Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that the Monarch Butterfly is on the brink of extinction? How did we let that happen? — Alex Degeneres, Cincinnati, OH
While the mighty Monarch Butterfly may not be on the endangered species list yet, environmentalists think it should be — and they have petitioned the federal government accordingly. In a 2016 lawsuit, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Food Safety joined forces to successfully sue the fed to force a decision on whether or not to include the quickly vanishing Monarch on the list of endangered species.
According to a recent study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Biological Conservation, Monarchs have declined across their usual migratory path in the western United States by some 97 percent in just 35 years. Back in the 1980s, upwards of 10 million Monarchs traversed this flyway annually, whereas only 300,000 or so now make the journey in any given year. Even more troubling, researchers warn that if present trends continue, Western Monarchs face a 72 percent likelihood of going extinct within 20 years and an 86 percent chance of extinction within a half century.
What’s causing this massive die-off of the once ubiquitous Monarchs? First off, global warming is wreaking havoc on the butterflies’ instinctual triggers to migrate. “Every year, a new generation of these butterflies follows the same path forged by generations before them,” reports David Wolfe of the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “The only thing guiding them on this migration is temperature telling them when they need to travel – like a biological trigger setting them in flight.”
“But in recent years, the monarch’s fall south migration from Canada has been delayed by as much as six weeks due to warmer-than-normal temperatures that failed to trigger the butterflies’ instincts to move south,” says Wolfe. “By the time the temperature cooled enough to trigger the migration, it’s been too cold in the Midwest and many monarchs died on their trip south.”
Global warming is also causing a massive decline in the Monarchs’ food source, the milkweed plant. Traditionally abundant in both native prairie habitats as well as on undisturbed lands, such as roadsides, ditches, cemeteries and even cornfields, milkweed is quickly becoming scarce due to the widespread application of herbicides to keep weeds down and fast changing seasonal climatic conditions as surface temperatures are rising across latitudes.
What can we do to turn things around for the ailing Monarchs? For starters, plant milkweed. This simple act not only provides vital habitat for migrating Monarchs but also makes a statement regarding what you value for plants — and in life — in your backyard or garden. The hardy plant is easy to find and easy to grow, and if you have it in your backyard keep your eyes peeled for Monarchs, hummingbirds and other wildlife.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is currently working to plant milkweed across some two million acres of public land along the Monarch’s key migration routes. Agricultural landowners can get in on the environmentally responsible action by signing onto EDF’s innovative Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, which incentivizes farmers in Texas, Missouri and California through market forces to grow milkweed either between other crops or in fields that aren’t otherwise in use.
Contacts: “Citizen science monitoring demonstrates dramatic declines of monarch butterflies in western North America,” sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320717304809; Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, www.edf.org/ecosystems/monarch-butterfly-habitat-exchange.
Dear EarthTalk: You never hear anything about ozone depletion anymore. Have we solved this problem and if so why can’t we get a handle on global warming as well? — Lia Smith, Reno, NV
Global warming is certainly a hot subject in the news right now, what with all the oppressive weather we’ve been having, but it doesn’t mean we’ve solved the myriad other environmental problems facing us.
That said, ozone depletion, while still problematic at certain times of year (especially in extreme southern latitudes like Antarctica) is a shining example of how we could be working together to make things better.
Researchers first noticed four decades ago that the ozone layer in the stratosphere above the clouds was starting to shrink. A 1974 research paper by Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina from the University of California at Irvine detailed how a class of synthetic chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — then widely used in refrigerators, air conditioners and aerosol spray cans — were working their way up to the stratosphere where the sun’s rays would break them down into their constituent parts. One of these parts, chlorine, reacts with the sun’s rays and breaks down ozone molecules, thinning the ozone layer that all life on the planet has evolved to depend upon for protection against harmful ultraviolet-B (UV-B) rays.
Less stratospheric ozone means more UV-B rays from the sun get through to the Earth’s surface, causing skin cancer and cataracts in humans and myriad problems for wildlife as well. Extra UV-B also inhibits the growth of phytoplankton, the lowest rung of the marine food chain. Researchers fear this culling of phytoplankton could reverberate with negative population impacts up the food chain.
Recognizing that outlawing CFCs could solve the problem, the nations of the world came together in 1987 in Montreal and agreed to phase out the production of CFCs altogether. While it will likely take another half century for the extra CFCs to filter out of the atmosphere and stop causing seasonal damage to the ozone layer, at least we’re moving in the right direction. The Montreal Protocol, ratified by 197 nations, still stands out to this day as perhaps the most successful international environmental agreement the world has ever known.
So what can we learn from our efforts to solve problems like ozone depletion that we can apply to fighting global warming? The major takeaway from the ozone depletion solution is the fact that working together across partisan lines and national boundaries is key. In 1987, the governments of the world came together, played nice and got down to business crafting an international treaty with some teeth that forced an international weaning off CFCs.
Of course, we have tried addressing global warming this way, with mixed success. Like the Montreal Protocol three decades earlier, 2016’s Paris Climate Accord was a landmark agreement where virtually all of the nations of the world agreed to cutting pollution (albeit voluntarily). But the fact that national leaders can easily pull their countries out of the climate agreement — as Trump did with the U.S. — or just simply reduce their commitments (given its non-binding terms) means that only time will tell if the Paris Accord will go down in history as the turning point in the battle against global warming — or just a footnote in the longer history of our environmental demise.
Contacts: “Stratospheric sink for chlorofluoromethanes: chlorine atom-catalysed destruction of ozone,” nature.com/articles/249810a0; United Nation’s Ozone Secretariat, ozone.unep.org; Paris Agreement, unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement.
Dear EarthTalk: I know that ranchers and environmentalists have traditionally been at odds, but what are some ways they are working together these days? — Jim H., Boone, IA
Ranchers and environmental advocates haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but the differences between the two aren’t as extreme anymore, as more and more ranchers have come around to the understanding that taking good care of the land supports both economic stability and environmental health.
“For some, ranching was pursued in the past with an emphasis on raising beef at the expense of everything else,” says Bill Bryan of the Montana-based Rural Landscape Institute in a recent Christian Science Monitor. “As a matter of necessity, the old way of ranching is giving way to a new paradigm. Raising animals for the dinner table isn’t an activity that has to be at odds with the environment.”
According to the non-profit WWF, grazing — when done right — is key to maintaining biological diversity and ecosystem health across the Northern Great Plains, a 183-million-acre expanse of rangelands spanning five U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. “This vast landscape evolved in harmony with large herbivores such as bison and elk, and must be grazed in order to remain healthy,” reports WWF, which works with hundreds of ranchers across the region as part of its Sustainable Ranching Initiative. “Without grazing, woody vegetation such as juniper and cedar creep in and choke out plants that threatened species such as grassland birds need to survive.”
Not surprisingly, many of the ranchers that are following in the forebears’ footsteps have been utilizing what we now call “sustainable ranching” practices for decades already. One example is rotational grazing, that is, moving cattle herds more frequently to different pastures so they don’t overgraze any one particular patch of land. Another is utilizing buffer strips and grassed waterways away from hungry livestock to support soil and water quality.
A newer “best practice” entails depositing a quarter to half inch of compost on grazed land to kickstart the soil chemistry below while also absorbing significant amounts of methane — the most potent greenhouse gas — before it can head for the atmosphere and exacerbate global warming. This technique, dubbed “range composting,” is now becoming more commonplace as today’s ranchers care about reducing their carbon footprints like no generation before them.
Some ranchers are going a step further by adopting so-called “Holistic Resource Management” techniques based on traditional practices whereby they treat cattle and livestock more like a wild herd. “Altering cattle grazing patterns and herd clustering to emulate those of their buffalo predecessors has a significant positive impact on the environment, including the health and diversity of the native grasses,” reports the non-profit Organic Consumers Association.
“If this were really widely applied…you could zero out the greenhouse gas contribution from areas that are grazed,” says John Hart, an environmental journalist and the author of An Island in Time, a retrospective look back on 50 years of tensions between ranchers and environmentalists in Northern California. “I think this is an example of the need simply to be smarter in everything we do with the land and look for things other than what seem like black-and-white choices.”
Contacts: WWF, worldwildlife.org/projects/sustainable-ranching-initiative; Organic Consumers Association, organicconsumers.org/usa; John Hart’s An Island in Time, amzn.to/2Pz50KR.
Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental benefits of so-called “seasteading” as opposed to building more housing and communities on land? — Marge Weston, Camden, NJ
We’ve all heard of homesteading, establishing homes from scratch with a commitment to self-sufficiency, including growing and preserving one’s own food, setting up your own sources of power/electricity and even making one’s own clothing and supplies. While Americans typically associate homesteading with conquering the western “frontier” during the 19th century — or perhaps with moving to the Alaskan “bush” and building a life out of the wilderness there — a new breed of homesteaders is looking to the sea.
“Seasteaders” as they’re called are a small but committed group of proponents well on their way to planning the next human communities far from the land itself. These autonomous floating communities could be built on modified cruise ships, retrofitted deep sea oil rigs, decommissioned anti-aircraft platforms or custom-built floating islands, among other possibilities. Baked into the concept is the need to innovate new ways of meeting basic human needs. Another common thread among seasteaders is living beyond the reach of sovereign governments bent on regulating and controlling the activities of their citizens in ways that do not necessarily consider the health and well-being of humanity or the planet.
“Seasteaders bring a startup sensibility to the problem of government monopolies that don’t innovate sufficiently,” reports the Seasteading Institute, a non-profit founded in 2008 by activist Patri Friedman, software engineer Wayne Gramlich and entrepreneur (and PayPal co-founder) Peter Thiel. “Obsolete political systems conceived in previous centuries are ill-equipped to unleash the enormous opportunities in 21st century innovation.”
Seasteads can be governed and managed in different ways depending on the desires of the individual founders or the laws of countries associated with it. Some might be set up based around a collectivist “universal basic income” while others might prefer free market solutions. Meanwhile, one seastead might be governed by direct democracy while another might entrust public policy to technocrats, while still another might use consumer-choice-based services — or anything in-between and beyond.
In January of 2017, the Seasteading Institute signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with French Polynesia, an “overseas collectivity” of 118 geographically dispersed islands and atolls stretching across 1,200 miles in the South Pacific, to create the first semi-autonomous “seazone” — dubbed the Floating City Project — to develop a prototype seasteading community. While there is some debate whether the MOU is legally binding, seasteading proponents are still pursuing the project, which is partially financed by a crowdfunding campaign launched in May 2018 on the Indiegogo website. To date, nearly 300 backers have chipped in upwards of $27,000 to help get this initial seasteading project “off the ground.”
Seasteading remains intriguing to many as one of the planet’s few remaining alternative social systems. “The world needs a place where those who wish to experiment with building new societies can go to test out their ideas,” concludes the Seasteading Institute. “All land on Earth is already claimed, making the oceans humanity’s next frontier.”
Contacts: Seasteading Institute, www.seasteading.org; Indiegogo “Designing the World’s First Floating City” Campaign, https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/designing-the-world-s-first-floating-city#/.