Our Massive Ecological Footprint

Environmental scientists have correlated human activity with rising CO2 and other greenhouse gas levels for years. They have continuously attempted to corroborate the negative consequences that are arising from human activities, such as rising sea levels, with extensive research. Although an estimated 90% of scientists believe that the human production of greenhouse gases is the main cause of global warming, many people are still skeptical. The increasing human population and human activities have continuously been linked to habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change. As the World Wildlife Fund concludes, “The rapid loss of species today is estimated by some experts to be between 100 and 1,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate, while others estimate rates as high as 1,000-11,000 times higher.” In the late 20th century, species such as the Golden Toad have become extinct. Other species, such as the Baiji River Dolphin found in China, have been listed as “critically endangered or possibly extinct.” As habitats are destroyed and species become extinct, biodiversity is lost. The importance of preserving the estimated 35 biodiversity hotspots that exist around the world cannot be stressed enough. Although these hotspots represent 2.3% of Earth’s land surface, they support more than half of the world’s plant species as endemics, and nearly 43% of bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species as endemics. Although the outlook on global warming and the loss of biodiversity is grim, there are ways to combat this. Through mitigation and adaptation, people can both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the consequences of global warming. As the human race, we are responsible for maintaining the health of the environment and ecosystem biodiversity for the generations to come.

The human contribution to global warming is undeniable. Those speculative of global warming are either misinformed or in denial of the strong evidence that provides scientists with a look into this phenomenon. Although many high-income industries-specifically the fossil fuel industry-don’t want to admit the role they play in climate change, their ecological footprints are massive. Apart from these industry giants, a majority of daily human activities contribute to CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. Besides the burning of fossil fuels, activities such as agricultural practices, deforestation, landfills, and the industrial production of greenhouse chemicals emit a large amount of greenhouse gases.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the increased levels of atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases have been unprecedented. Global warming is an aspect of global climate change that is characterized by “the warming of oceans, landmasses, and atmosphere of Earth.” This warming is achieved through the greenhouse effect, which occurs when atmospheric greenhouse gases absorb and trap infrared radiation. The greater the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, specifically greenhouse gases with the highest greenhouse warming potential, the more heat trapped within the Earth’s atmosphere. Steadily, this prolonged heating causes global temperature increases.

The drastic increase in atmospheric CO2 emissions is mostly observed in nations that have continued to develop and specialize in manufacturing. Zeke Hausfather, an energy system analyst and environmental economist, observes, “Chinese emissions have surged in recent years, increasing far faster than those of any other country in history. In 2005, Chinese emissions were lower than those of the United States.”

This troubling evidence can be correlated to the average world temperature increase of .8 degrees Celsius between 1880 and 2009. Although this increase in temperature may not appear as substantial, it is. In addition to this increase in average global temperature, some regions, specifically those in the northern latitudes, have experienced temperature increases between 1-4 degrees Celsius. The environmental effects of rising greenhouse gas emissions and increasing temperatures are vast. One of these detrimental effects is the melting of ice sheets. Since 2013, Ohio State University scientists have used data obtained from satellite images to observe subsurface rifts, caused by the melting of ice, within the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

In 2015, a rift within the Pine Island Glacier, which is a part of the ice shelf that bounds the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, caused a 225 square mile iceberg to break off. Dr. Seongsu Jeong, a postdoctoral researcher who specializes in glacier dynamics, was one of the Ohio State University scientists that researched the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and Pine Island Glacier. When asked for a comment on the outlook of the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, Jeong said, “There is probable evidence, taken from our research of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet as well as the research of other scientists, that points to the collapse of the sheet sometime in the next 100 years. It’s scary to think about, as this could cause sea levels to rise by almost 10 feet.” Jeong adds, “Such an event would be catastrophic.”

The rapid melting of ice sheets can be linked to rising sea levels. In the century to come, large cities are expected to succumb to rising sea levels. With such troubling news, many countries such as the Netherlands, which lies below sea level, have begun to prepare for flood control with the building of dikes and storm surge barriers.

The Incilius periglenes, better known by its common name as the Golden Toad, was officially classified as extinct by the IUCN in 2004. Although formerly described as a “common species”, the Golden Toad has not been seen since 1989. Previously found by the hundreds in the mountains of Costa Rica, the Golden Toad species is now nowhere to be found. Although scientists can’t pinpoint the exact cause for the extinction of the Golden Toad, they have concluded, “It’s almost certainly the result of human activity.” Habitat loss caused by deforestation in the Montverde, Costa Rica, and pollution from the nearby burning of fossil fuels, are eyed as key contributors to this extinction. The sensitive permeable skin of amphibians made the Golden Toad especially vulnerable to pollution. Unfortunately, the Golden Toad is only one of the many species of amphibians that have gone extinct in the last century. As concerning as this is, amphibians aren’t the only vertebrates that face extinction.

The Lipotes vexillifer, commonly known as the Baiji, is “the first cetacean to have gone extinct as a result of human activity.” This freshwater dolphin’s population has been in decline since the 1990’s. In 2006, after a 6-week research effort during which scientists failed to record a single Baiji, the species became characterized as “functionally extinct.” Previously native to the lower Yangtze River of China, the Baiji has been continuously exploited. Over the years, overfishing, dam building, and pollution have destroyed the Baiji’s habitat. Fishing practices such as rolling hooks and electric fishing also caused the Baiji population to decline. As a nearly blind species, the Baiji used sonar to find food. However, this ability to use sonar was confounded by the large-ship traffic throughout the Yangtze. In addition, ship-collisions contributed to the critical endangerment and near extinction of the Baiji. As described by Zeb Hogan, a scientist who studies large river fish in Asia, “Globally, a pattern has emerged; these large aquatic animals are disappearing. Unless concrete steps are taken soon to better protect these vulnerable species, this is the beginning of a wave of extinctions that is likely to occur over the next 20 to 30 years.”

Many conservation efforts were initiated by major Chinese conservation organizations in the mid 1980’s. Sadly, none of these conservation efforts have received enough funding or government recognition. These conservation groups attempted to spread awareness to the people and the government while they rallied to translocate the Baiji from the Yangtze to a “safer environment, to establish a closely monitored ex situ breeding program under semi-natural conditions.” However, this conservation attempt has failed in the past as the only dolphin successfully translocated passed away after a few months in captivity. This loss of a loved aquatic mammal “should serve as a wake-up call that more needs to be done to protect river life.”

To qualify as a biodiversity hotspot, an area “must have at least 1,500 vascular plants as endemics-which is to say, it must have a high percentage of plant life found nowhere else on the planet”; in addition, the area “must have 30% or less of its original vegetation.” As previously described, hotspots are important due to their ability to support a large percentage of endemic plant and animal life. Without the preservation of the 35 known hotspots around the world, endemic plants and animals would be well on their way towards extinction.

The degradation of hotspots and the resulting extinctions would lead to the collapse of healthy ecosystems. These healthy ecosystems provide surrounding people with clean air and water, flood and climate control, soil regeneration, food, medicines, and raw material. The biodiversity maintained throughout these hotspots supports the 2 billion people who live near these “fragile places.” Although some will argue that extinction is “natural”, humans have managed to elevate the extinction rate by over a thousand times the natural rate. Another thing to remember about extinction is that it is irreversible. Therefore, once people leave their damaging ecological footprints on these threatened hotspot areas, they can’t go back.

The future of our environment is definitely uncertain. The more optimistic studies predict that the global average sea level will rise between 7 inches-2 feet by the end of the 21st century. Others, however, predict the complete collapse of the West Antarctic Ice sheet and the rise of the global average sea level by roughly 10 feet by the end of the 21st century. The loss of biodiversity through habitat destruction and species extinction will also continue if we do not alter our dependence on fossil fuels.

As described by Daniel Schrag, Director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, “A lot of energy use reduction is going to come from being more efficient.” Even if we are successful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we are still going to experience climate change. However, by eliminating emissions, “we may avoid the most catastrophic consequences.” Environmental mitigation, or the reduction of the use of fossil fuels, will play a key role in shaping our future environment. For one, people could focus on limiting their use of fossil fuels and instead turn to solar and wind energy. Similarly, the government can aim to establish regulations that limit the release of greenhouse gases. Such regulations have successfully succeeded in California, where the FERC regulates natural gas, hydropower projects, and the interstate transmission of gas, oil and electricity.” Environmental adaptation, or the process of adapting to global warming, will play a key role in preparing the world for what is to come. As described previously, countries have already begun to adapt to climate change. For example, in England, the Thames Barrier flood defense closure was created to prevent the flooding of London. Undoubtedly, we will have to regulate the emission of greenhouse gases while learning to adapt to our changing environment in order to ensure the future health of the Earth.

For those that are still skeptical, the facts are undeniable as more and more people are beginning to acknowledge the human impact on global warming. Similarly to the results of Verheggen’s poll of scientists on the topic of global warming, in which he found that 90% of scientists believe in the human production of greenhouse gases as a key contributor to global warming, a poll of 86 high school students found that almost 92% of them believe that humans have an undeniable impact on global warming through the emission of greenhouse gases. This evidence points to the fact that more and more people are becoming educated on the topic of climate change. One message stands clear: the people that are educated on and believe in global warming are responsible for educating those that aren’t. Without awareness, education, and action, there is not much hope.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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