Dying Planet and a Virus Unleashed

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

If the coronavirus is life-threatening, and the whole of the USA is in lockdown, the speed of its arrival and impact should at least remind us of the fragility of life — not just for our own species but on the planet itself. Of course, Donald Trump disbanded the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. Set up after the Ebola scare, its job was to deal exactly with the type of threat we are facing; that is, to prepare for, lead and coordinate resources to deal quickly and effectively with the emergency — its absence is yet another reason for the White House’s lackluster response.

Then there is man-induced climate change. It is blamed for hot Australian summers and the deadly forest fires in South Australia fueled by drought and extreme heat. Most distressingly, these destroyed the entire habitats of several animal species and cost the lives of an estimated billion animals.

One bright note: A stand of conifers (the Wollemi Pine) dating back to the dinosaurs has been saved through the extraordinary efforts of firefighters who dropped water and flame retardant from airplanes into the single canyon where they exist. Once, millions of years ago, they were common across the ancient Gondwana supercontinent.

Greenland and Antarctica are now losing ice at a six-times faster rate than in the 1990s raising sea levels and threatening coastal areas. The rise of 17.8 mm since 1992 has been 60 percent due to Greenland and the rest to Antarctica (Nature, Dec 10, 2019). Scientists now expect a 6.7-inch rise in sea levels by 2100 and massive flooding of coastal areas, already experiencing very early signs.

One consequence of Greenland ice melt is a future cooling of the Atlantic at the origins of the Gulf Stream current. Reducing salinity, it impacts its driver, namely, the sinking saltwater, weakening the current — the beneficence of which accounts for the relatively benign winters in Britain and Ireland and extends as far north as Iceland, Norway and southern Sweden.

At the same time, the speed of ocean currents is accelerating according to an analysis of data from the Argo array, some 4000 floats deployed across the globe to collect data. The current acceleration has been noted in the tropics and the Southern Ocean in particular. (Science Advances, Feb 5, 2020). The likely cause is climate change spurring ocean winds but proof awaits more data collection.

A speed-up of currents and rising sea levels present a pictures of a rising, raging sea threatening coastal communities popularized by developers in living memory.

The ecosystem is also threatened in other ways, particularly through the demise of pollinator species — on whom we, too, depend for our necessary crops. A recent paper in Science (February 7, 2020) reports a widespread decline in bumblebee populations in North America and Europe. The culprit: Climate change.
A temperature rise beyond the tolerable limits for bumblebees necessitates migration, often to areas that had been too cold for them before but have warmed up now to be tolerable.

Unfortunately, the rate of extirpation has exceeded that of colonization causing widespread decline. The resulting consequences to plant species deprived of the ecosystem services of this pollinator are clearly unfavorable but have yet to be surveyed.

Meanwhile, wild bee species are in decline worldwide. A shocking halving from an estimated 6700 species in the 1950s to around 3400 in the 2010s was reported in Science News (February 1, 2020). While previous bee studies have addressed declining populations, the evidence collected had been limited to industrially developed Europe and North America. The significance of the new research is its global scope.

With more scientists entering the field, the total number of bees observed by them has increased as one would expect. But sadly, the number of species recorded keeps plummeting on most continents. The exception has been Australia where bee species first rose from 300 to 500 in the 2000s. Then in the 2010s they fell back to 300. What was once seen as a trend only in advanced countries is now global, and thousands of species have become either very rare or extinct. In Thailand, for example, the ground-nesting bee, Megachili bicolor, is fast losing habitat to expanding urbanization and agriculture.

Bees and other insects like butterflies are vital in that they pollinate 75 percent of our most important crops. Now butterflies are also under threat. The monarchs in the US are the victims of herbicides like glyphosate, and global warming upsets their seasonal migration patterns. They are also losing habitat, the loss estimated at 165 million acres in the US reports the Center for Biological Diversity.

Of the two migratory populations of monarchs, the western population numbered 1.2 million in the 1990s and the eastern about a billion. These numbers have dropped drastically to a critical 30,000 in the west and 225 million in the east. Since 2018 when these winter counts were taken, the numbers in the west have declined further to 29,000.

Now we have the coronavirus giving modern humans an intimate foretaste of their ecological vulnerability. As it is easily transmissible, the situation can turn quickly into an out-of-control pandemic. If it affects 70 percent, as an expert recently predicted (CBS News), of the world’s population of about 8 billion, it will infect 5.6 billion people. Assuming a 1 percent death rate, which is on the low side of recent estimates, it results in 56 million fatalities — not unlike WW2. The same figures applied to the US yield 2.3 million deaths.

One might be forgiven for wondering if it is not Mother Earth’s Gaian response to destructive human activity. Could it even be just the initial onslaught? Now that is a frightening thought.

Arshad M. Khan is a former professor who, over many years, has written occasionally for print and often for online media. Meena Miriam Yust is an attorney based in Chicago, Illinois. Educated at Vassar College and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, she published a draft Migratory Insect Treaty with commentary in the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law.