Nature Communications

A breath of fresh air for Earth Day: Pristine, pure air discovered over the Amazon Rain Basin.

Earth Day beckons. The worldwide Extinction Rebellion protests continue, despite concerted efforts to silence them. Sir David Attenborough, 92, and Greta Thunberg, 16, have been passionate, and prominent, speakers for our threatened and increasingly fragile natural world, and the endangered species who cannot speak for themselves.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the powers-that-be — the world’s major financial institutions, the oil- and gas industry and government policymakers — are going to pay lip service, and no more than that, to the idea that our children and grandchildren’s future is finished unless something is done, and done now, about our increasingly evident climate emergency.

These past few days, on the same weekend an exhausted, disoriented polar bear wandered into the isolated village of Tilichiki on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsular, having floated some 700 km (450 miles) away from its home in the Arctic Circle on an ice floe, there was a remarkable discovery in the faraway Amazon rainforest.

©Leonid Shelapugin/Moscow Times

©Leonid Shelapugin/Moscow Times

The discovery was actually made a while ago, but has only now come to light following reports on BBC’s World News service and PBS News Hour in the US: Researchers from Washington State’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found a baseline of pure, pristine air over the Amazon, and is using it to show how we’re messing with climate, by comparing the pristine air to samples of “dirtied” air taken not so far away, over remote jungle towns and logging camps that are expanding rapidly throughout an area dubbed “the lungs of the Earth.”

A team of researchers discovered the pristine air — air that dates back to pre-Industrial times — by flying a specially fitted Gulfstream jet with specialized instruments designed to identify and record particles of air virtually unchanged since before Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World.

©Popular Science

©Popular Science

The Amazon rainforest covers some 6 million square km (2 million square miles) of the South American landmass. It produces so much carbon — and produces so much life-giving oxygen — that it is truly the last, best hope for humankind, and for planet Earth.

And yet, the city of Manaus, Brazil — population 2 million — lies in the heart of the rainforest, with all the overcrowding, environmental destruction and deleted natural resources that come with a city of that size.

This is the classic good-news/bad-news story. The good news is that, on this Earth Day, there remains at least one place on Earth where the air survives as if the human footprint had never happened. The bad news is that the researchers have discovered that human pollution is driving the acceleration of climate-changing particles — aerosols — much more quickly than previously thought. These particles are not just a driver of climate change. They can cause heart disease and damage our lungs and other organs, not just in the immediate area but halfway around the world.



The researchers’ results were published in the journal Nature Communications.

If there’s any good news in all this, it’s that science now has a baseline to create a new standard of what clean, pure air on Earth is supposed to be, and can be if we apply enough effort, energy and human brain power to solving our climate crisis.

As one of the lead researchers told PBS’s Seattle TV affiliate KCTS-9, “We can (now) look back at the Amazon and see how much we’ve been changing it, and how much we will continue to change it (if we don’t do something soon).”

The die is not cast — yet. But it’s getting closer. The  urgency is real, and people need to know the truth.

The “Moth Man” prophecies: Why wild population declines matter more than mass extinctions.

Extinctions are not good for the planet, I think we can all agree, but there’s a growing belief that wildlife population declines — the slow but steady degradation of the environment, the deterioration and erosion of ecosystems,  coupled with habitat loss — are the more pressing concern.

A recent thoughtful, reasoned, finely researched article by Slate staff writer Henry Grabar noted that, between the loss in 1914 of Martha, the last passenger pigeon known to science, who died at the Cincinnati Zoo, and the death last month of Sudan, the last known surviving male northern white rhino, at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, extinction crises have always been quick to grab the headlines.



The steady but inexorable decline of environmental ecosystems is a harder sell with the news media, however, where the news is always defined by what is happening right now — there are no male northern white rhinos left, anywhere — and not what might happen months, years and generations down the road: i.e. if grasslands vanish across East Africa, there will not be much of anything left, let alone northern white rhinos.

Wildlife populations are crashing, Grabar noted, and we barely notice.

This may be as good a time as any, then, to revisit Michael McCarthy’s 2015 book The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, “an urgent, rhapsodic book full of joy, grief and rage,” according to Cambridge University naturalist and research scholar Helen Macdonald. McCarthy, veteran nature writer and environmental columnist for some 20 years for The Independent newspaper in the UK, focused on the joy that nature gives us in our everyday lives, and how the “Great Thinning” is cheating future generations — and the planet — of a hopeful future.

©Johannes Plenio/Pixabay

©Johannes Plenio/Pixabay

“One problem we have with abundance,” Grabar writes — whether it’s so many passenger pigeons that it’s inconceivable that they might one day all disappear or a wide, open landscape of untrammelled wilderness that’s impossible to comprehend in a single glance — “is that we’re not very good with numbers. And the larger the numbers get, the more trouble we have telling the difference between them.”

That may explain at least in part why the Great Thinning is going largely unnoticed.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) Living Planet Index, which monitors some 14,000 populations of roughly 3,500 species of vertebrates worldwide, recorded average population declines of 60 percent, species by species, over a 40-year period between 1970 and 2010, the last year for which official numbers were measured, tabulated and published.

It seems obvious, but some things bear repeating. Nature, McCarthy writes in The Moth Snowstorm, has many gifts for us, but perhaps the greatest of these is joy; the delight we take in the natural world, in the wonder it can offer us, the peace it can provide.

The natural world is ever more threatened, and it’s happening right now, on our watch.

The Moth Snowstorm was published three years ago, but it has never seemed more timely than it is right now.

“Hyperbole?” McCarthy wrote then. “You could say so, I suppose. But what can I do, other than speak of my experience? Once, on a May morning a few years ago, I cam out on to the banks of the Upper Itchen, at Ovington in Hampshire, and the river with its flowers and willows and the serenity of its flow and its dimpling tout in its matchless, limpid water, all gilded by the sunshine, seemed to possess a loveliness which was not part of this world at all.,

“Yet it was part of it; and there, once again, was the joy.”

©Johannes Plenio/Pixabay

©Johannes Plenio/Pixabay