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Too Many ‘Black Elephants’ In The Room

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
In his book “Thank You for Being Late,” Thomas Friedman writes about the impact the accelerating pace of the advancement of technology, destruction of the environment, and globalization will have on our lives. It is his discussion of the abuse of Mother Nature that fits with this column.

Friedman relates a story about when he first heard the phrase “black elephant.” It “is a cross between a ‘black swan’ – a rare, low-probability, unanticipated event with enormous ramifications – and ‘the elephant in the room: a problem that is widely visible to everyone, yet no one wants to address it, even though we absolutely know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.”

When London-based environmental Adam Sweiden described the “black elephant” to Friedman, he told him there was more than one. In fact, there was a whole herd of them begging for our attention – “global warming, deforestation, ocean acidification, and mass biodiversity extinction, just to name four.”

These black elephants are stepping up their demand to be taken seriously. We saw two such attempts this past week.

First, it was announced by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that it was proposing that 23 species be taken off the endangered species list and declared extinct. The most iconic species on the list was the ivory-billed woodpecker, one of the largest woodpeckers in North America.

The Southeast songbird Bachman’s warbler was on the list, as was the tiny fish called a San Marcos gambusia. The fish’s habitat dried up. There were eight mussels on the list. They are thought to be especially sensitive to pollution in the water. Eight Hawaiian species were on the list.

“The factors behind the disappearances vary — too much development, water pollution, logging, competition from invasive species, birds killed for feathers, and animals captured by private collectors. In each case, humans were the ultimate cause,” Matthew Brown of the Associated Press reported. Agricultural chemicals, oil spills and habitat destruction are on the list as well.

“Around the globe, some 902 species have been documented as extinct. The actual number is thought to be much higher because some are never formally identified, and many scientists warn the Earth is in an ‘extinction crisis’ with flora and fauna now disappearing at 1,000 times the historical rate,” Brown writes.

In September 2019, it was reported that nearly 3 billion birds had disappeared from the U.S. and Canadian avian populations since 1970. These bird species are being pushed toward extinction.

“These bird losses are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife,” Cornell Lab of Ornithology conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg said.

A warming planet

Our rapidly warming climate will frustrate efforts to save endangered species and keep other species from entering the list. Unheard flooding events and deepening droughts that cause massive wildfires and dry out lakes and streams add to the human-caused destruction of habitat.

In Hazen, N.D., last week, another black elephant sought our attention when it reached 100 degrees in the small town 50 miles north of Bismarck. Climatologists said it was likely the hottest temperature ever recorded that far north this late in the year – not just in North America but also in the world. It was a fitting exclamation point for the summer of 2021, which tied for the hottest on record.

2020 tied 2016 as the hottest year on record for the Earth, NASA reports. “The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend,” NASA’s Director of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies Gavin Schmidt said.
“Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important – the important things are long-term trends.” This year appears to be on pace to keep the trend going.

These seemingly gradual changes are happening at a pace far too fast for animals and plants to adapt, leading to their possible extinction.

 “Global warming is screwing up nature’s intricately timed dinner hour, often making hungry critters and those on the menu show up at much different times, a new study shows,” AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein writes.

“Timing is everything in nature. Bees have to be around, and flowers have to bloom at the same time for pollination to work, and hawks need to migrate at the same time as their prey. In many cases, global warming is interfering with that timing,” scientists said.

Messing with nature’s dinner hour could one day mess with our food sources.

Humans are the equivalent of the asteroid that smashed into the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago, ending the age of the dinosaurs in the world’s fifth mass extinction.

Through Earth’s history, there have been five major extinction events, natural cataclysms that have drastically reduced the number of species inhabiting it. Asteroids, massive volcanic events that blocked the sun and cooled the Earth, and extensive glacial formations that first greatly reduced sea levels, then melted away flooding large areas of the Earth are thought to have been the causes of previous mass extinctions.

Only through millions of years of evolution have the number of species grown to create new, diverse, but closely dependent ecosystems following each of those mass extinctions.

Today Earth scientists say the sixth massive extinction is already underway, and mankind is causing it.

“Global warming will eventually push 1 out of every 13 species on Earth into extinction,” Seth Borenstein reported.

These coming extinctions won’t be happening on a geologic time scale of thousands of years. Our children and grandchildren will be the inheritors of an Earth with a significantly reduced diversity of living things.

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