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Dying Ecosystems

Photo by Richard Allaway | Public Domain

Earth’s ecosystems support all life, though collapsed ecosystems would be like stepping outside of the international space station not wearing a space suit. Pop! Bam! Gone!

A recent academic study about signals of ecosystem collapse throughout history fits the space suit analogy. Terrifying truth is exposed: The all-important biosphere is sending out warning signals of impending crises… worldwide. It does not seem possible that ecosystems collapse and life dies off. That’s too hard to believe… but, what if it does collapse?

“The Earth’s biodiversity is under attack. We would need to travel back over 65 million years to find rates of species loss as high as we are witnessing today.” (James Dyke, The Ecosystem Canaries, Which Act as Warning Signs of Collapse, The Guardian, Aug. 19, 2016).
“Biodiversity increases resilience: more species means each individual species is better able to withstand impacts. Think of decreasing biodiversity as popping out rivets from an aircraft. A few missing rivets here or there will not cause too much harm. But continuing to remove them threatens a collapse in ecosystem functioning. Forests give way to desert. Coral reefs bleach and then die,” Ibid.
It’s already happening! Imagine flying in an aircraft while watching the rivets pop, one by one. At some point in time screaming overrides thinking. But, thank heavens; we’re not quite there yet.
Scientists from University College London and the University of Maryland studied 2,378 archeological sites and discovered that every society for thousands of years gave early clues to its own demise. Of course, demise happened precisely because those early warnings were ignored, while thinking: “it’s impossible, can’t happen.”

The determinate signal of upcoming demise is referred to as “flickering,” which is a change in society’s responses to perturbations resulting in a society caught in a socio-ecological trap that reinforces negative behavior that started the issue in the first instance, thus, preventing adaption. (Source: Sean S. Downey, et al, European Neolithic Societies Showed Early Warning Signals of Population Collapse, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 113, no. 35, March 2016.)

The formula: Every time a society flickers, losing rivets, it loses recovery time, thereby moving closer to collapse. In every case study, with nearly 100% accuracy, researchers found flickers precedent to eventual collapse All but 2 of 27 test cases showed statistically significant results. Every case experienced massive population growth as a result of the emergence of agriculture followed by technological advancements. Sound familiar?

Societal decline is empirically signaled by any number of drivers such as (1) changing climate, (2) declining environmental productivity, (3) disease, (4) warfare, or (5) combinations thereof. Today, we’ve got’em all.

Rivets are popping all across the globe, e.g., the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living structure in the world, is signaling its demise like there’s no tomorrow. “Many scientists are now saying it is almost too late to save it. Strong and immediate action is required to alleviate water pollution and stop the underlying cause: climate change.” (Source: Michael Slezak, The Great Barrier Reef: A Catastrophe Laid Bare, The Guardian, June 6, 2016.)
According to David Attenborough, the world’s most famous naturalist: “The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger… The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity – threaten its very existence,” Ibid. In point of fact, Attenborough’s remarkable new film Blue Planet 2 details the damage wreaked in the seas by climate change, plastic pollution, and overfishing. This final episode of his series lays bare shocking damage.
Compared with what was happening before the 20th century, three-times as much sediment, twice as much fertilizer and 17,000 extra kilograms of herbicide wash over the reef each year. When the coral dies, the entire ecosystem gets hit. Fish that feed on the coral, use it as shelter, or nibble on the algae die or move away. The bigger fish that feed on those fish disappear. But the cascading effects don’t stop there. Birds that eat fish lose their energy source, and island plants that thrive on bird droppings are depleted. And, of course, people who rely on reefs for food, income or shelter from waves lose their vital resource, as the final rivets pop followed by high-pitched screaming.
The signal or flicker of the Great Coral Reef is not nature’s way. It is an anomaly. It is easy to read about it and dismiss it and go on with life, but, in large measure, that’s the problem haunting and overriding ecosystem disintegration. It’s easy to read but punishingly painful to fix. Unwavering commitment is simply not there but for a select few like David Attenborough or Sylvia Earle, the world famous marine biologist.
Alas, groundswell of public opinion is not extant for collapsing ecosystems. It’s just not there at all. Yet, one hundred million people will be glued to TVs watching Super Bowl LII on Sunday, February 4th 2018, whilst the fate of the world’s largest and most important ecosystem rest in the hands of Attenborough, Earle and a handful of dedicated naturalists/marine biologists. Singularly, as well as unfortunately, ecosystem collapse is warranted based upon mathematical calculations alone: One hundred million (100,000,000) watch football while a handful of scientists work at fixing the world’s seas. Football’s more immediate.
Ad interim, massive environmental degradation flickers around the world, including climate change-derived crop losses for which the Federal Crop Insurance Program pays out $17.3B.

Meanwhile, heavily sprayed agrichemical pesticides and fertilizers bring about the absolutely shocking discovery that parts of the ecosystem are dropping dead right before society’s eyes, seventy-five percent (75%) insect loss detected in a major 27-yr. German study. How in the world is it possible for a 75% insect die-off, if not for chemically infested environmental degradation?

As it happens, the list of collapsing/flickering ecosystems is a very long list indeed. Here’s only a smattering:

Oceans have lost 40% of plankton production over past 50 years, threatening loss of one of the major sources of oxygen for the planet. (Boris Worm, Dalhousie Univ.)

If the same amount of global heat that went into top 2000m of ocean from 1955-2010 went instead into atmosphere, temps would warm by 36 C and destroy all life (Grantham Institute).

“Ocean seasons are changing as a result of too much heat and CO2… The scale of ocean warming is truly staggering with numbers so large that it is difficult for most people to comprehend.” (D. Laffoley, IUCN Global Marine and Polar Programme).

The ocean’s acidification rate of growth is unprecedented in Earth’s known history. (Jane Lubchenco, NOAA).

Ocean acidification occurring at least 1oxs faster than 55 million years ago based upon paleoclimate record. (C.L. Dybas, Oxford)

Nearly all marine life that builds calcium carbonate show deterioration due to increasing levels of CO2 and acidification. (Richard Feely, NOAA).

A foreboding flicker haunts the Arctic Circle, as permafrost melts away as a result of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming, awakening forgotten pathogens from the depths. A Russian team analyzed material from 125 feet below surface in permafrost. They found extremely abnormal viruses, e.g., Pithovirus Sibericum, which survived 30,000 years frozen in ice. All of which brings to mind John Carpenter’s spectacular film The Thing (1982), and likelihood that zombie pathogens are buried in super-charged-melting-like-crazy permafrost.

Seven thousand (7,000) pingos discovered in Siberia… new development in permafrost science, never reported before, there could be 100,000 explosive methane pingos extant. (Vladimir Romanovsky, geophysicist Univ. of Alaska)

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf has reached “thaw point,” the turning point from linear to exponential release of CH4 leading to runaway global warming. (Natalia Shakhova, Int’l Arctic Research Centre)

Methane emissions in East Siberian Ice Shelves are 100xs higher than normal. (Igor Semiletov, Int’l Arctic Research Centre)

Tibetan Plateau headwater glaciers for Lancang River (Danube of the East) down by 70%- similarly for Yellow River and Yangtze River- that flow into Mekong Delta, which feeds the entire SE Asia basin of countries. (Yang Yong- Senior Chinese Geologist)

According to YaleEnvironment360: “As Oceans Warm, the World’s Kelp Forests Begin to Disappear,” Nov. 20,2017: “Kelp forests – luxuriant coastal ecosystems that are home to a wide variety of marine biodiversity – are being wiped out from Tasmania to California, replaced by sea urchin barrens that are nearly devoid of life.” Tasmania’s kelp forests hit by a devastating loss of 95%. In northern California, magnificent bull kelp forests along hundreds of miles of coastline have collapsed into an ecological wasteland, ocean desert.

Venice, Italy risks going on the UN’s endangered heritage site list unless it bans humongous cruise ships from the city’s lagoon, which is rapidly deteriorating into a state of utter disrepair.

Greenland’s entire surface experienced melt for the first time in scientific history. (Jason Box – Geologic Survey of Denmark & Greenland)

Greenland 2012 melt of the entire island not expected by scientific models for decades ahead, but it hit in 2012. (Michael Mann)

The all-important Atlantic ocean conveyor belt circulation pattern, aka: Thermohaline, has already started to slow down way ahead of schedule as predicted by scientific models – a result of global warming. This has strong negative ramifications for Europe. Models claimed it wouldn’t start slowing until 22nd century. It’s already started slowing down and could be sudden, maybe within decades! (Michael Mann)

In 2017, the Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone, where oxygen is so weak that fish die, is the largest ever at 8,800 square miles. (NOAA)

Positive Climate Feedbacks just starting to influence the warming process, meaning the planet itself is now emitting one molecule of CO2 via positive feedback for every two molecules of CO2 emitted by human activity. (Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

The scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has reported that the Earth is already in the stages of the sixth mass extinction, which will see the world’s wildlife and plants die out. The research found that species, including those, which are not endangered, had reduced in number due to habitation shrinkage, hunting, pollution and climate change.

The deadly trio, or fingerprints, of mass extinctions, including global warming, ocean acidification, and anoxia or lack of ocean oxygen at current rate of change are unprecedented in Earth’s known history. (Alex Rogers, Oxford, scientific director State of the Ocean)

According to YaleEnvironment360, d/d April 2017, a survey of 12,000 adults and children shows that people have lost a closeness or connection with nature. “It is increasingly normal to spend little time outside.”

In the face of people mindlessly staring at very small and/or super large screens, the planet’s ecosystems are flashing signals all the way from Patagonia to Burrow, Alaska with bells clanging, alarms blaring, sirens screeching, but not a word on Good Morning America. Ergo, people really do not know what’s going on, which in a strange, twisted macabre fashion may be a blessing in disguise, until the final rivets pop. Then, loud screaming will register all across the land: Off with their heads! But whose?

Postscript: For each of the past 5 mass extinctions the one common factor has been massive increase in CO2, but none of the mass extinctions in the past compare to the spike in CO2 today. (Jen Veron, Australian Institute of Marine Science)

More articles by:

Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at rlhunziker@gmail.com.

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