15,000 scientists issue environmental 'warning' to humanity

Thousands of scientists from 184 countries have endorsed an open letter that outlines some of the Earth's most pressing environmental problems.

A red emergency light. (Caspar Benson/Getty)
A red emergency light. (Caspar Benson/Getty)

More than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries have issued a warning: Mankind must take immediate action to reverse the effects of climate change, deforestation and species extinction before it's too late.

The warning, issued by the Alliance of World Scientists and published in the journal Bioscience, comes on the 25th anniversary of a similar warning from the Union of Concerned Scientists that was titled “World Scientists' Warning to Humanity". The new letter, however, has 10 times as many scientists endorsing it.

“On the 25th anniversary of their call, we look back at their warning and evaluate the human response by exploring available time-series data," the paper reads. “Especially troubling is the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs from burning fossil fuels (Hansen et al. 2013), deforestation (Keenan et al. 2015), and agricultural production—particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption (Ripple et al. 2014). Moreover, we have unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century."


The paper outlines some of the world's most pressing environmental concerns, most of which have only worsened since 1992. They're summarized here:

A decline in freshwater availability – Per capita fresh water availability is less than half of the level of the 1960s. It is likely that climate change will have an overwhelming impact on the freshwater availability through alteration of the hydrologic cycle and water availability.

Unsustainable marine fisheries – In 1992, the total marine catch was at or above the maximum sustainable yield and fisheries were on the verge of collapse. Global catch rates have decreased, though fishing efforts are increasing.

Ocean dead zones – Coastal dead zones which are mainly caused by fertilizer runoff and fossil-fuel use, are killing large swaths of marine life. Dead zones with hypoxic, oxygen-depleted waters, are a significant stressor on marine systems and identified locations have dramatically increased since the 1960s, with more than 600 systems affected by 2010.

Forest losses – The world's forests are crucial for conserving carbon, biodiversity, and freshwater. Between 1990 and 2015, total forest area decreased from 4,128 to 3,999 million ha, a net loss of 129 million ha which is approximately the size of South Africa.

Dwindling biodiversity – The world's biodiversity is vanishing at an alarming rate and populations of vertebrate species are rapidly collapsing (World Wildlife Fund 2016). Collectively, global fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012.

Climate change – Global fossil-fuel carbon dioxide emissions have increased sharply since 1960. Relative to the 1951-1980 average, global average annual surface temperature, in parallel to CO2 emissions, has also rapidly risen as shown by 5-year mean temperature anomaly. The 10 warmest years in the 136-year record have occurred since 1998.

Population growth – Since 1992, the human population has increased by approximately 2 billion individuals, a 35% change. The world human population is unlikely to stop growing this century and there is a high likelihood that the world population will grow from 7.2 billon people now to between 9.6 and 12.3 billon by 2100.

It wasn't all awful news, however.

Now for some good news!
The Ozone Hole this year has been the smallest since 1988!https://t.co/8S7dDYW1c7
— Erik Solheim (@ErikSolheim) November 3, 2017

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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