They're called fossil fuels because the fuel in your gas tank comes from the chemical remains of prehistoric plants and animals. All living things on Earth contain carbon. Even you contain carbon. Lots of it. If you weigh 100 pounds, 18 pounds of you is pure carbon. And plants are almost half carbon. You are 18 percent carbon. Plants are 45 percent carbon.
With so much carbon, why isn't everything black and sooty? How can dogs be white and trees green? Because carbon, an element, combines easily with other elements to form new materials. The new stuff, called compounds, are quite different from pure carbon.
An atom is the tiniest possible particle of any element, like carbon or oxygen. A carbon atom combines easily with two oxygen atoms to make the compound carbon dioxide. "C" stands for carbon, "O" stands for oxygen, so carbon dioxide is often called "C-O-2, and written "CO2." CO2 is a gas. It is invisible. CO2 is really important.
How does carbon get into living things? Plants take in CO2. They keep the carbon and give away the oxygen. Animals breathe in the oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Plants and animals depend on each other. It works out well. For hundreds of millions of years, plants and animals have lived and died. Their remains have gotten buried deep beneath Earth's surface. So for hundreds of millions of years, this material has been getting squished and cooked by lots of pressure and heat.
For hundreds of millions of years, dead plants and animals were buried under water and dirt. Heat and pressure turned the dead plants and animals into oil, coal, and natural gas.
So what happens to all this dead plant and animal stuff? It turns into what we call fossil fuels: oil, coal, and natural gas. This is the stuff we now use to energize our world. We burn these carbon-rich materials in cars, trucks, planes, trains, power plants, heaters, speed boats, barbecues, and many other things that require energy.
How does the carbon get out of living things? When fossil fuels burn, we mostly get three things: heat, water, and CO2. We also get some solid forms of carbon, like soot and grease. So that's where all the old carbon goes. All that carbon stored in all those plants and animals over hundreds of millions of years is getting pumped back into the atmosphere over just one or two hundred years.
Is carbon in the air good, bad, or just ugly? Here's the big, important thing about CO2: It's a greenhouse gas. That means CO2 in the atmosphere works to trap heat close to Earth. It helps Earth to hold on to some of the energy it gets from the sun so the energy doesn't all leak back out into space. If it weren't for this greenhouse effect, Earth's oceans would be frozen solid. Earth would not be the beautiful blue and green planet of life that it is. If not for the greenhouse effect, Earth would be an ice ball.
So, CO2 and other greenhouse gases are good—up to a point. But CO2 is so good at holding in heat from the Sun, that even a small increase in CO2 in the atmosphere can cause Earth to get even warmer.
Throughout Earth's history, whenever the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has gone up, the temperature of Earth has also gone up. And when the temperature goes up, the CO2 in the atmosphere goes up even more.
Many factors affect forests include logging, urban sprawl, human-caused forest fires, acid rain, invasive species, and the slash and burn practices of swidden agriculture or shifting cultivation. The loss and re-growth of forest leads to a distinction between two broad types of forest, primary or old-growth forest and secondary forest.
There are also many natural factors that can cause changes in forests over time including forest fires, insects, diseases, weather, competition between species, etc. The World Resources Institute recorded that only 20% of the world's original forests remained in large, intact tracts of undisturbed forest. More than 75% of these intact forests lie in three countries - the boreal forests of Russia and Canada and the rainforest of Brazil.
Old-growth forests contain mainly natural patterns of biodiversity in established seral patterns, and they contain mainly species native to the region and habitat. The natural formations and processes have not been affected by humans with a frequency or intensity to change the natural structure and components of the habitat. Secondary forest contains significant elements of species which were originally from other regions or habitats.
Smaller areas of woodland in cities may be managed as Urban forestry, sometimes within public parks. These are often created for human benefits.
Rainforests are forests characterized by high rainfall, with definitions based on a minimum normal annual rainfall of 68 to 78 inches. The monsoon trough, alternatively known as the intertropical convergence zone, plays a significant role in creating the climatic conditions necessary for the earth's tropical rainforests.
Rainforests cover 2% of the earth's surface, or 6% of its land mass. They originally covered at least twice that area. Tropical rainforests are the earth's oldest living ecosystems. Fossil records show that the forests of Southeast Asia have existed in more or less their present form for 70 to 100 million years.
Around 40% to 75% of all biotic species are indigenous to the rainforests. It has been estimated that there may be many millions of species of plants, insects and microorganisms still undiscovered in tropical rainforests.
Tropical rainforests have been called the "jewels of the earth" and the "world's largest pharmacy", because over one quarter of natural medicines have been discovered there. Rainforests are also responsible for 28% of the world's oxygen turnover, processing it through photosynthesis from carbon dioxide and storing it as carbon through biosequestration.
The undergrowth in a rainforest is restricted in many areas by the poor penetration of sunlight to ground level. This makes it easy to walk through undisturbed, mature rainforest. If the leaf canopy is destroyed or thinned, the ground beneath is soon colonized by a dense, tangled growth of vines, shrubs and small trees, called a jungle.
There are two types of rainforest, tropical rainforest and temperate rainforest.
Tropical rainforests are rainforests in the tropics, found in the equatorial zone (between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn). Tropical rainforests are present in Southeast Asia (from Myanmar (Burma) to Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and northeastern Australia), Sri Lanka, sub-Saharan Africa from Cameroon to the Congo (Congo Rainforest), South America (e.g. the Amazon Rainforest), Central America (e.g. Bosawás, southern Yucatán Peninsula-El Peten-Belize-Calakmul), and on many of the Pacific Islands (such as Hawai).
Temperate rainforests are rainforests in temperate regions. They occur in North America (in the Pacific Northwest, the British Columbia Coast and in the inland rainforest of the Rocky Mountain Trench east of Prince George), in Europe (parts of the British Isles such as the coastal areas of Ireland and Scotland, southern Norway, parts of the western Balkans along the Adriatic coast, as well as in the North West of Spain and coastal areas of the eastern Black Sea, including Georgia and coastal Turkey), in East Asia (in southern China, Taiwan, much of Japan and Korea, and on Sakhalin Island and the adjacent Russian Far East coast), in South America (southern Chile) and also in Australia and New Zealand.
More than half of the world's species of plants and animals are found in the rainforest. Rainforests support a very broad array of fauna, including mammals, reptiles, birds and invertebrates. Mammals may include primates, felids and other families. Reptiles include snakes, turtles, chameleons and other families; while birds include such families as vangidae and Cuculidae. Dozens of families of invertebrates are found in rainforests. Fungi are also very common in rainforest areas as they can feed on the decomposing remains of plants and animals. Many rainforest species are rapidly disappearing due to deforestation, habitat loss and pollution of the atmosphere.
On January 18, 2007, FUNAI reported also that it had confirmed the presence of 67 different uncontacted tribes in Brazil. The province of Irian Jaya or West Papua in the island of New Guinea is home to an estimated 44 uncontacted tribal groups. The tribes are in danger because of the deforestation, especially in Brazil. Central African rainforest is home of the Mbuti pygmies, one of the hunter-gatherer peoples living in equatorial rainforests characterized by their short height (below 59 inches, on average).
Tropical and temperate rainforests have been subjected to heavy logging and agricultural clearance throughout the 20th century and the area covered by rainforests around the world is shrinking. Biologists have estimated that large numbers of species are being driven to extinction, possibly more than 50,000 a year. A quarter or more of all species on earth could be exterminated within 50 years due to the removal of habitat with destruction of the rainforests. Four-fifths of the nutrients in the rainforests are in the vegetation. This means that the soils are nutrient-poor and become eroded and unproductive within a few years after the rainforest is cleared.
Another factor causing the loss of rainforest is expanding urban areas. Littoral rainforest growing along coastal areas of eastern Australia is now rare due to ribbon development to accommodate the demand for seachange lifestyles.
The forests are being destroyed at a rapid pace. Almost 90% of West Africa's rainforest has been destroyed. Since the arrival of humans 2000 years ago, Madagascar has lost two thirds of its original rainforest. At present rates, tropical rainforests in Indonesia will be logged out in 10 years and Papua New Guinea in 13 to 16 years. All the primary rainforests in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Haiti have been destroyed already. The Ivory Coast rainforests have been almost completely logged. The Philippines lost 55% of its forest between 1960 and 1985; Thailand lost 45% of its forest between 1961 and 1985.
Rainforests support 90,000 of the 250,000 identified plant species. Scientists estimate that there are at least 30,000 as yet undiscovered plants, most of which are rainforest species. A typical four square mile patch of rainforest contains as many as 1,500 species of flowering plants, 750 species of trees, 125 mammal species, 400 species of birds, 100 of reptiles, 60 of amphibians, and 150 different species of butterflies. In one study, one square meter of leaf litter, when analyzed, turned up 50 species of ants alone.
Many of the foods we eat today originated in rainforests: avocado, banana, black pepper, Brazilian nuts, cayenne pepper, cassava/manioc, cashews, chocolate/ cocoa, cinnamon, cloves, coconut, coffee, cola, corn/maize, eggplant, fig, ginger, guava, herbal tea ingredients (hibiscus flowers, orange flowers and peel, lemon grass), jalapeño, lemon, orange, papaya, paprika, peanut, pineapple, rice, winter squash, sweet pepper, sugar, tomato, turmeric, vanilla, and Mexican yam. The wild strains still in the rainforests of many of these plants provide genetic materials essential to fortify our existing agricultural stock. Many other rainforest plants have great promise to become other staple foods.
The uneven distribution of wealth and land is one major factor in the destruction of tropical forests. The World Bank estimates that of the 2.5 billion people now living in the tropics one billion exist in absolute poverty.
Viewing and interacting with marine mammals in the wild attracts sufficient numbers of people. A small industry has grown from it. Well intentioned or not, this industry and the public it serves frequently do not take into account the well-being of the animals they view. Marine mammal specialists and advocates have sufficient cause to be concerned.
TYPES OF INTERACTION
Marine mammals in their natural habitat attract many tourists. Anyone who approaches a wild animal to touch, feed, or pose for photographs with it may be guilty of unintentional harassment. Sometimes the harassment is a matter of indifference, such as the many people on some parts of the west coast who frequently disregard posted signs and walk among elephant seals "hauled out" (who have hauled themselves out) on beaches.
Jet-skiing, kayaking, boating, and similar aquatic recreational activities may harass marine mammals in the wild by pursuing, annoying or tormenting them. Scuba or snorkel divers may find it "fun" to harass manatees by swimming around them or touching them, an example of intentional wildlife abuse by humans.
Many commercial tour operations regularly feed the wild animals to encourage them to approach their vessels, then offer tourists an opportunity to photograph, feed, pet or swim with marine mammals. Bottlenose dolphins in the southeast are the most affected animals in such activities.
RISK TO ANIMALS & HUMANS
These human interactions threaten the health and well-being of marine mammals. Possible consequences are driving them from their preferred habitat; disrupting their social groups; poisoning them with inappropriate food; and exposing them to fish hooks and boat propellers.
Wildlife fed by humans often become habituated to the free handout and, unwilling or unable to forage for food, develop the unnatural behavior of begging. This is crucial when young animals need to learn foraging skills.
Many people have been seriously injured when marine mammals who have become conditioned to being fed by humans have behaved aggressively toward them. Medical attention is usually required, and sometimes even hospitalization. Animals who behave aggressively in these situations are usually perceived as "nuisance animals," thus opening the door to animal "control" that may mean death to the animals.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) clearly sets forth the law in interactions with wild marine mammals. Interactions such as those mentioned above may constitute harassment and carry civil and criminal penalties, including fines as high as $20,000 and up to a year in jail. The MMPA defines harassment as "any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild; or has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, sheltering."
Many marine mammals are endangered or threatened. Human interaction may therefore also be a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
For the animals' sake, and for your safety, please don't feed, swim with, or harm marine mammals.
Share your knowledge with others. Encourage friends and family not to patronize boat operators and resorts that promote marine mammal encounter programs.
Ask the National Marine Fisheries Service to provide increased manpower and money to enforce the federal regulations prohibiting feeding and harassment of marine mammals. Write to: National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Resources; 1315 East-West Highway, 13th Floor; Silver Spring, MD, 20910.
To report a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, call: NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hot Line: 1-800-853-1964.
RESPONSIBLE MARINE MAMMAL VIEWING
The significant growth in whale-watching and other marine-mammal viewing increases the likelihood of a threat to the animals. The National Marine Fisheries Service has therefore set forth guidelines for land or water based viewing. If you choose recreational activities in the marine environment, please keep this "Code of Conduct" in mind:
Remain at least 100 yards from marine mammals. Binoculars will ensure that you view at a safe distance. If a whale approaches within 100 yards of your vessel, put your engine in neutral and allow the whale to pass.
Because many watchers on many vessels have a cumulative effect, limit your observing time to one hour. Avoid approaching the animals when another vessel is near.
Whales should not be encircled or trapped between boats, or boat and shore.
Offering food, discarded fish, or fish waste is prohibited.
Do not touch or swim with marine mammals. Never attempt to herd, chase or separate groups of marine mammals or females from their young.
If your engine is not running, whales may not recognize your location. To avoid collisions, make noise, such as tapping the side of the boat.
Do not handle pups. "Hauled out" seal or sea lion pups may appear abandoned when the mother is feeding. Leave them alone.
When viewing hauled out seals or sea lions, try not to let them see, smell or hear you.
Raccoons are intelligent, fascinating and highly adaptable mammals. As we destroy more and more wildlife habitat, we force animals like raccoons to come into closer contact with us. There's no need to panic or pay hundreds of dollars for trapping services because most problems can be easily resolved with some simple advice and household materials. Many conflicts occur in spring and summer when raccoons take advantage of cavities in human dwellings to raise their young. This is why it's vital to solve problems in a way that doesn't separate a mother from her cubs. Here are some solutions to common raccoon problems:
KEEPING RACCOONS OUT OF GARBAGE
Overflowing or uncovered garbage cans provide an open invitation to hungry raccoons. The simplest solution is to put out your garbage cans for pick-up in the morning, after the nocturnal raccoons have returned to their dens. If you must put out your garbage cans at night, get the kind of plastic garbage can with a tall (4' high) TWIST-ON lid which raccoons can't open. Another option is to build a simple wooden box outside for storing garbage cans. For easy access, the top should be hinged and have a latch in front secured with a snap hook.
RACCOONS IN DUMPSTERS
Often garbage disposal companies don't close dumpster lids after emptying them in the early morning hours. Raccoons are enticed by the food smells, jump in, and can't climb the slippery sides. This problem is easily resolved by putting some strong branches or plank-like pieces of wood in the dumpster so the raccoons can climb out. If your company leaves dumpster lids open all the time, post a sign telling employees that it's vital to keep the lid closed so animals don't become trapped inside.
DO DAYTIME RACCOONS HAVE RABIES?
Even though raccoons are considered nocturnal, mother raccoons sometimes nap in trees or forage during the day when they have nursing cubs which depletes their energy. Coastal raccoons take advantage of the tides and are often seen by day. Call your local animal control officer or police if an adult raccoon seen in daytime is acting at all sick or showing abnormal behaviors such as partial paralysis, circling, staggering as if drunk or disoriented, self-mutilating, screeching, or exhibiting unprovoked aggression or unnatural tameness. Otherwise, just leave the raccoon alone and keep people and companion animals away from the animal.
GETTING RACCOONS OUT OF ATTICS & CHIMNEYS
In spring and summer, mother raccoons often take advantage of chimneys and attics as denning sites for raising cubs. The easiest and best solution is to wait a few weeks for the raccoons to move out on their own. As soon as the cubs are old enough to go on nighttime outings with their mother, she will take them out of the chimney once and for all rather than continually carrying them back and forth. Mother raccoons clean their babies meticulously to avoid attracting predators. If you absolutely must evict the raccoon family, remember that raccoons look for quiet, dark and non-noxious smelling places to raise their young. By creating the opposite conditions, you can evict them using the following methods:
Eviction of Chimney Raccoons: Keep the damper closed and put a blaring radio (rock or rap music works best) in the fireplace. Then put a bowl of ammonia on a footstool near the damper. Apply these deterrents JUST BEFORE DUSK; mother raccoons won't want to move their cubs in broad daylight. Be patient, it may take a few days for the mother to move her young. Once you inspect and make sure all the raccoons are gone, promptly call a chimney sweep to install a mesh chimney cap (the best kind has a stainless steel top) and this situation will not recur.
Eviction of Attic Raccoons: Leave all the lights on and place a blaring radio and rags sprinkled with 1/4 cup of ammonia around the attic. You can also enhance the deterrent effect by adding cayenne pepper or the commercial repellent Repel around the attic and also hanging an electrician's drop light over the denning area. Apply these deterrents JUST BEFORE DUSK; mother raccoons will not want to move their cubs in daylight. Be patient, it may take a few days for the mother to move her young. Once the raccoons are gone, promptly seal any entry hole and this situation will not recur.
RACCOONS EATING CAT FOOD
If you leave food outside all the time, you will attract raccoons and other animals. The solution is to feed the cats only at a certain time in the morning or midday, then take away any uneaten food. The cats will get used to the schedule and modify their behavior accordingly.
RACCOONS COMING THROUGH CAT DOORS
No self-respecting raccoon is going to ignore a free buffet! The best solution is to feed your cats indoors and not use a cat door at all. There are strong, electrically controlled doors that you can purchase which only let your designated animals in.
RACCOONS & POND FISH
It is difficult to have a delicacy like fish in an area and expect raccoons not to take notice! The best solution is to maintain a higher water level (at least 3 feet deep) and stack cinder blocks, large rocks, or ceramic pipes in the bottom of the pond so the fish can escape from the raccoons and take refuge.
RACCOONS DESTROYING LAWNS
The raccoons are going after the grubs in your lawn. If you keep your lawn well watered, this exacerbates the problem since it drives the grubs to the surface layer of the soil. The good news is that the grubbing activity, although unsightly, does not permanently damage the lawn. A long-term, ecological solution is to apply the product "Milky Spore" to the soil. This natural bacteria will spread and get rid of the grubs, but it takes a long time to work (1+ years). Don't use chemical pesticides due to their toxic effect on the environment, people and animals.
RACCOONS IN THE CHICKEN COOP
The only answer is to reinforce your chicken coop so the raccoons cannot have access to the chickens. Heavy gage welded wire should be used and another layer of finer mesh put over it to prevent raccoons from being able to reach through. Although an inconvenience, once an animal pen is well reinforced and maintained, there will be no more problems.
Trapping is rarely a solution to wildlife nuisance problems. As one animal is removed, another from the surrounding area will soon take his place. The answer is to exclude the animal from the food or nesting source that is attracting him.
Nuisance wildlife control companies charge a fee -- sometimes hundreds of dollars -- for problems that homeowners can often resolve themselves. In addition, when animals are trapped during birthing season, starving babies may be left behind. Homeowners are then horrified to find a foul odor emanating throughout their house. Animals should never be trapped under extreme conditions, such as on sunny rooftops, in rain, snow, sleet, or other bad weather which will cause the animals to suffer and die.
Don't trap unless an animal is stuck somewhere and can't get out or poses an immediate threat to humans or domestic animals. If you do hire a nuisance trapper, ensure that humane practices are followed and no animals are orphaned in the process.
MAKING SURE RACCOONS ARE GONE
Most attics contain clutter, making it hard to verify if the raccoons are gone. Before sealing any entry hole, stuff it first with newspaper and see if the paper stays in place for 3 successive nights. If so, the den is vacated. After sealing the entry hole with hardware cloth, make sure no raccoons are left behind by leaving a sardine or marshmallows in the attic and check if the food is uneaten after 24 hours, or sprinkle flour in front of the entry hole and check for footprints of a raccoon trying to get out.
Like most endangered creatures, the giant panda has had to bear the brunt of man's frantic quest for development. No place embodies this phenomena more starkly than China, of which this furry animal is a native. The panda population in the plains of China have completely vanished over the millennia, and the only giant pandas remaining are those found in the Qinling Mountains of the Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces of Central China. These rain-soaked forests are at elevations from 5,000 to 8,000 feet and are generally covered in clouds and mist.
An adult male panda can weigh over 350 lbs, the female 275 lbs, and measure from 2 to 3 feet in height up to its shoulders. With its huge round white-colored body, two black patches around the eyes, black ears and stout black legs, the panda looks very much like an over-bloated raccoon.
The breeding age of the pandas starts from about 4 to 8 years and remains reproductive up to the age of 20. The female gives birth between 95 to 150 days, and the panda cub is probably one of the most difficult creatures to raise. Almost blind, hairless and pink, the baby is 1/900th the size of its mother. The cubs remain without eyesight for a period of six to eight weeks and are just able to move around after three months.
Bird meat, rodents, carrion and grass form a part of the animal's diet, but these are secondary. Their primary diet is bamboo, which is available in plenty in the Qinling Mountains. The panda's huge round face is suggestive of a powerful set of jaws which itself is an adaption to a coarse diet such as the bamboo. The flowers of the bamboo have more nutrition than the stems. Re-flowering of the bamboos is a slow natural process and there is a fragile balance between it and the slow reproductive rate of the pandas – something that has evolved over a million years in these mountains.
Changes in climate threatens to upset this delicate balance. It presents a genuine threat to the habitat of the panda. A 3 to 4 degree rise in temperatures could easily wipe out half the bamboo forests and leave the panda starving. Scientists opine that owing to the serious damage to the ozone layer, a fallout of China's manic industrialization drive, temperatures could rise up to such a point that there would be none of these precious bamboo forests left after 50 to 100 years. While bamboo could be cultivated in other areas, it would have none of the nutritional value of the Qinling mountain bamboo. There's still plenty of bamboo being cultivated in China, but for the panda to move out of its habitat in search of its vital food will put it in direct confrontation with humans.
Poaching is another menace, and pandas have been captured over the years for exhibition in private zoos. Their pelts fetch a high price in the illegal wildlife trade. Giant pandas sometimes end up in traps laid for other animals and receive grievous injuries. The Chinese government has put in place strict penalties for panda poaching that entails a ten-year sentence and confiscation of property.
Authorities in the Shaanxi Province enacted a regional law in 2007 that marked the Qinling Mountains as a protected zone. The law also states that all development projects in the vicinity of the zone will be assessed for their impact on the ecology and bio-diversity of the region. The Natural Forest Protection Project, implemented by the Chinese Government, has gone a long way in securing a future for the pandas.
Despite these efforts, China has been criticized for showing little interest in true conservation. The Chinese government rents pandas to zoos around the world. Few pandas have been born in zoos, and only a handful of those have been released into the wild; the majority of which did not survive. The enormous amount of money spent on panda breeding programs has been criticized, as the money could be used much more effectively by saving wild habitats.
Zoo pandas suffer the same stresses all wild animals face in captivity. They are moved from zoo to zoo, usually more for political and economic reasons rather than genetic management. Their natural habitat can never be truly simulated, leading to changes in behavior, prolonged inactivity, health problems, stereotypical behavior and lower levels of immunity creating higher susceptibility to illness and disease.
Animal advocates argue that the pandas' welfare should be put above propaganda and profits; pandas should be put in refuges out of the public eye to eliminate the stress they endure due to such exposure.
Wildlife organizations have had an impact by establishing panda natural reserves and conservation programs. Integrating reserves with forest farms and bamboo corridors enable pandas to forage for more food and come into contact with new breeding mates.
A 17 percent rise in the panda population has been witnessed in the past decade. From a count of 1,596 individuals in 2003, it has risen to 1,864. Of these, though, 50 pandas are condemned to captivity in 18 zoos spanning 13 countries.
If you're a Bowhead whale and you spend summers in the Arctic—congratulations! Life is good. Your food supply is growing and your waters are warming. Your summer "vacation" lasts a few weeks longer now than it used to (say, back in 1980). That's because there isn't as much sea ice and it doesn't form as early in the fall as it used to.
The sea ice is thinner, too. That's why there's more food for you. The tiny plants you eat, called phytoplankton, grow in the top layer of the ocean. Like all plants, they need sunlight to grow. Since there's less ice, the sunlight can shine through the water better. So, more phytoplankton for you.
Also, you are discovering some of your long-lost relatives. Bowhead whales who live on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Arctic are meeting up with Bowhead whales who live on the Pacific side of the Arctic. You guys have been separated by Arctic ice for eons, but now that a lot of it is melted, you are free to mingle.
You, dear whales, are definitely winners in the warming of the Arctic. But, alas, where there are winners, there are often losers.
Condolences to the polar bears, though. You guys are having a tough time of it with the shrinking ice. Where are you supposed to sit while you eat the meal you have caught in the water? Where can you rest if all the ice chunks are melted? After all, you are not fish that can just live in the water all the time. You are not whales either. You need sea ice to get around, to hunt, to find a mate and, in some areas, to make a den and have cubs.
Of 19 groups of Arctic polar bears, seven are losing members. Scientists don't have enough data yet on several of these groups. However, at the rate the Arctic ice is melting, it's likely that the polar bears will continue to struggle.
Why do we talk so much about the Arctic?
While the overall temperature of Earth is rising, temperatures in the Arctic are rising 2 to 3 times faster than temperatures farther south. This situation is called "Arctic amplification."
Why does this happen?
As you may know, light colors reflect more sunlight than dark colors. That's why people are more comfortable in light-colored clothing in the summer. In the same way, sea ice reflects more sunlight than does the darker ocean. As the sea ice melts, there's less "white" to reflect the sunlight and more "dark" to absorb it. So the ocean gets a little warmer. And more sea ice melts, and the darker water absorbs even more sunlight and heat.
And so it goes, in what scientists call a positive feedback loop, or "vicious circle."
What other living things will be winners or losers in the Arctic?
Scientists are keeping a close watch on conditions in the Arctic. It is a clear indicator of how rapidly Earth's climate is changing.
Watching the many species of birds that inhabit your ecosystem is a fun and fascinating pastime the whole family can enjoy together. Winter is the best time to feed birds as they need the food more than at any other time of year and you will typically see a greater number and variety of birds at bird feeders. Many interesting birds from the north fly south in winter, and in spring many species return home from lands in the south, providing a great variety of species to see.
You don’t need to spend money on food or feeders to attract birds to your yard. If you can leave a small area of your yard un-mowed, you can attract a lot of birds. They eat the seeds from the grasses and weeds and use the area for cover as well.
Employing a feeder grants the ability for close study of birds. While all feeders draw birds, those that keep the bird feed dry and free of mold are best. Moldy seeds are bad for bird health. Place feeders either near a window or fairly far away to help prevent birds from colliding with windows when startled. The most common feeder is a hopper or house feeder, usually made of windows of clear plastic that feed seed to a perching surface. These feeders attract cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees, grosbeaks, buntings and titmice. One without a lot of perching surface minimizes use by house sparrows or starlings. The most important thing is to keep feeders clean by washing with bleach water every few weeks. Washing with bleach water prevents the spread of disease.
Although slightly more expensive, bird food with black oil sunflower seeds attract a wide variety of desirable birds. A suet feeder attracts woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and bluejays. Some birders push suet or peanut butter into crevices in bark or in the cracks of old stumps to attract birds. Witnessing a northern flicker or red-bellied woodpecker feeding at close range sears a delightful memory into the mind of a youngster. Woodpeckers love dead branches on trees. Leave a dead branch on a tree to attract woodpeckers if it is safe to do so.
It is important to provide water for birds in winter too. Place the water in a spot in the yard that receives sun as its rays will melt some water for birds on even the coldest days.
A good guide book is essential for identifying birds. Looking up unfamiliar birds and learning about their distinguishing characteristics is part of the fun of birding. Modestly priced binoculars now have coated lenses and other features that make them acceptable choices for bird watching. Don’t get zoom binoculars for birding. You tend to lose clarity at high magnification. A wide angle pair lets in more light and makes it easier to find birds.
Bird watching is a good way to introduce kids into the outdoors and spark awareness of our natural world. Backyard birding is a family-friendly way to enjoy wildlife viewing. Plus, it is just plain fun.
The prairie grasslands ecoregion is often referred to as a “duck factory” because it produces roughly 50% of America’s ducks even though it occupies only about 10% of total duck breeding territory. Duck species such as northern pintails and mallards form mating pairs and breed in the scattered wetlands of this region.
Ducks seem to prefer the smaller wetlands because the isolated ponds allow each pair to have its own space. In fact, ducks already inhabiting a small pond may chase away other ducks in order to protect their territory.
Mallards, pintails, and blue-winged teals are all dabbling ducks, which means they feed in the shallow wetland waters by dipping their heads just below the water surface to eat plants, insects, and small fish. Diving ducks, like the redhead, dive into the deep water to feed on the bottom of the pond.
Ducks often prefer to nest near the wetlands and ponds of the prairie grasslands region in order to feed on the plentiful resources available there. They also prefer this area because the tall grass habitat provides protection from predators.
Agriculture and other activities have decreased the total amount of grassland in the prairie grasslands region, and scientists have found that as the grassland diminishes and the habitat becomes fragmented, predators destroy more duck nests. Part of the reason for this increase in predation is that predators such as foxes and crows are better able to see nests in less grassy and more fragmented areas.
The number of ducks that breed successfully in the prairie grasslands region depends on the wetland conditions that year. In the past, lower duck populations have resulted from unusually dry years with fewer wetland areas.
Wetlands in the prairie grassland region are likely to be affected by forecasted changes in climate, but the magnitude of the impact is uncertain. Scientists initiated a study to examine how prairie grassland wetlands might respond to climate change. Model simulations determined that a warmer climate of only a few degrees Celsius increased the frequency and duration of droughts, and produced less favorable vegetation conditions in semi-permanent wetlands for most of the region. Climate scenarios using smaller temperature and rainfall changes resulted in geographic shifts in the locations of prairie grassland wetlands. During the model simulations, the scientists found that if rainfall increased with temperature, the location of the most productive wetlands would remain approximately the same. However, if precipitation remained stable or decreased, models predicted that most of the prairie grassland region would become too dry to maintain the wetland conditions.
These findings indicate that the duck factory is vulnerable to climate change, particularly under conditions of water stress.
Hundreds of mountain peaks in Appalachia have been destroyed through the practice of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining. Trees are clearcut, and explosives and massive machines are used to remove earth and access coal seams from the top down. Mining waste, or “spoil,” is dumped into valleys. The landscape is altered forever in one of the nation’s main hotspots of biological diversity. Natural habitats in some our country's most important forests are laid to waste. There is no justification for blowing up the oldest mountains on the continent.
MTR mining is controversial for its devastating environmental impacts. Research studies have linked these environmental impacts to adverse outcomes in community health, raising questions about whether the benefits of MTR mining come at too high a health cost.
Coal companies use explosives to blast as much as 800 to 1,000 feet off the tops of mountains in order to reach thin coal seams buried deep below. To annihilate an entire mountainside, trees are ripped from the ground and brush is wiped away with huge tractors. The trees and brush are then set ablaze while deep holes are dug for explosives. Explosives are poured into the holes to literally blow mountaintops apart. Draglines, giant machines that can be the size of an entire city block, scoop dirt and rocks into nearby valleys and streams. Waterways are forever buried beneath the rubble.
“Spoil”—the earth and rock dislodged by mining—buries thousands of miles of headwater streams that ultimately feed the Mississippi River. Slurry, the residue from cleaning the coal, is impounded in ponds or injected into abandoned underground mine shafts where it can leach potentially toxic constituents such as arsenic, lead, manganese, iron, sodium, strontium, and sulfate that ultimately may end up in groundwater.
A form of surface mining, MTR mining first emerged in the late 1960s but remained a small source of coal until the mid-1990s. Now it is a major form of coal mining in West Virginia and Kentucky—the second and third largest coal-producing states after Wyoming—and it also occurs in Virginia and Tennessee. MTR mining uses less labor than underground mining, with massive draglines able to move 100 cubic yards of earth in a single scoop. And with underground coal supplies significantly depleted, MTR mining allows the harvest of seams of coal too thin to work from traditional coal mines.
So Called Reclamation
While mountaintop removal sites must be “reclaimed” by law after mining is complete, reclamation usually focuses on stabilizing rock formations and controlling erosion. The reforestation of the affected area is seldom achieved. Most flattened mountaintops receive little more than a spraying of exotic grass seed. The non-native flora provide vegetation but compete with tree seedlings that have difficulty establishing roots in the compacted backfill.
Coal companies often receive waivers following claims that economic development will occur on the destroyed mountaintop. But despite the promotion of reclaimed flat land for economic development, only a very small percentage of sites are developed.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it may take hundreds of years for a forest to re-establish itself on a removed mountain site.
Pollutants may take any of several pathways into an area’s water supply. Some may leach into streams from the overburden that is dumped into valleys. Others hitch a ride in the slurry that is frequently injected directly into old mine shafts or impounded in ponds, from which it can seep through coal seams into ground-water. Where pollutants go once they hit groundwater is not easily predicted. Appalachian hydrology is complex and poorly charted. But severely contaminated water supplies have been the basis for multiple lawsuits against coal companies, alleging adverse health effects arising from contaminated drinking water. Residents may suddenly find that their water suddenly goes bad after mining begins nearby. One of the biggest health complaints is unremitting diarrhoea. Other conditions reported include learning disabilities, kidney stones, tooth loss, and some cancers.
Water contamination is not the only concern for communities. Residents quickly become accustomed to the rotten-egg scent of hydrogen sulfide. The sulfide is produced when bacteria reduce sulphate that presumably comes from mining runoff. Sulphide has always been recognized as an occupational hazard. Sulphide interferes with oxidative metabolism, and cardiac and nervous tissues are particularly sensitive, according to the World Health Organization. Chronic inhalational exposure in occupational settings has been shown to cause headache, irritability, and poor memory.
Another potential hazard is coal dust from both mining and processing the coal. The coal is crushed or pulverized, and that releases particulate matter into the air. Potential impacts from coal dust exposure include cardiovascular and lung disease, and possibly cancer.
The Clean Water Act specifies that streams must be suitable for “designated uses,” which include recreation, consumption of fish by humans, and protection of the health of aquatic life. However, health studies that have been conducted in Appalachia have revealed direct and indirect links to MTR mining. An investigation found that ecological impairment of streams correlated with human cancer mortality rates in surrounding areas. Three studies showed strong associations between MTR mining and increased cardiovascular disease, increased frequency of birth defects, and reduced quality of life.
Residents in mountaintop mining counties have 18 more unhealthy days per year than those in other non-mining counties, according to research. Over a life span of 78 years, that adds up to nearly 4 additional years’ worth of impaired mental and/or physical health.
The evidence that MTR mining may directly and adversely affect public health continues to become significantly stronger. Scientists say more research may still be needed, but the time has come to shift the burden of proof to the mining companies.
Mountaintop removal coal mining, which as its name suggests, involves removing all or some portion of the top of a mountain or ridge to expose and mine one or more coal seams. The excess overburden is disposed of in constructed fills in small valleys or hollows adjacent to the mining site.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that mountaintop mines and valley fills lead directly to five principal alterations of stream ecosystems:
- springs and ephemeral, intermittent and perennial streams are permanently lost with the removal of the mountain and from burial under fill
- concentrations of major chemical ions are persistently elevated downstream
- degraded water quality reaches levels that are acutely lethal to organisms in standard aquatic toxicity tests
- selenium concentrations are elevated, reaching concentrations that have caused toxic effects in fish and birds
- macroinvertebrate and fish communities are consistently degraded.
In addition, six potential consequences of environmental impacts of mountaintop mines and valley fills operations include:
- loss of headwater resources
- impacts on water quality
- impacts from aquatic toxicity
- impacts on aquatic ecosystems
- cumulative impacts of multiple mining operations
- effectiveness of on-site reclamation and mitigation activities.
Mining operations are regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA), including discharges of pollutants to streams from valley fills (CWA Section 402) and the valley fill itself where the rock and soil is placed in streams and wetlands (CWA Section 404). Coal mining operations are also regulated under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA).
EPA, in conjunction with the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining and Fish & Wildlife Service, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, prepared an environmental impact statement looking at the impacts of mountaintop mining and valley fills. This was done as part of a settlement agreement in the court case known as Bragg v. Robertson, Civ. No. 2:98-0636 (S.D. W.V.). The purpose was to evaluate options for improving agency programs that will contribute to reducing the adverse environmental impacts of mountaintop mining operations and excess spoil valley fills in Appalachia. The geographic focus was approximately 12 million acres encompassing most of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia, and scattered areas of eastern Tennessee.
Based on studies of over 1200 stream segments impacted by mountaintop mining and valley fills the following environmental issues were noted:
- an increase of minerals in the water - zinc, sodium, selenium, and sulfate levels may increase and negatively impact fish and macroinvertebrates leading to less diverse and more pollutant-tolerant species
- streams in watersheds below valley fills tend to have greater base flow
- streams are sometimes covered up
- wetlands are at times inadvertently, and other times intentionally, created; these wetlands provide some aquatic functions, but are generally not of high quality
- forests may become fragmented (broken into sections)
- the regrowth of trees and woody plants on regraded land may be slowed due to compacted soils
- grassland birds are more common on reclaimed mine lands as are snakes; amphibians such as salamanders, are less likely.
Cumulative environmental costs have not yet been identified.
In addition to health and environmental concerns, social, economic and heritage issues are created by mountaintop removal.
Regulation Is Not The Answer
Mountaintop removal is not necessary. It provides only a fraction of national coal production — an estimated 5-7 percent. It does not increase employment in Appalachia. Coal mining jobs have actually disappeared or been displaced as a result of heavily mechanized strip mining.
When the forests are gone and the streams destroyed, all the unique and diverse plant and animal species are destroyed with them. Irreplaceable ecosystems are being wiped out.
Decades of irreversible damage clearly show that regulatory compromises are no longer sufficient. Mountaintop removal mining is a crime against nature, wildlife and human health. It must be abolished, not regulated.
Ocean acidification refers to a reduction in the pH of the ocean over an extended period time, caused primarily by uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.
For more than 200 years, or since the industrial revolution, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has increased due to the burning of fossil fuels and land use change. The ocean absorbs about 30 percent of the CO2 that is released in the atmosphere, and as levels of atmospheric CO2 increase, so do the levels in the ocean.
When CO2 is absorbed by seawater, a series of chemical reactions occur resulting in the increased concentration of hydrogen ions. This increase causes the seawater to become more acidic and causes carbonate ions to be relatively less abundant.
Carbonate ions are an important building block of structures such as sea shells and coral skeletons. Decreases in carbonate ions can make building and maintaining shells and other calcium carbonate structures difficult for calcifying organisms such as oysters, clams, sea urchins, shallow water corals, deep sea corals, and calcareous plankton.
Pteropods are small calcifying (or shelled) organisms that live as zooplankton in the water column and are an important prey species for many fish. Changes in ocean chemistry can break down their calcium carbonate shell, ultimately leaving the marine food web at risk.
These changes in ocean chemistry can affect the behavior of non-calcifying organisms as well. Certain fish's ability to detect predators is decreased in more acidic waters. When these organisms are at risk, the entire food web may also be at risk.
Ocean acidification is affecting the entire world’s oceans, including coastal estuaries and waterways.
Desert biomes receive very little rain and cover about one-fifth of the planet's surface. They are divided into four sub-habitats based on their location, aridity, climate and temperature: arid deserts, semi-arid deserts, coastal deserts and cold deserts.
● Arid deserts are hot and dry and are located at low latitudes throughout the world. Temperatures are warm all year and hottest during the summer. Arid deserts receive little rainfall, and most rain that does fall usually evaporates. Arid deserts are located in North America, South America, Central America, Africa, Australia and Southern Asia.
● Semi-arid deserts are usually not as hot and dry as arid deserts. They have long, dry summers and cool winters with some rain. Semi arid deserts are found in North America, Europe, Asia, Newfoundland and Greenland.
● Coastal deserts are usually located on the western edges of continents at approximately 23°N and 23°S latitude, the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Cold ocean currents run parallel to the coast, producing heavy fogs. Despite high humidity in coastal deserts, it rarely rains.
● Cold deserts have low temperatures and long winters and are found above the treelines of mountain ranges and in the Arctic and Antarctic. They experience more rain than other deserts. Many locations of the tundra are cold deserts.
Desert animals include coyotes, kangaroo rats, spiders, meerkats, roadrunners, reptiles, toads, snakes, pronghorn, birds and bats.
Dry and baron landscapes, deserts receive intense sunshine and little rain. They are places of extremes, with a greater range of temperatures throughout the day than any other habitats. Temperatures range from boiling in the middle of the day, to freezing at night.
The two main types of deserts are true deserts (hot deserts) and semi-deserts.
True deserts are located on either side of the tropics.
Semi-deserts occur on every continent, usually far from the tropics. Semi-deserts receive at least twice as much rain each year than true deserts.
Deserts are formed from large fluctuations in temperature between day and night which puts strain on rocks. The stress causes the rocks to break into pieces. Occasional downpours of rain cause flash floods. The rain falling on hot rocks can cause them to shatter. The rubble is strewn over the ground and further eroded by the wind. Wind-blown sand grains further break down stones, causing more sand. Rocks are smoothed down, and the wind sorts sand into deposits. The grains end up as sheets of sand.
Other deserts are flat, stony plains where all the fine material has been blown away leaving an area of smooth stones. These deserts are called desert pavements and little further erosion takes place. Some deserts include rock outcrops, exposed bedrock and clays once deposited by flowing water. Oases occur where there are underground sources of water in the form of springs and seepages from aquifers.
A unique desert is the Gobi desert in Asia which is located across China and stretches up to the Siberian Mountains where winters are very cold. Despite the cold winters, the mountains block rain-clouds from reaching the desert area.
A variety of plants and animals live in desert habitats. Plants tend to be tough and wiry with small or no leaves. Some plants germinate, bloom and die in the course of a few weeks after rainfall. Some long-lived plants survive for years with deep roots that tap into underground moisture.
Most animals are nocturnal, coming above ground or out of the shade at night when temperatures are cooler. Reptiles, insects and small birds are the most common animals in true deserts. Mammals are more common in semi-deserts, where plant life is more plentiful.
Animals of the deserts are adapted to dry and arid conditions. They are efficient at conserving water, extracting most of their needs from their food and concentrating their urine. The addax antelope, dik-dik, Grant's gazelle and oryx never need to drink. The thorny devil in Australia sucks water through channels in its body located from its feet to its mouth. The camel minimizes its water loss by producing concentrated urine and dry dung, and is able to lose 40% of its body weight through water loss without dying of dehydration. Camels have humps of fatty tissue that concentrate body fat in one area, minimizing the insulating effect fat would have if distributed over their whole bodies. Birds are able to fly to areas of greater food availability as the desert blooms after local rainfall, and can fly to faraway waterholes. Carnivores obtain much of their water needs from the body fluids of their prey.
Flies, beetles, ants, termites, locusts, millipedes, scorpions and spiders have hard cuticles which are impervious to water and many lay their eggs underground where their young develop away from the surface temperature extremes. Some arthropods make use of the ephemeral pools that form after rain and complete their life cycle in a matter of days.
Reptiles do not sweat, so they shelter during the heat of the day. In the first part of the night, as the ground radiates the heat absorbed during the day, they emerge and search for prey. Some snakes move sidewards to navigate high sand-dunes. Even amphibians have adapted to desert habitats, spending the hot dry months in deep burrows where they shed their skins numerous times to create cocoons around them to retain moisture.
Some animals remain in a state of dormancy for long periods, becoming active again when the rare rains fall. They then reproduce rapidly while conditions are favorable before returning to dormancy.
Deserts habitats have been the least affected by human activities, remaining relatively untouched. Threats do include extraction of oil from the sand and grazing farm animals that deplete desert plants, threatening wildlife that rely on those plants. Desertification can be caused by tilling for agriculture, overgrazing and deforestation.
"Dead zone" is a more common term for hypoxia, which refers to a reduced level of oxygen in the water. Hypoxic zones are areas in the ocean of such low oxygen concentration that animal life suffocates and dies, and as a result are sometimes called "dead zones."
One of the largest dead zones forms in the Gulf of Mexico every spring. Each spring as farmers fertilize their lands preparing for crop season, rain washes fertilizer off the land and into streams and rivers.
Less oxygen dissolved in the water is often referred to as a “dead zone” because most marine life either dies, or, if they are mobile such as fish, leave the area. Habitats that would normally be teeming with life become, essentially, biological deserts.
Hypoxic zones can occur naturally, but scientists are concerned about the areas created or enhanced by human activity. There are many physical, chemical, and biological factors that combine to create dead zones, but nutrient pollution is the primary cause of those zones created by humans.
Excess nutrients that run off land or are piped as wastewater into rivers and coasts can stimulate an overgrowth of algae, which then sinks and decomposes in the water. The decomposition process consumes oxygen and depletes the supply available to healthy marine life.
Dead zones occur in many areas, particularly along the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes, but there is no part of the world that is immune. The second largest dead zone in the world is located in the U.S., in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
There is strong evidence that global sea level is now rising at an increased rate and will continue to rise during this century. A warming climate can cause seawater to expand and ice over land to melt, both of which can cause a rise in sea level.
While studies show that sea levels changed little from AD 0 until 1900, sea levels began to climb in the 20th century.
The two major causes of global sea-level rise are thermal expansion caused by the warming of the oceans (since water expands as it warms) and the loss of land-based ice (such as glaciers) due to increased melting.
First, as the oceans warm due to an increasing global temperature, seawater expands—taking up more space in the ocean basin and causing a rise in water level.
The second mechanism is the melting of ice over land, which then adds water to the ocean.
Records and research show that sea level has been steadily rising at a rate of 0.04 to 0.1 inches per year since 1900. Since 1992, new methods of satellite altimetry (the measurement of elevation or altitude) indicate a rate of rise of 0.12 inches per year. This is a significantly larger rate than the sea-level rise averaged over the last several thousand years.
Even though American consumers throw away about 80 billion pounds of food a year, only about half are aware that food waste is a problem. Even more, researchers have identified that most people perceive benefits to throwing food away, some of which have limited basis in fact.
A recent study found that 53 percent of respondents said they were aware that food waste is a problem. This is about 10 percent higher than a previous study, which indicates awareness of the problem could be growing.
But it is still amazingly low. If we can increase awareness of the problem, consumers are more likely to increase purposeful action to reduce food waste. You don’t change your behavior if you don’t realize there’s a problem in the first place.
Generally, people consider three things regarding food waste. They perceive there are practical benefits, such as a reduced risk of foodborne illness, but at the same time they feel guilty about wasting food. They also know that their behaviors and how they manage their household influences how much food they waste.
How Americans Think About Food Waste:
Perceived benefits: 68 percent believe that throwing away food after the package date has passed reduces the chance of foodborne illness, and 59 percent believe some food waste is necessary to be sure meals are fresh and flavorful.
Feelings of guilt: 77 percent feel a general sense of guilt when throwing away food. At the same time, only 58 percent understand that throwing away food is bad for the environment, and only 42 percent believe wasted food is a major source of wasted money.
Control: 51 percent believe it would be difficult to reduce household food waste and 42 percent say they don’t have enough time to worry about it. Still, 53 percent admit they waste more food when they buy in bulk or purchase large quantities during sales. At the same time, 87 percent think they waste less food than similar households.
Many people feel they derive some type of benefit by throwing food away, but many of those benefits are not real. For example, they misunderstand “Sell by” and “Use by” dates on food packages. Only in rare circumstances is that date about food safety.
Food waste is the largest source of municipal solid waste in the U.S. and the most destructive type of household waste in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Consumers can help by reducing food waste.
Wildlife preservation is informed management of the natural environment to protect and benefit plants and animals. Extinction may occur due to natural causes. However, the actions of people and the growth of human population have all too quickly created a threat to the well being of wildlife. There have been declines in the numbers of some species and extinction of others. The need for conservation was created by human beings.
About 2 million years ago, when Homo sapiens first appeared on the earth, their world was biologically rich. Millions of species of plants and animals flourished...from the single celled to the complex. The first humans enjoyed a lush and beautiful environment filled with brilliant color and variety. Every ecosystem harbored life in many forms...from forest to meadow, wetland to desert.
These early people chose to decorate their dwellings with paintings of the wildlife that made up their environment. As they evolved and developed belief systems, they used the plants and animals that surrounded them in their rituals. Nature was integrated into their culture. It has played an important part in the way modern man thinks and behaves today. We bring nature into our daily lives. If you have a companion animal, or even a house plant, if you enjoy a landscape painting or a piece of nature photography, or if you visit a park or a nature preserve, you are recognizing the importance of natural elements in your life. The difference we perceive in the range of natural settings, from the beauty of a garden to the desolation of a vacant lot, is determined by the kinds of organisms that each contains and the communities they form.
ALL THINGS CONTRIBUTE
Few of us would prefer an environment of concrete buildings and asphalt paving to gorgeous coastlines, majestic mountains or peaceful forests. Our pleasure in life would be diminished if only one bird sang, or merely a handful of fish lived in the sea. But our aesthetic appreciation of the wildlife that fills our earth is only one reason to preserve the variety and abundance of species. All living things contribute to the ecology and are vital to its health and continuation. Despite our advances in technology, we as human beings still rely on our environment to provide many of the things necessary to our survival. The earth's biodiversity supports all life, including that of humans. Our food, medicines, energy sources, textiles and building materials are all derived directly or indirectly from living organisms. Our way of life is inextricably linked to the natural world.
Plants convert the energy of the sun through photosynthesis into the energy that sustains all life on this planet. Everything we eat can be traced to either a plant or to an animal that lived by eating plants. For this reason, the vegetation on this planet is necessary to our survival. Maintaining a variety of plant forms is crucial. Although the food we consume represents only about 100 kinds of plants, there are countless others we might utilize. As our population increases and land for agricultural use dwindles, we will have to look for other food crops and new ways to grow them. It is important to preserve a variety of plant species with their future use in mind.
Almost all of our medicines come from living organisms: some directly as from bacteria or fungi or plants, others are now synthetically made but were originally discovered in their natural form. In China and other parts of the world, medicinal plants in their original form are used as treatment for all kinds of illness. Many of our manufactured pharmaceuticals offer a more controlled use of these plants, but are none the less dependent upon them. Science hopes to identify even more organisms beneficial to the treatment of disease. We have only scratched the surface of the vast number of plant species to be studied. A great discovery could still be found that might change the lives of millions.
The study of living things advances our knowledge in all areas. By observing the behavior of the great apes anthropologists learn about prehistoric man. By studying the movements of the creatures and plants of the earth engineers can learn about mechanics. Yet there are organisms that have yet to be scientifically studied. For example, fungi exist in countless numbers and forms. They can be used to preserve food, to produce medicine such as antibiotics without which many lives would be lost and much of the food we eat depends on them. We would have no bread if not for yeast to make it rise, no wine without fermentation. The importance of the organisms around us gains some perspective when we see the practical and economic applications of those organisms. Yet we have explored only a fraction of the species of existing fungi. There are secrets yet to be learned and benefits yet to be gained. If even one species is lost we may have missed a vital opportunity to improve our lives. The one species that perishes might have had the potential to feed entire populations, to cure disease or to provide invaluable knowledge.
We must also see beyond our own needs. There is a much larger picture and many ecological reasons to preserve species. Scientists refer to the role played by living things as "ecosystem services." Communities of microbes, plants and animals, along with nonliving environmental features such as soil and water, constitute an ecosystem. Ecosystem services are provided by many species including those that prevent soil erosion or affect the quality of the air, or convert the energy from the sun into food, or influence the climate, and other functions vital to the ecosystem as a whole.
Optimally, the earth is self-perpetuating, but its continued ability to be a healthy environment for humans is dependent upon the species that sustain its ecosystems. The forests, wetlands, prairies and deserts are all necessary to its well being. If we continue to allow species to die out, it will become increasingly difficult for these ecosystems to operate successfully and it may become difficult for all living things to survive.
The very climate of the earth is dependent on the vital ecosystems that comprise it. The earth's forests perform the vital task of photosynthesis, which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as plants make food. If the forests are cleared and not replaced, our atmosphere will change.
TAKING IT FOR GRANTED
There is dramatic evidence that the earth's ecology is badly stressed. We have taken the importance of the ecosystem for granted and we are blind and deaf to the signs of the strain. Because plants that hold soil in their roots have been eliminated, about one-fifth of all the topsoil in the world has eroded and is lost. The consequences of this loss are fewer plants, fewer productive farms and therefore less food for animals and humans alike. Understanding and maintaining natural communities is the key to sustaining life on earth. No species is unimportant. They are all part of the system.
DOING THE RIGHT THING
Beyond the questions of ecology and economics is the ethical issue. What right do we have as one single species to destroy other living things. Human beings began to destroy the other organisms in their environment when they began to practice agriculture more than 10,000 years ago. There were no more than several million people then. With our exploding population the rate of consumption has proportionately increased...about 40 percent of the net biological productivity (what is produced by all living organisms) on the land. We are already taking a disproportionate share of the bounty of the earth. Ecologists believe that we need to respect the value of other organisms and preserve them before we increase that share. These organisms deserve our respect. They support our very lives on the planet.
With the development of ever more efficient weapons, humans have been able to kill wildlife with growing efficiency. Hunters have caused several species of animals to perish. For agriculture, industry and for living space we have cleared the forests, drained the wetlands, and dammed the rivers. This encroachment on the environment has negatively impacted vast amounts of plant and animal habitat. What hasn't been destroyed has been disrupted, and the natural processes altered. This affects the diversity and size of wildlife populations in these habitats. Some are no longer connected to their ecosystems.
Various species became extinct before there were humans on the earth, but new species developed to replace them. The variety of life continued. Now, however, when people kill off a species there is little hope that it will be replaced. The variety of life is decreasing. Many species of wildlife are gone forever. In North America alone such extinction includes the Carolina parakeet, the passenger pigeon, the California grizzly bear and a birch tree that once flourished in Virginia.
An increased interest in conservation began in the late nineteenth century. Many governments passed laws to protect and set aside national parks and reserves for wildlife. It was these efforts that saved the American bison, the pronghorn and many rare plants found in Hawaii and in the Galapagos. Yet several hundred species of animals and thousands of species of plants are still at risk. These include well-loved animals like the Giant Pandas, the Asiatic lion, the Bengal tiger, the blue whale, the mountain gorilla, the whooping crane, the California condor, the Florida panther and all the Asian rhinoceroses. The St. Helena redwood, the black cabbage tree, the Ozark chestnut and several kinds of California manzanitas face extinction as well.
Wetland conservation is aimed at protecting and preserving areas where water exists at or near the earth's surface, such as swamps, marshes and bogs. Wetlands cover at least 6% of the earth and have become a focal issue for conservation due to the 'ecosystem services' they provide.
More than three billion people, around half the world’s population, obtain their basic water needs from inland freshwater wetlands. The same number of people rely on rice as their staple food, a crop grown largely in natural and artificial wetlands. In some parts of the world, such as the Kilombero wetland in Tanzania, almost the entire local population relies on wetland cultivation for their livelihoods.
In addition to food, wetlands supply fiber, fuel and medicinal plants. They also provide valuable ecosystems for birds and other aquatic creatures, help reduce the damaging impact of floods, control pollution and regulate the climate. From economic importance, to esthetics, the reasons for conserving wetlands have become numerous over the past few decades.
The main functions performed by wetlands are water filtration, water storage, biological productivity, and habitat for wildlife.
Wetlands aid in water filtration by removing excess nutrients, slowing the water allowing particulates to settle out of the water which can then be absorbed into plant roots. Studies have shown that up to 92% of phosphorus and 95% of nitrogen can be removed from passing water through a wetland. Wetlands also let pollutants settle and stick to soil particles, up to 70% of sediments in runoff. Some wetland plants have even been found with accumulations of heavy metals more than 100,000 times that of the surrounding waters' concentration. Without these functions, the waterways would continually increase their nutrient and pollutant load, leading to an isolated deposit of high concentrations further down the line. An example of such a situation is the Mississippi River’s dead zone, an area where nutrient excess has led to large amounts of surface algae which use up the oxygen and create hypoxic conditions (very low levels of oxygen).
Wetlands can even filter out and absorb harmful bacteria from the water. Their complex food chain hosts various microbes and bacteria, which invertebrates feed on. These invertebrates can filter up to 90% of bacteria out of the water this way.
Wetlands can store approximately 1-1.5 million gallons of floodwater per acre. When you combine that with the approximate total acres of wetlands in the United States (107.7 million acres), you get an approximate total of 107.7 - 161.6 million million gallons of floodwater US wetlands can store. By storing and slowing water, wetlands allow groundwater to be recharged. And combining the ability of wetlands to store and slow down water with their ability to filter out sediments, wetlands serve as strong erosion buffers.
Through wetlands ability to absorb nutrients, they are able to be highly biologically productive (able to produce biomass quickly). Freshwater wetlands are even comparable to tropical rainforests in plant productivity. Their ability to efficiently create biomass may become important to the development of alternative energy sources.
While wetlands only cover around 5% of the Conterminous United States’s land surface, they support 31% of the plant species. They also support, through feeding and nesting, up to ½ of the native North American bird species.
Nearly all wetland conservation work is done through one of 4 channels. They consist of easements, land purchase, revolving land and monetary funding. In locations where wildlife habitat has been degraded and the land is for sale, wetland conservation organizations will seek to acquire it. Once purchased, the habitat will be restored and easements will be placed on land to perpetually protect resource values.
People commonly perceive mountains as pyramid-shaped masses that steadily narrow as they slope upward. But researchers have found they actually have four principal shapes. Not only are pyramid-shaped mountains in the minority, but most ranges increase in area at higher elevations. Besides reshaping the mountains in our mind's eye, these findings could lead scientists to reconsider conservation strategies for mountain species.
The four principal shapes of mountain ranges include: diamond, pyramid, inverted pyramid and hourglass. For all the range shapes except pyramid, land availability can be greater at higher elevations than it is farther down the mountainside. Yet, people's idea that land area steadily shrinks as a mountain rises is so entrenched that it has come to guide conservation plans and research. This needs to change.
A majority of mountain ranges studied (39 percent), such as the Rocky Mountains, are diamond-shaped. This means that land-area increases from the bottom until the mid-elevation range before contracting quickly. Hourglass-shaped mountain ranges such as the Himalayas make up 23 percent of ranges. Land area in these types rises slightly then decreases at mid-elevations before increasing sharply at higher elevations. The nearby Kunlun Mountains of China are representative of the 6 percent of ranges worldwide that take the form of inverse pyramids which gradually expand in area as elevation increases before, like the hourglass ranges, suddenly widening toward their peaks.
As mountain species move to higher elevations to escape rising global temperatures, they are expected to face a consistent loss of territory – as well as an increase in resource competition. That all but ensures their eventual extinction. But while this risk exists in pyramid-shaped ranges, many species in other range types might in fact benefit from seeking higher altitudes if they move to an elevation with more land area than the one they left.
Research is needed to more precisely identify those elevation zones where species will encounter territory losses and potentially become more threatened as they move upward. The limited resources that exist for conservation could then be targeted to those species.
Animals that could benefit from an increase in elevation may still face other threats – habitat loss, food availability and exposure to existing animals and diseases, for instance. Even the range shapes themselves provide unique areas of concern. Hourglass-shaped ranges such as the Himalayas present a "bottleneck" at mid-elevation that could become overwhelmed with species moving upslope from more expansive lower elevations.
Not every elevation holds equal value for limited conservation resources. Some gradients, and some portions of gradients, will be more important than others. Protecting land within an elevational bottleneck, for example, is critical. That is where species will be greatly pressured, and often long before they reach the mountaintop.
Our oceans are filled with items that do not belong there. Huge amounts of consumer plastics, metals, rubber, paper, textiles, derelict fishing gear, vessels, and other lost or discarded items enter the marine environment every day, making marine debris one of the most widespread pollution problems facing the world's oceans and waterways.
Marine debris is defined as any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes. It is a global problem, and it is an everyday problem.
There is no part of the world left untouched by debris and its impacts. Marine debris is a threat to our environment, navigation safety, the economy, and human health.
Most of all, marine debris is preventable.
Anything man-made, including litter and fishing gear, can become marine debris once lost or thrown into the marine environment. The most common materials that make up marine debris are plastics, glass, metal, paper, cloth, rubber, and wood.
Glass, metal, and rubber are similar to plastic in that they are used for a wide range of products. While they can be worn away - broken down into smaller and smaller fragments - they generally do not biodegrade entirely. As these materials are used commonly in our society, their occurrence as marine debris is overwhelming.
Debris typically comes from both land-based and ocean-based sources. Plastics are used in many aspects of daily life and are a big part of our waste stream. Derelict fishing gear refers to nets, lines, crab/shrimp pots, and other recreational or commercial fishing equipment that has been lost, abandoned, or discarded in the marine environment. Thousands of abandoned and derelict vessels litter ports, waterways and estuaries, creating a threat to navigation, recreation, and the environment.
How does marine debris move and where does it go? Wind, gyres, and ocean currents all impact how marine debris gets around. Floatable marine debris items, once they enter the ocean, are carried via oceanic currents and atmospheric winds. Factors that impact currents and winds, such as El Niño and seasons, also affect the movement of marine debris in the ocean. Debris items can be carried far from their origin, which makes it difficult to determine exactly where an item came from. Oceanic features can also help trap items in debris accumulation zones, often referred to in the media and marine debris community as “garbage patches.”
Wildlife entanglement and ingestion, economic costs, and habitat damage are some impacts of marine debris.
Marine debris is an eyesore along shorelines around the world. It degrades the beauty of the coastal environment and, in many cases, may cause economic loss if an area is a popular tourist destination. Would you want to swim at a beach littered in trash? Coastal communities may not have the resources to continually clean up debris.
Marine debris can scour, break, smother, and otherwise damage important marine habitat, such as coral reefs. Many of these habitats serve as the basis of marine ecosystems and are critical to the survival of many other species.
Wildlife Entanglement and Ghostfishing
One of the most notable types of impacts from marine debris is wildlife entanglement. Derelict nets, ropes, line, or other fishing gear, packing bands, rubber bands, balloon string, six-pack rings, and a variety of marine debris can wrap around marine life. Entanglement can lead to injury, illness, suffocation, starvation, and even death.
Many animals, such as sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals, have been known to ingest marine debris. The debris item may be mistaken for food and ingested, an animal's natural food (e.g. fish eggs) may be attached to the debris, or the debris item may have been ingested accidentally with other food. Debris ingestion may lead to loss of nutrition, internal injury, intestinal blockage, starvation, and even death.
Vessel Damage and Navigation Hazards
Marine debris can be quite large and difficult to see in the ocean, if it's floating below the water surface. Encounters with marine debris at sea can result in costly vessel damage, either to its structure or through a tangled propeller or clogged intake.
Alien Species Transport
If a marine organism attaches to debris, it can travel hundreds of miles and land on a shoreline where it is non-native. Invasive species can have a devastating impact on local ecosystems and can be costly to eradicate.
Marine debris, especially large and heavy debris, can crush and damage coral.
Coral reef ecosystems are complex, dynamic, and sensitive systems. Although they are geologically robust and have persisted through major climactic shifts, they are however, sensitive to small environmental perturbations over the short-term.
Natural And Human Influences
Slight changes in one component of the ecosystem affect the health of other components. Changes may be attributed to a number of causes but generally fall into two categories, natural disturbances and anthropogenic disturbances. Distinguishing between natural and anthropogenic disturbance is not always simple because the impacts of human actions may not be seen until well after the action has occurred, or may not be seen until it is coupled with a natural disturbance. Also, some events that appear to be natural may have been influenced by human actions. Impacts may be direct or indirect and may be compounded where several occur. For these reasons, it is often difficult to make cause-and-effect linkages when reef degradation is observed.
Coral reef ecosystems are naturally variable and experience natural disturbances that vary on both temporal and spatial scales. Natural disturbance events that affect coral reefs include tropical storms, outbreaks of a coral predators, disease, extended periods of elevated or low water temperatures, and extremely low tides.
Although these events disturb the reefs and may kill a significant amount of coral, they are part of a natural cycle that reefs experience and the reef ecosystem may benefit in other ways. The destruction caused by a hurricane, for example, opens space for reef organisms that had been excluded by larger and longer lived corals. Hurricanes also flush out accumulated sediment within the reef and create more substrate for organisms to settle and grow on.
A healthy reef ecosystem will eventually recover from natural disturbance events. However, when these natural disturbances occur to a reef system that has been impacted by human activities, the reef system may have a reduced or even no capacity to rebound. A natural disturbance acting synergistically with accumulated human impacts may result in destruction that is not reversed in the same time frame it naturally would occur.
Coral reefs around the world have experienced major recent natural disturbances. These natural events may have been influenced by human activities.
A recent World Resources Institute report estimates that nearly 60 percent of the world's reefs are threatened by increasing human activity. The expanding human population and its activities may impact coral reef health in a number of ways.
Development, urbanization, and agriculture lead to increases in freshwater runoff, polluted runoff, sedimentation, and nutrient inputs. Growing industry and automobile usage cause an increase in emissions contributing to the green house effect and chemical deposition from air to water. Commercial and private vessel traffic mean the possibility of fuel leaks or spills, vessel groundings, and anchor damage.
Harvest of reef resources is also taking a toll on the health of coral reef ecosystems.
Overfishing on reefs leads to an unbalanced ecosystem, allowing more competitive or less desirable organisms to become dominant. Fishing methods such as the use of explosives and poisons severely harm reefs and reef organisms.
Harvest of coral skeleton for souvenirs depletes healthy corals or substrate where coral larvae might have settled.
Increased tourism in areas of coral reef habitat contributes to increased pressure from scuba diving, recreational fishing, and vessel traffic.
In general, oil spills can affect animals and plants in two ways: from the oil itself and from the response or cleanup operations. Understanding both types of impacts can help spill responders minimize overall impacts to ecological communities and help them to recover much more quickly.
Spilled oil can harm living things because its chemical constituents are poisonous. This can affect organisms both from internal exposure to oil through ingestion or inhalation and from external exposure through skin and eye irritation. Oil can also smother some small species of fish or invertebrates and coat feathers and fur, reducing birds' and mammals' ability to maintain their body temperatures.
What Creatures Are Most Affected by Oil Spills?
Since most oils float, the creatures most affected by oil are animals like sea otters and seabirds that are found on the sea surface or on shorelines if the oil comes ashore. During most oil spills, seabirds are harmed and killed in greater numbers than other kinds of creatures. Sea otters can easily be harmed by oil, since their ability to stay warm depends on their fur remaining clean. If oil remains on a beach for a while, other creatures, such as snails, clams, and terrestrial animals may suffer.
What Measures Are Taken When an Animal Comes in Contact with Oil?
Most states have regulations about the specific procedures to follow. Untrained people should not try to capture any oiled bird or animal. At most U.S. spills, a bird and/or mammal rehabilitation center is set up to care for oiled animals.
What Type of Spilled Oil Causes the Most Harm?
The type of oil spilled matters because different types of oil behave differently in the environment, and animals and birds are affected differently by different types of oil. However, it's not so easy to say which kind is worst.
First, we should distinguish between "light" and "heavy" oils. Fuel oils, such as gasoline and diesel fuel, are very "light" oils. Light oils are very volatile (they evaporate relatively quickly), so they usually don't remain for long in the aquatic or marine environment (typically no longer than a few days). If they spread out on the water, as they do when they are accidentally spilled, they will evaporate relatively quickly.
However, while they are present, light oils present two significant hazards. First, some can ignite or explode. Second, many light oils, such as gasoline and diesel, are also considered to be toxic. They can kill animals or plants that they touch, and they also are dangerous to humans who breathe their fumes or get them on their skin.
In contrast, very "heavy" oils (like bunker oils, which are used to fuel ships) look black and may be sticky for a time until they weather sufficiently, but even then they can persist in the environment for months or even years if not removed. While these oils can be very persistent, they are generally significantly less acutely toxic than lighter oils. Instead, the short-term threat from heavy oils comes from their ability to smother organisms. Over the long-term, some chronic health effects like tumors may result in some organisms.
Also, if heavy oils get onto the feathers of birds, the birds may die of hypothermia (they lose the ability to keep themselves warm). We observe this same effect if sea otters become oiled. After days or weeks, some heavy oils will harden, becoming very similar to an asphalt road surface. In this hardened state, heavy oils will probably not harm animals or plants that come in contact with them.
In between light and heavy oils are many different kinds of medium oils, which will last for some amount of time in the environment and will have different degrees of toxicity. Ultimately, the effects of any oil depend on where it is spilled, where it goes, and what animals and plants, or people, it affects.