Our Vulnerable Earth
Glacier National Park
A glowing waterfall gushes down into glistening pools below, fed by the rapidly melting glacier that I had just traversed.
In 1850, there were 150 glaciers in Glacier National Park. Now only 25 remain. By 2030, the park is predicted to be devoid of glaciers.
A changing climate will dramatically affect the park's ecosystem and the wildlife it harbors. Wolverines and lynx, which require spring snow cover to survive, are at particular risk. Climate change could also threaten the habitat for grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, pikas and trout. As temperatures in Glacier rise, animals that do not now live in the park may move in, competing with existing species for food and habitat. Because the scenery and wildlife are the major draws for virtually all the park's visitors these changes could have economic implications as well.
Thick smoke blankets the mountains and valleys, creating a deep haze.
During my time in the park, several wildfires raged through parts of the forests. Several areas were closed off and evacuated. As we hiked through the park we could see the charred trees studded with glowing embers, ash drifting through the air.
These fires are getting more common and larger year by year. While I was camped out there, 49,000 of the park’s 1,000,000 acres (20%) were alight.
This immense patchwork of crates in Tangier harbor illustrates Morocco’s reliance on its fishing industry.
Around 85% of global fish stocks are over exploited or in recovery from exploitation. The waters surrounding Morocco are some of the most severely abused in the world. All West African fisheries are now over exploited and coastal fisheries have declined 50% in the past 30 years. What’s more, the Moroccans aren’t to blame.
The EU effectively subsidises giant trawlers to raid the West African waters. Using enormous trawl nets up to 600 metres long and 200 metres wide, one European trawler can capture and process 250 tonnes of fish per day- more than 56 traditional African boats can catch in a year.
Local Moroccan fishermen have seen see their catches shrinking and their costs and workload rising. They are forced to travel further offshore to catch fish and often have to compete for space with the industrial trawlers, in dangerous waters unsuitable for their small boats.
Inexcusably, much of this fish doesn’t make it ashore: the amount of fish discarded at sea during one large trawler's fishing trip is estimated to be same as the annual fish consumption of 34,000 people in North Africa.
In the past 15 years, bycatch from around 20 EU trawlers in the waters off neighbouring country Mauritania has killed an estimated 1,500 critically endangered turtles, more than 18,000 big rays and over 60,000 sharks.
As the day draws its last breath, night sets in over the deepest lake in the United States.
Over the past 80 years, average annual snowfall at Crater Lake has steadily decreased– a typical winter now would receive 12 feet less snow than in the 1930’s. Crater Lake is home to some of the worlds clearest waters, water far purer than even the tap water at your home. These waters are also getting warmer year on year, and have risen 3°C since 1965. Whilst that may not sound significant, researchers are worried that this increased temperature could spur the growth of algae, and see away the waters profound clarity.
The trees that appear silhouetted on the edge of this photo are Oregon’s signature whitebark pines. Half of these pines that grow around the crater’s rocky rim are dead or dying. Warmer climates have allowed pine beetles to survive at higher altitudes, meaning that they have attacked these pines. The whitebark pines are vital to the survival of many species, who rely on them for food and shelter.
The American Pikas, a small furry mammal that inhabits the rocky slopes around the lake, are drastically decreasing in numbers due to the higher temperatures. Their thick fur causes them to rapidly overheat in the sun.
Ice bergs on a black beach is an unusual sight.
This ice has calved off the main glacier and dropped into the bordering lagoon, from there it slowly glides across the lagoon, pulled by the swirling micro-currents, eventually reaching the outlet river where it is shot out into the North Atlantic Ocean. The thundering waves of the North Atlantic hurl these misshapen blocks of ice back onto the beach, where they rest, taunted by the fingertips of wave after wave. 10 years ago, the lagoon would have been fully frozen, locking the icebergs into place. In recent years the lagoon has only partially frozen, allowing yet more ice to escape. A century ago, this beach would have marked the end of the glacier that now feeds the lagoon. The lagoon just inland would have been covered by over 100 feet of ice. Today, the glaciers edge is 4 miles from the ocean, retreating at over 60 metres each year. Experts say if this continues, the glacier will tear a deep fjord into the mountains, washing away the tranquil lagoon, the road bridge and the crucial Route 1 that skirts Iceland’s coast, in as little as 30 years.
The constant stream of traffic across Tower Bridge is just a miniscule excerpt of the ever growing congestion issues in our capital city. Nearly 10,000 people die prematurely from air pollution in London every year. This is due to two key pollutants: fine particulates known as PM2.5’s and the toxic nitrogen dioxide, which are largely created by the excessive numbers of diesel cars, lorries and buses that travel through London.
This congestion, and along with it the toxic air pollution, can be reduced - If just 14 per cent of journeys in central London were cycled – emissions there of the greatest vehicle pollutant, NOx, would fall by 30 per cent, or 453 tonnes a year.
Ria de Arousa, Spain
In the waters of Ria de Arousa bobs 2,300 rafts, placed with dangling ropes to farm mussels. Each raft produces around 75 tonnes of these little shelled creatures per year. Ecologically, mussels are the intestines of coastal ecosystems. Their filters remove organic particles from the water, particularly phytoplankton. A typical size raft of mussels can filter through around 5 million litres of water per hour. They leave behind clearer water and a nutrient-rich detritus that fertilizes the stream and its sediments.
By restocking our mussel population along coastlines and rivers, we can drastically clean up some of our dirty waters.
Flathead Valley, Montana
The undisturbed peace before sunrise masks the hectic pace of change in the surrounding valley.
I stayed on a cashmere goat farm in the mountains at the edge of Flathead Lake Valley. I asked Ann, the owner of the farm to tell me about how the surrounding area has changed in the 33 years she has lived there:
“Farmland is disappearing at an alarming rate, subdivisions and malls are popping up all over the place. It's no longer a sleepy farming valley. The wealthy have decided this area is good for a second home, so ‘trophy’ houses have been built all around all the lakes and along the rivers. Crime has gone up considerably. Drugs are a major problem. When I first moved to the Valley, one could leave their vehicles unlocked, their houses unlocked, one knew their neighbors. Now none of that is true, at least for the most part. We are lucky out here where we are, not many people know we are up here. In the town, the traffic has become an issue. Although new roads and bypasses are being constructed to alleviate that, they are slow in coming. Over all it's still a great place to live, it's just not quite as nice as it used to be.”
A large bubble drifts through a bustling square, momentarily reflecting the city’s distinct architecture, a fraction of a second before being popped by the child’s hand behind. Much like this bubble, Amsterdam is extremely vulnerable.
Netherlands roughly translates to low countries, with its lowest city lying 7 metres below sea level. A single metre rise to sea level would wipe out the majority of Amsterdam, along with almost the entire west half of Holland.
Plitvice National Park, Croatia
The lakes and waterfalls of Plitvice National Park attract well over 1 million visitors a year. During the summer months, that’s 10,000 people per day, all sharing the same few miles of trails. Without the Park Authority managing visitors, these vast numbers are left to inflict enormous pressure on this fragile ecosystem and threaten the travertine dams, which hold together the intricate waterfalls.
If the intense strain on the trails continues, habitats for fauna and wildlife will gradually be destroyed, as well as the increased risk of collapsing dams and waterfalls, affecting the whole park’s water flow.
For instance, the continuous disturbance of otters’ habitat by visitors may lead to a significant decrease in this species’ numbers. In order to protect it, the Park would have to ban visitation of at least 50% of the lakes’ coasts.
In cases like this, where our appreciation of these areas of outstanding natural beauty lead to their destruction, we must question whether it is time to start restricting entry to these protected parks in order to preserve their magnificence for decades to come?
Farlington Marshes, Hampshire
As the day begins, a murmuration of starlings swoop over the rising tide, sheltering in England to get away from the harsh winters in Northern Europe.
Coastal nature reserves like this are at serious risk from several threats:
Climate change is causing gradually rising sea levels and changes in weather patterns - including an increase in extreme storms and tides. Within the Solent, significant loss of intertidal habitats is to be expected as they are 'squeezed' between the rising waters and fixed coastal defences. Furthermore, increased battering by storms could erode and wash away the homes of lots of coastal wildlife.
Modified physical processes through measures to protect the coast from erosion and flooding, and through the dredging and maintenance of shipping channels change water flow and put increased stress on the delicate silty marshes that wildlife thrives in.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
A light haze dusts the densely vegetated mountains at Cades Cove, in the Great Smokies.
Views from scenic overlooks in the Park have been seriously degraded over the last 50 years by human-made pollution. Since 1948, average visibility has decreased 40% in winter and 80% in summer. This pollution causes colors to appear washed out and obscures landscape features.
Most of this pollution originates outside the park and travels to the Smokies on prevailing winds.
Harmful ozone exposure in the park is among the highest in the East, recently becoming a threat to health. On average, ozone levels over the ridgetops of the park are up to two times higher than in nearby cities, including Knoxville and Atlanta.
This pollution is also causing acid rain, with the average acidity of rainfall in the park is 5-10 times more acidic than normal rainfall. Clouds with acidity as low as 2.0 pH bathe the high elevation forests during part of the growing season. Mountain streams and forest soils are being acidified to the point that the health of the park’s high elevation ecosystems is in jeopardy.
To help combat cases like this, borders of National Parks need to be turned into rural buffer zones, so as to further protect the conserved lands, instead of having a clear cut boundary where the protected area ends.
Temperatures in the Alps are increasing at a rate more than twice the global average. This is due to the fact that mountains concentrate the fumes and emissions from the vehicles that pass through, as they are trapped in narrow valleys, and the upper layer of warmer air at night creates a cap to hold the fumes down. As such, the effects of the gases are exaggerated over the mountains.
Glaciers reflect solar energy. The glaciers in these mountains are shrinking – therefore decreasing the surface area of the ‘mirror’, meaning less heat is reflected, and in turn the sun heats up the planet even more.
Over the past 50 years low lying snow has decreased by roughly 40%, and the point at which rain turns to snow has risen by over 200 metres. The famous Aguille Rouges Mer de Glace Glacier has shrunk 300 metres in just the last 20 years. At the current rate, it is estimated that by 2050, many of the Alpen ski resorts below 2000 metres will have to close down.