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.
Tundra is a cold habitat with long winters, low temperatures, permafrost soils, short vegetation, brief growing seasons and little drainage. The Alpine tundra exists on mountains around the planet at elevations above the tree line. The Arctic tundra is near the North Pole, extending southward to where coniferous forests grow.
● Arctic tundra in the Northern Hemisphere is between the North Pole and the boreal forest. In the Southern Hemisphere it exists on remote islands off the coast of Antarctica and on the Antarctic peninsula. The Arctic and Antarctic tundra are home to over 1,700 species of plants including grasses, mosses, sedges, lichens and shrubs.
● Alpine tundra is a high-altitude ecosystem located on mountains around the earth at elevations above the tree line. Alpine tundra soils are well drained compared to tundra soils. Alpine tundra is home to small shrubs, dwarf trees, tussock grasses and heaths.
The tundra is home to the arctic fox, wolverines, polar bears, northern bog lemmings, muskox, arctic terns, muskoxen and snow buntings.
Tundra are the coldest areas on the planet and are quite different from every other habitat on earth. During the summer, the days receive 24 hours of sun. During the winter, the sun is almost absent entirely. Animals of the polar regions are adapted to frigid temperatures, often with thick layers of fat or blubber to insulate their bodies.
The two main polar regions are the Arctic and the Antarctic. The Arctic Circle and Arctic Tundra are located at the North Pole and stretch 5 million square miles to the top of the Northern Hemisphere. The Antarctic is located at the South Pole. While the animals differ greatly at each pole, the polar regions are similar environments.
The Arctic is an ice continent floating on the ocean. The Antarctic is a rocky continent that is covered in ice. Little rainfall occurs in the polar regions, and there is very little water in the air. The Arctic is connected to Canada and Europe, so more plant and animal species are found there.
The Antarctic is completely isolated from other land masses, so fewer plants and animals are found there. The Arctic Circle also features warmer springs and summers, encouraging the growth of plants. Herbivorous animals are attracted to feed on the plants and grasses.
1,700 species of plants and 48 species of land mammals are known to live in the tundra. Millions of birds also migrate there each year for the marshes. Few frogs or lizards live in the tundra. Foxes, lemmings, Arctic hares and Arctic owls live in the tundra. Wolves are the top predators. Polar bears dominate the frozen waters. Seals, sea lions, orcas, whales, walruses and narwhals feed on fish in the Arctic Circle.
In Antarctica, no plants grow on the surface so animals live on carnivorous diets. Numerous species of fish, crustacean and mollusc are found in the waters beneath the ice for birds and mammals to feed on. Penguins are the most common animal. Larger predators include leopard seals, orcas and whales.
Changes in the climate are the biggest threat to polar regions. Increasing temperatures can cause the ice to melt, threatening habitats.
The Antarctic Treaty of 1961 prevents Antarctica from being commercially exploited. The Arctic is not protected where mining for oil and minerals, over-fishing and hunting threatens species and habitats.
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.
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.
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.
Both the Arctic (North Pole) and the Antarctic (South Pole) are cold because they don’t get any direct sunlight. The sun is always low on the horizon, even in the middle of summer. In winter, the sun is so far below the horizon that it doesn’t come up at all for months at a time. So the days are just like the nights—cold and dark.
Even though the North Pole and South Pole are “polar opposites,” they both get the same amount of sunlight. But the South Pole is a lot colder than the North Pole. Why? Well, the Poles are polar opposites in other ways too.
The Arctic is ocean surrounded by land. The Antarctic is land surrounded by ocean. The ocean under the Arctic ice is cold, but still warmer than the ice. So the ocean warms the air a bit.
Antarctica is dry—and high. Under the ice and snow is land, not ocean. And it’s got mountains. The average elevation of Antarctica is about 7,500 feet (2.3 km). And the higher you go, the colder it gets.
Average (mean) temperature North Pole Summer: 32° F (0° C)
Average (mean) temperature South Pole Summer: −18° F (−28.2° C)
Average (mean) temperature North Pole Winter: −40° F (−40° C)
Average (mean) temperature South Pole Winter: −76° F (−60° C)
The Arctic ice is shrinking. If the ice were on a diet, we would say that it was very successful. But, just as with people on diets, shrinking too much is not healthy. The Arctic ice is shrinking because the ocean under the ice is warming. The warming ocean means Earth’s climate is getting warmer.
The Antarctic’s climate is also warming, but not as fast, because it is less affected by the warming ocean.
"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.
A few years ago, northern parts of the central United States got an unexpected visitor in the summer. Actually, it got thousands of them. The area experienced an invasion of a brown and yellow bird named the dickcissel.
Dickcissels are common to many areas in the United States. They are not common in northern parts like North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Why did the dickcissel show up in these areas? Extreme weather caused by climate change may have forced them to find a new home.
Climate change does a lot more than just heat up our planet. Climate change can also cause more intense weather. That could mean more hurricanes, floods, heat waves, droughts, and even cold spells. This extreme weather can be trouble for birds.
Scientists have noticed that when extreme weather happens, fewer birds show up in the places they call home. Why? One idea is that the birds avoid the extreme weather by moving to a friendlier area.
Amazingly, scientists can use satellites to test this idea. Even though these satellites are high above Earth, they can tell us a lot about what is happening on the ground. The scientists use two types of satellites. One type works like a big 3D camera that takes pictures of the ground. They use this kind to map the neighborhoods of different species of birds. The second type looks at weather and climate. These satellites can measure things like temperature, precipitation and evaporation, and cloudiness. Scientists can then combine this information to see when extreme weather happens in the areas that different birds call home.
But how do they know if these weather events are affecting the birds? This is where field scientists, amateur birders, and everyone can help by collecting data on where birds show up (and where they don’t show up). Using this data, scientists can see when and where birds travel.
If scientists find a bird species in a new area at the same time their regular home experiences extreme weather, this could explain why there appear to be fewer birds. Their numbers don’t shrink—they just move somewhere else.
Scientists have just begun to use satellites to figure out what happens to birds during extreme weather. Their work is very important. If birds are moving to other areas because of climate change, they may need our help. We may need to protect their new habitats. Thanks to satellites, we can get the clearest picture so far of where these new habitats could be.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kelp forests grow predominantly on the Pacific Coast, from Alaska and Canada to the waters of Baja California. Tiered like a terrestrial rainforest with a canopy and several layers below, the kelp forests of the eastern Pacific coast are dominated by two canopy-forming, brown macroalgae species, giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) and bull kelp (Nereocystis leutkeana).
Conditions Required for Growth
Kelp forests grow along rocky coastlines in depths of about 2 m to more than 30 m (6 to 90+ ft). Kelp favors nutrient-rich, cool waters that range in temperature from 5o to 20o C (42o to 72o F). These brown algae communities live in clear water conditions through which light penetrates easily.
Kelp recruits most successfully in regions of upwelling (regions where the ocean layers overturn, bringing cool, nutrient-rich bottom waters to the surface) and regions with continuously cold, high-nutrient waters. Because the amount of dissolved inorganic nitrogen decreases significantly in marine waters warmer than 20oC, kelp experiences reduced or negative growth rates in warm water.
Kelp survival is positively correlated with the strength of the substrate. The larger and stronger the rock on which it is anchored, the greater the chance of kelp survival. Winter storms and high-energy environments easily uproot the kelp and can wash entire plants ashore.
Unique Characteristics of Kelp Plants
Instead of tree-like roots that extend into the substrate, kelp has "anchors" called holdfasts that grip onto rocky substrates. From the holdfasts, kelp plants grow toward the water's surface. Gas bladders called pneumatocysts, another unique feature of kelp, keep the upper portions of the algae afloat. A giant kelp plant has a pneumatocyst at the base of each blade. In contrast, a bull kelp plant has only one pneumatocyst that supports several blades near the water's surface.
Giant kelp is a perennial (it lives for several years) while bull kelp is an annual (it completes its life cycle in one year). Both types of kelp have a two-stage life cycle. They exist in their earliest life stages as spores, released with millions of others from the parent kelp, the sporophyte. The spores grow into a tiny male or female plant called a gametophyte, which produces either sperm or eggs. After fertilization occurs, the embryos may grow into mature plants (sporophytes), completing the life cycle.
Giant kelp can live up to seven years. Factors such as the severity of winter storms may affect its life span. Its average growth (in spring) is 27 cm/day (~10 inches/day), yet it may grow up to 61 cm/day (2 ft/day). The average growth of bull kelp is 10 cm/day (~4 inches/day).
The Kelp Forest Ecosystem
A host of invertebrates, fish, marine mammals, and birds exist in kelp forest environs. From the holdfasts to the surface mats of kelp fronds, the array of habitats on the kelp itself may support thousands of invertebrate individuals, including polychaetes, amphipods, decapods, and ophiuroids.
California sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, and whales may feed in the kelp or escape storms or predators in the shelter of kelp. On rare occasions gray whales have been spotted seeking refuge in kelp forests from predatory killer whales. All larger marine life, including birds and mammals, may retreat to kelp during storms or high-energy regimes because the kelp helps to weaken currents and waves.
Perhaps the most familiar image of kelp forests is a picture of a sea otter draped in strands of kelp, gripping a sea urchin on its belly. Both sea otters (Enhydra lutris) and sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus spp.) play critical roles in the stable equilibrium ecosystem. Sea urchins graze kelp and may reach population densities large enough to destroy kelp forests at the rate of 30 feet per month. Urchins move in "herds," and enough urchins may remain in the "barrens" of a former kelp forest to negate any attempt at regrowth. Sea otters, playing a critical role in containing the urchin populations, prey on urchins and thus control the numbers of kelp grazers.