‘Pandemic era,’ California fires, Alaskan reef collapse: 3 stories you may have missed

© Conservation International/photo by Edgardo Ochoa

Editor's Note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. Fauci warns that Earth has entered a ‘pandemic era’ 

Destroying nature could cause future pandemics, a top disease expert warns. 

The Story: According to a recent paper published by White House coronavirus advisor Anthony Fauci, pandemics will become more frequent if humanity continues to destroy nature, reported Dan Robitzski for Futurism. As humans encroach deeper into undisturbed forests for activities such as deforestation and mining, they are also increasing their exposure to wildlife and to the diseases they may carry, Fauci explained. The paper cites a number of past animal-borne disease outbreaks that have been triggered by human activities, including the 2002 outbreak of SARS, a respiratory disease that likely originated at a wild animal market in China

The Big Picture: “Living in greater harmony with nature will require changes in human behavior as well as other radical changes that may take decades to achieve,” Fauci wrote in the paper. In it, he cited a recent study by a group of experts including Conservation International scientists Lee Hannah, Jorge Ahumada and Patrick Roehrdanz, which outlined a three-pronged plan to lower the risk of future pandemics by decreasing deforestation, limiting the global wildlife trade and monitoring the emergence of new viruses.

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The fires raging through California have triggered a cascade of negative impacts, from property damage to blackouts. 

The Story: Fueled by climate change, the wildfires in California have burned through more than 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) of land, driving more than 60,000 people out of their homes, reported Thomas Fuller and Christopher Flavelle for The New York Times. Dry conditions, extremely high temperatures and lightning storms have combined to spark a series of some of the biggest wildfires ever recorded in California’s history. The fires have worsened air quality, triggered rolling electrical blackouts throughout California and burned houses — causing harmful chemicals from building materials to leak into freshwater reservoirs. 

The Big Picture: According to recent research, the fires blazing through California are not an isolated event; they are part of a growing global trend. From the Amazon rainforest to Australia — which experienced its worst fire season ever recorded in early 2020 — global temperature rise and dry conditions fueled by climate change are exacerbating wildfires worldwide. To prevent these fires — and the devastation they leave in their wake — experts say that countries must drastically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by limiting fossil fuel use and curbing deforestation

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Sea urchins are eating Alaskan kelp forests and reefs, which could negatively impact the entire ecosystem. 

The Story: After Aleutian sea otters went extinct in Alaska, sea urchin populations boomed, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem’s reefs and kelp forests, reported the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences for Phys.org. As apex predators, Aleutian sea otters were critical to keeping the food chain of the Alaskan marine ecosystem in balance. After humans hunted the otters to extinction in the wild for their fur in the 1990s, sea urchin populations grew unchecked, and they are eating through kelp forests and the coralline algae that forms Alaska’s limestone reefs. According to researchers who are studying these reefs, ocean warming and acidification driven by climate change have weakened the reefs, which has made it easier for sea urchins to eat them. 

The Big Picture: "It's well documented that humans are changing Earth's ecosystems by altering the climate and by removing large predators, but scientists rarely study those processes together," said Douglas Rasher, a researcher at the Bigelow Laboratory for Sciences who studies these reefs. “We must view climate change through an ecological lens, or we're likely to face many surprises in the coming years." To restore the kelp forests and reefs of Alaska, experts agree that there must be increased global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and mitigate climate change, as well as regional efforts to reintroduce sea otter populations back into the ecosystem. 

Read more here

News Spotlight

A group of more than 100 non-governmental organizations, including Conservation International, have teamed up to form the #Together4Forests campaign, which is urging people to push for an EU law that reduces the demand for products linked to deforestation, forest fires and human rights violations. 

 

Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Sea urchins in Alaska (© Conservation International/Edgardo Ochoa)


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