Global Warming a “Death Sentence” for Coral Reefs

coral2In April, I spent a sun-soaked week in Santa Lucia, a beach town on Cuba’s northern coast. At the encouragement of the locals, I went snorkeling in the nearby coral reef (one of the longest in the world). I was amazed by the diversity of sea life.  Among other creatures, I saw snappers, needlefish, and even a barracuda!

But, due to a phenomenon known as “coral bleaching”, these creatures and their habitat are under increasing threat. Coral bleaching occurs when coral expels the colorful algae (zooxanthalle) living in its tissues. The tissues becomes transparent and “the coral’s bright white skeleton is revealed”. Although bleached corals are not yet dead, most “begin to starve once they bleach”, as the zooxanthalle “provide up to 90% of the energy corals require to grow and reproduce”. Thus, unless conditions return to normal, most bleached corals eventually die and decay.

So why does coral expel algae? According to an expert at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, “any environmental trigger that affects the coral’s ability to supply the zooxanthellae with nutrients for photosynthesis will lead to expulsion”. These triggers could include changes to water salinity, quality (from urban and agricultural runoff), and sedimentation (from underwater activity or massive dust storms). They could also include oxygen starvation or diseases/infections in the coral.

However, the most common cause of coral bleaching is a rise in sea temperatures—from global warming, el Niño etc. In fact, a temperature increase of a mere 1 degree Celsius for four weeks can trigger bleaching. If these temperatures “persist for longer periods (eight weeks or more), coral begin to die”.

For example, in 2005, the US lost half of its Caribbean coral reefs when the waters near the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico produced a “thermal stress…greater than the previous 20 years combined”. Similarly, in 1998, 50% of the Great Barrier Reef suffered bleaching as “sea temperatures on the…Reef were the highest ever recorded“. But the most severe bleaching from warm water has occurred in the Indian Ocean. Consequently, “up to 90% of coral cover has been lost in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Tanzania, and the Seychelles”.

This large-scale coral bleaching poses a significant environmental problem. Although reefs comprise less than 1% of the earth’s underwater ecosystem, they shelter a full 25% of marine species. Specifically, they provide “spawning, nursery, refuge, and feeding areas for a large variety of organisms, including sponges, cnidarians, worms, crustaceans, molluscs, echinoderms, sea squirts, sea turtles, and sea snakes”. If these species dwindle, there will be “a tremendous cascade effect for all life in the oceans” potentially leading to a “complete collapse of the marine ecosystem”.

Such an outcome would also put humans in hot water. According to the United Nations, approximately “1 billion people, largely in developing countries, rely on fish as their primary animal protein source”. A further 3.2 billion consume fish for over 15% of their animal protein. Ocean fisheries also provide direct employment to about 45 million people and indirect employment to 180 million people. Add in their families and a full 540 million people “depend on some aspect of catching, farming, processing, or distributing fish for their economic wellbeing”. Furthermore, coral and marine life are a “significant attraction for the tourism industry”. In fact, “many Caribbean countries get nearly half their gross national product from visitors seeking tropical underwater experiences”. Given these realities, experts suggest that, “If the reefs vanished… hunger, poverty, and political instability could ensue.”

Of further note, “reef structures play an important role as natural breakwaters”. They help minimize the impact of waves from storms (e.g. cyclones, hurricanes, or typhoons) on coastal communities and beaches.  Many also believe that corals could be home to the next medical breakthrough. Though 95% of the ocean remains unexplored, scientists have already discovered key treatments for asthma, arthritis, and cancer in the so-called “underwater pharmacy”.

Regrettably, as the climate changes, “coral bleaching is predicted to become more frequent and severe”. In fact, the IPCC’s moderate warming scenarios (B1 to A1T, 2°C by 2100) forecast that “corals on the Great Barrier Reef are very likely to regularly experience summer temperatures high enough to induce bleaching”. This has led some experts to predict that “most of the world’s coral reefs could be killed within our lifetime”.

To avert such a future, non-profit organizations are taking both proactive and reactive measures. They are encouraging others to lower their carbon footprints and to lobby their public officials for comprehensive climate legislation. They are collaborating with countries to establish marine protected area networks. Moreover, they are working to increase the resiliency of coral reefs by developing, sharing, and implementing science-based strategies to “better respond to bleaching events”.

For more information on coral bleaching, and how you can help, please contact the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, or our partners, the Ocean River Institute, the Living Planet Aquarium, and the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation.

Flickr photo credit: Only Point Five 


Waiting to Inhale: Air Pollution a Problem at Home and Abroad

smoke2In mid-January, air pollution in Beijing, China reached an alarming level. According to the municipal government, Beijing’s air contained 500 micrograms of fine particulate matter per cubic meter.This is 20 times the level recommended by the World Health Organization and almost twice the level deemed “hazardous” by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In fact, the pollution was so debilitating that Beijing authorities closed 4 major highways in the Chinese capital. They pledged to cut coal use by 2.6 million tonnes and to prohibit all heavily polluting vehicles by December 31. And, perhaps most controversially, they threatened to ban fireworks displays in honor of Chinese New Year.

But while Beijing’s air pollution has received disproportionate media cover (including a viral story about televised sunrises), it isn’t the only city facing this environmental problem. Indeed, several cities in Iran, Pakistan, and India report comparable–or worse–air pollution levels. North American cities are not immune either. Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley are notorious for smog, caused by vehicle emissions, manufacturing, and farming. Furthermore, despite significant improvements over the last 50 years, Pittsburgh continues to register high pollution levels due to coal combustion and heavy industry.

coalition for clean air2
The effects of this pollution are hard to swallow. Studies indicate that high concentrations of air pollution can trigger irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat; as well as coughing and wheezing. It can exacerbate heart and lung problems, including asthma. And, after long-term exposure, it can increase the risk of cancer and mortality. Consequently, experts maintain that Alleghany County (home of Pittsburgh) is in the top 2% for cancer risk in the United States. They also estimate that the life expectancy in Beijing is 5 – 6 years lower than in China’s southern cities.

The environmental effects of air pollution are troubling as well. Sulfur and nitrogen oxides contribute to acid rain and eutrophication, impacting biodiversity. Chlorofluorocarbons and halons accelerate the depletion of the protective ozone layer. Toxic pollutants lead to reproductive problems and disease in animals and aquatic life. And greenhouse gases trap solar radiation, causing climate change.

These human and environmental effects compel us to act. As individuals, we can reduce our emissions by conserving energy, recycling, and limiting vehicle use. But a large-scale reduction in air pollution will require “much wider policies by national and international authorities”. The recent announcements in China are encouraging, as are the EPA’s efforts to implement a Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and a New Source Performance Standard (to limit CO2 emissions). Society must continue to demand such actions, and ensure their realization. Then we can all breathe a little easier.

For more information on air pollution, please contact the Clean Air Task Force, the Coalition for Clean Air, Breathe LA, or our partners, Clean Air Cool Planet and the American Lung Association in California.

Flickr Photo Credit: Kim Seng


Survival of the Fattest: The Effect of Shrinking Sea Ice on Polar Bears

polarOver the last month in the Canadian Arctic, around 1000 polar bears have gradually migrated to the coastal areas around Hudson Bay. After spending the summer on land, the bears are preparing for their return to sea ice.

The sea ice is critical to the bears’ survival. It “provides a vital platform to hunt ringed and bearded seal”, as well as other prey. This rich diet helps replenish the fat reserves of the world’s largest bears (weighing up to 1300 pounds). It ensures that after the ice melts, the bears can survive another lean summer on land.

But, like many animals, polar bears are falling victim to climate change. Since 1979, “sea ice cover has declined by about 30% in the Arctic”. Furthermore, the length of the sea ice season has fallen by approximately 30 days.

Consequently, “polar bears have been coming to land earlier and leaving later in recent years”. As the bears lose nearly 2 pounds/day on land, they are “60 pounds lighter on average than [polar bears] three decades ago”.  This weight loss has profound effects on the species. Lighter bears are not only less robust, they also produce smaller cubs “which can struggle to survive”. Hence, the polar bear population in Churchill, Manitoba (the “polar bear capital of the world”) has dropped by 22% since 1987. Without intervention, “two-thirds of all polar bears will be gone by 2050—and perhaps extinct in the wild by the end of the century.”

Unfortunately, polar bear conservation is no simple task. According to Polar Bears International, the traditional solution is to protect critical habitat, “but we can’t really build a fence to protect the sea ice from rising temperatures.” Nor can we simply wait for polar bears to re-adapt to life on land: “They can’t undo hundreds of thousands of years of evolution in 50 or 100 years.” Therefore, a better approach is to stem the rise of greenhouse gas emissions and, by extension, climate change.

This requires a concerted effort by many actors: governments, businesses, and individual citizens. To learn how you can combat climate change, please contact Clean Air Cool Planet. Also, to support threatened wildlife, please donate to the WWF or our partners, Motley Zoo Animal Rescue and Noah’s Ark.

Flickr photo credit: Staffan Widstrand

America's Animals: Worth More than the Sum of their Parts

mooseOver the last month, at least 91 elephants in western Zimbabwe have succumbed to cyanide poisoning. Officials believe that poachers, in pursuit of lucrative ivory tusks, spread the poison over natural salt licks used by the elephants.

But this story is not unique to Africa; poaching also occurs in the US. In fact, the Humane Society of the United States estimates that for each of the millions of animals hunted legally, “another is killed illegally, perhaps on closed land or out of season”.

In general, poaching is done for “sport or commercial profit”. The heads of sheep, elk, moose, deer, goats, and bears are popular “trophies” and can fetch high prices on the black market. Of further value are the antlers, hooves and tails of deer, elk, and caribou; the feathers of eagles and other birds of prey; and the paws, claws, teeth, and gall bladders of bears.

If that isn’t disturbing, consider the impacts. In addition to directly killing animals, poaching often indirectly kills the orphaned young. As a result, it can drastically reduce species’ populations. Prized Bengal tigers and central African gorillas, for example, are now on the brink of extinction. Poaching can also have reverberations throughout the ecosystem, particularly for the predators and prey of targeted species. In the case of the poisoned African elephants, lions, hyenas and vultures have all “died from feeding on contaminated carcasses”.

But Americans can take action to reduce the incidence of poaching. They can lobby for state wildlife regulations (as in New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Delaware) and report violations to the state government. They can refrain from purchasing illegal animal products, stifling demand. Moreover, they can support various conservation and humane societies working to protect wildlife, including Op4G partners Hawk Talk and Noah’s Ark.

To learn more, please visit the websites of the Humane Society of the United States and the World Wildlife Fund.

Flickr photo credit: US FWS

The Battle of all Battles

batsRecently, we covered the rapid decline of bee populations in North America. Now, another creature is facing massive losses: bats.

Experts have identified several potential causes, from pesticides and pollution to wind turbines and habitat loss. The leading cause, however, is believed to be the spread of “white-nose syndrome”. Fittingly, the syndrome is marked by the growth of white fungus on the muzzle, ears, and wings of hibernating bats. The fungus irritates the bats, rousing them from their winter slumber. Once awake, the bats fly around—even in daytime—quickly consuming their stored fat reserve.The result is emaciation and starvation.

Thus far, the syndrome has afflicted bats across 22 US states, mostly in the northeast. An estimated 7 million bats have succumbed to the disease. This includes 100% of bats in some caves, 80% of bats in the northeast, and 90% of all little brown bats, once America’s most common bat species.

To compound the problem, the syndrome is spreading in the United States. Once confined to the northeast, it is now present in such states as Indiana, Tennessee, Missouri, and Alabama. Furthermore, the syndrome threatens numerous bat species. Of the 46 bat species in the US, 26 (over half) hibernate. Finally, bat species generally produce only one pup per year and, at most, five pups in a lifetime. Thus, any recovery of the bat population would take decades.

bat world

Regrettably, the environmental—and economic—consequences could be massive. After all, bats are a natural form of pest control, each consuming thousands of insects per night. These include disease carrying insects (e.g. mosquitoes) and “crop-damaging caterpillars and worms”. Like bees, bats also pollinate certain plants. For these reasons, it has been estimated that bats contribute approximately $23 billion in environmental services annually to the agricultural industry.

But humans may be able to stem bats’ decline.  To begin, experts are encouraging people to refrain from entering non-commercial caves and abandoned mines, and to disinfect all clothes and equipment before entering new caves. Congress has also transferred $1.9 million to the Fish and Wildlife Service for research, surveillance, and an annual symposium. However, bat advocates claim that further funding is needed.

To learn more, please visit:

Flickr Photo Credit

Man’s Best Friend? America’s Broken Promise to Pets

bunnyAmerica is a country of animal lovers. In fact, over half of US households own a dog or cat. Yet, 8 million animals arrive at American shelters every year. Tragically, 3.7 million—or nearly 50%—are ultimately euthanized.

Many other pets end up on the streets. According to the US Humane Society, there are 50 million stray cats alone in the United States. These animals face incredible threats, ranging from traffic and harsh weather to disease and predation.

The sheer magnitude of shelter and stray animals has profound ethical implications. It also, unfortunately, creates significant health and financial problems. Stray animals can become hungry and rabid, attacking people and livestock. Furthermore, US taxpayers spend approximately $2 billion annually to capture, shelter, and treat animals.

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So how did this problem arise? One of the leading causes is pet overpopulation. Despite recent public awareness campaigns, a full 35% of pet owners neglect to spay or neuter their pets. Furthermore, though 17 million Americans acquire new pets annually, only 20% adopt from animal shelters. The remainder purchase from breeders or pet shops, “creating demand for irresponsible breeding”. Finally, many pet owners simply view their pets as “disposable”. They abandon their pets when they move, have children, or feel overwhelmed by the time and financial commitment.

The Humane Society of the United States

Still, there is hope! Americans can reverse the growing shelter and stray populations by adopting their pets from reputable non-profits. They can sterilize their pets early, preventing “accidental litters”. They can tag (or even micro-chip!) their pets in the event that they become lost. Moreover, they can educate themselves and others on the responsibilities of pet ownership.

To learn more, or to adopt your next pet, contact our non-profit partners! Simply visit our National Non-Profit Partners Page and select the “animal/wildlife” category.

Flickr photo credit: Susan G2

Honeybees in Peril: “Their Crisis is our Crisis”

beesIt is easy to vilify bees – they sting, annoy, and lack the beauty of butterflies and ladybugs. But the tiny insects are, in fact, critical to our survival. By travelling from plant to plant, they pollinate 40% of our food. They are also prey for birds and, thus, a key component of the food chain. For these reasons, ecologists say “our very lives depend on bees”.

Unfortunately, bee populations in the United States (as well as in many other regions) have endured a precipitous decline in recent years. According to the documentary “Queen of the Sun”, the US has lost about 5 million colonies of bees, each with 20,000 to 60,000 honeybees. In 2006 alone, the US lost approximately 50% of its bee colonies. This phenomenon is aptly called “colony collapse disorder” (CCD).

While the exact cause of CCD remains unknown, many theories exist. In the United States, a leading theory is the transportation of bees to central California to pollinate massive almond farms. The trip, occurring every February, not only inflicts great stress on bees. It also causes a mixing of 3/4 of American bees, enabling the spread the viruses. Furthermore, when the almond blossoms disappear after several weeks, the bees are left without a food source due to the absence of other crops (known as “monoculture”).

A further theory is the rise of mites. Tracheal mites burrow into bees’ windpipes, while varroa mites destroy bees’ reproductive systems. Pesticides, ironically, exacerbate the problem. In addition to creating stronger breeds of mites, pesticides like Neonicotinoids contain neurotoxins, affecting bees’ ability to navigate back to their hives.

The artificial insemination of queen bees is yet another theory. The practice replaces the natural “marriage flight” of bees, during which the queen bee flies high into the air. Only the strongest and fittest drones reach and impregnate the queen, ensuring the strongest offspring.

Finally, many experts have blamed the increase in genetically modified organisms. Besides foreign genes, many of these organisms contain antibiotic markers and bio-toxins, which transfer to bees via pollen. The antibiotics attack the “healthy bacteria” in bees, used to create honey and bee pollen (their food), and the biotoxins weaken or kill bees.

Given these potential causes, what steps can society take to save the precious honeybee? Farmers can engage in biodynamic farming (farming more than one crop) and refrain from using pesticides and GMO seeds. Beekeepers can cease migratory beekeeping and the artificial insemination of queen bees. Moreover, society can respect bees and their habitats, as well as pass protective policies. In other words, let nature be!

Don’t ignore this “canary in the coal mine”. Help protect bees today! To learn more, watch “Queen of the Sun” (available on Netflix).

August 17th is National Honey Bee Day.  If you’re in the Los Angeles area, celebrate with the Non-Profit HoneyLove and their 2:00 PM Flash Mob at the 3rd Street Promenade, Santa Monica.

Flickr photo credit: Universal Pops