10 Things We’ve Learned About the Earth Since Last Earth Day

We recap the most surprising, awe-inspiring and alarming things that we have learned about the Earth and the environment since last year’s holiday

A study indicates that global yields of crops such as wheat and corn may already be affected by climate change. Feedloader (Clickability)

Sunday is the 42nd celebration of Earth Day, which was started in 1970 by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson to help educate people about environmental issues and demonstrate public support for a conservationist agenda. With that in mind, we decided it was the right time to recap the most surprising, awe-inspiring and alarming things that we have learned about the Earth and the environment since last year’s holiday:

1. Undiscovered species are still out there: Countless discoveries over the past year reminded us that, despite centuries of research, the planet still has plenty of surprise species in store. Among the many finds include seven new forest mice species in the Philippines, a “psychedelic” gecko in Vietnam and a new type of dolphin in AustraliaA new analysis released last August, billed as the most accurate ever, estimated that a total of 8.7 million different species of life exist on earth.

2. Global warming is already driving up food prices: While many fear that climate change will someday reduce crop yields and cause food prices to rise, a study published last May in Science indicates that this troubling trend has already gotten started. The models used suggest that reduced global yields of wheat and corn are related to global warming. Although the effects are relatively small so far, they may cause severe problems in the future, as climate patterns continue to change and food demand increases.

3. Natural gas is not so great: Although advocates of natural gas argue that it contributes less to climate change than other fossil fuels such as coal, a study published last spring revealed that leakage of methane from newer types of shale gas wells and associated pipelines may be a bigger problem than first assumed. As much as 7.9 percent of the methane mined from these increasingly common wells may be escaping into the atmosphere through loose pipeline fittings and during hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a “fracking”). In the short term, the greenhouse effect of methane is 25 times that of carbon dioxide.

Research suggests offshore wind farms may actually increase oceanic biodiversity. Photo by Ad Meskens.

4. Offshore wind farms are good for biodiversity: Last August, wind advocates welcomed the news that offshore turbines apparently have no negative effect on aquatic ecosystems, and might actually provide new habitats for creatures that live in shallow water. Although a few bird species might avoid the wind farms because of the risks of spinning turbines, the net effect of the large scale-wind farm studied by the team of Dutch scientists was positive.

5. A fungus causes white-nose syndrome in bats: First discovered in a New York State cave in 2006, the disease has quickly spread to more than 115 bat colonies across North America and has caused mortality rates as high as 90 percent in affected populations. Finally, last October, researchers pinpointed the cause: the fungus Geomyces destructans. The disease forces bats to awaken too frequently from hibernation, leading to starvation, and has already caused several bat species to become endagered. Scientists are tracking movement of the disease and working on developing a cure.

6. The oceans are in bigger trouble than we thought: The annual State of the Ocean report, published in July by an international team of experts, concluded that things are far worse in ocean ecosystems than previously feared. A range of stresses—including rising sea temperatures, overfishing, acidification and pollution—have combined to threaten extinction for many aquatic species, including those that create coral reefs. “We have underestimated the overall risks,” the report noted. “The whole of marine degradation is greater than the sum of its parts.”

7. Large wildlife are surviving the conflict in Afghanistan: Research published in June by the World Conservation Society revealed a tidbit of positive news about the conflict in Afghanistan. A range of large mammals (including black bears, gray wolves, wild goats and rare snow leopards) have been able to survive decades of violence in Afghanistan, despite the attendant deforestation, habitat degradation and the absence of rule of law. The researchers reaffirmed the need for conservation programs that also provide livelihoods for local people to ensure this trend continues.

8.Pesticides play a role in bee colony collapses: A study published last spring in Science proved what many have feared—low levels of a common pesticide may confuse honeybees, making it much more difficult for them to find their way home after trips away from the hive. The authors of the study say the results raise questions about the use of the chemical, neonicotinoid, while others note the possible role of other factors, such as increased susceptibility to disease and a reduction in wildflowers because of land development.

9. Eating meat warms the planet: A guide released last July by the Environmental Working Group put firm numbers on what many have argued for some time—namely, that eating meat can contribute as much to climate change as driving a car. According to the report, which took into account every step needed to produce meat (including the pesticides, fertilizers and water used to grow feed, the emissions resulting from processing the meat, the transportation and cooking of it and other factors), if every U.S. citizen gave up meat and cheese one day per week, the effect on greenhouse gas emissions would equal taking about 7.6 million cars off the road.

10. Millions likely to be trapped by climate change: A report by the British government, released last October, warned that millions of people around the world will likely end up trapped in places vulnerable to the effects of environmental change over the next century. Although previous studies simply estimated which areas might be flooded by rising sea levels and assumed that all residents would move, the report drew upon more than 70 research papers and recognized that in many cases (such as New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina), the most disadvantaged groups are unable to leave. Experts advocate increased planning to financially support migration, both within and between countries.