The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label extinction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label extinction. Show all posts

Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Empty Sea -- An Ongoing Saga


"The Empty Sea," a Report to the Club of Rome by Ugo Bardi and Ilaria Perissi, was translated into Chinese and published in China at the end of September of this year. As a comment to this new version of the book, I am reproducing here, with the kind permission of the author, a post by Coty Perry that deals with the same basic problems that the book describes. How the marine ecosystem is being damaged by human activities. Will it survive? It is part of an ongoing saga that sees humans killing everything on this planet without realizing that, in doing that, eventually they will be killing themselves

For those of you who can't read Chinese, the English version of the book is available on Springer's site. A version in Italian is also available at this link

Overfishing, Conservation, Sustainability, and Farmed Fish

As with many other aspects of government policy, overfishing and other fishing-related environmental issues are a real problem, but it’s not clear that government intervention is the solution. Indeed, it might be one of the main drivers of overfishing and other conservation and sustainability issues stemming from commercial fishing. Much like drone fishing, there are serious ethical issues of interest to the average angler. 

There’s another commonality that overfishing has with environmental issues more broadly: The Western companies primarily concerned with serious efforts to curb overfishing are not the ones who are most guilty of overfishing. What this means is that the costs of overfishing are disproportionately borne by the countries least engaged in practices that are counter to efforts to make commercial fishing more sustainable while also promoting conservation of fish biodiversity. 

All of these are important issues not just for commercial fishermen, but also those interested in questions of conservation and sustainability in general, as well as recreational fisherman and basically anyone who uses fish as a food source. As the ocean goes, so goes the planet, so it is of paramount importance for everyone to educate themselves on what is driving overfishing, what its consequences are, and what meaningful steps — not simply theater to feel as if “something is being done” — can be taken.

Indeed, over three billion people around the world rely on fish as their primary source of protein. About 12 percent of the world relies on fisheries in some form or another. 90 percent of these being small-scale fishermen — “think a small crew in a boat, not a ship,” using small nets or even rods, reels and lures not too different from the kind you probably use.

Overfishing infographic - "90% fisheries small-scale fishermen, 12% world population relies upon fisheries"

There are 18.9 million fishermen in the world, with 90 percent of them falling under the same small-scale fisherman rubric discussed above. 

Overfishing Definition: What is Overfishing?

Overfished ocean

First, take heart: As a recreational fisherman you are almost certainly not guilty of “overfishing.” This is an issue for commercial fishermen in the fishing industry who are trawling the ocean depths with massive nets to catch enough fish to make a living for themselves and their families, not the angler who enjoys a little peace and quiet on the weekends. 

Overfishing is, in some sense, a rational reaction to increasing market needs for fish. Most people consume approximately twice as much fish as they did 50 years ago and there are four times as many people on earth as there were at the close of the 1960s. This is one driver of the 30 percent of commercially fished waters being classified as “overfished.” This means that the stock of available fishing waters are being depleted faster than they can be replaced.

There is a simple and straightforward definition of when an area is being “overfished” and it’s not simply about catching “too many” fish. Overfishing occurs when the breeding stock of an area becomes so depleted that the fish in the area cannot replenish themselves. 

Overfishing infographic "> 80% fish caught in nets"

At best, this means fewer fish next year than there are this year. At worst, it means that a species of fish cannot be fished out of a specific area anymore. This also goes hand-in-hand with wasteful forms of fishing that harvest not just the fish the trawler is looking for, but just about every other organism big enough to be caught in a net. Over 80 percent of fish are caught in these kinds of nets but fish aren’t the only things caught in nets.

What’s more, there are a number of wide-reaching consequences of overfishing. It’s not simply bad because it depletes the fish stocks of available resources, though that certainly is one reason why it’s bad. Others include:

  • Increased Algae in the Water: Like many other things, algae is great but too much of it is very bad. When there are fewer fish in the water, algae doesn’t get eaten. This increases the acidity in the world’s oceans, which negatively impacts not only the remaining fish, but also the reefs and plankton.
  • Destruction of Fishing Communities: Overfishing can completely destroy fish populations and communities that once relied upon the fish that were there. This is particularly true for island communities. And it’s worth remembering that there are many isolated points on the globe where fishing isn’t just the driver of the economy, but also the primary source of protein for the population. When either or both of these disappear, the community disappears along with it.
  • Tougher Fishing for Small Vessels: If you’re a fan of small business, you ought to be concerned about overfishing. That’s because overfishing is mostly done by large vessels and makes it harder for smaller ones to meet their quotas. With over 40 million people around the world getting their food and livelihood from fishing, this is a serious problem.
  • Ghost Fishing: Ghost fishing refers to abandoned man-made fishing gear that is left behind. It’s believed that an estimated 25,000 nets float throughout the Northeast Atlantic. This left behind gear becomes a death trap for all marine life that swim through that area. While much of this is caused due to storms and natural disasters, much of it is the result of ignorance and neglect on behalf of commercial fishermen.
  • Species Pushed to Near Extinction: When we hear that a fish species is being depleted, we often think it’s fine because they can be found somewhere else. However, many species of fish are being pushed close to extinction by overfishing, such as several species of cod, tuna, halibut and even lobster.
  • Bycatch: If you’re old enough to remember people being concerned about dolphins caught in tuna nets, you know what bycatch is: It’s when marine life that is not being sought by commercial fishermen is caught in their nets as a byproduct. The possibility of bycatch increases dramatically with overfishing.
  • Waste: Overfishing creates waste in the supply chain. Approximately 20 percent of all fish in the United States is lost in the supply chain due to overfishing. In the Third World this rises to 30 percent thanks to a lack of available freezing devices. What this means is that even though there are more fish being caught than ever, there is also massive waste of harvested fish.
  • Mystery Fish: Because of overfishing, there are a significant amount of fish at your local fish market and on the shelves of your local grocery store that aren’t what they are labelled as. Just because something says that it’s cod doesn’t mean that it actually is. To give you an idea of the scope of this problem, only 13 percent of the “red snapper” on the market is actually red snapper. Most of this is unintentional due to the scale of fishing done today, but much of it is not, hiding behind the unfortunate realities of mass scale fishing to pass off inferior products to unwitting customers. 
Overfishing infographic - "fish in the Third World lost in the supply chain..."

So why is overfishing happening? There are a variety of factors driving overfishing that we will delve into here, the bird’s eye view is below.

  • Regulation: Regulations are incredibly difficult to enforce even when they are carefully crafted, which they often are not. The worst offenders have little regulations in place and none of these regulations apply in international waters, which are effectively a Wild West.
  • Unreported Fishing: Existing regulations force many fisherman to do their fishing “off the books” if they wish to turn a profit. This is especially true in developing nations.
  • Mobile Processing: Mobile processing is when fish are processed before even returning to port. They are canned while still out at sea. Canned fish is increasingly taking up the fish consumption market at the expense of fresh fish.
  • Subsidies: Anyone familiar with farm subsidies knows that these are actually bad for the production of healthy food. Subsidies for fishing are similar. They don’t generally go to small fisherman whom one would think are most in need, but rather to massive vessels doing fuel-intensive shipping. 

What’s more, subsidies encourage overfishing because the money keeps flowing no matter what — the more fish you catch, the more money you get, with no caps influenced by environmental impact fishing regulation. 

Indeed, according to the World Wildlife Fund, subsidies drive illegal fishing, which is closely tied with piracy, slavery and human trafficking. The University of British Columbia conducted a study that found that $22 billion (63 percent of all fishing subsidies) went toward subsidies that encourage overfishing. 

Of these, the main driver of overfishing is, predictably, government subsidies. So it is worth taking a few minutes to separate that out from the rest of these issues and give it some special attention. 

More on Overfishing and Government Subsidies

Overfishing - "Fishing boats on the water with asian writing on the sides"

The subsidies that drive overfishing are highly lucrative: The governments of the world are giving away over $35 billion every year to fishermen. That’s about 20 percent of the value of all the commercially caught fish in the world every year. Subsidies are often directed at reducing the costs for megafishing companies — things like paying for their massive fuel budgets, the gear they need to catch fish, or even the vessels themselves. 

This effectively allows for large commercial fishing operations to take over the market or recapitalize at rates significantly below that of the market, disproportionately favoring them over their smaller competitors. 

It is this advantage that drives large mega fishing companies into unsustainable fishing practices. The end result of this is not just depleted stocks, but also lower yields due to long-term overfishing, as well as lowered costs of fish at market, which has some advantages for the consumer, but also makes it significantly harder for smaller operations to turn a profit. 

Such government subsidies could provide assistance to smaller fishermen, but are generally structured in a way that favors consolidation of the market and efforts counterproductive to conservation efforts. 

What Role Do Farmed Fish Play?

Farmed fish is a phenomenon that we take for granted today, but is actually a revolutionary method of bringing fish out of the water and onto our dinner tables. Originally, it was seen as a way of preserving the population of wild fish. The thinking was this: We could eat fish from fish farming while the wild stock replenished itself. 

At the same time, communities impacted by overfishing would find new ways to get income in an increasingly difficult market. Third world countries would have their protein needs met in a manner that did not negatively impact the environment. It was considered a big, easy win for the entire world. 

The reality, as is often the case, turned out to be a little different. Crowding thousands of fish together in small areas away from their natural habitat turns out to have a number of detrimental effects. Waste products, primarily fish poop, excess food and dead fish, begin to contaminate the areas around fish farms. What’s more, like other factory farms, fish farms require lots of pesticides and drugs thanks to the high concentrations of fish and the parasites and diseases that spread in these kinds of areas. 

Predictably, the chemicals used in making farmed fish possible are not contained in the areas where they are initially used. They spread into the surrounding waters and then simply become part of the water of the world, building up over time. In many cases, farmed fish are farmed in areas that are already heavily polluted. This is where the admonition to avoid eating too much fish for fear of contaminants like mercury has come from.

What’s more, the fish that we eat are not the only fish that are living at the fisheries. Often times, the preferred fish of the human consumer are carnivores that must eat lots of other fish to get up to an appropriate size to be part of the market. These fish, known as “reduction fish” or “trash fish” require the same kind of treatment that the larger fish they feed do. 

All told, it takes 26 pounds of feed to produce a single pound of tuna, making farmed fishing an incredibly inefficient way of bringing food to market. Indeed, 37 percent of all seafood globally is now fed for farmed fish, up dramatically from 7.7 percent in 1948. 

Overfishing infographic "26 pounds of feed = 1 pound of tuna"

Perhaps worst of all, farmed fish simply do not have the same nutritional value as their wild counterparts, losing almost all of the Omega-3 fatty acids that make fish such a prized part of the modern diet. 

Salmon, for example, is only healthy when it is caught in the wild. Farmed salmon is essentially a form of junk food. This is in large part due to the diet that the fish eat in fish farms, which is high in fat and uses soy as a primary source of protein. Toxins at the farms concentrate in the fatty tissue of the salmon. Concentrations of the harmful chemical PCB are found in concentrations eight times higher in farmed fish than traditionally caught wild salmon.

 Farmed fish

The pesticides, of course, are not used for no reason, but because of the proliferation of pests due to the high concentrations of fish in the fisheries. Sea lice are one example of such pests, which can eat a live salmon down to the bone. 

These pests do not stay in the fisheries, but quickly spread to the surrounding waters and infect wild salmon as well as their farmed counterparts. The pests aren’t the only ones escaping: Farmed fish often escape from their habitats and compete with the native fish for resources, becoming an invasive species. 

Subsidies vary from one country to another and specific statistics about how much goes to fish farms is generally not forthcoming. But fish farms effectively move the problem of overfishing from the wild oceans and into more enclosed areas. This does not solve any of the problems of overfishing. It merely creates new ones with no less impact on the environment. 

Which Countries Are Overfishing?

Countries that are overfishing

As stated above, the main offenders with regard to overfishing tend to not be developed Western countries, but countries from the undeveloped world and parts of Asia. Sadly, the United States is the only Western nation that appeared on a “shame list” put out by Pew Charitable Trusts. This is known as the Pacific Six. The other members include Japan, Taiwan, China, South Korea and Indonesia. 

Overfishing infographic - "80% world's bluefin tuna"

The list only refers to overfishing with regard to bluefin tuna, but it provides a snapshot of the face of overfishing internationally. Overfishing facts say that these six countries are fishing 80 percent of the world’s bluefin tuna. These countries took collectively 111,482 metric tons of bluefin tuna out of the waters in 2011 alone. 

However, when it comes to harmful subsidies there is a clear leader: China. A University of British Columbia study found that China provided more in the way of harmful subsidies encouraging overfishing than any other country on earth — $7.2 billion in 2018 or 21 percent of all global support. What’s more, subsidies that are more beneficial than harmful dropped by 73 percent.

Overfishing infographic " 111,482 tons of bluefin tuna in 2011"

The negative effects of overfishing are not taking place far away and in very abstract ways. They are causing communities right here in the United States to collapse. In the early 1990s, overfishing of cod caused entire communities in New England to collapse. Once this happens, it is very difficult to reverse. The effects are felt by the marine ecosystem but also by the people whose livelihoods depend on fishing. 

Another example of economic instability is the Japanese fish market. Japanese fishermen are able to catch far less fish than they used to, meaning that the Japanese are now eating more imported fish, often from the United States, than ever before. This creates a perverse situation where America exports most of its best salmon to other countries, but consumes some of the worst farmed salmon in the world today. 

Just How Bad Is Overfishing?

Surely overfishing can’t be that bad, right? The seas are just filled with tons of fish and it would take us forever to overfish to the point that they began to disappear entirely, right?

Fish on dry land

Think again. Overfishing is happening at biologically unsustainable levels. Pacific bluefin tuna, the type of fish discussed in the section above, has seen a 97 percent decline in overall population. This is important because the Pacific bluefin tuna is one of the most important predators in the ocean food chain. If it goes extinct the entire aquaculture will be irreparably disturbed. 

The first fish that disappear from an ecosystem are larger fish with a longer lifespan and reach reproductive age later in life. These are also the most desirable fish on the open market. When these fish disappear, the destructive fishing operations do not leave the area: They simply move down the food chain to less desirable catches like squid and sardines. This is called “fishing down the web” and it slowly destroys the entire ecosystem removing first the predator fish and then the prey. 

There are broader effects on the ecosystem beyond just the fish, effects that resonate throughout the entire Atlantic and Pacific ocean. Many of the smaller fish eat algae that grows on coral reefs. When these fish become overfished, the algae grows uncontrolled and the reefs suffer as a result. That deprives many marine life forms of their natural habitat, creating extreme disruption in the ocean ecosystem. 

What Are Some Alternatives to Government-Driven Overfishing?

Protecting fish

While there are certainly policy solutions to rampant overfishing, not all solutions will come from governments. For example, there are emerging technological solutions that will make by catching and other forms of waste less prevalent and harmful. 

Simple innovations based on existing technologies, such as Fishtek Marine seek to save sea mammals from the nets of commercial fishermen while also increasing profit margins for these companies in a win-win scenario. Their device is small and inexpensive and thus does not present an undue burden to either the large-scale commercial fishing vessels or small fishermen looking to eke out a living in an increasingly difficult market. 

We must also recognize that current regulations simply do not work. In one extreme case, governments restricted fishing for certain forms of tuna for three days a year. This did absolutely nothing for the population of tuna, as the big commercial fishing companies simply employed methods to harvest as many fish in three days as they were previously getting in any entire year. 

This, in turn, led to a greater amount of bycatch and waste. Because the fishing operations didn’t have the luxury of time to ensure that they were only catching what they sought to catch, their truncated fishing season prized quantity over quality with predictable results. 

Quotas, specifically the “individual transferable quota” scheme used by New Zealand and many other countries does not seem to work as intended for a number of reasons. First, these quotas are, as the name might suggest, transferable. This means that little fishermen might consider it a better deal to simply sell their quota to a large commercial fishing operation rather than go to work for themselves and we’re back to square one. 

More generally speaking, quotas seem to be a source of waste. Here’s how they work: A fishing operation is given a specific tonnage of fish from a specific species that they can catch. However, not all fish are created equally. So when commercial fishing operations look at their catch and see that some of it is of higher quality than others, they discard the lower-quality fish in favor of higher-quality fish creating large amounts of waste. These discards can sometimes make up 40 percent of the catch. 

An alternative to the current system is one that balances the need for fish as a global protein source with a long-term view of the ecosystem, planning for having as many fish tomorrow as there are today and thus, a sustainable model for feeding the world and providing jobs. One way to do this would be to tie subsidies to conservation and sustainability efforts, rather than simply writing checks to large commercial fishing operations to build new boats and buy new equipment. Such a scheme would also prize smaller scale operations over larger ones. A more diversified source of the world’s fish would also be more resilient. 

One such alternative is called territorial use rights in fisheries management (TURF). In this case, individual fishermen or collectives of them are provided with long-term rights to fish in a specific area. This means that they have skin in the game. They don’t want to overfish the area because to do so would be to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. So they catch as many fish as is sustainable and no more. They have a vested, long-term interest in making sure that there is no overfishing in the fisheries that have been allotted to them. 

Not only does this make sustainable fishing more attractive, it also means that there is less government bureaucracy and red tape involved. Fishermen with TURF are allowed to catch as much as they like. It is assumed that sustainability is baked into the equation because the fishermen with rights want to preserve the fishing not just for the next year, but for the next generation and the one after that. This model has been used successfully by Chile, one of the most economically free countries in the world (more economically free, in fact, than the United States), to prevent overfishing and create sustainability. It is a market-driven model that prizes small producers with skin in the game over massive, transnational conglomerates with none. 

Belize, Denmark, and even the United States are other countries that have used TURF, with significantly positive results. While it’s nice to support the little guy over Big Fishing and we certainly support sustainability and conservation efforts, there’s another, perhaps more important and direct reason to support reforms designed to eliminate overfishing: food security. When bluefin tuna, for example, goes extinct, it’s not coming back. That means no more cans of tuna on the shelves of your local supermarket. 

That’s a big deal for people in developed, first-world countries, but a much bigger deal in developing countries. When major protein sources are depleted forever, there will be intensified competition for the resources that remain. This also creates unrest in the countries that are less able to compete in a global market due to issues of capital and scale. Even if you’re not concerned with overfishing, overfishing and the problems it creates will soon be on your doorstep unless corrective measures are taken before it’s too late.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Climate Change: What is the Worst that can Happen?

A Brontotherium, a creature similar to modern rhinos that lived up to some 35 million years ago in a world that was about 10 degrees centigrade hotter than ours. In this scene, we see a grassy plain, but Earth was mostly forested at that time. We may be moving toward similar conditions, although it is not obvious that humans could fare as well as Brontotheria did (image from BBC).


As it should have been predictable, the IPCC 6th assessment report, sank like a stone to the bottom of the memesphere just a few days after it was presented. Put simply, nobody is interested in sacrificing anything to reverse the warming trend and, most likely, nothing will be done. Renewable energy offers hope to mitigate the pressure on climate, but it may well be too late. We may have passed the point of non-return and be in free fall toward an unknown world. 

A disclaimer: I am not saying that nothing can be done anymore. I think we should keep doing what we can, as long as we can. But, at this stage, we can ask the question of "what is the worst thing that can happen?" Models can't help us too much to answer it. Complex systems -- and Earth's climate is one -- tend to be stable, but when they pass tipping points, they change rapidly and unpredictably. So, the best we can do is to imagine scenarios based on what we know, using the past as a guide.

Let's assume that humans keep burning fossil fuels for a few more decades, maybe slowing down a little, but still bent at burning everything burnable, deforesting what is deforestable, and exterminating what is exterminable. As a result, the atmosphere keeps warming, the ocean does that, too. Then, at some point -- bang! -- the concentrations of greenhouse gases shoot up, the system goes kinetic and undergoes a rapid transition to a much hotter world.

The new state could be similar to what the Earth was some 50 million years ago, during the Eocene. At that time, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was of the order of one thousand parts per million (today it is ca. 400) and average surface temperature was about 10-12 degrees C higher than the current one. Note that this is an average: the high latitudes, North and South, where hotter than the low ones, nowhere life would experience temperatures so high that animals would boil alive. So, it was hot, but life thrived and Earth was a luxuriant, forested planet. In principle, humans could live in an Eocene-like climate. The problem is that getting there could be a rough ride, to say the least.

Nobody can say how fast we could get to a new Eocene, but tipping points are fast, so we don't need millions of years. We are thinking, more likely, of thousands of years and significant changes could occur in centuries or even in decades. So, let's try an exercise in looking at the worst-case hypothesis: assuming a warming of 5-10 degrees occurring over a time span of the order of 100-1000 years, what would we expect? It depends not just on temperatures, but on the interplay of several other factors, including mineral depletion, economic and social collapse, and the like. Let me propose a series of scenarios arranged from not so bad to very bad. Remember, these are possibilities, not predictions.

1. Extreme weather events: hurricanes, and the like. These events are spectacular and often described as the main manifestation of climate change. Nevertheless, it is not obvious that a warmer world will show violent atmospheric phenomena. A hurricane is a thermal engine, it transfers heat from a hot area to a cold area. It is more efficient, and hence more powerful, the higher the temperature difference. From what we know, in a warmer world these differences should be lower than they are now, at least horizontally, although vertically it is another matter. Overall, the power of hurricanes would not be necessarily increased. We may have a lot more rain because a hot atmosphere can contain more water, and this is an already detectable trend. Extreme weather events would be mainly local and hardly an existential threat to human civilization. 

2. Fires. Higher temperatures mean higher chances of fire, but the temperature is not the only parameter that enters into play. The trends over the past decades indicate a weak increase in the number of fires in the temperate zone and, of course, fires wreak havoc for those who didn't think too much before building a wooden house in a forest of eucalyptus trees. Nevertheless, as far as we know, fires were less common in the Eocene than they are now, which is what we would expect for a world of tropical forests. Fires should not be a threat for the future, although we may see a temporary rise in their frequency and intensity during the transition period.

3. Heat Waves. There is no doubt that heat waves kill, and that they are becoming more and more frequent. An Eocene-like climate would mean that the people living in what is today the temperate zone would experience summers in the form of a continuous series of extreme heat waves. Paris, for instance, would have a climate similar to the current one in Dubai. It would not be pleasant, but it is also true that people can stay alive in Dubai in Summer using air conditioning and taking other precautions. As long as we maintain a good supply of electricity and water, heat waves don't represent a major threat. Without electricity and abundant water, instead, disaster looms. Heat waves could force a large fraction of the population in the equatorial and temperate zones to move northward or relocate on higher grounds, or, simply, die where they are. The toll of future heat waves is impossible to estimate, but it could mean the death of millions or tens of millions of people, or even more. It may not destroy civilization, but humans would have to move away from the tropical regions of the planet

4. Sea level rise. Here, we face a potential threat that goes from the easily manageable to the existential, depending on how fast the ice sheets melt. The current 3.6 mm/year rate means 3-4 meters of rise in a thousand years. Over such a time span, it would be reasonably possible to adapt the harbor structures and to move them inland as the sea level rise. But if the rate increases, as it is expected to, things get tough. Having to rebuild the whole maritime commercial infrastructure in a few decades would be impossible, to say nothing about the possibility of catastrophic events involving large masses of ice crashing into the sea. If we lose the harbors, we lose the maritime commercial system. Without it, billions of people would starve to death. In the long run, the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica will have to melt completely, causing the sea level to rise by about 70 meters, but nobody can say how long that would take. Sea level rise has the potential for substantial disruption of the human civilization, even for its total collapse, but not to cause the extinction of humankind.

5. Agricultural collapseIn principle, climate change, may have disruptive effects on agriculture. Nevertheless, so far warming has not affected agricultural productivity too much. Assuming no major changes in the weather patterns, agriculture can continue producing at the current rates as long it is supplied with 1) fertilizers, 2) pesticides 3) mechanization, 4) irrigation. Take out any one of these 4 factors and the grain fields turn into a desert (genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may not need pesticides, but they have other problems). Keeping this supply needs a lot of energy and that may be a big problem in the future. Photovoltaic-powered artificial food production could come to the rescue, but it is still an experimental technology and it may arrive too late. Then, of course, technology can do little against the disruption of the weather patterns. Imagine that the Indian yearly monsoon were to disappear: most likely, it would be impossible to replace the monsoon rain with artificial irrigation and the result would be hundreds of millions of people starving to death. The lack of food is one of the main genocidal killers in history, directly or indirectly as the result of the epidemics that take advantage of weakened populations. As recently as a century and a half ago, famine directly killed about 30% of the population of Ireland and the toll would have been larger hadn't some of them been able to emigrate. If we extrapolate these numbers to the world today, where there is no possibility to migrate anywhere (despite Elon Musk's efforts to take people to Mars), we are talking about billions of deaths. Famines are among the greatest threats to humankind in the near future, although climate change would be only a co-factor in generating them. Famines may wreck sufficient damage to cause an economic, social, and cultural collapse. 

6. Ecosystem collapse. The history of Earth has seen several cases of ecosystemic collapses involving mass extinctions: the main ones are referred to as "the big five." The largest one took place at the end of the Permian, about 250 million years ago. In that case, the ecosystem recovered from the catastrophe, but it went close to losing all the vertebrates. Most large extinctions are correlated to volcanic emissions of the type called "large igneous provinces" that generate large amounts of greenhouse gases. The result is a warming sufficiently strong to disrupt the ecosystem. The current human-caused emission rate is larger than anything ever experienced by the ecosystem before, but it is unlikely to arrive to levels that could cause a Permian-like disaster. While volcanoes don't care about the biosphere, humans would be wiped out much before they could pump enough CO2 in the atmosphere to cause the death of the biosphere. Nevertheless, a substantial ecosystemic collapse could be caused by factors as the elimination of keystone species (say, bees), erosion, heavy metal pollution, arrest of the thermohaline oceanic currents, and others. The problem is that we have no idea of the time scale involved. Some people are proposing the "near term human extinction" (NTE) taking place in a few decades at most. It is not possible to prove that they are wrong, although most of the people studying the issue tend to think that the time involved should be much longer. The collapse of the ecosystem is a real threat: if it has happened in the past, it could happen again in the future. It may not be definitive and the ecosystem would probably recover as it has done in the past. But, if it happens, it may well be the end of humans as a species (and of many other species). 

7, The unexpected. Many things could cause an abrupt and unexpected change of the state of the system. The stopping of the thermoaline currents is a threat that could wreck disaster on the biosphere, but we don't know exactly what could happen, despite spectacular movies such as "The day after tomorrow"). Then, concentrations of CO2 of the order of 1,000 ppm could turn out to be poisonous for a biosphere that evolved for much lower concentrations. That would lead to a rapid ecosystem collapse. Then, heavy metal pollution could reduce human fertility so much that humans would go extinct in a couple of generations (we are especially sensitive to pollution because we are top predators). In this case, the human perturbation on climate would quickly disappear, although the past effects would still be felt for a long time. Or, we may think of a large scale nuclear war. It would cause a temporary "nuclear winter" generated by the injection of light-reflecting dust into the atmosphere. The cooling would disrupt agriculture and kill off a large fraction of the human population. After a few years, though, warming would return with a vengeance. How about developing an artificial intelligence so smart that it decides that humans are a nuisance and it exterminates them? Maybe it would keep some specimens in a zoo. Or, a silicon-based life would find that the whole biosphere is a nuisance, and proceed to sterilize the planet. In that case, we might be transferred as virtual creatures in a virtual universe created by the AI itself. And that may be exactly what we are! These extreme scenarios are unlikely, but who knows?


So, this is the view from where we stand: the peak of the Seneca Cliff, the curve that describes the rapid phase transitions of complex systems on the basis of the principle that "growth is sluggish, but ruin is rapid." We see a green valley in the distance, but the road down the cliff is so steep and rough that it is hard to say whether we will survive the descent. 

The most worrisome thing is not so much the steep descent in itself, but that most humans not only can't understand it, but they can't even perceive it. Even after the descent has started (and it may well have started already), humans are likely to misunderstand the situation, attribute the change to evil agents (the Greens, the Communists, the Trumpists, or whatever) and react in way that will worsen the situation -- at best with extensive greenwashing, at worst with large scale extermination programs.

So, we may well disappear as a species in a non remote future. But we may also survive the disaster and re-emerge on the other side of the climate transition. For those who make it, the new Eocene might be a good world to live in, warm and luxuriant, with plenty of life. Maybe some of our descendants will use stone-tipped lances to hunt a future equivalent of the ancient Eocene's brontotheria. And, who knows, they might be wiser than we have been. 

Whether humans survive or not, the planetary ecosystem -- Gaia -- will recover nicely from the human perturbation, even though it may take a few million years for it to regain the exquisite complexity of the ecosystem as it was before humans nearly destroyed it. But Gaia is not in a hurry. The Goddess is benevolent and merciful (although sometimes ruthless) and she will live for several hundred million years after that even the existence of humans will have been forgotten.


Monday, January 19, 2015

A Seneca cliff in the making: African elephants on the brink of extinction

Originally published on "Cassandra's legacy" on Monday, January 19, 2015

The graph above refers to effects of the illegal hunting of African elephants. It is taken from a recent paper by Wittemyer et al.

Once you have given a name to a phenomenon and understood its causes, you can use it as a guide to understanding many other things. So, the concept of the "Seneca Cliff" tells us that the overexploitation of natural resources often leads to an abrupt decline that, often, takes people by surprise. In the case of biological resources, such as fisheries, the decline may be so fast and uncontrollable that it leads to the extinction or to the near extinction of the species being exploited. It has happened, for instance, for whales in 19th century and for the Atlantic cod.

If you keep in mind these historical examples, you can examine other cases and identify possible Seneca cliffs in the making. One such case is the ivory trade from the hunting of African elephants. If you look at the plots (from a recent paper), above, you see that the seized ivory mass has shown a considerable increase starting around 2008. It peaked in 2011, then declined. We can probably take these numbers as a "proxy" for the number of African elephants being killed - which is also visible as the red line in the upper box. 

This is very worrisome, because if killings decline, it may very well be because there are fewer elephants left to kill - just as the landings of the fishing industry tend to decline when the fish stocks are depleted. Considering how abruptly these things go (the "Seneca effect") then we may well be seeing a similar trend in progress for African elephants: that is, the prelude of an abrupt crash in their numbers. Considering that elephants are big and reproduce slowly, that may very well lead to their extinction.

On this subject, the authors of the paper seem to be very worried, too. The title, by itself, says it all: "Illegal killing for ivory drives global decline in African elephants". In the text, we can read, among other things, that:

The population [of African elephants] was subjected to unsustainable rates of illegal killing between 2009 and 2012, escalating from a mean of 0.6% (SD = 0.4%) between 1998 and 2008 to a high of 8% in 2011 (Fig. 1). Annual illegal killing of elephants in the Samburu population during 2009 to 2012 exceeded those of all previous years of monitoring (1998–2008) with an estimated aggregate of 20.8% of the known elephants illegally killed during that 4-yperiod. ... Illegal killing rates were strongly correlated with black market ivory prices in the Samburu ecosystem. ... As a result of this illegal killing, the population currently suffers from few prime-aged males, strongly skewed sex ratios, and social disruption in the form of some collapsed families and increased numbers of orphans (immature elephants without a parent)

Are we going to lose the elephants forever? Right now, we can't say for sure; but when it will be clear that it is happening, it will probably be too late to do something about it. Doesn't that sound familiar?