Tag Archives: Extinction

UN survival plan offers new hope for the planet

A bold UN survival plan could put nature back in charge of the Earth − and researchers explain why that should happen.

LONDON, 26 February, 2021 − UN chiefs want to transform the world by putting nature back at the heart of global decision-making, arguing that the global economic shutdown triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity to change the planet for the better: for a stable climate, for cleaner air and water, and for a richer natural environment, thanks to the UN survival plan.

The goal? A more sustainable and more equitable world by 2030, a carbon-neutral world by 2050, a curb on global pollution and waste and a halt to ever-accelerating rates of wildlife extinction worldwide.

The methods? One of the first, in Making Peace With Nature, the new United Nations Environment Programme report, will be to incorporate what conservationists call “natural capital” into measures of national economic performance.

That is because forests, savannahs, wetlands and other natural habitats represent wealth, and their loss accelerates poverty. If nations and regions can reverse environmental decline then they can at the same time advance the alleviation of poverty, and secure reliable food and water, and good health, for all.

And to reinforce such arguments, new and entirely separate research continues to underline the UN vision of natural capital as real investment in the services on which all humankind depends.

Vital sanitation need

In 48 cities around the globe, nature provides at least 18% of the sanitation services: creatures in the soils filter and clean around 2.2 million cubic metres of human excrement in the form of pit latrines before it can reach the groundwater table.

Since, in 2017, around one fourth of the global population had no access to sanitation facilities, and 14% used toilets that disposed of waste on site, this is not just an important service but a vital one: vital to human health.

The same research team reports in the journal One Earth that − since more than 892 million people worldwide in effect release excrement into holes in the ground − then nature must sanitise more than 41 million tonnes of human waste every year before it gets into the groundwater. So that’s a service worth US$4.4 billion (£3.14bn) a year, British researchers calculate.

Around 70% of the world’s crops depend on insect pollination, and the range and abundance of insect pollinators is vulnerable to shifts in climate. Importantly, many crops rely on wild pollinators − that is, commercial honey bee colonies cannot always do the trick of turning flowers into fruit, or grain − so what happens to wild insect populations affects what is available for supper.

“The war on nature has left the planet broken. But it guides us by providing a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme”

US researchers report in the journal Ecological Applications that they took the case of wild bees and open field tomato crops: these depend on insects that release pollen by vibration, among them bumble bees.

They matched distribution of 15 species and climate data now against predictions for climate change across North America to find that − in the eastern US alone − within the next three to four decades, 11 species of pollinator could be in decline. The implications for food security are inescapable.

And a third study simply looked at what climate change, human population expansion, pollution and demand for freshwater had done to the planet’s rivers and lakes.

French and Chinese scientists report in the journal Science that they had identified what they call “marked changes” in the biodiversity of more than half the world’s rivers and lakes, thanks to human impact.

Of more than 1,000 fish species, 170 were extinct in their natural river basins, at a very conservative estimate. Out of 2,456 river basins, found everywhere except the deserts and the poles, 1,296 of them, covering more than 40% of the planet’s continental surface, and accounting for 37% of the length of the world’s rivers, revealed “deep and spatially distributed anthropogenic impacts.” That is science-speak for loss and defilement.

Lethal heat prospect

Such research − published on an almost daily basis − provides the context in which the latest UNEP report makes its argument. The report identifies a threefold planetary emergency and calls for advances in science and bold policy-making to make lives better both for the poorest in the world, and for nature itself.

It warns that the planet is heading for a warming of at least 3°C by the century’s end; that more than one million species could be heading for extinction; and that pollution-triggered diseases right now deliver an estimated nine million premature deaths each year.

“The war on nature has left the planet broken. But it also guides us to a safe place by providing a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme,” says António Guterres, UN secretary general, in the report’s foreword.

“By transforming how we view nature, we can recognise its true value. By reflecting this value in policies, plans and economic systems, we can channel investments into activities that restore nature and are rewarded for it.

“By recognising nature as an indispensable ally, we can unleash human ingenuity in the service of sustainability and secure our own health and well-being alongside that of the planet.” − Climate News Network

A bold UN survival plan could put nature back in charge of the Earth − and researchers explain why that should happen.

LONDON, 26 February, 2021 − UN chiefs want to transform the world by putting nature back at the heart of global decision-making, arguing that the global economic shutdown triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity to change the planet for the better: for a stable climate, for cleaner air and water, and for a richer natural environment, thanks to the UN survival plan.

The goal? A more sustainable and more equitable world by 2030, a carbon-neutral world by 2050, a curb on global pollution and waste and a halt to ever-accelerating rates of wildlife extinction worldwide.

The methods? One of the first, in Making Peace With Nature, the new United Nations Environment Programme report, will be to incorporate what conservationists call “natural capital” into measures of national economic performance.

That is because forests, savannahs, wetlands and other natural habitats represent wealth, and their loss accelerates poverty. If nations and regions can reverse environmental decline then they can at the same time advance the alleviation of poverty, and secure reliable food and water, and good health, for all.

And to reinforce such arguments, new and entirely separate research continues to underline the UN vision of natural capital as real investment in the services on which all humankind depends.

Vital sanitation need

In 48 cities around the globe, nature provides at least 18% of the sanitation services: creatures in the soils filter and clean around 2.2 million cubic metres of human excrement in the form of pit latrines before it can reach the groundwater table.

Since, in 2017, around one fourth of the global population had no access to sanitation facilities, and 14% used toilets that disposed of waste on site, this is not just an important service but a vital one: vital to human health.

The same research team reports in the journal One Earth that − since more than 892 million people worldwide in effect release excrement into holes in the ground − then nature must sanitise more than 41 million tonnes of human waste every year before it gets into the groundwater. So that’s a service worth US$4.4 billion (£3.14bn) a year, British researchers calculate.

Around 70% of the world’s crops depend on insect pollination, and the range and abundance of insect pollinators is vulnerable to shifts in climate. Importantly, many crops rely on wild pollinators − that is, commercial honey bee colonies cannot always do the trick of turning flowers into fruit, or grain − so what happens to wild insect populations affects what is available for supper.

“The war on nature has left the planet broken. But it guides us by providing a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme”

US researchers report in the journal Ecological Applications that they took the case of wild bees and open field tomato crops: these depend on insects that release pollen by vibration, among them bumble bees.

They matched distribution of 15 species and climate data now against predictions for climate change across North America to find that − in the eastern US alone − within the next three to four decades, 11 species of pollinator could be in decline. The implications for food security are inescapable.

And a third study simply looked at what climate change, human population expansion, pollution and demand for freshwater had done to the planet’s rivers and lakes.

French and Chinese scientists report in the journal Science that they had identified what they call “marked changes” in the biodiversity of more than half the world’s rivers and lakes, thanks to human impact.

Of more than 1,000 fish species, 170 were extinct in their natural river basins, at a very conservative estimate. Out of 2,456 river basins, found everywhere except the deserts and the poles, 1,296 of them, covering more than 40% of the planet’s continental surface, and accounting for 37% of the length of the world’s rivers, revealed “deep and spatially distributed anthropogenic impacts.” That is science-speak for loss and defilement.

Lethal heat prospect

Such research − published on an almost daily basis − provides the context in which the latest UNEP report makes its argument. The report identifies a threefold planetary emergency and calls for advances in science and bold policy-making to make lives better both for the poorest in the world, and for nature itself.

It warns that the planet is heading for a warming of at least 3°C by the century’s end; that more than one million species could be heading for extinction; and that pollution-triggered diseases right now deliver an estimated nine million premature deaths each year.

“The war on nature has left the planet broken. But it also guides us to a safe place by providing a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme,” says António Guterres, UN secretary general, in the report’s foreword.

“By transforming how we view nature, we can recognise its true value. By reflecting this value in policies, plans and economic systems, we can channel investments into activities that restore nature and are rewarded for it.

“By recognising nature as an indispensable ally, we can unleash human ingenuity in the service of sustainability and secure our own health and well-being alongside that of the planet.” − Climate News Network

Bill Gates: A stark and simple message for the world

His new book affirms what climate scientists have been saying for decades. But Bill Gates says it well, all the same.

LONDON, 15 February, 2021 − Bill Gates − yes, that Bill Gates − has for years been financing studies in geo-engineering: he calls it a “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” kind of tool.

But he also says, in a new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, that he has put much more money into the challenge of adapting to and mitigating climate change driven by global heating powered by greenhouse emissions that are a consequence of our dependence on fossil fuels.

The founder of Microsoft, now a philanthropist, says all geo-engineering approaches − to dim the sunlight, perhaps, or make clouds brighter − turn out to be relatively cheap compared with the scale of the problems ahead for the world. All the effects are relatively short-lived, so there might be no long-term impacts.

But the third thing they have in common is that the technical challenges to implementing them would be as nothing compared with the political hurdles such ambitions must face.

Not for dummies

There are some very encouraging things about this disarming book, and one of them is that on every page it addresses the messy uncertainties of the real world, rather than an ideal set of solutions.

People who have already thought a lot about the hazards and complexities of global temperature rise might be tempted to dismiss it as Climate Change for Dummies. They’d be wrong.

First, Gates addresses a global audience that includes (for instance) US Republican voters, fewer than one in four of whom understand that climate change is a consequence of what humans have done.

Then Gates write as an engineer. He starts from the basics and arrives swiftly and by the shortest route at a series of firm conclusions: sophisticated, but still outlined with considerable clarity and a happy trick of pinning big answers to down-to-earth analogies.

“There are two numbers you need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion. The second is zero”

Crude oil, he calculates, “is cheaper than a soft drink”. By mid-century “climate change could be just as deadly as Covid-19, and by 2100 it could be five times as deadly”.

And population growth creates prodigious demands: by 2060, the world’s building stock will double. “That’s like putting up another New York City every month for 40 years.”

I call it a disarming book: yes, he concedes that the world is not lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do; yes, he flew a private plane to the Paris Conference in 2015. He doesn’t deny being a rich guy with an opinion and an “absurdly high” carbon footprint. But he believes it is an informed opinion, and he’s always trying to learn more.

And then he gets on with clarifying the big challenges. Yes, there’s no choice: the world has to get to zero-carbon. It’s going to be difficult to achieve the technologies, the political will, the international consensus. Humans have to accomplish something gigantic, much faster than anything ever done before.

Simple message

He turns to the details: the questions that need to be addressed; the separate problems of electrical energy, of manufacture, of diet and agriculture, of transport, of adaptation; government policy, citizen choice and so on.

He touches on biofuels, nuclear power (“this might sound self-serving, given that I own an advanced nuclear company”), global development, global health, international co-operation and individual choices, all with the same brisk clarity. There already exists a huge literature of climate change: this is a useful addition.

That may be because he keeps the message simple from the start. Right now humans add 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere every year. To avoid the worst effects of climate change, we have to emit none.

“There are two numbers you need to know about climate change,” he writes in his opening sentences. “The first is 51 billion. The second is zero.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need: Allen Lane, £20. By Bill Gates

His new book affirms what climate scientists have been saying for decades. But Bill Gates says it well, all the same.

LONDON, 15 February, 2021 − Bill Gates − yes, that Bill Gates − has for years been financing studies in geo-engineering: he calls it a “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” kind of tool.

But he also says, in a new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, that he has put much more money into the challenge of adapting to and mitigating climate change driven by global heating powered by greenhouse emissions that are a consequence of our dependence on fossil fuels.

The founder of Microsoft, now a philanthropist, says all geo-engineering approaches − to dim the sunlight, perhaps, or make clouds brighter − turn out to be relatively cheap compared with the scale of the problems ahead for the world. All the effects are relatively short-lived, so there might be no long-term impacts.

But the third thing they have in common is that the technical challenges to implementing them would be as nothing compared with the political hurdles such ambitions must face.

Not for dummies

There are some very encouraging things about this disarming book, and one of them is that on every page it addresses the messy uncertainties of the real world, rather than an ideal set of solutions.

People who have already thought a lot about the hazards and complexities of global temperature rise might be tempted to dismiss it as Climate Change for Dummies. They’d be wrong.

First, Gates addresses a global audience that includes (for instance) US Republican voters, fewer than one in four of whom understand that climate change is a consequence of what humans have done.

Then Gates write as an engineer. He starts from the basics and arrives swiftly and by the shortest route at a series of firm conclusions: sophisticated, but still outlined with considerable clarity and a happy trick of pinning big answers to down-to-earth analogies.

“There are two numbers you need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion. The second is zero”

Crude oil, he calculates, “is cheaper than a soft drink”. By mid-century “climate change could be just as deadly as Covid-19, and by 2100 it could be five times as deadly”.

And population growth creates prodigious demands: by 2060, the world’s building stock will double. “That’s like putting up another New York City every month for 40 years.”

I call it a disarming book: yes, he concedes that the world is not lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do; yes, he flew a private plane to the Paris Conference in 2015. He doesn’t deny being a rich guy with an opinion and an “absurdly high” carbon footprint. But he believes it is an informed opinion, and he’s always trying to learn more.

And then he gets on with clarifying the big challenges. Yes, there’s no choice: the world has to get to zero-carbon. It’s going to be difficult to achieve the technologies, the political will, the international consensus. Humans have to accomplish something gigantic, much faster than anything ever done before.

Simple message

He turns to the details: the questions that need to be addressed; the separate problems of electrical energy, of manufacture, of diet and agriculture, of transport, of adaptation; government policy, citizen choice and so on.

He touches on biofuels, nuclear power (“this might sound self-serving, given that I own an advanced nuclear company”), global development, global health, international co-operation and individual choices, all with the same brisk clarity. There already exists a huge literature of climate change: this is a useful addition.

That may be because he keeps the message simple from the start. Right now humans add 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere every year. To avoid the worst effects of climate change, we have to emit none.

“There are two numbers you need to know about climate change,” he writes in his opening sentences. “The first is 51 billion. The second is zero.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need: Allen Lane, £20. By Bill Gates

Nature, not humans, may cause mass extinctions

Life on Earth has been through mass extinctions before − every 27 million years. Blame it on celestial clockwork.

LONDON, 18 December, 2020 − US scientists believe they have identified a recurring pattern of mass extinctions and catastrophic climate change − and this time humans really are not to blame.

Instead, the planet and the solar system could be caught up in some deadly astronomical cycle.

They argue that every 27 million years, a high proportion of land-dwelling species − birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians − disappear from the fossil record at around the same time.

And this disappearance seems to coincide, again according to geological evidence, with devastating eruptions of volcanic lava and violent asteroid collisions that would have had the effect of darkening the skies, lowering the temperature, depleting the ozone layer, then stimulating a greenhouse effect and starting extensive fire and acid rain.

“It seems that large-body impacts and the pulses of internal Earth activity that create flood basalt volcanism may be marching to the same 27-million-year drumbeat as the extinctions, perhaps paced by our orbit in the galaxy,” said Michael Rampino, a biologist at New York University.

Serial crises

He and colleagues used statistical analysis to identify, in the journal Historical Biology, an ominous rhythm of catastrophe in the Earth’s deep history.

Such research highlights the extraordinary nature of the present life-on-Earth survival crisis. Earth is now undergoing what naturalists and geologists see as the Sixth Great Extinction in its 500-million-year fossil history, and potentially calamitous climate change, not because of any shift in planetary orbit or galactic traffic accident, but because of the human population explosion and the 200-year-long addiction to fossil fuels.

But researchers know the present crisis to be the latest of a series of crises in the long history of life on Earth only because of the capricious evidence of the fossil record, and they have spent the last half century trying to decipher some reason how and why these might have happened.

More than 40 years ago geologists began to see what they argued seemed to be cycles of destruction, followed by the slow restoration of the biodiversity of Earth.

“The global mass extinctions were apparently caused by the largest cataclysmic impacts and massive volcanism, perhaps sometimes working in concert”

Around that time, earth scientists found evidence of an asteroid impact that appeared to have wiped out the entire dinosaur lineage, along with seven-tenths of all species on land and sea. And some began to argue that mass extinctions might not be random events, but happen according to some kind of heavenly timetable.

Most of the evidence for such happenings comes from marine sediments: evidence of extinction in the oceans every 26 million years or so. Now Professor Rampino and his colleagues have looked at the record of mass extinctions on land, and found that these seem to follow a similar cycle spaced 27.5 million years apart.

In which case, there might be an agency to take the blame: the Milky Way Galaxy, of which the solar system and planet Earth is a very small part, moving at colossal speed.

Not only does the Earth orbit the Sun at 30 kms a second, the Sun and its planets waltz around the Galaxy at 220 kms a second, and make a complete revolution, astronomers think, about every 26 million to 30 million years. That means that any galactic traffic accident guarantees a collision at very high speed.

Suspect eruptions

And it could also mean that on every round trip, the Solar System passes through some kind of unidentified hazard zone that triggers showers of comet collisions and asteroid impacts.

“In fact three of the mass annihilations of species on land and in the sea are already known to have occurred at the same times as the three largest impacts of the last 250 million years, each capable of causing disaster and resulting mass extinctions,” Professor Rampino said.

But there is another more down-to-earth factor. All eight of those episodes of mass death on land and parallel extinction in the seas also matched periods of eruptions in which hot basalts flooded across the landscape.

All volcanic eruptions release carbon dioxide: in such cases enough to create conditions of intense cold followed by greenhouse warming,  acidification of the oceans and acid rain on land, destruction of the ozone layer that normally screens the planet from dangerous ultra-violet radiation, and even marine oxygen depletion. In which case life on the planet would have to withstand a kind of double assault.

“The global mass extinctions were apparently caused by the largest cataclysmic impacts and massive volcanism, perhaps sometimes working in concert,” Professor Rampino said. − Climate News Network

Life on Earth has been through mass extinctions before − every 27 million years. Blame it on celestial clockwork.

LONDON, 18 December, 2020 − US scientists believe they have identified a recurring pattern of mass extinctions and catastrophic climate change − and this time humans really are not to blame.

Instead, the planet and the solar system could be caught up in some deadly astronomical cycle.

They argue that every 27 million years, a high proportion of land-dwelling species − birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians − disappear from the fossil record at around the same time.

And this disappearance seems to coincide, again according to geological evidence, with devastating eruptions of volcanic lava and violent asteroid collisions that would have had the effect of darkening the skies, lowering the temperature, depleting the ozone layer, then stimulating a greenhouse effect and starting extensive fire and acid rain.

“It seems that large-body impacts and the pulses of internal Earth activity that create flood basalt volcanism may be marching to the same 27-million-year drumbeat as the extinctions, perhaps paced by our orbit in the galaxy,” said Michael Rampino, a biologist at New York University.

Serial crises

He and colleagues used statistical analysis to identify, in the journal Historical Biology, an ominous rhythm of catastrophe in the Earth’s deep history.

Such research highlights the extraordinary nature of the present life-on-Earth survival crisis. Earth is now undergoing what naturalists and geologists see as the Sixth Great Extinction in its 500-million-year fossil history, and potentially calamitous climate change, not because of any shift in planetary orbit or galactic traffic accident, but because of the human population explosion and the 200-year-long addiction to fossil fuels.

But researchers know the present crisis to be the latest of a series of crises in the long history of life on Earth only because of the capricious evidence of the fossil record, and they have spent the last half century trying to decipher some reason how and why these might have happened.

More than 40 years ago geologists began to see what they argued seemed to be cycles of destruction, followed by the slow restoration of the biodiversity of Earth.

“The global mass extinctions were apparently caused by the largest cataclysmic impacts and massive volcanism, perhaps sometimes working in concert”

Around that time, earth scientists found evidence of an asteroid impact that appeared to have wiped out the entire dinosaur lineage, along with seven-tenths of all species on land and sea. And some began to argue that mass extinctions might not be random events, but happen according to some kind of heavenly timetable.

Most of the evidence for such happenings comes from marine sediments: evidence of extinction in the oceans every 26 million years or so. Now Professor Rampino and his colleagues have looked at the record of mass extinctions on land, and found that these seem to follow a similar cycle spaced 27.5 million years apart.

In which case, there might be an agency to take the blame: the Milky Way Galaxy, of which the solar system and planet Earth is a very small part, moving at colossal speed.

Not only does the Earth orbit the Sun at 30 kms a second, the Sun and its planets waltz around the Galaxy at 220 kms a second, and make a complete revolution, astronomers think, about every 26 million to 30 million years. That means that any galactic traffic accident guarantees a collision at very high speed.

Suspect eruptions

And it could also mean that on every round trip, the Solar System passes through some kind of unidentified hazard zone that triggers showers of comet collisions and asteroid impacts.

“In fact three of the mass annihilations of species on land and in the sea are already known to have occurred at the same times as the three largest impacts of the last 250 million years, each capable of causing disaster and resulting mass extinctions,” Professor Rampino said.

But there is another more down-to-earth factor. All eight of those episodes of mass death on land and parallel extinction in the seas also matched periods of eruptions in which hot basalts flooded across the landscape.

All volcanic eruptions release carbon dioxide: in such cases enough to create conditions of intense cold followed by greenhouse warming,  acidification of the oceans and acid rain on land, destruction of the ozone layer that normally screens the planet from dangerous ultra-violet radiation, and even marine oxygen depletion. In which case life on the planet would have to withstand a kind of double assault.

“The global mass extinctions were apparently caused by the largest cataclysmic impacts and massive volcanism, perhaps sometimes working in concert,” Professor Rampino said. − Climate News Network

Warming puts surviving great tits in jeopardy

Among the best loved and most frequent visitors to gardens in the UK and elsewhere, great tits face mounting problems.

LONDON, 19 November, 2020 – In the scientific community great tits are known as one of the most adaptable of bird species, showing considerable ability in adjusting to changing weather patterns and differing times of food supplies.

But latest research indicates that even these ever-enterprising and resilient birds are coming under growing pressure from global heating.

“Wildlife has shown a great ability to adapt to climate change”, Emily Simmonds, lead author of a study of great tits and their food supplies, told Climate News Network.

“So far the great tit has shown a remarkable degree of adaptation to changes in climate. The problem occurs when change happens too fast – then, at some point in the future, the species could become extinct.”

“Our projections suggest that current population stability could be masking a route to population collapse”

Research by Simmonds and her colleagues involved both complex mathematical modelling and extensive fieldwork. Its main focus was to establish how quickly great tits could adapt to changes in the supply of caterpillars or larvae, vital food for the birds’ hatchlings.

Differing climate scenarios were used. In warmer conditions spring can occur earlier, with trees coming into leaf sooner than usual. This, in turn, causes larvae that feed on plants and leaves to hatch out earlier.

The problem is that if at some stage great tits fail to keep pace with these changes, then there will be no food for the hatchlings.

“If greenhouse gas emissions are too high and there’s more warming, then great tits might not be able to adjust their breeding habits quickly enough in order to adapt to the earlier supply of larvae”, says Simmonds.

Too fast for survival

“So far it seems that the birds are coping, but if warming continues at its present pace then it could be too much for them.”

Simmonds, now at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology,  carried out her research at Oxford in the UK.

At Wytham Woods outside Oxford scientists have been recording the nesting and breeding habits of the great tit – Parus major – and the blue tit – Cyanistes caeruleus – since 1947. Up to 40 generations of birds have been marked in what is one of the longest-running ecological studies of wild animals in the world.

The recent study looked at great tits’ reproduction success rates, hatching dates and inheritance factors – the ability of one generation to pass on to the next changes in breeding and feeding patterns.

Safety threshold

Winter temperatures, rainfall patterns and the availability of food supplies under different climate projections were considered.

“The good news is that populations of great tits can survive and adapt to scenarios with lower or medium warming trends”, says Simmonds.

But the study found that if warming trends continue at present levels, with larvae appearing, by the end of the century, about 24 days earlier than at present, great tit populations could become extinct.

“Our projections suggest that current population stability could be masking a route to population collapse, if high greenhouse gas emissions continue”, the study says. – Climate News Network

Among the best loved and most frequent visitors to gardens in the UK and elsewhere, great tits face mounting problems.

LONDON, 19 November, 2020 – In the scientific community great tits are known as one of the most adaptable of bird species, showing considerable ability in adjusting to changing weather patterns and differing times of food supplies.

But latest research indicates that even these ever-enterprising and resilient birds are coming under growing pressure from global heating.

“Wildlife has shown a great ability to adapt to climate change”, Emily Simmonds, lead author of a study of great tits and their food supplies, told Climate News Network.

“So far the great tit has shown a remarkable degree of adaptation to changes in climate. The problem occurs when change happens too fast – then, at some point in the future, the species could become extinct.”

“Our projections suggest that current population stability could be masking a route to population collapse”

Research by Simmonds and her colleagues involved both complex mathematical modelling and extensive fieldwork. Its main focus was to establish how quickly great tits could adapt to changes in the supply of caterpillars or larvae, vital food for the birds’ hatchlings.

Differing climate scenarios were used. In warmer conditions spring can occur earlier, with trees coming into leaf sooner than usual. This, in turn, causes larvae that feed on plants and leaves to hatch out earlier.

The problem is that if at some stage great tits fail to keep pace with these changes, then there will be no food for the hatchlings.

“If greenhouse gas emissions are too high and there’s more warming, then great tits might not be able to adjust their breeding habits quickly enough in order to adapt to the earlier supply of larvae”, says Simmonds.

Too fast for survival

“So far it seems that the birds are coping, but if warming continues at its present pace then it could be too much for them.”

Simmonds, now at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology,  carried out her research at Oxford in the UK.

At Wytham Woods outside Oxford scientists have been recording the nesting and breeding habits of the great tit – Parus major – and the blue tit – Cyanistes caeruleus – since 1947. Up to 40 generations of birds have been marked in what is one of the longest-running ecological studies of wild animals in the world.

The recent study looked at great tits’ reproduction success rates, hatching dates and inheritance factors – the ability of one generation to pass on to the next changes in breeding and feeding patterns.

Safety threshold

Winter temperatures, rainfall patterns and the availability of food supplies under different climate projections were considered.

“The good news is that populations of great tits can survive and adapt to scenarios with lower or medium warming trends”, says Simmonds.

But the study found that if warming trends continue at present levels, with larvae appearing, by the end of the century, about 24 days earlier than at present, great tit populations could become extinct.

“Our projections suggest that current population stability could be masking a route to population collapse, if high greenhouse gas emissions continue”, the study says. – Climate News Network

Carbon release set off Earth’s biggest extinction

A chain of calamities caused the planet’s biggest extinction, the greatest mass dying ever. Greenhouse gases explain how.

LONDON, 23 October, 2020 − German scientists are now sure they can explain the biggest extinction of life on this planet: a catastrophe at the end of the Permian Epoch 252 million years ago.

It happened because atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rose dramatically over thousands of years, turning the seas ever more acidic, to precipitate dangerous changes in oceanic conditions. In this, so far the greatest of life’s periodic extinctions, 95% of all the sea creatures perished, along with three-quarters of all life on land.

The evidence of dramatic change at a particular level in the geological record − the Permian-Triassic boundary, now more precisely dated at 251.9 million years ago − has been teasing geologists for decades. And climate change through one agency or another has been a favoured candidate from the start.

That moment in vanished history was marked by a long, slow but world-changing series of volcanic eruptions − the evidence lies in great sheets of basalt known to geologists as the Siberian Traps − and since outgassing of carbon dioxide is associated with all volcanic eruption, a greenhouse effect driven by carbon dioxide has long been a favourite.

Seeking proof

So devastating was this release of heat from the deep crust that ancient coal deposits laid down in the Carboniferous may have ignited, to create the first-ever fossil fuel emissions.

But circumstantial evidence was not the same thing as proof. Dramatic ozone loss − ozone forms a shield against potentially lethal ultra-violet radiation in the upper atmosphere − has also been named as a suspect. Until somebody could deliver clear evidence of the machinery that ensured the extinction, the verdict could only be “not proven.”

Right now, with human help, the planet Earth is undergoing what has been termed a sixth great mass extinction, and evidence from the Permian extinction provides a lesson for what could happen in a changing climate, but so far simply that: an awful warning, rather than a dreadful example.

Now European researchers report in Nature Geoscience that they think they have settled the matter. They used evidence from fossils exposed in the Italian Alps to recreate the conditions in the ancient ocean.

“Humanity’s CO2 emission rate is currently fourteen times higher than the annual emission rate at the time that marked the greatest biological catastrophe in Earth’s history”

The story told by the changing isotopes of carbon, oxygen and most importantly boron in a series of brachiopod fossils was of “substantial” change in the chemistry of sea water 252 million years ago: a change that could be linked to the carbon dioxide from the Siberian Traps eruptions.

The researchers took the reasoning a step further: they used computer models to simulate the conditions of the time. The world warmed, the oceans became increasingly acidic, and right at the outset those organisms in the sea that build shells from calcium were snuffed out of existence.

But the higher temperatures, greater evaporation and ever-higher rainfall that mark a greenhouse world meant ever-greater chemical weathering on land itself. So more nutrients flowed from land to ocean, to deliver too much fertiliser, to encourage too much algal growth.

What followed was a dramatic depletion of dissolved oxygen: marine life was increasingly stifled, or poisoned by sporadic sulphide concentration.

Chain reaction

“We are dealing with a cascading catastrophe in which the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere set off a chain of events that successively extinguished almost all life in the seas,” said Hana Jurikova, then of the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, but now at St Andrew’s in Scotland, who led the study.

It is an axiom of geological research that the present is key to the past, but her forensic account of ancient mayhem may not be a precise lesson for today.

“Ancient volcanic eruptions of this kind are not directly comparable to anthropogenic carbon emissions, and in fact all modern fossil fuel reserves are far too insufficient to release as much CO2 over hundreds of years, let alone thousands of years as was released 252 million years ago,” said Dr Jurikova.

“But it is astonishing that humanity’s CO2 emission rate is currently fourteen times higher than the annual emission rate at the time that marked the greatest biological catastrophe in Earth’s history”. − Climate News Network

A chain of calamities caused the planet’s biggest extinction, the greatest mass dying ever. Greenhouse gases explain how.

LONDON, 23 October, 2020 − German scientists are now sure they can explain the biggest extinction of life on this planet: a catastrophe at the end of the Permian Epoch 252 million years ago.

It happened because atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rose dramatically over thousands of years, turning the seas ever more acidic, to precipitate dangerous changes in oceanic conditions. In this, so far the greatest of life’s periodic extinctions, 95% of all the sea creatures perished, along with three-quarters of all life on land.

The evidence of dramatic change at a particular level in the geological record − the Permian-Triassic boundary, now more precisely dated at 251.9 million years ago − has been teasing geologists for decades. And climate change through one agency or another has been a favoured candidate from the start.

That moment in vanished history was marked by a long, slow but world-changing series of volcanic eruptions − the evidence lies in great sheets of basalt known to geologists as the Siberian Traps − and since outgassing of carbon dioxide is associated with all volcanic eruption, a greenhouse effect driven by carbon dioxide has long been a favourite.

Seeking proof

So devastating was this release of heat from the deep crust that ancient coal deposits laid down in the Carboniferous may have ignited, to create the first-ever fossil fuel emissions.

But circumstantial evidence was not the same thing as proof. Dramatic ozone loss − ozone forms a shield against potentially lethal ultra-violet radiation in the upper atmosphere − has also been named as a suspect. Until somebody could deliver clear evidence of the machinery that ensured the extinction, the verdict could only be “not proven.”

Right now, with human help, the planet Earth is undergoing what has been termed a sixth great mass extinction, and evidence from the Permian extinction provides a lesson for what could happen in a changing climate, but so far simply that: an awful warning, rather than a dreadful example.

Now European researchers report in Nature Geoscience that they think they have settled the matter. They used evidence from fossils exposed in the Italian Alps to recreate the conditions in the ancient ocean.

“Humanity’s CO2 emission rate is currently fourteen times higher than the annual emission rate at the time that marked the greatest biological catastrophe in Earth’s history”

The story told by the changing isotopes of carbon, oxygen and most importantly boron in a series of brachiopod fossils was of “substantial” change in the chemistry of sea water 252 million years ago: a change that could be linked to the carbon dioxide from the Siberian Traps eruptions.

The researchers took the reasoning a step further: they used computer models to simulate the conditions of the time. The world warmed, the oceans became increasingly acidic, and right at the outset those organisms in the sea that build shells from calcium were snuffed out of existence.

But the higher temperatures, greater evaporation and ever-higher rainfall that mark a greenhouse world meant ever-greater chemical weathering on land itself. So more nutrients flowed from land to ocean, to deliver too much fertiliser, to encourage too much algal growth.

What followed was a dramatic depletion of dissolved oxygen: marine life was increasingly stifled, or poisoned by sporadic sulphide concentration.

Chain reaction

“We are dealing with a cascading catastrophe in which the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere set off a chain of events that successively extinguished almost all life in the seas,” said Hana Jurikova, then of the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, but now at St Andrew’s in Scotland, who led the study.

It is an axiom of geological research that the present is key to the past, but her forensic account of ancient mayhem may not be a precise lesson for today.

“Ancient volcanic eruptions of this kind are not directly comparable to anthropogenic carbon emissions, and in fact all modern fossil fuel reserves are far too insufficient to release as much CO2 over hundreds of years, let alone thousands of years as was released 252 million years ago,” said Dr Jurikova.

“But it is astonishing that humanity’s CO2 emission rate is currently fourteen times higher than the annual emission rate at the time that marked the greatest biological catastrophe in Earth’s history”. − Climate News Network

Geology’s human footprint is enough to spur rage

Once again science has presented evidence that a new geological epoch is here. This human footprint is all our own work.

LONDON, 21 October, 2020 − The human footprint has left its mark on Earth, in every sense. The United States alone is scarred by 500,000 abandoned mines and quarries.

Right now, worldwide, there are more than 500,000 active quarries and pits, employing 4 million people, excavating the sand and gravel needed for new roads, new homes and new megacities.

Humans have not simply pitted the face of the Earth, they have paved it. In 1904, beyond the cities, the US had just 225 km of sealed highway. Now it has 4.3m km of asphalt or concrete roadway, consuming more than 20 billion tonnes of sand and gravel.

By comparison, the Great Wall of China, the biggest and most enduring construction in early human history, contains just 0.4bn tonnes of stone.

Humans have changed the face of the waters. In 1950, trawlers, long-liners and purse seiners fished just 1% of the high seas beyond territorial waters. No fish species of any kind was considered over-exploited or depleted.

Extinction threat widens

Less than one human lifetime on, fishing fleets roam 63% of the high seas and 87% of fish species are exploited, over-exploited or in a state of collapse. Meanwhile somewhere between 5m and almost 13 million tons of discarded plastics flow each year into the sea.

Humans and human livestock now far outweigh all other mammalian life. At least 96% of the mass of all mammals is represented by humans and their domesticated animals. Domestic poultry makes up 70% of the mass of all living birds. The natural world is now endangered, with a million species at risk of extinction.

And humans have left an almost indelible radiant signature over the entire global surface: between 1950 and 1980, nations detonated more than 500 thermonuclear weapons to smear the air and surface of the planet with radioactive materials: one of these, plutonium-239, will be detectable for the next 100,000 years.

The catalogue of planetary devastation that is the human footprint is assembled in a new study by US and European scientists in the journal Nature Communications: Earth and Environment. It is part of a fresh attempt to settle a seemingly academic question of geological bureaucracy, the naming of ages.

“We humans collectively got ourselves into this mess, we need to work together to reverse these environmental trends and dig ourselves out of it”

The 11,000-year interval since the end of the last Ice Age and the dawn of agriculture, metal smelting, and the first cities, cultures and empires is still formally identified as the Holocene. The latest study of the human legacy is just another salvo in the campaign to announce and confirm the launch of an entirely new epoch, to be called the Anthropocene.

In fact, environmental campaigners, biologists and geophysicists have for years been informally calling the last six or seven decades the Anthropocene. But the authority with the last word on internationally-agreed geological labels − the International Commission on Stratigraphy − has yet to confirm the launch of the new geological epoch.

To help confirm the case for change, researchers have once again assembled the evidence and identified at least 16 ways in which humans have dramatically altered the planet since 1950, and the beginning of what is sometimes called The Great Acceleration.

For instance, humans have doubled the quantity of fixed nitrogen in the biosphere, created an alarming hole in the stratospheric ozone layer, released enough gases to raise the planetary temperature and precipitate global climate change, fashioned or forged perhaps 180,000 kinds of mineral (by comparison, only about 5,300 occur naturally) and − with dams, drains, wells, irrigation, and hydraulic engineering − effectively replumbed the world’s river systems.

Ineradicable scar

By forging metals and building structures, humans have become the greatest earth-moving force on the planet, and left a mark that will endure for aeons.

Altogether, humans have altered the world’s rivers, lakes, coastlines, vegetation, soils, chemistry and climate. The study makes grim reading.

“This is the first time that humans have documented humanity’s geological footprint on such a comprehensive scale in a single publication,” said Jaia Syvitski, of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who led the research team that assembled the evidence.

“We humans collectively got ourselves into this mess, we need to work together to reverse these environmental trends and dig ourselves out of it.

“Society shouldn’t feel complacent. Few people who read the manuscript should come away without emotions bubbling up, like rage, grief and even fear.” − Climate News Network

Once again science has presented evidence that a new geological epoch is here. This human footprint is all our own work.

LONDON, 21 October, 2020 − The human footprint has left its mark on Earth, in every sense. The United States alone is scarred by 500,000 abandoned mines and quarries.

Right now, worldwide, there are more than 500,000 active quarries and pits, employing 4 million people, excavating the sand and gravel needed for new roads, new homes and new megacities.

Humans have not simply pitted the face of the Earth, they have paved it. In 1904, beyond the cities, the US had just 225 km of sealed highway. Now it has 4.3m km of asphalt or concrete roadway, consuming more than 20 billion tonnes of sand and gravel.

By comparison, the Great Wall of China, the biggest and most enduring construction in early human history, contains just 0.4bn tonnes of stone.

Humans have changed the face of the waters. In 1950, trawlers, long-liners and purse seiners fished just 1% of the high seas beyond territorial waters. No fish species of any kind was considered over-exploited or depleted.

Extinction threat widens

Less than one human lifetime on, fishing fleets roam 63% of the high seas and 87% of fish species are exploited, over-exploited or in a state of collapse. Meanwhile somewhere between 5m and almost 13 million tons of discarded plastics flow each year into the sea.

Humans and human livestock now far outweigh all other mammalian life. At least 96% of the mass of all mammals is represented by humans and their domesticated animals. Domestic poultry makes up 70% of the mass of all living birds. The natural world is now endangered, with a million species at risk of extinction.

And humans have left an almost indelible radiant signature over the entire global surface: between 1950 and 1980, nations detonated more than 500 thermonuclear weapons to smear the air and surface of the planet with radioactive materials: one of these, plutonium-239, will be detectable for the next 100,000 years.

The catalogue of planetary devastation that is the human footprint is assembled in a new study by US and European scientists in the journal Nature Communications: Earth and Environment. It is part of a fresh attempt to settle a seemingly academic question of geological bureaucracy, the naming of ages.

“We humans collectively got ourselves into this mess, we need to work together to reverse these environmental trends and dig ourselves out of it”

The 11,000-year interval since the end of the last Ice Age and the dawn of agriculture, metal smelting, and the first cities, cultures and empires is still formally identified as the Holocene. The latest study of the human legacy is just another salvo in the campaign to announce and confirm the launch of an entirely new epoch, to be called the Anthropocene.

In fact, environmental campaigners, biologists and geophysicists have for years been informally calling the last six or seven decades the Anthropocene. But the authority with the last word on internationally-agreed geological labels − the International Commission on Stratigraphy − has yet to confirm the launch of the new geological epoch.

To help confirm the case for change, researchers have once again assembled the evidence and identified at least 16 ways in which humans have dramatically altered the planet since 1950, and the beginning of what is sometimes called The Great Acceleration.

For instance, humans have doubled the quantity of fixed nitrogen in the biosphere, created an alarming hole in the stratospheric ozone layer, released enough gases to raise the planetary temperature and precipitate global climate change, fashioned or forged perhaps 180,000 kinds of mineral (by comparison, only about 5,300 occur naturally) and − with dams, drains, wells, irrigation, and hydraulic engineering − effectively replumbed the world’s river systems.

Ineradicable scar

By forging metals and building structures, humans have become the greatest earth-moving force on the planet, and left a mark that will endure for aeons.

Altogether, humans have altered the world’s rivers, lakes, coastlines, vegetation, soils, chemistry and climate. The study makes grim reading.

“This is the first time that humans have documented humanity’s geological footprint on such a comprehensive scale in a single publication,” said Jaia Syvitski, of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who led the research team that assembled the evidence.

“We humans collectively got ourselves into this mess, we need to work together to reverse these environmental trends and dig ourselves out of it.

“Society shouldn’t feel complacent. Few people who read the manuscript should come away without emotions bubbling up, like rage, grief and even fear.” − Climate News Network

Lentils can feed the world – and save wildlife too

Wildlife could flourish if humans opted for a better diet. Think of humble, healthy lentils as the green choice.

LONDON, 24 September, 2020 – US scientists have worked out how to feed nine billion people and save wildlife from extinction, both at the same time – thanks to healthy lentils.

The answer is starkly simple: if humans got their protein from lentils, beans and nuts rather than beef, pork and chicken, they could return colossal tracts of grazing land back to the wilderness.

Nearly 40% of the planet’s land surface is now committed to agriculture. And almost 83% of this proportion is used to graze animals, or grow food for animals.

If it was returned to natural habitat, then humankind might be able to prevent the extinction of perhaps a million species now under imminent threat.

The same transition would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, help contain climate change, and perhaps even reduce the risks of new pandemics.

“We know that intact, functioning ecosystems and appropriate wildlife habitat ranges help reduce the risk of pandemics. There is potential for giving large areas of land back to wildlife”

And best of all, the burden of action could sensibly fall on the better-off nations rather than the poorest.

“The greatest potential for forest regrowth, and the climate benefits it entails, exists in high and upper-middle income countries, places where scaling back on land-hungry meat and dairy would have relatively minor impacts on food security,” said Matthew Hayek of New York University.

He and colleagues report in the journal Nature Sustainability that vegetation regrowth on once-grazed land could gulp down between nine and 16 years of human carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion, and buy time for a worldwide switch to renewable energy.

“We can think of shifting our eating habits towards land-friendly diets as a supplement to shifting energy rather than a substitute,” he argued.  “Restoring native forests could buy some much-needed time for countries to transition their energy grids to renewable, fossil-free infrastructure.”

The warning is only the latest in a long line of studies which conclude that if humans ate less meat, the world would be a safer, healthier and better place.

Russia-sized area

The switch is unlikely to happen soon, or completely – in some places, animals are the principal food source – or very effectively. It isn’t clear that in a rapidly warming world, forests would recolonise all farmed land, or that those forests would efficiently absorb the hoped-for atmospheric carbon.

But Dr Hayek and his colleagues mapped only an area over which seeds could disperse naturally, and deliver dense and diverse forest. They identified an area that added up to seven million square kilometres, in places moist enough to thrive naturally. This is an area the size of Russia.

The simple act of abandoning selected ranchland or pasture could work wonders for water quality, wildlife habitat and biodiversity. And it would work for human health as well.

“We know that intact, functioning ecosystems and appropriate wildlife habitat ranges help reduce the risk of pandemics,” said his co-author Helen Harwatt of Harvard Law School.

“Our research shows that there is potential for giving large areas of land back to wildlife. Restoring native ecosystems not only helps the climate; when coupled with reduced livestock populations, restoration reduced disease transmission from wildlife to pigs, chickens and cows, and ultimately to humans.” – Climate News Network

Wildlife could flourish if humans opted for a better diet. Think of humble, healthy lentils as the green choice.

LONDON, 24 September, 2020 – US scientists have worked out how to feed nine billion people and save wildlife from extinction, both at the same time – thanks to healthy lentils.

The answer is starkly simple: if humans got their protein from lentils, beans and nuts rather than beef, pork and chicken, they could return colossal tracts of grazing land back to the wilderness.

Nearly 40% of the planet’s land surface is now committed to agriculture. And almost 83% of this proportion is used to graze animals, or grow food for animals.

If it was returned to natural habitat, then humankind might be able to prevent the extinction of perhaps a million species now under imminent threat.

The same transition would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, help contain climate change, and perhaps even reduce the risks of new pandemics.

“We know that intact, functioning ecosystems and appropriate wildlife habitat ranges help reduce the risk of pandemics. There is potential for giving large areas of land back to wildlife”

And best of all, the burden of action could sensibly fall on the better-off nations rather than the poorest.

“The greatest potential for forest regrowth, and the climate benefits it entails, exists in high and upper-middle income countries, places where scaling back on land-hungry meat and dairy would have relatively minor impacts on food security,” said Matthew Hayek of New York University.

He and colleagues report in the journal Nature Sustainability that vegetation regrowth on once-grazed land could gulp down between nine and 16 years of human carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion, and buy time for a worldwide switch to renewable energy.

“We can think of shifting our eating habits towards land-friendly diets as a supplement to shifting energy rather than a substitute,” he argued.  “Restoring native forests could buy some much-needed time for countries to transition their energy grids to renewable, fossil-free infrastructure.”

The warning is only the latest in a long line of studies which conclude that if humans ate less meat, the world would be a safer, healthier and better place.

Russia-sized area

The switch is unlikely to happen soon, or completely – in some places, animals are the principal food source – or very effectively. It isn’t clear that in a rapidly warming world, forests would recolonise all farmed land, or that those forests would efficiently absorb the hoped-for atmospheric carbon.

But Dr Hayek and his colleagues mapped only an area over which seeds could disperse naturally, and deliver dense and diverse forest. They identified an area that added up to seven million square kilometres, in places moist enough to thrive naturally. This is an area the size of Russia.

The simple act of abandoning selected ranchland or pasture could work wonders for water quality, wildlife habitat and biodiversity. And it would work for human health as well.

“We know that intact, functioning ecosystems and appropriate wildlife habitat ranges help reduce the risk of pandemics,” said his co-author Helen Harwatt of Harvard Law School.

“Our research shows that there is potential for giving large areas of land back to wildlife. Restoring native ecosystems not only helps the climate; when coupled with reduced livestock populations, restoration reduced disease transmission from wildlife to pigs, chickens and cows, and ultimately to humans.” – Climate News Network

Millions of species face extinction emergency

An extinction emergency unparalleled in the history of life on Earth could soon overtake millions of species – thanks to us.

LONDON, 8 June, 2020 – More than 500 terrestrial vertebrate species – birds, amphibians, mammals, reptiles – are on the brink of a worldwide extinction emergency. These are animal species with surviving populations of fewer than 1,000 individuals. They are to be found in tropical and subtropical regions and, significantly, they are concentrated in regions heavily affected by human activities.

Extinction is a natural part of the evolutionary process. But the number of simultaneously threatened species, and the link to direct human pressure, adds support for the argument that humanity is now witnessing the sixth, and possibly greatest, mass extinction in the history of life.

The same research has identified 388 vertebrate species with fewer than 5000 individuals in the surviving populations. Of these, more than four-fifths cling to survival in the same threatened regions, and may therefore also be heading for the brink of extinction.

Three distinguished scientists report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they analysed the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s list of threatened species to identify 29,400 terrestrial vertebrates, 1.7% of which had fewer than 1,000 remaining individuals anywhere in the world.

There are many cases of local extinction: for a mix of reasons, birds or butterflies might disappear from places where they once were many, but continue to flourish in other zones. But too many local extinctions soon amount to global obliteration: the researchers identified 237,000 populations of vertebrates that had vanished since 1900.

Massive impact ahead

They see an ecological catastrophe in the making, and they urge governments and international agencies to act.

“What we do to deal with the current extinction crisis in the next two decades will define the fate of millions of species,” said study lead author Gerardo Ceballos, a senior researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Ecology.

“We are facing our final opportunity to ensure that the many services nature provides us do not get irretrievably sabotaged.”

And his co-author Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University in California said: “When humanity exterminates populations and species of other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system.

“The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a national and global emergency for governments and institutions, equal to climate disruption, to which it is linked.”

“It’s up to us to decide what kind of a world we want to leave to coming generations – a sustainable one, or a desolate one in which the civilisation we have built disintegrates rather than builds on past successes”

Nearly a fourth of all species on the planet could face extinction. In the course of the 11,000 years since the invention of agriculture human numbers have multiplied from about one million to 7.7 billion, and are rising fast. In the last 450 million years there have been at least five major extinctions, each destroying 70% to 90% of all life on Earth.

Although creatures alive on Earth today account for only 2% of all the creatures that have ever lived, the absolute number of species is greater now than ever before. “It is into such a biologically diverse world that we humans evolved, and such a world that we are destroying,” the authors write.

Extinction may be the greatest environmental problem, because it is irreversible. It is now happening at rates perhaps a thousand times faster than the “background rate” over the last tens of millions of years.

When a species disappears, it takes with it a unique set of biological riches, and – perhaps more dangerously – it creates a loss for other species that may in some way depend upon it. Extinction breeds extinction, the authors argue.

And as plants and animals vanish into oblivion, the biosphere’s capacity to recycle atmosphere, water and nutrients, to pollinate and fertilise, and to dispose of the dead and the waste, is diminished.

‘Ecological zombies’

Ecosystems that support and enrich all life also support and enrich humanity. At one stage 60 million bison maintained the prairie ecosystems of North America and in the course of doing so supported the then Native American population.

By 1884 only 325 individuals were left. The prairies are now largely farmland, and the 4000 surviving wild bison can be considered, the authors say, as “ecological zombies.”

Among other steps, they want to see a halt to the trade in wildlife – thought to be linked to the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. All three have considerable reputations within science and they have all been making much the same argument for many years.

They calculate that in the last century 543 species of land vertebrate were extinguished. The same number could go in the next two decades. Human action created the problem: only human action can repair the damage.

“It’s up to us to decide what kind of a world we want to leave to coming generations – a sustainable one, or a desolate one in which the civilisation we have built disintegrates rather than builds on past successes,” said Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, the third of the signatories. – Climate News Network

An extinction emergency unparalleled in the history of life on Earth could soon overtake millions of species – thanks to us.

LONDON, 8 June, 2020 – More than 500 terrestrial vertebrate species – birds, amphibians, mammals, reptiles – are on the brink of a worldwide extinction emergency. These are animal species with surviving populations of fewer than 1,000 individuals. They are to be found in tropical and subtropical regions and, significantly, they are concentrated in regions heavily affected by human activities.

Extinction is a natural part of the evolutionary process. But the number of simultaneously threatened species, and the link to direct human pressure, adds support for the argument that humanity is now witnessing the sixth, and possibly greatest, mass extinction in the history of life.

The same research has identified 388 vertebrate species with fewer than 5000 individuals in the surviving populations. Of these, more than four-fifths cling to survival in the same threatened regions, and may therefore also be heading for the brink of extinction.

Three distinguished scientists report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they analysed the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s list of threatened species to identify 29,400 terrestrial vertebrates, 1.7% of which had fewer than 1,000 remaining individuals anywhere in the world.

There are many cases of local extinction: for a mix of reasons, birds or butterflies might disappear from places where they once were many, but continue to flourish in other zones. But too many local extinctions soon amount to global obliteration: the researchers identified 237,000 populations of vertebrates that had vanished since 1900.

Massive impact ahead

They see an ecological catastrophe in the making, and they urge governments and international agencies to act.

“What we do to deal with the current extinction crisis in the next two decades will define the fate of millions of species,” said study lead author Gerardo Ceballos, a senior researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Ecology.

“We are facing our final opportunity to ensure that the many services nature provides us do not get irretrievably sabotaged.”

And his co-author Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University in California said: “When humanity exterminates populations and species of other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system.

“The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a national and global emergency for governments and institutions, equal to climate disruption, to which it is linked.”

“It’s up to us to decide what kind of a world we want to leave to coming generations – a sustainable one, or a desolate one in which the civilisation we have built disintegrates rather than builds on past successes”

Nearly a fourth of all species on the planet could face extinction. In the course of the 11,000 years since the invention of agriculture human numbers have multiplied from about one million to 7.7 billion, and are rising fast. In the last 450 million years there have been at least five major extinctions, each destroying 70% to 90% of all life on Earth.

Although creatures alive on Earth today account for only 2% of all the creatures that have ever lived, the absolute number of species is greater now than ever before. “It is into such a biologically diverse world that we humans evolved, and such a world that we are destroying,” the authors write.

Extinction may be the greatest environmental problem, because it is irreversible. It is now happening at rates perhaps a thousand times faster than the “background rate” over the last tens of millions of years.

When a species disappears, it takes with it a unique set of biological riches, and – perhaps more dangerously – it creates a loss for other species that may in some way depend upon it. Extinction breeds extinction, the authors argue.

And as plants and animals vanish into oblivion, the biosphere’s capacity to recycle atmosphere, water and nutrients, to pollinate and fertilise, and to dispose of the dead and the waste, is diminished.

‘Ecological zombies’

Ecosystems that support and enrich all life also support and enrich humanity. At one stage 60 million bison maintained the prairie ecosystems of North America and in the course of doing so supported the then Native American population.

By 1884 only 325 individuals were left. The prairies are now largely farmland, and the 4000 surviving wild bison can be considered, the authors say, as “ecological zombies.”

Among other steps, they want to see a halt to the trade in wildlife – thought to be linked to the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. All three have considerable reputations within science and they have all been making much the same argument for many years.

They calculate that in the last century 543 species of land vertebrate were extinguished. The same number could go in the next two decades. Human action created the problem: only human action can repair the damage.

“It’s up to us to decide what kind of a world we want to leave to coming generations – a sustainable one, or a desolate one in which the civilisation we have built disintegrates rather than builds on past successes,” said Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, the third of the signatories. – Climate News Network

A third of plants and animals risk mass extinction

As planetary temperatures rise, the chances of species survival lessen. Mass extinction is coming. The challenge is to measure the loss.

LONDON, 25 February, 2020 – Within 50 years, a third of all plant and animal species could be caught up in a mass extinction, as a consequence of climate change driven by ever-rising temperatures. What is new about this warning is the method, the precision, the timetable and the identification of a cause.

And – entirely felicitously – support for the prediction is backed by a series of separate studies of individual species survival in a world rapidly warming because of human commitment to fossil fuels.

Tiny marsupial insect-hunters in Australia could, on the evidence of direct experiment, fail to adapt to ever-higher thermometer readings, and quietly disappear.

As frogs and other amphibians in Central America are wiped out by invasive fungal pathogens – perhaps assisted by climate change – a set of snake species that prey upon them have also become increasingly at risk.

And directly because the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, the polar bears of Baffin Bay in Canada are thinner than they were 30 years ago, and have fewer cubs. That’s because Ursus maritimus hunts its seal prey on the sea ice. And as the winter ice forms later and melts earlier each decade, the bears have begun to go hungry.

Biologists, ecologists and conservationists have been warning for four decades that planet Earth could be on the edge of a sixth Great Extinction, as a simple consequence of the growth of human numbers and human economies, and the parallel destruction of natural habitat.

They have also repeatedly warned that climate change driven by human-triggered planetary heating would inevitably accelerate the losses.

Repeated surveys

But researchers from the University of Arizona have now confirmed the climate connection by using another approach: they decided to look directly at the numbers. They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they selected data from 538 species and 581 places around the globe: they chose these numbers and sites because they could be sure that specific animal and plant species had been repeatedly surveyed over intervals of at least a decade.

They also factored in the changes in local climate conditions at each site, and isolated 19 different variables in the climate machine to work out what it could be about global heating that would directly pose the most significant threats. They also considered the options open to their chosen species: could these, for instance, migrate easily, or tolerate longer periods of extreme heat?

And then they did the calculations. They found that 50% of the chosen species went extinct locally if temperatures rose by more than 0.5°C, and 95% if the mercury reached an additional 2.9°C.

In the last century, the planet has warmed by 1°C above the average for most of human history and prehistory. Right now, thanks to ever-increasing fossil fuel use and continued forest destruction, the planet could be more than 3°C warmer by 2100.

But the researchers also found that the climate factor most closely linked to the extinction of any population was simply the maximum annual count the hottest daily highs in summer.

This also implies that extinction could be two or even four times as frequent in the tropics as in the temperate zones: it is in the tropics – the reefs, the rainforests, the wetlands and savannahs – that the world’s species are concentrated.

Antechinis flavipes, or yellow-footed antechinus, is a native Australian: it is not exactly a mole, or a mouse, or a shrew. It is a little marsupial carnivore with an unhappy love life: males mate in a frenzy and then tend to die from stress-related immune system breakdown.

“If we stick to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, we may lose fewer than two out of every 10 plant and animal species by 2070. But if humans cause larger temperature increases, we could lose more than a third or even half”

It is also sensitive to temperature. When the mercury drops, the creature can go into a torpor and once comatose can even sleep through a bushfire.

Norwegian scientists report in the journal Frontiers in Physiology that they exposed 19 captive juveniles to spells of cold (17°C) and hot (25°C) temperatures, measured their growth and metabolic rate, and observed changes in behaviour. They conclude that, while individuals of the species can cope with short periods of high temperature, they may not have any way of surviving extended heat extremes.

Which is a problem for antechinus, because all the predictions for Australia – and indeed most of the planet – is that as the century proceeds and ever more greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, the hottest spells will become hotter, more frequent and more extended.

North American researchers have been tracking the polar bears who hunt seals and mate in Baffin Bay, between north-eastern Canada and Greenland, for almost three decades. They report in the journal Ecological Applications that when sea ice retreats, the bears wait on Baffin Island and live on their accumulated fat.

In the 1990s, the average stay on land – and away from the bears’ preferred prey – was 60 days. In the last decade, this rose to 90 days. Sampled females proved to be thinner than they had been, and were more likely to have one cub rather than two, all because unseasonally high temperatures in the Arctic mean that the hunting season on the ice is becoming ever shorter.

In 2004, the population of amphibians in a national park in Panama started to perish on a huge scale, and an estimated 30 species of frog and other creatures all but vanished in the wake of a pathogen fungus outbreak.

US scientists report in the journal Science that they set out to look at their wildlife observational data before and after the outbreak to measure the effect on the region’s snake species that prey on amphibians.

Rarely observed snakes

Even though the scientists logged 594 surveys in the seven years before the outbreak and 513 in the six years that followed, they had to use mathematical techniques to come up with probabilities of local snake extinction, because snakes are hard to observe at any time. Of the 36 snake species recorded there, 12 have been observed only once, and five only twice.

The bad news is there is an 85% probability that there are now fewer snake species than there had been, simply because of the disappearance of amphibian prey.

The study also highlights another worry for conservationists and ecologists: extinction of species is happening at an accelerating rate, but biologists still cannot put a number to the total of species at risk. Most of them have never been described or named. Like some of the snakes of Panama, they will have gone before scientists even knew they were there.

The climate connection with the worldwide loss of amphibian species is still uncertain. The certainty is that climate change will make life too hot for many species that – because what was once wilderness has now been cleared for cities, quarries, farms and commercial plantations – can no longer shift to cooler terrain.

John Wiens of the University of Arizona, one of the authors behind the research that predicts massive extinctions by 2070, thinks there is something that can be done.

In 2015 in Paris more than 190 nations vowed to act to contain global warming to “well below” 2°C. “In a way, it’s a ‘choose your own adventure,’” he said.

“If we stick to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, we may lose fewer than two out of every 10 plant and animal species on Earth by 2070. But if humans cause larger temperature increases, we could lose more than a third or even half of all animal and plant species, based on our results.” – Climate News Network

As planetary temperatures rise, the chances of species survival lessen. Mass extinction is coming. The challenge is to measure the loss.

LONDON, 25 February, 2020 – Within 50 years, a third of all plant and animal species could be caught up in a mass extinction, as a consequence of climate change driven by ever-rising temperatures. What is new about this warning is the method, the precision, the timetable and the identification of a cause.

And – entirely felicitously – support for the prediction is backed by a series of separate studies of individual species survival in a world rapidly warming because of human commitment to fossil fuels.

Tiny marsupial insect-hunters in Australia could, on the evidence of direct experiment, fail to adapt to ever-higher thermometer readings, and quietly disappear.

As frogs and other amphibians in Central America are wiped out by invasive fungal pathogens – perhaps assisted by climate change – a set of snake species that prey upon them have also become increasingly at risk.

And directly because the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, the polar bears of Baffin Bay in Canada are thinner than they were 30 years ago, and have fewer cubs. That’s because Ursus maritimus hunts its seal prey on the sea ice. And as the winter ice forms later and melts earlier each decade, the bears have begun to go hungry.

Biologists, ecologists and conservationists have been warning for four decades that planet Earth could be on the edge of a sixth Great Extinction, as a simple consequence of the growth of human numbers and human economies, and the parallel destruction of natural habitat.

They have also repeatedly warned that climate change driven by human-triggered planetary heating would inevitably accelerate the losses.

Repeated surveys

But researchers from the University of Arizona have now confirmed the climate connection by using another approach: they decided to look directly at the numbers. They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they selected data from 538 species and 581 places around the globe: they chose these numbers and sites because they could be sure that specific animal and plant species had been repeatedly surveyed over intervals of at least a decade.

They also factored in the changes in local climate conditions at each site, and isolated 19 different variables in the climate machine to work out what it could be about global heating that would directly pose the most significant threats. They also considered the options open to their chosen species: could these, for instance, migrate easily, or tolerate longer periods of extreme heat?

And then they did the calculations. They found that 50% of the chosen species went extinct locally if temperatures rose by more than 0.5°C, and 95% if the mercury reached an additional 2.9°C.

In the last century, the planet has warmed by 1°C above the average for most of human history and prehistory. Right now, thanks to ever-increasing fossil fuel use and continued forest destruction, the planet could be more than 3°C warmer by 2100.

But the researchers also found that the climate factor most closely linked to the extinction of any population was simply the maximum annual count the hottest daily highs in summer.

This also implies that extinction could be two or even four times as frequent in the tropics as in the temperate zones: it is in the tropics – the reefs, the rainforests, the wetlands and savannahs – that the world’s species are concentrated.

Antechinis flavipes, or yellow-footed antechinus, is a native Australian: it is not exactly a mole, or a mouse, or a shrew. It is a little marsupial carnivore with an unhappy love life: males mate in a frenzy and then tend to die from stress-related immune system breakdown.

“If we stick to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, we may lose fewer than two out of every 10 plant and animal species by 2070. But if humans cause larger temperature increases, we could lose more than a third or even half”

It is also sensitive to temperature. When the mercury drops, the creature can go into a torpor and once comatose can even sleep through a bushfire.

Norwegian scientists report in the journal Frontiers in Physiology that they exposed 19 captive juveniles to spells of cold (17°C) and hot (25°C) temperatures, measured their growth and metabolic rate, and observed changes in behaviour. They conclude that, while individuals of the species can cope with short periods of high temperature, they may not have any way of surviving extended heat extremes.

Which is a problem for antechinus, because all the predictions for Australia – and indeed most of the planet – is that as the century proceeds and ever more greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, the hottest spells will become hotter, more frequent and more extended.

North American researchers have been tracking the polar bears who hunt seals and mate in Baffin Bay, between north-eastern Canada and Greenland, for almost three decades. They report in the journal Ecological Applications that when sea ice retreats, the bears wait on Baffin Island and live on their accumulated fat.

In the 1990s, the average stay on land – and away from the bears’ preferred prey – was 60 days. In the last decade, this rose to 90 days. Sampled females proved to be thinner than they had been, and were more likely to have one cub rather than two, all because unseasonally high temperatures in the Arctic mean that the hunting season on the ice is becoming ever shorter.

In 2004, the population of amphibians in a national park in Panama started to perish on a huge scale, and an estimated 30 species of frog and other creatures all but vanished in the wake of a pathogen fungus outbreak.

US scientists report in the journal Science that they set out to look at their wildlife observational data before and after the outbreak to measure the effect on the region’s snake species that prey on amphibians.

Rarely observed snakes

Even though the scientists logged 594 surveys in the seven years before the outbreak and 513 in the six years that followed, they had to use mathematical techniques to come up with probabilities of local snake extinction, because snakes are hard to observe at any time. Of the 36 snake species recorded there, 12 have been observed only once, and five only twice.

The bad news is there is an 85% probability that there are now fewer snake species than there had been, simply because of the disappearance of amphibian prey.

The study also highlights another worry for conservationists and ecologists: extinction of species is happening at an accelerating rate, but biologists still cannot put a number to the total of species at risk. Most of them have never been described or named. Like some of the snakes of Panama, they will have gone before scientists even knew they were there.

The climate connection with the worldwide loss of amphibian species is still uncertain. The certainty is that climate change will make life too hot for many species that – because what was once wilderness has now been cleared for cities, quarries, farms and commercial plantations – can no longer shift to cooler terrain.

John Wiens of the University of Arizona, one of the authors behind the research that predicts massive extinctions by 2070, thinks there is something that can be done.

In 2015 in Paris more than 190 nations vowed to act to contain global warming to “well below” 2°C. “In a way, it’s a ‘choose your own adventure,’” he said.

“If we stick to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, we may lose fewer than two out of every 10 plant and animal species on Earth by 2070. But if humans cause larger temperature increases, we could lose more than a third or even half of all animal and plant species, based on our results.” – Climate News Network

Many species face threat of insect extinction

Rainforests can get too hot for beetles. Mayflies can succumb to seasonal change, bumblebees to drought. Insect extinction may soon await myriad species.

LONDON, 13 February, 2020 – Humankind could be about to bid farewell to friends it never got to know, as insect extinction overtakes countless species.

Most of the millions of insects that support life on the planet have yet to be named or described. And yet perhaps 500,000 species of beetles, butterflies, bees, ants and other six-legged creatures vital to the efficient working of natural ecosystems and commercial economies could be about to disappear – as a consequence of climate change and other pressures driven by human population growth.

And this note of alarm has been sounded within a few days in which other research groups have separately warned of the climate threats to beetles in the Amazon forest, to the burrowing mayflies of the American mid-west and to the bumblebees of North America and Europe.

Insects pollinate growing plants, dispose of dying ones and serve as lunch or supper for birds, amphibians, reptiles, bats and other mammals. There could be as many as 5.5 million distinct species of insect, of which no more than one in five has been observed, identified and catalogued by entomologists.

A million or more creatures fashioned by aeons of evolution and natural selection could be at imminent risk of extinction because of human advance. A group of 30 experts now urgently warns in the journal Biological Conservation that half of these could be insects.

“From pollination and decomposition, to being resources for new medicines, insects provide essential and irreplaceable services”

“It is surprising how little we know about biodiversity at a global level, when only about 10 to 20% of insect and other invertebrate species have been described and named. And of those with a name, we know little more than a brief morphological description, maybe part of the genetic code and a single site where it was seen some years ago,” said Pedro Cardoso, of the Finnish Museum of Natural History in Helsinki, who led the study.

“With species loss, we lose not only another piece of the complex puzzle that is our living world, but also biomass, essential to feed other animals in the living chain, unique genes and substances that might one day contribute to cure diseases, and ecosystem functions on which humanity depends.”

The researchers argue that insect species are vulnerable to human changes to their natural habitat; to pesticide and fertiliser use; to light pollution, industrial pollution and even noise pollution. Climate change driven by fossil fuel combustion amplifies the hazard: the unfamiliar seasonal temperatures and the advance of spring mean for instance that butterflies have emerged ahead of the nectar plants that normally nourish them.

And a series of separate studies explore some of the impact of human-triggered changes to natural systems. Researchers report in the journal Biotropica that hotter and drier episodes in the Amazon rainforests have led not only to disastrous fires but to a dramatic collapse of dung beetle populations.

Vanishing beetles

These little creatures spread nutrients and seeds, and ecologists see them as evidence of the overall health of an ecosystem, which is why international teams of scientists have been monitoring dung beetles from 98 species across 30 forest plots in the Brazilian state of Pará.

In 2010, they counted 8000 beetles. In 2017, after an El Niño event had brought drought and fire to the region, they found only 2,600.

Mayflies, too, are seen as indicators of the health of rivers, lakes and streams: the more there are, the better the water quality. The burrowing mayfly makes a spectacular emergence each year from US waterways to darken the skies. Researchers have estimated more than 87 billion insects in one swarm, weighing more than 3,000 tonnes of potential bird and fish food.

But researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that between 2015 and 2019 scientists used radar to monitor the swarms over Lake Erie and found that as a consequence of a warming climate and other pressures, numbers fell in that four-year sequence by 84%.

And in the journal Science, Canadian and British scientists report that they looked at more than a century of records of 66 species of bumblebee in North America and Europe, to find that, within one human generation, as global heating amplified the frequency of extreme temperatures and droughts, the likelihood of a bumblebee population surviving in a given place had fallen on average by 30%.

Not insects alone

That insects may be in trouble is not news: naturalists have measured huge losses over time in sample locations, often as a consequence of habitat destruction, but also as a consequence of local climate shifts in response to global heating. These losses have been mirrored in bird predator populations and even in changes in insects themselves.

As the authors of the Biological Conservation paper point out, the damage goes beyond the insect world. Other creatures depend on insects, directly or indirectly. So do humans.

“With insect extinctions, we lose much more than species,” Dr Cardoso and his colleagues write. “We lose abundance and biomass of insects, diversity across space and time with consequent homogenisation, large parts of the tree of life, unique ecological functions and traits, and fundamental parts of extensive networks of biotic interactions.

“Such losses lead to the decline of key ecosystem services on which humanity depends. From pollination and decomposition, to being resources for new medicines, habitat quality indication and many others, insects provide essential and irreplaceable services.” – Climate News Network

Rainforests can get too hot for beetles. Mayflies can succumb to seasonal change, bumblebees to drought. Insect extinction may soon await myriad species.

LONDON, 13 February, 2020 – Humankind could be about to bid farewell to friends it never got to know, as insect extinction overtakes countless species.

Most of the millions of insects that support life on the planet have yet to be named or described. And yet perhaps 500,000 species of beetles, butterflies, bees, ants and other six-legged creatures vital to the efficient working of natural ecosystems and commercial economies could be about to disappear – as a consequence of climate change and other pressures driven by human population growth.

And this note of alarm has been sounded within a few days in which other research groups have separately warned of the climate threats to beetles in the Amazon forest, to the burrowing mayflies of the American mid-west and to the bumblebees of North America and Europe.

Insects pollinate growing plants, dispose of dying ones and serve as lunch or supper for birds, amphibians, reptiles, bats and other mammals. There could be as many as 5.5 million distinct species of insect, of which no more than one in five has been observed, identified and catalogued by entomologists.

A million or more creatures fashioned by aeons of evolution and natural selection could be at imminent risk of extinction because of human advance. A group of 30 experts now urgently warns in the journal Biological Conservation that half of these could be insects.

“From pollination and decomposition, to being resources for new medicines, insects provide essential and irreplaceable services”

“It is surprising how little we know about biodiversity at a global level, when only about 10 to 20% of insect and other invertebrate species have been described and named. And of those with a name, we know little more than a brief morphological description, maybe part of the genetic code and a single site where it was seen some years ago,” said Pedro Cardoso, of the Finnish Museum of Natural History in Helsinki, who led the study.

“With species loss, we lose not only another piece of the complex puzzle that is our living world, but also biomass, essential to feed other animals in the living chain, unique genes and substances that might one day contribute to cure diseases, and ecosystem functions on which humanity depends.”

The researchers argue that insect species are vulnerable to human changes to their natural habitat; to pesticide and fertiliser use; to light pollution, industrial pollution and even noise pollution. Climate change driven by fossil fuel combustion amplifies the hazard: the unfamiliar seasonal temperatures and the advance of spring mean for instance that butterflies have emerged ahead of the nectar plants that normally nourish them.

And a series of separate studies explore some of the impact of human-triggered changes to natural systems. Researchers report in the journal Biotropica that hotter and drier episodes in the Amazon rainforests have led not only to disastrous fires but to a dramatic collapse of dung beetle populations.

Vanishing beetles

These little creatures spread nutrients and seeds, and ecologists see them as evidence of the overall health of an ecosystem, which is why international teams of scientists have been monitoring dung beetles from 98 species across 30 forest plots in the Brazilian state of Pará.

In 2010, they counted 8000 beetles. In 2017, after an El Niño event had brought drought and fire to the region, they found only 2,600.

Mayflies, too, are seen as indicators of the health of rivers, lakes and streams: the more there are, the better the water quality. The burrowing mayfly makes a spectacular emergence each year from US waterways to darken the skies. Researchers have estimated more than 87 billion insects in one swarm, weighing more than 3,000 tonnes of potential bird and fish food.

But researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that between 2015 and 2019 scientists used radar to monitor the swarms over Lake Erie and found that as a consequence of a warming climate and other pressures, numbers fell in that four-year sequence by 84%.

And in the journal Science, Canadian and British scientists report that they looked at more than a century of records of 66 species of bumblebee in North America and Europe, to find that, within one human generation, as global heating amplified the frequency of extreme temperatures and droughts, the likelihood of a bumblebee population surviving in a given place had fallen on average by 30%.

Not insects alone

That insects may be in trouble is not news: naturalists have measured huge losses over time in sample locations, often as a consequence of habitat destruction, but also as a consequence of local climate shifts in response to global heating. These losses have been mirrored in bird predator populations and even in changes in insects themselves.

As the authors of the Biological Conservation paper point out, the damage goes beyond the insect world. Other creatures depend on insects, directly or indirectly. So do humans.

“With insect extinctions, we lose much more than species,” Dr Cardoso and his colleagues write. “We lose abundance and biomass of insects, diversity across space and time with consequent homogenisation, large parts of the tree of life, unique ecological functions and traits, and fundamental parts of extensive networks of biotic interactions.

“Such losses lead to the decline of key ecosystem services on which humanity depends. From pollination and decomposition, to being resources for new medicines, habitat quality indication and many others, insects provide essential and irreplaceable services.” – Climate News Network