Pollution and COVID-19, Australian fires, super-corals: 3 stories you may have missed

© Sasha Radosavljevic

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 three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. New research links air pollution to higher coronavirus death rates

Air pollution could be increasing mortality rates amid the coronavirus pandemic, research reveals.

The Story: A recent study found that individuals infected with COVID-19 in areas of the United States with high levels of air pollution are 15 percent more likely to die from the virus, reported Lisa Friedman for The New York Times. To perform this study, a team of researchers compiled air pollution data from more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. and compared it to the number of COVID-19 deaths in each county through April 3, 2020. According to experts, these findings suggest that extended exposure to polluted air can increase a person’s vulnerability to COVID-19 symptoms, such as coughing and shortness of breath. 

The Big Picture: “Most countries don’t take it seriously enough and aren’t doing enough given the scale of the harm that air pollution is doing to all of our health,” said Beth Gardiner, author of the book “Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution.” This research could help governments predict which regions may experience more COVID-19 deaths due to increased pollution levels — and prepare by allocating resources such as ventilators to these areas. Informed by this research, experts agree that countries must limit air pollution from cars, oil refineries and power plants to avoid exacerbating public health crises in the future. 

Read more here.

Temperate rainforests and tundra, from Australia to central Africa, are experiencing unprecedented fire seasons due to climate change.

The Story: Global trends in 2019 indicate that fires burned more frequently and severely in ecosystems such as temperate forests and tundra that do not typically experience intense fire seasons, reported Nathan Rott for NPR. Fueled by climate change, bushfires ravaged more than a fifth of Australia’s forests during 2019, notably destroying more than half of the Gondwana Rainforest — a temperate forest in southeast Australia that rarely experiences fires due to its high levels of humidity. Tundra and forests in Siberia, Canada and Alaska also experienced an increased number of fires, which has started to thaw these ecosystems’ permafrost — a thick layer of frozen soil which stores vast amounts of carbon. 

The Big Picture: “We are seeing climate change at work,” explained Karyn Tabor, the director of early warning systems at Conservation International, in an NPR podcast. “Hotter and drier weather conditions and longer fire seasons are causing more fires.” As fires burn through rainforests and tundra ecosystems, it releases massive amounts of carbon emissions, which accelerates climate change and could cause even deadlier fire seasons in the future. To disrupt this cycle, scientists agree that countries around the world must drastically decrease carbon emissions to slow climate breakdown and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

Read more here.

Climate-resilient coral reefs in the Red Sea could hold the answers to save reefs across the globe.

The Story: While climate change is killing many coral reefs across the globe, coral reefs in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea remain relatively unscathed, reported Sunny Fitzgerald for BBC News. As sea temperatures warm and ocean acidification increases, coral reefs expel the algae that helps them produce energy — a process known as coral bleaching that affected more than 75 percent of the planet’s coral reefs from 2014 to 2017. Contrastingly, coral reefs in the Red Sea are actually thriving in warmer waters, with algae producing double the amount of oxygen for the coral to produce energy, according to researchers. 

The Big Picture: “By understanding what makes these corals more resilient, scientists could possibly help corals in other places adapt, using a process called assisted evolution,” said marine biologist Sara Cannon. “To save reefs, we need to stop climate change, but we also need to consider how we can help corals adapt given that some effects of climate change have already become unavoidable.” This research could be crucial to protecting coral reefs and the marine species they support — which provide food and livelihoods for billions of people across the globe

Read more here

News spotlight 

As deforestation and development projects expand deeper into tropical forests, humans are increasing their exposure to wild animals — and the diseases they may carry, said Conservation International Senior Climate Change Scientist Lee Hannah.

Machine-learning applications and artificial intelligence could help scientists predict how marine species will adapt to climate change — and inform how to effectively protect them.

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: Air pollution from a power plant (© Sasha Radosavljevic)


Further reading: