Talking Points : Winter 2018

News in Brief

Talking Points

Call of the Wild

Off List

The annual update of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, which outlines the risks to 87,967 species across the world, usually spells bad news and more bad news these days. But this year’s list, which came out in September, had at least one cheerful offering – the snow leopard is no longer officially endangered.

photo of a snow leopardphoto Eric KilbyFollowing a three-year population assessment, the snow leopard’s status has been changed from endangered to vulnerable, offering up some positive news among dreary conservation headlines.

The IUCN has now moved Panthera uncia – the large cat native to the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia – to the less-threatened “vulnerable” category, but warned that “its population continues to decline and it still faces a high risk of extinction through habitat loss and degradation, declines in prey, competition with livestock, persecution, and poaching for illegal wildlife trade.”

The change follows a three-year assessment process by five international experts. To be considered endangered there have to be fewer than 2,500 mature adult snow leopards in the wild, but experts now believe there may be around 4,000, with some saying the number could be as high as 10,000.

Part of the reason for the varied calculations is the difficulty of tracking the big cats across their huge habitat in the Himalayas. Scientists have managed to survey only a small fraction of the animal’s high-mountain range, which covers some 695,000 square miles, crossing 12 countries in Asia.

Doing the research “is difficult,” Peter Zahler, coordinator of the snow leopard program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, told The Independent. “It involves an enormous amount of work in some of the most remote and inhospitable regions of the world.” New technologies, including camera traps and satellite collaring, are “giving us better information about where snow leopards are and how far they range,” he said. But we should not be complacent about the animal’s future, he added, echoing the IUCN’s warning. “It doesn’t take much to make large predators disappear from landscapes. We’ve seen it happen over and over again around the world.”

In other, not-so-positive changes on the Red List, five of the six most prominent species of ash tree in North America have been classified as critically endangered because of the threat posed by an invasive beetle, and the Christmas Island pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus murrayi) is officially extinct.


Greatest Scourge

So it has come to pass – pollution is now one of our top killers, responsible for one in six deaths worldwide, more than those caused by war, hunger, malaria, and AIDS combined. A landmark new study on the public health impacts of global pollution found that toxic air, water, and soil are responsible for the deaths of 9 million people each year and this “threatens the continuing survival of human societies.”

photo of a young man bicycling through a smoggy day, mask on his facephoto Aulia Erlangga/CIFORAir, water, and soil pollution are responsible for an estimated one in six deaths worldwide.

The study, published in October in the journal The Lancet, pulled data from the World Health Organization’s ongoing Global Burden of Disease project. It found that environmental pollution accounts for 16 percent of deaths worldwide – 15 times more than deaths from war and conflict, and 3 times more than deaths from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined.

“No one has ever pulled together, in one place, information on the toll of disease and death attributable to all forms of pollution,” report author Dr. Philip Landrigan, who’s been studying the effects of pollution on child health for decades, told The Lancet. The total death toll is “intimately” linked to climate change, as air pollution is a major source of greenhouse gases.

Most of these 9 million deaths occur from pollution-related diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. The majority occur in developing nations, where rapid industrialization combined with lax regulations translate into higher exposure to toxic air, water, and soil. But pollution-related deaths do occur in industrialized nations too, with the US and Japan topping the list for most “modern” pollution-related deaths, from things like fossil fuel and chemical pollution.

The study authors recommend that developing countries leapfrog over smoggy versions of industrialization and tap into renewable energy sources like solar power and wind generation. If not, the statistics will only get worse: The number of deaths due to air pollution is on track to increase by more than 50 percent by 2050.

Flip Side

Crop Crisis

It’s well accepted that we’re in the midst of Earth’s sixth mass extinction of plants and animals. Species are going extinct at a much faster rate than they have for millions of years, and 40 percent of mammals are suffering severe population declines. This news is tragic, and deserves due attention. What’s sometimes lost amidst the talk of imperiled wildlife, however, is that the mass extinction is also impacting human food crops and could have dire impacts on global food security.

A September report by the nonprofit Bioversity International tackles this looming issue, raising the profile of humble crops like potatoes that are threatened alongside luxury items like cocoa and coffee.

“Huge proportions of plant and animal species that form the foundation of our food supply … are just as endangered [as wildlife] and are getting almost no attention,” Ann Tutwiler, director general of Bioversity International, writes in The Guardian. “If there is one thing we cannot allow to become extinct, it is the species that provide the food that sustains each and every one of the seven billion people on our planet.” The report says at least 940 cultivated species are already threatened, and though 75 percent of the global food supply is generated from just twelve plant crops and five animal species, preserving agrobiodiversity could prove crucial on a changing planet.

Agrobiodiversity “has a critical yet overlooked role in helping us improve global nutrition, reduce our impact on the environment, and adapt to climate change,” Tutwiler writes.

Call of the Wild

Adélie Tragedy

Last summer, all but two from an entire cohort of tens of thousands of Adélie penguin chicks on an Antarctic island starved to death because their foraging parents couldn’t get back from sea with food on time.

The unusual extent of sea ice in Antarctica this year meant the parent penguins had to travel an extra 100 km to forage for food. The situation was made worse by rainy weather that left the chicks, who have poor waterproofing, wet and unable to keep warm.

photo of a penguin, looking unhappyphoto Christopher Michel

French scientists, who have been monitoring the colony of about 18,000 breeding penguin pairs on Petrels Island in the Adélie Land region since the 1960s, discovered thousands of deceased chicks and unhatched eggs this year. “Not only did the chick starve but the partner (who stayed behind) also had to endure a long fast,” Yan Ropert-Coudert, a marine ecologist with the French science agency CNRS, told the Associated Press.

In the typical clinical language that scientists use to distance themselves from tragic incidents, they called the massive die-off a “catastrophic breeding event.” It is the second time in just four years that such devastation – not previously seen in more than 50 years of observation – has been wrought on this population of penguins.

The finding has prompted urgent calls for the establishment of a marine protected area in East Antarctica. Rod Downie, head of polar programs at the World Wildlife Fund, UK, said the impact of losing thousands of chicks was dramatic for an otherwise hardy species such as Adélie penguins. (WWF has been funding seabird research in the region.) “It’s more like ‘Tarantino does Happy Feet,’ with dead penguin chicks strewn across a beach in Adélie Land,” he said. “It is unusual because of the size of the population concerned…. Zero breeding success years have been noted before elsewhere, but never for colonies of this size.”

Sea ice extent in the polar regions varies each year, but climate change has made the fluctuation more extreme. Overall, Antarctica has had a record low amount of summer sea ice, but the area around the colony has been an exception.

Over the long term, however, climate change is expected to cause Antarctic sea ice to shrink dramatically.

Ropert-Coudert, who leads the study of seabirds at the Dumont D’Urville Antarctic research station, told The Guardian that the region had been severely affected by the 2010 break-up of the Mertz glacier tongue, when an iceberg collided with the glacier and precipitated the calving of another massive piece of ice about 50 miles long and 25 miles wide. That event, which occurred about 155 miles from Petrels Island, had a big impact on ocean currents and ice formation in the region. Combined with the more frequent occurrence of unusual weather events, it means that “the scene is set for massive impacts to hit [this colony] on a more or less regular basis,” Ropert-Coudert said. Creating a protection zone in the region wouldn’t prevent larger-than-usual sea ice like that responsible for this year’s tragic event, he said, but it might ease the pressure on penguins from tourism and overfishing.


Transoceanic Drifters

Life, if anything, is tenacious. It doesn’t let go easily. That seems to be one takeaway from the news that nearly 300 species have made their way from Asia to the shores of Hawaiʻi and the US West Coast attached to debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Entire communities of coastal species have crossed the ocean by floating on these makeshift rafts, marine biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Williams College, and other institutions reported in the journal Science.

photo of a woman holding sea starsphoto Lynn Ketchum / Oregon State UniversityTsunami debris from Japan has allowed entire communities of sea slugs, mollusks, anemones, and other marine life to hitch a ride to the US West Coast.

The March 11, 2011 tsunami – triggered by a 9.0 moment magnitude earthquake that struck Japan the same day – swept millions of objects out to sea, from small pieces of plastic to fishing boats and docks. These objects, the scientists say, helped the species attached to them complete the transoceanic journey. Mollusks like mussels and barnacles were the most common refugees of all invertebrate groups, followed by worms, sponges, sea stars, sea anemones, limpets, and fish. Nearly two-thirds of the species had never previously been seen on the West Coast, raising concerns about the arrival of nonnative species. The team was still finding new species when the study period ended in 2017.

None of the species were expected to survive such a long oceanic journey, largely because the open ocean is a harsher environment for creatures used to more hospitable coastal waters. However, the slower speed of the ocean rafts, which acted like floating islands, may have allowed them to gradually adjust to their new environments, and even reproduce.

Another thing helped the critters – plastics. Much of the debris the scientists found was made of fiberglass or other plastics materials that do not decompose easily. “I didn’t think that most of these coastal organisms could survive at sea for long periods of time,” says Greg Ruiz, a co-author and marine biologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “But in many ways they just haven’t had much opportunity in the past. Now, plastic can combine with tsunami and storm events to create that opportunity on a large scale.”

Flip Side

License to Cheat

Car ownership is ubiquitous in the US – more than 90 percent of American households have a least one car. These cars, along with trucks, planes, and trains, are responsible for some 30 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. So if there were ever a straightforward way to reduce our personal carbon footprints, driving a fuel-efficient vehicle would seem to be it. While that may be true, new research indicates that driving a “clean car” is not quite as effective as we might have hoped.

According to a report by the University of California, Davis, well-intentioned consumers who buy a fuel-efficient vehicle are more likely to purchase a larger, gas-guzzling second car. As a result, these two-car households decrease the future fuel savings by as much as 60 percent. The researchers compare this scenario to a fast food customer who purchases a diet soda with calorie-rich fries: It’s still better than purchasing a full-calorie soda, but the fried food cancels out some of the benefit.

“Unintended consequences like this need to be taken into account when making policy,” author David Rapson, an associate professor at UC Davis, said in a statement. “On average, fuel economy standards are putting more fuel-efficient cars in households. That can be good if it reduces gasoline use. But if it causes people to buy a bigger, less fuel-efficient second car to compensate, this unintended effect will erode the intended goals of the policy.”

As Pacific Standard explains, this phenomenon of muting our good deeds is known as the licensing effect. Basically, when people do something that benefits society, it seems to give them license to also engage in more self-centered behavior. Still, the take-away isn’t that we should give up on fuel-efficient vehicles: Even if American households complement a Prius with an SUV, their total carbon footprint is lower than it would be with two SUVs.

Around the World

Climate Change in the Courts

A lack of robust national climate policies has left many questioning just how committed their governments are to taking serious climate action within a meaningful time frame. Yes, the global community came together around the Paris climate agreement two years ago, but lack of sufficient national-level action has left people fed up. So fed up, it seems, that folks from Portugal to Pakistan to South Africa are taking their elected leaders to court.

According to a study released earlier this year by the United Nations Environment Program and Columbia Law School, there has been a proliferation of climate-related cases brought by citizens and environmental groups, primarily against their governments. In some cases, legal strategy is anchored to the Paris agreement, in others to national policy, and in still others, to planning requirements for discreet projects – say, a coalmine or a pipeline – that will contribute to climate chaos. More of these cases have been brought in the US than anywhere else, and in general, the lawsuits are concentrated in developed countries. So far, citizens have taken their governments to court over climate in at least 24 nations. Here’s a glimpse at some of the fights that have wound their way through the courts, or that are still making their way through the legal system.

map image

1 United States

More than 600 climate change cases have been filed in the US, roughly three times the number in all other countries combined. These include suits by citizens, environmental groups, and city and county governments. One of the best known is a suit by 21 children and young adults against the federal government. The lawsuit, supported by the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, argues that climate change violates the plaintiffs’ rights to life, liberty, and property by decimating assets that are part of the public trust – think air and water and coastlines. It crossed a major legal hurdle last year when a federal district judge in Oregon ruled that the case could proceed to trial. The trial is set to begin in early 2018.

2 Portugal

Following in the footsteps of the 21 so-called “climate kids” in the US, a group of children in Portugal are raising money to sue 47 European countries for their failure to address climate change. They argue that a lack of sufficient climate action threatens their right to life. The children, ages five to fourteen, are all from Portugal’s Leiria region, which suffered devastating forest fires this summer. Combined, the countries targeted in the suit are responsible for 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

3 Holland

In 2015, in what has come to be known as a landmark case for the international climate movement, a court in The Hague ruled in favor of some 900 Dutch citizens who had sued their government for failing to sufficiently protect them from the threat of climate change. The court ordered the Dutch government to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent within five years. It was the first time that any court had directly ordered a government to make emissions reductions. The case has been credited with inspiring other lawsuits around the world, and indeed, similar efforts have popped up across Europe, including a suit by a group of artists, filmmakers, and musicians in Belgium, and a case brought by a group of nearly 800 senior women, aged 65 and above, against the Swiss government.

4 Pakistan

Pakistani farmer and law student Ashgar Leghari sued his government in 2015 for its failure to implement national climate change policy. His argument? Delayed action on climate change would contribute to heavy floods and droughts that threaten water and food security countrywide. Leghari also pointed to the direct impact of water scarcity on his family farm. And he won: Citing the rights to life and human dignity, the high court ordered the Pakistani government to create a climate change commission to address the serious threats posed by global warming, and to implement the climate policy framework it had created several years prior.

5 New Zealand

Law student Sarah Thomson sued the New Zealand government this summer over its national emissions-reductions plans, which include a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 11 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Thomson argues that New Zealand – which has the fifth highest per-capita emissions rate in the world – has an obligation as a developed country to set emissions targets under the Paris Agreement that are compatible with scientific consensus around climate change, and that it has failed to do so. And she asks that the country’s Minister for Climate Issues explain just how this target was set. The case has yet to go to trial.

6 South Africa

In what has been described as the country’s first climate change case, a high court in South Africa ruled earlier this year that the Department of Environmental Affairs misstepped by authorizing a proposed coal-fired power plant without first assessing the impact it would have on climate change. The case follows similar project-specific suits elsewhere, including a case in Austria in which a court blocked expansion of an international airport because it would lead to a rise in emissions, and an ongoing case in Norway that challenges the government’s decision to grant new oil drilling licenses in the Arctic.


Assisted Evolution

It seems even the most innocuous of human actions can have an impact on wildlife. According to new research, a British predilection for bird feeders is pushing along evolution in wild birds. Specifically, use of these convenient seed dispensers may be leading to lengthier beaks in great tits.

The study, published in Science, compared great tits in the United Kingdom with those in the Netherlands. Birds in the two populations appear nearly identical, except for when it comes to beak length. Birds in the UK – where bird feeders are popular – have developed longer beaks than their Dutch compatriots. To be exact, average beak length of UK-based birds has increased by 0.2 millimeters since the 1970s. Longer beaks make it easier to access food in bird feeders. And it seems that longer-beaked birds successfully raise more chicks than their shorter-beaked conspecifics.

“The assumption would be that if you have a longer bill and are better able to access food, then you are in general in better condition and better able to invest more in your fledgling,” Lewis Spurgin, a study co-author and evolutionary biologist at the University of East Anglia, told The Washington Post. He cautions, however, that the connection between bird feeders and beak-length is just a hypothesis, and it’s possible that other factors are at play.

Temperature Gauge

Wild Weather

This fall, hurricanes lined up in the Gulf of Mexico as if on a conveyor belt, relentlessly pummeling everything in their path.

The first of the season, Hurricane Harvey, ravaged several islands in the Caribbean Sea. The eye passed over Barbuda, Saint Martin, and the British Virgin Islands, and reduced buildings to tinder. After the storm made landfall in late August, it remained virtually in place, soaking the area for close to a week with torrential rains. In total, Harvey dropped more than 51 inches of rain on Cedar Bayou, Texas – a new US record for total rainfall from a single storm – and rapidly overwhelmed Houston’s flood defenses, putting large swaths of the city underwater for days.

According to the National Hurricane Center, September 2017 was the most active month for hurricanes on record. It’s not merely the number of storms that is remarkable, but their unprecedented intensity and reach. For example, Hurricane Irma, which hit Florida two weeks after Harvey, was the first storm to have sustained wind speeds of 185 miles per hour for more than a day. These hurricanes aren’t just wreaking havoc on North America. In mid-October, the remnants of Hurricane Ophelia made a wild northward run, raking the southern coast of Ireland with winds of close to 100 miles per hour, and killing three.

All of which has experts again examining the role of climate change in intensifying storm behavior. One thing is clear: Higher ocean temperatures are playing a key role. “Sea surface temperatures in the area where Harvey intensified were 0.5-1°C warmer than current-day average temperatures,” climate scientist Michael Mann wrote in The Guardian, “which translates to 1-1.5°C warmer than ‘average’ temperatures a few decades ago. That means 3-5 percent more moisture in the atmosphere.” Warmer air holds more water vapor, which, in turn, leads to more volatile weather. “That large amount of moisture creates the potential for much greater rainfalls and greater flooding. The combination of coastal flooding and heavy rainfall is responsible for the devastating flooding that Houston [experienced],” Mann wrote.

While warming oceans contribute to larger, more powerful storms, there does not seem to be a clear correlation between higher ocean temperatures and increased frequency of tropical storms and hurricanes. In fact, until this year, the US had experienced a 12-year lull in hurricanes making landfall. The last Category 3 storm to make landfall in the US was Hurricane Wilma in October 2005, which pounded southern Florida roughly two months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. By most accounts, that was the longest stretch without a major hurricane since the early 1900s.


Turn on the waterworks, people, there’s power in tears – not just the kind of power that moves people, but also the kind that moves machines.

A team of Irish scientists has found that applying pressure to a protein found in human tears can generate electricity. The protein, called lysozyme, is also found in egg whites, saliva, and milk. Their report was published in October in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

The ability of certain substances to generate electricity when put under pressure – known as direct piezoelectricity – has been known for years. It is a property of materials such as quartz that can convert mechanical energy into electrical energy and vice versa. Such materials are used in a variety of applications ranging from vibration motors in mobile phones to deep ocean sonars and ultrasound imaging. Bone, tendon, and wood, too, have long been known to possess piezoelectricity.

“While piezoelectricity is used all around us, the capacity to generate electricity from this particular protein [lysozyme] had not been explored,” says Aimee Stapleton, one of the researchers at the Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick and lead author of the study.

Stapleton says that the extent of the piezoelectricity in lysozyme crystals is significant. “It is of the same order of magnitude found in quartz,” she says. “However, because it is a biological material, it is nontoxic, so could have many innovative applications such as electroactive, anti-microbial coatings for medical implants.”

The discovery may also have far reaching applications in the area of energy harvesting and flexible electronics for biomedical devices. And being naturally biocompatible, our tears may present an alternative to conventional piezoelectric-energy harvesters, many of which contain toxic elements such as lead.

And what’s even better – it’s an easily renewable resource. Now go snatch that candy from the baby!

Call of the Wild

Uphill Battle

The Iʻiwi is one of Hawaiʻi’s most charismatic native species. This bright red bird – with its strange robotic call and taste for the sugary nectar of the red bloom of the ʻohiʻa tree – is a species perfectly adapted to Hawaiʻi’s lush rainforests.

It’s also seen its numbers drop rapidly in recent years. So precipitous has been the decline that in September, the Iʻiwi was listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

30581567441_14cd375afd_o.jpgphoto Melissa McMastersThe Iʻiwi, under threat from avian malaria, was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in September.

There are multiple pressures on Iʻiwi populations, from habitat loss and nonnative predators to a fungal blight that kills mature ʻohiʻa trees. But the greatest threat to the species is avian malaria – a disease that causes anemia and, in extreme cases, coma and death – which in recent years has spread rapidly through the uplands of the Hawaiian archipelago.

The spread of avian malaria has been exacerbated by climate change, which has increased the elevation at which the malaria-causing protozoan, Plasmodium relictum, can survive. Researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi found that increases in average temperature mean that avian malaria can now be transmitted at an elevation of 6,200 feet.

The uphill movement of the disease presents a particular problem to birds on Kauai, one of the three islands – along with Maui and the Big Island – where the Iʻiwi is found. This is because the highest peaks on Kauai rise only to about 5,000 feet, whereas the highest summits on Maui and the Big Island rise to over 10,000 and 13,000 feet, respectively.

The plight of the Iʻiwi is reflective of a larger collapse of Hawaiʻi’s endemic honeycreepers. Before people came to the islands, there were an estimated 59 species of honeycreeper among Hawaiʻi’s 113 native bird species. Today, more than 50 percent of those species have gone extinct, while others are listed as threatened or endangered. “Each species adapted to the uniqueness of the newly emerged volcanic islands,” wildlife biologist Seth Judge told Earth Island Journal. He works with the University of Hawaiʻi, Hilo, and the National Park Service’s Inventory and Monitoring Program, and has studied the birds for more than a decade. “Without intense competition, predators, and disease, honeycreepers flourished,” he notes. “They now face introductions that challenge their survival, and disease that can drive them, along with many others, to extinction.”

Forest and the Trees

Carbon (Mis)Calculation

Tropical forests have long been touted as one of the bright spots in the battle against climate change. In a world where everything seems to contribute to global emissions, we’ve been operating under the premise that these forests serve as net-sinks for carbon. Unfortunately, that framework might not be quite right. According to a new study published in Science, tropical forests release more carbon than they store.

The culprit for these added emissions is a surprising one: It seems that small-scale forest losses – such as those from selective logging, fire, and drought – are, combined, a greater driver of climate change than industrial clear-cutting. In fact, the researchers calculated that these fine-scale disturbances account for 69 percent of total emissions from tropical forests.

aerial photo of a misty forestphoto Neil Palmer/CIAT/ciforNew research indicates that, taken together, small-scale forest losses like those from selective logging and fire are a greater driver of climate change than industrial scale clear-cutting.

“These findings provide the world with a wakeup call on forests,” said Alessandro Baccini, a Woods Hole Research Center (whrc) scientist and lead author on the report. “Forests are the only carbon capture and storage ‘technology’ we have in our grasp that is safe, proven, inexpensive, immediately available at scale, and capable of providing beneficial ripple effects – from regulating rainfall patterns to providing livelihoods to Indigenous communities,” he said.

In the past, the scientific community has struggled to accurately measure small-scale degradations over large areas of forest. The whrc and Boston University research team succeeded in estimating these losses through use of remote sensing technology, satellite imagery, and field measurements.

By estimating total loss from both small-scale and larger scale activities, the team calculated that tropical forests emit some 425 teragrams of carbon annually, more than the emissions from all cars and trucks in the United States. The finding reinforces the age-old understanding that, for better for worse, small actions can make a big difference.

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