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Deadly wildfires, noise pollution, and disruption to life cycles among imminent environmental threats

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2022. 2:06 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: A new report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) names more severe forest fires, urban noise pollution and (interruptions at some points in the stages of the cycle of life in natural systems) as needing increased attention.

The fourth annual Frontiers Report was first published in 2016 with an alert on the increasing risk of zoonotic diseases, four years before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While travel was restricted in 2020 and part of 2021 due to the pandemic, the return of high-decibel sounds from car traffic, railways, or leisure activities harm human health and well-being, especially chronic complaints and sleep disorders, resulting in serious heart disease and metabolic disorders such as diabetes, hearing impairment, and mental health issues.

Noise pollution already causes 12,000 premature deaths each year in the European Union (EU) and affects one in five EU citizens. Acceptable noise levels are exceeded in many cities around the world, including Algiers, Bangkok, Damascus, Dhaka, Ho Chi Minh City, Ibadan, Islamabad, and New York, particularly among the very young, the elderly, and communities located near high-traffic highways, industrial areas, and far from green spaces.

It is also a threat to animals, disrupting the communications and behavior of various species, including birds, insects, and amphibians.

Each year between 2002 and 2016, an average of approximately 423 million hectares or 4.23 million square kilometers of the Earth’s land surface burned, an area roughly the size of the entire European Union, which is becoming more common in mixed forest and savannah ecosystems. It is estimated that 67 percent of the annual global area burned by all types of fires, including forest fires, was located on the African continent.

Hazardous weather conditions are projected to become more frequent, intense, and last longer, even in areas previously unaffected by fire. Extremely intense wildfires can trigger thunderstorms, this could aggravate fires through erratic wind speeds and trigger lightning to start other fires, a dangerous feedback loop.

And climate change generally is disrupting phenology – the timing of recurring life cycle stages, driven by environmental forces, and how, within an ecosystem, interacting species respond to changing conditions. Plants and animals in terrestrial, aquatic, and marine ecosystems use temperature, day length, or rainfall as cues for when to leaf, flower, bear fruit, breed, nest, pollinate, migrate, or transform.

Phenological changes in crops, in response to seasonal variations, will be a challenge for food production in the face of climate change. Changes in the phenology of commercially important marine species and their prey have significant consequences for the productivity of stocks and fisheries.

The full impact of phenological imbalances requires further investigation. Maintaining suitable habitats and ecological connectivity, strengthening the integrity of biological diversity, coordinating international efforts along flyways, supporting resilience, and maintaining genetic variation within species are crucial conservation goals. Above all, limiting the rate of warming by reducing CO2 emissions is essential.

The report was released ahead of the upcoming fifth United Nations Environmental Assembly.


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