Well that didn’t take long. We’re hardly a month into this new year and already we’ve got ecological turmoil coming in from every cardinal direction.
After spending December in Paris at COP21, Planet Experts had plenty of news to catch up on, both at home and abroad. We were happy to report some major good news when we returned, but that left our job only half done. Below, we share the other half. These are the 10 Worst Things to Happen to the Planet in January 2016.
True, Ammon Bundy’s armed takeover of a remote wildlife refuge in Oregon is a relatively mild development compared to the global disasters you’ll see lower on this list, but Bundy represents a growing discontent among America’s blue collar workers that has disturbing implications for the nation’s future. As of this writing, Bundy and several of his militia have been captured following a shootout with police that left one of their members dead. This lengthy article by Planet Experts’ editor-in-chief Pierce Nahigyan tells the story of the Bundy occupation leading up to that tragic showdown.
Early this month, a killer whale washed up on the Scottish island of Tiree. Vets who examined wounds on the orca’s body say that it is likely she became entangled in discarded fishing lines and drowned. The orca was identified as “Lulu,” one of a small and diminishing pod of orcas native to the area. The remaining eight orcas have failed to produce a single surviving calf in the last two decades, possibly due to the high level of contaminants in the water.
“I do believe that they will become extinct in our lifetime which is very regrettable since not many people even know that such a distinctive group of killer whales exist just off our coast,” cetacean specialist Andy Foote said in 2011.
A story that was criminally underreported in the mainstream press, an oil platform in the Caspian Sea caught fire on December 4 and continued to burn through January. Of the rig’s 63-member crew, 30 were lost when a lifeboat plummeted into the ocean and are presumed dead.
The oceans are getting both warmer and more acidic, and that’s not good for marine life. It ain’t good for us landlubbers either, as these factors are leading to more outbreaks of toxic algae blooms and massive die offs of shellfish stocks. One oyster farm in Washington state has reported a 42 percent drop in oyster yields over the last 10 years. And (just to place the toxic cherry atop this murder cake) researchers are also seeing a correlation between lower pH levels and increasingly toxic diatoms like Pseudo-nitzschia, which can cause permanent short-term memory loss and even death if ingested. How’s that for a day at the beach?
Ever looked at a manta ray and wondered what it would taste like? Reportedly, not great. However, their gill plates are in high demand in China, where the meat is considered good for the lungs and for nursing mothers. The truth is quite the opposite: Manta ray gills are loaded with toxins, including dangerous levels of mercury, arsenic, cadmium, lead and other heavy metals. Populations of mantas and mobula rays are also endangered by overfishing, but you probably could have guessed that on your own…
More precisely, in a little more than half a decade (six years), the country lost a little more than half its elephants (53 percent). Since the international trade of ivory was banned, the price of black market ivory has soared, and that has led to a surge in elephant poachings across Africa. Tanzania has seen some of the worst poaching activity and is believed to be one of two main hubs for the illegal ivory trade. Conservationists were aware that the country’s elephant population had rapidly declined since 2009, but it wasn’t until the Great Elephant Census began last year that we learned how bad the situation really is.
“We anticipated the decline,” Edward Kohi, principle researcher for the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, told National Geographic, “but not at this level.”
Ever since 2014 broke the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s records for hottest year in history, scientists were predicting that 2015 would be even hotter. And they couldn’t have been much righter. Not only was 2015 a scorcher, it was 1.62°F above the 20th century average––the largest departure from the global temperature average of all time. For those of you playing at home, 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have now all occurred in the 21st century. Taking bets for 2016…
That’s the conclusion of a report released last week by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Right now, an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic is finding its way into the ocean every year, the equivalent of “dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute.” Expect that rate to double to two garbage trucks per minute by 2030 and four garbage trucks by 2050.
Without diminishing the horrors of the BP oil spill (that the Gulf continues to endure to this day), the methane leak at the Porter Ranch community in Los Angeles will likely have even larger and long-term impacts on the planet. Already accounting for one-quarter of California’s total methane emissions, the ruptured well expels some 110,000 pounds of the gas every hour. It is dramatically increasing the United States’ contribution to global warming.
While methane does not linger in the atmosphere like carbon dioxide, it is 86 times more powerful at trapping heat over a 20-year timeframe. That’s a significant boost to the greenhouse gases already swirling in the air, to say nothing of the effect its having on local residents. The gas is causing headaches, nosebleeds, nausea and respiratory issues for the people of Porter Ranch. It’s also highly flammable.
Last month, the L.A. City Attorney filed a lawsuit against SoCalGas, the owner of the well. “We’re suing to require everything necessary to stop the leak, assure this never happens again, counteract the consequences of dangerous emissions and hold the Gas Company accountable for the harm it’s caused,” said attorney Mike Feuer in a statement.
It would be impossible to understate how badly the people of Flint, Michigan, have been served by their government. After a year of denying there was anything amiss with its water, the government finally admitted the truth in October. Flint’s tap water is contaminated with lead, and not by a little––by a lot. A sample of water taken from 271 homes in the city found an average lead content of 27 parts per billion. Some homes had as much as 397 ppb and even above 5,000 ppb.
No amount of lead is safe to drink, but the EPA recommends taking action when water contains lead levels higher than 15 parts per billion.
Older residents have suffered fatigue, seizures, nausea and anemia, but the damage done to the city’s children is not only worse, it’s irreversible. Even low levels of lead contamination lower children’s IQs and decrease their mental capacity.
Disasters like the one in Flint highlight how important water quality monitoring is. This kind of thing does not need to happen in America; it shouldn’t happen anywhere.
For more of the top stories of January 2016, check out these lists: