Earth’s message in 2013: Take heed
By Dave Golowenski
For The Columbus Dispatch Sunday December 29, 2013 5:53 AM
Algae blooms in Lake Erie invite international scrutiny and local dismay. An increase in the regional tick population portends one of many unsettling trends in nature. Tree species in the neighborhood are being murdered by bugs.
That is on the home front.
Yet most of the ecological action takes place outside the Buckeye State.
No walls separate Ohio from developments elsewhere on what architect Buckminster Fuller in 1967 christened Spaceship Earth. The inhabited rock, Fuller suggested, spins and speeds through a cold and vast universe hugging a thermonuclear glob of compressed elements that somehow ignited life 31/2 billion years ago, give or take.
A thin layer of gas, the residue of chemical and biological interplay that began with the planet’s formation, provides Earth with its sole protection from the cold, heat, cosmic rays and chaos beyond. Under such conditions, what happens somewhere has an impact everywhere.
Whether 2013 brought the planet’s inhabitants closer to some brink or nearer an awakening remains to be seen, though it gets harder to ignore the direction. Consider these reports from the year:
• The oceans, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, are acidifying at a rate that hasn’t occurred for 300 million years, the International Program on the State of the Ocean reported. Krill, an abundant shrimplike creature that provides food for whales, seals and penguins, are under stress caused by changes in phytoplankton abundance wrought by warming and acidification. Unusually warm water was blamed for the lowest recorded early-season level of zooplankton in the North Atlantic off New England.
• The condition of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, universally acclaimed as one of Earth’s seven natural wonders, was downgraded from moderate to poor by the Australian government.
• A mass stranding of whales near Madagascar in 2008 was blamed in a scientific report issued in October on high-frequency sonar used to map the sea bottom for oil deposits. More than 80 elephants died in Zimbabwe when poachers poisoned their water holes with cyanide. An estimated 1,000 African rhinos were slaughtered illegally for the purported healing power of their horns, though the horns are made of the same substance as human fingernails.
• Florida declared extinct the Zestos skipper butterfly and the Rockland grass skipper butterfly. The number of migrant monarch butterflies reported at their wintering site in Mexico was the lowest since the colonies were discovered in 1975. The European Grassland Butterfly Indicator suggested that butterfly numbers on grasslands have decreased by almost half.
• A 50-year NASA-led study concluded that higher temperatures are causing tropical forests to absorb increasingly less carbon dioxide. The Fishery and Aquaculture Department of the United Nations reported that overfishing has depleted major marine stocks.
• Satellite measurements indicated that Greenland is losing its ice sheets at a rate of about 300 billion tons a year. An iceberg 278 square miles, an area larger than Chicago, broke off from an Antarctic glacier. August was the warmest on record at the South Pole, where the winter temperature averaged minus-63.9 degrees.
• The finless porpoise that has inhabited China’s Yangtze River for eons was declared critically endangered. The number of Chinese white dolphins, a victim of pollution and boat traffic, fell to 61 at last count, a Hong Kong conservation group reported. China’s national “water census” showed that as many as 28,000 rivers logged in a government database have vanished since the 1990s.
• Most streams east of the Mississippi River were judged as in “poor biological shape” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A spreading fungus threatens to wipe out production of the Cavendish cultivar banana, the kind most sold in U.S. grocery stores. Invasive large snails capable of eating stucco and anything green are increasing in south Florida.
• Aquifers in parts of the U.S. Plains are too tapped out to support irrigation. The U.S. Geological Survey and several universities found that amphibians are disappearing in North America. Atlantic puffin colonies off the Maine coast and New England lobsters appear to be in trouble. A molasses spill killed thousands of sea creatures in Honolulu Harbor.
• Although it has been banned for more than 30 years, DDT were found in high levels in the earwax of a dead blue whale. In September, 14 inches of rain fell on parts of Colorado during a “once in a 1,000 years” rainstorm, and 11 inches fell in 24 hours in New Mexico. More than 7 inches of rain fell in Ft. Belvoir, Va., in three hours in September. A blizzard killed thousands of cattle in South Dakota in October. The average daily temperature in Alaska during October was the highest on record. Unable to find sea ice, 10,000 walruses packed a beach on Alaska’s northwest coast.
• Duke Energy agreed to pay a $1 million fine after acknowledging it knew its wind turbines in Wyoming would kill eagles, other birds and bats. Wind turbines in the United States killed 600,000 bats in 2012, most of them in the Appalachian region, the journal BioScience reported. Scientists could not explain what killed 95 percent of the starfish in California’s Monterey Bay. British Columbia’s 9,000-year-old sponge reefs, until recently thought to be extinct, were being destroyed by commercial trawl nets. Invasive lionfish, released into the Atlantic from home aquariums in Florida, were devastating native fish populations.
• And Foreign Affairs reported that Earth Overshoot Day — designated by Global Footprint Network, an independent and international think tank, as the day “humanity’s demand for natural resources exceeds the earth’s ability to renew them in a year” — occurred in August, with some 18 weeks remaining in 2013.