“We are land animals. The resources upon which we depend come largely from the land. Degrading the land degrades our life support system.” ~ American geologist Roger Hooke & Spanish geologist José Martín-Duque
Like the apes from which they descended, early foraging hominids gathered what they could. Environmental destruction was limited.
Learning how to handle fire a million years ago changed that: yielding a ready implement of warmth and kindling the prospect of power over Nature rather than being constantly at its whim. Fire was a tool which sparked confidence – forever changing hominids from mere creatures of the forest and savanna into a relentless force of exploitation.
Technology furthered emergent humans as an antagonistic agent bent on sculpting the surface of the Earth. Confiscating land from Nature for livestock grazing and cultivation became a norm. As implements of flint gave way to metal, dominion over terrain grew. Deforestation accelerated. The Iron Age granted greater gouging of the ground, facilitating furrowing, mining, and masonry. Humanity dug in. Construction as ecosystem destruction became a tradition of ambition.
Industrialization turned human existence into a positive ecological terror. Machines moved with a viciousness no man could match. Driven by their masters, machines fed themselves via massive extraction of fossil fuels.
“In the last part of the last century, humans became responsible for moving more soil or rock than natural agencies. We’ve increased erosion rates in most parts of the world, but we’ve also trapped a lot of sediments, because we’ve dammed most of the world’s really big rivers.” ~ English geographer Tony Brown
Human demands on natural systems are accelerating. ~ Canadian Australian South African forest scientist Oscar Venter
To date, 75% of the land on Earth has been scarred by human activity. 97% of Earth’s biologically richest ecosystems have been grievously damaged by humans.
“The most species-rich parts of the planet, especially the tropical rainforests, have been hit hardest.” ~ Bill Laurance
Many land animals naturally roam over large tracts of land in seasonal migratory cycles. Until the 20th century, vagility – being able to move freely – was unencumbered throughout much of the world. Now, with most of Earth’s land surface damaged or modified for our use, the vagility of other life has sorely degenerated. “Freedom” is an aspiration that only people may indulge.
“The expanding footprint of human activities not only is causing the loss of habitat and biodiversity but is also affecting how animals move through fragmented and disturbed habitats.” ~ German ecologist Marlee Tucker et al
People threw away over 3.2 million tonnes of trash in 2016, 10 times the garbage pitched a century earlier. Without changes, rubbish will more than triple by 2100.
The United States, China, Brazil, Japan, and Germany are the leading garbage generators. In the US, Nevada has the most trash per person, followed by Pennsylvania, Colorado, California, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The states with the least waste per person are Idaho, North Dakota, and Connecticut.
The more urbanized and industrialized a country becomes, the more waste it produces. Over half of the world’s population does not have access to regular trash collection. In North America and Europe, trash becomes invisible once it is disposed of. In other parts of the world, garbage is more obvious, as it piles up in waste dumps, sometimes in the middle of cities, as it did in medieval Europe.
Currently, 37% of solid wastes is put into landfills, 33% into open dumps, and 11% is incinerated. Globally, only 13% of solid waste is recycled.
Whereas 67% of aluminum cans are recycled in the US, only 10% of American plastic makes it to a recycling facility, where over half of that is thrown away. In recycling, the US lags well behind more fastidious countries, such as Germany, South Korea, and Taipei. The US mostly “recycles” its trash to other countries, adding to their garbage problem.
“The international recycling business sees its business as a way of making money. There have been no global regulations – just a dirty market that allows companies to take advantage of a world without rules.” ~ American international business professor Andrew Spicer
Dumps are a problem because they generate copious amounts of methane, as microbes consume what they can. Burning trash outdoors is harmful for human health and degrades the environment. Europe incinerates more and dumps less. While some European incinerators are relatively clean, most are hazardous pollution sources.
Tokyo has 48 garbage incinerators in the metropolitan area which also convert garbage into energy. The city claims their incinerators are not hazardous to public health because they burn mostly organic material and use advanced filtration systems. Tokyoites separate their waste into categories – such as burnable, non-burnable, cans and bottles, and oversized items – which are collected on different days. The largest of Tokyo’s 12 landfills are on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, and are expected to last until mid-century. Dumps in less fastidious countries are already overflowing.
“Nobody listens to us. We die like insects.” ~ Indian small business owner Mohammed Ismail
India’s largest cities are circled by reeking, toxic mountains of garbage. In 2017, the Indian Supreme Court observed that air traffic control at New Delhi’s international airport would end up steering planes around the dumps.
“If this continues to happen, the city will drown in its waste.” ~ Indian urban environmental ecologist Singh Sambyal
Advanced economies comprise 16% of the world’s population but produce 34% of its rubbish. The developing world is fast catching up in throwing things away. On current trends, mid-century Europeans and North Americans will generate 25% more garbage, East Asian trash will grow by 50%, while rubbish will double in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Worldwide, the trash toll will jump 70% from 2016 to 2050 if today’s practices continue.
Indonesia’s garbage practices are typical of developing countries, including much of Africa. Indonesia has some of the biggest open garbage dumps in the world, where thousands toil at a dangerous occupation: scavenging on mountains of trash. Indonesia does not have industrial incinerators, so garbage easily accumulates and spreads. Indonesia is the largest source of plastic that is dumped into the oceans.
Being able to fling objects into the heavens gave humans another outpost of refuse. The legacy of the space age has been to turn Earth’s exosphere into a rubbish tip. As with other accomplishments, the desecration is accelerating.
Orbital trash is not the only celestial mark man has made. Exploration of the Moon has resulted in nearly 200 tonnes of human refuse, including 96 bags of poo and other bodily expulsions, various personal effects, such as the “javelin” hurled by the 6th man on the Moon, and an abundance of technological discards.
“Mining is like a search-and-destroy mission.” ~ American politician and environmentalist Stewart Udall
Mining gouges the ground like no other human exploitation. Great swathes of land are gashed by strip and open-pit mining. Whereas surface mining bares hidden toxic metals, underground mining brings huge volumes of noxious waste up from the bowels of the Earth.
Beyond denuding forests, prehistoric man dug for flint: the material of choice for Stone Age weaponry. Chalk and other minerals followed.
As soon as man developed metallurgy, around 40,000 BCE, metals were excavated. Gold caught the eye early on. But so did silver, copper, tin, and other metals.
In 3000 BCE, before it was known how to forge metal, Egyptians cherished weapons made from meteoric iron as “daggers from heaven.” That in no way lessened the enthusiasm to dig daggers out of the earth.
In line with other economic endeavors, industrialization took mining to a scale unimaginable mere decades earlier. Machines now easily do what no army of men ever could.
Coal is commonest material mined nowadays, but every nonrenewable resource valued by man, from gold to clay, is dug out of the ground in grotesque quantities.
Mining destroys ecosystems by driving off animals, eliminating vegetation, and ruining the soil. Any freshwater near mined sites is invariably polluted, as is the air. On southern West Virginia, coal mining on 5% of the land surface polluted 1/3rd of the region’s rivers.
“Coal mining leads to widespread declines in aquatic biodiversity.” ~ American biologist Ryan King
In the US, 2.4 million hectares (5.9 million acres) of natural landscape, mostly forest, was destroyed by mining between 1930 and 2000: an area equal to the state of Vermont.
By 2004, China had strip-mined at least 3.2 million hectares: an area twice the size of the capital province of Beijing, which is home to over 20 million people.
Once a targeted material has been taken to the point where further extraction is economically undesirable given available technology, the spent area is abandoned. Although many countries require reclamation plans for mining sites, undoing the environmental damage of mining is impossible.
As the contamination is thorough, land never really recovers from mining. At best, only ~15% of reclaimed real estate can be made to resemble anything natural for over a century after being mined.
Technology advances have made deep-sea mining possible. It is impossible to contain the pollution generated by seafloor mining. As the ocean floor is essentially unregulated, miners should have no problem destroying oceanic ecosystems in vast areas without repercussions.
Lead is toxic to all organisms in minute quantities, debilitating fundamental biochemical processes. In humans, it can affect every organ system. The effects on cognitive ability are especially profound.
While volcanoes spill some lead in their earth-shattering eruptions, humans have made lead an environmental element as it never was before. Lead is exemplary of man’s depravity and idiotic carelessness.
That lead is gravely poisonous was known to the ancients. Yet, until the mid-20th century, moderns imagined lead to be harmful only if ingested in large quantities, and its utility was so alluring as to overcome safety concerns.
Lead is easy to extract from the ground. It is malleable and resistant to corrosion: qualities that made lead the material of choice for everything from municipal water pipes to food tins to jewelry. Lead makes paints shiny and more durable and brightens paint colors. So lead was added to the arsenal of industrialized compounds to be strewn hither and yon.
The widespread addition of lead into petrol as an anti-knock compound spewed the toxin into the air, diffusing it worldwide. Even the polar ice caps are now imbrued with lead.
Lead’s inclusion in paints and many other products carelessly spread it around. Lead is still used in paints and petrol in Africa and many other places around the world. In Pakistan, paints labeled “lead-free” were found to have the highest levels of lead.
Despite the grievous health danger, the level of lead in the environment is only sporadically measured.
Unlike some compounds, lead does not quickly leach out of the soil. Plants uptake and retain lead in their roots. The lead that does vacate the soil typically makes its way into groundwater.
“The environmental impacts of resource extraction are more than the sum of their parts.” ~ American ecologist Morgan Tingley
Copious ancient vegetative remains lay trapped in shale: clastic (fragmentary) sedimentary rock formed by heat and pressure over millions of years; the same processes which manufacture the fossil fuels of intense interest to industrial societies.
That the flow rates of oil and gas wells can be improved via high-pressure injection of fluids through wellbores was discovered in the 1940s. By 1965, this technology was applied to shale deposits. Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) was an extension on fracturing techniques applied in the 1860s to stimulate shallow, hard-rock oil wells.
The practice of fracking shale spread to sites in Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and Britain in the 1970s.
Widening the application scope of fracking practices, Texas operators started horizontal fracking in the late 1970s. Horizontal wells are often more effective than vertical ones in shale, as sedimentary layers are horizontal, and so potential fuel sources are best targeted with lateral injection.
With the massive slosh of money seeking investment havens during 1st decade of the 21st century, investors sunk fulsome funds into fracking, fueling a boom in the US. As the price mechanism never works in a timely manner, the fracking bubble burst in early 2015, as oil and gas prices plummeted from oversupply.
Not to be outdone in the rush to self-destruction, China surged pell-mell into a fracking boom in the 2010s.
Ordinary oil and gas wells are concentrated pollution sites unto themselves. Soil nearby is contaminated beyond redemption. And wells commonly leak. This contaminates soil in a wider area, and poisons local groundwater and nearby surface water bodies.
Fracking up-scales the environmental destruction of oil and gas extraction to an incredible level. Fracking is so bad that it makes coal look clean by comparison.
Fracking requires massive quantities of water. Community water-supply wells have gone dry from water extraction for fracking.
“Disposal of fracking return fluids remains a big challenge.” ~ American environmental scientist Robert Howarth
The water used for fracking is heavily polluted with brine and toxic chemicals which cannot be cleared out. In a single year, over 1 billion cubic meters of toxic wastewater is generated by fracking in the US. Much of this voluminous waste is not contained.
“Chemicals traveled from shale gas wells more than 2 kilometers in the subsurface to drinking water wells.” ~ American geoscientist Susan Brantley
Widespread spillage from fracking destroys the vitality of the soil and water that it touches. No area where fracking occurs has decent drinking water. The water supplies of Oklahoma and Texas are especially fouled from fracking.
“Communities living with fracking have known for years that fracking pollutes drinking water.” ~ American chemist Lauren Pagel
The US areas fracked are those without an abundant freshwater supply. Fracking accelerates water shortages.
Via intense injection pressure on sedimentary rock formations, fracking consistently produces earthquakes that extend far beyond the fracking field.
“It has been recognized since the 1960s that fluid injection into the subsurface can trigger earthquakes.” ~ American geophysicist Cliff Frohlich
In 2008, before the fracking boom, there were 2 earthquakes in Oklahoma. In 2015, there were 890 that measured 3.0 or higher.
The sharp rise in Oklahoma seismicity since 2009 is due to wastewater injection. ~ English mathematician and physicist Thea Hincks et al
Fracking has made nearby residents sick and turned natural landscapes into brownfields. Over 150,000 hectares have been contaminated from the 90,000 fracking sites in the US.
“You feel violated. How can they come in and do this?” ~ Veronica Kronvall, American homeowner living near a fracking site
Those are just the terrestrial effects. Fossil fuel wells pollute the air and release voluminous potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
American government officials at every level have consistently supported fracking. The Bush Jr. administration exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Earthquakes caused by fracking are ignored by regulators. Fines are levied only for the most spectacular spillages and pollution events. The fines themselves are always an infinitesimal fraction of the economic and environmental damage done, and never enough to deter continuance.
“Hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry-best practices.” ~ Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute
Motorized transport has been a hallmark outcome of industrialization. Modern life is exceedingly difficult without a car. The cultural and societal impacts of autos have been incalculable.
In industrialized countries, at least 80% of all trips not made on foot are by powered vehicles. For the mass majority with the economic means to own a car, journeys on foot can be measured in meters, not miles.
Vehicular transport employs 5% of workers globally; but the economic importance of transport is dwarfed by its environmental impact. Every vehicle is an ecological assault. The mining of resources, industrial production, means and infrastructure by which vehicles move, and the inevitable disposal of all the materials involved come at enormous environmental cost.
Though the aforementioned are quite enough, nearly 90% of the environmental impact of vehicles is due to their fuel consumption and emissions. Unlike industrial factories on the outskirts, tailpipes are at street level, pumping noxious fumes where people are trying to breathe clean air.
There were over 1.2 billion vehicles on the world’s roads in 2015. It is a burgeoning parade of motorized metal and plastic, rolling on endless ribbons of asphalt and concrete; an armada that will top 2 billion by 2035.
20% of US territory is directly affected by public roads. 70% of these roads are rural, which are nothing more than an environmentally destructive extravagance.
The picture is similar across much of the world. There are over 64 million kilometers of roads worldwide.
Motor vehicles degrade the environment on every front: in the air, fresh water, and on the seas (fuel extraction and transport), noise, soil quality, biodiversity, and the taking of land on a massive scale.
Roads and railways fragment ecosystems, a key element of habitat destruction and a principal cause of loss of biodiversity, and runoff from them carries pollutants. The land area ecologically impacted by roads may be tens to hundreds of meters wider than the area physically disturbed. ~ Roger Hooke & José Martín-Duque
“Roads initiate environmental effects that radiate outwards.” ~ American ecologist Nick Haddad
Road salt illustrates the ongoing externality of roads. At least 18 million tonnes of salt is poured on American roads annually to ward off slippery ice. (Governments do not regulate, or even track, the use of road salt.) The inevitable runoff has sorely salted nearly half of the freshwater lakes in the US.
“You can’t filter out these salts.” ~ American biochemist Sujay Kaushal
“It is alarming. Right now, it’s about ecosystems and biota. Ultimately, we’re looking at a human health issue.” ~ American conservation biologist James Gibbs
~1.25 million people are killed each year in traffic worldwide. 75% are men. 50 million are injured.
Motor vehicles are the leading cause of accidental death, and the number 1 killer of young adults. Nearly half of all traffic deaths are of someone not in a car: pedestrians and unfortunates on 2-wheeled vehicles.
Low-income countries have the highest death toll. Africa sports the most dangerous roads: 2.5 times as deadly as European thoroughfares.
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85% of ice-free terrain on Earth can no longer be considered wild. 1/3rd of the land’s potential biological production has been appropriated by people.
Thanks to plants, the terrestrial biosphere was once a considerable sink for greenhouse gases. Then humans arose, and terrain became a source of global warming. Too little land, too much man.
Anthropogenic activities such as land use, agriculture, and waste management have altered terrestrial biogenic greenhouse gas fluxes, and the results contribute to climate change. ~ Chinese ecosystem ecologist Hanqin Tian et al
Peat forms when plant matter does not fully decay, due to acidic and anaerobic soil conditions. Peat is the most widespread marshland biome, comprising ~60% of the world’s wetland, which covers ~4% of the planet’s landmass.
7% of all peatlands have been exploited for forestry and cultivation. This often dries the peat out.
Peatlands can be damaged through a range of land management practices such as draining, burning, overgrazing, pollution, afforestation, extraction, establishment of windfarms and access paths. ~ ecologists Katrina Marsden & Susanna Ebmeier
Peat is flammable when dry. Peat fires smolder and are difficult to extinguish.
The most typical scenario for peat fires is when a fast flaming wildfire sweeps over a region, burning the surface vegetation and igniting the peat if it is dry enough. The peat then smolders for a much longer time. ~ Spanish fire scientist Guillermo Rein
A heat wave ignited a huge peat fire in Central Russia during the summer of 2010. The heat and smog killed 56,000.
In 2015, slash-and-burn agriculture sparked massive peat fires throughout Indonesia, sending thick smoke and haze as far as Thailand, and killing 100,000.
Peatlands hold 1/3rd of the world’s soil carbon. The stored carbon goes up in smoke when peat burns.
As the world warms and dries, and humans continue their exploitation of bog lands, peat fires will hasten hotting the planet.
All arts and artisans must fail and cease if there were no timber and wood. ~ John Evelyn in 1662
Homo erectus discovering how to control fire would not have happened, and been for naught, had it not been for wood. Historians claim no Wood Age only because no such archaic artifacts remained to show wood’s importance; hence, prehistory begins with the Stone Age.
Prior to the Neolithic, man lacked implements powerful enough to cut and carve wood, let alone fell trees. The development of metal technology and the felling of forests went hand-in-hand.
We never really left the Wood Age, as the value of lumber to humans has been everlasting. Wood products are used for fuel, construction, and as personal implements, both at hand and between the cheeks.
Cold climes became habitable from the heat of wood fires. Inedible grains were transformed into food. Clay became pottery which could store all sorts of foodstuffs.
Farming became possible because of tools and plows built with wood. Wood was the fuel that afforded chemistry and metallurgy to develop.
Transportation would have been unthinkable without wood. From the invention of the wheel, every vehicle on land depended upon wood, as did everything afloat that people traveled on.
Waterwheels, windmills, and mineshaft supports were all built with wood, as were the buildings that gave rise to urban life.
Deforesting is not a recent phenomenon. It is as old as the human occupation of the Earth. ~ American geographer Michael Williams
Ancient writers observed that forests always recede in the face of civilization. Failing felling forests, all civilizations throughout history – from Sumer to North America 7,000 years later – would never have emerged. Scarcities of wood started wars, cajoled conquests of foreign lands, and triggered technological changes.
Metallurgists on the island of Crete in the Late Bronze Age developed many ingenious methods of conserving energy as wood became dear. Eventually, acute wood shortages impelled these metalworkers to separate iron from copper, thereby transitioning technology into the Iron Age.
18th-century-BCE Hammurabi, the great ruler and codifier of Babylonian law, saw to it that timber felling and its distribution were regulated, to thwart profligate use of wood.
Before 4000 BCE, Crete was just another island in the Aegean Sea; then its rich woodlands attracted traders from Mesopotamia, where all the forests had been felled. Thus arose the Minoan civilization.
Likewise, Macedonia was a woody backwater on the fringes of ancient Greek civilization until the great city-states ran short of timber. The Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE) between Athens and the Sparta-led Peloponnesian League was fought for possession of the forests in northern Greece and Sicily.
The exhausted combatants were then bested as Macedonia rose to power under Philip II. Philip’s son, Alexander, would go on to build the greatest empire in the ancient world. Its glory was brief. The Macedonian Empire declined as Rome’s rose. Roman conquest of Gaul and Spain was driven by demand for wood.
Having acquired sailing technology and a taste for easy wealth, the Vikings took to trading and marauding other lands. The Vikings discovered the rich forests of Iceland in the late 9th century. Settlers slashed and burned to grow hay and barley, and to create grazing land. They used the timber for building, and to fuel their Iron Age forges. Within 3 centuries, the forests were gone. Hardship fell upon the land. To this day, the forests never recovered, even as the most modern agricultural technology has been applied.
In the 16th century, Englishmen lusted after the lush forests of North America, having cut most of their own trees down. Conflicts over timber rights provided part of the drive for American colonists to revolt against their British masters. England wanted the best stands of trees for its navy. Americans wanted the freedom to fell whatever woods they would.
Without its timber resources, America’s revolt would have surely failed. An abundance of iron and charcoal for steel spelled weaponry aplenty, and all of its ships were built locally.
Scarcity of timber forced the English to move to fossil fuels, substituting coal for wood as the principal energy source. This in turn inspired innovations which begat the Industrial Revolution.
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Throughout history, ecological concerns grew the most heated, and were most heeded, as forests disappeared.
Plato vividly warned fellow Athenians of the consequences of deforestation. In the 2nd century bce, Cato taught the Romans how to husband their diminishing wood supplies.
No wood, no kingdom. ~ English writer Arthur Standish in The Commons Complaint (1611)
The most influential text ever written on forestry – Sylva (1662) – was a bid by English gardener John Evelyn to save the few remaining forests in Stuart England.
Just as timber fueled prosperity, deforestation has repeatedly meant decline. Along with other ancient civilizations, the Roman Empire was weakened as it became dependent upon others for food; having cleared its farmlands of the tree cover that had nourished the soil for ages.
Blessed by easy access to forests and rich soil, a society develops materially, and people grow confident that Nature will always provide for their needs. Ultimately the attempt to maintain high economic and population growth over time, in the face of dwindling resources, results in decline. ~ American environmental scientist Lester Brown
Trees still fulfill their historic roles for the majority of the peoples on the planet, but the lessons of history have not been learned. Judicious harvesting has yet to dawn on those who depend most on trees for their livelihoods. This willful ignorance ensures future impoverishment, as well as depleting the single most critical resource under human control for fighting the global warming created by man.
Forests play a more important role in cooling the surface in almost all regions of Earth than was previously thought. ~ Chinese American Earth scientist Kaiguang Zhao
Like beavers gone rabid, humans now chew through some $1 trillion dollars of wood products each year. People in industrialized countries account for only ~20% of the world’s population but consume 76% of its timber. By 2010, Americans were using twice as much wood as they did in 1950.
Forests are fragmented to carve out farmland, and to build villages, towns, and cities. Roads and dammed rivers fragment forests and woodlands. This fragmentation disrupts the delicate balance of Nature that exists, and can cascade to devastation, especially for forest creatures.
Even minimal deforestation has had severe consequences for vertebrate biodiversity. We found little support for the alternative hypothesis that forest loss is most detrimental in already fragmented landscapes. ~ American forest ecologist Matthew Betts et al
In 1986, the government of Thailand built a dam across the Khlong Saeng river, creating a 97-kilometer2 reservoir. As the reservoir rose, the river valley drowned. This transformed 150 hilltops into islands, each with its own isolated menagerie of life.
5 years after the flooding, the islands less than 10 hectares in size had lost all their small mammals. Overall, the average island had only 2 mammal species. The larger islands, with up to 56 hectares, had 7–12 species.
Within 25 years, all the islands were bereft of native mammals. The only mammal left was the Malayan field rat: an invasive species that does not venture deep into large forests but had colonized some of the islands.
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10,000 years ago, nearly half of Earth’s land was covered by forest. Over 1/3rd of those forests have been obliterated.
Forest fragmentation has been accelerating throughout the world, especially in the tropics: those regions with relatively rapid economic development. This is a death knell for biodiversity, and for humanity.
Deforestation is typically not accomplished by harvesting timber. Instead, woodlands are burned, with the charred remains cleared as needed. This is a hoary practice. Prehistoric hunter-foragers manipulated vegetation via fire to round up and slaughter game. Nowadays, vast tracts go up in flames as a shortcut to gaining arable land. The dirt is damaged by such wildfire. The loss of soil productivity from such practice is seldom recovered.
Covering 5.5 million km2, the Amazon rainforest arose over 66 million years ago (mya), when the Atlantic Ocean had widened enough to provide a warm, moist climate to the Amazon region. Amazonia is the world’s largest river basin, and once had over half of the planet’s rainforest.
Humans first settled in Amazonia 11,200 years ago. As always, their impact on the forest was immediate. But it was not until the 1960s that deforestation took a severe turn, with slash-and-burn clearing forest for farmland. In the 1970s, highways opened up access to the interior of Amazonia, taking deforestation to the next level.
“The destruction in modern times of a forest that is millions of years old is a major event in the world’s history. It is larger in scale than the clearing of the forests in temperate Eurasia and America, and it will be accomplished in a much shorter time.” ~ English ecologist Paul Richards in 1973
Before its desecration by human assault, Amazonia generated half its rainfall by recycling the moisture brought to it by airmasses from the Atlantic Ocean. The Amazon is fast approaching a tipping point, where the region’s hydrological cycle will fail, and no longer support a rainforest ecosystem at all.
In 2015, the Amazon rainforest was 3.3 million km2; a 40% diminishment via human intervention. Deforestation continues at a fierce pace. By 2050 the forest will be gone, reduced to wooded patches and scrub lands; and that is an optimistic forecast. Even by 2018 the remaining rainforest was grievously degrading, unable to keep up with climate change, especially repeated episodes of drought.
“The forest is seen as useless land that needs to be made useful.” ~ Bolivian botanist Nataly Ascarrunz
“Progress demands a lot from Nature. But progress must exist.” ~ Brazilian gold miner Otavio Neves in 2019, enthused about further Amazonian deforestation.
The Amazon basin was long a huge carbon store, helpful in regulating global temperatures. No longer. Deforestation and development in Brazil have neutered Amazonia as a check on global warming.
The 17,000 islands of Indonesia, totaling 1.9 million km2, were once lush forests; along with Amazonia, home to some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet. By 2016, logging and land clearing for farms and plantations had wiped out over half of the forests that once carpeted Indonesia.
During the summer dry season, smoke from Indonesian fires to enlarge plantations blacken the skies throughout southeast Asia. The pall is a severe health hazard.
“Air pollution generically, and particles specifically, are carcinogens. That would also be the case with smoke from wildfires, from the burning of vegetative matter.” ~ American physician Jonathan Samet
Madagascar is a large island off the east coast of central Africa, nearly 600,000 km2, almost as large as Alaska. Once heavily forested, and with a vast array of unique life, the island is under intense deforestation. The assault began 1,000 years ago, when early settlers burned the lush forests to promote the growth of grass for cattle fodder. This practice has greatly accelerated in recent decades. Deforestation has not been decently monitored, but by 2015, Madagascar had lost ~90% of its original forests.
Americans gaining control over the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War illustrates the development of modern logging. The Americans set up a forestry bureau within 2 years, and commercial logging commenced in 1904. At the time, 80% of the virgin forests were intact. By the early 1950s, half of the remaining forests had been destroyed. In 1980, 30% remained. By 2000, just 3% of the original forests were still intact. In 2018 only 1.5% remained.
Today’s deforestation practices in economically developing countries are simply more of the same, beginning with the Levant on the cusp of civilization 9,000 years ago, through Eurasia and the Americas from medieval times into the age of industrialization. The problem now is only more severe because of what has already been lost.
“Tropical forests and the animals they harbour are being lost at alarming rates.” ~ English ecologist Marion Pfeifer in 2017
China is now the top culprit of deforestation. (China is the world’s largest importer of wood. The US is 2nd.) The country began restricting commercial logging in its own natural forests at the turn of the century. To feed its rapacious demand for wood, China pays to denude the remaining forests of foreign lands, including Siberia (in Russia), Peru, Myanmar, Mozambique, Borneo, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.
“If the Chinese come, nothing will be left.” ~ Siberian resident Marina Volobuyeva
Clear-cutting accelerates the demise of remaining forest. The bare land of deforested areas is scorched by the Sun, creating hot spots that alter heat flow through a landscape.
Low air pressure in cleared areas pulls the cool, moist air out of the forest and feeds hot, dry air back in. This vegetation breeze is a scorching breath of death.
“The cleared areas get all the rain and the forests gets sucked dry. This is like climate change on steroids, and it happens over much more rapid time scales.” ~ American ecologist Kika Tuff
8.6 million hectares of forest continue to be lost worldwide each year, mostly for industrial agriculture. As of 2015, over 90% of South America’s Atlantic forest, which extends along the Atlantic coast of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, has been destroyed. What remains are scattered wooded patches averaging 60–70 hectares. Deforestation there continues.
Fragmentation of forest ecosystems has critical and ongoing impacts that erode biodiversity and ecological processes. ~ Marion Pfeifer et al
“Small fragments are the future.” ~ American Australian ecologist Bill Laurance
Climate change is performing its own deforestation. The African baobab is the biggest and longest-living angiosperm tree. A baobab may live 3 millennia. A 2005–2017 survey of African baobabs found the trees dropping like flies.
“Such a disastrous decline is very unexpected. These trees are under pressure by temperature increases and drought.” ~ Romanian ecologist Adrian Patrut
“Humans are adding ignitions to the landscape in areas and seasons when natural ignitions are sparse.” ~ American geographer John Abatzoglou
In 2015, over 1.3 million fires were reported in the United States, causing 3,280 deaths, 15,700 injuries, and $14.3 billion in property damage. Fewer than 5% of these were forest wildfires, which by far burned the most land, though resulted in a small fraction of the property damage compared to urban and suburban fires.
68,151 wildfires in 2015 burned over 4 million hectares. People started 84% of them, which accounted for 44% of the area burned.
“Burned or dead vegetation releases carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change.” ~ American forest ecologist and climate change scientist Patrick Gonzalez
While the number of fires has decreased in recent decades, the trend has been toward more extensive conflagrations. Human-caused climate change is responsible for doubling the land burned in western US wildfires during the last 40 years (1979–2018), where the majority of America’s remaining forests are.
“Thanks to people, the wildfire season is almost year-round.” ~ American fire investigator Jennifer Balch
Wildfires dramatically alter the vitality of the land. A soil exposed by fire may become easily erodible, so much so that the erosion rate may double. Otherwise, fire can cause a soil surface to harden, instead of gently percolating underground, rainwater and melting snow rush over the stiffened surface, gaining enough force to erode loose sediments.
“The sediment can have a wide range of effects on watersheds, many of which are headwater streams and important for water supply.” ~ American geologist Joel Sankey
“Fire pollution poses an increasing threat to ecosystem productivity in a warming world. The pollutants released by wildfires impact plants in areas way beyond the boundaries of the disaster.” ~ English chemist Nadine Unger
“Vines can change forests in a lot of ways. They hit big, slow-growing trees far harder than smaller, faster-growing species, meaning they can probably change the entire composition of the forest.” ~ American ecologist Stefan Schnitzer
Forests look idyllic, but the appearance of tranquility is belied by vegetation in constant conflict. The ancient battle between trees and vines is especially embittered.
If the forest was a financial system, trees would be old money: their deep roots, stout wood, and slow growth represent a long-held investment. These guardians of the woodlands are home to a zoo of species, just as coral reefs create an ecosystem all their own.
Conversely, vines are fleeting speculators: agile and aggressive competitors. Vines spend little in supportive tissue. Instead, they take advantage of trees’ capital stock, scrambling up trunks to the canopy, where they produce a flush of leaves and brazenly bask in the beaming sunshine at the top of the forest.
Climbers comprise up to half of the plant species in a typical rainforest. Vines produce 40% of the leaves. Long-stemmed woody vines (lianas) can grow to hundreds of meters long.
Trees pay a high price for the presence of lianas: the vines strangle and deform tree branches. Their dense foliage deprives trees of sunlight. Vine roots scoff water and nutrients. Trees bearing vines grow more slowly, reproduce less, and die earlier than those without.
Once lianas reach the canopy, they spread out, effectively roping trees together. If a tree falls, those nearby connected by vines can be dragged down.
Light-loving vines increase rapidly in forests fragmented for agriculture or by selective logging. Small 2nd-growth trees on the edge of disturbed forests are ideal trellises for rapid ascent to the canopy. Trees here die 2 to 3 times more quickly.
Humans have introduced invasive vine species that have wreaked havoc, as kudzu in the southeastern US and the rubber vine in northern Australia illustrate.
The time is ripe for vines, which are proliferating in forests undisturbed. This is the result of climate change.
Global warming and changes in weather patterns, along with rising atmospheric CO2, have upped the tempo of forest life. Faster plant growth intensifies competition, which drives more rapid turnover. All these factors favor vines.
Climbers make life tough for more than trees. Plants that live on trees, such as ferns, are excluded with dense vinery. Ferns act as islands of biodiversity, sustaining numerous arboreal animals.
Vines likely contribute a positive feedback to global warming from CO2 release. Trees store carbon in their tissues. When trees come a cropper from climbers, some of that carbon is released into the atmosphere.
Trees Downed by Trade
Humans have long traded commodities across continents with no thought of unnoticed passengers who wreak havoc in consequence. The fungi that caused chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease in North America are exemplary of a perennial problem.
The American chestnut is a magnificent tree, with mature trunks over 3 meters in diameter and crowns ascending to 60 meters. The chestnut was once the dominant tree in the Appalachian Mountains.
Disaster came to the chestnut in 1904. A micro-fungus from Japanese nursery stock, imported to an American zoological garden, rapidly spread. By 1950, American chestnut trees were wiped out.
In its native land of China, the same fungus benignly infects chestnut trees, causing little or no damage. A few European chestnut trees suffer when infected. But American chestnuts were tragically vulnerable.
Another, similar fungus causes Dutch elm disease. It also originated in Asia. Dutch elm disease was introduced into Europe during WW1 before making passage to the United States in the late 1920s. Infested elm timber was imported into Ohio, from where the pandemic slowly spread. Over half of the elms in the disease’s path succumbed.
Dutch elm disease is spread by bark beetles, who carry the fungus but are unaffected by it. Trees within 15 meters can directly catch the disease by root transmission.
In the 1940s, a virus infected the Dutch elm disease fungus in Europe, crippling the fungus’ ability to cause disease. The spread of the fungal disease virtually came to a halt in Europe. As with chestnuts, Chinese elm trees have good resistance to the native fungus.
“Fertility of the soil is the future of civilization.” ~ English botanist and agriculturalist Albert Howard
The world grows 95% of its food in topsoil, making soil the foundation of humanity’s food system. Dirt is commonly taken for granted, but the quality of soil has always been a major determinant of what will grow and to what yield.
pH regulates the capacity of soils to store and supply nutrients. Soil which is too acidic renders phosphorus insoluble, and thereby inaccessible. Phosphorus is essential for plant growth.
Soil pH is controlled by environmental factors, especially the level of rainfall. There is an abrupt transition from alkaline to acidic soil when precipitation exceeds evapotranspiration: the loss of water from the soil by both evaporation and plant transpiration. Evapotranspiration causes most of the water lost from the soil during the growth of a crop.
Climate creates a nonlinear pattern in soil solution chemistry at the global scale. ~ American soil ecologist Eric Slessarev
It was long assumed that soil comprises inherently stable chemical compounds. Instead, organic matter which is critical to soil quality progressively decomposes. Thus, soil fertility is an active process, involving the microbes within, the plants that cover the ground, and the atmospheric environment, including temperature, rainfall, and air quality.
As earth is both a sink and source of moisture in the air, soil quality has a direct link to the global water cycle.
“Soil may be altered rapidly in response to climate change. Changes in soil hydraulic properties set up feedbacks between climate and the land surface and thus intensify the water cycle.” ~ American Earth scientist Daniel Hirmas et al
Soil is itself a complex and fragile ecosystem. The soil creation process is so slow that soil is a nonrenewable resource.
Soil, once eroded or depleted, takes centuries – millennia even – to recover. ~ American geologist Frank Rhodes
Plants create ecosystems that nurture and protect the soil upon which they depend. If these critical caretakers are disturbed, soil degrades, sometimes irredeemably so. Man’s neglect of soil has often led to its critical vitality being lost. For farmers trying to lift themselves out of poverty, poor soil can leave them sunk in a mire of desperation.
“Poor soil constrains agricultural production and household capital, and low household capital constrains investments in improving soils.” ~ American economists Christopher Barrett & Leah Bevis
From 1975–2015, the world lost 1/3rd of its arable land due to pollution and erosion. This far outstrips the pace at which natural processes can replace degraded soil. American cropland topsoil is eroding 10 times faster than Nature can replenish it.
The modern combination of intensive tilling, lack of cover crops, synthetic fertilizers and pesticide use has left farmland stripped of the nutrients, minerals, and microbes that support healthy plant life. ~ American environmental scientist Susan Cosier
Soil erosion has largely occurred through the continual disturbance of planting and harvesting crops. Repeatedly turning over soil exposes it to oxygen, thereby soil releasing its carbon into the atmosphere. Disturbed soil fails to bind effectively, losing integrity. This impacts soil’s ability to store water, neutralizing its role as a buffer to floods. Hence, soil loses its ability to serve as a fruitful base for plants.
“We are increasing the rate of loss and we are reducing soils to their bare mineral components. We are creating soils that aren’t fit for anything except for holding a plant up.” ~ English ecologist Duncan Cameron
Half of global agricultural land is degraded. Of this, the majority is so damaged that local farmers have been unable to restore it.
“Our planet’s soils are under threat. In some places soil is being lost 100 times faster than it forms.” ~ English environmental engineer Steve Banwart
Deforestation, which takes away the trees that knit landscapes together, is also detrimental to soil health. Degraded soils are vulnerable to being washed away by weather events from global warming.
Pathetic soils are silting river systems. The gigantic brown stain where the Amazon River deposits soil into the Atlantic Ocean is illustrative.
30% of arable land is used to keep livestock rather than grow crops. This exclusivity runs counter to good soil management.
We need a radical solution, which is to re-engineer our agricultural system. We need to take land out of production for a long time to allow soil carbon to rebuild and become stable. We already have lots of land – it’s being used for pasture by the meat and dairy industries. Rather than keep it separated, we need to bring it into rotation, so that that there is more land in the system and less is being used at any one time. ~ Duncan Cameron
The impediment to implementing a rational solution for maintaining soil quality is private property, which precludes proper employment of land resources. The larger picture is the capitalist system, which atomizes decisions and hampers coordinated action which might otherwise optimize resource allocations.
“Soils comprise a dynamic reservoir of biodiversity within which the interactions between microbes, animals, and plants provide many benefits for human well-being. Living soils are vital to humans because soil biodiversity not only provides disease control, but also influences the quantity and quality of the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink.” ~ American ecologist Diana Wall et al
“There are no other Everglades in the world. The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of sawgrass and of water, shining and slow-moving below. It is a river of grass.” ~ American environmentalist Marjory Douglas
The lazy Kissimmee River in central Florida flows south into Lake Okeechobee, vast but shallow. The flow then meanders on, over the limestone shelf that defines the peninsula, through the Everglades marsh, which once covered all of Florida south of the Lake. The river of grass ends on the flats of Florida Bay.
The Everglades ecosystem is unique: a mosaic of freshwater ponds, prairies, and forested uplands supporting a rich community of life. The mix of salt and freshwater makes the Everglades the only place on Earth where alligators and crocodiles exist side by side.
In 1905, Florida governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward began a concerted effort to conquer the Everglades: draining it to render land suitable for agriculture and development; whence Miami and Fort Lauderdale sprouted up along the coast.
As south Florida’s population grew, so too the determination to suck the life out of the Everglades. In 1948, the federal government mandated a water management system that provided flood control, at the cost of irreparably damaging the Everglades ecosystem. Less than 2% of the Everglades was left intact. 99% of the alligators and crocodiles were gone.
Belatedly recognizing the devastation wrought, a series of laws and projects aimed at partial correction began in 1989. Since then, no restoration has been accomplished. Man cannot redeem the Nature he puts asunder.
“There are huge challenges. We’ve had a lot of projects for a lot of years, and they never get done.” ~ American hydrologist Terry Rice