January 2012 brought an unusually warm average temperature to the planet.
2013 is here, and everyone is busy making (or already breaking) their New Year's resolutions. Mother Nature took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to share a few thoughts on how to improve the situation here on our planet with some New Year's resolutions that should be taken up by mankind.
Here are the top seven resolutions for the Earth in the New Year. Take it away, Mother Nature:
1. Prevent species from going extinct
Earth is in the midst of an enormous extinction crisis, the biggest spate of die-offs since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, according to several studies. The world's level of biodiversity is also down by 30 percent since the 1970s, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund, a conservation group. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that 150 to 200 species go extinct every day, which is about 10 to 100 times the "background," or natural, rate of extinction.
One problem facing endangered species, particularly in developing countries, is poaching. Driven in part by the demand for animal parts in traditional medicine cures in parts of Asia, poaching (and capture of animals for the pet trade) has only increased — dramatically — in the past decade. A total of 633 rhinos were killed in South Africa in 2012, for example, according to Reuters. Compare that with 448 killed in 2011 and 13 killed in 2007. Poaching is largely to blame for the extinction of many creatures, including a subspecies of Javan rhino in Vietnam in 2010.
It's hard to focus on other animals and plants all the time. But humans are animals who come from a world replete with other creatures and forms of life. Even now, surrounded as many of you are by urban centers, devoid of forests and most wildlife, people depend on plants and animals for survival. Ultimately the loss of biodiversity will hurt you, as you, dear humans, are part of the web of life. Each species serves a specific function that can't be wholly replaced if one goes extinct, leading to a less productive ecosystem which ultimately provides fewer benefits for humans.
2. Preserve the rainforests
Rainforests are vital reservoirs of plants, animals and microbes. Most terrestrial animals aren't the big, charismatic species like elephants and tigers often associated with the jungles, but rainforest-dwelling arthropods (a group that includes insects, arachnids and crustaceans, all of which have hard exoskeletons). Arthropods are the most diverse group of animals in the world and perform all kinds of vital roles in their environments, from eating fecal matter to pollinating flowers. Rainforests also contain plants than can help humans; compounds derived from these plants have been used to create many medicines, including the anti-malarial drug quinine, originally found in the Amazon's cinchona tree. It'd be a shame to lose such wealth before even discovering it.
The forests also supply the planet with an enormous supply of oxygen. Even so, from 2000 to 2010, for example, about 93,000 square miles (240,000 square kilometers) of the Amazon rainforest were razed, covering an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom.
3. Protect areas with high biodiversity
Not all areas are created equal. Certain places should be left alone, such as those that are home to endangered species, species found nowhere else, particularly high varieties of species and those that provide other important ecological benefits.
Examples of areas that need your special attention include Madagascar, which is like no other place in the world — it is the only spot where lemurs and many other unique life-forms dwell. But forest and grassland habitat on this island off the coast of Africa is being destroyed rapidly; Madagascar has lost at least 90 percent of its original forest cover.
Another jewel would be the Philippines, which has one of the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet, but is threatened by deforestation and development. A single recent expedition found more than 300 species that are likely new to science, including a deep-sea shark that can inflate itselfwhen frightened. But these species are potentially in danger from human activities, while other species could go extinct there and in other spots before they are even discovered.
4. Reduce greenhouse gases and limit climate change
Humans are a gassy bunch, burning fossil fuels and increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Many climate scientists have estimated that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere must be limited to 350 parts per million (ppm) to avoid the worst effects of a human-altered climate, such as warmer temperatures, more frequent heat waves and droughts, sea level rise and even more extinction of animals that can't quickly adapt to climate change. The current concentration is nearly 393 ppm and rising about 2 ppm annually, according to the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. To avert the worst effects of global warming, humans would need to quickly find alternative fuel sources — look back to what's been provided to you and harness the sun or the wind or heat from the Earth.
The worst effects of warming can be seen in the Arctic and Antarctic, due to a phenomenon called polar amplification. Many areas throughout the Arctic have already warmed by 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.7 degrees Celsius) over the last 30 years, heating up much more quickly than the rest of the world and acting as harbingers of things to come. The poles are also home to magnificent animals like polar bears and penguins,which are sensitive to environmental changes. And that's not to mention the fact these areas store enough frozen water that, if melted, would put most of the world's current urban areas under water. And even if these areas don't completely melt, they could still cause significant sea-level rise.
5. Curb water pollution
Humans are really shooting themselves in the foot with this one. Although big strides have been taken in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, it remains an enormous and growing problem throughout many parts of the world, including China, parts of south Asia and Africa. Besides the obvious detriments of polluting one's own drinking water, pollution from agricultural runoff, when it reaches the oceans, also creates so-called dead zones — algae blooms develop and consume all the oxygen in the area and other species that need oxygen die off. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico has been steadily growing and recently covered an area roughly the size of New Jersey. Pollution also contributes to coral disease, which is a major unrecognized factor in the decline of coral reefs — top spots for biodiversity (see Resolution #3).
6. Better manage fisheries and curb shark finning
Commercial-fishing techniques are leading to the deaths of too many fish, sea turtles and marine mammals, often when these creatures aren't targeted by fishermen. The worst of these techniques is the use of large nets (including dragnets, seines and driftnets, which catch just about everything in their path) and longline fishing, wherein hundreds or thousands of hooks are suspended up to many miles behind boats. The average longline in the Gulf of Mexico stretches for 30 miles (48 kilometers), and more than half of the tuna and swordfish caught are thrown back, most of which die, according to the Pew Environment group.
The hunting of sharks has also increased dramatically, primarily due to increased demand for shark fin soup in China, a substance that has repeatedly been shown to be high in toxins. Up to 73 million sharks are killed each year to quench this demand. Ocean ecosystems depend upon these predators to keep the web of life balanced.
7. Consume less
This one is pretty simple: consume less. Especially Americans, who could still survive using less energy and water; most of the world gets by on a fraction. Reuse of materials may be another good practice. This could mean simple changes like reusing shopping bags, alleviating the need for more plastic and paper. Many items also needn't be thrown away merely because they are out of fashion. A recent study found that a large percentage of appliances that are thrown away still function properly. In addition, boost energy efficiency by making and buying better cars, like hybrids or electric vehicles powered by renewable sources. You can also do simple things like turning off lights and appliances, using programmable thermostats and replacing air filters in HVAC systems.
Using less plastic would be another good place to start. Now, plastic is found in just about every corner of the globe, for example in thegreat Pacific garbage patch, known to scientists as the North Pacific Subtropial Gyreand even on the floor of the Arctic Ocean.
The Earth's resources are not unlimited, and if humans are not more careful, this will become increasingly obvious.