Others, like around 55 percent of the people who hit the streets for 2014's People's Climate March, are anonymous (s)heroes. In between these extremes are many women who have made a significant individual difference as scientists, inventors or activists and who deserve more recognition for their inspiring efforts.
Here are five women using their unique talents to protect the planet that we at EcoWatch think you should know about.
1. Miranda Wang, Inventor and Entrepreneur, Canada and U.S.
Only nine percent of the world's plastic is actually recycled. The rest is landfilled, burned or discarded into the environment, where it risks joining the eight million metric tons that pollute the world's oceans every year. But Miranda Wang is working to change that.
Together with her high school friend Jeanny Yao, Wang developed a method of using chemicals to break down unrecyclable polyethylene film plastics — such as the infamous plastic bag — into reusable compounds, The Mercury News explained. In 2015, the pair co-founded the company BioCellection when they were just 21 to put their invention into practice.
Wang and Yao first met in their Vancouver, B.C. high school's recycling club, where they visited waste plants.
"[W]hen I visited my first waste plant, the scale of the problem hit me," Wang told UN Environment. "All that waste."
She is now tackling the problem full time as CEO of BioCellection, which is based in Menlo Park, California. She is working on a pilot program with the city of San Jose and its waste handler GreenWaste to integrate her and Yao's innovation into its preexisting system.
"The long-term goal is to be able to recycle all of the city of San Jose's — and other cities' — polyethylene plastic," Wang told The Mercury News.
2. Dr. Paula Kahumbu, Conservationist, Kenya
Dr. Paula Kahumbu, who has been called the "life force" behind Kenya's conservation movement, has been working to protect elephants since she was in her early 20s. She and a group of friends measured every piece in Kenya's ivory stockpile to create an ivory "bonfire" in 1989, The Independent reported.
Since then, she has gone on to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton in ecology and evolutionary biology, to serve as the CEO of Kenyan conservation nonprofit WildlifeDirect, and to launch the successful Hands Off Our Elephants Campaign with Kenyan first lady Margaret Kenyatta in 2014.
"From spending so much time with [elephants], I know they are not just another animal," she told The Independent. "They are beings with personalities; with families; with feelings. It is such a horrendous injustice to allow them to be slaughtered."
Hands Off Our Elephants works to tackle the poaching crisis in Kenya by enacting new laws and making sure they are enforced, working directly with communities to develop conservation strategies that benefit humans and wildlife and building public support in Kenya for elephant conservation. Since it was launched, elephant poaching in the country has decreased by 80 percent and rhino poaching by 90 percent. One of Kahumbu's key insights has been the importance of engaging Africans, and particularly African women, in protecting their continent's unique animals.
"It can be hard for Africans, and especially African women, to be heard in this male-dominated world of Western scientists and academics," she told The Independent. "Maasai women, who have been studying elephants for 20 to 40 years each; should have Ph.D.s [by now], but they don't. There has been a real failure to develop the capacity of the people who are instrumental on the ground."
3. Artemisa Xakriabá, Indigenous Activist, Brazil
The election of right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was a blow to climate action and indigenous rights. So far, he has overseen historic wildfires in the Amazon rainforest and pushed to open indigenous forest reserves to the mining and fossil fuel industries. But indigenous women are fighting back.
Among them is 19-year-old Artemisa Xakriabá, a member of Brazil's Xakriabá tribe. In August, she participated in the first Indigenous Women's March in Brasilia to protest Bolsonaro's anti-environment and anti-indigenous policies, HuffPost reported. She was then chosen by a coalition of South American and East Asian indigenous youth groups to represent their cause at youth climate strikes in New York and Washington, DC last September.
"We, the indigenous peoples, are the children of nature, so we fight for our Mother Earth, because the fight for Mother Earth is the mother of all other fights," she said in New York, as Democracy Now reported. "We are fighting for your lives. We are fighting for our lives."
Xakriabá's activism predates Bolsonaro, however. When she was only seven, she helped her classmates reforest 15 riverside areas near their traditional territory in Minas Gerais in southeast Brazil, according to HuffPost.
In New York, she spoke of the common struggle of all women to protect the earth.
"I am also here as a young woman," she said, as Democracy Now reported, "because there's no difference between an indigenous young female activist like myself and a young indigenous female activist like Greta. Our future is connected by the same threads of the climate crisis."
4. Dr. Maria Caffrey, Scientist and Whistleblower, U.S.
Dr. Maria Caffrey is another woman who stood up to a climate denying administration.
In 2012, the National Park Service (NPS) funded a project she had designed to estimate future sea levels and storm surges at 118 coastal national parks based on different levels of greenhouse gas emissions, as Caffrey wrote for The Guardian. She completed the first draft in the summer of 2016, but then President Donald Trump took office, and the report was delayed. Finally, a colleague told her that all mentions of climate change had been edited out of her report. Senior officials wanted her to approve the changes, and, if she refused, threatened to release the report without climate references, to delete her name or not to publish it at all.
"Each option would have been devastating to my career and for scientific integrity. I stood firm," she wrote. "And I prevailed."
The report was published, but Caffrey paid for her persistence. She received pay cuts and demotions and then, in February 2019, NPS refused to renew her funding, leading Caffrey to file a whistleblower complaint against the administration.
Caffrey also sued the administration and testified before Congress in an attempt to raise awareness about the silencing of scientists.
"Money was never really the point of the lawsuit," Caffrey told Colorado Matters. "The point of the lawsuit is to get on the record and show what the Trump administration is doing to scientists and that that's not OK. And so I think it's important that we stand up and we fight back."
5. Nirupabai, Activist, India
In India, the expansion of coal doesn't just hurt the global climate. Government-owned Coal India and its subsidiaries have bypassed local and international law in evicting people from their homes in order to expand mines in the states of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, according to a 2016 Amnesty International report publicized by The Guardian. These evictions particularly target indigenous Adivasi communities, including a woman named Nirupabai whose home was bulldozed in 2014.
"I cried, I screamed, trying to save it," she told The Guardian of the eviction. "All my things, my son's school books, a year's worth of rice, everything was scattered, everything in ruins."
But Nirupabai has gone on to fight the coal company with every means at her disposal, Elle reported. She has picketed company offices, spoken at environmental hearings and she spoke in The Cost of Coal, India's first VR film to be acquired by the UN. What she wants is for Coal India to stop expanding until people like her are compensated for the land they have lost.
"You tell me what will grow on this poor land? Coal is the heart of the earth, but they remove it and say we are the sarkar. What is it that you have in your pocket that you didn't take from our land?" Nirupabai said, according to Elle.
Nirupabai has won one important victory. Coal India usually does not let women who have been displaced by its activities work in the mines because it deems the work unsafe. But a court order filed by another woman, Ratthobai Rathia, has given her the right to work for the land she has lost. Nirupabai isn't done fighting, however.
"I will fight for every last inch," she told Elle.
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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