Included East Africa | Planes, slaves (!) and tree loss: 3 new science stories you should know about
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Planes, slaves (!) and tree loss: 3 new science stories you should know about

Planes, slaves (!) and tree loss: 3 new science stories you should know about

Wildlife in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. (© Jon McCormack)

Protecting nature starts with science. Here’s a roundup of recent policy-relevant science published by Conservation International experts.

  1. Noise from airplanes may harm marine life

Research has shown that noise from shipping can harm marine life. A recent study found that loud noise above the surface can also disrupt life below the waves.

Researchers in Bali, Indonesia, studied the effects of air travel to the island, a hotspot of tourism — and biodiversity. The island’s lone airport is right on the coast, meaning that planes fly low over a large area of water. By placing microphones underwater, scientists found that decibel readings hit as high as 100, a not insignificant level of noise considering that shipping noise can reach as high as 190 decibels.

Plans to expand the airport need to take these findings into consideration, said I Made Iwan Dewantama of Conservation International Indonesia and a co-author of the study, published in December in Marine Pollution Bulletin.

“This study is essential because of the rapid development happening in Bali,” Iwan said. “We have to understand the impact air travel and development have on marine life so that we can inform the government of the harm expanding the airport could cause.”

The study’s results suggest that airplane noise “may be more audible underwater than commonly expected,” the authors wrote. “This may warrant reconsideration of previous impact assessments that assumed propagation of airplane noise into important habitats was negligible.”

  1. Slavery in the seafood industry

Your shrimp cocktail might be hiding a dark secret: human rights violations. And while international laws exist to protect workers from everything from unsafe working conditions to slavery, they’re often overlooked and unenforced in the billion-dollar global seafood industry.

According to a new study, to put a stop to these abuses and get the most out of existing laws, businesses and governments need to step up — today. The study is part of a larger effort by conservationists and human rights advocates to understand how prevalent these human rights violations are in the seafood industry and how much environmental harm is associated with them. This research is just one of the steps in figuring out how solving human rights issues in the seafood sector would better protect the environment.

The study’s authors found that while workers’ civil and political rights are safeguarded, their economic, social and cultural rights are often woefully unprotected. And when governments don’t have the capacity to do so, it’s the responsibility of seafood companies to address this lack of rights.

“As the world’s population grows, the demand for seafood is going to increase pressure on the industry — creating incentive to lower costs in any way possible,” said Jack Kittinger of Conservation International and co-author of the study, published in January in PLOS ONE. “That puts workers at risk. By helping governments and companies understand their legal responsibilities to protect human rights, we’re helping stop the exploitation of workers in the industry.”

  1. Loss of trees in northern countries may warm Earth further

Cutting down forests doesn’t just affect the air we breathe and the water we drink — tree-cover loss is one of the main drivers of species extinction and climate change. A recent study published in the journal Land uses variables including agricultural suitability and proximity to roads and airports to model which forests are most at risk for tree-cover loss.

The takeaway? By identifying where the most urgent need is, the study’s results can be used to target where conservation strategies and climate mitigation efforts would be most effective in combating climate change.

Using data from NASA, The World Bank and others, the researchers found that some regions that may historically have experienced low tree-cover loss, such as the interior of the Amazon or the interior of the Congo Basin, may experience significant increases in tree-cover loss in the next 15 years, depending on the type of government development policies that are pursued. Additionally, parts of Russia, Alaska and northern Canada could be at a high risk for tree-cover loss 15 years in the future.

Large swaths of forests in these northern areas have historically served as carbon “sinks” — storing 20 percent of the world’s soil carbon in the underlying peatlands. Removing trees and disturbing the peatlands would emit large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. As the climate warms, the frequency and severity of fires is also expected to increase, further fueling tree-cover loss and emissions from the underlying peatlands.

Compounding the problem: The same areas at risk for tree-cover loss are also likely to suffer rising temperatures thanks to climate change — which could make them more suited to agriculture. “This means a triple blow to those areas,” explained Jenny Hewson of Conservation International and lead author of the study. “This puts these already vulnerable areas even more at risk.”

Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International. 

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