In case you missed it: 3 big stories from our world

French Grunts, Squirrelfish, Blue Tang and soft coral on a shallow reef. Shot in Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, Bahamas. (© Jeff Yonover)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Human Nature shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

  1. Massive starfish die-off is tied to global warming

Starfish deaths from wasting disease — which can disrupt entire ocean ecosystems — are correlated with higher ocean temperatures, a new study finds.

The story: Beginning in 2013, sunflower starfish, along with 19 other starfish species, began dying of a wasting disease at a rapid rate, Rebecca Hersher reported for NPR last week. A new study finds that similarly to how warmer ocean waters make coral susceptible to diseases that result in bleaching, warmer waters make starfish susceptible to the wasting disease.

The big picture: Starfish, specifically sunflower starfish, are marine predators that eat urchins, and urchins eat kelp. Without their natural predators, sea urchin populations have been booming and effectively clear-cutting kelp forests, which provide nursery habitat and protective vegetation for fish species. “We have higher biodiversity when we have more kelp. So it’s setting off a cascade,” said Joe Gaydos, the science director at the University of California, Davis’ SeaDoc Society and one author of the study. Kelp forests not only provide habitat for a host of marine species, they also store large amounts of carbon, helping to regulate Earth’s climate.

Read the story here.

  1. Polar vortex is here again. Yes, it’s connected to global warming.

The deadly cold temperatures in the Midwest last week are associated with climate change.

The story: While associating frigid weather with a warmer Earth may seem counterintuitive, the extreme temperatures in the U.S. last week are indeed caused by climate change and resulted from the polar vortex, Jennifer Francis reported for The Huffington Post last week. The polar vortex — a “river of wind” that forms around the North Pole during the winter — split in two and headed south, which also caused the North Pole to be around 25 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual.

The big picture: Usually, the polar vortex stays North because of the pressure differences caused by extremely low temperatures in the Arctic and semi-warm temperatures in the, say, Midwest, but climate change has caused the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the world, disrupting this pressure difference and making the polar vortex less likely to stay north. “Symptoms of a changing climate are not always obvious or easy to understand, but their causes and future behaviors are increasingly coming into focus,” Francis wrote. “And it’s clear that at times, coping with global warming means arming ourselves with extra scarfs, mittens and long underwear.”

Read the story here.


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  1. To keep the planet flourishing, 30% of Earth needs protection by 2030

In December, many of the world’s largest conservation organizations — including Conservation International — posted a joint statement calling for 30 percent of the planet to be protected by 2030.

The story: The goal with protecting 30 percent of the planet by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050 is to fight climate change, protect biodiversity and stop extinctions, Emma Marris reported for National Geographic last week. As of last year, 14.9 percent of terrestrial Earth and 7.3 percent of oceans were formally protected, making this goal still attainable.

The big picture: Only 4 percent of Earth’s animals, by weight, are wild — the rest are livestock and humans — and wild animal populations have decreased by 60 percent in the past 50 years, mainly due to habitat loss. Protecting 30 percent of the world would provide habitat for biodiversity and also fight climate change by enabling trees and plants to capture climate-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Read the story here.

Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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