Statement: Marine Programs on North Atlantic Right Whale Mortality

Statement by Sean Brillant, Senior Conservation Biologist

We are in the middle of the season when North Atlantic right whales occur in Atlantic Canada and, sadly, the middle of another mortality crisis for these endangered species.

The restrictions put in place by the Government of Canada for shipping and fishing activities in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year are very similar to those in 2018, and there were no right whale deaths last year.

This is, therefore, a very sad and unfortunate situation.

Shipping and fishing cannot be completely removed from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, so clearly there needs to be changes to the way these industries operate.

The Government of Canada has imposed more speed restrictions for ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and CWF is supportive of this action. We encourage the Government to make further changes to the shipping and fishing industries if necessary to reduce additional whale deaths.

We need:

  1. The Government of Canada to apply adaptive, and where necessary, austere management actions on those activities shown to be causing these deaths. For example, at least 2 of the dead right whales were found outside the speed restricted zone established by Transport Canada. Application of this 10 knot speed limit should be considered for the entire southern Gulf of St. Lawrence;
  2. Ongoing and increased support is needed to ensure detailed examinations (necropsies) are done for each dead right whale to determine why it died, so we can change those activities to prevent further deaths; and
  3. More studies and surveys to determine where the whales are, and why they are using the different parts of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

CWF will continue to closely monitor this situation and will advocate for evidence-based actions that will reduce these deaths.

The survival of North Atlantic right whales is going to require support from all Canadians, and CWF will continue to work with all partners to lead initiatives to support emergency response, conduct research to reduce entanglement risks and raise awareness about this majestic part of our Canadian marine heritage.

Learn more about the work the Canadian Wildlife Federation does in our Coasts & Oceans.

LOVE BUGS!

A CWF conservation expert tells us why insects might be our best ecological allies… and why we must act now to prevent a collapse of the world’s bugs.

The Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes is one of the five largest collections of its kind in the world.

Established in 1886 by James Fletcher, the first official Dominion entomologist, it now contains more than 17 million specimens. Although more than 70 per cent of them originate in Canada, the collection also includes exemplars from all over the world. Many samples are the only known representatives of their species. You might think that a collection such as this would be housed in a special facility designed to preserve the specimens in perpetuity.

Think again. One of the largest and most important insect collections in the world is divided among some 1,500 metal cabinets, many scattered in the hallways of a building on the federal government’s Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa.

As expansive as this database has become, it may be in the process of becoming even more important. That’s because many of the species in the archive are declining at an alarming rate. Studies from around the world are confirming entomologists’ worst fears.

Without insects, most of the foods we eat, including fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and seeds, would disappear or be very limited. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates more than three-quarters of the world’s food crops (equalling $577 billion annually) rely on pollination, primarily by insects.

Not just human food is at risk: insects are also the backbone of terrestrial and aquatic food webs. Many species of fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals rely exclusively on insects. Without them, these species would cease to exist, and the predators that rely on these animals for food would starve. Loss of insects would be a grand disruptor to food chains globally. Scientists are already documenting steep declines in some species that rely on insect prey, notably many species of birds.

Moving on to medicines, roughly 7,000 medical compounds prescribed by western doctors are derived from plants. For everything from simple headaches to malaria, plant-derived medicines have provided modern society with a variety of cures and symptom relief, and most of these plants are pollinated by insects.

Insects are also all-star recyclers. They play a vital role in decomposing dead plants and animals and recycling the nutrients into the soil, as well as in aerating the soil as they burrow. Losing insects would thoroughly disrupt agriculture because plants would lack nutrients necessary for growth. Also, the accumulation of dead plants and animals in the environment would cause a putrefied mess.

Insects are vital to ecosystem function and to our very existence, and yet the evidence seems incontrovertible that they are declining. Consider three recent studies. In 2017, a German entomological society found that the overall mass of flying insects in 63 German nature reserves had decreased by 75 per cent over the last three decades. Known as the Krefeld study, researchers found declines in every habitat sampled and concluded that intensive agriculture, with its pesticides, herbicides and simplification of the landscape, was the principal factor in the decline.

CANADIANS NEED TO FOCUS ON REVERSING DECLINES BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE. ALL GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTS RELEVANT TO THE ISSUE MUST COLLABORATE ON A SOLUTION

A second longitudinal study out of the Caribbean is even more concerning. Published in late 2018 and drawing on data collected in the Luquillo rainforest of Puerto Rico back in the 1970s and 40 years later in the early 2010s, U.S. tropical ecologist Brad Lister revealed a 10- to 60-fold decrease in insect biomass over the four decades. This astounding result is even more troubling considering that the study area is not directly affected by pesticides, herbicides or habitat loss. The data points to climate change: average temperatures in the forest have risen by 2 degrees C since the 1970s.

The third study, published in April this year in the journal Biological Conservation, is a global review of four decades of insect studies by a pair of Australian entomologists. This survey of 73 different studies revealed insect declines on average of 41 per cent and a drop in the total mass of insects of 2.5 per cent a year. The authors calculated the rate of insect species extinction as eight times faster than that of vertebrates. The research identified habitat loss, pesticides, fertilizers, introduced species and disease, and climate change as the primary factors in the decline.

Here in Canada, there are no comparable studies: the focus among entomologists has been on identifying insect species. Still, informal anecdotal evidence suggests a downward trend in the quantity of insects they have collected over the past decades. Environment and Climate Change Canada has a role in listing all species at risk, but this is often a case of too little too late.

Canadians need to focus on reversing declines before it is too late. All government departments relevant to the issue must collaborate on a solution: Environment and Climate Change Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Health Canada, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Transport Canada and their provincial counterparts all need to support the health of our insect populations. It is time for creative approach-es to stem the decline, such as integrating insect habitats into the design of buildings, roads, power transmission corridors, rail- roads and farms. It is also time to establish a monitoring framework for flying and aquatic insects across Canada.

What can you do to help? Support CWF’s five-step neonic Ban With a Plan (banwithaplan.org). Avoid using harmful pesticides or herbicides in your garden or lawn, plant a pollinator-friendly garden, lobby your elected representatives on the issue, and buy from local food producers who do not use harmful chemicals and who support wildlife habitats on their land. Finally, spread the word through your network of family, friends and colleagues — encourage others to take action. Every bit helps.

 


Reprinted from Canadian Wildlife magazine. Get more information or subscribe now! Now on newsstands! Or, get your digital edition today!

Five Ways Nature Can Boost Your Health and Happiness

Nature is one of the best healers around when it comes to mental and physical health.

And it takes only 20 minutes outdoors to reap its benefits. Here are five scientifically-proven reasons why you need to head outdoors today and every day.

1. It’ll improve your mental health

monarch womanBeing in and around nature lowers the heart rate and creates a sense of inner peace and happiness. According to researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, it takes only 20 minutes outdoors to reap the benefits of feeling happier. In the study, 64 per cent of the 94 participants showed an increase in life satisfaction after 20 minutes in a park.

2. It’ll boost your physical health too

biking sunrise

Give your immune system a little boost by spending some time outdoors, from getting your daily vitamin D dose to exposure to a variety of bacteria from grass dust and dirt. Vitamin D is particularly helpful to keep our muscles, bones and teeth healthy.

3. It’ll help you tackle stress

woman outside stress free

Feeling tired, stressed or stuck? Take a break and head outside! Being outdoors is proven to lower concentrations of cortisol, pulse rate, blood pressure and sympathetic nerve activity. It is shown that being outdoors gives a creativity boost to tackle whatever problem you’ve been dealing with in your life.

4. It’ll restore you and give you an energy boost

senior couple hiking

Let’s face it, the reality is that humans spend a lot of time indoors on social media and computers. Spending time outdoors increases both physical and mental energy and feel more alive in as little as 20 minutes.

5. It could help you sleep better

woman outside sleep grass

We could all use a little extra zzzzs! A 2015 study published in Preventive Medicine found that those of 255,000 adults who have access to natural spaces slept better! So head out outside for 20 minutes of fresh air and walk your way to a better snooze tonight.

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything.”
– Albert Einstein


There are many, many more reasons we should all be spending more time outdoors. Nature teaches us to become quieter and slow down our pace of living. It teaches us to really listen and truly feel like we are one with the earth. It teaches us to live in the moment – to enjoy the small things in life like watching the pace of nature and listening to the birds, hearing the trees sway and creek along with the wind.

The truth is nature teaches us far more than what we’ll ever be able to learn from a book.

How does being outside in nature make you feel? Let us know!

When It Comes to Ships, Does Size Matter?

When it comes to ships, does size play a part in the damage they can do to whales?

Canada is home to 33 species of cetaceans. These marine mammals spend their whole lives in the water. Unfortunately, they can have some fairly terrible encounters with other objects in the ocean, like ships. When ships strike whales, it can end in disaster. They will likely either die or be injured.

Many people report seeing a whale swimming normally after a ship strike, however, their injuries might be extensive enough that they could die soon afterwards. Necropsies performed on whales killed by ship strikes have found that strikes may damage the blood vessels surrounding a whale’s dorsal fin. Some ship strikes might even fracture bones, while most will cause severe hemorrhaging to the blubber and tissue of the whale’s body.

humpback whale in antarctica with ship

But what about the size of the ship? Are bigger ships more dangerous to whales? That’s just what researchers at the Canadian Wildlife Federation are itching to discover.

It’s well known that large ships like cruise and cargo ships, can kill whales. We know that their between their massive size and the fast speeds they can reach, these mighty vessels can have a brutal impact on whales should they strike them. The most severe injuries that whales experience are caused by these large vessels. As a result, there are speed restrictions for many of these ships to try to mitigate the damage they can do on our whales.

So, Does Size Matter?

sailboat and whale tale

But what about smaller ships like fishing boats? According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, in 2016 alone, there were over 15,000 fishing boats (smaller than 20 metres in length) registered in Atlantic Canada. Moreover, fishing boats have also been reported to strike whales. While these boats are not usually going incredibly fast (they usually travel under 10 knots), setting a speed restriction for these fishing boats may help to reduce the risk of injury and death in our whales.

The Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Senior Conservation Researcher of Marine Programs, Sean Brillant, is studying the impacts these small vessels could pose on our whales. This summer, Brillant and his team of researchers are looking into high speed oceanic racing boats to determine if these vessels could critically injure whales should a collision occur.

Learn more about Canadian Wildlife Federation’s work in our Coasts & Oceans

Raise Your Voice and Get the American Eel Listed by SARA

American Eels are pretty impressive creatures.

They swim 5,000 kilometres from Ontario waters to the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda to spawn. Then their offspring make the long journey back.

american eel migration map @ CWF

Considering they’ve got such a long trek, you’d think making the journey itself and the sheer energy they’d exhaust making it would be the hardest part for these eels.

Unfortunately, it’s really not.

They face so many threats along the way, like facing barriers such as dams and turbines that can kill adults as they return to sea. They’re having such a hard time that they’ve declined by more than 99 per cent in Ontario.

It’s Not Looking Good for the Eels

american eel @ sean landsman

That’s why it’s more important than ever that they become listed. They’re already considered Threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, but they still haven’t been listed under the Species at Risk Act. Getting listed would make such a big impact for the American Eel. It would protect the species. And they certainly need our protection!

The good news? The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is in the final stages of developing listing advice to Cabinet on whether or not to add the American Eel to the Species at Risk Act. The bad news? They’ve been reviewing it for over three years and still haven’t delivered their final listing decision.

We Need Action if We Are Going to Save the American Eel!

This Rivers to Oceans Week, we want to help the migratory species that need it the most.

Will you send an email to government urging them to list the American Eel in the Species at Risk Act?

Continue reading “Raise Your Voice and Get the American Eel Listed by SARA”

Here Are the Most Dangerous Roads in Eastern Ontario

Turtles and roads are a dangerous combination.

When turtles leave their wetlands on an overland trek, they often have to cross a road to get where they are going. Their destination may simply be the wetland across the road, or a nesting site for an adult female to lay her eggs. Whatever the reason for setting out, the result is often a dead turtle on the road.

Turtles are slow, which increases their risk of being hit by a car or truck as they cross a road. In addition, a turtle’s reaction to danger is often to pull in their head and legs and remain immobile. Unfortunately, remaining immobile on a busy road turns a turtle into a sitting duck.

Road Survey Results

Excavating a nest | Marquage des œufs de tortues serpentines.

Over the past two years, the CWF turtle team has been conducting road surveys in the greater Ottawa area to find out where turtles are getting hit on the roads.

Tragically, we have found more than 1,000 dead turtles on roads.

That is a staggering amount of roadkill that is likely not sustainable in the long term. We are working hard to get wildlife fencing installed at two of the locations where we found the most turtles on roads near Ottawa.

We found more turtles on some roads than others. A lot of things affect how many turtles are found on a given road, such as the length of the road, the traffic volume, how many wetlands are nearby, and how often the road is surveyed.

Turtles can be on the move from May to September but much of the movement occurs in June when adult females are looking for nesting locations. It is always a good idea to be alert for turtles when driving in the spring and summer.

If you can slow down when approaching wetlands this can increase the odds of seeing a turtle on the road before it is too late. And while it is good to be watching for turtles on any rural road, we can now say which roads in the Ottawa area cause the most mortality for turtles.

So if you are driving near Ottawa this spring and summer, be extra careful on the following roads:

Hot Roads Do you regularly drive one of Eastern Ontario's 'hot roads?' This map is a compilation of CWF's 2018 data on turtle strikes.
Hot Roads: Do you regularly drive one of Eastern Ontario’s ‘hot roads?’ This map is a compilation of CWF’s 2018 data on turtle strikes.
  • #7 (west of Carleton Place)
  • #10 (southwest of Perth)
  • #15 (south of Carleton Place)
  • Dwyer Hill Rd (western Ottawa)
  • Roger Stevens Drive (southern Ottawa)
  • Wolf Grove Rd (west of Almonte)

(These roads are ordered alphabetically. We have not attempted to rank these roads by the number of turtles as not all roads were surveyed the same amount.)

Not surprisingly these are all relatively long and busy roads. Various other shorter roads also had a number of dead turtles, just not as many as these roads. It is a dangerous place out there for turtles. Please watch for them as they try to cross our roads.

If you want to find out more about what you can do for turtles, please check out our website, HelptheTurtles.ca.

New Thinking Needed to Conserve Canada’s Wildlife and Ecosystems

By Mike Wilson and John Lounds

Despite the abundant wildlife and ecosystems in Canada’s North, nature is facing an alarming decline in southern Canada.

Habitat loss and fragmentation have resulted in significant loss of wildlife, leading to declines in many species that were once common, such as the Greater sage-grouse and the American bumblebee. Current approaches won’t be sufficient to ensure that humans and wildlife can thrive on a shared planet.

In recent years, we’ve seen a bold new vision for the coexistence and flourishing of humans and wildlife on Earth. A growing movement of scientists, conservationists, policymakers and business leaders are calling for governments to set aside 30 per cent of their land and waters by 2030, with the long-term goal of achieving sustainable land management and nature conservation across all our landscapes and seascapes. Traditional approaches to conservation are essential in achieving this vision, but without new thinking they are not enough to meet these goals and solve the towering challenges before us.

The threats facing our wildlife and ecosystems are staggering.

A Global Assessment Report released earlier this month by the UN Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services estimated that one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. And despite the abundant wildlife and ecosystems in Canada’s North, nature is facing an alarming decline in southern Canada. Habitat loss and fragmentation have resulted in significant loss of wildlife, leading to declines in many species that were once common, such as the Greater sage-grouse and the American bumblebee.

@ Viv Lynch

Canada and other countries are attempting to turn these trends around. Nations signed on to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets in 2010, under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Canada and other signatories committed to protect at least seventeen percent of their terrestrial areas and inland waters, and 10 percent of their marine and coastal areas by 2020.

We have seen inspiring efforts to make good on this pledge. Recently, the Government of Canada hosted the Nature Summit, a global gathering of leaders from governments, Indigenous nations, business and civil society to set an ambitious, post-2020 agenda for conservation. The summit saw a raft of new announcements for nature protection in Canada, such as formally protecting the Laurentian Whale Passage and establishing strict new standards for marine protected areas. This is in addition to the historic $1.3-billion investment in nature conservation initiatives that the 2018 budget committed to over five years.

A Shift in Thinking is Needed To Meet Our Goals

While we are getting closer to meeting our 2020 Aichi targets, this is just the beginning to achieving a sustainable society, and more ambitious action and results are needed. To meet the bold 30 per cent by 2030 targets proposed by scientists, we need to kick-start a shift in thinking on nature conservation. While governments have led conservation in the past, new thinking for nature must also bring together the collective efforts of businesses, Indigenous nations, communities and civil societies to build the foundation of a sustainable future.

Ensuring that ecosystems and wildlife can thrive alongside humans, now and in the future, means that we must broaden our idea of conservation. An expanded notion of conservation encompasses stewardship and protection measures in the landscapes and seascapes where Canadians work, live and play—such as urban areas, agricultural lands, and coastal fishing economies—as well as the ecologically intact protected areas that traditionally come to mind. This ‘new thinking’ for nature conservation does not displace traditional motivations and approaches to conservation, but instead ‘grows the tent’ by showing how conservation helps address many important challenges our country is facing.

New Thinking For Nature Needs to Attract Broad Coalitions of Unlikely Allies

It will involve working with public and mental health advocates to establish urban green spaces that help reduce stress and mental illness. Collaborating with municipalities to quantify how natural infrastructure— such as wetlands and floodplains—can cost-effectively deliver essential services such as flood prevention while helping us adapt to climate change. Demonstrating to industries as diverse as insurance, tourism, retail, and natural resources that nature conservation and sustainable resource management can lower business risks and lead to new innovation and investment opportunities. Most importantly, it means fostering nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous peoples so that they are empowered to manage wildlife and protected areas on their traditional territories.

Imagining these new approaches to nature conservation is vital to realizing a shared vision of a Canada in which people and wildlife can flourish together.

Mike Wilson is executive director of Smart Prosperity Institute. John Lounds is president & CEO of the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Rick Bates is executive vice-president and CEO of the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

Reprinted with permission from The Hill Times: 5/27/2019 New thinking needed to conserve Canada’s wildlife and ecosystemsThe Hill Times

American Eel By-catch: Critical Information for Anglers

As temperatures warm outdoors, many anglers are restocking their tackle kits and preparing their rods and reels for another season of fishing.

More than three million people go fishing in Canada each year. For many of those people, fishing is about more than bringing home a fresh and nutritious supper. Fishing is a way to relax, spend time with friends and family, and reconnect with nature.

But responsible fishing also means being prepared to safely handle any fish that bites the hook  even if it isn’t what you were targeting.

A closeup of an American Eel © Sarah Gough
A closeup of an American Eel © Sarah Gough

The American Eel is an example of a fish that you might accidentally capture when you head out fishing in Central and Eastern Canada. In Ontario, the eel population has declined by more than 99 per cent since the 1980s. As an Endangered species in Ontario, American Eels cannot be intentionally targeted by anglers. But these rare fish still surprise unsuspecting anglers at the end of the line sometimes. If caught, American Eels must be released immediately!

What Do You Do?

Would you know what to do if you incidentally captured an American Eel? If not, the Canadian Wildlife Federation can help!

american eel on fishing line
Removing the hook from an American Eel @ Aline Litt

In 2018, CWF conducted an experiment to find out how to best release incidentally captured eels. We’re happy to report that all American Eels survived the catch-and-release experiment, whether they were released by cutting the line or hook removal.

Even better, after a seven-day monitoring period, 87 per cent of American Eels exhibited little or no sign of hooking injury. Also, a large proportion of the line-cut eels had shed their hooks, with shallower hooks being shed more easily. This suggests that eels are not highly vulnerable to incidental capture by anglers.

Bottom Line

In conclusion? If you catch an American Eel, don’t be intimidated  all you need to do is release it!

 It’s up to you whether you choose to cut the line or remove the hook. Line cutting may be the easiest and quickest option because these slippery fish are extremely challenging to handle!

Learn more about the American Eel and other related projects.

A Passion for Canadian Bees

Bees are among the most familiar of insects, in part due to the familiar furry and robust bumble bees that are often featured in children’s stories, as characters in television programs and commercials, and used almost ubiquitously to represent all bees to the public. However, bumble bees make up less than 5% of the native bee species in Canada so there is a lot of bee diversity both in terms of the number of species and life history strategies that are not represented by these caricatures. With almost 900 bee species occurring coast to coast to coast in Canada, there is still much to learn, and much to save!

In addition to doing research on bees, I also provide information and support for the assessment of arthropod species at risk in Canada. I work as a taxonomist, identifying bee species found in Canada, finding and documenting new species found in Canada (Figure 1 and 2), and on rarer occasions, describing species that are new to science. I will always consider myself a student of bees as it seems that one can learn something new almost every day. I love exploring the world of insects (Figure 3), in particular native bees, though surprisingly I came to work on these important pollinators by a rather indirect route as my first love was botany. In fact, I still am very interested in plants, especially their reproductive biology (Figure 4).

As an undergraduate student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, I was interested in doing an undergraduate research project in botany – plants are very wonderful organisms! Unfortunately, the botany professors at that time were on sabbatical so there were no opportunities for me in their labs at the time. However, the entomologist at Acadia had a project on lowbush blueberry, particularly its pollination and pollinators, and this changed my life. I was hooked, and these topics have been what my career has been focused on ever since.

One of the things I soon realized is that there were few entomologists in Canada that were studying the taxonomy of Canadian bees; thus I faced a bit of an uphill battle to study pollinator diversity at first, but then realized I loved doing taxonomic work on bees. Between then and now I had excellent opportunities to work with and learn from great entomologist in Nova Scotia, and later during my doctorate degree at the University of Guelph and post doctorate research at York University, both in Ontario. These last two opportunities allowed me to work directly with world-renowned pollination and bee biologists.

Now I find myself at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum where I have worked as Curator of Invertebrate Zoology since 2012, and my love of bees continues to grow. As an adjunct professor at the University of Regina, I also get to work with undergraduate and graduate students – their enthusiasm continues to make my work in Saskatchewan very rewarding. The prairies are a great place to study bees, and the museum is an excellent place to do so!

A Climate of Violence

What caused the little ice age? Many factors of course, but one study suggests that the devastating loss of life wrought by Europeans invading the Americas may have tipped the balance

How does Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage to the New World relate to the “frost fair” held on a frozen River Thames in London in 1683-84? A startling new study says the voyage led to the freeze, at least, in part. It’s the PhD work of geographer Alexander Koch of University College London, published in January in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

icebergThe speedy rise of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere from the moment the first steam engines started burning fossil fuels in about 1750 is well documented. The concentration has risen from 280 parts per million in the atmosphere then to 410 now. Before that steady rise began, the concentration was stable for thousands of years. That is, except for a period between 1550 and 1650, when it fell by about 10 parts per million (ppm). Why did levels drop?

Amazingly, Koch traces it to Columbus and his voyage to the Americas in 1492. It was then, in claiming the lands for Spain, that Columbus unleashed the savage and sweeping colonization of two entire continents.

Before Europeans arrived, the Americas were home to an estimated 55 million people, comparable to the 70 million to 88 million who lived in Europe at the time. These Indigenous Americans formed complex societies spread across what is now Canada, the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and south into Inca lands and Amazonia. Their societies were complex. People who lived in what we call Mexico built complicated interconnected canals and sophisticated irrigation systems. The Inca built terraces across the slopes of the Andes to grow food. The peoples of southern North America harnessed the floods to grow their crops. Among the foodstuffs they grew were rice, cassava, chili peppers, maize, quinoa, cacao and fruit.

Then came Columbus and an unending trail of other Europeans with their livestock, those cauldrons of epidemics then unknown in the Americas: smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, diphtheria, typhus, cholera, malaria. It added up to genocide. In the Caribbean alone, the first European entry point, the population fell from about four million to a scant 22,000 by 1570, a drop of 99 per cent. In the Inca territories, just 670,000 of nine million were left by 1620, a drop of 93 per cent. A century after Columbus arrived, nine in 10 Indigenous inhabitants of the Americas were dead, on average.

WHEN COLUMBUS FOUND THE “NEW WORLD,” DID HE USHER IN THE LITTLE ICE AGE? IS 1492 THE START OF ANTHROPOCENE?

It meant that whole societies that had relied on farming were destroyed. And that meant the land — roughly the area of modern France — went back to nature. As that happened, it sucked carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. In all, about half (roughly 5 ppm) of the drop in carbon concentrations in the atmosphere during this weird cooling from 1550 to 1650 can be pinned directly on the collapse of Indigenous American civilization, Koch concluded. Surface air temperatures around the globe fell by 0.15 C, on average, a period known as the Little Ice Age.

In London, from 1649 to 1700, the lower Thames, normally kept open by the salty ocean tides, would freeze up fairly routinely. During the ferocious winter of 1684, the river remained frozen (the ice eventually a foot thick) for a record seven weeks. In homes, denizens shivered, milk froze overnight, deer died in the forests. And London held its first full frost fair on the ice, setting up impromptu pubs, betting rings, stages, games and races, like a country fair.

prairiesTo Koch, the point of figuring all this out is to discern precisely when the Anthropocene began. The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological epoch now under consideration by scientists. It means the “new age of humans” and refers to the fact that humans are having an effect on the Earth’s systems as profound as, say, such geological events as asteroid hits and sustained volcanic eruptions. Some are pumping for it to begin at the time of the Industrial Revolution in 1750, others, at the time of the first atomic explosions. Now Koch is pointing to 1492.

His work is fascinating because it shows how political actions — in this case, colonization — can lead to unexpected shifts in the planet’s fundamental systems. It’s germane because it shows how immense and rapid are the changes unfolding in the planet’s carbon load today.

After all, the century of death and rewilding across the Americas drew down about five parts per million of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Today, with an economy dependent on fossil fuels, this same area is putting about three back in every year, and that pace is accelerating. Worse, we have no coherent plan to make it slow down, only goals.

It’s that pace that’s terrifying. And it’s the lack of a plan that, given the urgency of the risks, is unfathomable.


Reprinted from Canadian Wildlife magazine. Get more information or subscribe now! Now on newsstands! Or, get your digital edition today!