To prevent pandemics, new plan must invest in nature: 3 stories you may have missed

© Pete Oxford/iLCP

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. The huge hole in Biden's pandemic prevention plan

Protecting nature is key to preventing future pandemics.

The story: The Biden Administration recently proposed a US$ 30 billion strategy to protect Americans from future pandemics as part of his “American Jobs Plan” — with investments in medicine, biosecurity and virus research. Notably missing from this proposal, writes Brett Hartl in an op-ed for The Hill, is a plan to prevent emerging disease outbreaks at their source: nature.

“Zoonotic diseases from wildlife will emerge at a growing rate as the destruction of the world’s last natural habitats continues to accelerate,” Hartl writes. “If Biden sincerely wants to demonstrate that his administration is concerned about stopping the next pandemic before it occurs, then his budget must also invest in taking a bold, precautionary action to address the degradation of nature.”

But what exactly will it take to “address the degradation of nature”? (Hint: keep reading)

The big picture: “In July of last year, a group of leading conservation scientists” — including four Conservation International experts — “concluded that for just US$ 22 billion to US$ 31 billion per year the world could curtail the destruction of the natural world and reckless exploitation of wildlife — the likely root cause of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hartl writes.

The strategy is three-pronged: reduce deforestation, restrict the global wildlife trade and monitor the emergence of new viruses before they spread. And while US$ 31 billion may sound like a lot, it is a fraction of the trillions of dollars already spent to respond to the coronavirus and mitigate its impacts. 

Read the fully story here.

2. Why are scientists studying coral’s smell?

Underwater odors could provide hints to healthier coral reefs.

The story: Smelly chemicals released by species across the animal kingdom can indicate a number of things — from stress to sickness. However, smells released in the ocean are much more difficult to study than those on land. A team of scientists has set out to change that, reports Alla Katsnelson for Smithsonian Magazine. They used small plastic containers equipped with special tubes to extract chemicals released by mature corals in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The researchers found that not only can the chemicals indicate how corals are affected by climate change, the chemicals can also dissipate in the atmosphere and influence local weather conditions such as cloud cover.

The big picture: It’s no secret that the world’s coral reefs are struggling to survive as ocean temperatures rise due to climate change. However, studying the chemicals released by corals in response to the changing climate and human activities could help scientists detect signs of stress early on. This is crucial because reefs that experience relatively little stress from human activity are the most likely to benefit from conservation efforts, according to a recent study.

“The less stress a reef is under, the greater the conservation potential,” Conservation International’s Jack Kittinger, a marine biologist and co-author on the study, told Conservation News. “Reefs in this category exist in all the oceans — they aren’t in just one country, or one region. Some of these reefs are fairly degraded. Others are fairly healthy. But they all have the potential for significant conservation gains.”

Read the full story here.

3. More lightning in the Arctic is bad news for the planet

‘Shocking’ storms could fuel climate change in the Arctic.

The story: Lightning storms are common in the tropics, where hot air mingles with cold winds to form electrically charged clouds — often with heavy rains. However, a new study found that the Arctic could soon become a hotspot for lightning storms, with the number of lightning strikes expected to more than double by the end of the century, reported Matt Simon for Wired. Research shows that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. As this frigid landscape gets drier and warmer, it is turning into a tinder box — and lightning could provide the match that ignites wildfires such as those that ravaged the Russian Arctic in 2020.

The big picture: Although there are few trees to fuel wildfires in the Arctic, flames spread quickly through the tundra’s peat — the partially decayed vegetation that lines the ecosystem’s frozen soil, or permafrost. This is particularly harmful as it could release massive stores of carbon that have been locked away in the peat and permafrost for centuries.

“When this soil burns, the fire smolders deeper into the ground, releasing incredible amounts of a greenhouse gas that in a cooler, wetter Arctic would have been safely locked away,” Simon writes.

“The only remedy to restore some semblance of balance [in the Arctic] will be for humanity to bring down the production of emissions — and fast.”

Read the full story here.


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

Cover image: Amaila Falls on the Kuribrong River, Guyana (© Pete Oxford/iLCP