Ocean Acidity Eating Away At Important Ecosystems

Photo credit: Toby Hudson

Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could increase ocean acidity levels by 150% by the year 2100, which would have catastrophic effects on the planet’s ecosystems, a new report shows.

The study, conducted jointly by several United Nations (UN) sub-organizations, was prepared by scholars for the UN Climate Change Conference – to be held this June in Rio de Janeiro – in order to educate the global community about the vital need to protect the planet’s oceans from rising carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Ocean acidity levels have increased by 26% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. According to the UN report, even under a business-as-usual scenario, ocean-acidity levels would be destructive enough to dissolve calcium-carbonate phytoplankton and zooplankton species, which serve as a crucial food source in ocean ecosystems.

The impact would be most profound in colder temperate and polar regions, where carbon dioxide is more readily absorbed, wreaking further havoc on already threatened environments.

A grim picture? Perhaps. But the reality could be even worse if steps are not taken to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

Nonetheless, and as cliche as it may sound, recognizing the problem is the first step in curing it. The good news is that one of the primary focuses of the climate-change conference in Rio will be to take action to mitigate and adapt to – and even reverse – ocean acidification to protect biodiversity and the planet’s ecosystems.

 

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New Theory Behind Earth’s Great Extinction

Over 250 million years ago, a mass extinction annihilated nearly all of Earth’s living species. Scientists have proposed many theories for why this occurred, and until now, the most widely accepted explanation for the event had been that volcanic eruptions burned through coal beds, releasing carbon dioxide and other fatal toxins into the environment.

But researchers at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, have uncovered a potential new reason for the mass extinction: mercury.

The study, published in the academic journal Geology, notes that the mass extinction occurred during the time of greatest volcanic activity in the planet’s history. Mercury deposition rates in this period were up to 30 times higher than in today’s volcanic activity, the researchers found. Levels this high could have been catastrophic enough to wipe out life on the planet.

Normally, algae acts as a purifier of toxins.

“Typically, algae acts like a scavenger and buries the mercury in the sediment, mitigating the effect in the oceans,” says Dr. Hamed Sanei, lead author of the study. “But in this case, the load was just so huge that it could not stop the damage.”

The new research has the potential to change the way scientists view not only the Earth’s past, but also its future.

“We are adding to the levels through industrial emissions,” adds Dr. Benoit Beauchamp, another author of the study. “This is a warning for us here on Earth today.”

However, it also shows how the planet’s resiliency, as well as surviving life forms’ ability to adapt to harsh conditions.

“After the system was overloaded and most of life was destroyed, the oceans were still able to self-clean, and we were able to move on to the next phase of life,” Sanei says.

Holiday Gifts For The Green Movement

There’s no better time than the holiday season to reflect on the events of the past year – and there has been no shortage of environmental news stories that have both inspired us and made our blood boil. As Christmas approaches, let’s consider some appropriate gifts for those who have left their mark on green news in 2011:

President Obama: A microphone and some earplugs. Since the beginning of his term, the president has become notably less enthusiastic about clean energy and environmental issues, perhaps succumbing to Republican pressure and inevitably “compromising” with natural gas, as well as totally giving in by opening up areas off the U.S. to offshore oil drilling. In fact, the positive steps his administration has taken to support renewable energy and clean technology have flown somewhat beneath the radar, for fear of appearing “too partisan.” Advice to the president: Speak up about the benefits green technologies can bring the nation, and block out the noise from the Republicans in Congress and fossil-fuel lobbyists.

Newt Gingrich, and the other GOP candidates: A science textbook. Ten years ago, climate change was fact to everyone – not a partisan issue. It’s time for GOP leaders to stop denying science and accept that the planet’s future is resting on our action to curb greenhouse-gas emissions and combat climate change.

TransCanada executives: Some red tape. The best we can hope for, at the moment, is for the Keystone XL pipeline to face more regulatory delays and to ultimately fail in the face of a decision by the Department of State.

Former Solyndra employees: A new job in the growing solar sector. Solyndra grabbed all of the negative headlines with its failure, but that does not mean that the U.S.’ entire renewable energy future is doomed. The solar industry represents a flourishing employment sector that has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs over the next few years.

The mainstream media: Some White-Out. It would be nice if the mainstream media could undo the mistakes it made in chastising solar company Solyndra for its DOE loan-guarantee debacle. In reporting so excessively and sensationally on an exception, rather than a rule, mainstream media outlets – including The New York Times and The Washington Post – cast the entire renewable energy industry in a poor light and questioned the justification for government aid of a growing, environmentally responsible industry.

BP: Some oil-covered shrimp cocktail. This year, we did not forget BP’s massive negligence and sin against the environment, as the Gulf still struggles to emerge from the disaster’s aftermath. BP needs a taste of its own medicine – or, perhaps of some oily shrimp for a nice holiday hor d’oeuvre.

Monsanto: A gift card to Whole Foods. Maybe, if Big Ag saw how much better organic food really is, it would stop attempting to overhaul the world’s food supply with a Soylent Green approach to genetically engineering food. Unlikely, but it’s worth a shot.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity: A reality check and an inhaler. In addition to coal in its stocking (naturally), the ACCCE needs to admit that coal will never be “clean,” and the nation’s reliance on the filthy substance is endangering our children and grandchildren, not to mention future generations.

Alec Baldwin: A train ticket. Traveling by rail should help lower the outspoken actor’s carbon footprint, as well as allow him to avoid future airline conflicts. Besides, you can use your iPhone – and Words with Friends – on trains.

Sustainable nonprofit organizations: Your donations. There are plenty of responsible organizations doing their part to care for the planet and its future. This holiday season, replace a couple of peppermint-mocha lattes (or more) with a donation to your favorite conservation groups – they need your help.

Special thanks to my colleague, Phil Hall, for inspiring this post.

Brazil’s Forests, Ecosystems At Lawmakers’ Mercy

The Amazon and other important ecosystems in Brazil could soon be in danger, as new legislation attempts to send crucial forest protections to the chopping block.

The bill seeks to cut elements of the nation’s Forest Code, which mandates that a certain proportion of rural land be protected as forest, as well as establishes protections for natural vegetation in “sensitive” areas, such as on steep slopes and along the margins of rivers and streams.

According to a statement issued by the World Wildlife Fund, which starkly opposes the legislation, Big Ag has been lobbying Brazilian lawmakers to remove portions of the code in order to open up more land for cattle ranching and agriculture.

Thousands of protestors filled the lawn in front of the Brazilian National Congress this week, urging lawmakers to reject the legislation. The WWF also reports that over 1.5 million Brazilian have signed a petition encouraging President Dilma Rousseff to veto the reform bill if it were to pass both house of Congress.

Several of the country’s senators have expressed their opposition to the bill, according to representatives from the WWF who were present at the demonstrations.

“The draft bill, as it stands, only benefits a handful of big agribusiness groups and large landowners, and it will actually be promoting and rewarding deforestation in the Amazon,” Sen. Randolphe Rodrigues commented, according to a WWF report. “The text sets us against the tide of history – it stands for economic power alone, which destroys and debilitates so many beautiful things.”

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill this week, and it will then be sent back to the House for the final vote.

Top Wildlife Comebacks of the 20th Century

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

With so many animal populations on the decline – thanks to habitat loss, climate change and human intervention, among other causes – sometimes it’s easy to forget all of the progress that conservation efforts have made over the years. For a positive spin, let’s take a look at some of the greatest wildlife comebacks of 20th century, according to a report issued by The Nature Conservancy (NC).

Grizzly Bear

In 1970, the grizzly bear was designated as a threatened species in the continental U.S. Like many other species that once thrived in the country, the grizzly has continued to be threatened by habitat loss and hunting. Thanks to conservation efforts, however, grizzly-bear numbers are improving, and the species may be removed from the threatened list in the near future.

Gray Whale

Back in the 1800s, widespread hunting nearly obliterated the gray-whale population. Since the International Whaling Commission adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, however, gray whales have begun to rebound and now number about 22,000, according to the NC.

Bald Eagle

This iconic American species was driven to the brink of extinction in the middle of the 20th century due to habitat loss, pesticide contamination and hunting. However, thanks to the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972, the bald eagle began to make a comeback, and the NC estimates that there are approximately 10,000 nesting pairs currently living in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Santa Cruz Island Fox

Until a massive captive-breeding initiative was launched by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation groups, fewer than 100 of these four-pound foxes remained. The animals, native to a small island off the coast of California, had fallen victim to feral pigs and golden eagles. Now, the Santa Cruz Island Fox’s population has risen to 1,300.

Southern White Rhino

Decimated by widespread hunting back in the 1800s, the Southern White Rhino was on the verge of extinction by the end of the 19th century. However, as a result of conservation efforts, they have made one of the biggest wildlife comebacks of all time, with over 20,000 individuals now in the wild.

Gray Wolf

A top predator, the gray wolf was considered a threat to livestock decades ago, and was routinely killed. After having been added to the Endangered Species List in 1974, though, they began to bounce back and now total around 4,000.

Mauritius Kestrel

The NC says this small African bird of prey was once considered the rarest bird in the world. At one time, there were only four individuals remaining. Thanks to work by conservationists, who established a captive-breeding program, there is now a self-sustaining population of over 800 of these birds.