Pollution, Climate Change Top List of Scientists' Woes
WASHINGTON, DC, February 21, 2005 (ENS) - Top North American scientists from a wide range of disciplines emerged from their labs and field work to offer grim predictions for the future at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) over the weekend. Marine degradation, pollution, climate change, lack of research funding and political clout were among the warnings issued at the scientific meeting that concludes today in Washington, DC.
Whales, Fish Are Singing the Blues
Whales around the world are being threatened by pollution, hunting and "acoustic smog" caused by shipping and other human activities, marine scientists warned Saturday. They told reporters that the degradation of the oceans also poses risks for billions of people.
Roger Payne, best known for his discovery that humpback whales sing songs and for his theory that the songs of fin and blue whales can carry across oceans, said the population of Wright's whales in the North Atlantic is "collapsing," and that could be a harbinger of similar situations facing populations of other species.
A biologist, author, and MacArthur Fellow, Payne is founder and president of Ocean Alliance. In a recent study of sperm whales, Payne said, researchers were able to assess the presence of chemicals in polar seas, where male sperm whales spend part of each year, and in temperate seas, where female sperm whales live permanently and mate with migrating males.
DDT, PCBs, and dioxins are all known to cause cancer in animals. These chemicals enter the tissues of fish, and are taken up by whale tissues when whales eat those fish.
"Whales are not the only long-lived mammals that eat a lot of seafood," Payne said. "So do we." And because 70 percent of the Earth's human population depends on seafood as the main source of protein, he warned, the long-term consumption of contaminated fish could affect more than four billion people, causing an unprecedented health crisis.
Christopher Clark, director of Cornell University's Bioacoustics Research Program, has spent nearly nine years using the U.S. Navy's Cold War era Sound Surveillance System, an extensive network of sensitive undersea monitors. Everywhere, Clark said, "the oceans are singing" with the calls of whales.
But because of shipping, oil exploration and underwater military activity, the amount of noise is doubling every decade, he says. Where a blue whale song might travel 1,600 miles underwater, now the call might be lost in the acoustic fog, discernable only at much closer range. That could have an impact on whale mating activity or on food hunting, Clark said.
The news isn't all bad, the scientists said. Some species of whales have stabilized after prolonged declines. Globally, illegal whaling appears to be on the decline. And the Wright whale, while suffering in the north, is proliferating in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps because the waters are cleaner and quieter.
In a scientific squeeze play, scientists report that fishing pressure is causing fish to evolve to smaller sizes, just as new studies show that larger fish are critical to sustaining populations.
In species such as Pacific rockfish, the big, old females not only produce exponentially more eggs than younger, smaller females, but their hearty larvae have a far greater chance of survival. Keeping these big fish in the water increases the chances of strong population numbers in the next generation – which is paramount to the recovery of overfished stocks.
Andy Rosenberg of the University of New Hampshire, a member of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and a former leader in the National Marine Fisheries Service, has faced the difficult realities of implementing new fisheries policies. "Over the last 10 years the management struggle has been to begin to bring massive overexploitation under control, and that struggle has had some success – but rebuilding fish stocks is another matter," says Rosenberg.
"Many scientists and managers are converging on similar issues – something is just not right with how we are doing things," says Steve Berkeley of the University of California-Santa Cruz.
"Rockfish can live to be 100 years old," says Berkeley. "People understand that you can cut down a 100 year old tree in five minutes, but that it takes 100 years to grow a new one. Old fish are the same way, they accumulate over decades, even centuries, and in a flash they're gone – we can remove them much faster than they can rebuild."
"Without the oldest females," says Larry Crowder of Duke University, "populations lose their best hope for the success of future generations - the resiliency that can compensate for overfishing."
Climate Conversations Go to Extremes
Global warming conversations have shifted from whether climate is changing to how we will deal with the inevitable consequences. And the price we pay will depend on where we live and how well we prepare, suggests one of the most detailed studies to date on global warming and its likely effect on human activity.
"Like politics, global climate change is local," said Michael J. Scott, a staff scientist at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. "Our behavior where we live must change with the climate if we are to stave off economic and natural catastrophemeet the challenge Mother Nature may hand us in the next few years."
The Yakima River Valley is a vast fruit basket, with 370,000 irrigated acres of orchards, vineyards and other crops covering 6,150 square miles from the river's headwaters in the Cascade Range east of Seattle to the Yakima's terminus at the Columbia River in Richland. In a typical year, five reservoirs and stream runoff provide agriculture with 2.7 million acre-feet of water. In a typical year at mid-21st century, that amount is forecast to fall an average of 20 to 40 percent.
"The expected losses to agriculture alone in the Yakima Valley over the next several decades will be between $92 million at two degrees Centigrade warming and $163 million a year at four degrees," or up to nearly a quarter of total current crop value, Scott said.
Those losses will result from a projected are based on shortage of water for irrigation. That water comes from reservoirs and runoff that are, in turn, tied directly to the amount of snow that accumulates in the Cascades over the winter, the snowpack.
Seasonal climate forecasts enable several months' warning that could prevent millions in losses, Scott said, by implementing improved water conservation, water trading and moving up planting and harvesting dates. Or farmers might switch from apples and other water-loving fruits to grapes, which do better than apples on less water, he suggested.
Climate change is about to bring a wave of new health risks, and as a result, governments and health officials will have to cope with killer heat waves and famine, floods and waves of infectious diseases, said Jonathan Patz, an expert on the human health effects of global environmental change.
"Averages don't kill people - it is the extremes," Patz said. "In the face of climate change, what are the adaptive measures at many and variable scales that we can take to reduce the health impact of climate change? That's what we need to be thinking about," he says.
In urban areas, steps are already being taken to mitigate the effects of warmer climate and the heat island effect created by cities. Rooftop gardens are being encouraged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others, and creating more reflective surfaces by painting rooftops white and using reflective materials in paving projects may reduce overall warming.
As temperature regimes change, weather patterns will be altered and increased rainfall will facilitate the spread of waterborne and food-borne disease. And increased local rainfall also will make life easier for the insects and animals that carry some human diseases.
Climate forecasts and warning systems can be used to predict and avert disease and adverse health outcomes.
Strong El Nino events, for example, tend to trigger heavier rainfall in the American southwest, setting the stage for rodent population booms and increased risk of exposure to hanta virus, a deadly disease transmitted through rodent urine and droppings.
If higher risk is forecast, people can prepare by mouse-proofing their homes and minimizing contact with rodents. "The key will be early detection, warning and responding to threats," Patz says.
Richard Barber, a professor of biological oceanography at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, views El Nino forecasting as a tool that can be used to assist in managing fisheries, controlling outbreaks of tropical disease and protecting marine mammals and other ocean species.
However, it took more than a decade, after 1983, before advances in supercomputing power and satellite technology allowed ENSO forecasting to "become one of the greatest success stories in American science," Barber said.
"With a small number of sensors we can now forecast what is going to happen with an ENSO nine months in advance with a great degree of certainty," he said. "These forecasts are now used and watched by politicians and bankers and commodity traders and all kinds of other people."
Still, the predictive powers of ENSO forecasting could be better used in three important areas, Barber said.
These reliable early alerts could be used to better manage high yield fisheries that are subject to "boom and bust" cycles, such as those for anchovies, sardines and mackerel, he said.
ENSO forecasting also could be used to better control outbreaks of tropical diseases such as malaria. "It is possible to give the World Health Organization a nine-month, if not a 12-month, forecast of where excess rains are going to be in the tropics so they can pre-deploy their resources."
Finally, scientists could use ENSO forecasting to predict how changes in ocean patterns are likely to relocate nutrient rich feeding zones where overexploited or threatened marine mammals, fish and turtles are most apt to congregate.
Regulators could then prejudge where existing fishing grounds should be closed, and whether fishermen could be directed to alternatives sites, Barber suggested. Naval ships planning sonar exercises could avoid impacting vulnerable marine mammals.
Extinction of Species Endangers Human Health
The destruction of habitat by human activity and the extinction of species around the world is more than a looming environmental catastrophe, warns a Canadian zoologist. This ecological damage also endangers human health by turning parasites into "evolutionary land mines."
Dan Brooks, a parasitologist at the University of Toronto, says the decline of global biodiversity is linked to the emergence of new human and wildlife diseases such as West Nile Virus and avian flu.
Brooks has looked for parasites in more than 4,000 individuals from species ranging from frogs to deer. So far, he has found more than 5,000 different types and has created one of the world's most comprehensive inventories of parasites, more than two-thirds of them new to science.
The real work has just begun, he says. Researchers still have a very poor to non-existent understanding of the roles these thousands of parasites play in different diseases, something that will require a detailed understanding of their often complex multi-host life cycles.
"It's very difficult to link these things up," he says. "It's very time consuming to do that, but without that information we don't know how these parasites are transmitted," so we lack the ability to predict and prevent emerging parasitic diseases.
"Right now, we're just reacting out of ignorance whenever an unfamiliar disease catches us off guard and we call that management," says Brooks. "We're always behind the curve, because we don't know where these things are coming from."
Lack of Political Clout Worrisome
The future of science is precarious under President George Bush's administration in light of looming funding cuts, said Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Bierbaum gathered five scientists with long careers of working on science policy to discuss the future of environmental research and funding under the Bush administration, during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Bierbaum said many members of the science community are worried about the "unprecedented politicization of science under Bush."
For instance, Bierbaum said, federal funding for research is expected to stay relatively flat in the coming years. But plans to cut the deficit by half, but not cut defense spending, will mean that more money must come from discretionary funding, which includes research, she said.
Perhaps most troubling, Bierbaum said, is the overall impact the proposed budget cuts will have on the education and training of graduate students, especially in the physical sciences. If the cuts in the Department of Energy's Office of Science, NASA science, National Science Foundation education programs and even defense basic research are approved by the Congress, support of graduate students will be slashed.
Bierbaum said this is contrary to the recommendations made by the Council on Competitiveness in the recent National Innovation Initiative report, which called for greater support of research and graduate student training.