By Lorraine Chow
The summer of 2018 was intense: deadly wildfires, persistent drought, killer floods and record-breaking heat. Although scientists exercise great care before linking individual weather events to climate change, the rise in global temperatures caused by human activities has been found to increase the severity, likelihood and duration of such conditions.
Globally, 2018 is on pace to be the fourth-hottest year on record. Only 2015, 2016 and 2017 were hotter. The Paris climate agreement aims to hold temperature rise below 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, but if humankind carries on its business-as-usual approach to climate change, there's a 93 percent chance we're barreling toward a world that is 4 degrees Celsius warmer by the end of the century, a potentially catastrophic level of warming.
A Warning and a Reckoning
In 1992, 1,700 scientists around the world issued a chilling "warning to humanity." The infamous letter declared that humans were on a "collision course" with the natural world if they did not rein in their environmentally damaging activities.
Such apocalyptic thinking might be easy to mock, and not entirely helpful in inspiring political action if end times are nigh. In 2017, however, more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries co-signed their names to an updated—and even bleaker—version of the 1992 manifesto.
The latest version, titled "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice," asserts that most of the environmental challenges raised in the original letter—i.e., depletion of freshwater sources, overfishing, plummeting biodiversity, unsustainable human population growth—remain unsolved and are "getting far worse."
"Especially troubling is the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising [greenhouse gases] from burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and agricultural production—particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption," the paper states.
"Moreover," the authors wrote, "We have unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century."
But they stressed that, "Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out."
More recently, President Trump's own administration released on November 23 the 1,600-page Fourth National Climate Assessment, a quadrennial report compiled by 13 federal agencies. This report paints a particularly grim picture, including more frequent droughts, floods, wildfires and extreme weather, declining crop yields, the rise of disease-carrying insects and rising seas—all of which could reduce U.S. gross domestic product by a tenth by the end of the century.
So what we saw this summer? Unless humanity gets its act together, we can expect much worse to come. Here's a peek into our climate-addled future.
1. Species Extinction
The Amazon, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, could lose about 70 percent of its plant and amphibian species and more than 60 percent of its birds, mammals and reptile species from unchecked climate change, according to a 2018 study by the University of East Anglia, the James Cook University and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which analyzed the impact of climate change on nearly 80,000 species of plants, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians inhabiting the WWF's 35 "Priority Places" for conservation.
The study's most alarming projection was for the Miombo Woodlands in central and Southern Africa, one of the priority places most vulnerable to climate change. If global temperatures rose 4.5 degrees Celsius, the researchers projected the loss of 90 percent of amphibians and 80 percent or more of plants, birds, mammals and reptiles.
This incredible loss of biodiversity affects humans, too. "This is not simply about the disappearance of certain species from particular places, but about profound changes to ecosystems that provide vital services to hundreds of millions of people," the authors warned.
2. Food Insecurity and Nutritional Deficiencies
While climate change could actually benefit colder parts of the world with longer growing seasons, tropical and subtropical regions in Africa, South America, India and Europe could lose vast chunks of arable land. For coastal countries, rising seas could inundate farming land and drinking water with salt.
Staple crops such as wheat, rice, maize and soybeans, which provide two-thirds of the world's caloric intake, are sensitive to temperature and precipitation and to rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. A sweeping 2017 study showed that every degree-Celsius of warming will reduce average global yields of wheat by 6 percent, rice by 3.2 percent, maize by 7.4 percent and soybeans by 3.1 percent.
What's more, according to a recent paper, carbon dioxide levels expected by 2050 will make staple crops such as rice and wheat less nutritious. This could result in 175 million people becoming zinc deficient (which can cause a wide array of health impacts, including impaired growth and immune function and impotence) and 122 million people becoming protein deficient (which can cause edema, fat accumulation in liver cells, loss of muscle mass and in children, stunted growth). Additionally, the researchers found that more than 1 billion women and children could lose a large portion of their dietary iron intake, putting them at increased risk of anemia and other diseases.
3. Farewell to Coastal Cities and Island Nations
Unless we cut heat-trapping greenhouse gases, scientists predict sea levels could rise up to three feet by 2100, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment report.
This could bring high tides and surges from strong storms, and be devastating for the millions of people living in coastal areas. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a report earlier this year that predicted parts of Miami, New York City and San Francisco could flood every day by 2100, under a sea-level rise scenario of three feet.
Entire countries could also be swallowed by the sea due to global warming. Kiribati, a nation consisting of 33 atolls and reef islands in the South Pacific, is expected to be one of the first.
Kiribati won't be alone. At least eight islands have already disappeared into the Pacific Ocean due to rising sea levels since 2016, and an April study said that most coral atolls will be uninhabitable by the mid-21st century.
4. Social Conflict and Mass Migration
In 2017, New York Magazine Deputy Editor David Wallace-Wells wrote an alarming and widely read essay called "The Uninhabitable Earth" that focused almost entirely on worst-case climate scenarios. He discussed that, with diminished resources and increased migration caused by flooding, "social conflict could more than double this century."
The article's scientific merit has been fiercely debated, but the World Bank did conclude in March 2018 that water scarcity, crop failure and rising sea levels could displace 143 million people by 2050. The report focused on Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, which represent 55 percent of the developing world's population. Unsurprisingly, the poorest and most climate-vulnerable areas will be hardest hit.
5. Lethal Heat
Today, around 30 percent of the global population suffers deadly levels of heat and humidity for at least 20 days a year, a 2017 analysis showed. If emissions continue increasing at current rates, the researchers suggested 74 percent of the global population—three in four people—will experience more than 20 days of lethal heat waves.
"Our attitude towards the environment has been so reckless that we are running out of good choices for the future," Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the study's lead author, told National Geographic.
"For heatwaves, our options are now between bad or terrible," he added. "Many people around the world are already paying the ultimate price of heatwaves."
6. Surging Wildfires
The Camp Fire, which burned more than 150,000 acres in Butte County in November, was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California's history, killing at least 85 people. The Mendocino Complex Fire, which started in July and torched roughly 300,000 acres in Northern California, was the largest fire in the state's modern history. The second-largest was 2017's Thomas Fire, which burned 281,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
But the Golden State's fires will only get worse, according to California's Fourth Climate Change Assessment released by the governor's office in August. If greenhouse gases continue rising, large fires that burn more than 25,000 acres will increase by 50 percent by the end of the century, and the volume of acres that will be burned by wildfires in an average year will increase by 77 percent, the report said.
"Higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snowmelt typically cause soils to be drier for longer, increasing the likelihood of drought and a longer wildfire season, particularly in the western United States," The Union of Concerned Scientists explained in a blog post.
"These hot, dry conditions also increase the likelihood that wildfires will be more intense and long-burning once they are started by lightning strikes or human error."
7. Hurricanes: More Frequent, More Intense
It's not currently clear if changes in climate directly led to 2017's major hurricanes, including Harvey, Irma, Maria and Ophelia. What we do know is this: Moist air over warm ocean water is hurricane fuel.
"Everything in the atmosphere now is impacted by the fact that it's warmer than it's ever been," CNN Senior Meteorologist Brandon Miller said. "There's more water vapor in the atmosphere. The ocean is warmer. And all of that really only pushes the impact in one direction, and that is worse: higher surge in storms, higher rainfall in storms."
NOAA concluded this June that, "It is likely that greenhouse warming will cause hurricanes in the coming century to be more intense globally and have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes."
8. Melted Polar Ice and Permafrost
The Arctic is warming at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and continued loss of ice and snow cover "will cause big changes to ocean currents, to circulation of the atmosphere, to fisheries and especially to the air temperature, which will warm up because there isn't any ice cooling the surface anymore," Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at the University of Cambridge, told Public Radio International. "That will have an effect, for instance, on air currents over Greenland, which will increase the melt rate of the Greenland ice sheet."
Not only that, frozen Arctic soil—or permafrost—is starting to melt, causing the release of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It's said that the permafrost holds 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the Earth's atmosphere. Wadhams explained that the fear is that the permafrost will melt in "one rapid go." If that happens, "The amount of methane that comes out will be a huge pulse, and that would have a detectable climate change, maybe 0.6 of a degree. … So, it would be just a big jerk to the global climate."
9. The Spread of Pathogens
Disturbingly, permafrost is full of pathogens, and its melting could unleash once-frozen bacteria and viruses, The Atlantic reported. In 2016, dozens of people were hospitalized and a 12-year-old boy died after an outbreak of anthrax in Siberia. More than 2,000 reindeer were also infected. Anthrax hadn't been seen in the region for 75 years. The cause? Scientists suggested that a heat wave thawed a reindeer carcass that was infected with the disease decades ago, according to NPR.
While we shouldn't get too frightened about Earth's once-frozen pathogens wiping us out (yet), the warming planet has also widened the geographic ranges of ticks, mosquitoes and other organisms that carry disease.
"We now have dengue in southern parts of Texas," George C. Stewart, McKee Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis and chair of the department of veterinary pathobiology at the University of Missouri, told Scientific American. "Malaria is seen at higher elevations and latitudes as temperatures climb. And the cholera agent, Vibrio cholerae, replicates better at higher temperatures."
10. Dead Corals
As the world's largest carbon sink, our oceans bear the brunt of climate change. But the more carbon it absorbs (about 22 million tons a day), the more acidic the waters become. This could put a whole host of marine life at risk, including coral reef ecosystems, the thousands of species that depend on them and the estimated 1 billion people around the globe who rely on healthy reefs for sustenance and income. According to Science, "Researchers predict that with increasing levels of acidification, most coral reefs will be gradually dissolving away by the end of the century."
These climate predictions are worst-case scenarios, but there are many more dangers to consider in our warming world. A report recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change found "evidence for 467 pathways by which human health, water, food, economy, infrastructure and security have been recently impacted by climate hazards such as warming, heatwaves, precipitation, drought, floods, fires, storms, sea-level rise and changes in natural land cover and ocean chemistry."
Half a Degree Matters
Since the 19th century, the Earth has warmed by 1 degree Celsius. Now, a major IPCC special report released in October warns that even just a half-degree more of warming could be disastrous. "Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5ºC or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems," said Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II.
The panel said that "limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society."
With President Trump saying he doesn't believe his own administration's climate report, that sustainable and equitable society remains a distant dream.
Lorraine Chow is a freelance writer and reporter based in South Carolina.
Duke University Study: N.C. Residents Living Near Large Hog Farms Have Elevated Disease, Death Risks
By Olga Naidenko and Sydney Evans
Residents of communities near industrial-scale hog farms in North Carolina face an increased risk of potentially deadly diseases, Duke University scientists reported in a study released this week.
Researchers found that compared to communities without big hog farms, in the communities with the highest hog farm density, there were 30 percent more deaths among patients with kidney disease, 50 percent more deaths among patients with anemia, and 130 percent more deaths among patients with a blood bacterial infection, called sepsis. The communities near the heaviest concentration of large hog farms also had a greater risk of infant mortality and lower birth weight.
Duke scientists analyzed 2007-2013 data for disease-specific hospital admissions, emergency room visits and deaths across North Carolina. They compared the incidence of those health indicators among North Carolinians who live one to three miles from a hog farm to residents who live six to 12 miles away. An estimated 650,000 North Carolinians live within three miles of a large hog farm, according to an EWG geospatial analysis of state data, which was not part of the Duke study.
*Elevated risk of deaths, hospital admissions and emergency room visits from health problems such as anemia, kidney disease, and sepsis, increase for residents living at approximately 1, 3, and 6-mile distances from a hog farm.
Source: EWG, from 'Mortality and Health Outcomes in North Carolina Communities Located in Close Proximity to Hog Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,' NCMedicalJournal.com, September 2018.The study adds a striking level of detail to prior reports of higher frequency of asthma, bacterial infections, high blood pressure and various respiratory and neurological disorders for workers and residents in the vicinity of large concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
Studies like this do not prove that contaminants from hog farms are responsible for these illnesses. Other factors, such as availability of local health care facilities and residents' lifestyles, also play a role. However, the overall evidence shows a strong correlation between the proximity and density of hog CAFOs and nearby residents' health—a strong argument for added public health protections, such as limits on the number, size and locations of factory swine farms.
As the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Waterkeeper Alliance reported in 2016, every year North Carolina's CAFOs produce almost 10 billion gallons of fecal waste, enough to fill more than 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. Much of this waste is stored in open-air pits, then sprayed on farm fields as fertilizer. Manure pits foul the air and water with bacteria, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds.
EWG analyzed the latest data from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality on animal facilities permitted as of January 2018 and residential parcel information available on the NC OneMap GeoSpatial Portal.
We determined that 252,070 homes fall within a three-mile zone from an animal farm or a wet manure storage pit. Based on U.S. Census data showing a statewide average of 2.6 residents per household, an estimated 650,000 or more North Carolinians live within three miles of a hog CAFO.
Click on the map below to see EWG's interactive map of hog CAFOs within three miles of homes in North Carolina.
The most impacted counties are in southeastern North Carolina, where the concentration of pig farms is heaviest. In 2014, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported that African-American, Hispanic and American Indian residents in those counties are disproportionately affected by the air and water pollution from animal farming.
An earlier study, based on the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Service's health surveillance data, found that children attending schools within three miles of a hog farm had more asthma-related symptoms, doctor-diagnosed asthma and asthma-related medical visits than students who attended schools farther away.
The senior author of the new study was Dr. H. Kim Lyerly, the George Barth Geller Professor of Cancer Research; professor of surgery, immunology and pathology; and director of the Environmental Health Scholars Program at Duke University. He emphasized that communities living near hog farms had significantly worse health outcomes, including higher rates of infants with low birth weight.
"Interventions, such as screening and/or early detection, could be employed in these communities to reduce the burden of these diseases," Lyerly said. "The overall benefit to the communities and to the state would be significant."
"The average number of hogs per farm in North Carolina is much higher than in two other states with extensive pig farming, Iowa and Minnesota. Yet, North Carolina's population is greater, which means the number of people affected is substantial," said Dr. Julia Kravchenko, assistant professor in the Duke University Department of Surgery and the primary researcher for the study.
Air and water quality affects communities near CAFOs nationwide. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Inspector General issued a report faulting the agency for dragging its feet for 11 years and failing to assure that CAFOs comply with the requirements of the federal Clean Air Act.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
An article released Jan. 10 in PLoS ONE, entitled "Zoonotic Viruses Associated with Illegally Imported Wildlife Products," from a collaborative study led by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), identified evidence of retroviruses and herpesviruses in illegally imported wildlife products confiscated at several U.S. international airports, including John F. Kennedy International Airport, George Bush Intercontinental-Houston and Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International. The pilot program was initiated to establish surveillance and testing methods to uncover the potential public health risks from illegally imported wildlife products coming into the U.S. The preliminary results of the program clearly demonstrate the potential human health risk from the illegal wildlife trade at major international travel hubs as a pathway to disease emergence in animals and humans.
Lead author and Associate Director for Health and Policy at EcoHealth Alliance, Dr. Kristine Smith, stated “although the findings to date are from a small pilot study, they remind us of the potential public health risk posed by illegal importation of wildlife products—a risk we hope to better characterize through expanded surveillance at ports of entry around the country.”
“The increase in international travel and trade brings with it an increased risk of unmonitored pathogens via the illegal wildlife trade,” said Dr. Denise McAloose, chief pathologist for the Global Health Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The global trade of wildlife has largely contributed to the emergence of new diseases in livestock, native wildlife and humans worldwide. Current research shows that 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases affecting people originate from contact with wildlife. These wildlife-borne diseases can be transmitted through human-animal interactions inherent in the global wildlife trade.
Items confiscated as part of the study included raw to semi-cooked animal parts, identified by American Museum of Natural History’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, Columbia University and WCS as nonhuman primates, including baboon and chimpanzee, and various rodent species using advanced genetic barcoding technologies. Pathogen analysis was conducted at the CDC National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Disease, and TB Prevention, and Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity. Among the pathogens identified in the products were a zoonotic retrovirus, simian foamy viruses, and several nonhuman primate herpesviruses. These results are the first to confirm evidence of pathogens in illegally imported bushmeat that may act as a conduit for pathogen spread, and suggest that implementation of disease surveillance of the illegal wildlife trade will help facilitate prevention of disease emergence.
“Exotic wildlife pets and bushmeat are Trojan horses that threaten humankind at sites where they are collected in the developing world as well as the U.S. Our study underscores the importance of surveillance at ports, but we must also encourage efforts to reduce demand for products that drive the wildlife trade,” said W. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. In fact, the U.S. is one of the largest consumers of imported wildlife products and wildlife. A previous study by EcoHealth Alliance showed that over a six-year period (2000-2006), approximately 1.5 billion live wild animals were legally imported into the U.S.—with 90 percent slated for the pet trade. Programs like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Healthy Pets, Healthy People and EcoHealth Alliance’s PetWatch encourage responsible exotic pet choices and ownership. U.S. Fish and Wildlife records show that more than 55 million pounds of wildlife products enter the country each year, with New York City the most common port of entry, followed by Miami and Los Angeles.
Beyond the public health risks of the live and non-live wildlife trade are risk of disease introduction to native wildlife and agricultural species, proliferation of non-native wildlife causing damage to U.S. ecosystems, as well as the protection of threatened and endangered species identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. "These important research results highlight the value of using new DNA barcoding identification technologies to accurately monitor the wildlife trade, important for both disease surveillance and the conservation of endangered species," stated Dr. George Amato from the Sackler Institute of Comparative Genomics at American Museum of Natural History.
The pilot study is the first to establish port surveillance methodology to test for diseases associated with wildlife products. Through better surveillance of illegal wildlife product shipments entering ports around the country, authorities will have a better chance at preventing new disease emergence before it occurs. The pilot project involved a collaboration of scientists from the American Museum of Natural History, Columbia University, EcoHealth Alliance, the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
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