With its cuddly stout body and large paws, the koala resembles a small teddy bear. The koala bear is an Australian icon and its habitat is exclusively confined to the coastal eucalyptus forests in the North-western and South-eastern parts of the country, spread over the states of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. While eucalyptus leaves are poisonous to many animals inhabiting this region, to the koala it forms an essential part of its diet.
Eucalyptus is a flowering tree native to Australia and there are 700 species of them found in these forest regions. The koalas sleep for nearly 22 hours in a day, for that is the amount of rest it needs to help in digestion of the gum leaves, which are low in nutrition and high on fibrous content. The koalas are basically tree creatures and live in the top and middle layers of the eucalyptus forests.
But even the koala's adorable and iconic status in Australia haven't spared it from the ravages of mankind. Once numbering in the millions, koalas suffered major declines in population during the 1920s when they were hunted for their fur. The koala was hunted almost to extinction. Today, habitat destruction, traffic deaths, and attacks by dogs kill an estimated 4,000 koalas yearly.
Since the arrival of the Europeans in the early 17th century, almost 80% of the eucalyptus forests have vanished. The 20% that remain are unprotected and mostly privately owned, making it an automatic target for deforestation and development. As over four-fifth of Australia is hot and barren in the middle, settlers prefer the fertile and rainy zones of the East coast and this is where they come into direct conflict with the koala's habitat.
Clearing, logging, urban expansion and pollution have followed these pockets of human habitation, posing a threat to the koala's survival. Loss of habitat, owing to deforestation, means the koalas are out of their safety zones of tree-tops and potential victims of vehicular accidents.
Venturing into private estates for food makes their inherent slowness perfect targets for dogs and cats. Starvation is then a natural fall-out.
Disturbance from noise emanating from nearby human habitations is one more threat to the koala's health, since it is so dependent on sleep.
Pesticides flowing into steams and waterways passing through the koala habitat is another cause for worry.
Indiscriminately planting eucalyptus trees in koala habitats in the name of reforestation is showing little signs of helping koalas. The koalas of different regions diet on specific species of eucalyptus suited only to them.
Scientists figure that such multiple sources of disruption to the koala habitat could lead to a high incidence of disease among the animals. Chlamydia is one such disease that assails the koalas under stress. Sore eyes, blindness and chest infections are common to Chlamydia. Even worse, sore throats can occur, making it impossible for the koala to eat. Cancer and leukemia have also been known to afflict the koala.
In contrast to the situation on much of the mainland, the koalas of many island and isolated populations have flourished. In the absence of predators and competition, combined with an inability to migrate to new areas, koala populations can become unsustainable. Although culling has been suggested as a means to reduce koala numbers, this has met with fierce opposition both domestically and internationally, and the species remains protected. The popularity of the koala has made the possibility of a cull politically improbable, with any negative perception likely to impact on tourism and a government's electability. In place of a cull, sterilization and translocation programs have had only limited success in reducing numbers thus far, and remain expensive. There is evidence that koalas relocated to the mainland have difficulty establishing themselves in the different circumstances. A mooted alternative to the complex sterilization method, wherein the animal must first be captured, are hormonal implants that can be injected via darts.
On the mainland, koala populations in Queensland is only 40% of what it was once was. In New South Wales, it is 33%. A recent count revealed that there may be around 43,000 of these creatures presently in Australia, down from over 100,000 a century ago. The Australian environment ministry has demarcated select koala habitats of Queensland and New South Wales as protected zones from deforestation and development and officially recognized the animals' status as one of the most endangered species.
Immediate action must be taken now to stop the koala bear from going the way of the Tasmanian Tiger.
People have been deforesting the Earth for thousands of years, primarily to clear land for crops or livestock. Although tropical forests are largely confined to developing countries, they aren’t just meeting local or national needs; economic globalization means that the needs and wants of the global population are bearing down on them as well. Direct causes of deforestation are agricultural expansion, wood extraction (e.g., logging or wood harvest for domestic fuel or charcoal), and infrastructure expansion such as road building and urbanization. Rarely is there a single direct cause for deforestation. Most often, multiple processes work simultaneously or sequentially to cause deforestation.
The single biggest direct cause of deforestation is conversion to cropland and pasture, mostly for subsistence, which is growing crops or raising livestock. The conversion to agricultural land usually results from multiple direct factors. For example, countries build roads into remote areas to improve overland transportation of goods. The road development itself causes a limited amount of deforestation. But roads also provide entry to previously inaccessible—and often unclaimed—land. Logging, both legal and illegal, often follows road expansion (and in some cases is the reason for the road expansion). When loggers have harvested an area’s valuable timber, they move on. The roads and the logged areas become a magnet for settlers—farmers and ranchers who slash and burn the remaining forest for cropland or cattle pasture, completing the deforestation chain that began with road building. In other cases, forests that have been degraded by logging become fire-prone and are eventually deforested by repeated accidental fires from adjacent farms or pastures.
Although subsistence activities have dominated agriculture-driven deforestation in the tropics to date, large-scale commercial activities are playing an increasingly significant role. In the Amazon, industrial-scale cattle ranching and soybean production for world markets are increasingly important causes of deforestation, and in Indonesia, the conversion of tropical forest to commercial palm tree plantations to produce bio-fuels for export is a major cause of deforestation on Borneo and Sumatra.
Although poverty is often cited as the underlying cause of tropical deforestation, analyses of multiple scientific studies indicate that that explanation is an oversimplification. Poverty does drive people to migrate to forest frontiers, where they engage in slash and burn forest clearing for subsistence. But rarely does one factor alone bear the sole responsibility for tropical deforestation.
State policies to encourage economic development, such as road and railway expansion projects, have caused significant, unintentional deforestation in the Amazon and Central America. Agricultural subsidies and tax breaks, as well as timber concessions, have encouraged forest clearing as well. Global economic factors such as a country’s foreign debt, expanding global markets for rainforest timber and pulpwood, or low domestic costs of land, labor, and fuel can encourage deforestation over more sustainable land use.
Access to technology may either enhance or diminish deforestation. The availability of technologies that allow “industrial-scale” agriculture can spur rapid forest clearing, while inefficient technology in the logging industry increases collateral damage in surrounding forests, making subsequent deforestation more likely. Underlying factors are rarely isolated; instead, multiple global and local factors exert synergistic influences on tropical deforestation in different geographic locations.
It's a dreadful reality. We are going through our sixth period of plant and animal mass extinction, the sixth to happen in the last 500 million years. The current wave is considered to be the worst series of species elimination since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. Granted, extinction is a phenomenon that occurs naturally, however it normally happens at a rate of 1 to 5 species every year. But, as scientists estimate, we are currently losing species 1,000-10,000 times faster than that, which means that literally tens of species are vanishing from the face of the Earth every day. We could be looking at a frightening future. By this rate, almost one third to one-half of all species could become extinct by 2050.
The difference with past extinctions, which were caused by catastrophic natural phenomena like volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, and violent climate changes, is that the current crisis is caused almost entirely by humans. As a matter of fact, as many as 99% of the species at the threshold of extinction are there due to human activities, particularly the ones that drive the introduction of exotic species, loss of habitat, and global warming. With the increasing rate of change in our biosphere, coupled with the fact that every species’ extinction may trigger a cascade of subsequent extinctions due to inter-species dependence in the complicated web of the ecosystem, it’s not unlikely that extinction numbers in the future will increase exponentially.
The variety of species safeguards the resilience of the ecosystem, providing ecological communities the breadth needed to endure stress. Although the efforts of conservationists are often focused on ecosystems with high numbers of species, like coral reefs and rainforests, preserving biodiversity must not leave other habitats with fewer species out, like tundra, grasslands, and polar seas. Devastating consequences stem from any species loss. What’s more, most of the focus regarding extinction is on what’s happening globally, but the vast majority of biodiversity’s advantages are seen locally. Keeping local populations safe is the sole way of ensuring a species’ survival in the long term, via the maintenance of genetic diversity.
Over the last 500 years, as many as one thousand species vanished, without even accounting for many thousands more that went extinct before science discovered and described them. Almost 38% of all known species on a global scale are on the verge of extinction. This puts many thousands of unique species in the dire position of being gone forever.
Amphibian Extinction Crisis
Amphibians have the sad privilege of being endangered more than any other animal group. At least 30 percent of all amphibian species are now threatened to disappear. Toads, frogs, and salamanders are vanishing due to animal agriculture, habitat loss, air and water pollution, global warming, UV light exposure, disease, and the introduction of exotic species. Because this group of animals is overly sensitive to environmental change, they should be regarded as the canary in the global coal mine. Amphibians alert us to minor but definite changes in the ecosystem that could lead to the extinction of many more species, not excluding humans.
Bird Extinction Crisis
Birds are present in almost all habitats on earth and are usually the most familiar and visible wildlife to people all over the world. Because of this, they may act as a significant indicator for monitoring how the biosphere changes. Diminishing bird populations in the majority of habitats are the sad confirmation that major changes are taking place on Earth because of our activities. More than 12% of currently known species of birds are at the threshold of extinction. The biggest impact on bird population has been caused by degradation and loss of habitat, with collectors’ activities and invasive species following closely.
Fish Extinction Crisis
Fishing, rising water demand, river dams, water pollution and invasive species place aquatic ecosystems among the most endangered on Earth. Therefore, the fact that many species of fish – both marine, and freshwater – are currently endangered, does not come as a surprise. More than one fifth of all known fish species are now considered to be at imminent risk.
Invertebrate Extinction Crisis
Invertebrates, from mollusks to butterflies to earthworms to corals, exhibit vast levels of diversion. Almost 97% of all animal species on earth are estimated to belong to this group. One-third of the known invertebrate species are now threatened with extinction. Water pollution, water projects, and groundwater withdrawal threaten freshwater invertebrates, while deforestation and animal agriculture is also a great factor of invertebrate endangerment or extinction. In addition, reef-building corals in the ocean are diminishing at an increasing rate.
Mammal Extinction Crisis
Probably the most characteristic element of the current extinction crisis is that most of our primate relatives are in serious danger. Almost 90% of the primate population lives in the tropical forest, which are disappearing fast due to animal agriculture, deforestation and development. About half of all the primate species on Earth are at the brink of extinction. 50 percent of all known mammals see rapidly decreasing populations, and almost 20 percent are close to extinction. Marine mammals – including dolphins, whales, and porpoises – are particularly close to becoming extinct.
Reptile Extinction Crisis
More than one fifth of all known reptile species are considered endangered or close to becoming extinct. This has been particularly pronounced for island reptile species, counting at least 28 island reptiles having disappeared so far. This pattern of extinction, commonly seen in the islands, is finding its way toward the mainland as well. This crisis is mainly due to human intervention causing fragmentation in the continental habitats, which results in island-like territories, isolating species among each other. Reptiles are especially threatened by non-native species that compete for resources or feed on them, and habitat loss.
Plant Extinction Crisis
Plants are the food we consume and the producers of the oxygen we breathe through the process of photosynthesis. Most of the life on Earth is dependent on plants. Moreover, the majority of medicines are plant-based or plant-derived. Almost 70 percent of known plant species are on the verge of extinction. Unlike animals, plants cannot migrate to a different habitat when threatened, which makes them all too vulnerable. Plant extinction is expected to dramatically increase due to animal agriculture and global warming. The distribution and range of plants worldwide is changing immensely due to the rising temperatures. Since plants form the basis of all ecosystems and the foundation of the food chain, this will affect every species that depends on them for shelter, food, and survival.
Several international groups produce routine estimates of tropical deforestation, most notably the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, which has been producing a global forest resources assessment every five to ten years since the late 1940s. The FAO report is based on statistics provided by countries themselves, and because the ability of countries to accurately assess their forest resources varies depending on their financial, technological, and institutional resources, the estimates for some countries are likely more accurate then others.
Many countries use satellite imagery as the basis for their assessments, and a few research teams have used satellite data as the basis for worldwide estimates of tropical deforestation in the 1980s and 1990s.
Some scientists and conservationists argue that the FAO provides too conservative an estimate of rates of deforestation because they consider any area larger than one hectare (0.01 square miles) with a minimum tree cover of 10 percent to be forested.
This generous definition of “forest” means that a significant amount of degradation can occur before the FAO categorizes an area as deforested. On the other hand, some satellite-based studies indicate deforestation rates are lower than even the FAO reports suggest. Despite revisions and discrepancies, the FAO assessment is the most comprehensive, longest-term, and widely used metric of global forest resources.
In addition to local factors, international trends drive deforestation. The expansion of palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia is a response to high petroleum prices and, ironically, to an increasing global demand for bio-fuels perceived to be “green.”
The FAO report does not compile statistics for tropical forest regions as a whole, but the country-by-country and regional-scale statistics provide a grim picture. The scope and impact of deforestation can be viewed in different ways. One is in absolute numbers: total area of forest cleared over a certain period. By that metric, all three major tropical forest areas, including South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, are represented near the top of the list. Rounding out the top five tropical countries with the greatest total area of deforestation were Indonesia, Sudan, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Another way to look at deforestation is in terms of the percent of a country’s forest that was cleared over time. By this metric, the island nation of Comoros (north of Madagascar) fared the worst. Landlocked Burundi in central Africa was second. The other top five countries that cleared large percentages of their forests were Togo in West Africa, Honduras, and Mauritania.
The answer is devastating news for Earth’s largest animals. Many of the world’s largest herbivores — including several species of elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses and gorillas — are in danger of becoming extinct. And if current trends continue, the loss of these animals would have drastic implications not only for the species themselves, but also for other animals and the environments and ecosystems in which they live.
One of the critical factors behind the disturbing trend is the tremendous financial incentive for poachers to sell animal parts for consumer goods and food. For example, rhinoceros horn is more valuable by weight than gold, diamonds or cocaine. A recent report puts the price of rhino horn in Asia at $60,000 per pound.
Rhinos are in serious danger of extinction from poaching. Rhino poaching has risen to levels not seen in almost two decades. Although there is no scientific proof of its medical value, rhino horn remains highly prized in traditional Asian medicine, where it is ground into a fine powder as treatment for a variety of illnesses such as nosebleeds and fevers. This demand has created highly profitable international criminal syndicates who have only intensified their search of rhino for their horns in recent years.
Decades of conservation efforts are being reversed by the entrance of organized crime into the ivory and rhino horn markets. In just 9 years, the number of forest elephants declined by 62 percent. More than 100,000 elephants — one-fifth of the world’s wild savannah elephant population — were poached in 2 years alone. The number of rhinoceroses poached skyrocketed from 13 per year to 1,004 per year in only 6 years. Latest estimates suggest that two rhinos are killed by poachers every day in Africa. If rhino poaching is not stopped, the world could lose African rhinos forever.
For some of the largest animals, such as elephants and rhinos, it is likely a matter of a few decades before they are extinct — and no more than 80 to 100 years for the rest of the large herbivores. Even though an individual elephant or rhino might persist in the wild somewhere in Africa, they will be functionally extinct in terms of their impact on the ecosystem.
Without radical intervention, large herbivores (and many smaller ones) will continue to disappear from numerous regions with enormous ecological, social, and economic costs. During the Pleistocene Epoch, which ended about 11,700 years ago, there were more than 40 species of herbivores in which adults weighed 2,200 pounds or more, but today there are only eight such species. The extinction of these “mega-herbivore” species has dramatically affected Earth’s ecosystems. For example, large herbivores are the primary source of food for predators and scavengers, and their trampling and consumption of plants influence the ways that vegetation grows.
The two largest threats to these animals are hunting by humans and habitat change. Other key factors include growing human populations and increased competition with livestock. Animal agriculture has been a particular threat in developing nations, where livestock production is dramatically increasing. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, habitat destruction and wildlife culling.
Large herbivores, and their associated ecological functions and services, have already mostly been lost from much of the developed world, according to scientists. Now is the time to act boldly, because without radical changes in these trends, the extinctions that eliminated most of the world’s largest herbivores 10,000 to 50,000 years ago will only have been postponed for these last few remaining giants.
The sky is still blue. Trees are still green. Wind still blows. Clouds are still white and fluffy. Rain still pours from the sky. Snow falls and it still gets really cold sometimes in some places. Earth is still beautiful.
So what is the problem? What is the fuss about climate change and global warming?
Well, after observing and making lots of measurements, using lots of satellites and special instruments, scientists see some alarming changes. These changes are happening fast—much faster than these kinds of changes have happened in Earth's long past. All these satellites, plus a lot more, are studying Earth and all the changes happening with the air, ocean, land, and ice.
Global air temperatures near Earth's surface rose almost one and one-half degrees Fahrenheit in the last century. Eleven of the last 12 years have been the warmest on record. Earth has warmed twice as fast in the last 50 years as in the 50 years before that.
One and one-half degrees may not seem like much. But when we are talking about the average over the whole Earth, lots of things start to change.
Why is Earth getting warmer?
Here's one clue: As the temperature goes up, the amount of carbon dioxide, or CO2, in the air goes up. And as the carbon dioxide goes up, the temperature goes up even more.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. That means it traps heat from Earth's surface and holds the heat in the atmosphere. Scientists have learned that, throughout Earth's history, temperature and CO2 levels in the air are closely tied.
For 450,000 years, CO2 went up and down. But CO2 levels never rose over 280 parts per million until 1950. But then something different happens and CO2 increases very fast. At the end of 2012, it is 394 parts per million. Why? Because of us.
Besides CO2 there are other greenhouse gases. These include water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all transportation put together. A staggering 51 percent or more of global greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture, according to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute.
How do we know what Earth was like long ago?
A big part of the answer is ice cores.
In Antarctica, scientists have drilled down two miles below the surface and brought up samples of the ice. These samples are called ice cores. It's like what you get if you plunge a drinking straw into a slushy drink and pull it out with your finger over the end of the straw. What you will have inside the straw is an ice core—although a very slushy one.
The layers in an Arctic ice core are frozen solid. They give clues about every year of Earth's history back to the time the deepest layer was formed. The ice contains bubbles of the air from each year. Scientists analyze the bubbles in each layer to see how much CO2 they contain. Scientists can also learn about the temperatures for each year by measuring relative amounts of different types of oxygen atoms in the water. (Remember, water is H2O: two hydrogen atoms, and one oxygen.)
Other scientists study cores of sediment from the bottom of the ocean or lakes. Or they study tree rings and layers of rocks to give them clues about climate change throughout history. They compare all their findings to see if they agree. If they do, then their findings are accepted as most likely true. If they don't agree, they go back and figure out what is wrong with their methods. In the case of Earth's climate history, the facts agree from a lot of different kinds of studies.
How can so little warming cause so much melting?
Water can soak up a lot of heat. When the oceans get warmer, sea ice begins to melt in the Arctic and around Greenland. NASA's Earth satellites show us that every summer some Arctic ice melts and shrinks, getting smallest by September. Then, when winter comes, the ice grows again. But, since 1979, the September ice has been getting smaller and smaller and thinner and thinner.
Glaciers are another form of melting, shrinking ice. Glaciers are frozen rivers. They flow like rivers, only much slower. Lately, they have been speeding up. Many of them flow toward the ocean, then break off in chunks - sometimes huge chunks. In places such as Glacier National Park, the glaciers are melting and disappearing. The air is getting warmer, and less snow is falling during winter to renew the melted parts of the glaciers.
As more sea ice and glaciers melt, the global sea level rises. But melting ice is not the only cause of rising sea level. As the ocean gets warmer, the water actually expands. Sea level has risen 6.7 inches in the last 100 years. In the last 10 years, it has risen twice as fast as in the previous 90 years. If Greenland's ice sheet were to melt completely, sea level all over the world would rise by 16-23 feet (5 to 7 meters).
Life is a web, with every strand connected to every other strand. One species of plant or animal changes, and a whole chain of events can follow involving many other species. For example, herds of caribou live in cold, Arctic locations. Caribou hate mosquitoes. In the past few years, warmer temperatures in summer have allowed mosquito populations to explode. So the caribou spend a lot more energy swatting away the mosquitoes. All this swatting leaves the caribou less energy to find food and prepare for the next long winter. Female caribou are especially troubled because it takes so much energy to give birth and raise their young.
Animals that hibernate in the winter also suffer from warming temperatures. Marmots, chipmunks, and bears are waking up as much as a month early. Some are not hibernating at all. These animals can starve if they stay awake all winter, because they can't find enough food. If they wake up too early because it feels warm enough to be spring, the days may not yet be long enough to signal the plants to start their spring growth. So, again, the wakeful animals go hungry.
Many trees in the Western U.S. are already suffering from climate change. Droughts leave trees thirsty and stressed. Pine trees need cold winters, too. With warmer, drier conditions, the trees are more likely to become infected with insects. These bugs bore into the trees and lay their eggs. Eventually, they kill the tree. Some forests in the West have lost over half their trees already to pine beetles. When the forest is gone, birds and small mammals that lived there have to find new homes - if they can.
There are many more plant and animal species and communities struggling to adapt to the rapidly changing climate.
Continued high demand for illegal wildlife products has greatly endangered many species like elephants, rhinos, and tigers, leaving some facing imminent extinction. The world is experiencing the worst poaching crisis in history, rivaling that in the 1980s, when more than 800 tons of ivory left Africa every year and the continent’s elephant populations plunged from 1.3 million to 600,000. Scientists estimate that only 430,000 African elephants remain today with one elephant killed every 15 minutes for its ivory.
Poaching is at its highest level in decades. Unless the illegal and inhumane slaughter of elephants, rhinos and other species is halted, we will likely see these magnificent animals disappear from the wild in the next several decades.
As one of the world’s most lucrative criminal activities, valued at US$19 billion annually, illegal wildlife trade ranks fifth globally in terms of value, behind the trafficking in drugs, people, oil and counterfeiting. Research shows that domestic ivory markets provides cover for criminals to launder illegal ivory from poached animals, puts the burden of proof on enforcement officers, and confuse consumers, many of whom take market availability of ivory for legality of the trade.
The rapid development of online media has put a lot of wildlife species at risk and has created huge losses for the global ecosystem and human beings, as criminals have used the Internet for secret, fast and convenient communications and transactions. The report Wanted: Dead or Alive, Exposing the Online Wildlife Trade reveals that over 33,000 endangered wildlife and wildlife parts were available for sale online in a short six-week period.
Ivory trade is quickly pushing endangered animals towards extinction. Every year, 25,000-30,000 African Elephants are poached to supply the ivory trade. According to the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), in recent years the volume from large-scale ivory seizures has been setting new records. In 2013, enforcement agencies around the world seized 41.6 tons of ivory, representing a 71 percent increase from 2009.
Research shows that for slow-growing, long-living species like the elephant, when mortality rate reaches 6% the population risks crashing. However in many regions of Africa, elephant populations are declining at a rate of 11%-12% because of ivory trade.
The past 15 years has seen soaring market prices for ivory products, largely due to a growing middle class in China and other Asian countries where ivory products have significant cultural value. Most people don't know that the U.S. is also one of the top consumers of ivory.
Enforcement operations are a deterrent to wildlife criminals in and outside of China. To combat global illegal ivory trade, countries are publicly destroying seized ivory. Kenya, Ethiopia, United Arab Emirates, the Republic of Congo and the United States have torched ivory. Public destruction of confiscated ivory, together with vigorous enforcement, raises the cost for engaging in wildlife crime and warns the public about the criminal nature of ivory trade. Such measures help stigmatize ivory consumption and reduce demand.
The U.S. federal government is working to close the loopholes that have allowed the illegal ivory market to flourish. A number of states have also passed ivory bans, including New York, New Jersey and California.
Campaigns to reduce demand for ivory domestically and overseas, and to strengthen international laws and enforcement, have further elevated the issue of wildlife trafficking globally. Collaboration between conservation organizations, government agencies, private organizations and local communities supports on-the-ground initiatives to conserve and manage wildlife through improved anti-poaching patrols, monitoring, habitat management, community-based initiatives and other effective conservation programs.
From African range states, to smuggling transit routes, to consuming countries, actions must be taken on every link of the transnational ivory trade to stop the crisis. Combating illegal ivory trade requires the effort of the whole world.
Tropical forests are home to more of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity than any other habitat and are increasingly threatened by the impact of human activities. Illegal logging, in particular, poses a severe and increasing threat to tropical forests worldwide.
The devastating impact of illegal logging on bird communities is especially damaging. The level of legal and illegal logging has increased dramatically, greater than maximum sustainable rates. As a result, the abundance of forest understory bird species is declining. Species richness, or the number of different understory bird species represented, also show declining trends. The bird communities show no evidence of post-logging recovery.
A major driver contributing to tropical forest destruction worldwide, illegal logging accounts for 50-90 percent of timber harvested in many tropical countries. The effects of illegal logging is so rampant it cannot be ignored. In contrast to legal logging operations, which are undertaken by companies who apply for a government permit to log under certain parameters including restrictions on the number, size and species of trees that can be logged, illegal logging is much more devastating because it is completely unregulated.
Little attention is given to illegal logging because it is an underworld issue, so it’s not on the books, making it much harder to quantify. But it’s so prevalent that if we don’t look at it, these forests will be destroyed. The first step in doing something about it is knowing about it.
Logging and associated disturbances appear to have affected entire bird communities — including both common and rare or specialized species — causing abundance declines across species. Species that were already rare are most vulnerable to local extinction following logging, and many ‘common’ species have become much less common.
Illegal logging is having serious impacts – not just on the forests themselves – but on the animals. It is reasonable to assume that if the birds are being this powerfully impacted, it’s impacting other groups, such as mammals, reptiles, amphibians and arthropods. Birds – like the ‘canary in a coal mine’ – are a great indicator of what’s happening to other animals, and eventually, what will happen to us.
The situation, though dire, is not hopeless. There is enormous potential for regenerating logged forests for bird conservation. For this conservation potential to be realized, urgent measures must be taken to protect these surviving forest fragments and prevent further forest bird declines. Such actions would ideally include increasing forest ranger patrols, increasing forest law enforcement and increasing implementation of measures to prevent illegal logging, such as making roadblocks in logging roads following legal logging operations to prevent incursion by illegal logging operations.
There is hope and there are alternatives. But the situation urgently needs to be addressed and there is no time like the present. This can be stopped, it should be stopped – before it’s too late.
About 600 miles off the coast of South-Eastern Africa lies the fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar. Famed for its lush green tropical forest, misty highlands, temperate climate and 3,000 miles of coastline, this jewel in the Indian Ocean is home to one of the most exotic creatures in the world – the lemurs.
Madagascar's 160 million years of isolation as a landmass has shaped an ecosystem and habitat that's perfectly suited and unique to the existence of lemurs. The lemurs themselves have been on the island for over 40 million years, giving them distinctive features quite different from any other animal in the world. In appearance, lemurs are a mixture of many animals – squirrel, cat, dog, and monkey. Some have faces that closely resemble raccoons or skunks and have many characteristics of apes. But when there are 101 species of an animal, looks and behavioral patterns vary widely.
Lemurs are basically nocturnal creatures and move about at night. "Lemures" in Latin means "Spirits of the night". Lemurs are herbivorous animals and their main diet is plants. 55 percent of the island's plant life constitute food for lemurs. Black lemurs, for example, eat leaves, flowers and fruit. So do the inri, another species of lemur. Insects also form an important part of the diet, especially for the smaller species of lemur. Greater bamboo lemurs live off the inner pith of giant bamboo found in forest pockets of the eastern highlands.
Among the existing species, the diademed sifaka and the indri lemurs are the largest and can weigh up to 15 lbs at the most. The smallest, the pygmy mouse lemur, weighs only 1 oz, making it the tiniest primate in the world.
Man first landed in Madagascar as recently as 2,000 years ago. The fate of lemurs has been threatened ever since. Archaeoindris fontoynontii, the giant lemur weighing as much as 440 lbs, was among the first species to become extinct. Once found virtually all over Madagascar, lemurs are now ensconed into just 20 percent of their original habitat, most of it in the central and east coast highlands. According to a recently released report of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species, of the 101 species of lemurs, 22 are on the brink of extinction, 48 are endangered, and 20 are vulnerable.
The threats to the lemur's survival is similar to many endangered animals of the world - a burgeoning human population's hunger for more land which translates into more clearing of forests for agricultural purposes. Poverty-stricken Malagasys have resorted to burning down the nation's scarce forests to grow crops. Hunger has also led to the hunting of lemurs for meat, an unusual occurrence until a few decades ago.
Political turmoil also has taken a toll on the laws and mechanisms that safeguard and conserve forest resources. Armed gangs, working in cahoots with the timber mafia, have taken advantage of the political vacuum to pillage protected forests for ebony and rosewood. Over $100 million dollars of wood stolen in this manner have made their way to China for use in furniture. The immediate fallout is on the habitat of the lemur.
Despite laws protecting the lemurs, the creatures are not just hunted as a delicacy, but for superstitious reasons too. The aye-aye lemur, a 5.1 lbs animal, is considered a harbinger of death by some natives and is quickly exterminated if spotted in the vicinity of their villages.
The ring-tailed lemur is among the most well-known and loved lemur species. It is at the top of the list of the illicit pet trade industry. Found mostly in the southern fringes of Madagascar, this beautiful animal, with an off-white coat and a long zebra-striped tail, is sold to hoteliers and tourists for a ridiculously low sum of $2. Being a popular animal, it is also inhumanely kept in zoos all around the world for human entertainment and profit.
The black lemur is another highly endangered species. There are about 10,000 of them in the North-western parts of Madagascar and in some of the islands off the North coast. The black lemur stands about 38 inches tall and weighs about 5 lbs. The black lemur faces common threats like other lemur species. Man's proximity has brought this species into confrontational situations where they have been killed for raiding crops.
Superstitions sometimes can work in favor of the lemurs. For example, the inri is believed to be carrying souls of ancestors. Villagers refrain from killing them.
But lemurs desperately need protection. Loss of habitat can have serious consequences for the breeding or reproduction of lemurs. The lemurs have very short mating and birth windows that are synchronized to seasons when food availability is at its peak. The female vagina opens up for a very brief period of the day, leaving a small window for reproductive activities. High levels of energy exhaustion during such periods account for high mortality among adult lemur females.
Despite protests from local villages, the Ranomafana National Reserve Park was created by the forest authorities of Madagascar. The Ranomafana reserve is a 15 km strip of virgin forests not far from the east coast setup primarily to protect the lemurs inhabiting it. Similarly, nearly 20 national parks have sprung up in the last few decades – especially along the entire eastern and southern coastal belts – to protect endangered species in those sensitive places where they may come into direct contact with human habitation.
The blue-eyed black lemur, an inhabitant of the sub-tropical moist and dry forests in the north-western tip of Madagascar, is a beneficiary of serious conservation measures. Thanks to the endeavors of organizations that have put into place natural resource management and ecological research programs to monitor and mitigate the loss of valuable forest resources in that region, the rare blue-eyed species of lemur is on a comeback trail and finds itself out of the IUCN’s list of the 25 most endangered primates on the planet.
But serious challenges remain. In addition to rapid habitat loss, climate changes may pose the biggest threat to the survival of lemurs. A study found that 60 percent of the 57 species examined may find their habitat reduced by an alarming two-thirds in the next seventy years solely due to climate change.
Just as too little greenhouse gas makes Earth too cold, too much greenhouse gas makes Earth too warm. Over the last century, humans have burned coal, oil, and gasoline in our cars, trucks, planes, trains, power plants, and factories. Burning such fossil fuels produces CO2 as a waste product. Putting so much new CO2 into the air has made Earth warmer. If we continue on our current path, we will cause even more warming.
CO2 is a big part of the carbon cycle. The carbon cycle traces carbon's path from the atmosphere, into living organisms, then turning into dead organic matter, going into the oceans, and back into the atmosphere. Scientists describe the cycle in terms of sources (parts of the cycle that add carbon to the atmosphere) and sinks (parts of the cycle that remove carbon from the atmosphere).
The carbon cycle traces carbon's path from the atmosphere, into living organisms, to dead organic matter, to oceans, and back into the atmosphere. They key to keeping everything in balance is for the sources and sinks to have the same amount of CO2.
The most important sinks are the ocean (which includes the seawater itself, the organisms living there, and the sediments on the sea floor) as well as plants and soil on land. The ocean stores most of the world's carbon, but forests are really important too. Forests and oceans each remove around one-fourth of the carbon we humans have added to the atmosphere.
But besides CO2 there are other greenhouse gases. These include water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone.
Without any greenhouse gases, Earth would be an icy wasteland. Greenhouse gases keep our planet livable by holding onto some of Earth’s heat energy so that it doesn’t all escape into space. This heat trapping is known as the greenhouse effect.
Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all transportation put together. A staggering 51 percent or more of global greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture, according to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute.
Our planet has a natural environment, known as ‘ecosystem’, which includes all humans, animals, plants, land and water. Human activities have caused much depletion and destruction of this ecosystem.
Environmentalism advocates the preservation, restoration and/or improvement of this natural environment by controlling pollution and protecting plant and animal diversity. Environmentalists attempt to balance relations between humans and the various natural systems on which they depend to achieve sustainability.
Earth advocates work to protect natural resources and ecosystems through education, activism and the political process. They seek to give the natural world a stronger voice in human affairs.
The environmental issues of today know no borders. We can't just put up fences around natural places to keep humans out. We must protect the entire planet for the survival of all species — plants, animals and people. Governments, businesses, communities and individuals must make better decisions to live in balance with nature. Through science, responsible planning, legislation and daily choices, we can ensure the survival of the ecosystem.
There are many ways you can help to save wild places and wild animals. Volunteer. Recycle. Install solar panels on your roof. Organize an event where you live. Change a habit. Help launch a community garden. Communicate your priorities to your elected representatives. The possibilities are endless! Do something nice for the earth, have fun, meet new people, and make a difference.
The world population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. As our population increases, there is even more pressure on forests, grasslands, deserts and other natural areas to provide food, housing and energy for humans. These demands increase the stress of already fragmented natural areas suffering from pollution, deforestation, disrupted migratory routes and changing environmental conditions.
Already, large numbers of people have been declared food-insecure; resulting in a land rush with nations hurrying to secure properties for agriculture and fuel crops. Forests are being cleared at alarming rates, an estimated 18 million acres each year. At the same time, poor agriculture practices lead to millions of acres of land lost annually through soil erosion and land degradation.
Trillions of tons of garbage is produced every year, while more and more goods are produced...resulting in the creation of more waste. Most garbage is buried underground in landfill sites, causing environmental and health concerns.
If we don’t make changes now, future generations will not experience the same plentiful, diverse planet that we know today.
Air pollution is a mixture of solid particles and gases in the air. Car emissions, chemicals from factories, dust, pollen and mold spores may be suspended as particles. Ozone, a gas, is a major part of air pollution in cities. When ozone forms air pollution, it's also called smog.
Air pollution is caused by polluters who refuse to clean up toxic air emissions, despite proven pollution control technologies. Most air toxics originate from human-made sources, including automobiles, factories, refineries and power plants. Indoor sources include building materials and cleaning solvents.
As the environment suffers, humans suffer from asthma, lung disease, heart ailments, cancer and shortened lives. Acid rain, often caused by pollutants in the atmosphere from automobile or industrial processes, falls from the sky in the form of rain, snow, fog or dry material. Devastating effects to forests, aquatic systems, buildings and human health can result. Air toxics then contaminate our food products, drinking water and soil.
Pollution, habitat fragmentation and destruction, and overfishing are having devastating effects on our oceans, rivers and lakes. Acidification, caused by increased carbon emissions, degrade coral reefs and corrode the shells of sea creatures. Freshwater ecosystems provide us with drinking water, food, energy and recreation. These ecosystems are also critical to plants and animals. Increased demands for food, energy and material goods have placed unprecedented pressure on these fragile environments. Within the next 20 years, half of the world’s population may face water shortages.
Oceans are a critical part of the earths support system. Acid rain pollutes our seas. Oceans are degraded by spills and chemical runoffs. The largest living structures on earth, coral reefs, are among the greatest storehouses of biodiversity on the planet. Up to 70 percent of coral reefs are expected to be lost by 2050 due to human activities.
Water is under threat from fertilizers and chemical runoff, dumped chemical and industrial wastes, untreated sewage and medicinal residues.
Genetic modification of plants and animals is a controversial subject, with many experts believing the ill impacts far outweigh the benefits to mankind. Manipulating plant DNA to produce super crops is a dangerous global experiment. When released into the environment, they cannot be recalled.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can spread through nature and interbreed with natural organisms. They can contaminate natural environments in an unforeseeable and uncontrollable way. This is referred to as 'genetic pollution', a major threat to the environment.
Due to commercial interests, the public has been denied the facts about GMO ingredients in the food chain. The absence of labeling laws in many countries denies individuals the power to avoid them.
Biological diversity must be protected and respected. It is fundamental to our planet's survival.
Water could be the key to finding life. There aren’t many qualities that are true of all life on Earth, but the need for water is one of them. It’s in all living things, whether they live at the bottom of the ocean or the driest desert. Water made life possible on Earth. Because of this, astrobiologists (scientists who search for life on other planets) think our best bet for finding life is to search for water.
Almost all Earth’s water is in the oceans. A whopping 96.5 percent of water on Earth is in our oceans, covering 71 percent of the surface of our planet. And at any given time, about 0.001 percent is floating above us in the atmosphere. If all of that water fell as rain at once, the whole planet would get about 1 inch of rain.
Most freshwater is in ice. Just 3.5 percent of Earth’s water is fresh—that is, with few salts in it. You can find Earth’s freshwater in our lakes, rivers, and streams, but don’t forget groundwater and glaciers. Over 68 percent of Earth’s freshwater is locked up in ice and glaciers. And another 30 percent is in groundwater.
The amount of salt in salt water varies. In a gallon of average ocean water, there is about 1 cup of salt. But it does vary. The Atlantic Ocean is saltier than the Pacific Ocean, for instance. Most of the salt in the ocean is the same kind of salt we put on our food: sodium chloride. The saltiest water in the world is found in Antarctica in a small lake named Don Juan Pond.
A lot can live in one drop of water. There can be a lot going on in a single drop of ocean water. It will most likely have millions (yes, millions) of bacteria and viruses. And it could also have fish eggs, baby crabs, plankton, or even small worms.
Some water may have come from comets. The rocky material that formed Earth contained some water. But that probably doesn't account for all the water we see today. Comets are mostly water ice. It’s possible that comets made regular water deliveries to Earth. It would take a lot of comets to fill the ocean, but comets could well have made a big contribution.
It’s really great that ice floats. Usually when solids form, atoms get closer together to form something denser. This is why most solids sink in water. But solid water, or ice, is actually less dense. This is unusual. The water molecules form rings when water freezes. All that space makes ice less dense. This is why it floats. This is great because ice floating on top of a body of water lets the rest of it stay liquid. If ice sank, whole oceans could freeze solid.
Our bodies are mostly water. A newborn baby is 78 percent water. Adults are 55-60 percent water. Water is involved in just about everything our body does. It’s a big part of the blood that brings nutrients to all our cells. We use it to get rid of wastes. It helps us regulate our body temperature. It acts as a shock absorber for our brain and spinal cord. We are very dependent on water.
In plants, water defies gravity. Water has an interesting characteristic. It’s sort of “sticky.” It likes to stick to itself and other things. That’s why water forms round droplets. Not all liquids do that. This “stickiness” helps get water from the roots of plants up to the leaves. Water molecules travel up thin straws called xylem in the plant by holding onto each other and the walls of the tube. They’re pulled upwards as water evaporates from the leaves at the top.
We get to see water in three different states, and that’s odd. We experience water in all three states: solid ice, liquid water, and gas water vapor. That’s actually pretty unusual. While all substances can be solid, liquid, or gas, a lot of them only change states at extreme temperatures. You probably don’t see liquid silver or solid oxygen very much because their melting points and freezing points are at temperatures that would kill us.
Life on Earth over the millennia has been defined by the evolution, survival and demise of multitudes of species. The churning of species is part of the life process and extinction is one inevitable component. But humans are now playing a large part in the extinction of many species.
Human activities are responsible for the significant changes in the world's environment. Human activities cause climate changes from industrial emissions and animal argiculture, destruction of wildlife habitat, reduced wildlife populations through hunting and poaching, and ecosystem disruption through pollution and litter. All these activities are major contributors to a serious decline in wildlife numbers.
Endangered Species Versus Threatened Species
Species of animals facing a high probability of becoming extinct in the future are categorized by conservationists and scientists as threatened. This kind of species is one whose existence in its natural habitat is at risk. The threat to its habitat could arise out of reasons like human developmental activities, climate change and introduction of foreign species.
Endangered species are those that are so extremely rare, and their population so low, that they are dangerously prone to extinction in the near future. The dangers they face are very similar to those faced by threatened species, the only difference being that the degree of threat is even higher given their low numbers and uniqueness of habitat. The risks of extinction here are much more.
The terms endangered and threatened species are often used interchangabley. When described in a general context, an endangered species is one that is faced with the threat of extinction but not necessarily protected by law. In a regulatory context, endangered species could come under a protective ambit when listed by bodies like US Endangered Species List and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN has a detailed and complete list of endangered species that it calls the Red List. The Red list has been graded into categories based on the degrees of risk to their survival ranging from safe to complete extinction.
Least Threatened: Species that face no immediate threat of extinction.
Near-threatened: Species in this category could possibly face threats in the foreseeable future.
Vulnerable: Species in this category could come under threat of extinction in the medium term.
Endangered: Species of animals facing a high probability of becoming extinct in the immediate future.
Critically Endangered: Species that are extremely rare and whose population are very few and on the decline and could become extinct anytime soon.
Extinct In The Wild: No populations of such species exist in the wild and they survive and thrive only in captivity.
Extinct: These species are no longer found anywhere on earth, either in the wild or in captivity.
The usage of different terms used by the IUCN is to highlight the level of risk faced by a particular species at a given point of time, which is, presently. Such grades enable conservationists and scientists to study the degree of threat a particular species may be under and direct their conservation efforts accordingly. One of the main objectives of the IUCN's list is to emphasize the plight of the critically endangered species and create the groundwork for saving such species from the threat of complete extinction. Simply put, the list's trend leading from Least Threatened to Extinction is an enabler for conservationists to prioritize their efforts accordingly.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the US Endangered Species Act (ESA)?
Enacted into a law in 1973 during President Richard Nixon's tenure, the ESA is administered by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries. Its objective is to protect endangered plant, animal and aquatic species through conservation of the habitats such species survive on.
How can I get a copy of the US Endangered Species Act?
A PDF version of the US Endangered Species Act can be obtained from the US Fish & Wildlife Service website.
How do rare animals make it to the Endangered Species List?
The authorities concerned adopt certain formal steps while ascertaining levels of threats to a certain species before declaring it to be endangered.
How do you find out which animals are on the Endangered Species List?
The Threatened and Endangered Species System (TESS) website maintains an up-to-date list and information of endangered wildlife species. This site is maintained by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and NOAA.
What endangered animals are in my state?
In addition to the Federal list, most states have their own lists of endangered species of animals. A knowledge of such species close to your home will help you make important lifestyle choices in their protection and conservation. A web search of your state's endangered species legislation can be helpful.
How can I contribute to conservation efforts of endangered species?
Rapidly reducing habitats pose a serious threat to the survival of the world's wildlife. Agencies and organizations may have chapters close to your home. Simple lifestyle changes such as reduced consumption, recycling, refraining from littering and polluting, and adopting a vegan diet go a long way in helping endangered wildlife.
When massive volumes of toxic chemicals are pumped deep underground at extreme pressure to fracture ancient rock formations, what could go wrong?
The technique used to extract shale gas from its underground deposits is called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking". Huge amounts of water, sand and thickening agents are injected underground to crack open the rocks beneath which the shale gas is trapped.
Shale is fast replacing oil as a cheaper energy source. Shale is oil and gas found in rock formations. Shale gas output, which was 9.7 trillion cubic feet annually a few years ago, could potentially grow to almost 40 trillion cubic feet by 2040, with the US far surpassing Saudi Arabia as the largest fossil fuels producer of the world. In fact, shale will account for as much as 60 percent of America's total oil and gas output.
While vertical fracking has been around since 1949, the advent of horizontal fracking during the past decade gave shale gas output a major boost. Fracking sites have grown from around 18,000 to almost 25,000 within just a decade. That's almost a 40 percent growth.
Despite the potential economic benefits to be reaped from shale gas, the effects to the environment, wildlife and humans may be devastating. Little is known about its long-term environmental impacts, but its short term impacts are already disturbing.
The fracking process, which uses over 100 chemicals, produces massive amounts of toxic and radioactive waste. It has been known to contaminate drinking water and produce earthquakes. Hazardous pollutants are also released into the air. Fracking wells release methane gas known to trap 87 times more heat than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Thousands of leaks, spills and accidents related to fracking have negatively impacted water quality in rivers, streams and shallow aquifers. Since 1990, the EPA has acknowledged the link between fracking and increased earthquakes.
Fracking has been reported to cause declines in property value, damage to public roads, increased crime and a rise in demand on emergency services. The dangerous chemicals used in fracking are known to cause life-threatening illnesses, including cancer.
In 2015, an EPA draft report revealed more than 150 instances of groundwater contamination due to shale drilling and fracking. Some residents in affected areas even reported being able to light their water on fire due to gas contamination.
There have been instances of fracking water trickling into pastures and streams. In Kentucky’s Acorn Fork Creek, waste water from neighboring sites virtually wiped out almost all aquatic life in parts of the fork. The dead fish were found with lesions on their gills and their livers and spleens badly damaged. The creek was formerly one of the cleanest in the country and billed an Outstanding State Resource Water asset. It is home to an endangered species of bird, the diminutive colorful minnow called blackside dace, which is protected under the the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
A particular method of fracking, called Marcellus Shale Drilling, creates brine in the millions of gallons of water that the process needs. Brine is a solution of salt or sodium chloride in water. The brine causes the creation of TDS (totally dissolved acids) which is perfect for the breeding of golden algae. It was such algae that accounted for the deaths of thousands of fish in Dunkard Creek, Pennsylvania.
Over the past decade, more than 350,000 acres of natural land have been damaged all over America by fracking activity. Whole ecosystems have perished in these places. Each fracking operation needs anywhere between 900 to 1,200 truckloads of materials. 30 acres of forest may also be cleared to make way for a drilling station. The Ohio Environmental Council has already reported disruption to the habits of birds and nocturnal animals caused by such activity.
In California, frenetic fracking activity can pose serious threats to the habitats of creatures like the endangered California condor, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard and the San Joaquin kit fox. Domestic animals like cats and dogs and even horses could come under threat.
On the heels of the Kentucky disaster, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has set the tone for offenders by imposing a penalty of $50,000 for violation of the ESA. There have been cries for even larger fines from conservationists.
While there have been increasing pressures by the fracking companies for new licenses, conservation organizations are urging the government to act soon and ban fracking in and around all wildlife zones. It is hoped that better sense will prevail and the government will act to protect humans, wildlife and ecosystems before it is too late.
Hunting is a major threat to wildlife, particularly in tropical regions. An international team of ecologists and environmental scientists have found that bird and mammal populations are reduced within 7 and 40 km of hunters' access points, such as roads and settlements.
Within these impact zones, mammal populations decline on average by 83%, and bird populations by 58%. Additionally, commercial hunting has a higher impact than hunting for family food, and hunting pressure is higher in areas with better accessibility to major towns where wild meat can be traded.
Only 17 percent of the original mammal abundance and 42 percent of the birds remain in hunted areas.
There are several drivers of animal decline in tropical landscapes: habitat destruction, overhunting, fragmentation, etc.
Higher hunting pressure occurs around villages and roads. Scientists have discovered that humans gather resources in a circle around their village and in the proximity of roads. As such, hunting pressure is higher in the proximity of villages and other access points. From there the densities of species increase up to a distance where no effect of hunting is observed.
Mammals are more sought after because they are bigger and provide more food. They are worth a longer trip. The bigger the mammal, the further a hunter would walk to catch it.
With increasing wild meat demand for rural and urban supply, hunters have harvested the larger species almost to extinction in the proximity of the villages and they must travel further distances to hunt. For commercially interesting species such as elephants and gorillas, hunting distances are even larger because the returns are higher.
Protected areas are no safe haven. Mammal populations have been reduced by hunting even within protected areas.
Strategies to reduce hunting in both protected and unprotected ecosystems are urgently needed to avoid further defaunation, including monitoring hunting activities by increasing anti-poaching patrols and controlling overexploitation via law enforcement.
Habitat destruction is the process in which natural habitat is rendered unable to support the species present. In this process, the plants and animals which previously used the site are displaced or destroyed, reducing biodiversity.
Habitat destruction by human activity is mainly for the purpose of harvesting natural resources for industry production and urbanization.
Clearing habitats for agriculture is the principal cause of habitat destruction. Other important causes of habitat destruction include mining, logging, trawling and urban sprawl.
PRIMARY CAUSE OF EXTINCTION
Habitat destruction is currently ranked as the primary cause of species extinction worldwide. It is a process of natural environmental change that may be caused by habitat fragmentation, geological processes or by human activities such as the introduction of invasive species, ecosystem nutrient depletion and other human activities.
In the simplest terms, when a habitat is destroyed, the plants, animals, and other organisms that occupied the habitat have a reduced carrying capacity so that populations decline and extinction becomes more likely. Perhaps the greatest threat to organisms and biodiversity is the process of habitat loss. Organisms with limited ranges are most affected by habitat destruction, mainly because these organisms are not found anywhere else within the world and thus, have less chance of recovering. Many have very specific requirements for their survival that can only be found within a certain ecosystem, resulting in their extinction. Habitat destruction can also decrease the range of certain organism populations. This can result in the reduction of genetic diversity and perhaps the production of infertile youths, as these organisms would have a higher possibility of mating with related organisms within their population, or different species.
Biodiversity hotspots are chiefly tropical regions that feature high concentrations of endemic species and, when all hotspots are combined, may contain over half of the world’s terrestrial species. These hotspots are suffering from habitat loss and destruction. Most of the natural habitat on islands and in areas of high human population density has already been destroyed. Islands suffering extreme habitat destruction include New Zealand, Madagascar, the Philippines, and Japan. South and east Asia—especially China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan—and many areas in West Africa have extremely dense human populations that allow little room for natural habitat. Marine areas close to highly populated coastal cities also face degradation of their coral reefs or other marine habitat. These areas include the eastern coasts of Asia and Africa, northern coasts of South America, and the Caribbean Sea and its associated islands.
Regions of unsustainable agriculture or unstable governments, which may go hand-in-hand, typically experience high rates of habitat destruction. Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Amazonian tropical rainforest areas of South America are the main regions with unsustainable agricultural practices or government mismanagement.
Areas of high agricultural output tend to have the highest extent of habitat destruction. In the U.S., less than 25% of native vegetation remains in many parts of the East and Midwest. Only 15% of land area remains unmodified by human activities in all of Europe.
Tropical rainforests have received most of the attention concerning the destruction of habitat. From the approximately 16 million square kilometers of tropical rainforest habitat that originally existed worldwide, less than 9 million square kilometers remain today. The current rate of deforestation is 160,000 square kilometers per year, which equates to a loss of approximately 1% of original forest habitat each year. Other forest ecosystems have suffered as much or more destruction as tropical rainforests. Farming and logging have severely disturbed at least 94% of temperate broadleaf forests; many old growth forest stands have lost more than 98% of their previous area because of human activities. Tropical deciduous dry forests are easier to clear and burn and are more suitable for agriculture and cattle ranching than tropical rainforests; consequently, less than 0.1% of dry forests in Central America's Pacific Coast and less than 8% in Madagascar remain from their original extents.
PLAINS & DESERTS
Plains and desert areas have been degraded to a lesser extent. Only 10-20% of the world's drylands, which include temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands, scrub and deciduous forests, have been somewhat degraded. But included in that 10-20% of land is the approximately 9 million square kilometers of seasonally dry-lands that humans have converted to deserts through the process of desertification. The tallgrass prairies of North America, on the other hand, have less than 3% of natural habitat remaining that has not been converted to farmland.
Wetlands and marine areas have endured high levels of habitat destruction. More than 50% of wetlands in the U.S. have been destroyed in just the last 200 years. Between 60% and 70% of European wetlands have been completely destroyed. About one-fifth (20%) of marine coastal areas have been highly modified by humans. One-fifth of coral reefs have also been destroyed, and another fifth has been severely degraded by overfishing, pollution, and invasive species; 90% of the Philippines’ coral reefs alone have been destroyed. Finally, over 35% mangrove ecosystems worldwide have been destroyed.
Habitat destruction caused by humans includes conversion of land to agriculture, urban sprawl, infrastructure development, and other anthropogenic changes to the characteristics of land. Habitat degradation, fragmentation, and pollution are aspects of habitat destruction caused by humans that do not necessarily involve overt destruction of habitat, yet result in habitat collapse. Desertification, deforestation, and coral reef degradation are specific types of habitat destruction for those areas (deserts, forests, coral reefs).
The forces that cause humans to destroy habitat are known as drivers of habitat destruction. Demographic, economic, sociopolitical, scientific and technological, and cultural drivers all contribute to habitat destruction.
Demographic drivers include the expanding human population; rate of population increase over time; spatial distribution of people in a given area (urban versus rural), ecosystem type, and country; and the combined effects of poverty, age, gender, and education status of people in certain areas.
Most of the exponential human population growth worldwide is occurring in or close to biodiversity hotspots. This may explain why human population density accounts for 87.9% of the variation in numbers of threatened species across 114 countries, providing evidence that people play the largest role in decreasing biodiversity. The boom in human population and migration of people into such species-rich regions are making conservation efforts not only more urgent but also more likely to conflict with local human interests. The high local population density in such areas is directly correlated to the poverty status of the local people.
FEEDBACK & INTERACTIONS
There are also feedbacks and interactions among the proximate and underlying causes of deforestation that can amplify the process. Road construction has the largest feedback effect, because it interacts with—and leads to—the establishment of new settlements and more people, which causes a growth in wood (logging) and food markets. Growth in these markets, in turn, progresses the commercialization of agriculture and logging industries. When these industries become commercialized, they must become more efficient by utilizing larger or more modern machinery that often are worse on the habitat than traditional farming and logging methods. Either way, more land is cleared more rapidly for commercial markets. This common feedback example manifests just how closely related the proximate and underlying causes are to each other.
5,500 animals a day, 228 an hour, 4 every minute - red-tailed hawks, Arctic foxes and river otters, some of America's most magnificent wildlife....By the time you finish reading this, 8 more of these wild animals will have been gunned down, crushed in traps, or poisoned by an exploding cyanide landmine laid down by the USDA's rogue animal-killing program, Wildlife Services.
This little-known agency, a unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is secretive for a reason: Its actions are incredibly, unacceptably and illegally brutal and inhumane to animals, from familiar wildlife to endangered species - and even people’s companion animals.
This agency has been killing as many as 3 million native animals every year - including coyotes, bears, beavers, wolves, otters, foxes, prairie dogs, mountain lions, birds and other animals - without any oversight, accountability or requirement to disclose its activities to the public. The agency contributed to the decline of gray wolves, Mexican wolves, black-footed ferrets, black-tailed prairie dogs, and other imperiled species during the first half of the 1900s, and continues to impede their recovery today.
No other government program does more every day to annihilate America’s wildlife than Wildlife Services. This rogue program does much of its dirty work far from the public’s view, so millions of animals disappear from our landscapes every year with little accountability.
Most of Wildlife Services’ killing is done on behalf of the livestock and agriculture industries, along with other powerful interests. The methods are gruesome, including aerial gunning, traps and exploding cyanide caps. Companion animals have also been inadvertently harmed.
Many of these animals are carnivores at the top of the food chain and have a tremendous benefit to overall ecosystem health. They include endangered species and, largely, animals that agribusiness interests consider undesirable - as well as many animals that aren’t intended targets of the agency.
The century-old Wildlife Services - which has reportedly killed 32 million native animals since 1996 - destroys these creatures on behalf of such interests without explaining to the public what it’s doing or where, the methods it’s using, on whose behalf it’s acting, or why. It frequently doesn’t even attempt to use nonlethal methods before shooting coyotes and wolves from airplanes, or laying out traps and exploding poison caps indiscriminately - including in public areas - without any rules.
Stories about Wildlife Services consistently emerge describing an agency that routinely commits extreme cruelty against animals, leaving them to die in traps from exposure or starvation, attacking trapped coyotes, and brutalizing domestic dogs. Many people who know about the agency have criticized this dark, secretive entity as a subsidy for livestock interests.
As the actions of Wildlife Services continue to be exposed, organizations and individuals across the country continue to join together in an effort to end the inhumane slaughter of millions of animals each year by the federal government with taxpayers' money.
While it's quite common to keep parrots and toucans as “pets” for human entertainment, they are creatures of the wild and not meant to be caged. Thousands of these birds are still taken away from their families and flocks every year, packed up as if they were toys and sold at bird shows, through pet shops, or peddled on the internet. Many don't survive the journey, and those who do are likely to be destined for a life of misery. As a result of the demand, populations in the wild have suffered immensely, compounded by deforestation, animal agriculture, hunting and logging. Some species have been completely wiped out from parts of their range.
These birds are often stolen from the wild illegally and falsely declared as captive bred. They are then laundered into the global wildlife trade, often “legalized" along the way. The illicit pet trade industry is believed to have contributed to the threatened status of 66 parrot species and the extinction of the Spix’s Macaw. Nearly 27 percent of worldwide parrot species are now at risk.
Whether wild caught or captive bred, a birds' instinctive yearning to fly is thwarted when they are confined to a cage. Exotic birds are not "domesticated" even when they are bred in captivity; they retain their wild needs and instincts. Even in a large aviary, it is virtually impossible to provide birds in captivity with a natural existence, since naturally changing temperatures, food, vegetation, and landscape cannot be recreated indoors, nor, of course, can the birds fly freely.
There are nearly 390 species of parrots with habitats spanning from the Tropic of Cancer downwards to virtually all the countries in the Southern hemisphere. Though the primarily color of the parrot is green, there are multi-colored species – especially found in the deep jungles of Papua New Guinea.
Toucans are distinguishable from the parrot by their large and colorful bills. Their geographical spread of habitat is much narrower than the parrot, being restricted to the Amazon region of Brazil and North-eastern parts of the South American continent and the jungles of the Caribbean.
Illegal trafficking in parrots is quite common in India, despite the activity being banned by the authorities since 1991. Smuggling three to four week old chicks is rampant, threatening what is left of the 12 species of the bird left in the wilds of the country. Many of the birds die en-route to their chosen destinations. The plum-headed, red-breasted, malabar, Himalayan and Finsch’s parakeets are some of the threatened Indian parrot species.
Most vulnerable are island parrots. Rapidly growing human habitations and limited land space are squeezing out forest areas, and consequently the parrots. There are just 800 St. Vincent parrots left on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. The Society islands of the Pacific are home to a dwindling population of a parrot species known as blue lorikeets, of which just 2,000 are left.
In the Amazon, common threats afflicts all wildlife - deforestation, growing farmlands and rampant logging. Diminishing food sources, and a lucrative illicit trade, have reduced one of the largest and most colorful species of parrot to near extinction. The Lear’s macaw was one of the most commonly found birds in the Amazon forests, but now is ensconced in a small patch of forest in the North-eastern Brazilian state of Bahia. There are only 960 of these birds that have been declared critically endangered. Parrot protection groups have gone to the extent of purchasing 4,000 acres of forest in the region to be under protection as suitable habitat to these rare birds.
Even worse is the fate of the blue-throated macaw of Bolivia, a victim of extensive mining activity, forest farming and illegal trade. Their absolute paltry numbers, just around 87, have prompted a captive breeding program desperately attempting to save these rare Bolivian birds.
Species like the thick-billed parrots were hunted to the point of extinction in Arizona. They are found across the border in Mexico where they presently face the twin threats of logging and illegal pet trade. Thick-billed parrots depend on their natural habitats of mature pine forests for their food source. Since such forests are vanishing fast, the birds are being driven out to drier desert regions where they simply cannot last long.
Among the most fascinating and loved of feathered animals in the world are the parakeets, or lorikeets. Wild parakeets inhabit the thick mountainous jungles of Papua New Guinea, the forest regions of Northern Australia, and the Polynesian islands in the Pacific. A combination of dazzlingly different colors and vocal variations make them the most sought after creatures by zoos of the world, and as pets doomed to life in captivity. Despite being protected in the still vast virgin tropical forest tracts of the Australasia region, their remarkable traits and appearance still make them targets of illegal trade. The budgerigar is one such species of lorikeet which has been in great demand as “pets” for decades.
The Australasia species also face a threat in the form of Proventricular Dilatation Disease (PDD). PDD causes regurgitation, a state in which food remains undigested in the digestive tract or blood. PDD is known to be caused by a virus called Bornavirus that results in weight-loss, feather-plucking, toe-tapping, and other issues.
The threat to toucans is not dissimilar to that of parrots. In fact, their much limited habitat and small number of species, just five, make their survival a much bigger threat. Loss of habitat due to deforestation, and wanton creation of farmlands especially in the Amazon, are common threats. The toucan is hunted for the rich fabric of its feathers that has great commercial value. The toucans fare even worse as pets than the parrots and can die from sheer desolation. Being deep forest birds, they are susceptible to diseases arising out of sudden human presence in their vicinity.
Parrots are more threatened than other bird groups. Loss and degradation of habitat, animal agriculture, hunting and the wildlife trade are all threatening the future of parrots and toucans. An alarming 56 percent decline of all parrot species is currently taking place. Action must be taken now to save these birds from being lost forever.
In just the past 40 years, nearly 52 percent of the planet’s wildlife species have been eliminated. The leading cause of these shocking declines is irresponsible and unethical human activities. In addition to the devastating consequences of deforestation, animal agriculture, development, and environmental pollution, the wildlife trade is playing a major role in species extinction.
Poaching, which involves the illegal killing, hunting and capturing of wild animals for sale, is the biggest threat to wildlife after habitat destruction. Poaching is hunting without legal permission. The difference between poaching and hunting is the law.
Legal hunters also kill tens of millions of animals per year. For each of those animals, another animal is illegally killed. Whether done legally or illegally, all types of hunting have led to extinction of species. If not controlled, many more animals will be doomed to extinction.
In addition to their body parts, the animals themselves are in demand as exotic “pets”. There are around 5,000 tigers being kept as pets in the U.S., while only around 3,000 remain in the wild. Australia’s palm cockatoos, stolen from the wild, sell for tens of thousands of dollars on the black market.
Illegal wildlife trade generates up to 20 billion dollars each year, making it the fourth most lucrative illegal trade operation on the planet – just after drugs, human trafficking and the arms trade. The animals who fall victim to this trade are quickly becoming threatened and endangered. As their numbers drop, their value on the black market increases.
The rise in human population has been accompanied by rapid economic growth in some parts of the world. This growth has led to affluence and a huge and growing demand for animal by-products. China is now the largest importer of illegal wildlife. But poaching knows no boundaries. The United States is the second largest importer of illegal wildlife.
The exponential rise in illegal wildlife trade threatens to undo the decades of hard work by conservationists. Wildlife trade is now run by large international criminal syndicates with deep pockets and tentacles reaching into corrupt governments secretly abetting their activities. There are no available exact figures as to the size of this trade, but there are estimates that it could be as vast as $150 billion annually.
Iconic Species Being Hunted To Extinction
Some of the most common forms of poaching are the hunting and killing of elephants for their ivory, tigers for their skin and bones, and rhinoceros for the alleged medicinal value of their horns.
A huge surge in black market prices of ivory in China has led to heightened activity in elephant poaching in Africa. Over 30,000 elephants were killed in one year alone. The ban on ivory trade by virtually all African governments has done little to deter the poachers. In Tanzania, frenzied poaching has reduced the number of elephants from 100,000 in 2010 to just 44,000 presently. Poaching eliminated 48% of the elephant population in Mozambique during the last 5 to 6 years. Many of the local populace kill the animals for cash. Even militia groups are involved in the poaching of elephants.
The sub-Saharan black rhinoceros is now almost extinct by extensive poaching. There are only 4,000 of these animals left now, compared to the 100,000 that roamed the wilds not even half a century ago. An almost 7,700% rise in poaching of white and black rhinos has occurred in 9 years in South Africa. Rising affluence in Vietnam in the last decade has spiked the demand for rhino horns. Rhino horns are crushed into powdered form for its bogus medicinal value.
This is just one chapter of the sordid story. Millions of of animals, birds, plants and marine life are killed every year. Wildlife trade accounts for the killing or capture of 100 million tons of fish, 1.5 million living birds, and almost 450,000 tons of plants annually. The combined population of all species of wildlife on Earth has fallen by as much as 40% since the 1970's.
One rhino is poached every 8 hours. Rhino horns are more valuable than gold. They can sell for as much as $30,000 a pound. Gold is worth about $22,000 a pound. Rhino horns are believed to cure impotence, fever, hangovers, and even cancer, but they actually have no medicinal properties. Rhino horns are not true horns. They are an outgrowth of the skin, like human hair or fingernails. They have no more medicinal effect than chewing on your fingernails.
Around 100 African elephants are killed every day by poachers – one elephant every 15 minutes. Ivory is carved into jewelry, trinkets, utensils, and figurines. Heavily armed militias and crime networks use ivory profits for terrorism and war funding.
Asian elephants are also at risk. Only around 32,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild. Around 30 percent of the remaining population are inhumanely held prisoners in zoos, circuses, and roadside attractions for human entertainment and profit.
Lemurs are among the most endangered mammals on Earth. 90% of all lemur species are considered vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. Hunting lemurs for meat is diminishing their populations, already decimated by deforestation and climate changes.
Logging, roads and migrations caused by wars have brought people within the habitats of gorillas. Subsistence hunting has quickly grown into an illicit commercial business of gorilla meat, served up as “bushmeat” to wealthy clientele. Gorillas are also killed for their body parts for folk remedies, and as “trophies”. Baby gorillas are poached and sold for up to $40,000 each. Less than 900 mountain gorillas survive in Africa due to poaching.
Musk deer populations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Myanmar have been nearly wiped out for their sacs that contain ingredients used in perfumes – despite a ban on musk from international trade.
Tigers are poached for their teeth, claws, and whiskers, believed to provide good luck and protective powers. Skins and bones are considered status symbols. One tiger can bring as much as $50,000 on the black market.
Up to half of Africa’s lions have been illegally killed in just 20 years. Only about 32,000 remain in the wild.
The sun bear as a species has been rendered almost extinct in its habitat in South-east Asia, Myanmar, Bangladesh and North-Eastern India. The gall bladders of these animals find use in medicines among the Chinese. A bear’s gallbladder can fetch more than $3,000 in Asia.
Poached sharks, manta rays, and sea cucumbers are used by Asian consumers to make shark fin soup. Over 11,000 sharks are killed every hour, every day.
The American black bear is one of the top 10 most endangered bears on the planet. While 34 states have banned the trade of black bear bile and gallbladders, poaching and legal hunting is killing almost 50,000 bears every year. Their gallbladders and bile are sold to treat diseases of the heart, liver, and even diabetes.
Over 28,000 freshwater turtles are poached daily – used for medicine, food and kept as pets. About 80 percent of Asia’s freshwater turtle species are now in danger of extinction.
The Sunda pangolin's population in its habitat in the jungles of Malaysia and Java, Indonesia has halved in the last fifteen years. Their meat fetches considerable demand as a luxury food among affluent Chinese, and their scales are sought for their medicinal properties.
Millions of Tokay geckos are poached every year from South-east Asia, the Philippines and Pacific islands for use in traditional medicine.
Despite being on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered List since 1998, bighorn sheep populations continue to dwindle. Their antlers sell for over $20,000 on the black market.
Poaching isn't limited to exotic and threatened species. Deer and other wildlife species are often hunted “out of season”. Millions of animals are killed every year.
These are a few of many cases which have come to light, while many cases of over-exploitation of species have gone unnoticed. Conservation efforts, and various laws banning the illegal trade in wildlife resources, have had little effect in deterring those involved in wildlife trade. Educating humans on the urgent need to conserve our wildlife resources also seems to be falling on deaf ears. Until consumers stop purchasing wild animal products, and governments make the issue more of a priority, the wildlife trade will continue to flourish.
Around 4,000 years ago, someone in northern China came across an odd black rock. It was one of many. Then this person discovered something. Somehow this person discovered that the rock could burn.
Life was harder back then. Keeping warm and getting food were big worries. With no electricity or gas for heating or cooking, everyone burned wood. The strange rock that burned like a log must have been very exciting back then.
This rock was coal. Archeologists think this was the first time a human used a fossil fuel.
For many years, only a few places with easy access to coal used it. Outside China, one such place was Britain. It was hard to miss there. People could go to the beach and pick up lumps of coal. They called it “sea coal.”
During the years of Roman rule in the British isles, they used coal to heat water for the public baths. The Romans liked coal so much that they brought it back to Rome with them. Traces of British coal can be found all around the Roman ruins in Italy.
Before the late 1600s, coal was used mainly for things like smelting and blacksmithing. (Smelting is a process of heating the ore dug out of the earth to get out the metals.) There were no real factories. Things were made by hand without the help of machines. That all changed with the invention of the steam engine.
The first common steam engine was called the Newcomen engine. It was first built 1712. It changed the world forever. It was first used to drain mines, but over time it was used for many other things too. The steam engine made big factories possible. Then it was put into trains and ships, so it could help transport things. It even powered some early cars. The demand for coal skyrocketed.
This big change was called the Industrial Revolution. It began in Britain. It gradually spread over much of the rest of the world. It’s not by chance that Britain led the Industrial Revolution; it had so much coal. It was this very coal that drove Britain, and eventually the world, into the modern society we know today.
Oil: A Nice Ride through the Countryside
Early one August morning in 1888, Bertha Benz left home with her two sons on a 66-mile trip to visit her mother. She took a brand new car. She didn't tell anyone. That car just happened to be her husband’s Benz Patent-Motorwagen—the first true automobile.
This trip wasn’t really about visiting Bertha’s mother. Bertha was frustrated with her husband, Karl Benz. Karl had an incredible invention, but he hadn’t been doing a great job of letting people know about it. Before Bertha set out on this trip, Karl had only given short demonstration rides, and there was always a team of mechanics standing by.
Bertha’s trip was the first long-distance car ride ever attempted. It was a great success. Bertha acted as her own mechanic. She came up with makeshift brake pads. She cleaned all the fuel pipes. And, like anyone else on a long road trip, she had to fill up with gas. She did so by purchasing a fluid called benzene from a local pharmacy. This pharmacy became the world’s first gas station.
Petroleum is a liquid that comes from oil. We put it into our cars to make them run. Petroleum means “rock oil.” It comes from the remains of once-living organisms, just like coal.
People have used petroleum for different purposes throughout history. But petroleum wasn’t used very much until another invention came along—the internal combustion engine. In 1863, a man named Nikolaus Otto created the first successful engine of this kind. Unlike a steam engine, in Otto’s engine, the heat comes from igniting fumes from a petroleum liquid. The pressure from the heat moves pistons. This is pretty much how all gas-powered cars still work to this day.
Petroleum, Oil, Gas: What’s in a Name?
A lot of different names are tossed around for liquid fossil fuels. Do they all mean something different? Here’s a brief explanation:
Petroleum is a collection of liquids formed from once-living things. It is a mixture of chemicals that contains carbon and hydrogen. People can also refer to petroleum as crude oil and sometimes just oil.
But you can’t pour that black sludge of oil into a car. You need to get specific chemicals out of the oil. Gasoline is what we usually put into our cars. It is one set of chemicals (with a couple of other added ingredients).
Kerosene is another set of chemicals used to heat homes and to cook. It is also the main ingredient in jet fuel.
The process of removing these chemicals from the oil, called “cracking,” occurs at an oil refinery.
Gas: A Fuel of Many Uses
You can find natural gas near oil, coal, and other rocks. It comes from the same natural processes that make coal and oil. It, too, comes from once-living things.
Humans have known about natural gas for a long time. Around 500 BCE, people in China used bamboo shoots to transport natural gas. They used it to boil water. A famous historian wrote about natural gas between 100 and 124 CE. That’s 1,900 years ago. This person wrote about flames burning from the ground of present-day Iraq. But even though people knew about it, it didn’t catch on as a major fuel source for some time.
Today, natural gas is often used for cooking and heating homes. It is one of the most important sources of energy in the world.
People once considered natural gas a problem. It was explosive and dangerous. Most oil and coal operations just burned it. Now it is valuable. Natural gas is cleaner burning than either coal or oil. That means it causes less pollution. Many places have switched from burning coal to burning natural gas. That means many places want more of it.
Since more people want natural gas, people will get it however they can. One way to get natural gas is with something called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Fracking is expensive, but people want natural gas so much, they’ll use this method. Fracking involves injecting water, sand, and chemicals into rocks to break them apart. This releases natural gas. Fracking helps people increase the amount of natural gas we can get, but there are environmental concerns over fracking. People worry that these chemicals can get into drinking water.
The King Who Banned Coal
King Edward I of England tried to ban coal in 1306. The air was dark and polluted. The smoke from coal was too much; it was poisoning the city. The king banned coal. It may have been the first environmental law ever.
Coal was more popular than wood at the time. There wasn’t enough wood to go around. Many metal smiths, brewers, and other craftsmen used coal, even though it was against the law.
Things got worse after the steam engine was invented. The Industrial Revolution was happening. There was now lots of pollution. It caused acid rain, sickness, and even death. Air quality was one of the first environmental issues addressed in the USA and Britain. They passed laws to limit pollution, but not until 1955.
Besides the dark smoke, there’s another problem with burning fossil fuels. It’s the carbon dioxide, CO2, that gets released. We have known that gases in the air can trap heat since 1824. John Tyndall showed that CO2 warmed the Earth in 1860. Many people have tested it since then. Many of them worried about all the CO2 from burning fuel since humans were burning so many fossils fuels. It could be a problem.
But many people didn’t believe there was a problem. People didn’t think the climate could ever change and that people couldn't do anything to change the world’s climate. But they changed their minds when, in 1957, scientists began to take measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere. They saw that CO2 was rising. Scientists could prove that most of that rise was from humans because fossil fuels make CO2 with slight chemical differences compared to other CO2.
Global temperatures are rising, too. Almost all climate scientists agree that a big cause of that is the burning of fossil fuels. The warming could lead to rising sea levels, droughts, flooding, and more severe weather. It is a challenge that we will have to deal with in the coming years.
Fossil fuels form all the time, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t run out someday. It takes millions of years for coal, oil, and natural gas to form, and we are removing them much faster than that.
Think about it this way: The fossil fuels we have used over the past 200 years formed over the past 500 million years. It’s like we’re emptying a bathtub with a huge drain while refilling it with a tiny, slow drip. Even with the drip, the tub will still empty completely.
Some scientists think we are getting close to being halfway through all that fuel. It’s hard to know exactly how much remains because the technology we use to get these fuels from the ground is always changing. Still, no new inventions will get around the fact that, at some point, there will be no more fossil fuels left.
The Price of Success
Fossil fuels have changed the course of human history. Cars, airplanes, and other fossil-fueled inventions changed everyone’s life. Without fossil fuels, life would be very different.
All these good things come at a cost. The cost is pollution, the destruction of landscapes and natural habitats, oil spills in the ocean, and dangerous fracking chemicals in the ground. Global warming will be the biggest problem of all. Global warming will affect everyone on Earth.
There is still time for another chapter in this story. This chapter will be a turn away from fossil fuels. We will move toward sustainable, green energy. We need a new way to power the many improvements that fossil fuels have given us.