Sunday, February 28, 2016
Comments due by March 6 , 2016
Protected areas such as rainforests occupy more than one-tenth of the Earth’s landscape, and provide invaluable ecosystem services, from erosion control to pollination to biodiversity preservation. They also draw heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and store it in plants and soil through photosynthesis, yielding a net cooling effect on the planet.
Determining the role protected areas play as carbon sinks — now and in decades to come — is a topic of intense interest to the climate-policy community as it seeks science-based strategies to mitigate climate change. Toward that end, a study in the journal Ambio estimates for the first time the amount of CO2 sequestered by protected areas, both at present and throughout the 21st century as projected under various climate and land-use scenarios.
Based on their models and assuming a business-as-usual climate scenario, the researchers projected that the annual carbon sequestration rate in protected areas will decline by about 40 percent between now and 2100. Moreover, if about one-third of protected land is converted to other uses by that time, due to population and economic pressures, carbon sequestration in the remaining protected areas will become negligible.
“Our study highlights the importance of protected areas in slowing the rate of climate change by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in plants and soils, especially in forested areas,” said Jerry Melillo, the study’s lead author. Melillo is a distinguished scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and former director of the MBL’s Ecosystems Center. “Maintaining existing protected areas, enlarging them and adding new ones over this century are important ways we can manage the global landscape to help mitigate climate change.”
Based on a global database of protected areas, a reconstruction of global land-use history, and a global biogeochemistry model, the researchers estimated that protected areas currently sequester 0.5 petagrams (500 billion kilograms) of carbon each year, or about 20 percent of the carbon sequestered by all land ecosystems annually. Using an integrated modeling framework developed by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, they projected that under a rapid climate-change scenario that extends existing climate policies; keeps protected areas off-limits to development; and assumes continued economic growth and a 1 percent annual increase in agricultural productivity, the annual carbon sequestration rate in protected areas would fall to about 0.3 petagrams of carbon by 2100.
When they ran the same scenario but allowed for possible development of protected areas, they projected that more than one-third of today’s protected areas would be converted to other uses. This would reduce carbon sequestration in the remaining protected areas to near zero by the end of the century. (The protected areas that are not converted would be the more marginal systems that have low productivity, and thus low capacity to sequester carbon.)
Based on this analysis, the researchers concluded that unless current protected areas are preserved and expanded, their capacity to sequester carbon will decline. The need for expansion is driven by climate change: As the average global temperature rises, so, too, will plant and soil respiration in protected and unprotected areas alike, thereby reducing their ability to store carbon and cool the planet.
“This work shows the need for sufficient resources dedicated to actually prevent encroachment of human activity into protected areas,” said John Reilly, one of the study’s coauthors and the co-director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.
The study was supported by the David and Lucille Packard foundation, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Monday, February 15, 2016
Comments due by Feb. 21, 2016
EVEN if you’re not in Flint, Mich., there are toxic chemicals in your home. For that matter, in you. Scientists have identified more than 200 industrial chemicals — from pesticides, flame retardants, jet fuel — as well as neurotoxins like lead in the blood or breast milk of Americans, indeed, in people all over our planet. These have been linked to cancer, genital deformities, lower sperm count, obesity and diminished I.Q. Medical organizations from the President’s Cancer Panel to the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics have demanded tougher regulations or warned people to avoid them, and the cancer panel has warned that “to a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘prepolluted.’” They have all been drowned out by chemical industry lobbyists. So we have a remarkable state of affairs: ■ Politicians are (belatedly!) condemning the catastrophe of lead poisoning in Flint. But few acknowledge that lead poisoning in many places in America is even worse than in Flint. Kids are more likely to suffer lead poisoning in Pennsylvania or Illinois or even most of New York State than in Flint. More on that later. ■ Americans are panicking about the mosquitoborne Zika virus and the prospect that widespread infection may reach the United States. That’s a legitimate concern, but public health experts say that toxic substances around us seem to pose an even greater threat. “I cannot imagine that Zika virus will damage any more than a small fraction of the total number of children who are damaged by lead in deteriorated, poor housing in the United States,” says Dr. Philip Landrigan, a prominent pediatrician and the dean for global health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Lead, mercury, PCBs, flame retardants and pesticides cause prenatal brain damage to tens of thousands of children in this country every year,” he noted. Yet one measure of our broken political system is that chemical companies, by spending vast sums on lobbying — $100,000 per member of Congress last year — block serious oversight. Almost none of the chemicals in products we use daily have been tested for safety. Maybe, just maybe, the crisis in Flint can be used to galvanize a public health revolution. In 1854, a British doctor named John Snow started such a revolution. Thousands were dying of cholera at the time, but doctors were resigned to the idea that all they could do was treat sick patients. Then Snow figured out that a water pump on Broad Street in London was the source of the cholera. The water company furiously rejected that conclusion, but Snow blocked use of the water pump, and the cholera outbreak pretty much ended.
This revelation led to the germ theory of disease and to investments in sanitation and clean water. Millions of lives were saved. Now we need a similar public health revolution focusing on the early roots of many pathologies. For example, it’s scandalous that 535,000 American children ages 1 to 5 still suffer lead poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The poisoning is mostly a result of chipped lead paint in old houses or of leadcontaminated soil being tracked into homes, although some areas like Flint also have tainted tap water. While the data sets are weak, many parts of America have even higher rates of child lead poisoning than Flint, where 4.9 percent of children tested have had elevated lead levels in their blood. In New York State outside New York City, it’s 6.7 percent. In Pennsylvania, 8.5 percent. In part of Detroit, it’s 20 percent. The victims are often poor or black. Infants who absorb lead are more likely to grow up with shrunken brains and diminished I.Q. They are more likely as young adults to engage in risky sexual behavior, to disrupt school and to commit violent crimes. Many researchers believe that the worldwide decline in violent crime beginning in the 1990s is partly a result of lead being taken out of gasoline in the late 1970s. The stakes are enormous, for individual opportunity and for social cohesion. Fortunately, we have some new Dr. Snows for the 21st century. A group of scholars, led by David L. Shern of Mental Health America, argue that the world today needs a new public health revolution focused on young children, parallel to the one mounted for sanitation after Snow’s revelations about cholera in 1854. Once again, we have information about how to prevent pathologies, not just treat them — if we will act. The reason for a new effort is a vast amount of recent research showing that brain development at the beginning of life affects physical and mental health decades later. That means protecting the developing brain from dangerous substances and also from “toxic stress” — often a byproduct of poverty — to prevent high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which impairs brain development. A starting point of this public health revolution should be to protect infants and fetuses from toxic substances, which means taking on the companies that buy lawmakers to prevent regulation. Just as water companies tried to obstruct the 19th century efforts, industry has tried to block recent progress. Back in 1786, Benjamin Franklin commented extensively on the perils of lead poisoning, but industry ignored the dangers and marketed lead aggressively. In the 1920s, an advertisement for the National Lead Company declared, “Lead helps to guard your health,” praising the use of lead pipes for plumbing and lead paint for homes. And what the lead companies did for decades, and the tobacco companies did, too, the chemical companies do today. Lead poisoning is just “the tip of the iceberg,” says Tracey Woodruff, an environmental health specialist at the University of California at San Francisco. Flame retardant chemicals have very similar effects, she says, and they’re in the couches we sit on. The challenge is that the casualties aren’t obvious, as they are with cholera, but stealthy and long term. These are silent epidemics, so they don’t generate as much public alarm as they should. “Industrial chemicals that injure the developing brain” have been linked to conditions like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, noted The Lancet Neurology, a peer reviewed medical journal. Yet we still don’t have a clear enough sense of what is safe, because many industrial chemicals aren’t safety tested before they are put on the market. Meanwhile, Congress has dragged out efforts to strengthen the Toxic Substances Control Act and test more chemicals for safety. The President’s Cancer Panel recommended that people eat organic if possible, filter water and avoid microwaving food in plastic containers. All good advice, but that’s like telling people to avoid cholera without providing clean water. And that’s why we need another public health revolution in the 21st century. (N. Kristof)
Sunday, February 07, 2016
Comments due by Feb. 14, 2016
It was a gray, damp January afternoon a few years back when I visited the Jiangfeng wholesale poultry market on the outskirts of Guangzhou, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. With its bleak wire enclosures and grid of cement paths, the place had the feel of a neglected 1970s era urban zoo. And despite the comparatively narrow range of species there — chickens, geese, ducks, quails and partridges, mostly, with a smattering of rabbits and one large slumbering hog — it smelled like one, too. As I walked around, watched suspiciously by the market’s handsome young security guards, a slimy mix of bird droppings and decomposing feathers slowly crept up the heels of my clogs. Every few months, it seems, an invasive virus from a distant land attacks the Americas: dengue, chikungunya and, most recently, Zika. But the pathogens that frighten me most are novel strains of avian influenza. I’d come to see their birthplace. Highly virulent and easily transmissible, these viruses emerge from openair poultry farms and markets of the kind that stretch across Asia. Thanks to rising demand for chicken and other poultry, they’ve been surfacing at an accelerated clip, causing nearly 150 percent more outbreaks in 2015 than in 2014. And in late 2014, one strain managed to cross the ocean that had previously prevented its spread into the Americas, significantly expanding its reach across the globe. Novel avian influenza viruses are mongrels, born when the influenza viruses that live harmlessly inside the bodies of wild ducks, geese and other waterfowl mix with those of domesticated animals like the ones at Jiangfeng, especially poultry but also pigs. It’s possible to squelch their emergence. One way is to protect domesticated animals from the excreta of waterfowl, which can spread infection. But no such protections are in effect at markets such as Jiangfeng, which, like the rest of southern China’s booming poultry industry, lies within the East Asian flyway, one of the world’s most important waterbird migration routes. The poultry enclosures are open to the air. Droppings from the birds in cages as well as the birds flying overhead coat the floor. Stonyfaced women with shovels push the mess into reeking, shoulder height heaps of wet mush. Any virus that lurks in those piles can easily spread to the birds and the people who tend them. Up to 10 percent of poultry workers in Hong Kong, a study has found, have been exposed to bird flu. A fine dust of desiccated bird waste permeates the air. It settles on the leaves of the workers’ makeshift vegetable plots behind the cages and on the window panes of their nearby flats. These markets and the unique viral ecology they enable are not new, as Malik Peiris, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, points out. But “now the situation is very different,” he said. “This is being done on a much bigger scale than it was years ago.” As health conscious consumers in the West cut beef out of their diets and newly affluent Asians add more meat to theirs, demand for bird flesh has skyrocketed. Global poultry production has more than quadrupled since 1970. And nowhere has the taste for poultry risen faster than in Asia, where chicken farming expanded by nearly 4.5 percent a year from 2000 to 2012. China now consumes more chicken than the United States. Tyson Foods aims to double production in China. “We just can’t build the houses fast enough,” Donnie Smith, the company’s chief executive, said to The Wall Street Journal, referring to poultry production buildings, and “we’re going absolutely as fast as we know how to go.” It’s not just the growing scale of the poultry industry in Asia that increases the probability that new avian influenza viruses will emerge. It’s also the peculiar nature of the trade. About half of China’s poultry trade traffics in live birds. That’s because many Chinese consumers, wary of the safety of frozen meats, prefer to buy their chickens while they’re still clucking. This creates a wealth of opportunities for new viral strains to spread and adapt to human bodies. Rather than visiting the sterile frozen food aisles of grocery stores, shoppers crowd into poultry markets, exposing themselves to live birds and their viral laden waste. And to serve the markets, more birds travel from farms into towns and cities, broadcasting viruses along the way. Most novel strains of avian influenza cannot infect humans. But some can, including three currently circulating strains: H5N1, a mashup of viruses from geese and quail; H7N9, an amalgam of viruses from ducks, migratory birds and chickens; and H10N8, the product of viruses from wild birds, ducks and chickens. These viruses kill roughly 30 percent to 60 percent of their reported human victims. None can spread efficiently from one person to another, for example through sneezes and coughs, yet. But, given the opportunity, they will continue to evolve. And if they finetune their transmissibility among humans, the result will almost certainly be the kind of pandemic that epidemiologists most fear — one that could sicken a billion, kill 165 million and cost the global economy up to $3 trillion. A majority of experts predicted, in a 2006 survey, that a pandemic would occur within two generations. That prediction is based, in part, on the increasing number of novel strains of avian influenza and the accelerating speed of their emergence. It’s also based on history. The virus that caused the influenza pandemic of 2009 killed an estimated 200,000 people, hitting young people in the Americas hardest. It originated in birds. So did the 1918 flu, which killed 50 million, including an estimated 675,000 Americans. For years, experts considered the Americas comfortably isolated from the virulent avian influenza viruses hatched on distant Asian poultry farms and markets. “Being in North America,” said Carol Cardona, an avian disease expert at the University of Minnesota, “we weren’t bothered.” Some of the novel strains of avian influenza emerging from the Asian poultry trade can be picked up and spread far and wide by migratory birds. But the migratory routes of these birds don’t cross the oceans. Even as they spread H5N1 and other pathogens into dozens of countries in Europe, Asia and Africa, the Americas remained untouched. That changed in late 2014, when a highly virulent avian influenza from Asia infiltrated North America. Its prospects here differed from those in Asia. Relatively few people are regularly exposed to live poultry and their waste. And farmers protect their domesticated flocks from pathogens by screening and controlling ventilation in barns and by regularly disinfecting farm equipment. Remarkably, none of these safeguards arrested the virus’s inexorable spread. It was as if the virus “knew the weaknesses of each individual farm,” said Dr. Cardona, “and found that and exploited it.” Infected farms euthanized entire flocks by smothering them with carbon dioxide or firefighting foam. From December 2014 to last June, more than 48 million domesticated poultry in 21 states were slaughtered, the majority in waterfowl rich Minnesota and Iowa, in what the Department of Agriculture called the worst animal disease epidemic in United States history. By the time it ended, a 12 foot wide ridge of bird carcasses from a single farm in Iowa stretched more than six miles. Nobody knows just how this virus migrated over the oceans protecting the New World. But it’s possible that another consequence of human appetites — climate change — played a role. While Asian and European birds don’t migrate into North America, they can pass on viruses to birds that do. That could happen in a place where millions of birds from both the Old World and New World are instinctively drawn every spring: the Arctic lands surrounding the Bering Strait, known as Beringia. In the past, New and Old World birds in Beringia visited numerous ponds spread out across the tundra. But with temperatures in the Arctic rising twice as fast as anywhere else, conditions are changing rapidly, shifting the distribution of creatures and their pathogens. Historically segregated species are coming into novel kinds of contact. As birds are forced to migrate earlier and farther, feeding at new times and in new places, they overlap with other bird species in unprecedented ways that pathogens can exploit. Some already have. In 2012, a parasitic roundworm normally found some 1,000 miles southeast turned up in birds in western Alaska. In 2013, birds in Alaska suffered their first epidemic of avian cholera, which typically infects birds in the lower 48 states. WHILE the precise conditions under which the virulent Asianorigin virus arrived in North America in 2014 remain murky, what’s known is this: Migratory birds picked up the virus from a poultry farm in Asia, carrying it with them into Siberia and Beringia for the breeding season. There, whether it was because of the new intimacy of the changed landscape, or because of something about the virus itself, the pathogen spread into other bird species, including those that would later head into North America, such as gyrfalcons and northern pintail ducks. By December 2014, they had brought the virus into British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, infecting wild and domesticated birds along the way and igniting the epidemic. If this strain had been one that could infect humans, a deadly and disruptive public health emergency would have ensued. Luckily, it was not. But there are more where it came from, at the growing interface between live poultry and humans on the other side of the Pacific. The workers at Jiangfeng, with their bare hands and tall boots, toil at its border. I watched them in the crowded enclosures as they lassoed birds around the neck with long, curved poles, stuffing them into plastic bins and loading them onto trucks. When a security guard caught me staring, I quickly walked away, footsteps muted by the membrane of bird waste encasing the soles of my shoes. Perhaps I could scrounge some bleach solution at my hotel with which to sterilize them, I thought to myself, although of course the birds whose lives and peregrinations are shaped by our appetites would not be so circumspect. As I padded toward the exit, a stream of vehicles crammed with fowl, and whatever viruses replicated inside their feathery bodies, steadily rumbled out of the market, bound for points unknown.