Is It Too Late to Save ‘America’s Amazon’ in Alabama?
By Tara Lohan
When longtime environmental journalist Ben Raines started writing a book about the biodiversity in Alabama, the state had 354 fish species known to science. When he finished writing 10 years later, that number had jumped to 450 thanks to a bounty of new discoveries. Crawfish species leaped from 84 to 97 during the same time.
It's indicative of a larger trend: Alabama is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, but few people know it. And even scientists are still discovering the rich diversity of life that exists there, particularly in the Mobile River basin.
All this newly discovered biodiversity is also gravely at risk from centuries of exploitation, which is what prompted Raines to write his new book, Saving America's Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation's Most Biodiverse River System.
The Revelator talked with Raines about why this region is so biodiverse, why it's been overlooked, and what efforts are being made to protect it.
What makes Alabama, and particularly the Mobile River system, so biodiverse?
The past kind of defines the present in Alabama.
During the ice ages, when much of the nation was frozen under these giant glaciers, Alabama wasn't. The glaciers petered out by the time they hit Tennessee. It was much colder but things here didn't die.
Everything that had evolved in Alabama over successive ice ages is still here. We have a salamander, the Red Hills salamander, that branched off from all other salamander trees 50 million years ago. So this is an ancient salamander, but it's still here because it never died out.
The other thing you have here, in addition to not freezing, is that it's really warm. Where I am in Mobile, we're on the same latitude as Cairo. So the same sun that bakes the Sahara Desert is baking here.
But we also have the rainiest climate in the United States along Alabama's coast. It actually rains about 70 inches a year here. By comparison, Seattle gets about 55 inches. It makes for a sort of greenhouse effect where we have this intense sun and then plenty of water. Alabama has more miles of rivers and streams than any other state.
Things just grow here.
The pitcher plant bogs of Alabama, for example, are literally among the most diverse places on the planet. In the 1960s a scientist went out and counted every species of flowering plant in an Alabama pitcher plant bog. He came up with 63. That was the highest total found on Earth in a square meter for a decade or more.
For a long time the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was thought to be the center of oak tree diversity in the world because they have about 15 species of oaks in the confines of the park. Well, two years ago scientists working in this area called the Red Hills along the Alabama River found 20 species of oak trees on a single hillside. It's just staggering.
Why is Alabama's rich biodiversity not well known or studied?
The state was never known for being a biodiverse place until the early 2000s, when NatureServe came out with this big survey of all the states. It surprised everyone because it showed Alabama leading in aquatic diversity in all the categories — more species of fish, turtles, salamanders, mussels, snails.
This blew everybody away because Alabama in everybody's mind is the civil rights protests of the 1960s, the KKK, steel mills and cotton fields. But that's not what's in Alabama, that's what we've done to Alabama since we've been here.
I think part of it also has to do with being a long way from Harvard and Yale and Stanford and the great research institutions that were sending biologists all over the world. Alabama just wasn't really studied or explored.
Again and again, the story in Alabama is that nobody has ever looked.
That's one of E.O. Wilson's big messages about Alabama. He is our most famous living scientist, I would say, or certainly biologist. He grew up here, and now in his twilight years his big mission has become trying to save Alabama. And he describes it as less explored than Borneo and says we have no idea what miracle cures and things we may find in the Mobile River system, which is what I call "America's Amazon."
Iris bloom play a significant role in the swamp ecosystem helping to hold the mud in place. © Ben Raines
As you write about in your book, all this newly discovered biodiversity is at risk. What's happening?
Alabama is in a very precarious situation. We have the worst environmental laws in the country and the state environmental agency has been the lowest funded of any state going back decades. So there's very little enforcement. Maybe that's because nobody realized how rich this place was in terms of diversity, so there was no move to protect it.
But Alabama's early history, from the discovery of coal, which happened in the 1800s, has been one of exploitation. Massive amounts of forests were taken down in the 1800s for cotton fields. This state produced more cotton than any other back then, and that took a huge natural toll. And typically it's people from other places, or even other countries, coming here to harvest the natural resources.
When I was born in Alabama in 1970, there were 15 steel mills in Birmingham going full blast. The air and water pollution from the steel mills and the coal mines were on a scale that's almost unbelievable.
So even when we talk about the biodiversity we have now, we can't even imagine what we've already lost. And this history of exploitation is still going on today. The largest factory built in the United States in the last 25 years was built in Alabama.
Alabama is inviting industry — and industry is coming because you can get a permit here in 30 to 60 days from the state environmental agency. That same permit in California would probably take 10 to 20 years to secure.
One example is the way Alabama does water permits: There's no limit on how much water industries can take, no matter what environmental havoc may occur.
A couple of years ago we had droughts so bad we actually saw some of the state's major rivers run dry. The Cahaba River is 150 miles long and it has 120 fish species — more than in the entire state of California.
And during this drought, the industries and golf courses were allowed to suck so much water out of the river it went dry. It only started flowing again downstream from a sewage plant. The entire flow of one of the most diverse rivers in America was the outfall from a sewage plant. It's the kind of thing you can't imagine happening in the United States, but it happened here and there were no laws to stop it.
Are there forces pushing back against this, and are people beginning to see the value of Alabama's biodiversity?
Environmental groups here are having an amazing growth spurt. Twenty years ago our Baykeeper group, which is part of the Riverkeeper alliance, was a one-woman show.
Now it has about a dozen employees and a huge membership. There are many other environmental groups now that have appeared and are doing good work all over the state.
That's a big change.
As ecotourism is spreading across the country, it's starting to happen here, too. The state is quickly catching up. There was great outrage among the populace when I wrote a story about the rivers running dry and now there's an effort at the state level to make a water plan and to actually limit how much water industry can take.
A red-wing blackbird atop the stalk of a lotus blossom. © Ben Raines
It sounds like there's still a long way to go for Alabama to catch up with environmental regulations — what else would you like to see happen?
I write a lot in the book about wetlands because so much of our diversity is in these edges where water and land meet. I would like to see the edges protected, but of course the problem is that's where people want to be. They want to live on the river, on the bay, on the beach. When you couple that with rising sea levels, there's a collision that's coming between people and the edges.
We have to protect that intertidal habitat now and then buy the uplands behind it to get ready for sea-level rise because otherwise our coastal habitats will have nowhere to go.
I would also really like to see Alabama adopt the pollution standards that you see in the surrounding states. For reasons that escape me, the levels of PCBs in fish we allow people to consume before we issue a warning is 10 times higher than any other state. There's no scientific reason why we would be so far out of step with our neighboring states.
And then there's the extinction issue. The rate of extinctions in Alabama is roughly double that seen anywhere else in the continental United States. It has more extinctions than Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee put together.
We're going to go from being the king of diversity to the king of extinctions. And that'll be a terrible thing not just for Alabama, but for what we know about nature. Alabama has more than twice as many species per square mile as any other state. And if we start losing that diversity, we're going to have no idea what we've lost.
What do you hope people do after reading your book?
I would hope they come to Alabama to see some of these things, because that's what will make the powers that be care — when ecotourism becomes an industry that can rival industrial manufacturing, then ecotourism will carry as much weight among the lawmakers.
I've been here about 20 years, much of that time as the environment reporter for the state's three biggest newspapers. Those papers were the environment's best friend. But they've been basically destroyed. The papers are just too anemic. In Mobile, we had a newsroom with 90 people in it, and now they have three reporters. The last thing you're going to see is an in-depth environmental story anymore.
So the book is a love letter and it's a call to arms, and it's saying, "love this place, but help."
I guess at the end of the day, the story in Alabama about the natural world has been a story of taking and never giving back or appreciating what was here in the first place. That's what has to change. Because if you just keep taking, you know how it will end. There'll be nothing left.
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By Ajit Niranjan
World leaders and businesses are not putting enough money into adapting to dangerous changes in the climate and must "urgently step up action," according to a report published Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
Adaptation Has a Long Way to Go<p>The Adaptation Gap Report, now in its 5th year, finds "huge gaps" between what world leaders agreed to do under the 2015 <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/5-years-paris-climate-agreement/a-55901139" target="_blank">Paris Agreement</a> and what they need to do to keep their citizens safe from climate change.</p><p>A review by the Global Adaptation Mapping Initiative of almost 1,700 examples of climate adaptation found that a third were in the early stages of implementation — and only 3% had reached the point of reducing risks.</p><p>Disasters like storms and droughts have grown stronger than they should be because people have warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels and chopping down rainforests. The world has heated by more than 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution and is on track to warm by about 3°C by the end of the century.</p><p>If world leaders <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-change-performance-index-how-far-have-we-come/a-55846406" target="_blank">deliver on recent pledges</a> to bring emissions to <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/joe-bidens-climate-pledges-are-they-realistic/a-56173821" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">net-zero</a> by the middle of the century, they could almost limit warming to 2°C. The target of the Paris Agreement, however, is to reach a target well below that — ideally 1.5°C. </p><p>There are two ways, scientists say, to lessen the pain that warming will bring: mitigating climate change by cutting carbon pollution and adapting to the hotter, less stable world it brings.</p>
The Cost of Climate Adaptation<p>About three-quarters of the world's countries have national plans to adapt to climate change, according to the report, but most lack the regulations, incentives and funding to make them work.</p><p>More than a decade ago, rich countries most responsible for climate change pledged to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 in climate finance for poorer countries. UNEP says it is "impossible to answer" whether that goal has been met, while an OECD study published in November found that between 2013 and 2018, the target sum had not once been achieved. Even in 2018, which recorded the highest level of contributions, rich countries were still $20 billion short.</p><p>The yearly adaptation costs for developing countries alone are estimated at $70 billion. This figure is expected to at least double by the end of the decade as temperatures rise, and will hit $280-500 billion by 2050, according to the report.</p><p>But failing to adapt is even more expensive.</p><p>When powerful storms like cyclones Fani and Bulbul struck South Asia, early-warning systems allowed governments to move millions of people out of danger at short notice. Storms of similar strength that have hit East Africa, like <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/zimbabwe-after-cyclone-idai-building-climate-friendly-practices/a-54251885" target="_blank">cyclones Idai</a> and Kenneth, have proved more deadly because fewer people were evacuated before disaster struck.</p><p>The Global Commission on Adaptation estimated in 2019 that a $1.8 trillion investment in early warning systems, buildings, agriculture, mangroves and water resources could reap $7.1 trillion in benefits from economic activity and avoided costs when disasters strike.</p>
Exploring Nature-Based Solutions<p>The report also highlights how restoring nature can protect people from climate change while benefiting local communities and ecology.</p><p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-fires-risk-climate-change-bushfires-australia-california-extreme-weather-firefighters/a-54817927" target="_blank">Wildfires</a>, for instance, could be made less punishing by restoring grasslands and regularly burning the land in controlled settings. Indigenous communities from Australia to Canada have done this for millennia in a way that encourages plant growth while reducing the risk of uncontrolled wildfires. Reforestation, meanwhile, can stop soil erosion and flooding during heavy rainfall while trapping carbon and protecting wildlife.</p><p>In countries like Brazil and Malaysia, governments could better protect coastal homes from floods and storms by restoring <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/mudflats-mangroves-and-marshes-the-great-coastal-protectors/a-50628747" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mangroves</a> — tangled trees that grow in tropical swamps. As well as anchoring sediments and absorbing the crash of waves, mangroves can store carbon, help fish populations grow and boost local economies through tourism. </p><p>While nature-based solutions are often cheaper than building hard infrastructure, their funding makes up a "tiny fraction" of adaptation finance, the report authors wrote. An analysis of four global climate funds that spent $94 billion on adaptation projects found that just $12 billion went to nature-based solutions and little of this was spent implementing projects on the ground.</p><p>But little is known about their long-term effectiveness. At higher temperatures, the effects of climate change may be so great that they overwhelm natural defenses like mangroves.</p><p>By 2050, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/rising-sea-levels-should-we-let-the-ocean-in-a-50704953/a-50704953" target="_blank">coastal floods</a> that used to hit once a century will strike many cities every year, according to a 2019 report on oceans by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the gold standard on climate science. This could force dense cities on low-lying coasts to build higher sea walls, like in Indonesia and South Korea, or evacuate entire communities from sinking islands, like in Fiji.</p><p>It's not a case of replacing infrastructure, said Matthias Garschagen, a geographer at Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany and IPCC author, who was not involved in the UNEP report. "The case for nature-based solutions is often misinterpreted as a battle... but they're part of a toolkit that we've ignored for too long."</p>
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By Jill Joyce
Maybe you're trying to eat healthier these days, aiming to get enough of the good stuff and limit the less-good stuff. You're paying attention to things like fiber and fat and vitamins … and anti-nutrients?
What Are Anti-Nutrients?<p><a href="https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/anti-nutrients/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Anti-nutrients are substances</a> that naturally occur in plant and animal foods.</p><p>The name comes from how they function in your body once you eat them. They <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/food-science/antinutrients" target="_blank">block or interfere with how your body</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1631/jzus.B0710640" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">absorbs other nutrients</a> out of your gut and into your bloodstream so you can then use them. Thus, anti-nutrients may decrease the amount of nutrients you actually get from your food. They most commonly interfere with the absorption of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc</a>.</p><p>Plants evolved these <a href="https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/070111p54.shtml" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">compounds as a defensive mechanism</a> against insects, parasites, bacteria and fungi. For example, some anti-nutrients can cause a food to taste bitter; animals won't want to eat it, leaving the seed, for instance, to provide nourishment for future seedlings. Some anti-nutrients block the digestion of seeds that are eaten. The seeds disperse when they come out the other end in the animal's fecal matter and can go on to grow new plants. Both of these survival tactics help the plant species grow and spread.</p><p><span></span>In terms of foods that people eat, you'll most commonly find anti-nutrients naturally occurring in whole grains and legumes.</p>
Time for an Image Makeover as Health Enhancers<p>Despite sounding scary, studies show that anti-nutrients are not of concern unless consumed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcs.2014.01.010" target="_blank">ultra, unrealistically high amounts</a> – and they have numerous health benefits.</p><p>Anti-nutrients are currently undergoing a change in image very similar to the one dietary fiber experienced. At one point, scientists thought dietary fiber was bad for people. Since fiber could bind to nutrients and pull them out of the digestive tract in poop, it seemed like something to avoid. To address this perceived issue, grain processing in the late 1800s removed fiber from foods.</p><p>But now scientists know that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x" target="_blank">dietary fiber is incredibly important</a> and encourage its consumption. Eating plenty of fiber lowers the risks of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some gastrointestinal diseases.</p><p>In the same way, rather than something to avoid, many anti-nutrients are now considered health-promoting nutraceuticals and functional foods due to their numerous benefits. Here's an introduction to some of the most frequently eaten anti-nutrients that come with benefits:</p><ul><li><a href="https://doi.org/10.1089/109662004322984734" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Saponins, common in legumes</a>, can boost the immune system, reduce risk of cancer, lower cholesterol, lower blood sugar response to foods, result in fewer cavities, reduce risk of kidney stones and combat blood clotting seen in heart attacks and strokes.</li><li><a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcs.2014.01.010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Lectins, found in cereal grains and legumes</a>, are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers and becoming overweight or obese.</li><li><a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/10408699891274273" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tannins, commonly found in teas, coffees and processed meats and cheeses</a>, are antioxidants that can inhibit growth of bacteria, viruses, fungi and yeast and may decrease cholesterol levels and blood pressure.</li><li><a href="https://doi.org/10.1631/jzus.B0710640" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Phytates, found in wheat, barley, rice and corn</a>, are associated with increased immune function and cancer cell death, as well as reduced cancer cell growth and spread. They also have antioxidant properties and can reduce inflammation.</li><li>Finally, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1024/0300-98184.108.40.206" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">glucosinates, found in brassica vegetables</a> like cauliflower, inhibit tumor cell growth.</li></ul><p>Oxalates are one of the few anti-nutrients with mostly negative impacts on the body. They are <a href="https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/aa166321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">found in lots of common foods</a>, including legumes, beets, berries, cranberries, oranges, chocolate, tofu, wheat bran, soda, coffee, tea, beer, dark green vegetables and sweet potatoes. The negative impacts of oxalates include binding to calcium in the digestive tract and removing it from the body in bowel movements. Oxalates can also <a href="https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/aa166321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">increase the risk of kidney stones</a> in some people.</p>
Fitting Anti-Nutrients Into a Healthy Diet<p>Overall, comparing the benefits to the drawbacks, anti-nutrient pros actually outweigh the cons. The healthy foods that contain them – mainly fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes – should be encouraged not avoided.</p><p>Anti-nutrients become a concern only if these foods are consumed in ultra-high amounts, <a href="https://www.ars.usda.gov/research/project/?accnNo=426312" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">which is very unlikely</a> for most adults and children in the U.S. Additionally, a large proportion of anti-nutrients are removed or lost from foods people eat <a href="https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/anti-nutrients/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as they're processed and cooked</a>, especially if soaking, blanching, boiling or other high-heat processes are involved.</p><p>Vegetarians and vegans may be at higher risk of negative effects from anti-nutrients because their diet relies heavily on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. But these <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">plant-based diets are still among the healthiest</a> and are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and numerous types of cancers.</p><p>Vegetarians and vegans can take a few steps to help counteract anti-nutrients' effects on their absorption of particular nutrients:</p><ul><li>Pair high iron <a href="https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/130.5.1378S" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">and zinc</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.afnr.2014.11.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foods with</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/59.5.1233S" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foods high in vitamin C</a> (examples: meatballs with tomato sauce, tomato-based chili with beans).</li><li><a href="https://www.jblearning.com/catalog/productdetails/9780763779764?jblsearch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Soak legumes before cooking</a>.</li><li><a href="https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/70.3.543s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Time dairy intake</a> such that it is not always paired with high oxalate foods.</li><li>Purchase dairy products that are fortified with calcium.</li><li>Consider a multivitamin-mineral supplement with about 100% of the daily recommended dose of nutrients (check the nutrition facts panel) as nutrition insurance if you are worried, but be sure to talk to your doctor first.<em></em></li></ul><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/jill-joyce-1172925" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Jill Joyce</a> is an assistant professor of Public Health Nutrition at Oklahoma State University.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Jill Joyce does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/anti-nutrients-theyre-part-of-a-normal-diet-and-not-as-scary-as-they-sound-149229" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Conversation</a>.</em></p>
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