10 Timelapses of Environmental Destruction

Humans have impacted 83% of the earth's land -- 98% of fertile land.  And scientists calculated these back in 2002, when the earth had 1.2 billion less people.[1]  Our impacts have historically been destructive, although sustainable and regenerative practices are increasing, as this blog details.  Awareness also increases, like from Google Earth's new Timelapse feature and its LANDSAT imagery.  So let's use this god-like power to see 10 timelapses of our impacts on the environment.

[Timelapses may not load with smaller devices or without fast internet.  Click play on each to begin timelapse.]

1. The Amazon rainforest, Brazil
     -Slashing and burning for livestock and soy plantations.

From 1970 to 2015, the Brazilian Amazon lost 296,887 square miles, an area just larger than Texas.[2]  At current rates, 55% of the amazon will be lost or degraded by 2030. [3]  The destruction is fueled by demand for international agricultural products, such as soy for American food giants like Cargill and Bunge, linked to 321,000 and 1.4 million acres of deforestation in Brazil's Cerrado, respectively.[4]  Loss of habitat, erosion, pollution of rivers, and desertification are all consequences, as is climate change.

2. Coastal mangroves, Ecuador
     -Clearing and leveeing for shrimp farms

Mangroves are an edge ecosystem between sea and land, providing crucial habitat and protection from storm surges.  Worldwide less than half of mangrove forests remain, and half of that loss is attributable to shrimp farming.[5]  In Ecuador, many farms continue to operate illegally on supposedly preserved land.[6]   Locals are often denied waterway and fishing access by farms and their armed guards.[7]

3. The Appalachian Mountains, Kentucky/West Virginia
     -Mountaintop Removal Mining (MTR) for coal

'Mountaintop removal' (MTR) is a form of coal mining as destructive as it sounds.  It decapitates entire mountains, as much as 800ft off their height, and dumps their heads in nearby valleys.  MTR has erased more than 2,200sq mi of forests--an area the size of Delaware-- and the 'valley fills' have buried 2000 miles of streams.[8] Waterways should be protected under the US Clean Water Act, and damaged lands should be restored under the Surface Mining Reclamation Act, yet legislature often fails in both cases.[9]  Human impacts include poisoned drinking water, flying debris from explosives, flash floods and the collapse of toxic sludge reservoirs. [10][11]

4. Forests of the Pacific Northwest, USA
     -Clearcutting for timber

While laws require logging companies to replant after clearcuts, cutting outpaces regrowth, by 45% in Oregon, which has lost 522,000 acres of forest since 2000.  Even where replanted, forest health suffers due to soil erosion, as well as herbicides that target all plants except the desired Douglas fir.  In Oregon alone, over 4 million acres of biodiverse old growth have been replaced by Douglas fir plantations.[12]

5. Taiga forests of Alberta, Canada
   -Mining for bitumen, 'tar sand' oil

The "Tar Sands" of Alberta Canada cover 54,300 square miles, an area the size of Florida with the second largest known oil reserves after Saudi Arabia. [13] Processing tar sands emits three times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil.  Current processing facilities consume 33.7 million cubic feet of water per day (double enough to supply Calgary) and 600 million cubic feet of natural gas (enough to heat 2 million homes).  90% of the latter ends up in toxic tailings ponds. [14]

6. Semi-arid forests, Australia (and elsewhere)
    -Desertifying from logging and agriculture

Drylands are home to 1/3 of humanity, placing huge demands on already fragile landscapes.  10 to 20% of drylands have already degraded, with much more under threat.[15]  Logging, grazing and clearing for agriculture all contribute, with the common denominator being the removal of vegetation.   Australia loses 40,000 hectares each year, according to Bill Mollison.[16]  One study estimates that 36 million km sq of the world's drylands have degraded.[17]

7. Doce River, Brazil
     -Polluted after a dam burst at an iron mine

In 2015, the Bento Rodrigues Dam burst, releasing 50 million tons of toxic sludge (20,000 Olympic swimming pools) into the Doce River, killing 17 in the town of Bento Rodrigues.[18]  The sludge contaminated croplands, fisheries and drinking water along the 550-mile river, as well as marine habitats when it reached the Atlantic 17 days later.  It is considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazil's History.[19]

8. Aral Sea, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan
     -Drying up from dams and diversion of water

Human development caused the hydrological disaster known as the Aral Sea Crisis.  The Aral Sea was once the world's fourth largest lake at 26,300 square miles,[20] between Lake Michigan and Lake Superior in size.  Since the 1960's however, it has shrunk by 90%; water levels have dropped 75 feet.[21]  The culprit: Soviet infrastructure projects that dammed and diverted its two main contributing rivers.  The motive: to irrigate the surrounding deserts for cotton cultivation.  Aside from the disappearance of lake and delta ecosystems, toxic dust storms now blow across the region from an exposed lake bottom that has accumulated pesticides and nuclear waste.  Outbreaks of cancer and tuberculosis, instability of regional climate and loss of agriculture are lasting effects.

9. Wetlands of the Mississippi Delta, Louisiana 
     -Disappearing from damming and channeling Mississippi River

In nature, rivers gradually rebuild their delta wetlands by shifting into new routes and depositing new sediment.  In the Mississippi Delta, however, both of these processes have been hampered by human development.  Construction of dams throughout the Mississippi Basin (more than 1/3 of the continental US) traps 50% of the river's sediment.  The construction of shipping lanes forces the river into permanent channels that flush the sediment into the Gulf of Mexico, bypassing the wetlands that need it.  Already 25% of the Delta's wetlands have sunk into the Gulf.  By 2100, another 4,000 to 5,000 square miles will sink. [22]  A $50 billion coastal restoration plan may help.[23]  But aside from missing sediment, rising sea levels from global warming also contribute to wetland loss.    

10. Glaciers of the Arctic
     -Receding from Climate Change

Human activity has increased atmospheric carbon by 40% over the past 200 years,[24] both from burning fossil fuels and from destroying ecosystems that sequester carbon (like examples above), increasing global temperatures.  Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, for example, lost 82% of its ice between 1912 and 2000.[25]  Glacier National Park in Montana has lost 2/3 of its glacial coverage, with scientists estimating total loss by 2030.[26]  Over a four-day period in May of 2016 year, the massive Slims River in Canada vanished completely after glacier melt diverted its flow.[27]

It may seem daunting, the scale our forefathers defaced our planet, our children's planet.  Today the manpower and capital devoted to destruction still dwarfs that of restoration.  For instance Alpha Natural Resources, the leading MTR coal-mining company, has $4 billion in revenues.  Bunge Limited and  Cargill Corporation, leading soy traders and enablers of deforestation in the Amazon, have $43 and $110 billion, respectively.  The U.S. Forest Service by comparison, tasked with preserving and restoring 193 million acres of America's forests, has a budget of only $6.2 million (less than a single Abrams battle tank), a budget facing cuts and needing supplementation through auctions of timber, minerals and gas.[28]  Many American ecosystems -- prairies and oak savannas of the midwest, longleaf pine forests and coastal prairies of the south -- have all lost 99% of their original range.

  That being said, ecosystem restoration has been a growing field, as has sustainable agriculture, like this blog details.  Thanks to tools like Google Earth Timelapse, awareness is increasing; a positive shift in mindset is underway.  Humans are the only species blessed with the capacity for large-scale restoration, and the only species cursed with the moral obligation to do so.

For updates on the pioneers restoring our planet, follow Next Succession on Facebook or Twitter.

[1] Hillary Mayell, "Human 'Footprint' Seen on 83% of Earth's Land," National Geographic News, Oct. 25, 2002. [link]
[2] "Calculating Deforestation Figures for the Amazon," Mongabay [link]
[3] "Climate Change and the Amazon Rainforest," Mongabay [link]
[4] "New Investigation Exposes deforestation in Latin America connected to Burger King and American Agribusinesses," Mighty Earth, Feb. 27, 2017 [link]
[5] "About Mangroves," Mangrove Action Project [link]
[6] "Ecuador: Shrimp Farming Impacts on a Mangrove Reserve," World Rainforest Movement [link]
[7] "Shrimp Farming and the Environment," World Bank. p. 25 [link]
[8]  "Images of Mountaintop Removal Mining," Earth Justice [link]
[9] M.A. Palmer et al. "Mountaintop Mining Consequences," Science, 8 January 2010, Vol. 327, p. 148 [pdf link]
[10] "Community Impacts of Mountaintop Removal," Appalachian Voices [link]
[11] Katie Valentine, "Scientiest have now Quantified MTR's Destruction of Appalachia," ThinkProgress.  Feb. 11, 2016 [link]
[12] John Talberth and Erik Hernandez, "Deforestation, Oregon Style," Center for Sustainable Economy, Sept. 2015 [link]
[13] Simon Dyer, "Environmental Impacts of Oil Sands Development," Resilience, Sept. 22, 2009. [link]
[14] "Oil Sands Fever," Pembina Institute [link]
[15] "What is Desertification?" Green Facts [link]
[16] Bill Mollison, "Permaculture Designer's Manual."
[17] H.E. Dregne and Nan-Ting Chou, "Global Desertification Dimensions and Costs," (table 8). Degradation and Restoration of Degraded Lands [link]
[18] "Brazilian Mine Disaster... UN Rights Experts," UN Human Rights Commision [link]
[19] "Brazil's Doce River Still Foul Eight Months After Dam Disaster," Deutsche Welle [link]
[20] "Aral Sea," Wikipedia [link]
[21] "Aral Sea Crisis: Environmental Impacts," Colombia.edu [link]
[22] Michael Blum, "Drowning of the Mississippi Delta Due to Insufficient Sediment Supply and Global Sea-level Rise," Nature Geoscience, June 28, 2009 [link]
[23] Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority [link]
[24] "Glaciers and Climate Change," NSIDC, [link]
[25] "Snows of Kilimanjaro Disappearing," OSU GeoScience, April 25, 2006 [link]
[26] "Glacial Monitoring Studies," USGS [link]
[27] Hanah Devlin, "Receding Glacier causes Immense Canadian River to Vanish," The Guardian, April 17, 2017 [link
[28] "Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Overview," USFS [link]
[X]"Global Forest Change," University of Maryland [link]

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