Lemurs and Northern Right Whales Near Brink of Extinction
A new analysis by scientists at the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that lemurs and the North Atlantic right whale are on the brink of extinction.
For lemurs, the analysis found that almost one-third of the species in Madagascar are critically endangered while 98 percent are threatened or worse, according to the IUCN's updated Red List of Threatened Species. The demise of lemurs is largely attributed to deforestation and hunting on the giant island off eastern Africa, conservationists said Thursday, as the AP reported.
To put that in numbers, instead of percentages, 33 lemur species are critically endangered, with 103 of the 107 surviving species threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN. The updated list now has 13 species pushed into the critically endangered category due to human activity.
The IUCN also says there were fewer than 250 mature North Atlantic right whales believed to be alive in 2018, marking a 15-percent drop since 2011. That number includes about only 100 breeding females.
"At the heart of this crisis is a dire need for alternative, sustainable livelihoods to replace the current reliance on deforestation and unsustainable use of wildlife," Grethel Aguilar, IUCN's acting director general, said in a statement, as The Washington Post reported. "These findings really bring home the urgent need for an ambitious post-2020 biodiversity framework that drives effective conservation action."
At the end of June, one dead whale was spotted off the coast of New Jersey. That six-month-old calf had been struck several times on the head, suggesting one or possibly two vessel collisions, according to The New York Times. Increasingly, collisions with ships, entanglements in fishing nets, and underwater noise pollution are killing the animals, which rely on echolocation for basic activities such as feeding, communicating and finding mates, as The Washington Post reported.
The North Atlantic right whale also faces an increased threat from the climate crisis. The IUCN says that warming ocean temperatures have likely pushed the species' main prey species further north during summer, into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where the whales are more exposed to accidental encounters with ships and also at high risk of entanglement in crab-pot ropes.
The whale's preferred home, in the Gulf of Maine's deep waters, has warmed nearly 9 degrees Fahrenheit since 2004, faster than 99 percent of the world's oceans for much of this century, according to The New York Times.
The prospects are bleak for the North Atlantic right whale now that President Trump lifted restrictions on commercial fishing in a key area of the whale's habitat.
"Unless we act decisively to turn the tide, the next time the right whale's Red List status changes it will be to 'extinct,'" Jane Davenport, a senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement, as The Washington Post reported.
The deaths of 30 Atlantic right whales were confirmed as human-caused between 2012 and 2016, according to the IUCN report, and all but four were caused by entanglement in fishing gear.
Peter Corkeron, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, has chronicled the gruesome deaths of right whales as the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's research program for large whales for the last decade. He told the New York Times he feared the listing would have little impact.
"A lot of the dynamic was bad anyway, and under Trump it just got worse," Corkeron said. "People are terrified to do anything about right whales at the moment."
The update to the "Red List of Threatened Species" shows that 32,441 species are threatened out of a total of 120,372 on the list.
"We have to take bold and rapid action to reduce the huge damage we're doing to the planet if we're going to save whales, frogs, lemurs and ultimately ourselves," said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, as The Washington Post reported. "We really can do all of these things, but we need world leaders to stand up and do them."
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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