Talking Points : Autumn 2017

Call of the Wild

The Harry Potter Effect

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books or seen one of the eight movies based on them by now. The series has been a pop culture sensation for decades, and Hermione and Voldemort are practically household names. In addition to the book’s wand-wielding heroes, owls feature prominently in the stories – from Harry Potter’s friend Hedwig to Ron Weasley’s owl Pigwidgeon.

photo of an owl in a cage at a marketphoto Mindy McAdamsAn owl at a bird market in Bandung, Indonesia. Research confirms that the trade in owls has increased dramatically in Indonesia since the Harry Potter books and movies were released in the country.

But the series’ feathered characters seem to have left a less-than-desirable legacy. A recent study published in Global Ecology and Conservation concludes that the trade in owls has increased dramatically in Indonesia since the Harry Potter books and movies were translated and released in the country in the early 2000s.

The researchers compared data from 1979 to 2016, estimating that owl sales had risen from a few hundred a year before the books were released to 13,000 in 2016. They also noted that, whereas in the past owls were often referred to as Burung Hantu (ghost birds) in Indonesia, during recent surveys they were commonly referred to as Burung Harry Potter (Harry Potter birds).

“In the 1990s, when surveying the bird markets I would typically see one or two owls for sale amongst thousands of wild-caught birds on offer but equally often not a single owl was on display,” Vincent Nijman, study co-author and a wildlife-trade researcher at Oxford Brookes University, said in a statement. “Now, returning to those same markets we can see dozens of owls for sale of a wide range of species, and owls are always present, all taken from the wild.”

The authors acknowledge that it’s nearly impossible to make a definitive link between the fictional avian characters and rising owl sales, but they’re pretty sure there is a connection. As Nijman put it when speaking with Nature, “Harry Potter normalized keeping owls as pets.”

They say that increased Internet access over the past decade and a half has probably played a role, making it easier for people to source the nocturnal birds.

Conservationists have pointed to similar increases in owl sales following the release of the popular books and films in both the UK and India. J.K. Rowling, who authored the series, has spoken out against keeping owls as pets. “If anybody has been influenced by my books to think an owl would be happiest shut in a small cage and kept in a house, I would like to take this opportunity to say as forcefully as I can, ‘you are wrong,’” she wrote on her website. Link or not, the study’s authors are concerned about what increasing trade could mean for wild owl populations in Indonesia, and suggest adding owls to the country’s protected species list.

Flip Side

Waning Wildfires

We live on a warming planet, where wildfires are predicted to burn with increasing frequency and intensity in some parts of the world. Yet a recent study published in Science has arrived at a surprising conclusion: The total amount of land burned in wildfires decreased by 24 percent between 1998 and 2015.

The researchers believe the decrease can be attributed largely to human activity, particularly to argricultural intensification and expansion into areas where fires used to occur. “This work highlights how humans can shape global fire regimes,” David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania and wildfire expert who was not involved in the research, told The Washington Post.

Much of the decrease took place in grassland and savannah regions, and fire reductions were greater in regions with more socioeconomic development. The researchers suggested that areas with higher incomes may be less likely to use fire as a land management tool, given the risks it can pose, including harm to crops and infrastructure.

The reduction in the amount of land burned by wildfires could have implications for climate change: Less fire means fewer carbon emissions. However it’s possible that the carbon released from the conversion of natural areas into agricultural land could offset these emissions reductions. The researchers also noted that fire is a natural part of many ecosystems, and an overall decline in the amount of land burned could have ramifications for the health of these areas.

“Overall I wouldn’t describe our findings as being a positive thing for the Earth system or global ecosystems,” said Niels Andela, lead author of the study and a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, pointing to the expansion of agriculture and decrease in natural burning. “The disappearance of fire from those ecosystems really symbolizes how we are using these last wildernesses of the Earth.”

The Big Open

Adrift Upon the Open Sea

Delaware. That’s been the word of choice to describe the size of a chunk of ice that tore loose from the Larsen C ice sheet, on the northwestern edge of Antarctica, in early July.

Temperature Gauge

Labels Matter

It seems language can make a big difference when it comes to climate change – or as some would say, global warming. According to researchers at Cornell University, significantly more Americans doubt the existence of “global warming” than question the reality of “climate change.”

The distinction is particularly acute when it comes to Republicans: While 74 percent said they believe climate change is happening, only 66 percent think global warming is occurring. The results indicate that seemingly small differences in language around climate issues might have significant political ramifications.

Take Donald Trump, who has called climate change a hoax and has said he will pull the United States out of the landmark Paris climate agreement. According to the Thompson Reuters Foundation, an analysis of the President’s Twitter account – his communication platform of choice – shows a clear preference for the term “global warming.” He has tweeted about “global warming” 106 times, but about “climate change” only 36.

“Our results suggest that Trump’s emphasis on ‘global warming’ may be an effective rhetorical strategy that resonates with his Republican constituents, who express more skepticism in response to that term in particular,” said Jonathon Schuldt, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell and study co-author.

Use of the term “climate change,” on the other hand, lessens the partisan divide, suggesting that those who want swift, bipartisan action to curb greenhouse gas emissions might be mindful of their words, whether on Twitter or elsewhere.

There are other metrics by which the 2,400-square-mile iceberg can be fathomed. The volume of water contained in its ice is enough to fill Lake Mead, the highest capacity reservoir in the United States, roughly 35 times over. Photographs taken during NASA’s IceBridge aerial survey mission just before the separation showed the crack to be 70 miles long, more than 300 feet wide, and in excess of a third of a mile deep.

Despite its massive size, the eventual melting of the colossal berg will not appreciably affect sea level since the ice is already floating in the water. (Think of warming ice cubes in a glass of lemonade – the melting does not cause the liquid to overtop the rim and spill onto the table.)

The calving was big news, but this was not the first massive piece of ice that has broken free from Antarctica in recent times – nor was it the largest. In 2000, an iceberg known as B-15, measuring in at over 4,200 square miles (just a bit smaller than the state of Connecticut) detached from Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf.

The fate of B-15 provides insight into what may be in store for the Larsen C iceberg. For several years, B-15 skirted the edge of the continent, breaking up into hundreds of smaller pieces along the way. In 2006, an 11-mile-long chunk of B-15 that had drifted thousands of miles was sighted roughly 30 miles off the New Zealand coast. Other pieces that remained in cold waters near the Antarctic coast survived much longer. As LiveScience reported, in 2013 – 13 years after the original calving event – a massive chunk of the iceberg was spotted off the eastern coast of Antarctica.

In spite of the mind-boggling scale of the July event, scientists aren’t exactly sure what it reveals about Earth’s warming. “The Antarctic Peninsula has been one of the fastest warming places on the planet throughout the latter half of the twentieth century,” Dan McGrath, a glaciologist from Colorado State University, told NASA. “This warming has driven really profound environmental changes … But with the rift on Larsen C, we haven’t made a direct connection with the warming climate.”

McGrath added: “Still, there are definitely mechanisms by which this rift could be linked to climate change, most notably through warmer ocean waters eating away at the base of the shelf.”

The Great Outdoors

Preserving Our Parks

In an effort to protect the visitor experience and natural heritage of Zion National Park, the National Park Service announced in July that it was considering two possible reservation systems to limit visitor numbers. The first proposal would allow visitors to enter the park only if they had a permit. The second proposal would require visitors to obtain a permit to access specific trails and sites within the park. Currently, no national parks require a permit for entry.

photo of cars lined up at a NPS entryphoto Jack MillerZion National Park, which is struggling to accommodate an increasing number of tourists, is considering putting a limit on visitor numbers.

Parks across the Southwest are seeing visitors in record numbers. Nearly 4.3 million people visited Zion last year, breaking the previous record of 3.5 million set in 2015. The increased traffic is stressing park infrastructure, overwhelming trails, and impacting local ecosystems.

“You don’t want to turn people away,” John Marciano, spokesperson for Zion National Park told the Las Vegas Review Journal. “It definitely can be controversial.” But, he added, “Our mission is to protect the resource and to make sure the people who come here have a pleasant visitor experience.”

Officials considered other options before settling on the permitting idea, which would allow those who didn’t plan ahead to drive through the park, but not to stop. Alternative ideas included increasing the number of shuttles that transport visitors through the park, charging a higher entry fee during peak hours, and closing areas of the park once they reach a certain capacity. Ultimately, they concluded that the reservation system would be the most effective way to limit visitor numbers while still maximizing park accessibility.

Zion, which accepted comments on the proposals through mid-August, isn’t the only park considering a reservation system. Arches National Park is pondering a similar concept, and it’s possible other parks will follow suit in effort to preserve both park ecosystems and the visitor experience.

Temperature Gauge

Calculating Climate Costs

We’ve known for a while now that global temperatures are rising but we’re still parsing the many ways in which climate change will affect our everyday lives. According to a new study published in Science, there’s another impact to add to the list: Over the next century, the US will experience significant climate-related economic losses, losses that will worsen existing inequalities within the country. If emissions growth is not slowed, the authors suggest that the impacts could be similar to those experienced during the Great Recession.

“Unmitigated climate change will be very expensive for huge regions of the United States,” says Solomon Hsiang, chancellor’s associate professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley, and one of the study’s lead authors. ”If we continue on the current path, our analysis indicates it may result in the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the country’s history.”

The study – which was led by researchers at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the University of Chicago, in addition to UC Berkeley – predicts that already impoverished areas of the South and lower Midwest would be the most economically affected, losing up to 20 percent of their income, if emissions are not significantly curbed. And for every degree Celsius of warming, the US will lose an average of 1.2 percent of its gross domestic product.

In making these predictions, the authors looked at how higher temperatures, changes in precipitation, rising sea levels, and intensifying extreme weather events could impact agriculture, crime, energy demand, labor, and health. For example, climate models predict that the South and lower Midwest will experience more heatwaves and extreme weather that will lead to more crop failures, which will hurt the economy. In contrast, the Pacific Northwest and New England could experience milder temperatures that could benefit crop growth. But the authors emphasized that loss of income anywhere would eventually hurt the US economy as a whole.

The research indicates that rising temperatures will also lead to losses in worker productivity, increases in heat-related deaths, and worsening destruction caused by extreme weather events along the coasts. States like Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, and Florida are predicted to be the hardest hit.

Ultimately, the study makes a strong economic and social case for speedy and effective climate action.

Future Tense

Ditching Dirty Cars

While the Trump administration appears intent on walking away from the Paris climate agreement, other countries have doubled down on their commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In early July, French Energy Minister Nicolas Hulot pledged that France would ban all in-country sales of fossil fuel-powered vehicles by 2040.

photo of a small electric car charging on a streetphoto wikimedia commonsIn a boon for electric vehicles, France and Britain have both announced that they will ban
in-country sale of fossil fuel-powered cars by 2040.

“France has decided to become carbon neutral by 2050 following the US decision,” Hulot said, specifically referencing President Trump’s June announcement that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris accord. Referring to the decision as a “veritable revolution,” Hulot also pointed to air pollution and public health as reasons for the ban.

If implemented, the pledge would radically transform the makeup of France’s fleet of 32 million passenger cars, the third largest in Europe. According to the BBC, traditional diesel- and gas-powered cars make up 95 percent of the European market. Just 3.5 percent of cars on the French market are hybrid, and only 1.2 percent are powered entirely by electricity. It’s not yet clear what will happen to fossil fuel vehicles already on the road when the ban goes into effect, but Hulot said financial assistance would be available for low-income households to replace gas and diesel vehicles.

Other countries have taken notice. In fact, in late July, Britain announced a similar plan to phase-out fossil fuel-powered vehicles, also by 2040, as part of the country’s new clean air strategy. “It is important that we all gear up for a significant change which deals not just with the problems of health caused by emissions, but the broader problems caused in terms of accelerating climate change,” Michael Grove, Britain’s environment secretary, told the BBC.

France’s ban was announced as part of a larger environmental plan to help France meet its commitments under the Paris climate agreement. Other targets include a complete shuttering of coal power plants by 2022, a 50 percent reduction in nuclear power production by 2025, and a proposed ban on new oil and gas drilling operations.


Conserved Spaces

In June, Gabon announced the creation of the largest marine protected area in Africa. The new reserve, consisting of nine new national parks and 11 aquatic reserves, will cover a total of 20,500 square miles, an impressive 26 percent of Gabon’s territorial seas. What’s more, it will help protect 20 species of whales and dolphins, as well as 20 species of sharks. The protected territories also support the world’s largest breeding populations of leatherback and olive ridley sea turtles.

“This is a big deal and an example for other countries,” Enric Sala, a marine scientist who helped Gabon set up the marine protection plan, told National Geographic. “If Gabon can do it, why can’t European countries, for example?”

The new protections come as oceans around the world are being battered by multiple threats, including warming temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution, and overfishing. Experts believe that protecting larger areas of ocean and preserving large networks of ecosystems will help to facilitate ocean resilience in the face of ongoing pressures.

To that end, the United Nations is encouraging countries to create new marine protected areas with the goal of protecting 10 percent of the world’s oceans by 2020 – currently, just under three percent of the oceans are protected. Though the majority of marine protected areas still allow for fishing and other kinds of resource extraction, they carry with them restrictions on how and where these activities can occur. Hopefully Gabon’s bold action will mark a turning point for ocean conservation, and encourage Africa’s other coastal countries to follow its lead.


Justice at Sea

You may remember reading about an international dust-up back in 2013 when Russian officials boarded a Dutch-flagged Greenpeace ship, seized the vessel, and arrested all 30 people aboard. Well, this past July, an international arbitration panel ruled that Russia owes the Netherlands 5.4 million euros ($6.2 million) for the incident, which was previously deemed a violation of international law.

photo of a ship moving through rough seaphoto Will Rose / GreenpeaceAn international arbitration panel ruled this summer that Russia owes the Netherlands $6.2 million for its 2013 seizure of Arctic Sunrise, Greenpeace’s iconic ship.

The incident in question involved the famed Arctic Sunrise, which was, at the time, in the Arctic Sea. The ship was carrying 28 Greenpeace activists who were there to protest an offshore oil platform operated by Russian energy company Gazprom, as well as two journalists there to cover the protest. Russia alleged that two of the activists attempted to climb the oil platform, which is located in international waters within Russia’s exclusive economic zone.

The arrested cohort became known as the Arctic 30 and spent two months imprisoned in Russia before being released on bail and ultimately pardoned. The Arctic Sunrise, which Greenpeace says was damaged while in Russian custody, was returned to the nonprofit nine months after the incident.

“The road to justice can be long but today’s award emphatically upholds international law and the right to peaceful protest against oil drilling in the Arctic – and at sea worldwide,” Greenpeace International General Counsel Jasper Teulings said in a statement about the ruling.

Russia was held liable for the event in 2015 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The July ruling put a price-tag on their liability. As Reuters reported, Russia refused to participate in the arbitration process and has rejected the ruling.

Around the World

Our Ailing Oceans

Our oceans represent a vast pool of resources that contribute to the success and survival of people around the world. We rely on them for the food we eat, the jobs they provide, and the biodiversity they support. Yet from oil spills and overfishing to rising ocean temperatures and acidification, humans are leaving their mark on ocean ecosystems. And nearly everywhere we look, there is evidence that our ocean ecosystems are struggling to weather our impact.

Thankfully, awareness of the fragility of our ocean ecosystems is beginning to drive people to reconsider how we treat this invaluable resource, and how we might work toward solutions. Countries are working to solve problems like plastic pollution, to aid marine mammals under stress, and to set aside large swaths of the oceans as protected areas. Of course, there’s still much work to be done. Here is a sampling of the ways humans are impacting the world’s oceans.

map of the continents

1 Whale Die-off, Gulf of Saint Lawrence

This past June and July, at least ten right whales – one of the most endangered species in the world – were found floating dead in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in Canada, leaving scientists worried. Autopsies of the whales concluded that blunt trauma, possibly from collisions with boats, and tangling in fishing gear were to blame for some of the whale deaths, but scientists believe that toxic algae blooms or contaminated food could also have played a role. Boat collisions are among the most frequent causes of premature death for right whales, as well as for several other endangered marine mammals, including blue whales and Florida manatees.

2 Algae Bloom, West Coast of North America

In 2015, the Pacific Coast witnessed one of the largest toxic algal blooms in history. Pseudo-nitzschia, a type of planktonic diatom, proliferated in coastal waters from Santa Barbara, California, all the way north to the Gulf of Alaska. The microscopic diatoms produce domoic acid, a neurotoxin that is taken up by shellfish and can cause harm to marine animals and humans who consume it. Researchers at Oregon State University have found a connection between the heat content of the Pacific Ocean and the development of toxic blooms, suggesting that these kind of blooms could become more prevalent with global warming. Indeed, another bloom has been developing off the California coast this year. (Read “An Unravelling Web,” this issue)

3 Coral Bleaching, Pacific

In June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the world’s third, and worst, global coral-bleaching event appeared to be ending after devastating reefs across the world. Reefs in the US – including Florida, Hawaiʻi, the Mariana Islands, and Guam – were hit the hardest, and scientists warned that some of these reefs, particularly those in Guam, could still be at risk of additional damage. During the global event, some 70 percent of the world’s coral reefs were exposed to prolonged periods of unusually warm water temperatures, putting them at risk of bleaching, which occurs when a coral can no longer support its symbiotic partnership with algae and expels it. Corals can sometimes recover from this, but there is a higher rate of die-off than recovery.


The Plasticine

A team of researchers recently attempted an ambitious feat: to estimate just how much plastic has ever been created since humans first began mass-producing the substance. The findings are in, and they aren’t pretty.

In a paper published in Science Advances, the researchers used plastic-production statistics to estimate that an impossible-to-imagine 8,300 million metric tons of plastic have been created since 1950. That’s equivalent to the weight of roughly one billion elephants. Half of that plastic was made in just the past 13 years.

“I think [that’s] the number that captures it best,” Roland Geyer, an author on the study and an industrial ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told The Atlantic magazine.

The bad news doesn’t stop there. More than 75 percent of the plastic that has ever been made has since become waste. And most of that waste is now in landfills – only 9 percent of it has been recycled, mainly because it’s simply cheaper to make new plastics than to reuse old ones. “We cannot continue with business as usual unless we want a planet that is literally covered in plastic,” Geyer said. “I hope this information will be used by policymakers to improve end-of-life management strategies for plastics.”

Recycling would help. But it seems we also need to reconsider just how much plastic we want to continue to create.

4 Oil Exploration, Arctic

The Trump administration in June said that it intended to overturn President Obama’s five-year moratorium on oil drilling in the Artic, and in July approved a plan by energy company Eni US to conduct exploratory drilling in the region. Offshore drilling poses the threat of harmful ocean spills, and scientists, advocates, and even the US Coast Guard have expressed particular concern about drilling in the Arctic region given the remoteness of the area and the lack of infrastructure and personnel available to assist in the event of a spill.

5 Plastic Pollution, China

An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year, with deadly implications for seabirds, fish, and other wildlife. Studies have shown that much of the plastic pollution in the oceans comes from countries where economic development has outpaced the development of waste management infrastructure, including China, from which almost 5 billion pounds of plastic entered the oceans in 2010 alone. Thankfully, nations are beginning to take notice. In June, UN delegates from four of the top plastic-polluting countries – China, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines – drafted a commitment to reduce the amount of land-borne plastic entering the oceans.

6 Overfishing, West Africa

Africa has some of the world’s most overfished offshore regions, and a report released earlier this year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature provides the first comprehensive picture of the extent of overfishing along the continent’s western and central coasts. The report found that a number of important regional fish species, including the c, are at risk of global extinction, which would threaten the food security and livelihoods of millions of people. The authors highlighted the difficulty of monitoring fishing in a region with limited capacity for surveillance and enforcement, and called for increased funding, infrastructure, and governance to better manage key conservation areas.


Under the Microscope

Chimpanzees may be our closest living relative in the animal world (along with bonobos), but that does not guarantee their comfort around humans. A study published in the journal PLOS One this summer suggests that chimpanzees may alter their hunting behavior as a result of human observation, a change that may be attributed to an inherent wariness of newcomers.

photo of a chimpanzeephoto Ronald WoanA new study indicates that human observation of chimpanzees may alter their hunting behavior, raising questions about the ethics of certain field research techniques.

The researchers studied two neighboring “tribes” of chimpanzees that inhabit the same type of habitat in side-by-side territories in Uganda’s Budongo Forest. The “Sonso” tribe, which has been exposed to researchers for more than 25 years, prefers hunting colobus monkeys and tends to hunt in small groups. Chimpanzees in the “Waibira” tribe, which researchers have monitored for only five years, tend to hunt alone for a small deer species called a red duiker. These deer are relatively easy to hunt alone, compared to colobus monkeys, which are easier to hunt in groups.

“The differences in hunting between these communities are dramatic – so we wanted to try to understand why,” Dr. Catherine Hobaiter, a researcher at University of St. Andrews and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Relying on nearly three decades of observation data, the researchers found that members of Sonso tribe used to prefer hunting alone and hunting for deer back in the 1990s when they first became the subject of scientific study. It was only about 15 years ago that they began hunting for colobus again, a common food source for chimpanzees. The researchers believe that something about the presence of humans during the early years of observation disrupted group-hunting practices within the tribe. Only when the community became acclimated to humans did it resume social hunting activities.

The study raises questions about the ethics of direct human observation of wild animals. As observation technology – such as camera traps, drones, and microphones – improves, there may be a strong case for reducing direct field observations. Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, we will be able to learn more about other species while also minimizing our impact on the animals we study.

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