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      ECOSYSTEMS

The climate changes the planet is currently undergoing, and the threats posed by greenhouse gases, all interlink with the entire planet's ecosystems which have been carefully balanced for millennia. Since the industrial age, this has changed, and the way we now exploit the Earth's resources affect everything in the chain. Forests, wetlands and oceans have absorbed carbon forever - now with mining, eradicating forests for agriculture etc., these gasses are building in the atmosphere and can endure there for a century permitting ever-increasing rises in temperature, which in turn leads to ice-melt and rising sea-levels. While world governments and individuals confront how to reduce energy levels which result in CO2 emissions, the ecosystems also need to be considered. Deforestation alone can add more of a threat to global warming than all the cars on the planet's roads. It's unfortunately a very complex subject, difficult to summarize in a few short paragraphs. It has been necessary for us, then, to give more attention to each of the major ecosystem issues where we can learn what went wrong, and what must be done to mitigate a looming crisis.   

Latest report:

Dec.2014: Soil degradation costs African farmers $68 billion annually. An estimated 180 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are affected by soil degradation. Without funds and tenure, there is no incentive to invest in improving farming. Climate change, depletion of mineral nutrients and improper use of fertilizer threatens vital food production, and the problem is getting worse. link

                The four links below each lead to a page for further reading

Oceans and coral reefs  - includes a look at plastic pollution in the oceans
Deforestation - deforestation  
accounts for about 20% of global emissions of CO2
Glaciers and Polar Ice-caps - includes a closer looks at Arctic and Antarctic ice-melts
Wetlands
- Over 50% of wetlands worldwide have been destroyed in the past 100 years

Below, general reading about global consequences for Earth's fragile ecosystem.


Desertification and sustainable land management. (May 2013) Land degradation – more specifically drought and desertification – have become increasingly pressing problems for a growing number of countries around the world. Meeting for the first time in southern Africa, UNCCD (U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification) delegates will review implementation of the convention to date and plan for the ensuing two years of programs and actions. Desertification, along with climate change and the loss of biodiversity, were singled out as the greatest challenges to sustainable development at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Severe land degradation is estimated to be affecting 168 countries around the world.  link  

More carbon is stored in soil than in the atmosphere and plants combined. (May 2013) Returning carbon to where it belongs, in the soil, represents not only our greatest opportunity to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels, but simultaneously enhances soil fertility and biodiversity, and the land's ability to retain water. We get the impression that human interference with climate is a sky thing: those greenhouse gases we keep pumping into the air. But it's also a ground phenomenon. The flip-side of rising atmospheric CO2 is the loss of carbon in the soil, the main component of soil organic matter. Over time, more CO2 has entered the atmosphere from soil-disturbing agricultural practices than the burning of fossil fuels. Once we understand this, and encourage land management strategies that store carbon as opposed to promoting its oxidation, things look different. This is cause for optimism because while we can't un-burn fossil fuels we can effectively return carbon to the soil. According to Rattan Lal, Distinguished University Professor at the Ohio State University, who speaks widely on the topic, soil-carbon restoration can potentially store about one billion tons of atmospheric carbon per year. This would offset around 8-10% of total annual CO2 emissions and one-third of annual enrichment of atmospheric carbon that would otherwise stay in the air. link

May 2010: Soils contain two thirds of the world’s terrestrial carbon reserves, far more than the forests which sit atop the soils, and their accelerating degradation is releasing CO2 into the atmosphere in a process that could spiral out of control. Scientists call this process desertification. The soils in Bolivia provide a stark case of this advancing problem: almost half the soil in the nation is being affected. The Bolivian Science and Technology Ministry recently announced that “desertification… affects 41% of the national territory, 439,432 square kilometers, where 77% of the population lives, some 6.4 million people.” Over 89% of them are poor, following a well-established pattern in which environmental degradation damages those least able to adapt to it. Many of the factors that have made the Bolivian soil desertify, such as deforestation, changes in rain patterns, or a general lack of water, are indirectly or directly related to climate change. Desertification occurs as a land-mass dries up, the vegetation on top the soil withers away, the microbes in the soil die, the resulting soil erodes, and its carbon migrates into the atmosphere in the form of CO2.  link 

The importance of permafrost.  (November 2012)

Permafrost is the soil in high latitudes that stays frozen year-round. It occupies nearly 24% of the land in the Northern Hemisphere. In order to qualify as permafrost, the soil temperature must remain below 32F for at least two years, but there are thick seams of permafrost that have remained solid for thousands of years. While a few inches of topsoil tends to thaw in the summer (even in arctic regions), a UNEP (United Nations Environmental Proram) report estimated that a global temperature increase of 5.4F would lead to a 10.8F increase in temperature in the Arctic, which would result in a loss of up to 85% of surface-level permafrost. A loss of that scale would have severe ecological and economic impacts. Those range from the increased frequency of rockslides, to the destruction of infrastructure built on the once-solid ground. Permafrost emissions could ultimately account for up to 39% of total emissions and should  be factored in to treaty negotiations expected to replace the Kyoto Protocol. (UNEP estimates that 1700 gigatonnes of carbon, twice that currently in the atmosphere, could significantly amplify global warming should thawing accelerate as expected. Currently permafrost thaw is not included in any climate models used by the IPPC.)   link

Without plants, Earth would cook under billions of tons of additional carbon. According to a new study conducted at Princeton University, Earth's leafy greens have significantly slowed the planet's warming by absorbing carbon in the form of CO2, especially during the past 60 years. How much carbon are we talking about? Approximately 186 billion to 192 billion tons of carbon have been taken out of the atmosphere since the mid-20th century. Those "carbon savings" amount to a current average global temperature that is cooler by one-third of a degree Celsius. Since the early 1900s, the planet has warmed by 0.74 degrees Celsius.  link  (October 2013)

Understanding sea level - sea-level isn’t level seas. Although sea level rise might, at first glance, seem to be a relatively easy subject to grasp, much of the misunderstanding that exists in the blogosphere can be put down to the flawed notion that the sea behaves like water in a swimming pool, or bathtub. In reality the Earth’s surface (lithosphere) is elastic and deformable which contributes to a complicated picture where  local sea level might be somewhat different than the global sea level trend. The term Glacial Isostatic Adjustment describes the deformation of Earth’s surface from the growth and decay of giant ice sheets over time, or more specifically, from the exchange of mass, in the form of water or ice, between the continents and ocean during the ice age cycles. The planet-wide changes which result  from this loading and unloading are due to the Earth’s lithosphere wanting to reach equilibrium (isostasy).  link


Seagrass – an important carbon sink – under threat


It turns out that seagrass ecosystems hold as much carbon per hectare as the world's forests – and are now among its most threatened ecosystems. In the past century, 29% of seagrass has been destroyed globally, mostly by water pollution, dredging for new developments, and climate change. With seagrass meadows disappearing at an annual rate of about 1.5%, 299 million tonnes of carbon are also released back into the environment each year. Piecing together old and new data from 946 seagrass meadows around the world, an international team of researchers estimated that seagrass captures 27.4 million tonnes of carbon each year, burying it in the soil below. And unlike forests that hold carbon for about 60 years then release it again, seagrass ecosystems have been capturing and storing carbon since the last ice age. That means that up to 19.9 billion tonnes of carbon are currently stored within seagrass plants and the top metre of soil beneath them – more than twice the Earth’s global emissions from fossil fuels in 2010.  link    (What is seagrass?)  

March 2012: Holding back the Sahara with 4,300 miles of trees. Africa is turning to desert. Studies show that as much as two-thirds of the continent’s arable land could become desert by 2025 if current trends continue. But a bold initiative to plant a wall of trees 4,300 miles through 11 African nations from coast to coast could keep back the sands of the Sahara, improve degraded lands, and help alleviate poverty. link

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October 2012: 850 billion tons of carbon stored in frozen Arctic ground could be released. As much as 44 billion tons of nitrogen and 850 billion tons of carbon stored in arctic permafrost, or frozen ground, could be released into the environment as the region begins to thaw over the next century as a result of a warmer planet, according to a new study led by the U.S. Geological Survey. This nitrogen and carbon are likely to impact ecosystems, the atmosphere, and water resources including rivers and lakes. For context, this is roughly the amount of carbon stored in the atmosphere today. link

May 2012: World’s aquifer depletion leads to rising sea-levels. Humanity's unquenchable thirst for fresh water is driving up sea levels even faster than melting glaciers, according to new research. The massive impact of the global population’s growing need for water on rising sea levels is revealed in a comprehensive assessment of all the ways in which people use water. Trillions of tonnes of water have been pumped up from deep underground reservoirs in every part of the world and then channelled into fields and pipes to keep communities fed and watered. The water then flows into the oceans, but far more quickly than the ancient aquifers are replenished by rains. The global tide would be rising even more quickly but for the fact that man-made reservoirs have, until now, held back the flow by storing huge amounts of water on land. Water taken from deep wells is geologically old – there is no replenishment and so it is a one way transfer into the ocean. Over the past half century 18 trillion tonnes of water has been removed from underground aquifers without being replaced. In some parts of the world, the stores of water have now been exhausted. link

August 2012: Earth continues to lend a helping hand to decrease emissions. The carbon soaked up from the atmosphere by the seas and by plants and soil on land rose to an estimated 5 billion tonnes in 2010 from 2.4 billion in 1960, according to the findings by a team of U.S.
scientists. Over the 50-year period, nature had soaked up 55% of mankind's greenhouse gas emissions that totalled 350 billion tonnes, mostly CO2 from burning fossil fuels. link

January 2012: If our ecosystem were a valued commodity. Some of the world's poorest people would be half a trillion dollars a year better off if the services they provide to the rest of the planet indirectly – through conserving natural habitats – was given an economic value, a new study has found. Many of the valuable habitats and species preserved in some of the world's key biodiversity hotspots are under threat. But the people who live in these areas lack the means to improve their conservation efforts according to a new study in the journal BioScience. If poor people were paid for the services they provide in they could reap $500bn. There are some fledgling schemes that could help to raise this cash, for instance, the United Nations-backed system called Redd (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), which uses carbon trading to generate cash to preserve trees, but so far they are small in scale. link 

October 2010: UN says biodiversity loss greater financial risk than terrorism. The financial risks posed by the loss of species and ecosystems have risen sharply and are becoming a greater concern for businesses than international terrorism. From over-depletion of fish stocks and soil degradation caused by agricultural chemicals to water shortages and mining pollution, the paper, commissioned by the UN Environment Programme, said the likelihood has climbed sharply that declines in biodiversity would have a "severe" $10bn to $50bn impact on business. link

July 2011: Between 1850 and 1970 agriculture contributed most CO2. Over the past 150 years, between 50% and 80% of organic carbon in the topsoil has vanished into the air, and seven tons of carbon-banking topsoil have been lost for every ton of grain produced. On close inspection, it seems that the problem isn't the carbon itself, it's that there's too much in the air and not enough in the ground. When we consider our CO2 predicament, we tend to fault our love affair with the car and the fruits of industry. But the greater culprit has been agriculture: since about 1850, twice as much atmospheric CO2 has derived from farming practices as from the burning of fossil fuels (the roles crossed around 1970). So, how do we get that carbon out of the air and back into the soil? Some suggest placing calcium carbonate or charcoal (aka "biochar") directly into agricultural soil. But a growing number of soil and agricultural scientists are also discussing a low-tech, counterintuitive approach to the problem that depends on a group of unlikely heroes: cows. The catalyst for reducing CO2 and restoring soil function and fertility, they say, is bringing back the roving, grazing animals that used to wander the world's grasslands. The natural processes that take place in the digestive system and under the hooves of ruminants might be the key to turning deserts back into grasslands and reversing climate change. In other words, a climate-friendly future might look less like a geo-engineered landscape and more like, well, "Home on the Range." link

April 2011: New estimates on ecosystem's ability to sequester carbon. A research group has concluded that forests and other terrestrial ecosystems in the lower 48 states can sequester up to 40% of the nation's fossil fuel carbon emissions, a larger amount than previously estimated. That's substantially higher than some previous estimates, which indicated these ecosystems could take up the equivalent of only about 30% of emissions or less. There's still some uncertainty in these data, but it does appear that the terrestrial carbon sink is higher than believed in earlier studies. However, the scientists cautioned that major disturbances, such as droughts, wildfires and hurricanes, can all affect the amount of carbon sequestered in a given year. Large droughts that happened twice in the U.S. in the past decade reduced the carbon sink about 20%, compared to a normal year. link

July 2011: Jellyfish shut down nuclear plants.  A nuclear power station in Israel is shut down by jellyfish, a day after a nuclear facility in Scotland was closed in a similar incident, amid claims that climate change is causing a population surge among the species. Scientists say the number of jellyfish is on the rise due to the increasing acidity of the world’s oceans driving away the blubbery creatures' natural predators. Ocean acidification is an often overlooked side effect of burning fossil fuel. Studies have shown that higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere doesn’t just trigger climate change but can make the oceans more acidic. Since the start of the industrial revolution, acidity levels of the oceans have gone up 30%.  link    
[
Jellyfish are taking over the seas, and it might be too late to stop them - link]

March 2011: New research on ocean's role in trapping CO2. The ocean traps around 30% of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere through human activity and represents, with the terrestrial biosphere, the main carbon sink. The ocean traps carbon through two principal mechanisms: a biological pump and a physical pump linked to oceanic currents. Researchers have managed to quantify the role of these two pumps in an area of the North Atlantic. Contrary to expectations, the physical pump in this region could be nearly 100 times more powerful on average than the biological pump. By pulling down masses of water cooled and enriched with carbon, ocean circulation thus plays a crucial role in deep carbon sequestration in the North Atlantic. link

January 2011:Amount of carbon absorbed by ecosystem grossly overstated. According to a new paper published in Science, current carbon accounting methods significantly overstate the amount of carbon that can be absorbed by forests, plains, and other terrestrial ecosystems. That is because most current carbon accounting methods do not consider the methane and carbon dioxide released naturally by rivers, streams, and lakes. link

May 2010: Two UN bodies find massive loss of biodiversity threatened ecosystems.   Unless "radical and creative action" is taken quickly to conserve the variety of life on Earth, natural systems that support lives and livelihoods are at risk of collapsing, finds a new biodiversity report released today by two United Nations environmental bodies. The Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 warns that massive further loss of biodiversity is becoming increasingly likely, and with it, the loss of many essential services to human societies as several "tipping points" are approached, in which ecosystems shift to less productive states from which it may be difficult or impossible to recover. link

Peat: There is more carbon locked away in the world's peat bogs than in all the trees put together, and is responsible for 7% of the world's global emissions from fossil fuels. Yet peat is not recognised by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) as a being a fossil fuel. Current fires in Russia indicate the serious threat if peat is ignored - link

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