A Year of Climate Change, as (Not) Presented by the EPA
By Jeff Turrentine
"This page is being updated." So begins the message that has greeted visitors to the climate change page on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) website for just over a year now. "We are currently updating our website to reflect EPA's priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt."
As the Washington Post recently reported, those "priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt" would seem to include withholding important information about climate change—both its causes and its effects—from the general public, perhaps in perpetuity. Two (anonymous) employees of the agency have glumly confirmed that the "update" is a sham. "There's definitely no progress on the website," one of them told the Post. "I'm not sure anyone's even addressing it."
I was curious: What climate-connected events and milestones have occurred while the page has sat stagnant? As agency officials spent the past year pretending to mull over their position on climate change, what kind of a year did the rest of us have?
As it happens, the period from May 2017 to May 2018, from a climate change perspective, has been one of the most devastating and costly 12-month spans ever recorded. The EPA really picked one hell of a year to stop informing the American people about the single-greatest threat to the environment. Here's a recap.
Record-Breaking Heat Around the Globe
The EPA may have determined that 2017 was the year global warming should go underground, but the atmosphere didn't listen. According to NASA, 2017 was incontrovertibly the second-hottest year on earth since 1880, when such record-keeping first began. Europeans understandably bestowed the name Lucifer on a summer heat wave that reached as high as 117 degrees in some parts of Spain and brought lengthy stretches of triple-digit temperatures to many other countries. India continued its miserable, years-long streak of deathly hot summers, with the mercury rising as high as 120 degrees in some areas; hundreds of deaths all over the subcontinent were attributed to the heat. Here in the U.S., we experienced our third-hottest year on record, with five states—Arizona, Georgia, New Mexico, North Carolina and South Carolina—reaching new all-time highs.
Arctic Ice Loss, Out of Control
Glacial is a word you might well use to describe the pace at which the EPA's webmasters are working to update the agency's climate change page. Unfortunately, it is also a word that's becoming less and less apposite for describing the home of glaciers: the Arctic. According to the National Snow & Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice extent for April of 2018 was measured at 980,000 square kilometers below average—meaning that this year has tied 2016 for the lowest April sea ice extent on record. In plain language: There's less ice atop Arctic waters right now than ever before in the nearly 40 years that we've been keeping track of such a thing, save for two years ago, when it was about the same.
The Costliest Wildfire Season in U.S. History
As the EPA was reconsidering its "priorities" regarding how to address climate change, nearly 50,000 separate wildfires were consuming millions of acres, destroying tens of thousands of structures, and killing dozens throughout the American West. The U.S. Forest Service spent more than $2 billion fighting these fires last year, a new record. In California, where the 2017 wildfire season lasted well past Christmas (it usually subsides around October), the damage—exacerbated by years of drought and high temperatures—was enough to make it the worst season in the state's history. And as the 2018 wildfire season approaches, analysts are already making ominous forecasts.
The Costliest Hurricane Season in U.S. History
While EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was openly pushing for a series of public debates on the science of climate change—a dumb-to-begin-with scheme that we've just now learned would have been rigged to favor climate skeptics—Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria were laying waste to giant swaths of the U.S. and the Caribbean. They killed more than a thousand people, damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, and cost our country more than $282 billion. In Puerto Rico, where Maria hit last September, many Americans are still living without water and electricity. Residents there and on the Gulf Coast have spent the past nine months trying to rebuild after what experts have deemed the fifth-most catastrophic hurricane season since such record-keeping began—and the most expensive ever. Meanwhile, the 2018 hurricane season begins on June 1and experts are already predicting it to be "above average" in activity.
A Fired-Up Resistance
The past 12 months were marked by a string of menacing superlatives: most, worst, hottest, driest, priciest, even melty-est. But amazingly, it wasn't all bad. If our natural systems spent much of the past year in open revolt, our human systems have risen to the occasion. In the vacuum created by the Trump administration's shameful inaction, states, other countries, and even corporations have stepped up. Last July, for instance, Gov. Jerry Brown announced that California would be hosting a global climate action summit this September in San Francisco, with the purpose of moving members of the international community—including the U.S., with or without the support of its federal government—toward the goals spelled out in the Paris climate agreement. (You remember, the one President Trump pulled out of last June).
Climate change keeps happening whether the EPA acknowledges it or not. Fortunately, the global, national and local fights against it continue, too, whether the U.S. government takes part in them ... or not.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>