Earth Week

In case you live under a large but obviously not fatal rock (unrelated but thanks Grace for that  little beauty) and you care about the environment then you should know what this week is….

EARTH WEEK!

So in honor of Earth week I thought we could look back at it’s history and see what has been accomplished since the first Earth Week in 1970.

Earth Week 1970

An Earth Week celebration in Philadelphia in 1970 (Photo courtesy of: http://earthweek1970.org)
 

Earth Day can be credited to Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin, who saw a need for political support for environmental movements. He proposed a national “environmental teach-in” be observed by every college and university in the United States the following spring. Nelson tried to find a week where the majority of universities did not have exams, spring breaks, or other major events, and where no major holidays existed. April 19-25 was selected, and on April 22, 1970, Earth Day was born. More than 20 million people across the United States gathered to celebrate the first Earth Day. Many large cities, most notably New York and Philadelphia, held large public gatherings to promote the newly established event. The first Earth Day was indeed a success.

Earth Day 20 and Earth Day 1990 were two organizations that spearheaded the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990. Earth Day 20 celebrated with a satellite phone call from a group of its members at their base camp on Mt. Everest who expressed their support of world peace and an international focus on environmental issues. In 2000, Kelly Evans, the executive director of the Earth Day campaign, enlisted over 5,000 environmental groups outside the U.S. and established the event’s international base. Earth Day USA took over the planning of the events in 1990 and continued until 1995 when Earth Day Network accepted the role as coordinator. Earth Day USA also helped to established the EarthDay.org website that continues to facilitate the event today.

The modern environmentalist movement would not be what it is today without all of the people who have helped to establish and perpetuate the Earth Day legacy. The Earth Day 2013 campaign can still use your help. Be a part of that legacy and get involved in Earth Week and Earth Day events in your local area and stay committed to the protection of our planet.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

-C

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Lyceum Lecture Series: Week 5

Climate Change and Emerging Infectious Diseases

Dr. Kathryn Docherty, WMU Department of Biological Sciences

Climate change not only has an effect on the environment but it also has an effect on human health. Asthma, cancer, various neurological effects, and developmental effects can be attributed to climate change. It especially has an effect on how we interact with other organisms. So what does this have to do with infectious diseases you might ask? Well, we can start by investigating three types of diseases: water-borne, food-borne, and vector-borne, and we can see how these various diseases will adapt to climate change.

First, let’s start with water-borne diseases. As we should all know, the Earth is covered with water. 97% of it is saline while only 3% of it is freshwater. Of this small amount of freshwater, only 0.3% comprises our surface water. If you’ve been following this lecture series you know that climate change causes ice caps to melt and sea levels to rise, more intense storms, and increased extreme drought. All of these things will lead to a limited supply of fresh surface water. As water becomes limited, use of these limited areas will increase and promote the spread of disease.Let’s look at an example of a water-borne disease to put this all in perspective. Vibrio cholerae, the bacteria that causes the disease known as Cholera, caused 7781 deaths out of 589,104 cases in 2011. In Haiti alone there were 340,311 cases that led to 2869 deaths. The earthquake in Haiti in 2010 caused the disease to spread throughout the country in a short period of time. Because of the earthquake, wastewater treatment plants were flooded and the disease entered the groundwater thus causing the outbreak that eventually followed. Cholera can be prevented by filtering water and there is a vaccine available. If you do contract Cholera you can also take antibiotics to treat it. Legionella pneumophila, another water-borne bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s Disease, has tripled its cases within the last ten years. This disease can be prevented by simply cleaning your air conditioning unit. However, there is no vaccine for the disease but it is treatable with antibiotics.

Next, we can look at various food-borne diseases. 48 million Americans get sick with food-borne illnesses each year. US fisheries depend on species that are sensitive to ocean acidification caused by global warming. Molluscs and shellfish cannot form shells and are therefore more susceptible to infections. The warmer waters also create a better environment for various bacteria to reproduce. All of these factors cause an increase in food-borne illnesses. Between 1997 and 2006 there were 4754 cases. These diseases are preventable by cooking shellfish. There is no vaccine currently available but they are treatable with antibiotics.

Lastly we can look at vector-borne illnesses. Malaria is one of the best known vector-borne diseases and it is already a global threat with 660,000 deaths in 2010. Plasmodium falciparum, a protozoan parasite that infects the liver and red blood cells, is transmitted by mosquitoes. This disease depends on various factors in order to be especially infectious. The speed of development in the mosquito, the range of the vector, the elevation changes of the vector, and the length of the transmission season can all determine whether the disease is effective or not. With climate change the range and elevation of these vectors, and the length of the transmission season are likely to change and possibly increase the infection rate of these diseases.

So we can conclude that the increase of global temperatures will likely lead to a drastic increase in disease outbreaks across the entire globe. This gives us more reason to react drastically to climate change. If we want to protect human lives something needs to be done sooner rather than later.

Lyceum Lecture Series: Week 4

The Dance of the 3 “E’s”: Environment – Energy – Economy

Dr. David Barnes, WMU Department of Geosciences

Environment

It was best said by Al Gore in his book, The Inconvenient Truth, that “its hard to make someone understand when their paycheck is dependent on not understanding.” This is exactly why more effort has not gone into preventing climate change. We know that radiative forcings such as solar irradiance, the Earth’s albedo, and the change in effective re-radiation of heat energy are reasons why the Earth goes through warming events. Climate change throughout geological time has had various causes and rates. Climate sensitivity, the equilibrium climate response to doubled CO2, decreases with increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations. This means that as we increase our carbon emissions, we are in turn causing the Earth’s ability to cope with climate change to decrease.

Many people argue that the Earth goes through climate cycles and that we can explain our current warming by attributing it to a Milankovitch cycle. It turns out that by following these Milankovitch cycles in geologic time we can predict what our current climate should look like. It turns out that we should actually be currently experiencing a global cooling event! We are increasing our CO2 by almost one hundred times what in should be and our temperature is increasing by almost fives times as much as what it should be. The NCADAC even predicts a possible temperature increase of 5-10oC and a sea level rise of 6.6 feet by 2100.

Environment & Energy

We can develop stabilization wedges that can address greenhouse gas emissions for 50 years with current technologies. These can be used to determine where changes in emissions need to be made. Coal combustion produces approximately two times the amount of carbon as other fossil fuels and yet it still dominates our energy use. A process called geosequestration has been developed where CO2 from the atmosphere is deposited into geological media. Further development of this technology could save us from a climate crisis.

Environment, Energy, & Economy

The Hartwell Paper, published in May of 2010, reported that the Kyoto Protocol had failed at reducing CO2 emissions.In order to effectively reduce CO2 emissions we need to level the costs of low-carbon electricity technologies. The paradox with renewable energy, however, is that even though it has low carbon  emissions it can be extremely expensive to run. With wind and solar energy, the base load needs to be dialed down to accomodate these energies but then must be dialed up when no wind or solar energy is available. Staged hydraulic fracturing in shale gas and oil reserves on the other hand provide a cleaner energy that does not require as much money to distribute. Staged hydraulic fracturing does have its drawbacks with water acquisition, chemical mixing, and treatment and disposal of wastewater flow-back.

Overall, the US has started to reduce its overall CO2 emissions. In early 2012, energy related CO2 emissions were the lowest since 1992. Some progress is better than no progress!

Sustainability …

Sustainability is a new idea to many people, and many find it hard to understand. But all over the world there are people who have entered into the exercise of imagining and bringing into being a sustainable world. They see it as a world to move toward not reluctantly, but joyfully, not with a sense of sacrifice, but a sense of adventure. A sustainable world could be very much better than the one we live in today.

Donella H. Meadows, The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update

Is There a Green Side to the Superbowl?

The day after one of the largest consumerism holidays I find myself wondering if there were any environmental benefits to the Superbowl. I mean, did you see those lights that they were using in the stadium?! You can be sure that those lights were not saving any energy (besides when the power decided to go out). So, my curiosity got the best of me and I then stumbled on this article by the New York Times. It shows that energy consumption is down during and after the Superbowl, most likely because everyone is glued to the television, but who knows! It’s worth the read and can be found here. Enjoy!

-C

Wild Ones: Understanding Threats to Biodiversity – January 2013

Welcome to the Anthropocene: Humanity’s Lasting Impacts on the World’s Biodiversity

Dr. E. Binney Girdler, Associate Professor of Biology – Kalamazoo College

The anthropocene is a period of time in the history of the world that is dominated by humans. Some markers of the anthropocene include biodepletion, climate changes, and trace elements. Paleontologists estimate that most species last roughly 1 million to 10 million years. Approximately 1-10 species go extinct every year, leaving a background rate of extinction between 0.00001% and 0.0001%. Current extinction rates for birds and mammals are between 100 and 1000 times the background rate. This is precisely why scientists have labeled this as the sixth mass extinction.

There are many causes of modern biodepletion but there are three significant causes that we will discuss here. The first is habitat destruction and degradation. This includes tropical forest loss, the destruction of tropical dry forests, wetlands, mangroves, and the bleaching of coral reefs. Exotic invasive species are another reason why biodepletion is such an issue. The cane toad, zebra mussels, kudzu, and japanese knotweed are all very well known examples of exotic invasive species. Lastly, overexploitation is another major cause of biodepletion. Most marine fisheries are extremely unsustainable and perverse incentives keep encouraging overexploitation.

So, why should we care about biodepletion? We receive direct and indirect assets from the environment that will disappear as biodiversity decreases. Pharmaceuticals, recreation, and ecosystem services are all things that will suffer due to biodiversity loss. What can we do to prevent these things from happening? We can save what is left and concentrate on hotspots that are most likely to suffer. We can preserve whole ecosystems so that they can continue to function into the future. We can also focus our energies on saving species that are already critically endangered. If we can manage to do these three things we may be able to prevent many species from disappearing in the anthropocene.

Lyceum Lecture Series: Week 3

Climate Change and Its Effects on Fossil Mammals

Dr. Robert Anemone, WMU Department of Anthropology

Geologic time is separated in various eras, of which include the Paleocene and Eocene. These two periods of time are separated by a boundary that is commonly referred to as the PE boundary that occurred roughly 55 million years ago. This boundary is characterized by an event of extreme global warming called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). This was the most severe global warming event since the extinction of the dinosaurs where atmospheric carbon dioxide exceeded 1000ppm. This caused a major perturbation in the carbon cycle and subsequently induced a major floral and faunal turnover event. The PETM is the most similar event to our current state of global climate change that we have on record.

Various stable isotopes of oxygen and carbon can be used as paleothermometers to give us a rough estimate of temperature of precipitation and nutrient exchange of COduring the PETM. There are marked decreases in these isotopes at the PETM in both marine and terrestrial deposits that indicate a period of extreme warming of 4 – 6oC. During the PETM deep oceans warmed 4-5oC, the sea surface at high latitudes warmed roughly 9oC, and the sea surface in the tropics warmed about 5oC. This warming occurred over at least a 20,000 year period. The carbon isotope excursion (CIE) at this point in time indicates that ocean acidification, greenhouse warming, and increases in atmospheric carbon were all occurring at alarming rates.

At the PE boundary, many species of benthic forams became extinct. At the same time, planktonic forams and dinoflagellates were increasing diversity. The PE boundary is also characterized by the appearance of primates, perissodactyla, artiodactyla, and hyaenodontid credonts. There are various hypotheses that attempt to explain the floral and faunal turnover event that occurred at the PE boundary. The first hypothesis is the Red Queen Hypothesis. This specific hypothesis states that extinction rates are constant over time and that biotic interactions between species drive evolution. The best way to sum it up is to use the quote: “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.” The second hypothesis, the Turnover Pulse Hypothesis, states that extinction rates vary with environmental changes. Changes in the physical environment, specifically climate, can be the main drivers of evolutionary changes. The evidence that supports this hypothesis is the correlated pulses of species turnover that occur in response to drastic changes in climate.

By using information from the PETM, the closest known climate event to our current climate change, we can better understand the outcomes of our current situation. The PETM and the fossils from 55 million years ago may represent what the future may hold for us in the 21st century.

Lyceum Lecture Series: Week 2

Effects of Climate Change on Species & Ecosystems

Dr. David Karowe, WMU Department of Biological Sciences

As Dr. Karowe discussed in last week’s lecture, current global warming is happening 20x faster than any previous record of warming and this is happening while solar input is decreasing. This level of warming will cause many areas to experience “disappearing climates” by 2100. So, what exactly does this mean for the inhabitants of planet Earth?

Many of Earth’s species will be forced to change their current lifestyles in order to withstand the climate shift. There are three different responses to climate shift that species can exhibit: geographic range shifts, phonological shifts, and changes in population size. Some of the range and phonological shifts already being observed in various species provide a clear “climate signal”. While these changes can already be found in several species there are many more species that are not showing any shift in behavior. 79% of North American birds and 84% of British plants have not shown any inclination of change. Since these species are not responding to the climate shift they are already beginning to decline.

A great point brought up by Dr. Karowe is that the future of our planet depends on the choices that we make. Climate Envelope Modeling can be used to predict future changes by determining the important climate variables of today, using climate models to predict the new habitat of species, making assumptions about dispersal, and then comparing the two sets of data to infer population changes. For example, woodland horsetail is predicted to decline while wild peony is expected to increase. In the case of Australian Banksia, less than 2oC of warming will result in 21 species “winning”, 80 species “losing” and 5 species becoming extinct. With less than 4oC of warming, there would be no “winners”, 97 “losers”, and 9 species becoming extinct.

When looking at global climate change, the question of which species is most at risk is likely to come up. Species that have nowhere to go, live in the tropics, have specific timing requirements, and that live in or near coral reefs will suffer the most. Coral reefs will be especially vulnerable due to the acidification of the oceans. A global warming event of only 2oC will greatly increase bleaching events in coral reefs. It can also cause most or all of the ocean to become unsuitable habitat for corals to grow. If CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere increase to 650 ppm we could risk total loss of coral reefs.

Climate change has the potential to cause Earth’s 6th mass extinction. With only a 1.5oC increase we could lose almost 31% of species and a 3oC increase could cause a loss of up to 50% of the Earth’s species. The bottom line is that we are causing global climate change to occur at an alarming rate. If we continue on our current path the future is likely to include unprecedented hardships on all of Earth’s species, including humans. The worst scenarios can be prevented if we just simply choose to make changes.