From the Antarctic Sea Floor to the Montreal Protocol, a slew of ecological trends and environmental issues are emerging that predict to have major implications on conservation and biodiversity throughout the world in 2019 and beyond. In late 2018 a team of prestigious ecologists, scientists, futurists and other environmental researchers, led by William Sutherland, professor of conservation biology at Cambridge University in the UK, met to study and discuss these emerging environmental trends (and issues) that may impact the environment worldwide. They published a paper at the conclusion of their conference and prefaced it with the following statement:
“By increasing recognition of the issues described in this paper, we aim to encourage dialogue about their potential negative and positive impacts on conservation, in order to guide proactive solutions and harness future opportunities.”
This year’s report, for 2019, was recently published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution magazine, and it’s our pleasure here at Essel to discuss eight of the 15 environmental trends presented by the research team in their extensive report. For the sake of conservation and biodiversity of planet Earth, this is the topic of our time.
The Antarctic Sea Floor Issue
One of the largest environmental issues is that some scientists believe Antarctic ice is melting faster than previously thought. And as this melted water continually flows into surrounding oceans, it will alter the salinity of shore waters and release sediments that will kill plants and creatures living on and around the Antarctic sea floor. It may also dangerously change ecosystems in numerous water systems and how they function. These changes potentially stand to alter the flow and amount of carbon dioxide throughout Earth’s atmosphere, which can tremendously impact climate change planet-wide. How all these changes may affect the carbon cycle of life and our planet’s survival is not presently certain. But this is an environmental trend that has many scientists worried.
Unlike the Film, Mercury Really Is Rising
Permafrost, those swaths of permanently frozen ground abundant at the North and South Poles, recent research has shown is incurring a large increase in mercury contamination. In fact, the research indicates that permafrost contains more than 1.6 million metric tons of mercury, which is almost twice the amount found anywhere else on the planet.
Gradually, this mercury is released into large bodies of water which can travel and infect water systems everywhere and impact the whole water cycle on Earth. As might be expected, mercury is extremely toxic to humans and most all life forms including plants and microbes which poses a large issue to the environment. Thus, this increasing and continual release of mercury into our global water system could have dire consequences for the entire world way beyond 2019.
Sunscreen Solution, Maybe and Maybe Not
The newest environmental trend to be aware of from the environmentally-toxic product storefront is the fact that active ingredients in many sunscreen products cause bleaching to coral reefs in oceans everywhere. Such knowledge, however, often causes a mad rush to the quick solution line. In this case, one such quick fix to protect beachgoers from harmful ultraviolet rays is the compound shinorine. But shinorine can cause inflammation in humans, and what other harmful effects are not yet known. Thus, with so little research conducted on shinorine, we could have another chemical compound that only compounds the threat of sunscreen poisoning coral reefs and other sea life.
Salt-Tolerant Rice Sounds Nice
Being able to mass grow and produce a staple crop like salt-tolerant rice sounds very much like good news, especially being able to grow it in regions and areas with high levels of saline. However, ecosystems can be negatively affected if salt-tolerant rice begins to be overplanted and over-expanded. Especially in areas where demands for freshwater resources are greatest and also expanding since these areas are needed to dilute saltwater to acceptable, healthy salt concentrations.
Oilseed from Crops and Not Fish
What may be a positive environmental trend is the genetic engineers figuring out how to get various oilseed crops to produce vital omega-3 fatty acids which are highly-valued for their health-promoting properties just like fish are. This ought to improve the nutritional value of vegetable oil as well as reduce the huge harvesting conducted on wild fish populations that are strained in many regions of the world. However, on the possible bad-news side is the fact that this technology may displace other oils within oilseed plants. This environmental issue could diminish these plants’ ability to provide nourishment to insects. For the unknowing, the insect world is an ecosystem of immense importance to other ecosystems and maintaining ecological balance throughout the planet.
Plant Microbiomes Manipulation
The ever-growing demand for agricultural sustainability is influencing a new agricultural revolution: the manipulation of plant microbiomes, i.e., complex microbe communities which facilitate disease resistance, living cell growth, drought tolerance, food expansion and numerous other agricultural benefits. Extensive manipulation is now possible of complex microbiomes because of recent advances in technology.
The long-term implications and environmental trends of plant microbiomes manipulation is unknown at present, but one positive outcome could be the restoration of ecosystems as well as the production of highly nutritional foods to feed entire populations of starving people. And let’s not forget reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides as well as farmland expansion in areas that were previously unsuitable for agriculture.
Harvesting the Deeper Regions of the Sea
Some 656 to 3,280 feet (200 to 1,000 meters) below the ocean’s surface are watery regions teaming with fish and diverse sea life. However, the lack of sufficient technology and funding have severely limited fishing and exploration into these deep, dense watery regions where an endless bounty of food and precious minerals can be harvested. Until perhaps now.
As the demand (and need) for fish increases, many countries, including Norway and Pakistan, have begun to explore and harvest this “mesopelagic zone” of our oceans. The environmental issue being ignored is the important role fish provide to this ecological zone of the ocean, such as carbon capture and creating significant food webs that sustain all sea life. Unfortunately, ocean fishing is not effectively regulated on a global scale at present. Thus, this new environmental trend to harvest the deep sea for profit and sustenance may direly impact the sustainability of numerous sea life and irreparably damage the ocean’s entire ecosystem as well as all life that lives above it.
The Montreal Protocol: Regulation or Guideline?
In 1987 the Montreal Protocol established an international commitment to limit and eventually eliminate the production and presence of CFC-11. A manmade chemical responsible for depleting Earth’s protective ozone layer, the presence of CFC-11 has declined more slowly than anticipated. Because of this, the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching Earth could continue to increase, which eventually can have dire effects upon humanity and other living things.
What concerns environmentalists is a recent investigation highly suggesting that China is using the chemical on a large scale and doing so to produce insulation for construction. As a clear violation of the agreement and direct challenge to the authority of the Montreal Protocol, what can be accomplished by global environmental governance, especially if it becomes unenforceable? An actionable response from the UN regarding the issue to the environment, U.S. or international community has yet to appear. Is there a future for international environmental agreements? If not, how great is the threat to biodiversity and the life of our planet?