Halloween brings out the fright-mongers in all of us. Ghosts, ghouls and Lady Gaga look-alikes set to the streets to startle us. With all the good-natured manufactured fear in the air, we thought we'd look at some of the truly scary facts about the natural world. There's no treat (just the facts) and the only trick is figuring out what you can do to help.
It's Hotter Than It's Ever Been
As of August, 2010 was as hot as the hottest years the world has witnessed since record-keeping began about 130 years ago. Every month (all 306 of them) has ranked above-average, compared to the 20th century average, since chilly February 1985.
The overwhelming consensus among credible scientists who study the climate is carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, pumped out of our tailpipes and smokestacks, are building up in the atmosphere and driving the warming trend. (By one measure only five scientists have published peer-reviewed scientific papers questioning that consensus view.) What's more, even if the increase in the world's or the U.S.'s emissions were to stop today, the long-lived nature of these gases in the atmosphere means we can expect to see continued warming for decades to come.
What You Can Do
> Support campaigns to boost fuel-efficiency, alternative fuels and renewable energy production so that the economy isn't so reliant on burning fossil fuels.
> Make efforts in your own life to reduce your environmental impact.
It's Getting Drier (Except Where It's Getting Wetter)
One of the hardest things to comprehend about climate change and one of those things that can send skeptics into fits is that scientists predict both severe droughts and historic floods will be a consequence of global warming. How's it possible? In short, the climate is a complicated system, and what it can give with one wind, with another it can taketh away. As weather patterns shift, some areas will be starved of moisture, while in others, warmer air will hold additional moisture that it will unleash in fiercer storms.
The U.S. Southwest, for instance, is in the midst of a prolonged drought that climatologists say is consistent with the predictions of a world altered by climate change; the record summer heat waves that affected much of the Eastern U.S. this summer, and intense wildfires in past years (and this year in Russia) also align with predictions. On the other hand, the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan is an example of massive deluges that are expected to hit more frequently, not only in Southeast Asia, but across the world, including in parts of the U.S. As Gavin Scmidt, a NASA climate scientist recently told The Daily Green, "Things that used to be one-in-100-year events maybe now are one-in-25-year events."
What You Can Do
> If you live in a water-stressed region, conserve water.
> If you don't, consider flood insurance (there's a good chance your homeowner's insurance does not cover flooding, and as residents of Nashville learned all too well recently, you don't have to live in a floodplain to be at risk.)
> Support campaigns to slow global warming.
There Really Aren't More Fish in the Sea
At least half of our favorite food fish and as many as 90% tuna, salmon, cod and sea bass among them are at risk of overfishing. Further, the historic shift from wild-caught fisheries to farmed fisheries (most Atlantic salmon at the fish counter is farmed now) has depleted smaller fish at the bottom of the food chain, since in many cases, it takes several pounds of wild-caught little fish to make one pound of farmed fish.
"We haven't seen this kind of shift since the last Ice Age, when people came out of caves and then hunted the big game to extinction," Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, told a crowd recently at a Cary Institute lecture.
What You Can Do
> Carry the Seafood Selector card in your wallet and buy sustainable fish.
> Give little fish a chance: Sardines, herring and other fish at the bottom of the food chain are usually far more sustainable than predators like tuna, salmon, cod and sea bass.
> Sign the petition to stop the Pebble Mine, which threatens wild Alaskan salmon in Bristol Bay, and support the work of groups working to create sustainable oceans policy like Oceana, the Pew Environment Group and Environmental Defense Fund.
Coral Reefs Are Melting
Coral reefs are not only the most beautiful part of the ocean accessible to snorkelers and scuba divers, but also nurseries of the sea: They are home to one-fourth of all marine species, and provide habitat to fish and shellfish that feed half a billion people. Unfortunately, about half of corals in the U.S. and its territories, and as many as 70% worldwide (including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia) are severely degraded or at risk of extinction. Just this year, as much as 16% could become bleached sapped of life because record-hot global temperatures overheated the water where they live. Global warming, fueled by our burning of fossil fuels, is the most likely culprit in the warming of the oceans, but burning fossil fuels has another consequence for ocean life such as corals: carbon dioxide is acidic, and as the oceans absorb it, they too are growing acidic, threatening to make conditions impossible for creatures, like corals, that build hard calcite shells. Corals are fragile enough without these global threats: the runoff from nearby farms and cities, along with the stomping of indelicate tourists, would put many reefs at risk even without global warming and ocean acidification.
The Bees Aren't Buzzing
Perhaps you've heard of colony collapse disorder, that still-mysterious disease causing U.S. honey bees to abandon their hives. (The latest greatest theory is that two unrelated pathogens, working simultaneously on stressed bees, are the cause of colony collapse disorder.) Whatever the cause, the disorder is a chief driver of a staggering death toll that has seen one-third of the nation's commercial bees die off each winter for several years now. That's a serious problem, considering roughly one-third of the food crops we eat is pollinated by bees or other insects (nuts, berries and fruit chief among them, but also chocolate, coffee and yes tequila). Honey bees are the most important commercial-scale insects up to the task, but other insects (and even bats and some birds) do part of the job naturally. The scary part? The wild native pollinators are also in trouble. While the extent of the problem isn't known (no one was counting before the apparent decline was observed) experts believe loss of wild habitat and indiscriminate use of pesticides are likely culprits.
What You Can Do
> If you use pesticides in your lawn or garden, stop. Try integrated pest management or organic alternatives.
> Garden with flowering plants that are native to your region.
> Put up a bat house or a native bee house to provide extra habitat.
> Become a beekeeper. You'll be repaid for your efforts with brilliant flowers and abundant vegetables in the garden.
Fungus Is Killing Frogs and Bats
One in three amphibian species is at risk of extinction, with as many as 500 species of frogs, salamanders and the like so near to the end that experts think their only hope is to live in zoos - not the wild. Meanwhile, in caves throughout North America, as many as 90% of bats hibernating are dying of emaciation, with a mark of death in the shape of a white ring around the nose.
In both cases, a previously unknown fungus is largely to blame (though with frogs, habitat loss is as big, or bigger a threat). In both cases, the march of death has been startlingly swift. Both appear to be cases of emerging diseases, with origins that are mysterious, but whose spread may well be abetted by human trade and travel.
While frogs and bats may not seem like the most essential creatures, both play important roles in the ecosystem (and bats actually eat lots of mosquitoes and farm pests); without them, the world would be decidedly different, in ways we can't necessarily predict.
What You Can Do
> If you are a spelunker, avoid caving until scientists understand what spreads White Nose Syndrome among caves where bats hibernate.
> Support groups working to study the chytrid fungus attacking frogs and the white nose syndrome afflicting bats.
> Support organizations like Conservation International that is searching for "lost frogs" that may or may not be extinct.
Deadly Viruses and Bacteria Outsmart Us
Viruses and bacteria were on Earth before humans, and they'll be here after us. It's a fact of life. And unfortunately, that's because they are quick to evolve to changing conditions including changes in the environment or changes to the drugs we use to fight them.
Whether it's drug-resistant salmonella in eggs, or E. coli in ground beef, the food supply (especially the industrialized portion of the food supply) is increasingly falling prey to tiny pathogens that were virtually nonexistent a generation ago. Meanwhile, three-quarters of new infectious diseases emerge from wildlife, but affect humans. Think SARS and bird flu, both of which originated in domesticated flocks of poultry that had been infected by wild birds before they started infecting humans.
When animals are kept penned up in unnatural numbers in close proximity to people, as is the case with our food system worldwide, the chances grow for new diseases to outsmart us and either infect our foods or jump from wild lungs to our own.
What You Can Do
> Buy local food from small farms. It won't prevent every problem, but avoids some of the pitfalls of industrial-scale agriculture.
> Avoid anti-bacterial soap and other anti-bacterial products that can boost pathogens' resistance to common drugs.
> Support strong food safety rules being advocated by groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest or Consumers Union.
> Support groups like EcoHealth Alliance (formerly Wildlife Trust) that work in the field of conservation medicine, which seeks to prevent conditions that help diseases leap from wildlife to humans.