Our strange and beautiful planet shifts and changes continuously, day in and day out, in keeping with nature’s clockwork rhythm. In the Earth’s relatively recent past, however, there have been unsettling changes, often propelled by us. The first quarter of 2015 was reportedly the warmest on record the world over, across land and oceans. In early April 2015, there were flash floods in Chile’s Atacama Desert, not to mention the many instances of erratic weather across the world. In 2013, it snowed in Egypt. Venice continues to sink at an average of 1-2mm every year, and if the sea level rises by even 3ft, the Maldives will be submerged. Thankfully, there also an increasing number of initiatives that have impacted the Earth in beneficial ways.
For a quick glimpse of how vastly landscapes have changed, watch this minute-long video below that compares NASA images from the 1960s to 2014. There’s also this Time magazine project, in collaboration with Google, which offers a time-lapse view of photographs that go back three decades.
The Arctic tundra – home to Arctic foxes, polar bears, musk oxen, caribou, snow geese, gray wolves and a variety of wildlife – has warmed almost twice as fast as the rest of the world. The tundra is a storehouse of vast amounts of carbon and methane; as the permafrost melts, it will propel climate change by releasing the stored greenhouse gas.
The 3,45,000sqkm marine park is a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site, home to thousands of species. According to the WWF, climate change, pollution, overfishing and outdated fishing practices, and industrialisation are the major threats to Australia’s stunning marine treasure.
A WWF-led study in 2010 predicted a loss of one of the world’s largest tiger populations this century, given the rising sea levels in the Sundarbans. The oil spill in December 2014 from a tanker carrying 3,50,000 litres was also a huge wake-up call for the Bangladeshi and Indian governments that protect the UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site. According to UN experts, the oil spill caused limited immediate impact to the environment; so while the region’s wildlife suffered, timely tidal variations minimised the extent of damage. The Bangladeshi government was to shut the Shela cargo route along which the oil spill took place, but it was “temporarily opened” soon after the mishap. The mangrove is far from safe; the government is also in favour of building a power plant about 14km away from the thriving delta; the route that will transport coal exports for this power plant currently cuts right through the Sundarbans.
Asia’s largest island is home to wildlife that isn’t found anywhere else in the world, such as the Bornean clouded leopard and the proboscis monkey. Logging, coupled with climate change, has proved to be an impending threat to Borneo’s forests, one of the last places where orangutans can be found in the wild. A WWF assessment of the impact of climate change in Borneo reports that its current rate of deforestation, will bring Borneo an “increased risk of floods and forest fires, human health impacts, changes in agricultural yields and damages to infrastructure”. A study by the University of Kent stated that the effects of logging, climate change and deforestation would greatly endanger its species: “At least 15 species of carnivores, 8 primates and 21 bats could be at risk of going extinct by 2080.”
This geological wonder that makes up the sand dunes found in the little village of Chamarel is a huge draw for tourists. Basaltic lava turned into clay minerals over the years, which led to the formation of these many-coloured sands. The landscape has a fascinating order to its beauty: when mixed together, the sands settle into separate layers again. Visitors were once allowed to climb the dunes, but its receding size thanks to people who kept bottling some away has led to the sand being cordoned off, with outposts for observation along a fence.
Up until a few years ago, scientists weren’t as worried about the melting of ice in Antarctica as they were about places like Greenland. But as per Huffington Post article in February 2015, NASA ice scientist Eric Rignot said that the melting “is going way faster than anyone had thought. It’s kind of a red flag.”
Melting isn’t the only threat to the Antarctic landscape. Overfishing krill, the primary food source for whales, seals, penguins and sea birds, threatens the entire marine ecosystem in the region. Erwin Vermeulen writes in this 2013 Sea Shepherd report, “Where the continent is for now safe from exploitation for minerals or military use, the seas surrounding it should also be protected from all exploitation.”
The Great Plains stretch from Canada to Mexico in the south, across the midsection of the USA. While temperatures vary greatly from one portion of the plains to another, according to a 2015 report by the United Nations Environmental Protection Agency on climate impact in the Great Plains, northern portions of the region have seen a rise in average winter temperatures over the last 30 years. The report states that the animals who call these areas home (like the American bison, red fox, pocket gopher and pronghorn) “rely on the availability of prairie potholes and playa lakes, shallow lakes that periodically dry out.” Development and agricultural practices are already threatening prairie potholes. Along with the projected temperature rise, an increase in evaporation and more frequent periods of summer drought may cause these potholes to dry out more often, thereby endangering the region’s wildlife.
In talks about climate change and shifts in landscapes, the Amazon rainforest is an obvious mention. It’s what’s currently keeping the planet’s climate situation in check, although various sources continue to threaten this biome. The WWF lists illegal logging, gold mining, oil and gas extraction, overexploitation of aquatic resources, unsustainable cattle ranching, mechanised agriculture and poorly planned infrastructure as threats to the rainforests. Many of these reasons are what fuel deforestation – which would emit far more greenhouse gases and correspondingly lead to a rise in global temperatures. With regard to the future of the Amazon, according to the WWF, modelling studies project “a warmer and drier environment for the Amazon. Climate change paints a bleak future for the region – a future where both people and biodiversity stand to lose.”
In an article in the New York Times, Michael Wines writes, “A century ago, this sweep of mountains on the Canadian border boasted some 150 ice sheets, many of them scores of feet thick, plastered across summits and tucked into rocky fissures high above parabolic valleys. Today, perhaps 25 survive.” Warmer temperatures – largely due to global warming – have resulted in the loss of most of the park’s glaciers. These ice sheets, not only those in the park but also across the Rockies, are what run the ecosystem in the continental US. In the New York Times article, Daniel B. Fagre, a United States Geological Survey research ecologist says, “Glaciers are essentially a reservoir of water held back for decades, and they’re releasing that water in August when it’s hot, and streams otherwise might have low flows or no flows. As glaciers disappear, there will be a reduction in the water at the same time that demand is going up.” This means water supply to the rivers is already severely threatened, and as temperatures rise, the “ramifications are more ominous”.
Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.