2016: A year to remember

The year the corals died …

Bleached elkhorn coral. PHOTO COURTESY NOAA.
Bleached elkhorn coral. Photo courtesy NOAA.

After spending several months abroad in the autumn of 2015 I returned to the U.S. just in time for Christmas and New Years, as well as the lead-up to the Super Bowl. At the same time, the presidential campaign was starting to wind up, with Trump already spreading his poisoned rhetoric and the Democrats hopelessly divided and apparently unable to offer any meaningful positive message to counter the GOP hatefest.

But what I really noticed is that most Americans weren’t actually paying much attention to the unfolding election. The GOP primary was just another sideshow in the circus of consumerism and entertainment that has become of the mainstay of American civic life. To me, it felt like what a decaying Rome must have been experiencing as the empire waned, the masses entertained by excessive spectacles in the Coliseum, while the ruling class made its last-ditch effort to exploit society for short-term gain. It all crystalized for me in late January, when I saw three stories juxtaposed in the Denver Post: one on the Flint water crisis, a second on Trump’s ascendancy and a third on the armed takeover of a wildlife preserve by the Bundy malcontents. Taken together, the three articles represent the decline of American civilization. I wrote about it here.

In the West, the fracturing of the consensus on American values has often played out in the realm of public lands management, and nowhere is this more apparent than in discussions of endangered species. I saw this trend reinforced in mid-January at a Denver meeting on wolves, where it became clear that, for all the efforts that have been made, the reactionary opposition to predator restoration still prevails in the establishment. More in this in my wolf restoration post on Medium.

Another story that marked 2016 was the global debate over refugees. In February, human rights groups announced that, in the first six weeks of the year, 80,000 people had already made the journey to Europe, and more than 400 had already died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

There was no relief from bad climate news, either. In a January update, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that Arctic sea ice was at a record low in January, a trend that continued for much of 2016. And there was plenty of new research showing that Antarctica’s vast ice sheets are probably on the verge of disintegration, which would raise global sea level far faster than any of the scenarios being used by planners right now. It’s a sign that global climate is at a tipping from which there will be no return.

And while the worst-ever coral reef die-off didn’t really resonate through the mainstream media until summer, Summit Voice reported on this topic way back in February after NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch Program issued a special bulletin describing what will probably be seen as a tipping point for ocean ecosystems a few decades from now.

Summit Voice was also well ahead of the curve in reporting on the disturbing surge in the concentration of atmospheric CO2. In March, I wrote about the fact that scientists measured the single biggest ever year over year increase in CO2. The end result of all that heat-trapping pollution is the inexorable rise in global temperatures. February was just one of many months in 2016 that set all-time temperature records, with incredible readings across some parts of the globe, including Austria, where the average temperature for the month was 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above the long-term average. The impacts of these changes are starting to become ever-more obvious. There’s nothing subtle about long running droughts in California and the Mediterranean region, or that is was the warmest winter on record for the U.S. as a whole.

In a bit of environmental good news, a federal court upheld protections for polar bears, which are, of course, threatened by climate change. And scientists continued to speak out on environmental and climate issues. In March, a group of Nobel Prize-winning scientists called for a halt to Arctic oil and gas drilling, citing the existential danger to humanity.

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