People in Asia are exposed to 9 times more air pollution

Air pollution has been deemed the silent killer and is responsible for millions of premature deaths worldwide. In fact, the negative health effects of air pollution are so dangerous that it’s been labeled as the largest environmental cause of disease and death globally.

The recent annual Global State of the Air Report found that a majority of the world’s population is exposed to unhealthy levels of pollution.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 88 percent of premature deaths in low and middle-income countries in Asia is caused by air pollution and of the ten most polluted cities in the world, six are located in India alone.

The sources of pollution can range from industrial emissions to pollution from vehicles.

In Beijing for example, road vehicles in the city increased to five million in 2014 and in Delhi, there is expected to be 25.6 million vehicles by 2030.

Researchers from Surrey’s Global Centre for Clean Research (GCARE) reviewed several pollution studies that focused on Asian transport microenvironments to see how much pollution including fine particles, black carbon, and ultrafine particles pedestrians and residents were exposed to.

The review was published in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

Busy roadsides in Asia have much higher levels of pollution compared to cities in the US and European Union. Pedestrians in Asia are exposed to 1.6 times higher levels of fine particles and seven times higher levels of black Carbon.

Car drivers in Asian cities face nine times more pollution than other cities, and in Hong Kong ultrafine particle levels were four times higher than in Europe.

The researchers point out that because the review incorporates several different studies, there are limiting factors that need to be considered before any sweeping conclusions are made.

“Care should be taken in directly comparing and contrasting the results of different studies due to varying amounts of information available on personal exposure in studied regions,” said Prashant Kumar, the lead author of the review.  However, there is compelling evidence that people traveling in urban areas in Asian cities are being exposed to a significantly higher level of air pollution.”

The review emphasizes how high the threat to public health is in severely polluted cities, especially in some Asian cities where more measures need to be taken to limit emissions.

Though in order to implement policies that target pollution, there has to be an accurate record of pollution levels and exposure risk.

“There are increasing efforts in Asia to install properly designed and calibrated portable monitoring systems to measure actual exposures, using the data to better understand why high exposures occur and how to prevent them,” said Chris Frey, a co-author of the study. “These measurements of personal exposures will help individuals, businesses, and governments to develop and implement strategies to reduce such exposures.”

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Images reveal extent of hurricane damage to Puerto Rican forests

Nearly a year later, Puerto Rico continues to deal with the fallout of Hurricane Maria. 155 mile per hour winds swept across the island and caused torrential flooding, knocked out the power grid, downed trees and reduced many lush forests to debris.  

Researchers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were able to get a full assessment of just how much damage Maria did to Puerto Rico’s tropical forests by comparing before and after images of forest cover taken one thousand feet in the air.

Satellites can only show much so when it comes to tree cover,and so researchers used a Goddard’s Lidar, Hyperspectral and Thermal Imager, or G-LiHT to grasp the full scope of the damage from the hurricane.

“From the air, the scope of the hurricane’s damages was startling,” said Bruce Cook, a NASA scientist who led the aerial campaign. “The dense, interlocking canopies that blanketed the island before the storm were reduced to a tangle of downed trees and isolated survivors, stripped of their branches.”

Earlier in 2017, the NASA team used G-LiHT to help show how tropical forests take over and regrow on abandoned land. After Hurricane Maria made landfall, the team went back and flew over the same tracks they had previously studied to understand how forests recover from major events.

In one region of Puerto Rico, 60 percent of the trees were uprooted or broken and on the on the slopes of El Yunque National Forest, trees lost one-third of their height.

“[Hurricane] Maria pressed the reset button on many of the different processes that develop forests over time,” said Doug Morton, a G-LiHT co-investigator. “Now we’re watching a lot of those processes in fast-forward speeds as large areas of the island are recovering, with surviving trees and new seedlings basking in full sunlight. Just seven months after the storm, surviving trees are flushing new leaves and regrowing branches in order to regain their ability to harvest sunlight through photosynthesis.”

How Puerto Rico’s tropical forests will recover in the long term is still up for debate and continual monitoring will offer unique opportunities to study forest recovery over a long time particularly with the help of instruments like G-LiHT.

“G-LiHT allows us to collect research data at the scale of individual trees across broad landscapes,” said Morton. “Forests from Alaska to Puerto Rico are constantly changing in response to climate warming and disturbances such as fire and hurricanes.”

Tropical forests provide important habitats for local ecosystems and tree damage can have wide-reaching implications which is also something the NASA study is investigating.

Some plants and wildlife may actually benefit from the reduced tree cover while others will suffer.

What’s so impressive about the study is the collaborative effort and initiative behind it. Now, the researchers can even expand beyond Puerto Rico and monitor other forest changes and recovery using the techniques and skills applied after the Hurricane swept through.

“It’s beautiful to see that so many federal agencies came together to collaborate on this important work because forests play a key role in everything from biodiversity and the economy to public health,” said Grizelle Gonzalez, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and project lead for the research plots in El Yunque.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: NASA

Experts can now forecast forest growth much like weather

Researchers at Virginia Tech are using methods similar to weather forecasting to anticipate the growth rates of trees. Changes in temperature, water, and atmospheric carbon concentrations can all affect forests, and ecological forecasting is aimed at predicting the future extent of these impacts.

The research expands on two previous investigations funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The first study, known as PINEMAP, was based on forest growth data collected by hundreds of researchers over the past 35 years. Using this data, mathematical models were developed to estimate how pine forests may respond to climate change.

The second project was led by R. Quinn Thomas, an assistant professor of Forest Dynamics and Ecosystem Modeling in Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. This study was focused on identifying uncertainties in how climate models predict the influence of forest ecosystems on temperature and precipitation patterns.

The similarities between these two projects prompted Thomas to design an additional study aimed at forecasting forest productivity through the middle of the 21st century.

“I realized that we could use the past to inform the future,” said Thomas. “Historical observations on tree growth and weather can be fed into a mathematical model describing how forests grow, making it more accurate over time. This is similar to how weather forecasts are updated as new weather data becomes available.”

Thomas and his team used the findings from both projects to develop an analytical framework that can be combined with predictions from climate models to generate a future ecological forecast.

The model, which represents the process of forest growth, is provided with data on the diameter of trees, the number of leaves produced in a given year, and how much water is evaporated from the forest.

Next, statistical methods similar to those used in weather forecasting are applied to the model, which is adjusted to account for uncertainties.

“This new study allows us to put a level of certainty or uncertainty on those estimates, so we’re able to say ‘there is an 80-percent chance that the forest will grow faster over the next few decades,’” explained Thomas.

The research was focused specifically on loblolly pine plantations, an important source of timber for the Southeastern United States.

“We found that in this region, there will be about a 30-percent increase in productivity between now and the middle of the century,” said Thomas. “The largest gains are forecasted in Virginia, and there’s high confidence that we’ll see that increase in productivity there. In Florida, however, the increase in productivity is expected to be lower, and we may even see a decline in productivity between now and mid-century.”

Thomas pointed out that there are some uncertainties across varying regions of the Southeast. Regardless, the new method of ecological forecasting seems promising.

“I’m excited to see how this particular forecast does over the next few decades and to update it as we learn more about how forests work and as more data become available,” said Thomas. “Furthermore, this system sets a foundation for this process to be used in the forestry industry to predict other aspects besides productivity.”

“Beyond that, the study is an example of how ecological scientists are starting to think about becoming forecasters in a way similar to how we’ve been forecasting the weather, and that’s very exciting.”

The research is published in the journal Ecological Applications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Virginia Tech

Study shows heat wave converting is some climate change deniers

If you’ve been living in the United States for the last couple of months, you might have noticed that it’s been a tad warmer than usual. A heat wave has hit the nation, stretching from coast to coast and resulting in 80 million Americans experiencing heat warnings in recent weeks.

Cities such as Denver, Colorado and Cheyenne, Wyoming have both seen record temperatures, and Chino, California – a city near Los Angeles – experienced a record temperature of a balmy 120°F. Canada is even feeling the heat, with a heat wave around Montreal that is believed to be responsible for roughly 70 deaths. Other deaths in New York and Pennsylvania have been blamed on high temperatures as well. With all that said, could there be a silver lining to this catastrophe?

The University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College have been running a twice-yearly survey since 2008, polling American attitudes about climate change. This past May – which was hotter than any May recorded in the contiguous US in 124 years of record keeping, according to the NOAA – they ironically also recorded a record high, but this time of Americans who believe there is solid evidence to global warming.

Their survey found that 73 percent of people now think there is evidence for global warming, and 60 percent believe that the warming is due in some part to human activities. Both of these findings are record highs for this survey.

There’s lots of evidence that contemporary weather is a contributing factor to belief in climate change,” Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, told The Guardian. “But there are other factors. People are telling us they are experiencing a climate that isn’t what they remember in the past and the evidence itself, such as declining polar ice, is having an effect. Americans are moving to a lot more confident space on this.”

Whether or not the hot weather has played a hand in this ideological shift, it’s inspiring to see that Americans are now taking climate change more seriously. Still, there remains a massive divide between political parties when it comes to climate change acceptance.

About 90% of Democrats who took this survey believe there is solid evidence of climate change, while only 50% of Republicans agree. But Borick points out that the discussion around climate change denial has shifted as well.

The talking points have turned more to the cost to mitigate climate change rather than deny its existence,” Borick told told The Guardian. “That said, if you want one factor that influences your view on climate change, it’s party affiliation. Age, race and gender don’t even come close.”

While some people may disagree with the scientific evidence behind climate change, most people in America can agree that the last few months have been much hotter than usual. It can become a public health concern – particularly in cities, where hot weather can trigger smog-like conditions and raise ozone concentration. So if you are living in a city during this heat wave, do your best to stay indoors or get out of the city during the hottest parts of the day. And if you can, let everyone know that climate change is real.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Agricultural irrigation changes Great Plains cloud formation

We know that industrial pollution and greenhouse gas emissions can have a long-lasting effect on our climate, but what about some of the other large-scale human activities that happen globally – can they affect the weather too? A new study funded by the National Science Foundation has found that crop irrigation can affect cloud formation above the very fields that are being irrigated.

Agricultural irrigation adds enormous amounts of water to land in order to meet our growing population’s food demand. These activities are altering regional land use and land cover, which leads to lower atmosphere circulation, affecting cloud development and precipitation.

In a project named the Great Plains Irrigation Experiment (GRAINEX), scientists from a wide array of institutions began collecting data in late May throughout a 3,600-square-mile area in southeastern Nebraska.

“Prior studies have found that the Great Plains is a hotspot where soil moisture plays an important role in cloud formation and precipitation,” says Nick Anderson, a program director in NSF’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences. “Changes in land use and irrigation for agricultural activities could be important in land-atmosphere interactions in this region. The results from this study will be valuable to our understanding of the link between irrigation and precipitation.”

For this project, scientists deployed 80 meteorological stations and measured several different data points. Their measurements include fluxes of water and energy from six irrigated and six non-irrigated areas, radar observations of lower atmosphere in three locations, weather balloon-based observations of the atmosphere in five locations, and two surface locations with instruments that collect data on the lower atmosphere.

Through analysis and the use of model applications, the data will be analyzed to determine the impacts of irrigation on precipitation in the Great Plains.

The experiment’s setting offers a unique opportunity to investigate the influence of these different land surface and land cover regions side by side,” says Rezaul Mahmood, director of the High Plains Regional Climate Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This data collection is ongoing through the end of July, and the results of the study may ultimately help agricultural planning and weather forecasting both nationally and internationally.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Rising sea levels could make UK salt marshes disappear

A new study from Rutgers University has revealed that sea-level rise will have a negative impact on salt marshes across the United Kingdom by the end of this century. Furthermore, if climate change is not mitigated, salt marshes in some regions of England could be lost as soon as the year 2040.

Salt tidal marshes, also known as coastal wetlands, rank among the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet. The research is focused on data from 800 salt-marsh soil cores.

The study is unprecedented in using the geological record of salt marsh losses in the past to predict how they will be vulnerable to sea-level rise in the future.

An international team of scientists led by Professor Benjamin Horton found that, in the past, rising sea levels steadily waterlogged salt marshes across the UK region, wiping out the vegetation that protects the marshes from erosion.

Study co-author Robert E. Kopp is a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers-New Brunswick and the director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

Professor Kopp explained, “By 2100, if we continue upon a high-emissions trajectory, essentially all British salt marshes will face a high risk of loss. Reducing emissions significantly increase the odds that salt marshes will survive.”

Professor Horton pointed out that salt marshes provide important ecosystem services.

“They act as a buffer against coastal storms to protect the mainland and a filter for pollutants to decontaminate our fresh water,” said Professor Horton. “We also lose an important biodiversity hotspot. Salt marshes are important transitional habitats between the ocean and the land, and a nursery area for fish, crustacea, and insects.”

“The take-home point from this paper is how quickly we are going to lose these ecologically and economically important coastal areas in the 21st century.”

Mangroves in tropical areas such as Singapore are just as vulnerable to sea-level rise as salt marshes.

“What is unknown is the tipping point that will cause a disintegration of mangroves to Singapore and elsewhere in Southeast Asia,” said Professor Horton. “We are currently collecting data to address the future vulnerability of mangroves to sea-level rise.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Matthew Brain

Tropical islands without rats have healthier coral reefs

An international team of scientists led by Lancaster University is reporting that rats must be eliminated on many tropical islands in an effort to protect coral reefs. Invasive rats are killing off seabirds in large numbers, and the researchers have identified previously undetermined consequences for the coral reefs that surround and protect the islands.

While it has been documented that invasive predators such as rats have annihilated seabird populations across most tropical islands, the impact that this was having on coral reefs was not known prior to this study.

The team investigated the health of tropical ecosystems in the northern reefs of the Chagos Archipelago.

“Seabirds are crucial to these kinds of islands because they are able to fly to highly productive areas of open ocean to feed,” said study lead author Professor Nick Graham.

“They then return to their island homes where they roost and breed, depositing guano – or bird droppings – on the soil. This guano is rich in the nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus. Until now, we didn’t know to what extent this made a difference to adjacent coral reefs.”

Located in the central region of the Indian Ocean, the Chagos islands were ideal for this study because some of the islands are infested with black rats, while others are completely free of rats. The researchers compared the ecosystems surrounding six islands with rats and six rat-free islands.

The study revealed severe ecological damage caused by the rats that extended beyond the islands and into the sea. The experts found that islands without rats had substantially more seabirds as well as nitrogen in the soil. In the ocean, the increased nitrogen benefited macroalgae, filter-feeding sponges, turf algae, and fish on the adjacent coral reefs.

Fish were found to be about 50 percent more abundant in the waters adjacent to rat-free islands. In addition, the consumption of algae and dead coral, a replenishing process known as grazing, was over three times higher in the sea adjacent to islands that were free of rats.

“The results of this study are clear. Rat eradication should be a high conservation priority on oceanic islands,” said Professor Graham.

“Getting rid of the rats would be likely to benefit terrestrial ecosystems and enhance coral reef productivity and functioning by restoring seabird derived nutrient subsidies from large areas of ocean. It could tip the balance for the future survival of these reefs and their ecosystems.”

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Living in green spaces can guard against mental decline, dementia

Living near green space has many positive effects, and studies have shown that urban green space specifically counters the negative impacts of city pollution.

Now, a new study found that living in greener neighborhoods may also potentially guard against cognitive decline and decrease the risk of dementia among the elderly.

Researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) conducted the study which was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The results show that cognitive decline, a natural indicator of the aging process, slows down slightly among people who live near green space.

“There is evidence that the risk for dementia and cognitive decline can be affected by exposure to urban-related environmental hazards (such as air pollution and noise) and lifestyle (such as stress and sedentary behavior),” said Carmen de Keijzer, the study’s first author. “Recent evidence has shown cognitive benefits of green space exposure in children, but studies on the possible relations of exposure to green spaces and cognitive decline in older adults are still very scarce and often have inconsistent results.”

For the study, the researchers followed up on 6,500 people ages 45 to 68 who were part of the UK Whitehall II Cohort Study after ten years.

The participants were asked to complete a course of cognitive tests to measure verbal fluency, short-term memory, and mathematical reasoning at three different points during the follow-up.

In order to see if greenspace influenced the test results, the researchers used satellite imagery to estimate how much green space the study participants were in proximity to.

The results showed that there was a slight but definite influence with green space slowing cognitive declines.

“Our data show that the decline in the cognitive score after the 10-years follow up was 4.6% smaller in participants living in greener neighborhoods,” said Keijzer. “Interestingly enough, the observed associations were stronger among women, which makes us think that these relations might be modified by gender.”

The results are significant as the researchers say that the number of dementia cases is expected to double between 2015 and 2050.

“Although the differences in cognitive decline observed in our study are modest at individual level, they become much more significant if we consider these findings at population level,” said Payam Dadvand, the last author of the study. “If confirmed by future studies, our results may provide an evidence base for implementing targeted interventions aimed at decelerating cognitive decline in older adults residing in urban areas and hence improving their quality of life.”

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Huy Phan

Trump’s Supreme Court nom Kavanaugh has a history of opposing EPA

President Trump has announced that his nominee for the next Supreme Court Justice is Brett Kavanaugh, who critics say would fit right into the administration’s agenda to roll back environmental regulations. As a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Kavanaugh has a history of ruling against regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

California Senator Kamala Harris told PBS NewsHour in an interview with Judy Woodruff why she plans to oppose the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh. Senator Harris suggested that Kavanaugh could do a lot of damage by filling the critical “swing vote” seat, a position that will soon be vacated by retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Since 1988, Justice Kennedy has maintained a somewhat moderate balance in a sharply divided court, with four dedicated conservative judges on one side and four liberal judges on the other.

“I would categorize this nomination differently, which is that this is one of the most important positions on the United States Supreme Court, because, of course, replacing Kennedy is about the swing vote on the United States Supreme Court,” Senator Harris told PBS.

“So I look at it more as what the significance of this nomination of this particular person for that seat, and on that basis, I am opposed to his nomination. And I am very concerned about what his nomination will mean for future generations on these issues and so many more.”

Senator Harris claims that Kavanaugh does not support people’s fundamental rights, such as same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Judge Kavanaugh has also made his opinion on the role of the EPA very clear, suggesting in many separate rulings that the agency oversteps its boundaries.

Kavanaugh’s written statements have consistently shown a lack of support for the authority of the EPA. In 2012, he wrote that the court felt the EPA was overreaching its power after the agency proposed a federal rule to reduce air pollution in downwind states.

During the debate over President Obama’s Clean Power Plan in 2016, Judge Kavanaugh said that it is not the job of the EPA or the courts to come up with climate change solutions. Kavanaugh did acknowledge that climate change is happening and that humans are contributing, but he argued about the authority of the EPA to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

While some say that appointing Judge Kavanaugh would give the Supreme Court a nudge to the right, others believe his influence would be much more severe.

Robert Percival is a professor of Environmental Law at the University of Maryland.

“It’ll be a very different court in the future,” Professor Percival told the New York Times. “Kennedy at least had an open mind on this issue, but if he’s replaced by Kavanaugh, it will really be hard times for environmental law for the rest of my lifetime.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Rising sea levels to intensify Southern California cliff erosion

Sea level rise can be difficult for climate models to accurately predict because there are so many different variables driving climate change.

However, one thing that climate researchers agree on is that even if the Paris Accord goals are met, we can expect to see at least to 2 to 4 feet of sea level rise by 2300.

While studies that focus on sea level rise often emphasize the risks posed to coastlines and beaches, new research found that rising waters will cause cliffs along Southern California’s coast to experience serious erosion.

The study was conducted by researchers from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the results show that 300 miles of coastal California cliffs could erode twice as fast as normal by 2100 and lose 135 feet of bluff top.

To put that into context, Patrick Barnard, a USGS geologist, explained the seriousness of erosion by calculating how many tons of sand and rocks would be shed from the cliffs.

“It’s a huge volume of material,” Barnard told the Washington Post. “We place this in a context of dump truck loads. It would be 30 million dump trucks full of material that will be eroded from the cliffs.”

Thousands of homes and properties currently sit atop those cliffs and serious levels of erosion could cause billions of dollars in damage and displace residents.

To estimate erosion and sea level rise, the researchers modeled different sea level rise scenarios for 2100 with levels ranging from one and a half feet to over six feet.

Next, the researchers used models to predict how the cliffs would respond to sea levels rising including crumbling and found that 300 miles of cliffs could lose anywhere between 62 and 135 feet.

The erosion puts California in a precarious position, either focus conservation on the bluffs or beaches.

Cliff erosion could be good for the beaches because it would provide much-needed sand and material to prevent beach erosion but the costs of damage and displacement would take a heavy toll.

“Coastal change, cliff retreat, sea level rise, and extreme storms could expose more than 250,000 residents and $50 billion in property to erosion or flooding in Southern California by the end of the century,” said Barnard.

The researchers note that there is a good deal of unpredictability when it comes to sea level rise and erosion and the study only presents potential scenarios.

How California’s cliffs will respond to sea level rise is not well understood and more research is needed in order to dictate appropriate conservation measures.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Lost extinctions: When animals die off before science finds them

Certainly the majority of plants, animals, fungi, etc. that have become extinct died long before people, let alone scientists, got around to describing them.  

Dinosaurs, the most famous of extinct animals, died off around 65 million years ago, before humans evolved and certainly before Linnaeus invented his way of scientifically classifying organisms.  According to PBS, of all the organisms that ever ran, gasped, ate or simply grew in the soil, 99.9% are now extinct.

Oil spills, global climate change, over hunting, and starved feral cats have done a lot of damage, but not nearly that much.  The fact is, like every person you now know; every species alive today will someday be dead. Species, like individuals, have lifespans.  Just as we don’t use the argument, ‘they were eventually going to die anyway’ to justify the holocaust or school shootings, the rate of modern extinctions is inexcusable.  A vast number of modern extinctions are the fault of humans, too.

Most of us are aware of modern extinctions like that of the Dodo, the Passenger Pigeon and the Thylacine.  Most of us are also aware of a handful of the myriad of known threatened and endangered species. Most of us have heard of Jane Goodall’s beloved chimpanzee and vaguely know that dolphins and some fish species aren’t doing so well these days.  Less of us understand the size of the extinction event we’re tied up in at this very moment. There are so many more insects, amphibians, small mammals and others less charismatic than the Panda that may soon face extinction.

Also, much like an individual human leaves children behind, species often diverge, leaving new species as ancestral ones become extinct.  Like many tragedies, there are many that are now dying, unknown and unrecognized, sometimes directly from human causes.

In his book The Secret Knowledge of Water, Craig Childs talks about small, natural desert pools in California and the invertebrates discovered in them:

“They become genetically isolated over thousands, and then millions of years.  In 1992, after nearly all of the temporary vernal pools of California were destroyed by human development, researchers went out to catalog those still intact.  Of the sixty-seven species of crustaceans found in the remaining pools, thirty had never been documented anywhere on the planet…A quarter of these newly found species were each found in its own pool among the fifty-eight pools studied, meaning there is not much motion between one pool and the next.  What was lost in the hundreds of destroyed pools is unknown.”

Imagine species dying off because of human actions and no one even realizing it until after the fact.  Perhaps you or I have stepped on one of the last of an exceedingly rare species of ant or swatted an insect thinking it a mosquito and precipitated extinction.  The thought is both depressing and awe inspiring in its suggestion of the number of life forms still inhabiting the planet with us.

The Simandou region of Guinea, West Africa is a land of lush and modest mountains covered in tropical forests.  The area is considered one of the world’s most biologically rich but also endangered forest habitats. Among mountains rising as high as 5440 feet above sea level, there are caves.  One of these caves contained a rare cockroach, Simandoa conserfariam, or the Simandoa Cave Cockroach.  The roach seems unremarkable to most, an animal with a smooth, dark grey body with darker heads and orange-ish legs.  

What makes these roaches unique is the fate of their cave home.  After scientists collected a few of the cave cockroaches, the cave itself was destroyed by a bauxite mining operation.  In a weird twist of fate, the cockroach now lives all over the world, fostered in small cages by pet enthusiasts with irregular love for arthropods.  You can even buy a roach nymph online for $6.00 in the US.  

I’ve explored caves in search of tiny arthropods as a volunteer for projects involving Northern Arizona University and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  It’s easy for a spider, a millipede or a cricket living in the dark cracks of limestone to elude a researcher. You can spend a week or a month scouring a cave and still find new animals hiding in the dark.  Considering the fate of the Simandoa Cave Cockroach, it’s easy to imagine that many species weren’t lucky enough to be carried into captivity before dying off in their native habitats.

Another cockroach known for its ability to glow, mimicking a poisonous click beetle was discovered in Ecuador.  Mongabay reported that the roach, Lucihormetica luckae, may already be extinct.  In the case of the glowing cockroach, it vanished after 2010 when a volcano erupted near where it was discovered.  The cockroach is (or was) the only known example of a land animal using bioluminescence in mimicry.

In animal taxonomy, vertebrates are more well-known than invertebrates.  Partly this is because there are fewer vertebrates and they are generally easier to find, partly we understand vertebrates better because we’re biased towards them.  Birds are intensively researched, both professionally and by ‘citizen scientist’ birders fascinated by their feathered neighbors. In an article in cell.com, Alexander Lees and Stuart Pimm paint a picture of some of the birds we may have lost in Brazil’s highly endangered Atlantic Forest and elsewhere in the world:

“The recent update of the IUCN Red List has identified 13 more bird species that went extinct after 1500, but before taxonomists could describe them. All of these were island species. We are still documenting the impacts of European explorers —and the rats and cats that came with them — that began centuries ago. We know about some early extinctions from anecdotal evidence, such as eyewitness accounts and drawings… Northeast Brazil has a similar, albeit less certain example: multiple travellers reported an all-black parrot, but no specimen exists…”

If a species of bird can go extinct with little fanfare, without any scientific knowledge, it doesn’t bode well for other less conspicuous organisms.  

Nearly the reverse of an organism that goes extinct without being described scientifically is a so-called ‘Lazarus taxon’.  A Lazarus taxon is an organism thought to be extinct, sometimes recently and sometimes found only as a fossil but then later is found to actually be still alive.  

The classic example of a Lazarus taxon is the coelacanth.  The coelacanth can measure up to six feet in length and 200 pounds in weight.  The ocean is a vast place to hide for an animal that is dwarfed next to whales, sharks and giant squid.  The coelacanth was thought to have died off in the extinction event that took the dinosaurs 65 million years ago until a fisherman caught one off the coast of Madagascar in 1938.  A second specimen of coelacanth was found in Indonesia in 1998.

There are a number of animals that were thought to be legend or extinct but turned out to be alive.  Gorillas were once thought by westerners to be a native myth, not a real animal. The Golden Bamboo Lemur was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered.  

The fact is, as much as we think we know about the natural world, we’re largely ignorant of even the basics of what organisms are now alive and which are extinct.  According to a paper published in PlosOne, an estimated 86% of land species are undescribed by science and 91% of species in the ocean.  That leaves an enormous amount of mystery in the world and an enormous amount of potential to destroy life or leave it as it is.          

By Zach Fitzner, Earth.com Contributing Writer

Climate change threatens Caribbean reef fish conservation

More than two decades of conservation efforts to protect the endangered Nassau grouper have proven to be successful, as some populations of the species have strengthened across the Caribbean. However, research from the University of Texas at Austin has revealed that this restorative success may be substantially hindered due to climate change.

A team of marine scientists has found that the breeding habitats of the Nassau grouper are projected to decline by 82 percent during this century if climate change is not mitigated.

Acceptable spawning habitats are critical to the survival of these and other reef fish. Nassau groupers, for example, have a narrow temperature range that they can tolerate while spawning.

The experts also found that suitable habitats for non-spawning fish are projected to decline by 46 percent by 2100.

“The effects of climate change could override some of the successes of conservation efforts at local and regional scales,” said study co-author Brad Erisman. “That is, if Nassau grouper no longer migrate to spawn in a particular region because the water is too warm, then protecting spawning sites in that region will be ineffective.”

“Likewise, if the months when spawning occurs in certain regions shifts in response to climate change, then seasonal protection measures in those regions will need to shift accordingly to ensure that spawning is still protected.”

The reproduction success of the Nassau grouper depends on large breeding events, called spawning aggregations, where hundreds to thousands of fish gather in the same region for a few days to mate. These events make the fish easy targets for commercial fishing, and overfishing is what caused the species to become endangered in the first place.

Many countries like the United States have banned the fishing of Nassau grouper, while other nations such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic have restricted fishing during spawning season.

Study co-author Rebecca G. Asch is an assistant professor of Fisheries Biology at East Carolina University.

“To truly understand how climate will impact fishes, we need to know how it will impact the most vulnerable life history stage, spawning,” said Professor Asch. “If this link in the life cycle is jeopardized, the species as a whole will be in jeopardy.”

Grouper are preyed upon by large predators such as sharks, and the health of the marine ecosystem depends on such important components of the food chain.

“The loss of these important, energy-rich events has negative impacts that span entire food webs and ecosystems,” said Erisman.

According to the scientists, the breeding habitat for the Nassau grouper may only be reduced by 30 percent if major steps are taken to slow climate change.

The study is published in the journal Diversity and Distributions.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Alfredo Barroso