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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: How are the world’s penguins faring in this day and age of global warming? What can we do to help them?        -- Mitch McIntosh, Mt. Morris, IL

Not surprisingly, penguins—those cute and quirky flightless birds of the Southern Hemisphere that are loved by humans and have inspired countless films, books, comic strips and sports teams—are in deep trouble as a result of reckless human activity.

The nonprofit International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains the “Red List” of at-risk species around the world, considers five of the world’s 18 penguin species “endangered.” IUCN classifies five more penguin species as “vulnerable” and yet another five as “near threatened.” Only three species still exists in healthy enough numbers to qualify for IUCN’s “least concern” classification.

Penguins have evolved over millions of years and adapted to big ecosystem and climatic changes along the way, but they face their biggest challenges from threats posed by humans over just the last century.

One of the more dire threats to penguins is commercial fishing. “Overfishing and concentrated fishing efforts near penguin colonies for forage species such as Antarctic krill can make it more difficult for penguins to find nourishment…especially when fishing grounds overlap with the foraging grounds of penguins,” reports the Pew Charitable Trusts, a leading nonprofit with a focus on ocean conservation.

Meanwhile, predators and non-native invasive species introduced by humans are also taking their toll. According to Pew, several colonies of little penguins in Australia, for example, have been wiped out by non-indigenous dogs and foxes, while the Galápagos penguin has suffered big losses as a result of pathogen-borne illnesses introduced by non-native species and some natural bird migration.

Yet another threat is habitat destruction. “Tourism-related pressures, such as foot traffic and litter, can encroach on penguin colonies and nesting sites,” says Pew. “Oil spills have had severe effects on the health of individual colonies of penguins as well as their foraging habitats.”

And climate change—with its resulting melting of vast sheets of sea ice—could well be the greatest threat to already struggling penguin populations. “Ice plays a crucial role in the breeding process for several species of Antarctic penguins and also provides a place for penguins to rest and to avoid predators during long foraging trips,” reports Pew. “The loss of sea ice along the Antarctic Peninsula is contributing to reductions in the abundance of Antarctic krill, a favorite food of several penguin species.”

But according to Pew, the situation isn’t completely hopeless. The creation of more marine reserves where penguins can thrive without the stresses of overfishing and other human activity is a big step in the right direction. Pew is also pushing for better fisheries management in order to increase food sources for penguins and other marine wildlife dependent on nutrients further down the food chain, and also for a reduction in the number of introduced predators and invasive species.

According to Pew, the penguins’ plight is a portent of larger environmental concerns: “These birds are sentinels for the health of the entire sea. Changes to their populations can indicate trouble for other species that depend on these waters for survival.”

CONTACTS: IUCN, www.iucn.org; Pew Charitable Trusts, www.pewtrusts.org.


Dear EarthTalk: Which current artists, bands and music festivals are leading lights when it comes to reducing their environmental footprints and spreading awareness about sustainability?
          -- Jim Greenville, Brewster, NY
 
The music industry has indeed come under fire in recent years for the huge amount of plastic waste it generates at outdoor concerts and festivals each summer. The 2015 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, for one, generated some 679 tons of waste over just four days. Aside from their irresponsible disposal after the fact, these single-use plastics are also fossil fuel-intensive to produce to begin with. But recent acknowledgement of this issue by the industry has resulted in actions by fans, bands and entire festivals.
 
Musician Jack Johnson has led the charge on this initiative, championing the elimination of disposable plastics on his tour, as well as partnering with several environmental groups to found the Sustainable Concerts Working Group. This organization created a blueprint for making tours more sustainable, listing actions to take by both the band and the fans. Their website has a long list of goals, followed by specific actions to achieve them—for example, reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by switching to renewable energy sources, more efficient lighting and biofuel-powered transportation.
 
Many other musicians are also working to green up their industry. The Dave Matthews Band has taken significant steps to neutralize its environmental impact via its Bama Green Project, which educates fans around the world about paths toward sustainability. The band travels in a biodiesel tour bus and eats locally. Pop icon Adele has publicly championed the charity, Drop4Drop, which provides local, clean water to impoverished areas of the world. Rock band Phish founded the group WaterWheel in 1997 to focus on clean water and urban gardening. Meanwhile, U2 has worked closely with Greenpeace since the 1990s, helping them with protest campaigns from nuclear reprocessing in England to the destruction of forests in Russia. And punk rockers Green Day live up to their name by partnering with the Natural Resources defense Council (NRDC) to raise awareness about American dependence on foreign oil.
 
While individual musicians have found success in mitigating environmental impact, some have also taken larger-scale actions. Dave Matthews, Maroon 5, Willie Nelson, The Roots, Sheryl Crow and others founded the Green Music Group (GMG) in 2004 to help change the industry as a whole. The group has four core principles with which they hope to incur a paradigm shift: create a community of environmentally conscious musicians and fans; facilitate “large-scale greening” of the music industry through touring, development and public service campaigns; give environmental nonprofits a megaphone for their cause; and position musical leaders as voices for change. GMG has already made 80 major tours sustainable while reaching over 10 million fans in just over 10 years.
 
Music festivals are also starting to follow suit. Bonnaroo recently partnered with the Plastic Pollution Coalition to encourage attendees to bring their own reusable containers, rather than giving out thousands of plastic cups. The Outside Lands Music Festival only uses biodegradable containers. Other festivals have completely eliminated the use of plastics; instead offering discounted products in return for reusable stainless steel containers. With this trend gaining momentum every year, music fans around the world can be optimistic that the music industry will continue on this road to sustainability.

CONTACTS: Bonnaroo Festival, www.bonnaroo.com; Bama Green Project, www.bamagreen.org; Drop4Drop, www.drop4drop.org; Green Music Group, www.greenmusicgroup.org; WaterWheel Foundation, phish.com/waterwheel/; Outside Lands Music Festival, www.sfoutsidelands.com.


Dear EarthTalk: Have any wildlife species gone extinct already as a result of global warming, and which are most at risk moving forward? -- Melissa Zwicker, Bern, NC

Global warming is definitely already taking its toll on wildlife around the world. Rising temperatures are changing weather and vegetation patterns from pole to pole, forcing animals of just about every stripe to migrate to new areas in order to survive. But not every species is able to just get up and go, with animals dependent on narrow temperature ranges or specific habitats at most risk.

“The rapid nature of climate change is likely to exceed the ability of many species to migrate or adjust,” reports the non-profit Nature Conservancy. “Experts predict that one-fourth of Earth’s species will be headed for extinction by 2050 if the warming trend continues at its current rate.”

A recent study from researchers at the University of Connecticut found that one in six species could go extinct if global warming continues unabated. If the world can keep its emissions to limits agreed upon last year at the Paris climate summit, one in 20 species could go extinct.
And the purge has already begun. The death of the last Golden Toad in Central America in 1999 marked the first documented extinction as a result of climate change. And more recently researchers in Australia reported the disappearance of the first mammalian species, the Bramble Cay melomy, as a direct result of global warming. This rat-like mammal, endemic to one small island off of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, was last seen in 2009. In the interim, 97 percent of the melomy’s habitat has been lost to rising sea level. An extensive survey of the small island it inhabited in 2014 turned up no more of them, leading researchers to declare the species extinct.

Biologists believe that unchecked warming will likely cause the polar bear to lose its battle with existence within a century, while coral reefs across the tropics might not even last that long. Fish and other marine wildlife dependent on coral reefs, such as the orange-spotted filefish, will likely go the way of the dodo as well. Researchers are also worried about everything from North Atlantic cod to Antarctica’s Adélie penguins to Africa’s Quiver tree to Hawaii’s Haleakala silversword, among thousands of other animal and plant species at risk. Wildlife native to Australia and New Zealand remain particularly vulnerable, given they have less room to roam as temperatures continue to rise.

“The risk if we continue on our current trajectory is very high. If you look out your window and count six species and think that one of those will potentially disappear, that’s quite profound,” says Mark Urban, a co-author on the University of Connecticut study. “Those losses would affect our economy, our cultures, our food security, our health. It really compels us to act.”

“This isn’t just doom and gloom. We still have time. Extinctions can take a long time. There are processes that could be important in mediating these effects, for example evolution, but we really need to very quickly start to understand these risks in a much more sophisticated way,” concludes Urban.

CONTACTS: Nature Conservancy, www.nature.org; “Accelerating extinction risk from climate change,” science.sciencemag.org/content/348/6234/571.


Dear EarthTalk: Why is underwater noise pollution such a big deal and what are we doing to prevent it? -- Phil Ziegler, New York, NY
 
For us land-dwellers, underwater noise rarely reaches our ears. However, marine organisms can be very sensitive to undersea sounds, particularly unnatural noise. Human activity—from explosives to underwater construction to ship traffic to oceanographic research—creates intense noise that threatens the health of ocean wildlife. Direct effects include hearing loss, habitat displacement, and even brain hemorrhages. The noise impedes the senses that enable many marine species to coordinate their movements and find food, and can also interfere with breeding cycles and migration patterns. This cacophony of underwater noise pollution puts additional stresses on marine ecosystems already on the ropes due to overfishing, pollution and myriad other human threats.

Of particular concern lately to environmentalists is underwater noise pollution from seismic testing, where resource extraction industries use air guns to map the seafloor to look for potential oil and gas reservoirs. “From the water’s surface, the gun generates a blast of sound that penetrates the ocean floor then bounces back up to a receiver, relaying data about the layers of sediment, rocks, and potential fuel deposits below,” reports the Pew Charitable Trusts. “There is concern that the intensity of seismic sounds and their large spatial coverage may lead to injury, disturbance or displacement of marine animals or a masking of their communication.”

While the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea forbids pollution that can damage marine wildlife, a lack of enforcement abilities means corporations and the military can continue to carry out many noisy undersea operations. The non-profit Ocean Mammal Institute would like the UN to endorse a “precautionary approach” limiting all sources of intense underwater anthropogenic sound and requiring individual nations to follow suit accordingly.

“The precautionary principle should be applied publicly and transparently to noise generated for military, commercial and scientific purposes,” reports OMI. “In many cases, there are alternatives and realistic mitigation scenarios for reducing and eliminating very loud human-generated noise from the marine environment, including employing improved passive sonar devices, using reduced noise energy, mechanical and operational designs that minimize noise, alternative energy sources, etc.”

Given the Convention on the Law of the Sea’s lack of “teeth” on monitoring and enforcement on the issue, the United States has started taking matters into its own hands to address underwater noise pollution in its own territorial waters and beyond. The Obama administration recently called for more scientific research to fully understand the ecological impact of underwater noise, and directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to step up efforts to track and monitor volume levels below the surface. NOAA is also working on tools that the public, corporations and military can use to assess and help mitigate noise-making activities, and has initiated a campaign to raise public awareness on the issue.

While ocean wildlife activists say much more needs to be done to start solving this insidious problem, at least the U.S. is taking steps in the right direction even if the rest of the world continues to ignore the noisy threats lurking below the depths.

CONTACTS: Ocean Mammal Institute, www.oceanmammalinst.org; Pew Charitable Trusts, www.pewtrusts.org.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit WWW.EARTHTALK.ORG. Send questions to: QUESTION@EARTHTALK.ORG.






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