn’t mean that divers and dive operators can cast aside responsible diving guidelines such as reducing pollution from vessels, avoiding touching and feeding the fish, and regulating the number of divers allowed at a site at a given time.


Lights Off

Australia’s Hazelwood Power Plant, among the dirtiest plants in the industrialized world, closed in March after more than 50 years of operation. The adjacent coal mine that fed the plant was also shuttered. The French company that operated Hazelwood, Engie, said that the plant was no longer economically viable due to a giant backlog of expensive maintenance work that would have cost $150 million between March and July of 2017 alone.

As Earth Island Journal reported last year, the Hazelwood plant gained notoriety over the past decade due to concerns about the sheer level of emissions released from the burning of brown coal there. Brown coal releases 6 to 8 percent more carbon dioxide than standard black coal. Residents of Morwell, the town adjacent to the plant, also began to wonder about the impact of operations on their health, particularly after a 2014 fire at the coal mine that burned for 45 days.

As The Guardian reported, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, along with industry insiders, has expressed concern that the closure will result in increased energy prices and energy shortages, given that the plant provided about a fifth of Victoria’s electricity supply. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has rejected these concerns, and environmental groups like Environment Victoria hope that clean energy alternatives like wind and solar will fill in any gaps.


Warming Waters

Scientists have long recognized the importance of the world’s oceans in buffering the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly their role in storing excess heat. But they are just beginning to suss out exactly how much warmth oceans are taking on as the planet warms.

water-level photo of islandsphoto GraceOda

A new study, published in the journal Science Advances in March, revealed that the ocean is absorbing much more heat than previously thought. Specifically, oceans absorbed 337 zettajoules of energy between 1960 and 2015, 13 percent more energy than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s estimate for the same period. Most of that energy has been added to the oceans since 1980.

“The ocean is the memory of all of the past climate change,” study co-author Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told The Washington Post.

No Comment

“I would not agree that [CO2] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

New technologies employed in the study led to improved data collection and analysis. Prior to the year 2000, ocean temperatures were mainly measured by ships traveling along the world’s major shipping routes. This data did not provide the most comprehensive picture of ocean warming due to its limited sample area.

The year 2000 marked the introduction of free-ranging “Argo” data-collection devices that roam the seas and collect temperature measurements, sometimes thousands of meters below the surface. There are now 3,500 of these devices collecting temperature data throughout the world’s oceans. Correcting for biases in the pre-2000 data, and analyzing the data from the Argo devices, the researchers created a series of continuous estimates of ocean heat content from 1960 to 2015.

Though the ocean’s ability to absorb heat helps slow the rise of global air temperatures, the study results are concerning. Many marine organisms can survive only within a certain temperature range. Coral bleaching, for example, has been linked to rising water temperatures. Coupled with other climate-related changes like ocean acidification, ocean warming is likely to have grave consequences for marine life.

Boaty McBoatface’s Maiden Voyage

Last year, the British people exercised their democratic rights, and their humor, when they resoundingly voted in a public poll to name a new $300 million research ship Boaty McBoatface. Though their triumph was short-lived – the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council opted for the more “suitable” Royal Research Ship Sir David Attenborough – the tongue-in-cheek name was ultimately bestowed on a trio of small yellow submarines. And in March, a year after the popular vote, the first of those subs embarked on her maiden voyage.

Dispatched to Antarctica, Boaty McBoatface was tasked with collecting data on a deep current in the Orkney Passage that will help inform climate change models and improve understanding about how global warming is impacting oceans.

Following the decision to name the subs, the UK’s National Oceanography Centre also designed Boaty, a cartoon version of the submarine, to be used as teaching tool. It seems Boaty’s contribution to climate science, both in and out of the water, may be long lived.

Meanwhile, the naming gag seems to have developed a life of its own, with McFace memes cropping up all over the place. The last we checked, there was a horse named Horsey McHorseface, a British train that temporarily went by Trainy McTrainface, and a prototype ocean-garbage cleaner called Boomy McBoomface.

photo of a submersible craft in ice-strewn ocean waterphoto Natural Environment Research CouncilA fleet of small British research submarines has been bestowed with the now infamous Boaty McBoatface moniker. One of these subs set out on her first expedition in March.


Bankrolling Violence?

In a bold new lawsuit filed in March, a group of Honduran farmers allege that the World Bank has aided an ongoing terror campaign against them. The civil suit argues that by supporting Dinant Corporation, a powerful Honduran palm oil company, the World Bank’s business-lending arm knowingly profited “from the financing of murder.” The case appears to be the first in which communities have accused the bank of criminal conduct.

Filed by the nonprofit EarthRights International in a US court, the lawsuit details a violent land war against peasants in northern Honduras in which Dinant has hired “paramilitary death squads and private assassins” to kill local land defenders. It alleges that Dinant guards have gone so far as to fire on – and injure – women and children taking shelter at a government site to escape flooding, and that peasants have been shot in their homes and fields. The lawsuit claims that the World Bank knew or had reason to know of Dinant’s violent campaign in the region, but nonetheless provided “critical capital funding and moral cover” to the corporation.

According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the lawsuit challenges the contention that there has been violence on both sides. Seventeen Honduran farmers and their family members are represented in the suit, including seven family members of farmers who were allegedly murdered.

Call of the Wild

Poachers Target Zoo

In what seems to be a first in Europe, in early March poachers broke into a zoo near Paris and killed a young white rhinoceros known as Vince. They sawed off one of Vince’s horns and partially cut his second horn before escaping. Two other rhinos at the zoo were unharmed.

photo of a rhinocerosphoto Thomas GehrkePoachers broke into a French zoo in March and killed a young white rhino, similar to the one pictured here, for his horn, in what seems to be the first poaching incident in a European zoo.

The zoo staff was “extremely shocked” by the incident, according to a statement on the Thoiry Zoo’s Facebook page. But the heartbreaking news didn’t come as a total surprise to European authorities. European auction houses, private art collections, and museums had previously been targeted for their rhino horns.

Still, the incident seems to represent an escalation in the illegal wildlife trade: The poachers had to break through a fence and several locked doors, and risked discovery by five staff members who live on site at the zoo, as well as detection by surveillance cameras. (French police had yet to make an arrest when the Journal went to press.)

“This is poaching on a whole new level,” Azzedine Downes, president and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told The Dodo. “Wild rhinos have been in the sights of poachers for many years. It’s horrifying to imagine a captive rhino falling prey to poachers’ bullets.”

Wild rhino populations have been devastated over the past decade. In South Africa alone, poaching increased from an estimated 37 rhinos in 2007 to a peak of 1,215 rhinos in 2014. (Numbers fell slightly in 2015 and 2016, but the toll is still very high.)

Vince’s slaughter has other zoos worried that their charges, too, will become targets. Shortly after the attack in France, a Czech zoo announced that it would remove the horns of its 18 adult rhinos. “The attack [in France] put us on alert,” Andrea Jirousova, a spokeswoman for the zoo, told The Guardian. “The danger is really intense.”


Protected Climate Speech

Climate deniers probably aren’t the first group that comes to mind when you think of discrimination or hear the term “protected class.” Typically, anti-discrimination laws protect people from persecution based on factors like race, disability, religion, or sexual orientation. But, if one Republican lawmaker has his way, climate deniers could join the ranks of those protected under Maine’s anti-discrimination laws.

Yes, you read that right. Larry Lockman, a state representative in Maine, has introduced a bill implying climate deniers need the same protections as, say, someone in a wheelchair. Under the bill, the state attorney general would be restricted from investigating people based on their views on global warming, and the state would be prohibited from making purchasing decisions based on climate policy preferences.

It’s unlikely that the bill – which would essentially classify climate denial as a protected form of political speech – will pass. But even if it does, Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy project director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, told Mashable that it probably wouldn’t have a huge practical impact. Still, he said, the bill is symbolic: “I’m seeing a disturbing trend and I think this bill is part of that, to provide cover for climate denialism in a sort of general way.”

Around the World

Life Finds a Way

Around the world, human activity is shaping where wildlife lives and thrives. But nature is rather resilient, and even in the face of degradation or destruction on a massive scale, plants and animals can find ways to eke out an existence, sometimes in the most unlikely of places.

Despite the tremendous damage wrought by events like nuclear accidents, the lack of human activity following such disasters often favors the wildlife that live in the area. In other cases, limited access to a region due to military operations can help create unexpected refuges for rare plants and animals. These surprising refuges remind us that ecosystems are capable of weathering and recovering from even the most severe disturbance. And when left to its own devices, with little to no human intervention, life often finds its own way.

map of the world, points marked for description below

1 Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

After World War II, the US initiated a nuclear weapons testing program in this ring of tropical islands, detonating 23 nuclear weapons between 1946 and 1958. The area is still not considered safe for human habitation due to high radiation levels, but there is increasing evidence that corals that were damaged during these tests have significantly recovered. The reef now provides habitat to a myriad of species, including endangered turtles and sharks, which now live free from human disturbance.

2 Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine

Thirty-one years ago, the world witnessed its worst nuclear disaster when reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. Today, the 1,800-square-mile exclusion zone around the plant is home to rare species such as wolves, European bison, and lynx, and it is helping scientists understand the ecology of native European wildlife. However, questions remain about how wildlife population genetics may have been impacted by radiation exposure.

3 Fukushima, Japan

Since Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent meltdown of Tokyo Electric’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, fishing off the Fukushima coast has been severely limited. Damage to fishing infrastructure, government-imposed restrictions on fishing, and difficulty trawling due to debris on the seafloor have effectively created a marine protected area, bolstering populations of Pacific cod and Japanese flounder. Time will tell if these favorable conditions last – the Japanese government has already begun to allow limited fishing in the area, and local fisherman are beginning to rebuild their trade.

4 Joint Base Lewis-McChord, United States

Artillery training at the Lewis-McChord Army and Air Force Base requires large stretches of undeveloped land. As a result, this Washington State base protects some of the last intact swaths of lowland prairies, wetlands, and forests that used to be prevalent in the Puget Sound region. The base employs biologists to help monitor and protect the flora and fauna present on site, which includes species such as the western gray squirrel, listed as threatened in the state. Throughout the country, the US Department of Defense manages more than 28 million acres that provide habitat for over 400 threatened or endangered species.

5 Former Iron Curtain, Europe

The corridor that served as a military patrol zone between the Soviet Union and the rest of Europe during the Cold War is now part of a proposed European Green Belt to protect important wildlife habitat. During the Cold War years, people were relocated from this zone, which stretches from the Barents Sea in Northern Europe south to the Black Sea. Today, the corridor is composed of a mix of national parks and other protected areas, and provides habitat for rare species like bats, woodpeckers, and eagles.

6 Korean Demilitarized Zone

After the Korean War ended in 1953, a demilitarized zone was demarcated to divide the Korean Peninsula roughly in half along an established cease-fire line and create a buffer between North Korea and South Korea. By design, the heavily land-mined area has remained largely free from human activity, making it a refuge for animals such as the Asian black bear, whose habitat has been reduced by development elsewhere. Other species that have had difficulty surviving in an increasingly developed Asia may also be present here, but the political climate and dangerous on-the-ground conditions have limited scientists’ ability to search for and document them.


Magic Dust from Afar

Northern California’s sky-scraping sequoias inspire the awe of visitors from all over the world. These giant trees would likely not have achieved their towering heights without a key ingredient from a far-off foreign land – dust.

Scientists have found that dust from the Gobi Desert in Asia is providing more phosphorous for plants in California, including giant sequoias, than previously thought. Phosphorus, along with nitrogen and carbon, is crucial to the survival of life on Earth. Plants, which need it to develop strong roots and thrive, usually source it from bedrock that is broken down into soil over geologic time. But the mineral is a scarce resource in the Sierra Nevada mountain range soils.

photo of a Giant Sequoiaphoto by Nikolay Maslov

“In recent years it has been a bit of a mystery how all these big trees have been sustained in this ecosystem without a lot of phosphorus in the bedrock. This work begins to unravel that mystery and show that dust may be shaping this iconic California ecosystem,” says Emma Aronson, an assistant professor of plant pathology and microbiology at University of California (UC), Riverside, who along with a team of researchers from the University of Michigan, the University of Wyoming, and UC Merced, analyzed dust samples collected from four locations in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Their findings were published in a recent issue of Nature Communications.

Plant researchers have speculated in the past that the trees in this region were likely getting their phosphorous fix from dust blown in from elsewhere, especially other parts of state. The mountain range does get some dust from California’s Central Valley, especially at lower elevations. But Aronson and her team found that at higher elevations, 45 percent of the dust seems to be riding in on the jet stream across the Pacific Ocean all the way from the Gobi Desert, a vast, arid region along the border of northern China and Mongolia, some 6,000 miles from the Northern California coast.

Understanding the importance of dust, which is sensitive to changes in climate and land use, is crucial for predicting how ecosystems will respond to global warming and greater use of the land. The study may help scientists predict the impacts of climate change, which is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts and create more desert conditions around the world, including in California. If that happens, based on these findings, scientists expect a lot more dust moving in the atmosphere, and likely bringing phosphorus and important nutrients to far-flung mountainous ecosystems.


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