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Real Science

Biological annihilation

Michael Rosenthal

(8/2017) Recent research shows that thousands of animal species are in precipitous decline. The findings, published in the dependable and prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, refer to the decline as a global epidemic in large caused by human destruction of animal habitats. Five previous events of this sort were attributed to natural phenomena. The authors of this study, headed by Geraldo Ceballos, a researcher at the Universidad Nacional Autonama de Mexico, present dependable scientific data to back up their assertions that possible mass extinctions of species worldwide may be imminent.

The decline, they explain, flow from reductions in a species range, as a result of habitat degradation, pollution, and climate change, as well as factors more specific to an individual species. This methodology has been previously used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

They have found that some 30% of all land vertebrates – mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians – are experiencing declines and local population losses. In most parts of the world, mammal populations are losing up to 70% of their members due to habitat loss.

A specific example is cheetahs, whose population has declined to about 7,000 members. Also striking is the decline in Borneo and Sumatran orangutans, of which only about 5,000 remain. African lions have declined by 43% since 1993, and giraffes, whose four species now number under 100,000 members.

The authors of this paper assert that previous estimates of global extinction have been too low, because scientist worried more about total extinction than serious decline that could more slowly, but eventually lead to total extinction. Some 200 species have gone extinct in the last century. The previous extinction rate was two species every hundred years!

The greatest losses numerically appear to be in tropical regions, which have historically the greatest biodiversity. Temperate regions are seeing higher population loss proportionally. The cause of this phenomenon is attributed by the authors to human activity, and the only way to reverse this trend, they say, is to reduce the scale of human enterprise, specifically human population growth and increasing the resource consumption accompanying it. Habitat destruction - deforestation for agriculture and environmental pollution - are primary culprits, they say, but rising carbon pollution and climate change resulting from it will accelerate the problem. Says Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich, a renowned professor at Stanford University and author of the book entitled The Population Bomb, "We’re toxifying the entire planet"

I recently received the Emmitsburg Annual Drinking Water Quality Report, which I now read more carefully in light of the problems so vividly described in Flint, Michigan. Emmitsburg gets its water from five wells, there of them in Emmitsburg, two of them near Emmitsburg on Hampton Valley Road, and one of them from Rainbow Lake on Hampton Valley Road. I have a lot of experience in looking at drinking water from my years at Bard College in New York, where I headed a water quality study project in the stream from which the college drew its water and into which it also discharged its aqueous waste. The aquifer, the Sawkill Creek, flowed into the nearby Hudson River. Lest you fear, the withdrawn water was above the discarded water, so contamination never occurred. Though there is nothing in the local report to seriously alarm me, there are some things to keep an eye on, and one always might consider not drinking tap water without purification. It is interesting to note the source of potential contaminants, even when the measured level is not high enough to be alarmed. Here are a few: The source of copper is from erosion of natural deposits, leaching from wood preservatives, and corrosion of household plumbing systems. Lead and copper are two contaminants to always keep an eye on. Also on this list are haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes, and chemicals added to control microbes of by-products of drinking water disinfection. Barium contamination can arise from discharge of drilling waster or erosion of natural components. Volatile organic contaminants such as ethylbenzene or xylenes arise due to discharge from petroleum refineries or factories. You might say that we don’t have such sources nearby, but water does travel long distances by various means. This all makes me think of the drinking water we used when I was growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, with the products of the then active (now totally extinct!) steel industry. All in all, Emmitsburg water looks pretty safe to me.

As you know if you are a regular reader of Real Science, I am a strong supporter of solar energy generation. The sun is almost always cooperative, and there is no pollution of the environment except in solar panel manufacturing. In the past six years rooftop solar panel installations have grown some 900 percent. However, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that this past year has seen a decline of 2 percent in new installations. This is partly due to saturation in some market places and to financial issues among some panel manufacturers. But what I find really interesting is that there has been a concerted and well-funded lobbying effort by some traditional utilities across the country to discourage the homeowners from installing solar panels. Utilities have argued in a number of state capitals that rules allowing solar customers to sell excess power back to the grid at the retail price, known as "net metering," is unfair to homeowners who do not want or cannot afford their own solar installations. Several states have, as a result, phased out net metering, and many states are considering fees on solar customers! This trend is based on the fear that solar energy production will further hurt conventional production sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas, and thus potentially reduce the income of the utilities. However, an independent study by the federal Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory concluded that the vast majority of rooftop solar credits have a negligible impact on electricity rates for nonsolar customers.

In my opinion, expressed before, we should move to increase wind and solar power wherever possible, support nuclear power generation with continued strong attention to safety and nuclear waste disposal issues, work with natural gas, and work to totally phase out energy production by coal and oil.

Finally, I have not presented much in the way of examples of pseudoscience lately, having not seen much that’s new. (The world is still filled with products of no or minimal value whatsoever, many of which we’ve presented in previous articles). I turned up the following item, however, in a product labeled as a Himalayan Scrub, a skin care product that seems to be very nice. However, it does make a few strange promises, as follows: (a) "is known to increase circulation, assist in the rejuvenation of your cells, leaving your skin revived, but your mind, body & spirit refreshed as well." That may be a bit of a stretch, but I can accept it as show business. Then there is (b) "Regulate sleep." I find it hard to imagine that a skin scrub would regulate your sleep. But the best claim of all, to me, is (c): "Bathing in & exfoliating with Natural Mineral Salts is also known to assist in purging the auric field of negative vibrations." Man, now that is really cosmic!

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal