EarthTalk® | August 2016


Dear EarthTalk: Have any wildlife species gone extinct already as a result of global warming, and which are most at risk moving forward? — Melissa Zwicker, Bern, NC

Global warming is definitely already taking its toll on wildlife around the world. Rising temperatures are changing weather and vegetation patterns from pole to pole, forcing animals of just about every stripe to migrate to new areas in order to survive. But not every species is able to just get up and go, with animals dependent on narrow temperature ranges or specific habitats at most risk.

“The rapid nature of climate change is likely to exceed the ability of many species to migrate or adjust,” reports the non-profit Nature Conservancy. “Experts predict that one-fourth of Earth’s species will be headed for extinction by 2050 if the warming trend continues at its current rate.”

A recent study from researchers at the University of Connecticut found that one in six species could go extinct if global warming continues unabated. If the world can keep its emissions to limits agreed upon last year at the Paris climate summit, one in 20 species could go extinct.

And the purge has already begun. The death of the last Golden Toad in Central America in 1999 marked the first documented extinction as a result of climate change. And more recently researchers in Australia reported the disappearance of the first mammalian species, the Bramble Cay melomy, as a direct result of global warming. This rat-like mammal, endemic to one small island off of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, was last seen in 2009. In the interim, 97 percent of the melomy’s habitat has been lost to rising sea level. An extensive survey of the small island it inhabited in 2014 turned up no more of them, leading researchers to declare the species extinct.

Biologists believe that unchecked warming will likely cause the polar bear to lose its battle with existence within a century, while coral reefs across the tropics might not even last that long. Fish and other marine wildlife dependent on coral reefs, such as the orange-spotted filefish, will likely go the way of the dodo as well. Researchers are also worried about everything from North Atlantic cod to Antarctica’s Adélie penguins to Africa’s Quiver tree to Hawaii’s Haleakala silversword, among thousands of other animal and plant species at risk. Wildlife native to Australia and New Zealand remain particularly vulnerable, given they have less room to roam as temperatures continue to rise.

“The risk if we continue on our current trajectory is very high. If you look out your window and count six species and think that one of those will potentially disappear, that’s quite profound,” says Mark Urban, a co-author on the University of Connecticut study. “Those losses would affect our economy, our cultures, our food security, our health. It really compels us to act.”

“This isn’t just doom and gloom. We still have time. Extinctions can take a long time. There are processes that could be important in mediating these effects, for example evolution, but we really need to very quickly start to understand these risks in a much more sophisticated way,” concludes Urban.

Contacts: Nature Conservancy,; “Accelerating extinction risk from climate change,” Photo above: Global warming could claim polar bears as a casualty within a century and has already forced the Golden Toad, Bramble Cay Melomy and other wildlife species into extinction. Credit: Flickrfavorites, FlickrCC.

Cetaceans (dolphins, whales)
Cetaceans (dolphins, whales) are particularly vulnerable to underwater noise pollution which can affect their ability to communicate and feed. Credit: Gordon Wrigley, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: Why is underwater noise pollution such a big deal and what are we doing to prevent it? — Phil Ziegler, New York, NY

For us land-dwellers, underwater noise rarely reaches our ears. However, marine organisms can be very sensitive to undersea sounds, particularly unnatural noise. Human activity — from explosives to underwater construction to ship traffic to oceanographic research — creates intense noise that threatens the health of ocean wildlife. Direct effects include hearing loss, habitat displacement, and even brain hemorrhages. The noise impedes the senses that enable many marine species to coordinate their movements and find food, and can also interfere with breeding cycles and migration patterns. This cacophony of underwater noise pollution puts additional stresses on marine ecosystems already on the ropes due to overfishing, pollution and myriad other human threats.

Of particular concern lately to environmentalists is underwater noise pollution from seismic testing, where resource extraction industries use air guns to map the seafloor to look for potential oil and gas reservoirs. “From the water’s surface, the gun generates a blast of sound that penetrates the ocean floor then bounces back up to a receiver, relaying data about the layers of sediment, rocks, and potential fuel deposits below,” reports the Pew Charitable Trusts. “There is concern that the intensity of seismic sounds and their large spatial coverage may lead to injury, disturbance or displacement of marine animals or a masking of their communication.”

While the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea forbids pollution that can damage marine wildlife, a lack of enforcement abilities means corporations and the military can continue to carry out many noisy undersea operations. The non-profit Ocean Mammal Institute would like the UN to endorse a “precautionary approach” limiting all sources of intense underwater anthropogenic sound and requiring individual nations to follow suit accordingly.

“The precautionary principle should be applied publicly and transparently to noise generated for military, commercial and scientific purposes,” reports OMI. “In many cases, there are alternatives and realistic mitigation scenarios for reducing and eliminating very loud human-generated noise from the marine environment, including employing improved passive sonar devices, using reduced noise energy, mechanical and operational designs that minimize noise, alternative energy sources, etc.”

Given the Convention on the Law of the Sea’s lack of “teeth” on monitoring and enforcement on the issue, the United States has started taking matters into its own hands to address underwater noise pollution in its own territorial waters and beyond. The Obama administration recently called for more scientific research to fully understand the ecological impact of underwater noise, and directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to step up efforts to track and monitor volume levels below the surface. NOAA is also working on tools that the public, corporations and military can use to assess and help mitigate noise-making activities, and has initiated a campaign to raise public awareness on the issue.

While ocean wildlife activists say much more needs to be done to start solving this insidious problem, at least the U.S. is taking steps in the right direction even if the rest of the world continues to ignore the noisy threats lurking below the depths.

Contacts: Ocean Mammal Institute,; Pew Charitable Trusts,

Coal is big business
Coal is still big business in the U.S. and beyond, and it isn’t going away overnight. But how long it can stick around as a viable contender for Americans’ energy dollars as natural gas and renewables ascend is anybody’s guess. Credit: Rennett Stowe, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: Are we really heading for a coal-free power future in the U.S. or is this just an environmental pipe dream? — Jack Summa, Boston, MA

Far from just an environmental pipedream, the coal industry in the U.S. and around the world is in the midst of a major downswing. In 2011, coal dropped below 40 percent of total U.S. energy generation for the first time since the late 1970s, while in 2015 coal accounted for only 33 percent. And given the influx of cheap natural gas and the ascendance of renewable energy sources — not to mention recent coal mine safety lapses with tragic consequences — coal might not be able to mount a comeback.

“Technological advances have made natural gas, wind and solar — and efficiency — increasingly competitive,” reports John Brinkley in Sierra Magazine. “The once-robust overseas demand for coal is disappearing.”

Brinkley adds that a decade of sustained public advocacy for clean air and clean energy has left coal out in the dark. The Obama administration’s landmark Clean Power Plan that forces big coal-fired power plants to clean up their acts dramatically or shut down has been one major factor in coal’s slide, while the Paris climate accord has sped up the process even more by taking a huge bite out of potential U.S. coal exports.

Over just the last five years, fully one-third of U.S. coal plants, some 232 different facilities, have been closed or scheduled for imminent retirement. Plans for another 184 new coal-fired plants have been shuttered — activists claim credit but the development of new technologies that make harvesting natural gas that much cheaper may have more to do with coal’s death knell. For the first time in 200 years, no new coal plants are on the drawing board in the U.S.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), which collects data and reports on energy statistics for the federal government, some 13,000 megawatts of coal power went offline in 2015 as a result of coal plant retirements, while wind energy added 8,600 megawatts and solar tacked on another 7,300 megawatts. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign reports that coal’s downswing is just beginning, with another 50,000 megawatts of coal power predicted to go offline by 2030.

And the trend isn’t stopping at the border. “Many countries that used to be reliable customers for U.S. coal just aren’t into it anymore, partly because of last year’s successful UN climate change conference in Paris,” reports Brinkley. Even before the Paris agreement, China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, had been scaling back production and imports drastically in efforts to clean up urban air pollution and reduce its carbon footprint. In 2015, China cut imports of U.S. coal some 86.5 percent from 1.7 million tons to only 229,000.

Of course, coal is still big business in the U.S. and beyond, and it isn’t going away overnight. But how long it can stick around as a viable contender for Americans’ energy dollars is anybody’s guess. “The trajectory for the coal industry is clear, but the timeline is not,” sums up Brinkley.

Contacts: Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal,; Energy Information Administration,

Jeremy Bailenson at TED Talks
Jeremy Bailenson speaks at TED Talks Live about his lab’s efforts to use virtual reality to help everyday people learn about environmental challenges. Credit: Ryan Lash/TED, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: Have environmentalists started using Virtual Reality (VR) to further their cause? — Benjamin Pine, Forest Hills, NY

Virtual Reality (VR) is no doubt the hottest thing in electronics and entertainment today, with “immersive” 360-degree experiences increasingly available via the click of a mouse or tap of a screen. And while it’s hardly a replacement for getting out into nature and experiencing life itself, environmental advocates are starting to use VR as a tool to help everyday people appreciate the natural world around them and the environmental challenges we face as global citizens.

One of this trend’s leading lights is Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), which works to “design, test and distribute virtual reality interventions that teach the concept of empathy.”

“Virtual reality can give everyone, regardless of where they live, the kind of experience needed to generate the urgency required to prevent environmental calamity,” Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson told Yale Environment 360. “One of the greatest challenges to staving off irrevocable climate change isn’t simply getting buy-in from skeptical politicians — it’s getting people to visualize how driving a gas-guzzling car or living in an energy inefficient home is contributing to a problem that may only manifest itself completely in future decades.” Earlier this year the lab unveiled a short VR documentary and interactive VR game to help explain ocean acidification, a slow-motion and hard-to-explain process whereby excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves in the ocean, upping acidity levels and altering marine habitats accordingly.

Google Expeditions, a VR educational program from the Internet giant, has shared sections of VHIL’s ocean acidification documentary with over a million school children around the world as part of its beta release, and will likely reach many more as the program is rolled out to new audiences in coming months.

One of VHIL’s earlier experiments asked participants to either read a description of the experience of cutting down a tree, or to chop down a virtual tree using VR. “In following tests, those that took part in the VR simulation reduced their usage of paper products by 20 percent in comparison to those who did not,” reports the Triple Pundit blog. “In another experiment, test subjects were asked to virtually eat coal while bathing in order to fully understand the amount of resources they require to enjoy a hot shower.”

Yale Environment 360 reports that VR is also now being used more often in academic circles and to support policy initiatives, such as to create 3D representations of pollution or other human impacts.

Not to be outdone, famed nature filmmaker David Attenborough has kicked off a new series of VR nature films by documenting a recent dive expedition into Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in VR. Attenborough hopes to spark interest in protecting nature and wildlife by producing and distributing VR experiences that entertain and educate viewers through immersing them in some of the world’s most iconic environments.

Given the popularity of VR and the increasingly lower costs of producing content, we can expect to see many more immersive experiences to stir up enthusiasm for reducing our environmental impact and protecting vanishing nature and wildlife.

Contacts: VHIL,; Yale Environment 360,; Triple Pundit,

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