25,000 Polar Bears • Stopping Junk Mail • Are You A Biophiliac?
Dear EarthTalk: How have polar bear populations in the Arctic been faring since the U.S. put them on its endangered species list in 2008, and what efforts are underway to protect them? — Melissa Underhill, Bangor, ME
Biologists estimate that as many as 25,000 polar bears roam the far north these days, with two-thirds of them in Canada and most of the remainder in Alaska and northern Russia. Environmentalists cheered in May 2008 when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because of forecast evidence that circumpolar warming is melting sea ice, the great white carnivore’s primary habitat. This listing represented the first time that climate change effects were officially considered as a cause for a species’ decline, emboldening activists to start calling for stricter regulations on carbon emissions nationwide.
Polar bears have been protected in the U.S. since 2008, but only recently has the USFWS released a species management plan. The Draft Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan (CMP) outlines six strategies to manage bear populations, including: limiting global atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases to levels suitable for supporting polar bear recovery and conservation, supporting international protection efforts, managing human-polar bear conflicts, collaboratively managing polar bear hunting by Alaska natives, protecting polar bear denning habitats and minimizing risk of contamination from oil spills.
While saving polar bears is not the only reason to curb greenhouse gases, the CMP prioritizes that public officials start factoring in the “consequences to polar bears and their habitats of the likely effects of the current baseline greenhouse gases scenario” and “prompt the needed actions to maintain and, as needed, restore sea ice habitat by implementing sufficient regulatory, market-driven, or voluntary actions.”
As for supporting international efforts, the USFWS is aligning with Russia to protect denning habitats in Chukotka and on Wrangel Island, where almost all denning for the Chukchi Sea population occurs, and with Canada to support polar bear management efforts in the Canadian Archipelago.
To manage human-polar bear conflicts, FWS is joining communities and industry to develop safety procedures for bear encounters and establish best practices for garbage management and bear-proof food-storage options to reduce food attractants that draw polar bears into human communities. The agency has also committed to expand the scope and improve the effectiveness of community polar bear patrols.
Polar bears are hunted in 15 Alaskan villages for meat or handicrafts like mittens and mukluks, and the USFWS plans to collaborate with the North Slope Borough, the Alaska Nanuuq Commission and others on implementing sustainable hunt management strategies in these villages. The USFWS is also working to minimize development and disturbance on barrier islands, which provide crucial bear habitat.
To reduce the risk of contamination from an oil spill, the USFWS will continue to provide feedback on oil exploration plans and ensure that responders and companies have current information on seasonal bear movements and important habitat areas. Standard operating procedures are in the works for the rescue and handling of oiled bears. The USFWS estimates that implementing the CMP over the next five years will cost almost $13 million.
Dear EarthTalk: It seems like I’m getting more junk mail than ever these days. How can I stop the deluge? — Grace Dixon, Houston, TX
First of all, you’re probably right! Junk mail has increased to a massive scale in recent years, with the average American receiving 16 pieces each week. While this might not seem like much, it adds up to weigh an estimated 41 pounds each year, according to leading anti-junk mail organization, 41pounds.org.
What’s more, 44 percent of it is never opened, though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates only about 40 percent is recycled properly. This enormous waste of paper has triggered the U.S. Postal Service to install over 4,000 postal recycling stations around the country. From a financial perspective, nearly $320 million of local tax money is used to dispose of and recycle of junk mail each year.
However, junk mail has environmental repercussions on a larger scale than individual inconvenience or waste of tax money. The paper for these mailings comes from more than 100 million trees each year. Not only does this cause deforestation and other direct problems to the local environment, it also creates an imbalance of the planet’s carbon levels. While forests usually act as “carbon sinks” to maintain constant levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, chopping down these trees and converting them into paper emits this stored carbon prematurely back into the atmosphere. On top of that, according to 41pounds.org, the carbon emissions from junk mailings each year are roughly equivalent to those of nine million cars.
ForestEthics.org, another leader in the charge against junk mail, estimates that junk mail produces 51.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year. Ciara O’Rourke reports in The New York Times that this is roughly the same amount of emissions produced by heating 13 million homes in the winter. ForestEthics’ report, “Climate Change Enclosed,” likens junk mail’s carbon burden to 2.4 million cars idling 24/7 year-round.
Another negative impact of junk mail is the water waste it creates. As drought becomes an increasingly important problem across the country, Americans continue to waste upwards of 28 billion gallons of water on junk mail production and recycling every year.
Thankfully, these enormous environmental costs can easily be reduced by taking basic steps to get off mailing lists. By registering at 41pounds.org, junk mailings can be reduced by 80-95 percent for $41. Similar to a no-call list for telemarketers, you can also opt out of these mailing lists at catologchoice.org. By contacting dozens of these mailers directly, these organizations aim to eliminate junk mail waste.
After five years, 41pounds.org estimates “you’ll conserve 1.7 trees and 700 gallons of water, and prevent global warming emissions — and you’ll gain about 350 hours of free time.” Though readers should note you must re-register every five years, this simple action can make a huge impact in stopping the torrent of junk mail being crammed into your mailbox each week.
Dear EarthTalk: How is that being around trees and other plants can help us feel good? — Amy Mola, Greenville, SC
Trees are known to improve air quality by capturing six common air pollutants and toxic gases: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and lead. In fact, a single tree can absorb 10 pounds of air pollutants per year. In a study published in 2014, U.S. Forest Service scientists and collaborators calculated that trees are saving more than 850 human lives a year and preventing 670,000 incidents of acute respiratory symptoms. The researchers valued the human health effects of the reduced air pollution at nearly $7 billion every year.
"We found that, in general, the greater the tree cover, the greater the pollution removal, and the greater the removal and population density, the greater the value of human health benefits,” says Dave Nowak of the U.S. Forest Service.
More recently a 2015 study from the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) in Barcelona, Spain found that children exposed to more greenery — as measured by satellite imagery of their schools and neighborhoods — demonstrated better attention skills and memory development. While the association was partly mediated by reductions in air pollution, Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, one of the study’s authors, noted that he and the study’s other researchers don’t think it’s all air pollution: “I think it’s also some kind of direct effect…you see quite a beneficial effect of green space on mental health.”
Numerous recent studies have focused on the positive effects that exposure to trees and nature has on our mental health. A recent study published in the journal Nature combined satellite imagery, individual tree data, and health surveys from 31,109 residents of the greater Toronto, Canada area, and found that people who live in areas with higher street tree density report better health perception compared with their peers living in areas with lower street tree density.
“People have sort of neglected the psychological benefits of the environment,” says Marc G. Berman, an author of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. “I’m very interested in how the physical environment affects the brain and behavior.”
Such studies correlate to the “biophilia hypothesis” associated with German-born American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and Harvard evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson. The hypothesis proposes that humans have evolutionary biological and psychological needs attached with the natural world. According to the book, The Biophilia Hypothesis, co-edited by Wilson and Yale social ecology professor Stephen R. Kellert, relentless environmental destruction could have a significant impact on our psychological and spiritual quality of life.
“Why do people bring flowers to the hospital all the time? Is it just superficial? Is it just a nice gesture, nice but not important? I would suggest that it is a much deeper recognition of the healing effects associated with affirming life,” Kellert told Yale 360. With over 80 percent of Americans living in urban areas, this newer research implies an indispensable need for growth and implementation in urban tree planting, urban greening and biophilic design in educational institutions and places of business for enriched physical and mental health.
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