EarthTalk® | November 2020

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Even though they can feel pain and show awareness of their situation, animals are still considered the property of their human owner or the land manager where they roam in the eyes of the law. Credit: Elias Tsolis, FlickrCC.

Dear EarthTalk: Do wild animals have any rights under the law in the U.S. (or other countries) the way human citizens do? — John Hamilton, Raleigh, NC

Winnie the Pooh said it best: “Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.” While attention to animal rights has increased over the past few decades, animals are still largely underrepresented and unprotected under the law. Most laws that protect animals do not recognize their “sentience” — the capacity to feel and perceive, and show awareness — but rather protect them as property.

If a living thing can hear, see, touch, smell or communicate, it is considered to be sentient. But whether that applies to all animals depends on who you ask. Aside from our pets, animals are almost exclusively considered not to be sentient in the court system or under U.S. law. In a court, an inanimate company or corporation has rights and privileges (“corporate personhood”), but a living, breathing creature does not.

In the eyes of the law, animals are treated as property. Domestic animals belong to their owners, animals in labs and agricultural industries belong to the company or institution that owns them. Wild animals belong to the state or federal institution which presides over the land they live on. When animals are harmed, it is considered “property damage.” The real dilemmas in the courts arise when those with ownership over these animals are the ones hurting or abusing them. That is usually when “animal rights” are called into play.

Progress for animal rights under the law has been slow moving. In the U.S., the movement for animal rights began in 1866 when Henry Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The New York State legislature authorized the organization to investigate cases of animal cruelty in the state and make arrests. By 1888, almost every state had joined New York and passed laws against animal cruelty.

The first federal animal rights laws in the U.S. were the “28 Hour Law” of 1873, the Lacey Act of 1900, and the Animal Welfare Act of 1966. The first two regulated animal transport and banned illegal wildlife trafficking. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was created to regulate the research, transport, exhibition and dealing of animals in the U.S., but farm animals in agricultural laboratories are excluded from protections under the AWA. The AWA is still considered the minimum standard for acceptability today.

Another federal law for animal rights was the Humane Slaughter Act first passed in 1958 and then amended in 1978. While chickens, turkeys and other birds feel pain as any other animal, they are excluded from protections from this law. The most recent federal law that has passed has been the PACT (Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture) Act of 2019 which makes crushing, burning, suffocating, impaling and sexually exploiting animals a federal crime.

Globally, animal protection and rights laws vary widely. European countries, along with Australia and New Zealand, have the strongest animal rights laws because they formally recognize non-human animal sentience. Countries with no official recognition of animal sentience or suffering are ranked lowest for their animal rights, such as Russia and a number of East African countries.

Contacts: Laws That Protect Animals, aldf.org/article/laws-that-protect-animals/; Current Animal Welfare Laws,animalhumanesociety.org/advocacy/current-animal-welfare-laws.


While solar storms may be harmful to our communications technologies, they are also behind the amazing galactic light show visible from some northern latitudes in winter called the Aurora Borealis. Credit: Keith Williams, FlickrCC.

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any environmental or health risks associated with the solar storms that have been hitting the Earth recently? — Betsy R., Suwanee, GA

Solar storms have been in the news lately, but the truth is these naturally occurring solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from the sun happen all the time — or at least a few hundred times a year from what we can tell here on Earth. They are caused by large-scale magnetic eruptions from the sun that send particles into the atmosphere at high speeds. But luckily for us, the only threats these solar storms pose within the Earth’s atmosphere are to our technology.

According to the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA), harmful radiation from these flares can’t pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground; however, when intense enough, they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel. Both CMEs and solar flares, if powerful enough, have this disrupting effect.

“When a CME strikes Earth’s atmosphere, it causes a temporary disturbance of the Earth’s magnetic field,” reports Deborah Byrd, editor of the EarthSky.org website. “The charged particles can slam into our atmosphere, disrupt satellites in orbit and even cause them to fail, and bathe high-flying airplanes with radiation.” Besides disrupting navigation and telecommunications systems, solar storms can also cause electricity blackouts down below on Earth. One example happened in Quebec on March 13, 1989. A particularly strong CME caused a power failure that stretched across Quebec and parts of the Northeastern U.S., blacking out the region for nine hours and affecting six million people in the process.

The technological effects of solar storms can be worrisome, but scientists can track and predict these storms in order to mediate their potential negative impacts on a region. Additionally, one positive result of solar storms in places that lie at higher latitudes is the appearance of the radiant Aurora borealis (also known as the Northern Lights) during these phenomena.

While there have been plenty of solar storms lately, this year actually marks a low-point for such activity — a so-called Solar Minimum — in the solar cycle. The Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that the next peak of solar activity will be in July 2025.

Amateur astronomers interested in tracking solar storms should check out SpaceWeatherLive.com, a non-profit, all-volunteer project out of Belgium which coordinates information from several websites on a range of topics including astronomy, space, aurora and related subjects. One of the site’s cool features is a free glimpse into the last three days of solar storm activity hitting the Earth’s atmosphere.

If you would like to become more involved in the process of tracking solar storms, the Solar Stormwatch II project led by University of Reading in England looks for volunteers to help record data. Volunteers can virtually aid the project by observing CME data and imagery on the project’s website and recording/outlining what they see.

Contacts: EarthSky, www.earthsky.org; SpaceWeatherLive.com, spaceweatherlive.com; Solar Stormswatch II, zooniverse.org/projects/shannon-/solar-stormwatch-ii.


Quaking aspens are just one type of iconic American tree species that’s losing ground against global warming. Credit: John Fowler, FlickrCC.

Dear EarthTalk: How will global warming change the distribution of trees across the continental U.S.? Which types of trees and forests are most at risk? — Mike Powers, Golden, CO

It’s true that climate change is already affecting tree distribution and forest cover in the United States (as well as everywhere), but only time will tell which tree species are most successful at adapting and whether we will lose significant amounts of forest cover overall.

“A walk in the woods or a stroll on a tree-lined street could be a very different experience just a few decades from now,” says U.S. Forest Service researcher Stephanie Worley Firley. “Higher temperatures, altered precipitation patterns, and longer growing seasons predicted for the future could require that some tree species will have to move — or be moved — into new areas where habitat will be more suitable.” She adds that some tree species may be able to stay in place by adapting to new conditions, but many others are unlikely to be able to adapt and “may succumb to the pressures of climate change.”

One example of an iconic tree species that is already suffering from the effects of climate change is the Quaking Aspen, the most widely distributed tree species in North America. Today the tree is still common in higher elevation regions of Colorado and Utah, as well as throughout the rest of the American West, but that might change in the coming decades. Researchers have been tracking the decline of aspens in Colorado for at least 20 years at the hands of climate change and related stressors. Given their shallow root systems, aspens are particularly sensitive to drought; warmer, drier weather overall as a result of global warming means more drought and more trouble for the trees moving forward. Researchers worry that aspens may be gone from the southern (and driest) band of its range within decades, and foresee drastic declines in the tree’s overall distribution as temperatures inch up, drought pervades and forest fires rage throughout the region.

Another iconic tree that has already been hit hard by global warming is the sugar maple, famous as the source of Vermont maple syrup. Warmer winters have already shortened the syrup “tapping” season by more than 10 percent, and if the trend continues there won’t be enough winter to sustain the $200 million per year Vermont maple syrup industry. Some other tree species on the ropes thanks to climate change include balsam fir, black ash, paper birch, white pine, tamarack and red spruce.

Researchers from the North Carolina-based Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center are using forest inventory and analysis data from the U.S. Forest Service to compare where tree species occur presently with a wider range of where they could move or expand given rising temperatures and other changing landscape conditions. By looking at how landscape, weather and temperature conditions will change over the next three decades based on a conservative model of climate change, the researchers can start to project where the most suitable conditions for different types of trees might occur across the country by 2050. This kind of knowledge can help land managers prepare for the changes coming and can help planners map out forward-looking, climate-friendly zoning patterns.

Contacts: A Review of the Potential Effects of Climate Change on Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides), fs.fed.us/psw/publications/documents/psw_gtr235/psw_gtr235.pdf; Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, forestthreats.org.


Some landscapes need occasional forest fires to germinate seeds for new plants’ growth. Credit: Richard Droker, FlickrCC.

Dear EarthTalk: I am sickened by all the death, destruction and misery resulting from the West Coast wildfires, but aren’t these blazes actually beneficial to the environment? — B.T., Helena, MT

Some landscapes evolved with periodic wildfires as an influential force, and people have been using “prescribed burns” (the controlled application of fire under specified weather conditions) to restore health to certain types of ecosystems for millennia. But while some fires in some places might be beneficial, the wholesale torching of the forests of the American West right now is far from beneficial overall — not to mention a sure sign that our profligate ways with carbon emissions are coming back to haunt us.

On the plus side, forest fire does clear away the tinder-like overgrown understory that has resulted from years of forest management that avoided fire at all cost. Hundreds of years ago, many of the forests now on fire in California, Oregon and Washington had fewer yet larger and healthier trees. But these days, partly thanks to fire suppression regimes as well as other factors, forests are more crowded today with smaller, less healthy trees. It’s also harder for those remaining mature, established trees to compete for nutrients and space with all the undergrowth that’s built up in recent decades. In these situations, small manageable fires (or even better, prescribed burns) cannot only be beneficial, but can help prevent larger fires down the road by clearing the weaker, smaller trees.

Another benefit of wildfire is the clearing of overgrown underbrush to make room for new grasses, herbs and regenerated shrubs that provide food and habitat for many wildlife species. Also, the removal of thick stands of shrubs increases the water supply for the remaining larger plants and trees — and also allows streams and rivers to swell, further benefiting ever-thirsty native flora and fauna.

Yet another benefit of fire is that it kills off fungi, bacteria, viruses and insects that can decimate tree and plant communities and entire forest ecosystems. According to CalFire, California’s statewide wildfire management agency, more trees die from insect infestation and disease than from wildfire; some fire actually helps keep forests devoid of such pests and healthier overall than without fire. CalFire points out that vegetation burned by wildfire provides a rich source of nutrients that nourish surviving trees and soil.

And periodic fire can be an important way to keep certain ecosystems in balance. Many trees have evolved with fire and some even require it for seed germination; a few species even sport leaves covered with flammable resins (manzanita, scrub oak, chamise) to encourage fires that help seed the next generation.

National Geographic reports that, surprisingly, wildlife casualties tend to be low during wildfire events, as animals — especially those native to the areas on-fire and evolved to respond to the threat — either burrow in the ground or flee to safer areas instinctively. But invasive plants and animals may not fare as well given lack of genetic imprinting to be on alert for the threat.

Once the smoke clears on 2020’s horrific fire season, mass human and wildlife casualties could be the new normal. Global warming certainly has thrown the fire season into overdrive this year across California, Oregon and Washington, whether or not the Trump administration cares to admit it.

Contacts: CalFire, fire.ca.gov; “The Ecological Benefits of Fire,” nationalgeographic.org/article/ecological-benefits-fire.

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