Will a $26M Robot Dolphin Replace Captive Animals in Aquariums and Theme Parks?
Life-sized, ultra-realistic robotic dolphins could help end animal captivity by replacing living creatures in aquariums and theme parks.
Edge Innovations, a New Zealand company that created of some of Hollywood's most famous animatronic animals from movies like "Free Willy" and "Flipper," has developed robot dolphins that look and act almost identical to their living counterparts. This is "bringing art and technology to life," its website says.
Edge hopes its designs will be used in movies and aquatic theme parks instead of living animals. If the idea is expanded, swimmers could dive with life-like robot dolphins, great white sharks, or even Jurrasic-era marine reptiles, The Independent reported.
According to The Guardian, the first phase of the prototype's development was sponsored by a Chinese development group that pledged in a statement to use the robotic animals instead of live ones in new aquariums being built.
Test audiences were unable to tell that the dolphin was not real, The Guardian reported. The model dolphin is controlled remotely by humans and can interact as a natural dolphin would.
"Everyone wants to know if using an animatronic dolphin is different than using a real dolphin, Roger Holzberg, Edge's creative director of their animatronics program, told Aljazeera. "The truth is, in many ways, they're the same."
But, because it is a robot, Edge's dolphin can also nod yes in response to a child, swim in a tiny tank in a mall or a chlorinated pool, and withstand very close contact that would be harmful to real animals, The Guardian reported.
"We realized that using animatronics instead of using live animals enabled us to create characters that truly were loveable, that could really deliver on the idea that we won't hurt what we fall in love with," Holzberg told Aljazeera.
Animatronics could also help bring back audiences turned off by aquatic parks using live animals and turn the industry around, reported Reuters.
"The marine park industry has had falling revenues for over a decade due to ethical concerns and the cost of live animals, yet the public hunger to learn about and experience these animals is still as strong as ever," Holzberg told The Guardian. "We believe that it's time to reimagine this industry and that this approach can be more humane, and more profitable at the same time."
The cost would be around $26.3 million per animal, four times the amount of a natural dolphin.
"We have to persuade [potential clients] that it is a profitable business, even more profitable than live animals," Li Wang, a business developer for Edge, told The Guardian. Wang pointed out that the robots do not require the same expensive caretaking or carefully monitored water temperatures as real dolphins do. Edge noted also that the robots will "outlive" their wild counterparts, who typically die within 20 years in captivity, the news report said. Wild dolphins live between 30 to 50 years.
According to Reuters, animal rights group PETA is in support and even held an event featuring the prototype dolphin.
PETA activist Katherine Sullivan told The Independent that the invention could help usher in the end of "cruel 'swim with dolphins' programs, for which young dolphins are traumatically abducted from their ocean homes and frantic mothers, sometimes illegally."
"In 2020, cutting-edge technology allows us to experience nature without harming it," PETA's UK director, Elisa Allen, told The Guardian.
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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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