Published on News24: 22 March 2018
Although environmental conquest has long been the hallmark of human expansion, it is only in the last 50 years that the rate of environmental decline has gone exponential.
Traditionally a consequence of human activity alone, this decline is now being amplified by climate change and warming oceans. If left unchecked, the compound effect of these threats will push our planet’s ecological equilibrium over a tipping point and devastate our civilisation in the process.
This article looks at six ‘key environmental indicators’ that put the current rate of environmental decline in perspective. They include: protected areas, coral reefs, forests, polar regions, insects, and biodiversity.
The following world map shows the distribution of protected areas – generally classified as national parks or conservation areas. Immediately apparent is how little of the earth’s surface is protected from human exploitation, and just how fragmented these protected areas are.
(Refer to Graphic #1 at end of article)
In 2015, it was estimated that only 15,4% of all land is protected while only 8,4% of ocean under national jurisdiction is protected.
It is within the confines of these isolated enclaves that the majority of earth’s remaining wild megafauna still roam freely with minimal human intervention/threat.
The areas shown in grey are mostly either land used by humans for urban settlements, manmade infrastructure, resource extraction, pastures and agriculture; or uninhabitable/infertile tracts of land including land ice and deserts.
Two of the most alarming ecological disasters in recent times are the mass-bleaching events that occurred across vast swathes of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The maps below show the full extent of bleaching recorded during consecutive years 2016 and 2017.
(Refer to Graphic #2)
Experts estimated that the 2016 bleaching event claimed 30% of the Barrier Reef’s coral. Then in 2017, a further 20% of the coral died in a second event. The northern third of the reef lost up to 90% of its coral in places, while the southern third remained relatively unscathed.
The predominant reason behind these bleaching events was abnormally warm ocean temperatures off the North Eastern Australian coastline (up to 340C in certain parts) – believed to be a knock-on effect of global warming.
According to the United Nations and the Worldwatch Institute, global coral reef loss – which is now at around 55% – suggests that our world is on the brink of a massive extinction event which could see a quarter of the earth’s species becoming extinct by 2050.
At the forefront of environmental decline is the scourge of deforestation. The Allianz infographic below puts into perspective the staggering extent of forest loss as a direct result of human activity.
(Refer to Graphic #3)
It is estimated that 80% of the world’s original forest cover no longer exists – most having been destroyed in the last 250 years.
Although deforestation rates slowed for almost a decade, 2016 saw a 51% jump in global tree cover loss compared with 2015. Deforestation reached a record 29,7 million hectares in 2016 – an area the size of New Zealand – according to new data from the University of Maryland.
Most concerning about the relentless loss of forest is that it’s home to half of all the world’s known species, including 80% of terrestrial species. Unparalleled biodiversity aside, forests also serve as vital carbon sinks – the need for which cannot be emphasised enough considering our sky-rocketing atmospheric CO2 levels.
Arctic and Antarctic regions
If you’re still sceptical about climate change, look no further than NASA’s time lapse video of Arctic sea ice retreat between 1984 and 2016. Nowhere is global warming and its effects more pronounced than across the north pole.
(Refer to Graphic #4)
According to NASA, on February 13, 2017, the combined Arctic and Antarctic sea ice extent recorded its lowest point since satellites began measuring sea ice in 1979. Total polar sea ice covered 2 million square kilometres less than the average for 1981 to 2010 – a reduction in sea ice equivalent to the size of Mexico.
Last year also saw the Antarctic continent experience record and near-record lows for summer and wintertime sea ice extent respectively … a worrying trend that appears to be continuing into 2018.
Add to this the recent weather anomaly in the Arctic, where average daily temperatures rose up to 20°C higher than normal in February. In this case, scientists fear we may be seeing the first signs that global warming is eroding the traditionally insulated weather system in the north pole – the consequences of which were unleashed across Europe in the form of freezing temperatures.
Without insects, the Earth would face an ‘ecological Armageddon’ … and according to a study published in October 2017 in the PLOS One journal, we might well be heading that way.
Interestingly, insect species make up almost two-thirds of all life on Earth and play a vital role in the functioning in every ecosystem. They pollinate 80% of wild plants and many crops; provide a food source for numerous animal species; assist in the decomposition of organic material; and prey on other species which controls their respective populations.
The study, conducted by researchers from the Radboud University in Holland, reveals that the total biomass of flying insects (in Grams) native to German nature reserves has decreased by more than 75% over 27 years – as depicted in the graph below – and there are concerns that this may be indicative of a global trend.
(Refer to Graphic #5)
Insect decline is largely the result of widespread human-related habitat destruction. Vast tracts of indigenous vegetation have been replaced with crops, which are then sprayed with pesticides. These activities have rendered these areas inhospitable to indigenous insect species.
If this inadvertent displacement of natural habitat and insect life is not addressed soon, there will be far-reaching consequences for our world’s ecosystems, crop production and human society.
The following world map published on the London Natural History Museum website gives a holistic view of worldwide biodiversity loss. The colours depict remaining populations of indigenous species as a percentage of their original populations – blue areas remain within safe limits, while red areas are beyond.
(Refer to Graphic #6)
According to the Living Planet assessment carried out by researchers at the Zoological Society of London and the World Wide Fund (WWF), global wildlife populations fell by 58% between 1970 and 2016. And with vertebrate populations declining by an average of 2% each year, they predict that wildlife populations could fall by as much as 67% (below 1970 levels) by the end of the decade.
Over and above this, the WWF published another report warning that biodiversity could plummet if humanity fails to cut carbon emissions in line with the Paris Climate Accord.
The report says that unmitigated global warming could place between 25% and 50% of species in the world’s most biodiverse areas at risk of localised extinction within decades.
It goes on to say that if we allow average global temperatures to rise 4,5°C above pre-industrial levels, we could see areas like the Miombo Woodlands in Africa lose 90% of its amphibians, 86% of its birds, and 80% of its mammals; the Amazon lose 69% of its plant species; and the Mediterranean lose 30% of most species including 36% of plants.
Biodiversity loss on this scale would be catastrophic not only for our planet, but also for humanity.
Human decline will follow environmental decline
It is crucial that we humans comprehend one simple thing … that our civilisation’s survival is wholly reliant on Earth’s biosphere. If we destroy it, our civilisation will face inevitable collapse.
Scientists fear that should environmental decline exceed an indeterminate tipping point, then human decline will follow – irrespective of the technology we’re likely to possess this century.
It is up to every one of us to make sure this doesn’t happen.
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