From the Karsts of Cambodia to the Deepest Regions of the Ocean

From the Karsts of Cambodia to the Deepest Regions of the Ocean

I’ll let you in on a little secret. One error I think I made when creating this website was not emphasizing enough on the Underlying Causes page how important and central a factor “lack of a deep sense of eco-consciousness” is, in terms of explaining why the world is in the sad and sorry state that it’s in (ecologically speaking).

I mention many things in that paragraph at or near the end of the Underlying Causes page. But I think so much can be summed up by that one commonly missing ingredient. I’m not saying there aren’t those who give it lip service. Many do. But many people think they’re doing their part simply by being a member of a major environmental organization and sending that organization a check once a year. (You can send them every penny you have. That won’t solve the underlying issues.)

Oftentimes, when someone tells me they care a lot about environmental issues, I can’t help but notice how quickly they then change the subject (to something completely different and unrelated). It’s scary. It’s frightening. And it’s something that desperately needs to change. Ecological issues need to become a top priority.

A very good illustration of the type of thing I find so horrifying can be found in this excerpt from a cover article appearing in the Science Times section of this past Tuesday’s New York Times (Julia Wallace, “Ground to Dust / Cambodia’s limestone karsts host plants found nowhere else. Now the formations are being pulverized for cement.” Feb. 14, 2017):

Most of the wood in mainland Southeast Asia has already been logged to support the region’s rapid economic growth and its relentless appetite for luxury hardwood. (Nearly all the forest cover in neighboring Thailand is gone and Cambodia is now experiencing the fastest acceleration of forest loss in the world, despite a putative ban on logging.) Cement and concrete are also in high demand, so the karsts are next in line.

I have emboldened parts of this excerpt for emphasis. The biological diversity that exists in these karsts — defined as “spiky limestone cliffs,” in the article — are specific to that environment. When it goes, they go. And they are going. The article states that “cement companies, developers and tourists” are contributing to their destruction and disappearance. Many of the species threatened haven’t even yet been named.

Companies engaged in limestone quarrying, to produce cement, are a big part of the problem. One company mentioned in the article is producing a million tons of cement a year. Another company formed a partnership with another firm and is building a $262 million factory that is expected to produce 1.5 million tons annually. The article also states that the high demand for cement, in Cambodia, is “expected to reach five million tons this year.”

I find it deeply disconcerting when I see so much attention focused on climate change and virtually no attention focused on things like this. Forests are disappearing. Life — biodiversity — is disappearing. Human population is growing. Church opposition to abortion and birth control is never-ending. There is no plan to protect and preserve and save what hasn’t yet already been destroyed. And it’s all disappearing. Fast.

Page two of this same issue of the ScienceTimes section of The New York Times, quotes John Piatt, a wildlife biologist at the United States Geological Survey, on the deaths of thousands of common murres on the West Coast: “If tens of thousands of them are dying, it’s because there’s no fish out there, anywhere, over a very large area.” This die-off of common murres, in an area stretching from California to Alaska, has been tied to unusually warm ocean temperatures. In an article posted online on phys.org (Dan Joling, “Warm ocean water triggered seabird die-off, experts say” Feb. 10, 2017), Joling credits Piatt as his source when writing that, all told, “a conservative extrapolation indicates 500,000 or more common murres died.” Could this be a result of climate change? The article doesn’t draw that conclusion, but I can’t help but wonder if that’s indeed the case.

Right next to that, on the same page, a small news item (Nicholas St. Fleur, “How Do You Save Snow Leopards? First, Gather Their Droppings”) with an accompanying photo, states that the Himalayan “snow leopard population has been decimated by poaching and habitat destruction.” It further states that only “about 4,000 of the endangered cats remain in the wild.”

Numerous times I’ve read about threatened mammal species where, similarly, there were believed to be only a few thousand left in their natural terrain. That’s just not enough to insure long-term survival for a species. An article on the back page of this same New York Times science section (Erica Goode, “The Saigas Are Struck Again / The species suffers another die-off, this time in Mongolia.” p. 6) helps illustrate that point.

Saigas go way back. They are described as ancient animals that once roamed “with the woolly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger.” These critically endangered antelopes once numbered in the millions, but “have been severely depleted” due to “illegal hunting, habitat loss and competition for food.” The article states that their horns are sold in Asian countries, for medicinal use. There are two subspecies. One is native to Mongolia. The other is native to Kazakstan.

According to the article, a virus known as goat plague, wiped out about a quarter of Mongolia’s saigas. This is believed to be the first time the disease has spread to free-ranging antelopes, and scientists are concerned that it might also spread to other threatened species, such as Bactrian camels and Mongolian gazelles. Contributing to their decline, a “fiercely harsh” 2015 winter is blamed for wiping out about a third of the Mongolian population. Additionally, in 2015, as the article also states, 211,000 Kazakhstan saigas (“more than half of the entire antelope species”) were wiped out “in less than a month,” due to bacterial infection.

And that leads me to my point. When you hear that a species is down to only 800, or 4,000, or 6,000 in total, the threat posed by pathogens such as viruses or bacterial infections, is that much more potentially catastrophic for the species. And you can add to that a whole range of other potential dangers, such as fungal or parasitic infections, competition from invasive species, weird maladies like the cancer threatening New Zealand’s Tasmanian devils, loss of habitat, hunting, and so forth. Even armed conflicts between nations or within nations, can threaten that nation’s flora and fauna populations.

Last but not least, another article that recently caught my attention was one that appeared in Newsday with a Washington Post byline (“Pollution Discovered in Deepest Places / Banned chemicals seen in marine life” Feb. 14, 2017). According to this article, some of the deepest parts of the ocean, areas “previously thought to have been nearly untouched by human influence,” have been found to have levels of contamination that “rival some of the most polluted waterways on the planet.”

The researchers specifically focused on two types of chemical pollutants: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) — “both of which may cause a variety of adverse health effects,” as the article states — and they found that both of these pollutants “were present in all species of amphipod” retrieved from these deep sea trenches, and at all depths, even at depths of 10,000 meters. The article states that these findings were presented in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, Feb. 12, 2017.

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