Featured

Stanford researcher declares that the sixth mass extinction is here

There is no longer any doubt: We are entering a mass extinction that threatens humanity’s existence.

That is the bad news at the center of a new study by a group of scientists including Paul Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies in biology and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Ehrlich and his co-authors call for fast action to conserve threatened species, populations and habitat, but warn that the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

“[The study] shows without any significant doubt that we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event,” Ehrlich said.

Although most well known for his positions on human population, Ehrlich has done extensive work on extinctions going back to his 1981 book, Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species. He has long tied his work on coevolution, on racial, gender and economic justice, and on nuclear winter with the issue of wildlife populations and species loss. Read more »

World

A third of the world’s biggest groundwater basins are in distress

Two new studies led by UC Irvine using data from NASA Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites show that civilization is rapidly draining some of its largest groundwater basins, yet there is little to no accurate data about how much water remains in them.

The result is that significant segments of Earth’s population are consuming groundwater quickly without knowing when it might run out, the researchers conclude. The findings appear today inWater Resources Research.

“Available physical and chemical measurements are simply insufficient,” said UCI professor and principal investigator Jay Famiglietti, who is also the senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Given how quickly we are consuming the world’s groundwater reserves, we need a coordinated global effort to determine how much is left.”

The studies are the first to characterize groundwater losses via data from space, using readings generated by NASA’s twin GRACE satellites that measure dips and bumps in Earth’s gravity, which is affected by the weight of water.

For the first paper, researchers examined the planet’s 37 largest aquifers between 2003 and 2013. The eight worst off were classified as overstressed, with nearly no natural replenishment to offset usage. Another five aquifers were found, in descending order, to be extremely or highly stressed, depending upon the level of replenishment in each – still in trouble but with some water flowing back into them.

The most overburdened are in the world’s driest areas, which draw heavily on underground water. Climate change and population growth are expected to intensify the problem.

“What happens when a highly stressed aquifer is located in a region with socioeconomic or political tensions that can’t supplement declining water supplies fast enough?” asked the lead author on both studies, Alexandra Richey, who conducted the research as a UCI doctoral student. “We’re trying to raise red flags now to pinpoint where active management today could protect future lives and livelihoods.”

The research team – which included co-authors from NASA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, National Taiwan University and UC Santa Barbara – found that the Arabian Aquifer System, an important water source for more than 60 million people, is the most overstressed in the world.

The Indus Basin aquifer of northwestern India and Pakistan is the second-most overstressed, and the Murzuk-Djado Basin in northern Africa is third. California’s Central Valley, utilized heavily for agriculture and suffering rapid depletion, was slightly better off but still labeled highly stressed in the first study.

“As we’re seeing in California right now, we rely much more heavily on groundwater during drought,” Famiglietti said. “When examining the sustainability of a region’s water resources, we absolutely must account for that dependence.”

In a companion paper published today in the same journal, the scientists conclude that the total remaining volume of the world’s usable groundwater is poorly known, with often widely varying estimates, but is likely far less than rudimentary estimates made decades ago.

By comparing their satellite-derived groundwater loss rates to what little data exists on groundwater availability, they found major discrepancies in projected “time to depletion.” In the overstressed Northwest Sahara Aquifer System, for example, this fluctuated between 10 and 21,000 years.

“We don’t actually know how much is stored in each of these aquifers. Estimates of remaining storage might vary from decades to millennia,” Richey said. “In a water-scarce society, we can no longer tolerate this level of uncertainty, especially since groundwater is disappearing so rapidly.”

The study notes that the dearth of groundwater is already leading to significant ecological damage, including depleted rivers, declining water quality and subsiding land.

Groundwater aquifers are typically located in soil or deeper rock layers beneath Earth’s surface. The depth and thickness of many make it tough and costly to drill to or otherwise reach bedrock and learn where the moisture bottoms out. But it has to be done, according to the authors.

“I believe we need to explore the world’s aquifers as if they had the same value as oil reserves,” Famiglietti said. “We need to drill for water the same way that we drill for other resources.”

Health

Over 95 percent of the world’s population has health problems — with over a third having more than 5 ailments

Just one in 20 people worldwide (4·3%) had no health problems in 2013, with a third of the world’s population (2·3 billion individuals) experiencing more than five ailments, according to a major new analysis from the Global Burden of Disease Study (GBD) 2013, published in The Lancet.

Moreover, the research shows that, worldwide, the proportion of lost years of healthy life (disability-adjusted life years; DALYS [1]) due to illness (rather than death) rose from around a fifth (21%) in 1990 to almost a third (31%) in 2013.

As the world’s population grows, and the proportion of elderly people increases, the number of people living in suboptimum health is set to rise rapidly over coming decades, warn the authors.

The findings come from the largest and most detailed analysis to quantify levels, patterns, and trends in ill health and disability around the world between 1990 and 2013.

In the past 23 years, the leading causes of health loss have hardly changed. Low back pain, depression, iron-deficiency anaemia, neck pain, and age-related hearing loss resulted in the largest overall health loss worldwide (measured in terms of YLD–Years Lived with Disability–ie, time spent in less than optimum health [2]) in both 1990 and 2013.

In 2013, musculoskeletal disorders (ie, mainly low back pain, neck pain, and arthritis) and mental and substance abuse disorders (predominantly depression, anxiety, and drug and alcohol use disorders) accounted for almost half of all health loss worldwide.

Importantly, rates of disability are declining much more slowly than death rates. For example, while increases in rates of diabetes have been substantial, rising by around 43% over the past 23 years, death rates from diabetes increased by only 9%.

“The fact that mortality is declining faster than non-fatal disease and injury prevalence is further evidence of the importance of paying attention to the rising health loss from these leading causes of disability, and not simply focusing on reducing mortality,” [3] says Theo Vos, lead author and Professor of Global Health at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, USA.

The GBD 2013 Disease and Injury Incidence and Prevalence Collaborators analysed 35 620 sources of information on disease and injury from 188 countries between 1990 and 2013 to reveal the substantial toll of disabling disorders and the overall burden on health systems from 301 acute and chronic diseases and injuries, as well as 2337 health consequences (sequelae) that result from one or more of these disorders.

Key findings include:

 

  • In 2013, low back pain and major depression ranked among the top ten greatest contributors to disability in every country, causing more health loss than diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and asthma combined. 
  • Worldwide, the number of individuals with several illnesses rapidly increased both with age and in absolute terms between 1990 and 2013. In 2013, about a third (36%) of children aged 0-4 years in developed countries had no disorder compared with just 0·03% of adults older than 80 years. Furthermore, the number of individuals with more than ten disorders increased by 52% between 1990 and 2013. 
  • Eight causes of chronic disorders–mostly non-communicable diseases–affected more than 10% of the world population in 2013: cavities in permanent teeth (2·4 billion), tension-type headaches (1·6 billion), iron-deficiency anaemia (1·2 billion), glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency trait (1·18 billion), age-related hearing loss (1·23 billion), genital herpes (1·12 billion), migraine (850 million), and ascariasis (800 million; giant intestinal roundworm). 
  • The number of years lived with disability increased over the last 23 years due to population growth and ageing (537·6 million to 764·8 million), while the rate (age-standardised per 1000 population) barely declined between 1990 and 2013 (115 per 1000 people to 110 per 1000 people). 
  • The main drivers of increases in the number of years lived with disability were musculoskeletal, mental, and substance abuse disorders, neurological disorders, and chronic respiratory conditions. HIV/AIDS was a key driver of rising numbers of years lived with disability in sub-Saharan Africa. 
  • There has also been a startling increase in the health loss associated with diabetes (increase of 136%), Alzheimer’s disease (92% increase), medication overuse headache (120% increase), and osteoarthritis (75% increase). 
  • In central Europe, falls cause a disproportionate amount of disability and health burden, ranking as the second leading cause of disability in 11 of 13 countries. In many Caribbean nations anxiety disorders ranked more highly, and diabetes was the third greatest contributor to disability in Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela. Disability from past war and conflict was the leading contributor to health loss in Cambodia, Nicaragua, Rwanda, and ranked second in Vietnam.

According to Professor Vos, “Large, preventable causes of health loss, particularly serious musculoskeletal disorders and mental and behavioural disorders, have not received the attention that they deserve. Addressing these issues will require a shift in health priorities around the world, not just to keep people alive into old age, but also to keep them healthy.” [3]

US News

Air pollution below EPA standards linked with higher death rates

A new study by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that death rates among people over 65 are higher in zip codes with more fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) than in those with lower levels of PM2.5. It is the first study to examine the effect of soot particles in the air in the entire population of a region, including rural areas. The harmful effects from the particles were observed even in areas where concentrations were less than a third of the current standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Most of the country is either meeting the EPA standards now, or is expected to meet them in a few years as new power plant controls kick in,” said senior author Joel Schwartz, professor of environmental epidemiology. “This study shows that it is not enough. We need to go after coal plants that still aren’t using scrubbers to clean their emissions, as well as other sources of particles like traffic and wood smoke.”

The study appears online June 3, 2015 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Previous studies have linked both short- and long-term exposure to PM2.5 with increased mortality, through mechanisms such as heart disorders, increased blood pressure, and reduced lung function.

The researchers used satellite data to determine particle levels and temperatures in every zip code in New England. This allowed them to examine the effects of PM2.5 on locations far from monitoring stations, and to look at the effects of short-term exposures and annual average exposures simultaneously. They analyzed health data from everyone covered by Medicare in New England – 2.4 million people – between 2003 and 2008 and followed them each year until they died.

They found that both short- and long-term PM2.5 exposure was significantly associated with higher death rates, even when restricted to zip codes and times with annual exposures below EPA standards. Short-term (two-day) exposure led to a 2.14% increase in mortality per 10 μg/m3 increase in PM2.5 concentration, and long-term (one-year) exposure led to a 7.52% increase in mortality for each 10 µg/m3 increase.

“Particulate air pollution is like lead pollution, there is no evidence of a safe threshold even at levels far below current standards, including in the rural areas we investigated,” said Schwartz. “We need to focus on strategies that lower exposure everywhere and all the time, and not just in locations or on days with high particulate levels.”

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Stanford researcher declares that the sixth mass extinction is here

There is no longer any doubt: We are entering a mass extinction that threatens humanity’s existence. That is the bad news at the center of a new study by a... Read more »


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Air pollution below EPA standards linked with higher death rates

A new study by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that death rates among people over 65 are higher in zip codes with more fine particulate... Read more »


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