The big news this week was Pope Francis’ 184-page encyclical Laudato si’ (24 May 2015) in which he described the relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment, for which he blamed apathy, the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness. The most vulnerable victims are the world’s poorest people, he declared, who are being dislocated and disregarded.
Two under-reported environmental stories that you may not have heard about this week underscore the Pontiff’s dire warning.
First, the Washington Post reported on a new NASA study which warns that the world’s aquifers are overused and humans are running out of potable water. New NASA data show how the world is running out of water:
The world’s largest underground aquifers – a source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people — are being depleted at alarming rates, according to new NASA satellite data that provides the most detailed picture yet of vital water reserves hidden under the Earth’s surface.
Twenty-one of the world’s 37 largest aquifers — in locations from India and China to the United States and France — have passed their sustainability tipping points, meaning more water was removed than replaced during the decade-long study period, researchers announced Tuesday. Thirteen aquifers declined at rates that put them into the most troubled category. The researchers said this indicated a long-term problem that’s likely to worsen as reliance on aquifers grows.
Scientists had long suspected that humans were taxing the world’s underground water supply, but the NASA data was the first detailed assessment to demonstrate that major aquifers were indeed struggling to keep pace with demands from agriculture, growing populations, and industries such as mining.
“The situation is quite critical,” said Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and principal investigator of the University of California Irvine-led studies.
Underground aquifers supply 35 percent of the water used by humans worldwide. Demand is even greater in times of drought. Rain-starved California is currently tapping aquifers for 60 percent of its water use as its rivers and above-ground reservoirs dry up, a steep increase from the usual 40 percent. Some expect water from aquifers will account for virtually every drop of the state’s fresh water supply by year end.
The aquifers under the most stress are in poor, densely populated regions, such as northwest India, Pakistan and North Africa, where alternatives are limited and water shortages could quickly lead to instability.
The researchers used NASA’s GRACE satellites to take precise measurements of the world’s groundwater aquifers.
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[T]he NASA satellites could not measure the total capacity of the aquifers. The size of these tucked-away water supplies remains something of a mystery. Still, the satellite data indicated that some aquifers may be much smaller than previously believed, and most estimates of aquifer reserves have “uncertainty ranges across orders of magnitude,” according to the research.
Aquifers can take thousands of years to fill up and only slowly recharge with water from snowmelt and rains. Now, as drilling for water has taken off across the globe, the hidden water reservoirs are being stressed.
“The water table is dropping all over the world,” Famiglietti said. “There’s not an infinite supply of water.”
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The studies were published Tuesday in the Water Resources Research journal.
Famiglietti said he hoped the findings would spur discussion and further research into how much groundwater is left.
“We need to get our heads together on how we manage groundwater,” he said, “because we’re running out of it.”
The second environmental story should make even climate science denier’s butts pucker. Human activity has triggered the sixth “mass extinction” phase (sometimes called the Holocene extinction) according to a new study. Study: 6th mass extinction already underway — and we’re the cause:
The Earth’s sixth mass extinction is already underway — and humans are the driving force behind it, according to a new study.
“Recent extinction rates are unprecedented in human history and highly unusual in Earth’s history,” according to a study published Friday in the journal Science Advances. “Our global society has started to destroy species of other organisms at an accelerating rate, initiating a mass extinction episode unparalleled for 65 million years.”
Researchers used “extremely conservative assumptions” to determine extinction rates that prevailed in the past five annihilation events. Still, they found the average rate of vertebrate species lost over the past century was up to 114 times higher than normal.
For example, about 477 vertebrate species have gone extinct since 1900, according to the study. Based on previous extinctions, only nine species would have been expected to die off in the same time frame had it not been for mankind’s involvement.
“The number of species that have gone extinct in the last century would have taken … between 800 and 10,000 years to disappear,” the study reported. “These estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity over the last few centuries, indicating that a sixth mass extinction is already underway.”
The previous five mass extinctions happened well before mankind walked the Earth, and are believed to have been mainly caused by natural disasters, such as asteroid impacts and volcanic eruptions.
The last mass extinction happened some 65 million years ago, killing off the dinosaurs. Overall, each mass extinction event has rid the planet of up to 96% of its species each time.
In the past few decades, several animal species have been labeled extinct, including the Chinese paddlefish, Yangtze River dolphin, Pyrenean ibex and western black rhinoceros.
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Among the World Wildlife Fund’s critically endangered species — those at the most at risk of going extinct today — are the Amur leopard, black rhino, leatherback turtle, Sumatran tiger, and western lowland gorilla.
In as little as three generations, the current extinction pace could dramatically alter the number of species on the planet — permanently, the study said. In previous extinction events it took hundreds of thousands to millions of years for the planet to rediversify.
Researchers said it’s not too late to avoid a true sixth mass extinction, but it will “require rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species and to alleviate pressures on their populations — notably habitat loss, overexploitation for economic gain and climate change.”
“However, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.”
Science Daily sounds the alarm with its headline for this report: Sixth mass extinction is here: Humanity’s existence threatened.
This latest report follows up research from a year ago. Stanford biologist warns of early stages of Earth’s 6th mass extinction.
Scientific American argued last year that all is not lost if mankind changes its ways. Fact or Fiction?: The Sixth Mass Extinction Can Be Stopped:
But we are not doomed to cause a sixth mass extinction, at least not yet, despite consuming our way through the world’s remaining big wild animals. Based on an estimate published in Nature in 2011, we have a century or two at present rates before our depredations assure a mass extinction. Unlike an asteroid, we could choose to change course.
Mankind could choose to change course, but it won’t, because that is our human nature. We will deny that there is any problem until it is too late for us to do anything. Well, mankind had a good run. Let’s hope that the next species to evolve will do a better job of being good stewards of the planet.