2015 in review – environment

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A NASA satellite shows oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill spreading across the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Oil spill impacts

Looking back over some of the top environmental stories published in Summit Voice, it’s interesting to see some of the long-running threads, including continued news about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. A half decade after BP failed drilling operation spewed millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists continue to track the impacts, including massive amounts of oil buried deep in sea-bottom sediments, as described in this Jan. 2015 story.

Monarchs bounce back

For some good news in January, an annual monarch butterfly survey showed a slight recovery in population numbers, up to 56.5 million from the previous year’s low of 34 million. But that was still more than  80 percent below the 20-year average and down 95 percent from numbers tallied in the mid-1990s. Near-perfect conditions during breeding season helped bolster the numbers in 2015. Read more here.

 

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Monarch butterflies are struggling, but population surveys in 2015 suggested that, with some help, the species can recover. @bberwyn photo.

More La Niñas?

While winter weather talk is focused on this year’s El Niño, climate scientists are concerned that global warming could lead to a doubling of extreme La Niña events, which could mean more drought in some parts of the world, as well as increased episodes of other extreme weather. Read more in this Summit Voice story.

“Our previous research showed a doubling in frequency of extreme El Niño events, and this new study shows a similar fate for the cold phase of the cycle. It shows again how we are just beginning to understand the consequences of global warming,” said co-author Mat Collins, with  Exeter’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences.

Climate and food security

There’s little doubt that global warming will affect the world’s food supplies, and as scientists develop more sophisticated models, they’ve been able to project some of those impacts. In one study released last year, University of Florida Researchers said wheat yields could decline 6 percent for every degree of global warming. Read more here.

In another study, scientists also projected that ocean acidification resulting from increased CO2 emissions will take a big economic toll on coastal communities that depend on aquaculture.

Increasing ocean acidification, combined with cold, upwelling water and polluted runoff from land could put many of those communities at long-term economic risk, according to a new study funded by the National Science Foundation’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center.

“Ocean acidification has already cost the oyster industry in the Pacific Northwest nearly $110 million and jeopardized about 3,200 jobs,” said Julie Ekstrom, who was lead author on the study while with the Natural Resources Defense Council. She is now at the University of California at Davis. Read more here.

And finally, there’s reason to believe that climate change could also have a dramatic effect on populations of key fish species, including anchovies, sardines and mackerels — all critical pieces of the ocean food chain.

A study warned that the changes in such an important ecological group “will have an effect on the structure and functioning of the whole ecosystem.”

The North Atlantic has been a global warming hotspot, with ocean temps increasing up to 1.3 degrees Celsius in the past 30 years, affecting the  frequency and biogeography of sardine, anchovy and mackerel, all of which feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton and, in turn, are  the staple diet of large predators such as cetaceans, large fish and marine birds. These fish also represent a significant source of income for the majority of coastal countries in the world. Read more here.

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