By Susanne Rust, Los Angeles TimesUpdated: 1 day ago Published: 1 day ago
KODIAK ISLAND — Forces profound and alarming are reshaping the upper reaches of the North Pacific and Arctic oceans, breaking the food chain that supports billions of creatures and one of the world’s most important fisheries.
In the last five years, scientists have observed animal die-offs of unprecedented size, scope and duration in the waters of the Beaufort, Chukchi and northern Bering seas, while recording the displacement and disappearance of entire species of fish and ocean-dwelling invertebrates. The ecosystem is critical for resident seals, walruses and bears, as well as migratory gray whales, birds, sea lions and numerous other animals.
Historically long stretches of record-breaking ocean heat and loss of sea ice have fundamentally changed this ecosystem from bottom to top and top to bottom, say researchers who study its inhabitants. Not only are algae and zooplankton affected, but now apex predators such as killer whales are moving into areas once locked away by ice — gaining unfettered access to a spoil of riches.
Scientists describe what’s going on as less an ecosystem collapse than a brutal “regime shift” — an event in which many species may disappear, but others will replace them.
“You can think of it in terms of winners and losers,” said Janet Duffy-Anderson, a Seattle-based marine scientist who leads annual surveys of the Bering Sea for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “Something is going to emerge and become the more dominant species, and something is going to decline because it can’t adapt to that changing food web.”
A team from the Los Angeles Times traveled to Alaska and spoke with dozens of scientists conducting field research in the Bering Sea and high Arctic to better understand these dramatic changes. Their findings suggest that this vast, near-polar ecosystem — stable for thousands for years and resilient to brief but dramatic swings in temperature — is undergoing an irreversible transition.
“It’s like the gates of hell have been opened,” said Lorenzo Ciannelli, a fisheries oceanographer at Oregon State University, referring to a once ice-covered portion of the Bering Sea that has largely disappeared.
Since 2019, federal investigators have declared unexplained mortality events for a variety of animals, including gray whales that migrate past California and several species of Arctic seals. They are also examining large die-offs — or “wrecks,” as avian biologists call them — in dozens of seabird species including horned puffins, black-legged kittiwakes and shearwaters.
At the same time, they are documenting the disappearance of the “cold pool” — a region of the northern Bering Sea that for thousands of years has served as a barrier that protects cold-water species, such as Arctic cod and snow crab, from subarctic species, such as walleye pollock and Pacific cod. In the last five years, many of these Arctic species have almost entirely disappeared from the northern Bering, while populations of warmer-dwelling fish have proliferated.
In 2010, a federal survey estimated there were 319,000 metric tons of snow crab in the northern Bering Sea. As of this year, that number had dropped by more than 75%. Meanwhile, a subarctic fish, the Pacific cod, has skyrocketed — going from 29,124 metric tons in 2010 to 227,577 in 2021.
Whether the warming has diminished these super-cold-water species or forced them to migrate elsewhere — farther north or west, across the U.S.-Russia border, where American scientists can no longer observe them — remains unclear. But scientists say animals seem to be suffering in these more distant polar regions too, according to sporadic reports from the area.
Which gets to the basic challenge of studying this ecosystem: For so long, its remoteness, freezing temperatures and lack of winter sunlight have made the region largely inaccessible. Unlike in temperate and tropical climates, where scientists can obtain reasonably accurate population counts of many species, the Arctic doesn’t yield its secrets easily. That makes it hard to establish baseline data for scores of species — especially those with little commercial value.
“That part is really frustrating,” said Peter Boveng, who studies Arctic seals for NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. He said he and his colleagues wonder if the information they are now gathering is truly baseline data, or has already been shifted by years of warming.
Only recently have he and other scientists had the technology to conduct these kinds of counts — using cameras instead of observers in airplanes, for instance, or installing sound buoys across the ice and sea to capture the movement of whales, seals and bears.
“We’re only just beginning to understand what is happening up there,” said Deborah Giles, a killer whale researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology. “We just couldn’t be there or see things in the way a drone can.”
The dramatic shifts that Giles, Boveng and others are observing have ramifications that stretch far beyond the Arctic. The Bering Sea is one of the planet’s major fishing grounds — the eastern Bering Sea, for instance, supplies more than 40% of the annual U.S. catch of fish and shellfish — and is a crucial food source for thousands of Russians and Indigenous Alaskans who rely on fish, birds’ eggs, walrus and seal for protein.
“Globally, cold-water ecosystems support the world’s fisheries. Halibut, all of the cod, all of the benthic crabs, lobsters…. This is the majority of the food source for the world,” said NOAA’s Duffy-Anderson.
The potential ripple effect could shut down fisheries and leave migrating animals starving for food. These include gray whales and short-tailed shearwaters — a bird that travels more than 9,000 miles every year from Australia and New Zealand to feed in the Arctic smorgasbord before flying home.
“Alaska is a bellwether for what other systems can expect,” she added. “It’s really just a beginning.”• • •
Flying along the southeastern coastline of Kodiak Island, Matthew Van Daele — wearing a safety harness tethered to the inside a U.S. Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk — leaned out the helicopter door, scanning the beaches below for dead whales and seals.
The clouds hung low, so the copter hugged close to the sandstone cliffs that rise from this green island, which gets about 80 inches of rain and 60 inches of snowfall every year. Although few dead animals were spotted on this September afternoon, plenty of Kodiak brown bears could be seen bounding across open fields and along the beaches, trying to escape the ruckus of the approaching chopper.
“There’s one!” yelled Van Daele, natural resources director for the Sun’aq Tribe, speaking through the intercom system to the chopper’s pilots as he pointed to a rotting whale carcass on the beach.
The pilots circled and deftly landed on a little strip of sand, careful to keep the rotor blades from hitting the eroding wall of rock on the beach’s edge.
Joe Sekerak, a NOAA enforcement officer, jumped out after Van Daele, holding a rifle should bears arrive to challenge the small team in its attempt to examine the whale carcass.
According to Van Daele, the whale had been dead several weeks; her body was in poor shape, with little fat.
Since 2019, hundreds of gray whales have died along North America’s Pacific coastline, many appearing skinny or underfed.
Although researchers have not determined the cause of the die-off, there are ominous signs something is amiss in their high Arctic feeding grounds.
“We’re used to change around here,” said Alexus Kwatchka, a commercial fisherman who has navigated Alaskan waters for more than 30 years. He noted some years are cold, some are warm; sometimes all of the fish seem to be in one area for a few years, and then resettle elsewhere.
This fall was extremely cold in Alaska; the town of Kotzebue, in the northwest, hit minus-31 degrees on Nov. 28 — the record low for that date. This follows several years of record-setting warmth in the region.
What is new, said Kwatchka, is the persistence of this change. It’s not like it gets super warm for one or two years and then goes back to normal, he said. Now the changes last, and he said he’s encountering things he’s never seen before — such as gray whales feeding along the beaches of Kodiak, or swimming in packs.
“Usually there are whales just scattered around the island,” he said. “But I’ve seen them kind of bunched up and podded up, and I’m seeing them in places where I don’t ordinarily see them.”
In September, an emaciated young male gray whale was seen off a beach near Kodiak, behaving as though it were trying to feed, scooping material from the shallow shore bottom and filtering it through his baleen, a system many leviathans use to separate food from sand and water.
Three weeks later, that same young male washed ashore dead, not far from where he had been spotted previously.
Dozens of scientists validated Kwatchka’s observations, describing these periods of intense ocean heat and cooling as “stanzas,” which are growing more extreme and lasting longer than those of the past.
That’s a problem, said Duffy-Anderson, because the longer you stress a system, the deeper and broader the impacts — and therefore the harder for it to bounce back.
While it’s always possible the current stanza is temporary and the ecosystem could reset itself, “that is unlikely,” said Rick Thoman, an Alaska climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Due to atmospheric warming, the world’s oceans hold so much excess heat that it’s improbable the Chukchi Sea will ever be covered again with thick, multiyear ice, he said. Nor will we see many more years where the spring ice extends across the Bering, he said.
Even though Nome saw one of its coldest Novembers in 100 years of record keeping, and King Salmon — a town of roughly 300 near Katmai National Park and Preserve — recorded its all-time lowest November temperatures, “the escalator of warming is going up,” Thoman said.
He conjured up an image of a 5-year-old running up and down an ascending escalator. “Somebody standing off of the escalator might say, oh, it looks like the kid is going down. But as we know, the escalator is continuing to go up.”
“What we’ve seen in the Bering Sea in recent years is,” he added, “unprecedented.”• • •
Lee Cooper and Jackie Grebmeier, researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, have visited these waters every year since the 1980s, when they were graduate students at the University of Alaska. Their initial proposal centered on one basic question: What makes these Arctic-like waters of the northern Bering Sea so productive?
It was tough work. So much of the ocean was frozen, and therefore inaccessible. Other researchers faced the same challenge.
“When we started out, we couldn’t get north into the Bering Strait area because of ice until mid-June,” said Kathy Kuletz, a bird biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who has been researching the northern Bering Sea and high Arctic since 2006 and studying Alaska birds since 1978. “Even then, it wasn’t until late June that you could get into the Chukchi. And that’s certainly not been the issue … since, let’s see, about 2015 or so.”
Researchers are focused on ice — or the lack of it — because the frozen ocean is the foundation of the region’s rich ecosystems. It not only keeps the waters beneath it cool, but a layer of algae grows on the underside of these ice sheets — the key to the entire food web.
For eons, as the sun moved south in autumn and the temperatures dropped in the high latitudes, Arctic sea ice thickened near the North Pole. At its edges, it reached its frosty fingers into the inlets along the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, winding its way south through the Bering Strait and into the northern Bering Sea. By March, the northern Bering Sea was typically a vast field of white ice, its edges marked by broken sheets that had been pushed into a vertical position by whipping winds and churning currents below.
But for the last 50 years, as the region’s warm stanzas have increased in duration and intensity, that seasonal ice has dwindled.
A 2020 study published in the journal Science documented a reduction in ice extent unlike any other in the last 5,500 years: Its extent in 2018 and 2019 was 60% to 70% lower than the historical average. In an Arctic report card released just this week, federal scientists called the region’s changes “alarming and undeniable.”
Long before the sea was named for the 18th century Danish cartographer and Russian naval explorer Vitus Jonassen Bering, the icy water body consisted of two distinct ecosystems — one subarctic, the other resembling the high Arctic. Fish in the subarctic zone — such as Pacific cod — were deterred by the frigid temperatures of the cold pool, which hover just below 32 degrees. But other fish — such as Arctic cod, capelin and flatfish — evolved to thrive in this environment, with the cold pool serving as a protective barrier.
Now that “thermal force field” has all but vanished.
Lyle Britt, director of the Resource Assessment and Conservation Engineering division of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, leads annual trawl surveys in the Bering Sea, part of a U.S. effort to systematically monitor commercial fish populations and their ecosystems. The federal government has conducted a survey of the eastern Bering Sea every year since 1982 — with the exception of 2020, when COVID grounded the personnel and boats. Federal surveying of the northern Bering Sea began in 2010 amid concerns about the loss of seasonal sea ice; the government has surveyed it a total of five times.
With each survey, Britt and his mariner colleagues navigate the sea as if tracing over the same piece of graph paper, year after year, with 520 evenly dispersed stations at 20-mile intervals. At each one — 376 in the eastern Bering Sea and 144 in the northern Bering Sea — they stop to collect environmental data, such as bottom- and surface-water temperatures, as well as a sampling of fish and invertebrates, which they count and weigh.
Data from a Bering Sea mooring shows the average temperature throughout the water column has risen markedly in the last several years: in 2018, water temperatures were 9 degrees above the historical average.
Not only have the scientists noticed, so too have the fish.
Consider the plight of the walleye pollock — also known as Alaska pollock — one of the region’s most important fisheries.
While adult walleye pollock are averse to super cold water, juveniles are known to gravitate to the interior of the cold pool. In this protective chilly dome, the young fish are not only walled off from cold-hating predators, but as their metabolisms slow in the frigid temperatures, they can gorge on and grow from the Arctic ecosystem’s fatty, rich food sources.
With the cold pool gone, “there’s no refuge” for small fish seeking to grow big, said Duffy-Anderson. “Instead, the adult fish can now move into those spaces.”
So what has happened to the Arctic fish? Have they just moved north, following the cold water?
It’s not that simple, said Britt. The northern Bering Sea is very shallow. When ice is not there to cover it, it warms up quickly — and can exceed temperatures detected in the subarctic southern Bering Sea.
“So we don’t fully understand all the implications of why the fish are moving in the directions and patterns that they are,” he said. But in some places — particularly the places that once harbored cold-loving fish such as Arctic cod and capelin — they are just gone.
In a healthy Arctic system, thousands of bottom-dwelling species — bottom fish, clams, crabs and shrimp-like critters — feast on the lipid-rich algae that falls from the ice to the bottom of the sea. But in a warm-water system, the algae gets taken up in the water column, said Duffy-Anderson.
The healthy system is highly energy-efficient — with sediment-dwelling invertebrates and bottom fish feeding on the rain of algae, and then birds and large-bodied mammals, such as walrus and whales, scooping them up.
“One of the things I’m really concerned about is … that the whole food web dynamic kind of comes apart,” she said. As warmer waters and animals infiltrate the system, “you put more links in the food chain, and then less and less of that energy is transferred efficiently. And that is what we’re beginning to see.”
Ice is also essential habitat for some Arctic mammals. As with gray whales, several types of ice seals — which include ringed, spotted and bearded seals — started showing up skinny or dead around the Chukchi and Bering seas in 2018, spurring a federal investigation. These Arctic-dwelling species rely on sea ice to pup, nurse and molt. Without it, they spend more time in the cold water, where they expend too much energy. Young seals are particularly vulnerable; their chances for survival plummet without the ice, said the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Boveng.
There are also reports of killer whales — also known as orcas— showing up in areas they haven’t been spotted before, feeding on beluga whales, bowheads and narwhals, said Giles, the University of Washington orca researcher.
“They are finding channels and openings through the ice, and in some cases preying on animals that have never seen killer whales before,” she said.
Climate scientists worldwide have long warned that as the planet warms, humans and wildlife will become more vulnerable to infectious diseases previously confined to certain locations and environments. That dynamic could be a factor in the massive die-off of birds in the Bering Sea — experts estimate at least tens of thousands of birds have died there since 2013.
The culprit was avian cholera, a disease not previously detected in these high latitudes, and one that elsewhere rarely fells seabirds such as thick-billed murres, auklets, common eiders, northern fulmars and gulls.
Toxic algae associated with warmer waters has also been detected in a few dead birds (and some healthy birds) in the Bering Sea, said Robb Kaler, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — and may have been responsible for the death of a person living on St. Lawrence Island.
Kuletz, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist who has been observing birds in Alaska since the late 1970s, said she’s never before seen the large-scale changes of recent years. In 2013, the dead birds did not show signs of being emaciated, but in 2017, hundreds to thousands more began to wash up dead on beaches with clear signs of starvation, she said.
“There’ve always been little peaks” of die-offs that would last a year or so, but then things would go back to normal, she said. “These animals are resilient. They can forgo breeding if they aren’t getting enough nutrition.”
Not all bird species are suffering. Albatross, which are surface feeders, are booming, underscoring for Kuletz the idea that there could be “winners and losers” in the changing region. Albatross do not nest in Alaska. They only come in the summer to feed, and are therefore not tied to eggs or nests while looking for food.
Yet for some scientists, it isn’t easy to reconcile how a system in balance could so quickly go off the rails, even if some species adapt and thrive as others struggle.
“For me, it’s actually very emotional,” said Thoman, the University of Alaska climate specialist, recalling his elementary school days, when he read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and other stories from the Arctic.
“The environment that he described, the environment that I saw going through National Geographics in the 1970s? That environment doesn’t exist anymore.”
If dairy cows were a country, they would have the same climate impact as the entire United Kingdom. That’s according to a new analysis from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), which considered the combined annual emissions from the world’s 13 largest dairy operations in 2017, the most recent year for which data was available.
The institute’s report follows up on a similar analysis the organization undertook for 2015. That year, the IATP found that the five largest meat and dairy companies combined had emissions portfolios greater than those of some of the world’s largest oil companies, like ExxonMobil and Shell. Most of the emissions were from meat, but this latest report finds that dairy remains a significant and growing source of emissions: In the two years between reports, the 13 top dairy companies’ emissions grew 11 percent — a 32.3 million metric ton increase in greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions that would be released by adding an extra 6.9 million cars to the road for a year.
Shefali Sharma, director of IATP Europe and author of the new study, said it was staggering to see dairy’s increase in emissions, especially since it occurred in the two years after the Paris Agreement was negotiated. “We’re supposed to be going in the opposite direction,” she told Grist.
The report points to consolidation and rising production as the main culprits for the increased emissions. From 2015 to 2017, the 13 companies used mergers and acquisitions to expand geographically and subsume smaller farms. As the companies got bigger, their production increased by 8 percent, which led to the emissions hike.
The dairy industry takes issue with the report’s framing, chalking the emissions increase up to an “accounting change.” As smaller farms were absorbed by the big companies, the industry argued, their production and greenhouse gas emissions got wrapped into the 13 largest producers’ emissions numbers.
At the same time, the companies haven’t done much to help researchers figure out their net greenhouse gas output; none are required to disclose their climate impacts, and only five of the 13 publicly report their emissions. Zero of them have committed to reducing the overall emissions footprint of their dairy supply chains.
“There’s no transparency, not even basic production numbers,” Sharma told Grist. To calculate the companies’ emissions for the IATP report, Sharma used production estimates calculated by the IFCN, a dairy research network, and calculated each firm’s associated carbon emissions using an accounting method established by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Instead of focusing on total emissions, the biggest dairy producers have tried to paint a different picture of their climate impact. The IATP report says companies like Danone have drawn attention to something they call “emissions intensity”: the greenhouse gas emissions associated with each liter of milk.
According to Sharma, focusing on emissions intensity allows dairy producers to make more milk, more efficiently, and then say they’re reducing their climate impacts. Even if the total number of cows increases (which it has), and even if cumulative emissions go up (which they have), the industry can mask these planet-warming effects by emphasizing greater greenhouse gas efficiency per unit of milk produced. For example, a 2019 report from the FAO — which was co-authored by the Global Dairy Platform — says the dairy industry’s emissions intensity, measured in greenhouse gas per kilogram of milk, declined by nearly 11 percent from 2005 to 2015.
However, the same section of the report also says that “increased production efficiency is typically associated with a higher level of absolute emissions (unless animal numbers are decreasing).” The Global Dairy Platform acknowledged this in its statement responding to the IATP report, saying that as the industry increased its production by 30 percent globally between 2005 and 2015, it could have increased its absolute emissions by 38 percent. But because of “improvements” to increase efficiency, absolute emissions only rose by 18 percent.
Sharma says it’s a distraction to focus on emissions intensity. “You’ve got to reduce your overall emissions, it doesn’t matter about your ‘per unit,’” she told Grist. To her, that means producing less milk — with fewer cows.
On top of the climate change impacts, the IATP report also highlights the impacts of big dairy operations on small- and medium-sized farms. In each of the world’s four main dairy-producing regions — North America, Europe, India, and New Zealand — bankruptcy and farm losses increased between 2015 and 2017.
In the United States, 94 percent of family farms in dairy have closed since the 1970s. Between 2014 and 2019, Wisconsin — America’s self-proclaimed “Dairyland” — lost more than a quarter of its 10,000 dairy farms.
To remediate the situation, Sharma doesn’t think people need to give up milk; she just wants the dairy industry to radically change its business model. “You could totally still have farms with livestock on them,” she told Grist. “It just wouldn’t be the vast quantity of livestock that we see today.”
According to the IATP report, a comprehensive set of government regulations to decrease dairy production would come with all sorts of co-benefits — for farmers and the climate. A supply management system to lower dairy output could allow companies to pay farmers better wages and allow the government to reinvest in less emissions-intensive systems of small-scale farming. These reforms could help strengthen rural economies and protect ecological systems. And ending subsidies to the largest dairy operations could free up funds that could go toward support and job training for out-of-work dairy workers.
To enact these policies, Sharma suggests consumers think beyond switching to locally produced dairy or almond milk. “In terms of individual demand, that’s just not going to move the needle,” she said. But calling federal elected officials about agriculture policy might. Holding global dairy corporations accountable is a political challenge, but Sharma is hopeful: “Political change is possible, it’s achievable,” she said. “We just have to create it.”
Though much of the world is focused on transitioning away from fossil fuels as a way to fight climate change, there are other often overlooked contributors to the conundrum resulting from climate change. Two of them are agriculture and livestock. Sure, they provide us with the food we eat every day. But cumulatively, they are also the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels.
While the majority of global warming activities give off carbon dioxide, the agricultural sector primarily releases methane, which is a greenhouse gas 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. The source is mainly rice that is grown on flooded fields with depleted dissolved oxygen. In the absence of oxygen, organic matter in the soil decomposes and produces methane that escapes into the atmosphere. Rising temperatures would cause rice cultivation to release even more methane.
Another source of methane is ruminants, particularly cows and goats. As part of their digestion cycle, they expel intestinal gases, mostly methane, via belches. Methane can also escape from stored manure and organic waste in landfills. If manure is stored as a liquid or slurry in ponds, tanks or pits, it decomposes anaerobically (in the absence of air) and emits a prodigious amount of methane. However, when handled as a solid or deposited naturally on grassland, manure decomposes aerobically and creates negligible methane emissions. Ruminants, manure and rice cultivation account for almost 25 percent of anthropogenic methane emissions.
One of the methods of reducing methane emissions from rice fields, as suggested by scientists at the World Resources Institute, is to plant rice in a raised bed and flood only the furrows. This method has the potential to cut methane emissions in half.
Controlling methane emissions from ruminants is more difficult than trimming or regulating methane emissions from fossil fuels. A large number of mitigation options—namely, diet manipulation, vaccines, chemical additives and genetic selection—have been proposed. They have different efficiencies in lowering production of intestinal methane.
Methane emissions from manure depend on temperature and storage duration. Results from typical Canadian farms indicate that use of underground manure storage tanks, maintained at lower temperatures, lessens methane emissions. Additionally, farmers found that if they clean the tanks regularly, it took longer for methane-producing organisms to grow back. Consequently, methane emissions decrease substantially.
As for agriculture, according to a report of the United Nations published last year, about 50 percent of the Earth’s cultivable land is dedicated to growing crops for humans and roughly 30 percent is used to grow grain for livestock. Given how much land it takes to grow food to feed livestock, a very vocal segment of environmentalists insist that “meat is heat” and encourage consumers to go vegan.
Moreover, in line with the projected population growth, global demand for food is expected to grow by up to 70 percent in the coming decades. This substantial increase in demand would require clearing more space for agriculture and cattle grazing, so that the per capita threshold of land required for a nation to be self-sufficient in food production could be maintained. Vast swaths of the Amazon Rainforest, along with lands and forests in other places, are already being cleared for growing crops and grazing cattle. If current trends continue, most of our planet’s remaining land and forests would need to be cleared to feed the world.
Deforestation and land degradation indirectly contribute to the negative impacts of atmospheric carbon dioxide. One of the main reasons for this is because forests are natural carbon sinks. They absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it into oxygen that we breathe in. Hence, by cutting down big areas of forest without replacing the trees that are removed, we are causing an inadvertent change in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Several studies indicate that planting more than two billion acres of trees could remove two-thirds of all the carbon dioxide that human activity has pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Trees also recharge the water table and create microclimates that increase local rainfall. In addition, deforestation puts biodiversity at risk, further undermining nature’s ability to cope with the impacts of climate, for example absorbing heavy rainfall.
Clearly, agriculture in general, and livestock in particular, contribute considerably to climate change. Nevertheless, climate change is also a major threat to the sustainability of livestock globally. An increase in air temperature as a result of global warming directly affects milk and meat production, reproductive efficiency and health of the animals. Also, excessive heat would reduce their body size and fat thickness.
Agriculture is also highly vulnerable to climate change. It is affecting food security by raising the risks to food supply due to heat waves, drought, flood, storms, soil depletion and desertification. Over the coming dozen years or so, farmers in developing countries, especially in South and Southeast Asia, will be the ones to bear the brunt of global warming, as per a recent report of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN.
It could, therefore, be said that agriculture and livestock farming are caught in a vicious cycle that makes them both victims and perpetrators of the harmful effects of climate change. Most of the times when agriculture perpetrates its crimes, it is not even contributing to feeding the ever-increasing world population. Instead, a good portion of the agricultural products are consumed by livestock—mostly bovines—which demonstrates this paradox.
How do we solve this complex problem? The solution obviously requires a coherent and integrated approach to climate change, energy usage and food security. Faced with global warming, competition for scarce resources, and inaction by world leaders, we, the people, have to transform the entire global food system and make it much more resource-efficient while continuously curbing its environmental impacts, including its greenhouse-gas emissions.
We also have to increase yields while curtailing dependence on agrochemicals. Besides, we should minimise food waste, cut down consumption of resource-intensive and greenhouse gas-producing foods, notably meat, and switch to climate-friendly vegetables, such as the nutritionally rich seaweed kelp. Farming kelp is beneficial for the ocean.
Furthermore, employing sustainable practices, like organic agriculture, has enormous potential to help in the fight against global warming, whereas maintaining the status quo with widespread industrial agricultural practices will continue to be terribly detrimental to the climate. In short, making agriculture and livestock industries and all associated activities sustainable is the answer to win the battle against global warming, as well as accelerate the transition to a healthier and more just society.
Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.
The livestock industry says the standard method of calculating the global warming contribution of methane significantly overstates the impact of cattle and is calling for policy changes that could slash the emissions counted against the industry.
While some scientists are backing the proposed change, others argue it could lead to an overly optimistic assessment of the climate change contribution of the industry, which committed in 2017 to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.
Livestock are the main contributor to agriculture sector emissions. Cows’ gassy burps are loaded with methane, a byproduct of digesting grass. Last year agriculture emissions accounted for 12.9 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse gas output, down 5.8 per cent as farmers reduced their stock due to drought.
In 1997 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agreed on a methodology to account for the global warming potential of greenhouse emissions over a 100-year time frame, known as the GWP100.
However, some scientists promote a new accounting methodology known as GWP Star, which counts the global warming potential of greenhouse gases over 20 years.
Methane emissions break down in the atmosphere over 12 years, much quicker than carbon dioxide, which takes 100 years to break down.
Tony Hegarty from the Cattle Council said GWP Star could provide a “more accurate approximation of the actual warming” caused by methane over its lifetime.
“We are prepared to allow the scientists to do the analysis. It’s better for us to call on the government and international community to have a serious conversation. I’m very confident it’s a more accurate approach and it could make a significant difference to our [cattle industry] emissions,” Mr Hegarty said.
The GWP Star method says the greenhouse effect of methane should not be calculated in the same way as carbon dioxide. Under this methodology, when an industry increases above the baseline of emissions starting in 1997, that is counted as growth.
But significantly, a decrease below the 1997 baseline is counted as emission reduction. In this way, when industry emissions fall below the baseline set 23 years ago, it can claim not to be contributing to additional global warming.
Melbourne University agriculture Professor Richard Eckard, who endorses using GWP Star, said the Australian national herd has declined by 12 per cent over 20 years and under GWP Star this would be recognised as net greenhouse gas reduction.
“This calculation shows that livestock in Australia have potentially contributed to a cooling rather than warming, relative to the period prior to 1997,” Professor Eckard said.
However, other scientists say the rate of breakdown doesn’t change the impact of a gas on warming if it’s continually topped up by grazing cows, even while emissions break down.
Australia National University Climate Change Institute director Professor Mark Howden said the atmospheric heating effect of methane “is not fundamentally different to carbon dioxide”.
“There’s a difference in the lifespan of the gases but because there are constant emissions the build-up in the atmosphere is the same,” Professor Howden said.
He said the 20-year accounting time frame also ignores historical emissions.
“GWP Star is trying to compensate for the different lifespan of greenhouse gases, but in doing so it actually grandfathers previous emissions levels (before 1997), which brings all sorts of problems into the system.”
Professor Howden said under GWP Star when an industry reduced its methane emissions by 12 per cent, it may claim to contribute to global cooling and “get a green light”, whereas under the existing GWP100 approach it would still get a red light – just slightly less red.
“These are pretty fundamental differences,” he said.
Just in the past three years, the Trump administration has attempted to roll back at least 95 environmental rules and regulations to the detriment of the environment and Americans’ public health. Moreover, the administration refuses to act to mitigate the effects of climate change—instead loosening requirements for polluters emitting the greenhouse gases that fuel the climate crisis. This dangerous agenda is affecting the lives of Americans across all 50 states.
Between 2017 and 2019, New Mexico experienced one drought and two severe storms. The damages of each event led to losses of at least $1 billion.
Impacts of climate change
New Mexico faces one of the greatest threats from growing, widespread summer droughts as a result of climate change in the United States.
New Mexico currently averages 20 days per year when heat exceeds dangerous levels, but projections indicate that number will double to 40 such days per year by 2050. This endangers the lives of the more than 80,000 people in New Mexico who are especially vulnerable to extreme heat.
Impacts of the Trump administration’s anti-environmental policies
In March 2020, the Trump administration announced its final rule to overturn Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for cars. These weakened fuel standards will lead to higher greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions and will cost New Mexico residents $215 million
The Trump administration is attempting to gut climate considerations from major infrastructure projects by eliminating the “cumulative impact” requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act. This is concerning because New Mexico’s economy relies heavily on its agriculture, tourism, and outdoor recreation industries—all of which are highly dependent on climate and weather conditions.
Agriculture: Agriculture and food processing accounted for more than $10 billion of New Mexico’s gross state product and supported more than 50,000 jobs in 2012.
Tourism: In 2018, tourism in New Mexico generated nearly $10 billion in economic impact and supported more than 94,000 jobs.
Outdoor recreation: The outdoor recreation industry in New Mexico generates 99,000 direct jobs and nearly $10 billion in consumer spending.
Mercury emissions in New Mexico decreased by nearly 84 percent from 2011 to 2017, yet the Trump administration just undermined limits on the amount of mercury and other toxic emissions that are allowed from power plants.
Congratulations. You’ve done everything humanly possible to cut carbon dioxide—to zero. But what if even that won’t be enough?
It’s one of the most uncomfortable realizations in climate research. Inertia in the climate system implies that even if emissions stopped, temperatures and especially sea levels would continue to rise for a long time. The logical conclusion leads almost immediately to the specter of solar geoengineering, an attempt to use technology to reflect a portion of sunlight back into space. The principle behind solar geoengineering is simple enough. With less sunshine coming through the atmosphere, the planet would invariably cool—and fast. At least temporarily. There’s even a natural analogue: the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. In June 1992—ironically, the same time as the pivotal Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit—global average temperatures were about 0.5C cooler than they would have been without all the ash and sulfur dioxide, SO₂, catapulted into the lower stratosphere by the volcano a year prior.
Alas, the millions of tons of gunk from Mount Pinatubo soon fell out of the stratosphere, temperatures shot back up—and they’ve been increasing since.
That leads to another thought experiment. What if some entity, be it an international body or a lone nation, decided to use large-scale tech to re-create the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption? The engineering would be straightforward: release SO₂ near the equator about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) up into the stratosphere. The SO₂ would turn into tiny reflective sulfate particles that would spread around the globe within weeks and linger for months. A bit of sunlight would be reflected away, and everything down below would be cooled.
This is the premise of solar geoengineering via stratospheric aerosols. It’s fast. Unlike cutting CO₂, adding SO₂ cools the Earth within weeks, not decades. It’s powerful. Millions of tons of SO₂ could help offset the global warming effects of hundreds of billions of tons of CO₂. It’s also highly imperfect and risky. It’s akin to adding one type of pollution (SO₂) to help counter the effects of another pollutant (CO₂). Think of it as an experimental drug taken in a pandemic. It might show promise, but watch out for unknown side effects.
In fact, SO₂ is a harmful pollutant. Burning fossil fuels releases tens of millions of tons of SO₂ into the lower atmosphere, killing about 4 million people each year through heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. The resulting acid rain kills trees and melts medieval cathedrals. If all SO₂ emissions were to stop overnight, it would be a boon to human health but a setback for global warming because it cools the planet. Average global temperatures would rise by at least 0.5C—an eruption of Mount Pinatubo in reverse.
It was precisely this thought experiment that led to a resurgence in solar geoengineering research. Too little is known to actually do solar geoengineering now, and research funding is less than $20 million a year. By comparison, the federal government alone spends more than $2 billion on climate research, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Of the few dozen climate scientists actively engaged in the research, most focus on computer models. Only a handful are conducting lab experiments. A Harvard group is working on an experimental balloon platform, as well as on alternatives to SO₂. Calcium carbonate has shown promise in models and the lab. (I was until last year the founding co-director of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program.) Much more research is needed to make anything akin to an informed deployment decision, and any process of moving toward deployment will be messy.
Solar geoengineering is potentially so powerful that one actor might be able to lower temperatures for the globe. It’s only a matter of time before pressure will increase to do just that, regardless of how fast the world slashes CO₂ emissions. With more frequent extreme heat and weather, it’s not hard to foresee conditions miserable enough to make an attempt at a little relief seem worth the risk to some. Limited research is already making one thing clear: Solar geoengineering isn’t only technically feasible, it’s a bargain. Next to the trillions in costs from unmitigated climate change, and even the expense of cutting CO₂, solar geoengineering costs practically nothing. If anything, it’s too cheap. A program that releases SO₂ to decrease average temperatures by about 0.1C would cost less than $5 billion per year. This should prompt the world to prepare for its inevitability. Dozens of countries have both the capacity and possible motivation. The operative word is “when,” not “if.”
A common message in use to convey the seriousness of climate change to the public is: ‘Carbon dioxide levels are higher today than they have been for the past one million years!’ This new study used a novel method to conclude that today’s carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are actually higher than they have been for the past 23 million years.
A common message in use to convey the seriousness of climate change to the public is: “Carbon dioxide levels are higher today than they have been for the past one million years!” This new study by Brian Schubert (University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and coauthors Ying Cui and A. Hope Jahren used a novel method to conclude that today’s carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are actually higher than they have been for the past 23 million years.
The team used the fossilized remains of ancient plant tissues to produce a new record of atmospheric CO2 that spans 23 million years of uninterrupted Earth history. They have shown elsewhere that as plants grow, the relative amount of the two stable isotopes of carbon, carbon-12 and carbon-13 changes in response to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This research, published this week in Geology, is a next-level study measuring the relative amount of these carbon isotopes in fossil plant materials and calculating the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere under which the ancient plants grew.
Furthermore, Schubert and colleagues’ new CO2 “timeline” revealed no evidence for any fluctuations in CO2 that might be comparable to the dramatic CO2 increase of the present day, which suggests today’s abrupt greenhouse disruption is unique across recent geologic history.
Another point, important to geological readers, is that because major evolutionary changes over the past 23 million years were not accompanied by large changes in CO2, perhaps ecosystems and temperature might be more sensitive to smaller changes in CO2 than previously thought. As an example: The substantial global warmth of the middle Pliocene (5 to 3 million years ago) and middle Miocene (17 to 15 million years ago), which are sometimes studied as a comparison for current global warming, were associated with only modest increases in CO2.
We know that global warming is forcing many animals around the world to flee their normal habitats, but now, an exhaustive analysis has shown marine species are booking it for the poles six times faster than those on land.
Drawing together 258 peer-reviewed studies, researchers compared over 30,000 habitat shifts in more than 12,000 species of bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals.
The resulting database, named BioShifts, is the first comprehensive analysis of its kind, and while the database is limited by our own, human research biases, the data we have certainly suggests marine species are following global thermal shifts much closer than land animals.
While land species definitely are moving closer to the poles as the planet heats up, this shift is “at a pace that is much slower than expected, especially in areas with warm climates,” the authors write.
In the review, amphibians were found to be moving up slope at over 12 metres a year, while reptiles seem to be headed towards the equator at 6.5 metres a year.
Insects, which incidentally carry many diseases, were found to be moving poleward at 18.5 kilometres per year.
Relatively, that’s a lot, but in the bigger picture, marine species were moving towards the poles at an average pace of nearly 6 kilometres per year, while land animals were only shifting upslope at a mean pace of nearly 1.8 metres per year (slightly faster than previous estimates for land species, but still comparatively slow).
This discrepancy between land and water could exist for several reasons. It might, for instance, be a product of temperature sensitivity. Air conducts heat 25 times less effectively than water, and many land animals can easily regulate their body temperature if they want.
On the whole, this would logically leave marine species and many ectotherms – cold-blodded species – much more susceptible to Earth’s fluctuating temperatures.
Plus, animals in the water can migrate a lot easier if the need arises. On land, human activities often impede the movement of animals. In fact, when animals were exposed to a high degree of anthropogenic disturbances, the authors of this analysis found they tended to move against the thermal grain and not with it.
This is consistent with the general idea that land use and climate change may force species in opposite directions, a sort of push and pull of re-distribution.
“On land, habitat loss and fragmentation due to land use changes may impede the ability of terrestrial species to track shifting isotherms [lines on a map connection regions with the same temperature],” the authors write.
“These complex interactions need to be accounted for to improve scenarios of biodiversity redistribution and its consequences on human well-being under future climate change.”
If the authors are right, and marine life is tracking along temperature changes more closely, it could have dire and far-reaching repercussions. Some of which we might have seen before.
During the Permian-Triassic Extinction, the most calamitous event in Earth’s history, researchers say very few marine organisms stayed in the same habitat as oxygen levels plummeted.
Today, as temperature increases squeeze animals into ever-narrowing habitat ranges, those animals already swimming towards he poles are also at risk of running out of cooler water.
Of course, this is happening on land, too. Animals found high up in the mountains are said to be riding an “escalator to extinction” as temperatures and competition push them over the brink. It’s just that in the water this escalator seems to be moving faster.
“We suggest that commercial fishing may speed up the displacement of marine species distribution through resource depletion and population crashes at the trailing edge, whereas low constraints on dispersal in the oceans may allow marine species living close to their upper thermal limits to better track climate warming at the leading edge,” the authors predict.
As impressive and necessary as the new database is, however, the authors acknowledge it has serious limits.
Despite its comprehensive nature, the meta-analysis used to create BioShifts only covers 0.6 percent of all known life on Earth, and the animals we have researched tend to be the most charismatic, or important to humans, focused predominantly in the northern hemisphere.
So while we call this a global meta-analysis, it’s not really. Instead, it’s as close as we can get given the circumstances.
Still, we can only work with what we’ve got, and it looks like the animals we do know of are struggling to find new habitats in the face of a growing climate crisis.
BioShifts is a way for us to help track those changes so we can possibly predict what will happen next.