Here's the Best - and Worst - Environmental News of 2016
By Kieran Mulvaney, Seeker, 23 December 2016.
By Kieran Mulvaney, Seeker, 23 December 2016.
It has been tumultuous and eventful - or, as John Oliver called it, "one calamity after another." But as 2016 slouches, unmourned and unloved, into history, it's worth recalling that there was some good news for the environment amid the gloom. Of course, it being 2016, and humanity being what it is, it seems as if every reason for optimism came twinned with a super-sized serving of shoulder-slumping slop. In an attempt to be at least halfway cheerful, here's a look back at some of the good - and inevitably bad - environmental news of the last 12 months.
1. Good: End to Arctic Offshore Oil Drilling
Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr
Let's begin with the most recent news: President Obama declared this week that hundreds of millions of acres of federally owned territory in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans would be removed indefinitely from new offshore oil and gas drilling. Obama used the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to protect large portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic and a string of canyons in the Atlantic from Massachusetts to Virginia. In a coordinated move, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took action to protect some of that nation's Arctic waters from drilling.
2. Bad: Arctic Report Card Basically Gives Humanity an F
Credit: NASA/John Sonntag
Arctic Ocean sea ice fell to its joint second lowest summer sea minimum extent; and its winter recovery has so far been beyond anemic. The Greenland ice sheet had the second earliest start to a melt season on record, with that season lasting up to 40 days longer than average in some regions. At a press conference to announce the release of NOAA's annual "Arctic Report Card," Jeremy Mathis, director of the agency's Arctic research program, showed "a stronger, more pronounced signal of persistent warming than any other year in our observation record."
3. Good: The Ozone Layer Is Showing Signs of Recovery
Almost 30 years after the world agreed to phase out chemical substances that deplete the ozone layer, the annual "hole" above Antarctica "appears to be on a healing path" according to new research. Scientists found that the September ozone hole has shrunk by more than 1.5 million square miles (4 million square kilometers) since its 2000 peak - despite other factors, such as volcanic eruptions, which have at times interfered to temporarily slow or even reverse that progress.
4. Bad: CO2 Levels Pass Important Threshold
Credit: Climate Central
Levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in September - the month when such levels are generally at their lowest - failed to drop below 400 parts per million (ppm), meaning that 2016 will likely be seen as the year in which Earth's atmosphere officially crossed the 400 ppm threshold. (At the onset of the Industrial revolution, concentrations of atmospheric CO2 were approximately 285 ppm.) According to Ralph Keeling, who runs the Scripps Institute of Oceanography's carbon dioxide monitoring program, "Brief excursions toward lower values are still possible, but it already seems safe to conclude that we won't be seeing a monthly value below 400 ppm this year - or ever again for the indefinite future." Added Brian Kahn of Climate Central: "Even if the world stopped emitting carbon dioxide tomorrow, what has already put in the atmosphere will linger for many decades to come."
5. Good: Carbon Dioxide Emissions Steadying
Credit: Bill Burris/Flickr
Humanity certainly isn't close to stopping its carbon dioxide emissions, but for the third year in a row, those emissions appear to have plateaued, despite an expected increase due to global economic recovery. A November study estimated that emissions from the world's two largest carbon polluters - China and the United States - dropped by approximately 0.5 percent and 1.5 percent respectively. However, global emissions are still at around 9.9 billion tons per year; at that rate the world will reach a cumulative total of 800 billion tons emitted - at which point scientists estimate a global temperature increase of 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) - in a little under 25 years.
6. Bad: Methane Emissions Are Increasing
Credit: Jim Bendon/Flickr
Meanwhile, emissions of methaneemissions of methane - a more potent, but fortunately considerably less long-lasting, greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide - are increasing. Methane emissions remained stable from the mid-1990s until about 2007, since when atmospheric methane levels have been rising rapidly. An isotopic analysis published in October had some surprising findings: firstly, that fossil fuel emissions are more significant contributors to methane levels than previously thought, but secondly, that the majority of the increase in atmospheric methane was caused by microbial emissions. Some researchers think the uptick in microbial methane output is the result of a growth in agriculture in China, India and Southeast Asia, while others point the finger at warmer and wetter weather in the tropics has enhanced microbial methane production, suggesting that a feedback loop - warmer conditions releasing more warming methane - may be underway.
7. Good: Victory at Standing Stone
Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
After months of protest, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in December announced that construction on the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline would be halted. The estimated US$3.8 billion pipeline would have carried 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day from western North Dakota to Illinois, where it would connect with an existing pipeline. But protesters halted the building of a section that would go beneath Lake Oahe, threatening the Standing Rock reservation's supply of drinking water and putting sacred Native American sites at risk. Despite the success, protestors remain at the Standing Stone camp, concerned that the battle is far from over, and that the incoming administration will reverse the decision.
8. Bad: Wildfires Wreak Havoc Across North America
Credit: DarrenRD/Wikimedia Commons
The western and southeastern United States, and parts of western Canada, were among the areas to experience massive wildfires in 2016. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, fires that at one point burned as high as 1,800 degrees F (1,000 degrees C) spread over an area in excess of 2,300 square miles; they started on May 1 and were not brought under control until July 4, although they are still smoldering. In California, a total of 6,938 fires fed by warm temperatures and dead trees swept through almost 1,000 square miles over the summer. And in the southeastern United States, fires apparently ignited by arson and nurtured by warm, dry conditions, burned more than 150,000 acres across Appalachia.
9. Good: World's Largest Marine Park Designated in Antarctica
Twenty-four countries and the European Union agreed in October to establish the world's largest marine protected area in Antarctica's Ross Sea, with 425,000 square miles being set aside as a "no-take" zone where fishing is prohibited. The Ross Sea is home to 38 percent of the world's Adélie penguins, 26 percent of Emperor penguins, more than 30 percent of Antarctic petrels, and six percent of Antarctic minke whales.
10. Bad: Vaquita Is Closer to Extinction - and So Are Plenty More Species
Credit: Paula Olson/NOAA
Despite on-going efforts to protect it, the vaquita - a tiny porpoise found only in the northern Gulf of California - now numbers a grand total of just 60 individuals, according to scientists; at its present rate of decline, it may become extinct by 2018. Nor is it alone: Meanwhile, giraffe populations are crashing, climate change caused hundreds of local extinctions in 2016, millions of U.S. trees are dying, one in five plant species is threatened with extinction, and even a species of bumble bee has been declared endangered.
11. Good: Paris Agreement Comes into Effect
Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana/Wikimedia Commons
A worldwide pact to battle global warming entered into force in November. Dubbed the Paris Agreement after the city in which it was agreed last December, it had at the time of its coming into effect been ratified by 94 countries representing 66 percent of global CO2 emissions. The agreement theoretically commits its signatories to limiting the increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) - although there is concern that the present level of commitments, even if adhered to, are only sufficient to cap that warming at 2.7 degrees C (4.9 degrees F).
12. Bad: New US President-Elect Doesn't Believe in Climate Change
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Saving the worst for last: the United States has just elected a president who not only has said he would like to withdraw the country from the Paris agreement, but has stated that climate change is a hoax invented by China. And while he has since said that was a hoax and insisted he was keeping an open mind on the issue, his incoming Chief of Staff has said that the president-elect's default position is that most climate science is "a bunch of bunk."
So long, 2016. And buckle up, folks. 2017 is going to be a heck of a ride.
Top image: Forest fire (wildfire). Credit: skeeze/Pixabay.
[Source: Seeker. Edited. Some images added.]