Up to now I have been talking about the main inputs to our industrial society, namely, food, energy, and water, all of which interact, influence, and feed off each other to form complex relationships that support our civilizational. E.g. a shortage of water can have an impact on our ability to grow food. It can also impact our ability to obtain energy, whether via a reduction in corn to produce ethanol, due to low river levels inhibiting transportation of coal, a reduction in power plant cooling capacity, or a limit on hydraulic fracturing. Burning fossil fuel energy increases atmospheric CO2, thereby increasing climate change, and ultimately increasing likelihood of drought and water shortages, further feeding the cycle. Another example: an energy crisis can lessen our ability to grow food by halting transportation, and increasing prices to the inputs of industrial agriculture.
All of these relationships come together to create an intricate industrial system, involving economic, geographic, and thermodynamic forces, impacting anything from small time farmers, to stock markets. Despite this complexity, the system is vulnerable due to the chokepoints of the basic inputs of food, energy, and water it relies on.
Today I am going to discuss another complex set of systems that have interdependent relationships and multiple feedback mechanisms. As you have probably guessed from the title, I am referring to ecosystems. Specifically, I want to focus on biodiversity, and how human activity is threatening the complex communities all life is based in.
We know about Grizzlies, Wolves, Condors, and Bison. We know about the danger Polar Bears are facing. How about others?
- Wild salmon in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and southern British Columbia have been on a 160+ year downward trend and are now at very low levels.
- Five butterfly species have vanished.
- Caribbean coral reefs are on the verge of collapse, with less than 10% of the reef area showing live coral cover.
- White-nose syndrome (WNS) is associated with the deaths of at least 5.7 million to 6.7 million North American bats.
- Calculations based on extinction rates suggest that the current extinction rate of amphibians could be 211 times greater than the background extinction rate and the estimate goes up to 25,000–45,000 times if endangered species are also included in the computation.
- Many experts estimate orangutans could be extinct in the wild in less than 25 years.
When I was a kid, I would roam our pasture catching fireflies and collect them in glass jars. I’m not sure if children are still able to do this, because firefly populations are disappearing around the world.
There have been several recent spontaneous die-offs of various species of fish, bird, and mammals with mysterious causes, including 83,000 drum fish in Arkansas, 4500 blackbirds in Arkansas, 877 dolphins in Northern Peru, 2300 seabirds in Chile, and Starfish in multiple geographic areas. (To be clear, I’m not making the case that all of these events are related or human caused)
Everyone probably already knows by now about Honeybee decline and Colony Collapse Disorder. If not, I encourage you to check out the documentary More Than Honey, which is available on Netflix.
This leads me into the concept of Keystone Species. All of these species I’ve listed are just scratching the surface of populations in decline. Each individual listed is food for some other species, and contributes to the community it participates in. If Grizzlies eat Salmon, and Salmon are in decline, Grizzlies might have a problem finding food. Each species interacts with the other members of the ecosystem in an interdependent web of homeostasis. Their loss is felt as ripple effects throughout the ecosystem. Some species are more crucial in the ecosystem than others. Honeybees are a prime example of this because of their work as pollinators. Another example, Wolves, were re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park in the late 90s. Since then, the entire ecosystem, and even the landscape of the park have begun to change, as you can see in this video:
As wildlife biologist Michael Hutchins describes it:
As we know from basic ecology, organisms in functioning ecosystems are interdependent and linked together in complex webs. The loss of one species can therefore result in a cascade of extinctions. Well known biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich once liked this to taking the bolts out of a flying aircraft one at a time. It may hold together for a while, but eventually, a wing will fall off and the entire plane will crash (Ehrlich, P. and Ehrlich, A. 1981. Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species. New York: Random House). This is especially true for so-called keystone species that are at the center of these complex relationships. To the extent that climate change results in species extinctions—either directly or indirectly—we are likely to see such extinction cascades occur, and this could result in a significant loss of biodiversity.
If I may offer up my own analogy: it is like removing pieces of a Jenga tower. Each species is a piece in a giant game of Jenga. We keep removing pieces, and eventually the whole thing collapses.
Beyond individual species decline, whole habitats are having major problems. Around 85% of global fish stocks are over-exploited, depleted, fully exploited or in recovery from exploitation. There are huge dead zones opening up in the coasts of the world’s oceans due to nitrogen run-off from rivers.
Dead zones where fish and most marine life can no longer survive are spreading across the continental shelves of the world’s oceans at an alarming rate as oxygen vanishes from coastal waters, scientists reported Thursday.
The scientists place the problem on runoff of chemical fertilizers in rivers and fallout from burning fossil fuels, and they estimate there are now more than 400 dead zones along 95,000 square miles of the seas – an area more than half the size of California.
The number of those areas has nearly doubled every decade since the 1960s, said Robert J. Diaz, a biological oceanographer at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. (http://www.sfgate.com/green/article/Scientists-alarmed-by-ocean-dead-zone-growth-3200041.php)
Last March, the EPA released a study saying more than half, 55%, of all the rivers and streams in the United States are in poor condition for aquatic life. Let me repeat that for emphasis. Half of all rivers in the US are in poor condition for aquatic life. The study also declared “Over 13,000 miles of rivers are found to have mercury in fish tissue at levels that exceed thresholds protective of human health.”
Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years. Soil is not just dirt, but a living ecosystem of organisms, microscopic and otherwise, that live in the humus of the surface of the Earth. Earthworms, nematodes, protozoa, fungi, bacteria, and different arthropods, along with other flora and fauna, exist within this depleting habitat.
All of these worldwide threats to ecosystems have led some scientists to dub this the Anthropocene Extinction, as the name of the sixth great mass extinction event of the world, which we are in the midst of, because it is being caused or perpetuated by human influence. The present rate of extinction may be up to 140,000 species per year. Polling done by the American Museum of Natural History “finds that seven in 10 biologists believe that mass extinction poses a colossal threat to human existence, a more serious environmental problem than even its contributor, global warming; and that the dangers of mass extinction are woefully underestimated by almost everyone outside science.”
We should all be sitting up to pay attention and worry. Habitat loss, deforestation, climate change, desertification, pollution, and other deleterious human activities, are threatening a biodiversity crisis that compromises the complex ecosystems all life, including humans, depend on.
Thus far we have covered Energy in general, which is one major input to industrial agriculture. This post will cover another major input, water. Plants need water to grow. Humans and livestock need water to drink. Whole ecosystems need adequate water for their purposes. What happens if drought forces a scarcity of fresh water? We are in the beginning stages of finding out the answer to this question, as climate change threatens increases in severe weather, desertification, and pro-longed drought.
California right now is in a state of severe drought, potentially the worst drought in 500 years, according to at least one professor. California grows 25% of the country’s food, including more than half of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables in the United States. Agriculture uses 80% of water in the state. Livestock farmers are among the hardest hit by the drought. Not only do they need water for the livestock to drink, but they need water to grow the fields the livestock feed on. According to the USGS waster contents calculator, a pound of ground beef requires between 4,000-12,000 gallons of water to produce.
The drought in the West, coupled with bitter cold in much of the rest of the country, has helped shrink the nation’s cattle population to a 61-year low. Wholesale prices for choice-graded beef hit an all-time high of $240.05 per hundredweight Jan. 22, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (source)
You can see from this image at Folsom Lake near Sacramento taken by the California Department of Water Resources how bad things are.
According to NASA, the lake has gone from 97 percent capacity down to 17 percent.
California is not the only state having water problems. California uses approximately 5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River every year. The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, supply water to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of land It provides water for 7 different states. Americanrivers.org named the Colorado River the most endangered river of 2013.
Lake Mead is the largest water reservoir in the United States, formed by Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. It set a record low water level of 1081.94 feet in 2010. Today the lake is at 1108 feet. It is expected to drop 20 feet this year. Hoover Dam will not be able to produce electricity if Lake Mead drops to 1050 feet. Hoover Dam supplies electricity to 29 million people.
The United States is also not alone when it comes to drought. Sao Paolo Brazil is facing the biggest drought on record. Their biggest water supply may run dry within 45 days.
Drought causes farmers and municipalities to increasingly use ground water and aquifers. For example, during the last few years of drought in Oklahoma and Texas, the Ogallala Aquifer experienced its largest decline in 25 years in the Texas panhandle.
Between 1900 and 2008, the US lost 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of groundwater. That’s twice the volume of the water in Lake Erie….It gets worse. The rate of groundwater depletion is accelerating, according to the study of 40 major US aquifers. Between 1900 and 2008, the US lost an average of 9.2 cubic kilometers of groundwater annually as the growth of cities and industrial agriculture tapped underground reserves. But between 2000 and 2008, groundwater depletion jumped 171% to an average of 25 cubic kilometers a year. In just those nine years, the amount of water pumped from the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies a large swath of the US, was equivalent to 32% of the water that was depleted from the Ogallala during the entire 20th century. (source)
The Ogallala Aquifer was created by glaciers millions of years ago, and refills at a much slower rate than we are depleting it. 30% of the Kansas portion of the aquifer has already been pumped dry.
Beyond this, groundwater depletion is having unintended consequences. The pumped groundwater from aquifers and other underground reservoirs ends up as runoff, making it into streams, rivers, lakes, and eventually the oceans. In fact, in a newly discovered feedback loop of climate change, groundwater pumping is causing sea-levels to rise faster than glacier melt.
Other hidden costs of droughts include limiting energy production from power plants, as nuclear, coal, and natural gas plants are cooled by water. Drought also increases prices for biofuels, such as corn based ethanol, which requires water in order to grow. Low water levels on rivers such as the Mississippi mean limited capacity for shipping. The Mississippi carries 60 percent of the nation’s grain, 22 percent of the oil and gas and 20 percent of the coal. Higher shipping costs translate to higher prices for these commodities, exacerbating the effects of drought on food and energy.
The water crisis we are undergoing prompted the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, to come out last year and issue a warning to the world about fresh water scarcity.
I just recently watched a documentary about water on Netflix called Last Call at the Oasis. I encourage you all to watch it if you are concerned about this issue. Here is the trailer:
Today I’m posting two videos because they go together. I present to you The Story of Stuff and The Story of Solutions: