The Fruits of Civilization – Water


The least movement is of importance to all Nature. The entire ocean is affected by a pebble. ~ Blaise Pascal

Though clean water is key to health, people have always fouled waterways and treated the oceans as an infinite toilet. Wastes of all sorts, including toxic chemicals, are dumped or make their way to the ocean. The result has been to pollute all marine life, and so turn a wholesome food source into a hazard.

Most of the world’s urban waterways receive a cocktail of pollutants from agricultural runoff to human sewage containing medicines like antidepressants. Such cocktails may stop short of killing marine species, but these contaminants damage the health of aquatic ecosystems. ~ American marine biologist Alex Ford

Sea bathing is no longer safe for people to enjoy.

Spending time in the sea increases the probability of developing illnesses, such as ear ailments and problems with the digestive system. The pollution affects swimmers. ~ English environmental epidemiologist Anne Leonard

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Nearly 3 billion people rely on fish for their major source of protein. A significant proportion of the world’s population is exposed to persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic pollutants through seafood. ~ American marine biologist Lindsay Bonito


Ships have always been the cheapest, fastest way to move cargo over long distances. Most of the world’s populations live in coastal areas, and on waterways, for this very reason. Shipping is the lifeblood of economic globalization.

Over 60,000 colossal ships crisscross ocean trade routes, burning 2.2+ billion barrels of heavy fuel oil annually. Heavy fuel oil is the residue from crude oil refining. This filthy fuel emits 1,800 times more sulfur into the air than diesel engines. The 16 largest ocean ships produce as much sulfur pollution as the entire global fleet of cars. Heavy fuel oil is the stuff that no one on land is allowed to burn. Ships contribute ~2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Ship pollution affects local weather. Thunderstorms above busy shipping lanes are much more intense.

Humans are changing the intensity of storm processes on Earth through the emission of particulates from combustion. ~ American atmospheric scientist Joel Thorton

Large marine mammals are regularly run over by trade ships. The noise of ocean vessels disrupts and shortens the lives of those sea creatures who are not more grievously abused.

The ballast water that ships carry and discharge at the next port of call does a wondrous job of transporting diverse zoos of biological specimens, including plants, animals, and a vast variety of microbes. Today’s cargo ships perform this function much more prodigiously than vessels in earlier ages. By dint of ferrying humans to-and-fro for extended periods, cruise ships do their cargo brethren one better in generating nasty bilge which is dumped in the seas.

The Exxon Valdez was an oil tanker which plowed into Alaska on 24 March 1989 and spilled its guts in the surrounding waters, killing over 400,000 seabirds, ~1,000 sea otters, millions of fish, and laying a thick layer of oil which suffocated and otherwise fouled life below. This spectacular blunder was simply the blazing billboard of the fact that oil spills of all sizes are a regular feature of ocean shipping.


Plastic is indispensable for many applications, including surgical gloves and condoms, and in packaging foods to keep them fresh longer, thereby reducing food waste. Plastic is also eminently disposable.

After a short first-use cycle, 95% of plastic packaging is lost to the economy. ~ World Economic Forum

In 1955, Life magazine celebrated the dawn of “throwaway living,” thanks to disposable plastics. In 2015, 406 million tonnes of plastic were produced globally. 36% of it was used once or twice and then thrown away.

13 million tonnes of plastic refuse went into the world’s oceans in 2015. At that disposal rate, marine plastic will outweigh fish by 2050. But this projection is a gross understatement. Plastic production is expected to double between 2015 and 2035.

Plastics are similar to DDT in the sense that they were previously not perceived as a major pollutant. ~ Canadian marine biologist Boris Worm

The ravage of oceanic plastic is especially bad on coral reefs, as dirty plastic infects coral. Corals entangled in plastic are 20 times more likely to become diseased.

Corals are animals just like me and you: they become wounded and then infected. Plastics are ideal vessels for microorganisms, with pits and pores, so it’s like cutting yourself with a really dirty knife. ~ American marine biologist Joleah Lamb

Once a coral is infected, the disease usually spreads across the colony.

If a piece of plastic happens to entangle on a coral it has a pretty bad chance of survival. ~ Joleah Lamb

Americans dump 8 trillion bits of plastic into rivers, lakes, and the oceans daily, weighting ~0.22 tonnes. Many toothpastes, personal cleansing and cosmetic products now include tiny, wrongly-presumed-harmless plastic microbeads intended to help keep skin, scalp, and pearly whites clean.

Using these products leads to unnecessary contamination of the oceans with microplastic particles. ~ English marine ecologist Richard Thompson

A single application of a product with microplastics can release 100,000 of these miniscule beads. Harmless they are not.

Contaminants like these microbeads are not something our wastewater treatment plants were built to handle, and the overall amount of contamination is huge. The microbeads are very durable. ~ American ecologist David Smith

Most marine plastic comes from East Asia, where waste-collection systems are flawed or nonexistent. 10 rivers – 2 in Africa and 8 in Asia – discharge 90% of the plastic debris that winds up at sea. The Yangtze River in China alone delivers 1.5 million tonnes to the ocean annually.

The microplastic problem is originating upstream, in river catchments. ~ English ecologist Rachel Hurley

In Indonesia, rivers and canals are clogged with plastic debris. In Bandung, Indonesia’s 3rd-largest city, the government sent in the army in 2018 to help fight the overwhelming mountains of garbage.

What I am fighting now is rubbish. It is our biggest enemy. ~ Indonesian army commander Sergeant Sugito

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60% of the plastic produced is less dense than seawater. Wind-driven upper ocean currents act as gyres to distribute and concentrate buoyant seaborne plastic. There are 5 major ocean gyres on Earth at the present time.

Several huge plastic garbage deposits have formed throughout the world’s oceans, where plastic permeates the entire ocean depth in considerable concentration. The Great Pacific garbage patch  in the northern Pacific Ocean is exemplary. This plasticized vortex is mostly comprised, volume-wise, of small bits (microplastics). By weight, nearly half of the plastic comes from discarded fishing nets, which readily snag sea life.

In 2013, there were over 5.25 trillion bits of sizable marine plastic afloat, weighing at least 269 thousand tonnes. This plastic flotsam is only 1% of the total plastic in the oceans. The smaller 99% of the plastic in the oceans is a larger problem.

The most hazardous marine plastics are the small bits that float near the surface, where they are eaten by fish, dolphins, whales, turtles, and seabirds. Over half of the world’s sea turtles and cetaceans have consumed plastic. Many have died from it.

In April 2019, a young pregnant sperm whale washed up on a beach of Italy. Inside were over 1,000 assorted pieces of plastic weighing 22 kilos. A month earlier a beached whale in the Philippines died with 40 kilos of plastic inside. Such deaths by indigestion are a regular event.

The consumption of plastic by sea creatures is not inadvertent. Marine-seasoned plastics produce a dimethyl sulfide signature that has an appealing scent. Plastic smells like food.

The threat of plastic pollution is global, pervasive, and increasing. Concentrations reach 580,000 pieces per km2 and production is increasing exponentially. Plastics ingestion will reach 99% of all seabird species by 2050. ~ Australian marine and atmospheric researcher Chris Wilcox et al in 2015

Filter-feeding sea life are severely impacted by the tiny plastic particulates which foul their digestive system. If not fatal in of itself, reproductivity is decimated. Oysters are exemplary.

The green bacteria called Prochlorococcus is the most abundant photosynthetic organism on Earth, contributing up to 10% of total global oxygen production. Chemicals leaching from plastic pollution interfere with the growth, photosynthesis, and oxygen production of Prochlorococcus. ~ Australian biochemist Sasha Tetu

2/3rds of the seafood Americans eat has plastic in it. A 2016 study concluded that seafood consumers are ingesting up to 11,000 bits of plastic a year, to unknown health effects.

1/3rd of all plastic waste ends up in soils or freshwater. Most of it disintegrates in tiny particles. Terrestrial microplastic pollution is much higher than marine fouling by a factor of 4 to 23, depending on the environment.

Sewage factors heavily in the distribution of microplastics. ~85% of the particulate matter in sewage, such as from garment fibers, persists in the sludge, which is often applied to crop fields as fertilizer. Hence, much microplastic ends up in soils. Plastic residues alter the health of soil by fouling the organisms that live there. Earthworms burrow differently when soil is plasticized, affecting worms’ fitness and thereby soil quality.

Plastic fibers are found in tap water around the world. At least 83% of the world’s drinking water is plasticized. The US has the highest contamination rate: 94%. (10,000 tonnes of plastic are dumped in the Great Lakes every year. The Great Lakes and related rivers provide much of the drinking water supply for the region. This is emblematic of America.) The lowest contamination rates are the UK, Germany, and France, at 72%.

Plastics enter our body and can stay there for quite a while. ~ Belgian environmental biologist Colin Janssen

Plastic undergoes physical and chemical transformations as it breaks down, increasing toxicity. A few compounds in plastic which leach out, such as BPA, disrupt the hormone systems of both vertebrates and invertebrates. The long-term health effects are not well understood, but indications are that microplastic pollution is debilitating if not outright lethal. Inflammation seems to be the least of it.

Detectable levels of BPA are in the urine of 95% of American adults. ~ environmental scientists Emily North & Rolf Halden in 2013

Plastic disintegrated via sunlight releases methane and ethylene: potent greenhouse gases. Once such dissolution begins, the emissions proceed without further solar energy.

Polyethylene, which is the most produced and discarded synthetic polymer globally, is the most prolific emitter of greenhouse gases. ~ Canadian biological oceanographer Sarah-Jeanne Royer et al

Plastic debris is everywhere. It has spread across the planet, including accumulating in the Arctic.

Plastic pollution reaches the most remote areas of the planet. ~ Spanish ecologist Andrés Cózar et al

 Henderson Island

The inhospitable nature of the island, together with its remoteness and inaccessibility, has so far effectively ensured a near-pristine island ecosystem. ~ United Nations in 1988, declaring Henderson Island a “world heritage site”

Henderson Island is a 37.3 km2 volcanic tip in the south Pacific Ocean, located between Peru and New Zealand. With poor soil and little fresh water, the island has been uninhabited since the late 15th century.

Despite lacking people, Henderson Island had acquired 38 million pieces of plastic garbage on its beaches by 2017. 3,500 bits of refuse wash up there daily.

The isolation of remote islands has, until recently, afforded protection from most human activities. However, society’s increasing desire for plastic products has resulted in plastic becoming ubiquitous in the marine environment, where it persists for decades. ~ Australian marine ecologist Jennifer Lavers & English marine ecologist Alexander Bond


Tiny pieces of plastic break off larger items, becoming microplastic that litters the air, eventually landing somewhere. On average, on every square meter, 37 microplastic pieces rain down on Earth’s surface each day.

Some plastic can withstand 450 years in the ocean before disintegrating; even longer in freshwater or in the soil.

Our throwaway culture is strangling the natural world with plastic. ~ English marine biologist Lyndsey Dodds

Despite its long-lived hazards, plastic is a minor player in dirtying the terrestrial environment. Just 10% of the 3.6 million tonnes of solid waste discarded each day in the world is plastic.


Until the 20th century, the stocks of fish in the vast oceans of the world seemed to be inexhaustible. There was no attempt to limit catches, and all the effort was put into maximising exploitation. ~ Clive Ponting

The false perception that marine resources are infinite is still common. ~ Brazilian-American ichthyologist Luiz Rocha

The fishing industry worldwide has done its utmost to destroy its own business. Since 1950, 25% of the world’s fisheries have collapsed from overfishing; a trend that began in the late 19th century.

Industrial fishing occurs in >55% of ocean area and has a spatial extent more than 4 times that of agriculture. ~ American ecologist David Kroodsma et al in 2018

The decimation of ocean ecosystems has been a government project. After the 2nd World War, the United States used fishing rights and fisheries technology as a geopolitical tool.

The US subsidized the modernization of Japan’s fishing fleet during Allied occupation of that country (1945–1952). Funds from the Marshall Plan, meant to rebuild Europe, went to expanding fishing.

All around the world, America engendered overfishing. Sensing the political struggle, other countries responded in kind.

90% of Earth’s once-abundant fisheries are either fully exploited or facing collapse. Oceanic ecology has been unbalanced worldwide.

As an example, cod fishing off Newfoundland, Canada collapsed in 1992. 40,000 jobs were lost. 25 years later, the fishery has yet to recover, and it never will.

In the mid-1980s, overfishing forced Spanish, Japanese, and South Korean industrial fishing fleets out of their national waters. They went to the ocean off Chile and pillaged until the fisheries there collapsed.

Then the fleets moved on. Beginning in 1997, Prince Edward and nearby islands in the Indian ocean were fished to commercial extinction in just 2 years.

Of the 3.5 million fishing vessels worldwide, only 1.7% are classified as industrial; yet these ships take almost 60% of the global fish catch. The corporations that run these large fleets take the bulk of the $30 billion in government subsidies handed out each year to the worldwide fishing industry.

On land, the terrestrial animals most at risk of extinction are large-bodies creatures and top predators. It was long assumed that these patterns applied in the ocean as well. Not so. Since 1960, smaller fish that are commercially fished had up to twice as many stock collapses as fish higher up on the food chain.

All kinds of species, including the small ones that used to think were incredibly resilient, are also vulnerable to overfishing. Even temporary collapses of small, low trophic-level fishes can have ecosystem-wide impacts by reducing food supply to larger fish, seabirds, and marine mammals. ~ American marine ecologist Malin Pinsky

Benthic bounty is also had by dredging the sea floor, which is devastating to an oceanic ecosystem. Coral and sponges that provide a habitat for fish are demolished and their populations do not recover.

The world’s richest areas for marine biodiversity are also those areas most affected by both climate change and industrial fishing. ~ Spanish marine ecologist Francisco Ramirez et al

Overfishing occurs everywhere and is only checked by authorities long after stocks have been depleted. Only 0.01% of the world’s oceans are closed to fishing.

Despite international regulations aimed at overfishing, the high seas remain a lawless place. Regulations often met in the breach, as the monetary lure is strong and enforcement spotty.

We don’t want them on the boat. We feel as though they’re out there to kind of shut us down. ~ American fisherman Nick Muto

Self-destructive to the last, fishermen resist regulation. Government observers are harassed.

They’re going to make your life as hard as possible. ~ American fishing observer Christopher Stump


Build bigger ships and venture even farther into the oceans and catch bigger fish. ~ Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013

In recent decades, China has been an aggressive overfisher. The South China Sea yields 1/10th of the global fish catch. Coastal fisheries now have just 5–30% of the stocks they had in the 1950s: so Chinese fishermen have gone farther offshore and into distant waters.

In the 2010s, China has taken all that it can out of African waters, including destroying seabeds with bottom trawlers. Bottom trawling is banned, but the Chinese show little regard for legalities, and no concern for sustainability.

The Chinese government heavily subsidizes the pillage of African waters. Most of China’s 2,600 fishing vessels are large enough to scoop up as many fish in a week as native African boats could catch in a year.

As China has become more prosperous, fishermen from other countries have increasingly catered to Asian tastes. Peruvian fishermen slaughter 15,000 dolphins each year to use their meat as bait to catch sharks. Fishermen prefer dolphin meat because its strong blood odor readily attracts sharks. Shark fin is considered a delicacy in Asia, and often served in soup at expensive Chinese restaurants.


Krill are tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans that grow to be 6 cm long. Krill are found in all the oceans. The coolest krill live in the pack ice that forms in Antarctica.

Krill feed on phytoplankton and are themselves fed upon by all manner of marine animal. Krill is an essential oceanic food source, and their numbers have deteriorated precipitously in recent decades. Krill populations dropped over 80% in the 4 decades from 1977 to 2017, precipitating a decline in seabirds, notably penguins, many of whom rely upon krill to fill their bellies. Marine mammals, including whales, have also been adversely affected.

Ocean warming is partly behind the krill decline, but the main reason for such loss has been suction harvesting by large trawlers, which can gather vast quantities of krill. These fishing fleets are feeding a growing global demand for krill-based health products, based upon dubious claims that are more superstition than science. The krill industry proudly projects that it can grow 12% a year from 2018 to 2021 and will doubtlessly suck up all the krill that it can, until the krill kill is no longer profitable or possible.

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs have suffered degradation from human activities associated with overexploitation and pollution; degradation that has accelerated over the past ~50 years. ~ Australian marine biologist John Pandolfi et al in 2011

Coral are colonial marine invertebrates, related to sea anemones. Coral colonies are populated by individual polyps that grow together via excreted, calcareous exoskeletons anchored to the seabed. Each polyp is a sac-like sessile animal a few millimeters wide and a few centimeters long. A set of tentacles surrounds a mouth at the top of the exoskeleton.

Corals catch small fish and plankton using the stinging cells on their tentacles, but most of their nutrition comes from endosymbiotic algal protists that photosynthesize, and thereby contribute energy to the polyp, along with aiding in the calcification of the polyp’s exoskeleton. In return, the algae get comfortable living quarters, and benefit from the CO2 and nitrogenous waste that polyps pump out.

Coral provide the base for reefs which may extend for many kilometers. These reefs are critical buffers preventing shoreline erosion.

Coral reefs can effectively protect shorelines because of their ability to cause waves to break offshore, thus limiting the energy impacting the coastline. ~ Australian coral reef ecologist Michael Cuttler

The Great Barrier Reef off the eastern coast of Australia is the world’s largest coral reef system. Comprising over 2,900 individual reefs, the Great Barrier Reef extends covers an area of 344,400 km2: roughly equal to all of the British Isles, and only slightly smaller than Japan.

It took millions of years for the Great Barrier Reef to grow to its 20th-century size. Then human pollution began to take its terrible toll. From 1985 to 2012, the Great Barrier Reef lost 50% of its coral cover. The losses have only accelerated since then. Following a prolonged heatwave, 50% of the remaining coral died from heat stress in 2016–2017.

Mature and diverse reef communities are being transformed into more degraded systems, with just a few tough species remaining. ~ Australian coral reef ecologist Andrew Baird

Coral reefs are mainly in shallow tropical and near-tropical seas offering tepid temperature waters. Reefs are sensitive to light, temperature, and water acidity (pH).

Coral reefs are the rainforests of the sea, forming some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. Though they occupy less than 0.1% of the world’s ocean surface, coral reefs are home to 25% of all marine diversity. That makes coral one of the most important keystone species on the planet. Many human societies rely upon the seafood bounty that need coral reefs to thrive.

Coral reefs are a major player in the biosphere: helping regulate global temperature. Making calcified shells absorbs carbon dioxide, thus acting as a modest sink for this greenhouse gas.

Oceans absorb 30% of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere: a process which makes seawater more acidic. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the water make calcification harder for coral. Ocean acidification has been slowing coral growth.

Ocean acidification is already taking its toll on coral reef communities. This is no longer a fear for the future; it is the reality of today. ~ American marine ecologist Rebecca Albright in 2016

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Corals that are stressed can experience a breakdown of the symbiosis with their photosynthetic partners, resulting in a bleached appearance. ~ American marine biologist Don Levitan et al

As oceans warm, corals lose their colorful algae, which can only cope within a narrow range of temperatures. Reefs are reduced to bleached skeletons, vulnerable to disease. Ocean acidification also engenders bleaching.

Before the 1980s, large-scale coral die-offs were virtually unheard-of. Since then, coral bleaching has happened so frequently that reefs are unable to recover.

It typically takes 10–15 years for the fastest-growing coral to recover from a severe bleaching event. Larger corals that provide shelter for bigger fish take even longer.

5 severe bleaching events have occurred in the recent past. The 1st was during the 1982–1983 El Niño.

A 2nd bleaching event coincided with the 1997–1998 El Niño, which caused ocean surface water temperatures to soar. A forceful La Niña followed a strong El Niño, bringing warm waters to the western Pacific. 16% of the world’s corals died as a result.

A 3rd, terrible coral-bleaching event occurred in 2005, in the western Atlantic Ocean. Over 40% of the corals in the Caribbean Sea died.

At the population level, a reduction in spawning persisted for several years following each bleaching event. Corals that recover from bleaching events can experience long-term reduction in reproduction. This may be catastrophic for the long-term maintenance of the population. ~ Don Levitan

The 4th bleaching event happened worldwide in 2010. All told, 25% of the world’s corals died from 1960 to 2010.

The frequency of mass bleaching events are going up because of global warming. We are hitting the corals, then we are hitting them again, and then again. ~ American biological oceanographer Mark Eakin

A 5th worldwide coral-bleaching event started in mid-2014, with a developing El Niño. An especially strong warm-water current took a grievous toll.

El Niño was over by the end of 2016, but global coral bleaching carried on through 2017. It was the longest bleaching event during human existence, and the most severe.

Coral bleaching is caused by global warming full stop. It’s not due to El Niño. We’ve had thousands of El Niño prior to 1983; none of them caused bleaching. Bleaching is caused by the rising baseline temperatures due to anthropogenic global warming. La Niña periods today are actually warmer than El Niño periods were 40 years ago. ~ Australian marine biologist Terry Hughes

Historically, La Niña events have meant cooler ocean waters; no longer.

The Great Barrier Reef was grievously affected. In 2016, half of the corals in the worst-hit areas died. By 2017, the toll had risen to nearly 70%.

We didn’t expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef for another 30 years. ~ Terry Hughes in 2017

Unsurprisingly, the reefs in the worst shape are those off of the most-crowded beaches, where suntan lotion and other wastes deteriorate coral. Nearly 1/2 billion people in 109 countries live close to coral reefs.

The prospects for coral reefs are put into proper perspective by understanding that the shallow waters where reefs have historically thrived are now much hotter than the surrounding oceanic shelves. In June 2015, El Niño led to a 2°C warming in the South China Sea: something not expected to cause significant coral damage. But, at an atoll in the northern part of the sea, the water temperature soared by 6°C above average, killing 40% of the coral there. This spike occurred because the atoll’s shallow water amplified the heating effect. Further, unusually weak winds slowed the diffusion of heat into surrounding water, thereby trapping the hot water within the atoll.

While coral are slowly migrating to beat the heat, a warming ocean does not spell much opportunity for expansion. Corals are confined to shallower depths at higher latitudes. A constraining factor is the amount of sunlight for sufficient photosynthesis, especially during the winter months.

As sea level rises, coral face a harder time growing toward the ocean surface to get the sunlight they need to survive.

A healthy coral reef ecosystem exists in a constant tug-of-war. As corals build their skeletons up toward the sea surface, other organisms – mollusks, worms, and sponges – bore into and erode the skeletons to create shelters. ~ American marine biologist Thomas DeCarlo

Bioerosion requires coral to constantly build. On the relatively few healthy reefs today, calcium carbonate production for exoskeleton construction barely exceeds erosion loss. This delicate balance spells slow-growing coral reefs. The combined stresses of sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and loss of nutrients will tip the balance against otherwise industrious polyps. Coral growth rates in the Great Barrier Reef plummeted 40% 1975–2012. Growth has declined since.

There’s fewer coral adults because of the high rates of mortality after the back-to-back bleaching in 2016 and 2017, and dead coral doesn’t make babies. ~ Terry Hughes in 2019

The tougher environment is just the start of the woes. Natural predation and man-made havoc bode ill for the future of coral reefs.

The crown-of-thorns starfish eats coral polyps. Prodigious predations from periodic population explosions of the starfish chewed into coral populations in the early 21st century.

Humans indirectly inflict damage on coral reefs via fertilizer runoff from farms that lead to algae blooms which block the light that corals need. Further, sedimentation that makes its way into the sea from soil erosion smothers coral.

Elkhorn coral is named for its resemblance to elk antlers. It provides a valuable marine habitat and was once the Caribbean Sea’s most abundant reef builder. But this redwood of the coral forest declined 90% from 2000 to 2010, in large part to highly contagious white pox disease, which causes large lesions that kills polyps and bare the coral’s white skeleton. The coral pathogen was a cross-species transfer from human excrement dumped into Caribbean waters.

Fishing near reefs reduces the number of herbivorous fish which keep the vegetation on reefs in check: another way that coral are deprived of sunlight and die.

Air pollution, which is particularly thick in the coastal cities of India and China, also deprives coral of needed light, and so slows their growth.

The indirect threats caused by humans are insult on top of direct injury. Despite their ecological importance, men wantonly destroy coral reefs; almost always for shortsighted commercial gain. Fishers in Central and South America and Africa use cyanide and dynamite to kill fish and bring them to the surface. These techniques decimate coral. Asian coral reefs face an additional destruction from reckless Chinese.

 The Chinese in the South China Sea

In the South China Sea, Chinese boatmen gather giant clams that live deep in the coral reefs; clams that can live for over a century and grow more than a meter wide.

Large specimens might fetch the equivalent of thousands of US dollars. Besides their meat, clam shells adorn trinkets such as jewelry.

The Chinese harvest clams by having ship propellers chew through coral reefs. Once the murk clears, divers bring up any exposed clams. It is a one-time operation, as the reef is destroyed.

This plunder is illegal in China. Trade in giant-clam shells is banned by international treaties. But Chinese clam snatchers operate in broad daylight.

You guys do a great job! ~ Xi Jinping to South China Sea pillagers in 2013

Enforcement became lax since the Chinese started contesting territorial rights to waters claimed by neighboring countries. Seeking a stable base for runways and other installations which physically promote China’s militaristic assertions, dredgers suck debris off the seabed and spray it on reefs, smothering them. Such muck-spreading not only kills many kilometers2 of coral, it also obliterates any chance of recovery.

 The Americans in South Florida

This Florida reef is as important to our country as the sequoias of California, and we are losing it. There are a lot of stressors that are impacting and killing coral reefs, but this is something we could easily have prevented. ~ American environmental scientist Rachel Silverstein

South Florida has the only coral reef in the continental United States. 93% of it has been lost by human negligence.

The large-scale dredging of Miami’s port in the 2010s to accommodate larger ships carelessly killed local coral reefs by burying them in sediment. Then the US Army Corps of Engineers lied about what it had done – your tax dollars at work.

I am proud to say that Port Miami is ready for the big-ship era. ~ Port Miami CEO Juan Kuryla


Evolution can buffer populations from environmental change, or it can accelerate species decline. For corals specifically, adaptability is complicated by symbiosis.

The weak link among the coral mutualists is the algal symbiont, which suffers greater mortality from thermal stress than does the host. The generation times of corals are orders of magnitude greater than those of algae, so symbionts may show faster adaptations to changing conditions.

As with many other species, acclimation is like to be overrun by the accelerating rate of climate change, especially ocean warming, but compounded in severity by increasing acidity from greenhouse gas absorption and human activities which directly contribute to coral decline.

Current trends indicate that coral reefs, and everything that depends upon them, will not survive to 2060. The world’s oceans are inexorably becoming a marine desert, as coral reefs are essential to the oceanic food web.


Producing half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, phytoplankton are one of Earth’s 2 lungs. Land plants are the other planetary lung.

Plankton live near the ocean’s surface. They are sensitive to environmental changes and are seriously stressed throughout much of the world.

Plankton cannot swim, but they can somewhat position themselves in response to turbulence cues. When conditions become unfavorable, plankton have 3 options: adapt, hitch a ride on ocean currents to a more hospitable place, or die out. All 3 processes are in overdrive.

Smaller plankton have been able to withstand their environment becoming more inhospitable. But larger species – major players in oxygen generation and as fish food – cannot cope. Unable to take the warmth and greater acidity, many critical phytoplankton in the North Atlantic have been declining for decades.

Meanwhile, billions of plankton are on the move: surfing the waves for a better habitat. They are heading poleward, to cooler waters. Several key species have been traveling at 99 kilometers per decade, aiming for a better life for their offspring.

Other plankton are simply dying out, including ones that fisheries crucially depend upon. From 1950 to 2010, the planet’s phytoplankton population dropped 40%. The outcome has been over a 2% drop in oceanic oxygen levels; a trend that shows no sign of reversing.

As the base of the oceans’ food web, plankton decline has also irredeemably reduced the seas’ baseline fecundity; an effect partly masked by overfishing.

Phytoplankton is the fuel on which marine ecosystems run. A decline of phytoplankton affects everything up the food chain, including humans. ~ Canadian marine biologist Daniel Boyce


Humans have profoundly decreased the abundance of both large (e.g., whales) and small (e.g., anchovies) marine fauna. Such declines can generate waves of ecological change that travel both up and down marine food webs and can alter ocean ecosystem functioning. ~ American marine biologist Douglas McCauley et al

The oceans are already undergoing an irreversible mass extinction. It is quite an accomplishment for humanity.

Fundamentally, we’re a terrestrial predator. It’s hard for an ape to drive something in the ocean extinct. ~ Douglas McCauley

Flagrant fouling and overfishing have not been enough. Thanks to advances in marine technology, seabeds are being mined for their minerals. It is a unique opportunity to destroy unknown ecosystems and pollute the deep oceans.

The Deep Ocean

An abyssal 11 km deep, the Mariana Trench is the deepest crevice in the world’s oceans. At 10 km, the 2nd-deepest ocean gash is the Kermadec Trench. Both are at the seams of subducting tectonic plates in the Pacific Ocean.

We still think of the deep ocean as being this remote and pristine realm, safe from human impact, but this could not be further from the truth. We found extraordinary levels of pollutants there. It really brings home the long-term, devastating impact that mankind is having on the planet. ~ English marine ecologist Alan Jamieson

In 2016, persistent organic pollutants from products manufactured from the 1930s until banned in the 1970s were found in the tissues of crustaceans living in these trenches. The pollutants made their way into the deep from contaminated debris and dead animals sinking into the abyss.

The trenches are many miles away from any industrial source and suggests that the delivery of these pollutants occurs over long distances despite regulation since the 1970s. ~ Australian marine ecologist Katherine Dafforn

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The deep sea encompasses the largest ecosystems on Earth. We need to wake up and start really realising that we are having a huge effect. ~ English marine ecologist Andrew Sweetman

Pollution is taking its toll on deep sea life. The creatures that live there are also being pummeled by climate change, notably ocean warming, anoxia, and acidification.

By 2100, bathyal depths (200–3,000 meters) are likely to be 4 ºC warmer. Abyssal depth (3,000–6,000) could warm by 1 ºC. The warming will lower oxygen concentrations, with bathyal oxygen levels falling up to 3.7%. Even small changes can invoke significant impacts, disrupting fragile ecosystems that live on the fringes of anoxic regions.

Most of the animals living on the deep sea floor have adapted strategies for living under constant environmental conditions, where the oxygen doesn’t change over hundreds of years, the temperature doesn’t change over hundreds to thousands of years. ~ Andrew Sweetman

Rising CO2 spells acidification that will prove disastrous for sea life with shells. Fish and other creatures will also be affected.

Organic matter in the deep ocean is also expected to drop dramatically, reducing a food supply that is already scarce. Food on the deep-ocean floor could fall by 55% or more by 2100, starving the animals and microbes there.

The dynamic is made more dire by deep-sea mining and drilling for fossil fuels. Many of the spots targeted for resource extraction lie in areas most impacted by climate change.

The rate of change is so dramatic that we run the risk of severely disrupting the deep ocean – which covers most of the planet’s surface. ~ Andrew Sweetman


Water is the foundation for our economies, communities, ecosystems, and quality of life. ~ American politician Kate Brown

Earth is a watery world. There is a tremendous reservoir of water deep underground: 25 times what is on the crust.

70% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. 97% of it is salty.

Of total freshwater, over 68% is frozen: locked up in glaciers and ice caps (at least for the time being). The other 32% is usable. That constitutes 1,250 km3: about 1/10,000th of 1% of total water on Earth.

So, for such a watery world, the freshwater that plants and animals require is a tiny fraction of planet’s water; and that supply is essentially fixed. Freshwater is indeed a precious resource.

Globally, rivers are the source of most of the fresh water used. Groundwater provides 20% of water needs and half of the world’s drinking water. In arid countries, such as in the Middle East and north Africa, aquifers supply nearly 100%.

Much of this groundwater is shared by 2 or more countries. This makes water management more difficult, and conflict over water rights easier.

Disputes over water are nothing new. The Sumerian cities of Lagsh and Umma fought a 150-year-long war over control of irrigation water ~2500 bce.

Humans once settled where water was plentiful. Economic development shifted populations to places less well-endowed with water. Developed economies use and waste more water: crops, cattle, power plants, and factories prodigiously pound water down.

Electricity production runs on water. Nearly half of the water withdrawals in industrialized countries are just for cooling power plants. During the 2008 drought in the southeastern US, some power plants were within days of shutting down because of limited water supplies.

An atomic reactor consumes 2,650 liters of water per megawatt hour. A coal-fired plant takes 1,900. Generating electricity via natural gas requires 750 liters/mw-hour.

So-called ‘renewable’ energy production is not necessarily an improvement in water consumption. A hydroelectric generator goes through 15,000–68,000 liters/mw-hour; a concentrating solar power plant takes 3,000 liters/mw-hour. Though they have other drawbacks, photovoltaic and wind farms use virtually no water to operate.

Over the past 100 years, human water demand increased almost 8-fold, due to the quadrupling of the global population, increases in per capita food demands, and rising standards of living. ~ Dutch Earth scientist Ted Veldkamp et al

Almost all of the freshwater bodies around the world have been fouled. A 2018 study by the European Environment Agency found that over 60% of European surface waters were badly polluted, despite better protective laws and regulations than the rest of the world. Mercury and other toxic industrial chemical contamination are common, along with pesticide pollution and inadequate waste treatment.

65% of the world’s rivers are ladled with antibiotics; 16% of them at levels dangerous to humans. In Africa and Asia, where sewage and waste are blithely dumped into rivers, are the worst. Europe’s 2nd-largest river, the Danube, is that continent’s most polluted. Even the Thames, generally regarded as one of Europe’s cleanest rivers, is grossly contaminated with antibiotics.

35–45% of water consumption goes to food production in industrialized nations. 80% of this is for irrigation. In Africa and Asia, 85–90% of water extraction is for agriculture.

Global electricity demand from industry in the 1st half of the 21st century is expected to increase 400%, but there is not going to be enough water to meet that demand.

When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water. ~ Benjamin Franklin

Climate change is drying parts of the planet out while dousing other regions. This alone will cause water shortages: 19 of the 29 largest cities in the world depend on locally generated rainfall, via evaporation from surrounding areas, for over 1/3rd of their water supplies. Dependence on rain rises with drier weather, when it does not rain.

Many megacities are not able to buffer themselves from fluctuations in climate and seasonal weather patterns, such as Lagos in Nigeria, or Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. ~ American ecologist Patrick Keys

People in developed countries use 10 times more water at home every day than those in developing countries. Half of the water used is for showering or bathing. 30% goes to washing clothes. Only 0.07% is consumed as drinking water.

As all other natural resources, people are wasteful with the freshwater available. The abundance of Nature has long been taken for granted.

Clean water is no longer a free gift of Nature. It is a shared resource that can be preserved only through judicious investments and active engagement. ~ American hydrologist David Soll

One of the greatest failures of mankind has been an idiotic belief in the price mechanism, which, for natural resources, is based upon extraction cost, with no regard for sustainability. Owing to its easy accessibility, underpricing water has engendered its egregious waste.

750 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. Roughly 80% of wastewater is discharged untreated into oceans, rivers, and lakes. Nearly 2 million children under the age of 5 die every year for want of clean water and decent sanitation. 1 billion people in 22 countries still defecate in the open. 2 1/2 billion people do not have adequate sewage disposal. ~ Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson in 2015

1980–2016, the top 10% of the most stressed river basins supplied water for ~19% of the global population, 19% of the water used for electricity generation, and 35% of irrigated food production. At present, over 2/3rds of the world population struggle with severe water shortages; nearly half live in India and China.

Around the world, usable freshwater is dwindling. Non-renewed freshwater extraction doubled 1960–2010. Most went to irrigation.


All early agriculture depended upon adequate rainfall. Man’s inevitable next step was to free himself from the vagaries of the weather by developing systems of irrigation.

By 5500 bce, Sumerian farmers were diverting floodwaters from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers onto their fields. Some irrigation canals extended 5 kilometers from the river.

By 4300 bce, the rice first found growing in the swamps of southern China was planted on leveled banks with mud borders to keep water from draining away. Such paddies became a staple regime for growing rice throughout East Asia.

Around the world, every civilization developed, and has since depended upon, irrigation systems to sustain their agriculture. Farmers at least have always appreciated water as a precious resource, however inefficiently they may have used the water they secured.

The intensification of food production in the last 2 centuries was achieved by a massive increase in irrigation. In 1800, there were 8 million hectares under irrigation across the world. In the 19th century, irrigated land quintupled to 40 million hectares. A 7-fold increase occurred during the 20th century, to 275 million hectares. Overall, growth in irrigated land from 1800 to 2000 was 34-fold.

70% of the world’s available freshwater is diverted to irrigation-intensive agriculture (with nearly all the rest consumed by industry). Over 15% of the world’s arable land is now irrigated, with the highest proportion in Asia. Irrigation allows crops to be grown in places where they could otherwise not be supported, and commonly in places where the water withdrawal is unsustainable.

Nearly 40% of the world’s food supply is produced using highly wasteful irrigation systems that are depleting nonrenewable groundwater. ~ American ecologist Mark Briscoe

In south Asia, only 1/3rd of the rice-growing region is not irrigated, yet it yields nearly 2/3rds of the harvest. The lands irrigated are marginal.

Irrigation can badly degrade soil and lead to waterlogging and salinization, as the ancient societies in Sumer discovered over 4,000 years ago. These effects despoil half the irrigated land in the Middle East, 25% of the irrigated fields in the US, and 80% of the irrigated area in northern India (Punjab). Punjab had normal rainfall in the mid-2010s, but groundwater extraction for irrigation resulted in a rapid decline in water availability.

Throughout history, most extracted water has been for irrigation. Wasteful inefficiency has been a constant problem. In India and China, 2/3rds of irrigation water evaporates or seeps from irrigation canals; in the US, half the water is lost.

 The Great Lakes

The Great Lakes of North America is the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, covering 244,106 km2. The 5 lakes began to form at the end of the last glacial period, 14 thousand years ago, as retreating ice sheets filled basins with meltwater. The basins had originally been carved by glaciers when the ice age began.

The Great Lakes played a central role in the industrialization of the continent, via 2 massive engineering projects with 2 main goals: open up the North American interior to shipping and dispose of sewage. The Great Lakes were destined to facilitate transport and act as a toilet.

Industrious men sought to connect the lakes with each other, nearby rivers, and with the Atlantic Ocean: the sort of unnatural act that ambitiously defines industrialization.

The first canal was completed in 1781. Proposals in the last decade of the 19th century to connect the lakes with the Atlantic Ocean came to fruition in 1959, with the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

The greatest engineering feat of our time. ~ American broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite in 1957, on the impending completion of the Saint Lawrence Seaway

As seagoing vessels penetrated the Great Lakes, they brought with them all manner of alien stowaways, some of which surprisingly quickly managed to upend the local food web and overtake the natives. Failure of anticipation yielded to attempted restoration, Humpty-Dumpty style.

The Mississippi River drainage basin covers ~40% of the continental United States. A watery expanse roughly the size of India flows downhill into the mighty river, which washes out into the Gulf of Mexico. Connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River with shipways was the best way to spread the environmental damage. Men took to it enthusiastically.

The Great Lakes are just a beachhead for species invasions that are going to play out across the country in the next century. It’s just the start. ~ American limnologist and ecologist Jake Vander Zanden in 1990

Thanks to capitalist lust for shipping as cheap transport, pesky plants and adventurous animals discovered new lands and took over ecosystems in a manner mordantly matched by man in disruptive force. America’s great drainage basin has become an expanse of opportunity for unintended immigrants. The industrialization of American waterways has been another success story of globalization for all life.


The introduction of alien organisms via the industrialization of the Great Lakes is merely a recent chapter in a saga that has been ongoing since man found favor with commerce.

The Age of Discovery was driven by trade that was often of living plants and animals. Also along were all kinds of other life. The earthworms that traveled with the English settlers to Jamestown played havoc with their newfound American soil, affecting the forests and the crops that the natives grew.

 Mine Tailings Storage

There are over 30,000 large-scale mines in the world, providing industrialized nations with their minerals and metals. China alone has over 12,000 mines. Mines manufacture massive ecological devastation.

The tremendous amounts of waste rock, sand, and chemicals from mines are termed tailings. Tailings are ‘permanently’ stored behind dams built near the mine. All tailings storage ponds seep, extensively polluting groundwater.

The technical knowledge to build and maintain tailings storage facilities exist, but there has been an inadequate commitment to safe storage, combined with poor management. ~ United Nations Environment Programme

Some tailings lakes are huge. Tailings storage for the Fort Knox gold mine in Alaska is a valley that is home to a toxic lake covering 395 hectares, with 270 million tonnes of tailings.

From 1985 to 2017, there were 139 major tailings dam failures. 44% of them wreaked serious environmental destruction.

The Germano mine in southeast Brazil is exemplary. There are over 300 mineral mines in that area (the state of Minas Gerais), extracting gold, diamonds, manganese, and many other ores and gems. Industrial mining in Minas Gerais dates to the 18th century.

On the afternoon of 5 November 2015, one of the tailings dams at Germano mine broke, discharging 33 million cubic tonnes of iron ore tailings. The slurry flowed down the valley, inundating a nearby village, killing 19 people. The lethal slurry then mixed with the 5th-largest river basin in Brazil, where it polluted all downstream waters. Finally, with no response to contain it, the slurry, having traveled 650 kilometers, dumped itself into the Atlantic Ocean, 17 days after its devastating journey began.

The mudflow from the slurry release destroyed over 1,469 hectares of riparian forest. All aquatic life populations were decimated. The contaminated soil prevents plants from growing back. 37 human population centers were severely affected, including a polluted water supply which cannot be restored.

The Germano tailings dam had been poorly constructed, inadequately maintained, and not monitored. There was no warning system in place in case of a spill. This is typical.

On 25 January 2019, a tailings dam for an iron mine in Minas Gerais broke, unleashing a wave of sludge that killed over 350 people. The toll included hundreds of the company’s own employees, many of them having lunch in the cafeteria, recklessly sited below. This was the 2nd such tailings tragedy for Vale, the iron mine owner, in 3 years.

Tailings dams are prone to failure. Unlike water-retaining dams, tailings dams incorporate inferior materials, including tailings. Further, tailings dams are lackadaisically engineered. Unlike water dams, tailings dams are built incrementally over decades, with unaddressed problems passed on as personnel change. Finally, whereas a water-retaining damn is regarded as an asset, tailings storage is considered a cost, and so the incentive is to minimize the effort and materials put into it.

The US has had the most mine tailings dam failures, followed by China and the Philippines.

The consequences on the civil side and criminal side are very weak around the world. ~ Canadian ecologist Ugo Lapointe


World water use rose 10-fold in the 20th century, with the bulk of the extraction in the 2nd half of the century. Most of this increase was attained by draining underground aquifers.

With global warming and the demands of growing populations, water shortages can be expected throughout most the world within the next 20–30 years. Through pollution and overexploitation, a majority of people worldwide will no longer have access to potable water from a nearby source.

The Middle East and northern Africa are especially threatened in the near-term. But other parts of the world – including the western US, Mexico, southern Europe, and Australia – face imminent shortfalls.

The impacts of climate change will be channeled primarily through the water cycle, with consequences that could be large and uneven across the globe. Water-related climate risks cascade through food, energy, urban, and environmental systems. Growing populations, rising incomes, and expanding cities will converge upon a world where the demand for water rises exponentially, while supply becomes more erratic and uncertain. If current water management policies persist, and climate models prove correct, water scarcity will proliferate to regions where it currently does not exist and will greatly worsen in regions where water is already scarce. ~ Australian environmental economist Richard Damania et al for The World Bank

The impact of water scarcity on economies, and cost in lives, will be much greater than anticipated. Otherwise, something other than business as usual would already be in the works. Instead, governments are not even bothering to price water as a scarce resource, let alone rationally ration usage. Governments around the globe are failing to husband one of the most precious commodities: freshwater.

(The other essential precious resource is, of course, clean air. As with water, governments have demonstrated their gross incompetence by tolerating pollution that creates insufferable air.)

Water stress already afflicts 25% of cities worldwide. Big cities in the Middle East and Asia lose up to 60% of their water supply to leaky pipes. London spills 30% of its water in leaks. Wooden pipes still carry some of Chicago’s water.

Poor countries, where a billion people live in slums without proper sanitation, need more pipes in the first place, not to mention reservoirs and purification plants. There is no reason to think that they will get those things.

Meeting humanity’s increasing demand for freshwater and protecting ecosystems at the same time will be one of the most difficult and important challenges of this century. ~ Ethiopian hydrologist Mesfin Mekonnen & Dutch hydrologist Arjen Hoekstra

The time is fast approaching when the inability of humanity to sensibly allocate resources and control consumption will create crises and conflicts without resolution besides death on a large scale. Water scarcity is bound to be at the forefront.

Groundwater depletion the world over poses a far greater threat to global water security than is currently acknowledged. ~ James Famiglietti in 2014

 Tap Water in America

The cheating and lax enforcement are needlessly harming children all over the United States. If cities cannot be trusted to protect little kids from lead in drinking water, what on Earth can they be trusted with? ~ American civil and environmental engineer Marc Edwards

China is not the only country where the water is not safe to drink. The United States sports an unsafe water supply. Pesticides, herbicides, and other industrial chemicals make their way in and are not filtered out. Despite the obvious problems, government funding for public water infrastructure has declined in the 21st century. Federal funding for safe water dropped 37% 2010–2014. The danger of dirty water is especially acute with lead, the heavy metal that retards children and causes a host of health problems.

Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized. ~ US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In April 2014, to save an estimated $5 million, the city of Flint, Michigan switched its water source from Detroit’s water supply (Lake Huron) to nearly Flint River, which flowed with many toxic pollutants. The corrosive water caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the tap water supply, elevating lead levels in drinking water.

Flint residents knew something was wrong with their water, because it kept changing colors and smells. But they did not know how dangerous it was.

Nothing was done about the dirty water for over a year. Meanwhile, the city’s cost-saving measure backfired on consumers: Flint residents paid top rates for tap water when it was most toxic.

The fact that Flint is a poor, majority black city under emergency management rather than democratic representation evidently made its residents’ concerns easier for authorities to ignore. ~ Sarah Anderson et al

Once problems with Flint’s water were identified, government officials tried to cover up that there was any problem at all. 4 years after Flint government officials decided to poison its residents, the water remains undrinkable.

Our children have every imaginable obstacle to leading a successful life, and now they also have lead poisoning. ~ American pediatrician Mon Hanna-Attisha

The social costs of Flint’s city government approached $500 million: a nearly 100-fold loss compared to the hypothetical benefit.

The city’s decision to switch its water supply was penny wise and pound foolish. ~ American public health analyst Peter Muennig

Flint is far from alone in its negligence. Across the country, cities cheat on tests mandated by the EPA to ensure that drinking water is safe. Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Chicago, Boston, and Detroit are merely exemplary. There are many others.

Nationwide, lead exposure in the US costs well over $4.5 billion every year in direct costs. The price of drinking polluted water in the US is many times that, but no one has tallied the toll. To American governments – federal, state, and local – citizens’ lives are cheap.

Lead in Rome’s drinking water was a factor in the decline of the Roman Empire. Modern America is suffering the same dark dilemma.

 Bottled Water

The bad publicity about American tap water has been a boon to business. Demand for fizzy drinks has slowed as the public becomes aware of sugar’s tax on health. Drinks companies have countered by promoting bottled water.

Bottled water is often more hazardous than tap water, aside from the fact that 2/3rds of US bottled water is tap water. (When the source of bottled water is not from a municipal water supply, it may instead be from polluted groundwater. There are no effective regulations of water sourcing: the government heedlessly assumes that water is water.) Thanks to industry lobbying, the safety regulations covering bottled water are laxer than for tap water. When regulators do bother to inspect plants, they commonly find problems. Further, single-serve bottled water is commonly packaged in a plastic which contains carcinogens and other toxic compounds which may leach into the water, especially when exposed to prolonged heat, such as during the summer. Almost all bottled water is rich in microplastics. People who drink only bottled water ingest an extra 90,000 bits of plastic annually.

What comes around goes around. Once the water has been consumed, the bottle becomes trash, thereupon contributing to the plastic pollution problem.


Of course, humans are not the only ones affected by the widespread fouling of freshwater. All life suffers.

 Last Stop

They land at night and need to rest for several days. ~ American biologist Stella Capoccia on migrating geese

Huge flocks of snow geese migrate over the Rocky Mountains every year. Death traps await.

Mining the mountains for minerals, companies create toxic lakes as acidic as vinegar, brimming with mineral wastes. One such lake lies outside Butte Montana. It has been there for decades, awaiting prey.

Geese land on the lake in the evening for a stopover. In the morning, the lake is funereal white.

It can’t be a comfortable death. ~ Stella Capoccia

There were tens of thousands in one night. In the morning, the entire 700 acres of the lake was white with geese. ~ Mark Thompson, manager of environmental affairs for the mining company that owns the lake

 California’s Central Valley

75% of California’s precipitation falls in the northern part of the state: much of it winter snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains. 75% of the water consumed is in central and southern California; so, the Californian economy relies upon an extensive system of tunnels, pipelines, aqueducts, and pumping stations to porter the water south. Without this transport, the Central Valley would be a grassland rather than one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, and southern California would be too parched to populate.

California’s Central Valley comprises 13.7% of the state’s land mass. Covering less than 1% of the country’s cropland, the Central Valley grows 8% of the nation’s food, worth $43.5 billion in 2013.

This productivity depends upon massive irrigation from both surface water diversions and groundwater wells. 17% of the irrigated land in the US is in the Central Valley.

Almonds illustrate. Expanding California almond production 2007–2014 consumed 9,300 hectares of Nature, most of it wetlands, and led to an annual 27% increase in irrigation demand.

Over a half century of intensive agriculture has heavily contaminated the groundwater with fertilizers, pesticides, and animal wastes. This befoulment has been topped off by fracking, which irredeemably pollutes water over a wide area, as fracking pollution is a deep injection of chemical toxicity.

7 million people live in the Central Valley (2018). There is no tap water there that is safe to drink.

 California Going Dry

California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought except praying for rain. ~ James Famiglietti

California has a history of severe droughts. In the 21st century (to 2019), California has had 2 such dry spells: 2007–2009 and 2012–2015. The latest drought was the state’s driest period in past 1,200 years.

Every year since 2011, the state had pumped 15 km3 of water out of its main aquifers. As a result, the ground sunk 30 cm a year in some places.

We know that drought is becoming a regular occurrence. This is the new normal, and we’ll have to learn to cope with it. ~ California Governor Jerry Brown

In April 2014, the Governor issued an executive order that reduced resident potable water use 24%. The edict did not apply to agriculture, which sucks down 40% of the state’s water. Communities consume only 5% of the state’s water.

There are folks who have been conserving for decades. There are other communities who are using hundreds of gallons per capita per day. ~ Felicia Marcus, head of the California state water resources control board

By 2015, California was down to its last year of above-groundwater reserves. Then El Niño brought storms that besotted politicians more than wet the parched land.

In May 2016, with 90% of the state still facing drought, mandatory water conservation was scotched in favor of letting communities decide how much they wanted to gulp down.

Water conditions at the end of the day are local. ~ Jeff Kightlinger, head of southern California water management

However local water “conditions” may be, California’s water supply is a shared, precious resource. The Golden State consumes 5.4 km3 of the Colorado River every year; by contract, the lion’s share of 7 states thirsting for the river’s water, which is over-allocated.

The Colorado River is unable to satisfy all the demands on it, so it is referred to as a ‘deficit’ river, as if the river were somehow at fault for its overuse. ~ American environmentalist Marc Reisner

In the winter of 2016–2017, California received a deluge of water, granting a temporary reprieve from its prolonged drought. An atmospheric river poured down, creating floods and mudslides. By that time, the state had lost over 100 million trees and many millions of fish to lack of rain.

With the crisis past for the moment, California did next-to-nothing to prepare for a water-parched future, which is practically guaranteed. As the Arctic loses sea ice, it will change air convection currents over the tropical Pacific. These convection changes will drive the formation of an atmospheric ridge in the north Pacific, drying out California.

The recent California drought appears to be a good illustration of what the sea-ice driven precipitation decline could look like. ~ Serbian climatologist Ivana Cvijanovic in 2017

While the heavy rains of late 2016 brought a respite from drought, they also created a conflagrant consequence: raging wildfires. The winter precipitation provoked vegetation growth. California then had one of its hottest, driest summers ever. Withered plants became combustible fuel. Fires raged throughout the state, though the most intense ones were in southern California. The economic damage was compounded by having built residences among wooded areas.

By 2018, hot and dry conditions had returned to California. Water supply continued to diminish.