Peru and Chile Protects Over 13 Million Acres of Wilderness Between Them

As one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries — places with a vast abundance of plant and animal life found nowhere else beyond their borders — Peru is the unique heir to an incredible and precious environmental heritage. Fortunately, the government seems to have recognized this as well, announcing this past January the creation of a massive new national park for its most endangered land. As The Manual reported:


The Yaguas National Park is located near Peru’s border with Colombia in the northern region of Loreto. Its boundaries encompass a land mass roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park but with more than 10 times the diversity of flora and fauna. This is due in large part to the Putumayo  River,  an Amazon River tributary that runs through the heart of the park.

From a wildlife perspective, it’s a rich, varied, and critical ecosystem that’s home to more than 3,000 plant species, 160 species of mammals (like manatees and the Amazonian river dolphin), and 500 species of birds. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a vital piece of the country’s marine ecosystem with approximately 550 fish species that represent a full two-thirds of Peru’s freshwater fish diversity, which is among the richest assemblages of freshwater fish on the planet.

The advent of the automobile and subsequent boom in demand for rubber are arguably more responsible for the destruction of Amazon Rainforest land than any human act in history. The park’s creation is a long time coming, and has consequently been applauded by some of the world’s most active and well-respected environmental group. The South American-based Andes Amazon Fund has already pledged $1 million toward the park’s implementation.

Beyond the environmental damage, however, there’s been a very real human toll related to the rainforest’s decline. Some 29 communities — including 1,100 people from the Tikuna, Kichwa, Ocaina, Mürui, Bora, and Yagua tribes — call the area home. These are direct descendants of the area’s native people who rely on the land in general, and the endemic fish population in particular, to survive. For millennia, the area has been sacred land to their ancestors.


As deforestation encroaches on intact rainforest, Peru is taking the initiative to protect the most pristine areas of its rainforest. Photo courtesy of Mongabay.

Fortunately, Peru is not the only Latin American nation taking a bold and necessary approach to conservation. Though less well known for its gorgeous scenery and wilderness, neighboring Chile also has a unique environmental heritage in desperate need of protection — and to that end, the country has committed itself to forming what may be the most ambitious conservation project yet. Also from The Manual (bolding mine):

For the last 25 years, self-described “wildland philanthropists” Doug Tompkins (co-founder of the Patagonia outdoor brand) and Kristine McDivitt worked to collect and cultivate more than a million acres of Patagonia known as Parque Pumalín. The duo’s wish was to forever preserve the land by gifting it to the Chilean people. Sadly, Tompkins died in a kayaking accident in December 2015 and would never live to see his dream fulfilled.

However, last month, the land was officially handed over to the country’s people, and Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, issued an executive order to turn the previously private park into a national park. She noted, “Today, we are bequeathing to the country the greatest creation of protected areas in our history.”

With the stroke of a pen, Parque Pumalín became the single largest donation of private land to a government ever in Latin America. But, the story doesn’t end there. Bachelet — a long-time supporter of Tompkins’ vision — bolstered the donation by combining Parque Pumalín with 10 million acres of federal land. To put that into perspective, the combined space will be a staggering 5,000 times larger than Central Park in Manhattan. Combining both Yellowstone and Yosemite would occupy less than one-third of the preserved land. The new order will simultaneously create and interconnect five new national parks and be dubbed “The Route of Parks.” What’s more, the land has long been in use by adventurous travelers, so cabins, trails, and an overall tourism “infrastructure” already exists.


Just a small taste of Chile’s 11 million acres of pristine wilderness

While it remains to be seen how well these countries will enforce these protection — Peru in particular is less developed and well-governed than Chile — these ambitious efforts are certainly a welcome move in the right direction.

Climate Change Will Replace Our World With Another

An interesting article from Wired discusses what impact climate change will have on our global ecosystems. While the planet is warming and sea levels are rising, mot all regions, species, and ecological areas are being impacted the same; across all biological kingdoms, there will be winners and losers — including among humans, of whom those in coastal, agricultural, and poor communities will be hit the hardest (though everyone will ultimately be affected in some negative way; it is only the severity that will vary).

Climate change will be the end of the world as we know it. But it also will be the beginning of another.

Mass extinctions will open ecological niches, and environmental changes will create new ones. New creatures will evolve to fill them, guided by unforeseen selection pressures. What this new world will look like, exactly, is impossible to predict, and humans aren’t guaranteed to survive in it. (And that’s if civilization somehow manages to survive the climate disasters coming its way in the meantime, from superstorms to sea level rise to agriculture-destroying droughts).

Among the changes will be “simpler” rainforests lacking the capacity to host complex ecosystems (and thus thousands of different wildlife); acidic oceans dominated by crustaceans, jellyfish, and smaller fish species; and — to take a much longer view — the rapid evolution of surviving species (including humans) into something more adapted to warmer temperatures.

The article concludes with a bittersweet message: it might be too late for the current planet we know, but there is still a chance we can mitigate the impact of the transition and ensure  that this new Earth, whatever it will look like, is a bit better. The science and resources are there, but the public and political will remains sorely lacking. If it is still difficult to muster up action, is there any chance we will learn our lesson once the worst changes are visible?

NASA Confirms Severe Global Water Shortage

Years of documentation and research have shown that many of the world’s underground aquifers — the leading source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people — have been depleted, in some instances well below naturally recoverable rates. Now, recent data from a NASA satellite show the full extent of this problem on a global scale, offering the first detailed assessment of its kind. As the following chart from the Washington Post vividly shows, the outlook is dire.

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The Meteorologist Who Helped Discover Plate Tectonics

Courtesy of the New York Times comes a delightful seven-minute animation about Alfred Wegener, the German meteorologist who provided one of the most fundamental theories in Earth science.

The video does not seem to embed here for some reason, so view it here.

This is the third video in the Op-Docs series “Animated Life”, a collaboration between Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s BioInteractive and The New York Times: there is “The Animated Life of A.R. Wallace”, which brings attention to the lesser-known figure who independently thought of natural selection, and a “Seeing the Invisible,” about the father of microbiology, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. It is a wonderful series that I cannot wait to see more of.

Are We Teetering on Civilizational Collapse?

Apocalyptic proclamations are nothing new, and thus nowadays scarcely garner more than amusement or ridicule, if they’re even noticed at all. But with the world experiencing environmental calamity of unprecedented proportions amid mounting scientific and empirical evidence, it seems that warnings about ecologically-related disasters are worthy of more serious attention and consideration than most.

Consider a fairly recent NASA-sponsored* report by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center , which was written by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei in collaboration with a team of natural and social scientists. It not only concludes that modern civilization is doomed, but that the culprit is the entire fundamental structure and nature of our current global society — e.g. it will be no small task to rectify it.

As Tom McKay of PolicyMic further explains:

Analyzing five risk factors for societal collapse (population, climate, water, agriculture and energy), the report says that the sudden downfall of complicated societal structures can follow when these factors converge to form two important criteria.

Motesharrei’s report says that all societal collapses over the past 5,000 years have involved both “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity” and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor].” This “Elite” population restricts the flow of resources accessible to the “Masses”, accumulating a surplus for themselves that is high enough to strain natural resources. Eventually this situation will inevitably result in the destruction of society.

Elite power, the report suggests, will buffer “detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners,” allowing the privileged to “continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.”

For most people, myself included, the solution lies in scientific innovation: the development of technologies that can reverse or at least mitigate the damage, whether it’s finding cleaner and more sustainable forms of energy, or developing machines that can absorb all the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But the report not only casts doubt on science’s ability to help, but goes further to suggest that such technological develops could make things worse:

“Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”

In other words, science and technology are neutral in this matter — they can only beneficial insofar as they’re applied that way. Any potential scientific gains will be outweighed by how they’re exploited to reinforce the existing overburdened system. If anything such development could even speed the collapse; for example, if we keep focusing on finding better ways to squeeze out more finite resources rather than begin the transition to more renewable and sustainable energies.

The worst-case scenarios predicted by the report are either sudden collapse due to famine or a longer-term breakdown of society due to the over-consumption of natural resources. As for the alternative:

The best-case scenario involves recognition of the looming catastrophe by Elites and a more equitable restructuring of society, but who really believes that is going to happen? Here’s what the study recommends in a nutshell:

The two key solutions are to reduce economic inequality so as to ensure fairer distribution of resources, and to dramatically reduce resource consumption by relying on less intensive renewable resources and reducing population growth.

These are great suggestions that will, unfortunately, almost certainly never be put into action, considering just how far down the wrong path our civilization has gone. As of last year, humans are using more resources than the Earth can replenish and the planet’s distribution of resources among its terrestrial inhabitants is massively unequal. This is what happened to Rome and the Mayans, according to the report.

Such solutions would require nothing short of a massive paradigm shift, which in turn would require tremendous public and political will across all segments of society, especially among the economic elites that have such tremendous influence on the system. But will we have the capacity and organization to make these changes, let alone in time to stay the collapse? Climate-change alone remains a fairly contentious and divisive topic despite its overwhelming scientific backing; even among nations whose policymakers acknowledge the problem to some degree, change is slow or incomplete.

Of course, all this assumes that people will actually take the report seriously. It is indeed largely theoretical, although as pointed out by Nafeez Ahmed at The Guardian, more solid research by groups such as KPMG and the UK Government Office of Science reach similar conclusions about the dangerous convergence food, water, and energy-scarcity. Is it worth the risk to not take action based on any potential doubts or uncertainties? Wouldn’t the necessary changes to avoid societal collapse — even if they were found to have been unnecessary to that end — nonetheless be beneficial in their own right anyway?

As always, share your own thoughts and opinions on the matter.

*NASA was utilized to provide research tools for the study, but it did not directly solicit, direct, or review the report, nor did it officially endorse the paper or its conclusions.

Earth Day: Celebrating Our Pale Blue Dot

In honor of Earth Day, here’s an excellent and timeless quote by the great Carl Sagan. It comes from a public lecture he was delivering at his own university of Cornell on October 13, 1994. During the speech he referenced the famous “Pale Blue Dot” photo of Earth taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 as it sailed away from Earth, more than 4 billion miles in the distance.

We succeeded in taking that picture [of Earth from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Here’s the photo in question, and how utterly insignificant our plant appears. 


A Star is Born

A Star is Born

An artist’s impression shows the disk of gas and cosmic dust around the young star HD 142527, as observed by astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile. They have witnessed vast streams of gas flowing across the gap in the disc, the first time we’ve seen the stages of a star being born. Click the photo to learn more.