Every day there’s something more immediately important happening in the world: ISIS is seizing an airbase this morning, and California is recovering from an earthquake, and Michael Brown is being buried.
But there’s nothing more important that’s happening each and every day than the ongoing deterioration of the planet on which we depend. Though on a geological time scale it’s proceeding at a hopelessly rapid pace, in terms of the news cycle it happens just slowly enough to be mainly invisible. It’s only when a new study emerges, or a shocking new data set, that we pay momentary attention, until the Next New Thing distracts us.
Here’s one installment in this ongoing saga, released this morning by Environmental Health News and National Geographic. It’s about birds, and the fact that across the planet they’re in serious trouble:
In North America’s breadbasket, populations of grassland birds such as sweet-trilling meadowlarks are in a free-fall, along with those everywhere else on the planet. Graceful fliers like swifts and swallows that snap up insects on the wing are showing widespread declines in Europe and North America. Eagles, vultures and other raptors are on the wane throughout Africa. Colonies of sea birds such as murres and puffins on the North Atlantic are vanishing, and so are shorebirds, including red knots in the Western Hemisphere. Sandpipers, spoonbills, pelicans and storks, among the migratory birds dependent on the intertidal flats of Asia’s Yellow Sea, are under threat. Australian and South American parrots are struggling and some of the iconic penguins of Antarctica face starvation.
While birds sing, they also speak. Many of their declines are driven by the loss of places to live and breed – their marshes, rivers, forests and plains – or by diminished food supply. But more and more these days the birds are telling us about new threats to the environment and potentially human health in the coded language of biochemistry. Through analysis of the inner workings of birds’ cells, scientists have been deciphering increasingly urgent signals from ecosystems around the world.
Like the fabled canaries that miners once thrust into coal mines to check for poisonous gases, birds provide the starkest clues in the animal kingdom about whether humans, too, may be harmed by toxic substances. And they prophesy what might happen to us as the load of carbon-based, planet-warming gases in the atmosphere and oceans climbs ever higher.
This news follows by a couple of weeks a study showing that invertebrate numbers–not species, but total numbers–have fallen 45% in the last 35 years. That seemed impossible to me when I first read it, so I checked with a few biologist friends. Yep, they said, for the species that have been studied that seems right. One added, “when I was a boy and we’d go for a drive in the summer, the windshield would be splattered with bugs. That doesn’t happen so much any more.”
Or consider this: Researchers using the incredibly sensitive GPS sensors found that the ongoing western drought had cost the region 63 trillion gallons of lost groundwater since 2013, taking enough weight off the crust of the planet that the Sierras had jumped 0.6 inches skyward.
Can we just review? Forty five percent fewer invertebrates in the last 35 years. We’re talking about a scale of destruction–of habitat, of climate, of cell biology–that staggers the mind. There are some things that could be done, but they are mostly enormous too (above all, stop burning fossil fuel.) Taking those giant steps would first require really paying attention. We have the satellites and sensors and supercomputers that we need to sound the alarm, but mostly we tune out the sound.
(Photo: Residential homes sit in front of the coal fueled Ferrybridge power station as it generates electricity on November 17, 2009 in Ferrybridge, United Kingdom. By Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)