By Jeff Turrentine
Imagine that your doctor sat you down and told you, firmly and unequivocally, that your way of life was putting you at serious risk of heart failure. The only way to reduce this risk and avoid a possibly fatal health catastrophe, she said, was to make some major changes — and to make them right now. First, you had to quit smoking. Second, you had to cut way back on alcohol, greasy foods, and saturated fats. Third, you had to start exercising daily. Fourth, you had to find new and better ways to manage your stress and lower your blood pressure.
You might very well walk out of her office and say to yourself: Whoa ... this is clearly the wake-up call I needed. I have to reconsider my choices and make these changes, as difficult as they may be. I owe it to myself and the people in my life who love and rely on me.
Then again, you might also say to yourself: Seriously? She expects me to do all that? I've been living this way my whole adult life. I can't stop now. I guess there's just nothing to be done.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world woke up last Monday morning to headlines that added up to a truly sobering prognosis for the world's ecosystems and the human beings who inhabit them. "Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an 'Unprecedented' Pace," warned The New York Times. "Human society under urgent threat from loss of Earth's natural life" was how The Guardian opted to phrase it. The Washington Post didn't pull any punches, either, with its page-one, boldface augury: "One million species face extinction, U.N. report says. And humans will suffer as a result." Even more bluntly, New York magazine went with "Humanity Is About to Kill 1 Million Species in a Globe-Spanning Murder-Suicide."
The headlines all refer to a 40-page summary of the United Nations' Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which, when published in its 1,500-page entirety later this year, will detail precisely how fragile life on this planet has become due to various choices made by one species: ours.
Nearly 150 scientists from 50 countries, aided by more than 300 additional experts, completed the assessment. They've run and re-run all the tests. And the results, as all those headlines indicate, aren't good.
To summarize the summary: Over our relatively brief existence, humans have significantly altered three-quarters of the planet's land-based environment and nearly two-thirds of its marine environment. More than a third of the world's land surface and nearly three-quarters of its freshwater resources are now dedicated to agricultural or livestock production. Our current habits and activities — very much including, but definitely not limited to, our burning of fossil fuels — have massively disrupted ecosystems and placed approximately a million plant and animal species at risk of extinction. It is the biggest biodiversity threat in all of human history.
When we look more closely at the ecosystemic X-ray, staggering details emerge. The average abundance of native species living in the planet's largest habitats on land has fallen by at least 20 percent, with most of that loss taking place since 1900. Over the past five centuries, at least 680 species of vertebrates have gone extinct, including more than 9 percent of all domesticated livestock breeds. Meanwhile, at sea, we are harvesting a third of all marine fish stocks at unsustainable levels.
In the words of Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) that issued the report, "The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide."
To continue the medical diagnosis metaphor, the next few days represent the moment when humanity is walking out of the doctor's office in a daze. The next few weeks represent the elevator ride down to the ground floor, when we're replaying, in our heads, her words of warning. And the next few months represent our short ride home, during which we try to process what we've heard and almost reflexively veer toward one or the other of the aforementioned responses: Either we change, or we do nothing.
Hopefully we'll be telling ourselves: We can do this.
The alternative response — We can't — isn't really a response at all. It's the absence of one. Like a thoughtful physician, IPBES's Watson doesn't intend to give us the bad news and just stop there. The report also tells us that "it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global," he said. Through what he labels transformative change — "a fundamental, systemwide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values" — nature "can still be conserved, restored, and used sustainably."
For my part, I will continue to explore the various ways in which humans all over the world are working to restore our ecosystems: the ongoing efforts to save endangered species; to conserve the Canadian boreal, tropical rainforests, coral reefs, and other besieged habitats; to implement smarter land use practices; and to manage fisheries more sustainably. We need to integrate such solutions into a holistic regimen that will move us toward the "transformative change" we so desperately need for our own survival. You can't stave off a heart attack with a series of half measures; it's not enough to cut back from two packs of cigarettes a day to one, or to drop five pounds when you really need to drop 50.
But for now, in the immediate aftermath of our diagnosis, let's just agree that as bad as the situation is, we really do have what it takes to heal ourselves. Let's take a deep breath, clear our minds, open our eyes, and commit ourselves to meaningful change. There really is no other choice.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The U.S. reported more than 55,000 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, in a sign that the outbreak is not letting up as the Fourth of July weekend kicks off.
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By Jason Bruck
Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Sunscreen pollution is accelerating the demise of coral reefs globally by causing permanent DNA damage to coral. gonzalo martinez / iStock / Getty Images Plus
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Fireworks have taken a lot of heat recently. In South Dakota, fire experts have said President Trump's plan to hold a fireworks show is dangerous and public health experts have criticized the lack of plans to enforce mask wearing or social distancing. Now, a new study shows that shooting off fireworks at home may expose you and your family to dangerous levels of lead, copper and other toxins.
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By Ashutosh Pandey
Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons (Mt), or 7.3 kilogram per person, a UN report showed on Thursday.
Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
Europe Leads the Way<p>While most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt) in 2019, Europe led the charts on a per person basis with 16.2 kg per capita, the report said.</p><p>But the continent also recorded the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-declares-war-on-e-waste/a-51108790" target="_blank">highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling</a> rate at 42.5%, still below its target of 65%. Europe was well ahead of the others on this front. Asia ranked second with 11.7%.</p><p>The authors said while more that 70% of the world's population was covered by some form of e-waste policy or laws, not much was being done toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations to encourage the take-up of a collection and recycling infrastructure due to lack of investment and political motivation.</p><p>"You have to think about new economic systems," said Kühr.</p><p>One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products, but only the service they offer. The device would remain the property of the maker, who would then have an interest in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment. The maker would also be interested in designing his products in such a way that they are easier to repair and easier to recycle, Kühr said.</p>
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