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Environments in Danger 

  • Sea Level Rise and Ocean Acidification in the Maldives
  • The Enhanced Greenhouse Effect
  • Oceans in Danger (Plastic)
  • Reducing Plastic Waste
  • Oil Spills and Over-fishing in Svalbard, Arctic
  • Soil – The most Fragile Resource
  • Wildfires
  • Destruction in the Rainforest

Why is the Maldives in danger?


The Maldives is located in the Arabian Sea in the north-central Indian Ocean. It is south west of Sri Lanka and India. The Maldives consists of around 1,200 small and low lying islands, sandbanks and atolls no more than 2 metres above sea level. An atoll occurs when coral reef encloses a lagoon. The islands extend around 510 miles from north to south. The average temperature of the Maldives ranges between 34 to 30 degrees Celsius. 


Around 60% of the population live in rural settlements; the majority of the urban population live in capital Male. More than 70% of important infrastructure and 47% of its population live within 100 metres of the coastline, where the land meets the sea.


The Maldives is classed as a developing country with its economy mainly based on fishing (mainly tuna), tourism and boat building and maintenance. The fishing industry employs over 1/4 of the working population. Tourism is a growing industry, especially in Male. The tropical climate of the Maldives attracts many overseas tourists from North America and Europe.


However, as the Maldives attracts more tourists, its beaches are disappearing due to rising sea levels. Climate change is the change in the average atmospheric conditions of a place over a long period of time. We are currently experiencing a period of warming due to natural and human drivers. Over the past 100 years, global temperatures have risen by 0.8 degrees Celsius as a consequence of increased atmospheric gases such as carbon dioxide. This causes sea level to rise as a result of melting ice and glaciers and thermal expansion (seawater expands because of higher temperatures). Global sea level has risen by 10-20cm in the past 100 years.  


Additionally, ocean acidification will damage fisheries. Oceans are a natural carbon sink but they are now 30% more acidic than they were before the industrial revolution. Marine life such as shellfish will be seriously affected as their shells may begin to dissolve. 

How bad is the enhanced greenhouse effect?


We already know that Earth's temperature is increasing, ice is melting and sea levels are rising and this is in response to climate change. Climate change is the long term change in average atmospheric conditions of a place over a long period of time. In recent decades, especially after the industrial revolution there has been a increase in the amount of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emitted into the atmosphere. This absorbs more heat that is reflected off Earth explaining why our temperature is on the rise. This is explained in the diagram below. 

The world's population is predicted to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. Unless we make a significant shift towards alternative energy and better resource management, this will result in more greenhouse gas emissions in the following ways:

  • Carbon dioxide is emitted when we burn coal, oil and gas to produce energy and to fuel our cars. It is also released when we cut down trees or burn them (slash and burn).
  • Methane is emitted as a by-product of cattle eating grass. It is also emitted from waste that is buried (rubbish tips), oil and gas wells and rice fields.
  • Nitrous oxide is emitted during agriculture and industry and when treating waste water. 

The more greenhouse gases we emit, the thicker the layer of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The thicker the layer of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere the more reflected heat will be absorbed. The more reflected heat that is absorbed the more Earth's temperature will rise. This is known as the enhanced greenhouse effect and will lead to a change in the climate with severe consequences for places around the world - you looked at how it is effecting the Maldives last lesson. 

Why are the oceans in danger?


Around 70% of Earth is covered by water. Historically, the potential of the vast oceans was ignored, apart from fishing. Modern technology and research made humans realise the oceans are extremely rich in minerals lying on the ocean floor and oil and gas found deep down in the rocks. This has caused an increase in the extraction of fossil fuels resulting in an increased consumption - contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. However, the oil and gas industry has provided thousands of people with jobs. 


This human activity in the oceans along with plastic pollution and ocean acidification (from more CO2) is putting our marine biodiversity in danger. Biodiversity is the range of plants and animals living in a particular area. 


Oil spills into rivers, bays, and the ocean are caused by accidents involving tankers, barges, pipelines, refineries, drilling rigs, and storage facilities. Oil destroys the insulating ability of fur-bearing mammals, such as sea otters, and the water-repelling abilities of a bird's feathers, thus exposing these creatures to the harsh elements. Many birds and animals also ingest (swallow) oil when they try to clean themselves, which can poison them. 


The oceans act as carbon sinks and absorb about 30% of CO2 that is in the atmosphere. As atmospheric CO2 increases so does the amount of CO2 absorbed by the ocean making it increasingly acidic. This change in ocean behaviour affects biodiversity and might result in less shellfish, which affects economies that rely on fishing. 


Additionally, plastic waste often ends up in waste disposal sites or is washed along rivers and out to sea. It takes hundreds of years to decompose (break down). Over time, plastic breaks down into microplastics which are toxic and can cause harm to organisms when eaten. Every year, hundreds of turtles die from eating microplastics or getting tangled in netting. Rubbish like pastic bags and toothbrushes have been found in turtles' stomachs. 

Can we protect the oceans from plastic?


Last lesson you looked at the damage human activity can have on the oceans and the impact it has on biodiversity. The Great Pacific garbage patch is a huge area of plastic and other waste floating in the ocean trapped by the ocean currents moving in a circular motion. Across the world, organisations and people are reducing the use of plastics. The less plastic we use the less micro plastic there is in the oceans.


Some examples of how organisations are reducing their plastic consumption include:

  • Bars and restaurants like TGI Fridays and McDonalds have introduced paper straws in all their UK branches. 
  • Morrissons have gone back to using brown paper bags instead of plastic carrier bags.
  • The UK government allowed supermarkets to charge for plastic carrier bags.
  • Single-use paper and plastic coffee cups are being replaced by more sustainable and reusable alternatives. 
  • Lots of people have stopped buying plastic bottles of water and instead refill their own water bottle from fountains. 
  • Small independent stores are opening up which encourage people to bring their own Tupperware and refill it with soaps, cereal, rice and pasta. 
  • Costa offer discounts to people who bring their own reusable cup. 

In addition to reducing plastic waste we can clean up existing plastic waste. Floating barriers called booms are being used to collect plastic waste including micro plastics from the Great Pacific garbage patch - these booms can be up to 2000 metres long. The booms collect rubbish and transmit a signal using satellites to a vessel that will locate it and collect the rubbish every few months. The plastic is then recycled, reused or burned to produce energy. 

What goes into the North Sea?


Plastic pollution doesn't just happen in the Great Pacific garbage patch; it is a global problem and puts our ocean environments and biodiversity in danger. The North Sea is located between Great Britain, Denmark, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The North Sea was once described as a waste dumping ground. The North Sea is one of the most industrialised seas in the world and one of the busiest areas for shipping. Surrounded by seven countries, the sources of pollution are great, and the effects may be catastrophic. It is estimated that 20,000 tonnes of waste from Europe is dumped in the North Sea each year. Around 90% of the plastic that washes up on beaches in the Netherlands originates from shipping and fishing. 


According to the North Sea Foundation, around 800,000 kilos of waste remains in the North Sea after the loss of 342 shipping containers in January 2019. The containers fell overboard off the Dutch and German coasts. The waste included bicycles, shoes, blankets, stools and a lot of small plastic granuals. 


Other waste enters the North Sea from oil spillages from ships and rigs, chemical pollution from rivers carring farm and factory waste, dumping of sewage and industrial waste directly into the sea and of course, the sea absorbs greenhouse gases. 


The effects include:

  • Tourist resorts suffering because the sea is polluted with oil and untreated sewage. This affects marine biodiversity and sea birds too. 
  • Marine biodiversity and sea birds are consuming micro plastics - this has the potential to spread further up the food chain to humans.
  • Raw sewage causes algae to grow which starves rivers of oxygen. 
  • Fish are becoming increasingly diseased reducing their numbers. 

Individual companies can prevent this by:

  • Stopping the dumping of sewage in the North Sea.
  • Building sewage treatment plants along the coast - in 2017 around 40% of rivers in the UK contained raw sewage.
  • Recycling and purifying water to remove pollutants from farms and factories before discharging it into rivers.
  • During the 1990s Britain was very active in encouraging surrounding nations that border the North Sea to consider their dumping. 

Why is the Barents Sea in danger?


The Barents Sea is a marginal portion of the Arctic Ocean located north of Norway and Russia. It is an important site for fishing. As one of the last clean and relatively undisturbed marine ecosystems the Barents Sea needs protecting. It is home to colonies of seabirds like the Puffin and marine mammals such as the walrus, whales and polar bears as well as a vast amount of marine biodiversity.


The Barents Sea contains the world's largest deep-water coral reef. These areas are very important spawning and nursing grounds for over 750 species that have been recorded there, including commercial fish species like redfish. Apart from intensive commercial fisheries, the Barents Sea is relatively free from human activity. However as reserves of fossil fuels are being depleted, the Barents Sea is increasingly at risk from hydrocarbon exploration. Hydrocarbon exploration is the extraction of petroleum oil and natural gas. 


Coral reefs are vulnerable to industrial activities - installing petroleum drilling sites would destroy the bottom communities and oil spills and discharge would pollute the freshwater that is required for many of the 750 species that live there. Toxic substances digested by the organisms will be transported to the next part of the food web. 


The Barents Sea sustains around 150 different species of fish including some of the world's largest fish stocks. Notable fish include the Arctic cod, herring and haddock. The cold water makes the Barents Sea an important breeding ground for these fish stock that many economies rely on. Toxic chemicals found in oil are extremely harmful to fish eggs and larvae and has proven lethal to cod larvae. As increasing temperature causes the ice to melt, it gives humans more opportunity to explore for oil and gas sites. Whilst there are many environmental issues, hydrocarbon exploration does provide people with jobs.


Fish are not only vulnerable to the oil industry but also to the fishing industry itself. The Barents Sea is at risk from overfishing. Overfishing occurs when humans remove the stock of fish in a body of water faster than the stock is replenished (restored). This is in the interest of short term economic growth, but if the fish stocks are depleted, it could lead to long-term economic losses in the future as there are no fish to sell. 


Fishing in the Barents Sea is jointly controlled by Norway and Russia to make sure fishing is sustainable and the marine ecosystem is protected. 

What is happening to the soil?


When we think about environments in danger, we must consider all environments and the different biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) components they are made up of. Human survival has always depended on natural resources because we can use them as raw materials to produce something else. We can use a tree to make paper or produce timber which is then used for building materials and furniture. We use fertile soil to produce food. 


Soil is a thin layer on the Earth's surface, usually 1-3 metres deep. It can take between 100 and 1000 years for just 1cm of soil to form. It is made up of minerals, water and organic matter that forms from weathered rock below and the decaying vegetation above. If you dug into the soil, you would layers of different colours. The soil is an abiotic component because its made up of weathered rock and dead organisms but it contains many living organisms like fungi, bacteria, insects and worms. They all have an important role to play in forming soil, a worm for examples cosumes decaying leaves and clay; their waste puts nutrients into the soil and the tunnels they make allow air and water to circulate through the soil. 


The problem is that soil is disappearing at an alarming rate given the length of time it takes to form. 33% of the world's soil is degraded. Soil is very fragile, fertile topsoil it is washed away by water, blown away by wind and moved by gravity as a landslide - this is known as soil erosion. Soil erosion will seriously affect future world agricultural production. It happens naturally due to the elements but is also caused by human activity like deforestation and agriculture. Trees provide the soil with protection, removing them means that the layer of topsoil is easily removed by rain and wind, making it infertile. Animals graze over large areas of vegetation, this can lead to overgrazing and exposes soil to wind and rain by removing the plant cover resulting in soil exhaustion and the soil can no longer support crops. If crops cannot grow famine can be a severe consequence. 

Why does California experience wildfires?


California is a state in the USA. California is bordered by Oregon to the north, Nevada and Arizona to the east, the Mexican state of Baja California to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The San Andreas fault line runs through most of California. California is a place of many contrasts from the rainy forested north to the arid desert south. Most of California's wildfires occur in the autumn when vegetation is very arid (dry) after the summer. Dry seasons are becoming more intense with higher temperatures. Climate change is expected to make much of the US hotter and drier increasing drought and the risk of wildfires.


A fire needs three things to start; fuel, oxygen and heat. During the dry season, south California has all of these things:

  • Fuel is provided by dry bark, dry grass and leaves.
  • Oxygen is provided by the air and the hot, dry Santa Ana winds make it worse. These winds can carry a spark for miles.
  • Heat is provided by nature such as the Sun and lightning or by humans using campfires, barbecue or cigarettes. 90% of wildfires are caused by human activity.

Wildfires can burn hundreds of hectares of land (one hectare is about the size of a football field). That can move at rapid speeds up to 14 miles per hour and overtake the average human in minutes. Thousands of people have to evacuate their homes each year taking refuge in schools and churches. According to CAL FIRE, there were over 7000 wildfires during 2019 burning over 259,000 hectares of land. They destroyed 732 structures and killed 3 people. Wildfires in 2018 destroyed over 24,000 structures and killed 100 people and cost the economy $400 billion in damage.  


In 2018, wildfires destroyed over 2000 hectares of land in the north of England, UK.


We stop wildfires by dousing the land with water or fire retardant. Fire-fighters work in teams to clear vegetation depriving the fire of its fuel - in California these teams are called hotshots. Although wildfires cause so much damage they do bring some benefits to the ecosystem. They burn dead and decaying organic matter which returns nutrients to the soil making it fertile. They also remove disease-ridden plants and insects from ecosystems. 

What are the effects of deforestation in Malaysia?


Malaysia is a country is southeast Asia, just north of the Equator. Its capital city is Kuala Lumpur. Between 2000 and 2012 it had the fastest rate of deforestation in the world. Causes of deforestation include urbanisation, road building, cattle ranching, agriculture, mining, energy development (dams) and plantations. After years of deforestation which depleted timber stocks, Malaysia's forests are increasingly being converted into palm oil plantations. 


Deforestation has many impacts: 

  • When forest cover is removed, it causes habitat loss and poses a risk to biodiversity as animals become more vulnerable to hunting. The Bornean Orangutan are critically endangered and populations have declined over 50% in the last 60 years.
  • Forests are the largest stores of carbon on land, but deforestation is the largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions after the burning of fossil fuels. When trees are felled or burnt (slash and burn) they release all the carbon dioxide they've been storing.
  • Wildfires burn thousands of hectares of Malaysia's forests. As well as emitting all of the carbon dioxide stored in the trees and causing habitat loss, the haze (dust and smoke) cause serious pollution and health problems. During the 1990s the Malaysian government ordered a media blackout to prevent a decline in tourism.
  • Trees help to regulate rainfall through the process of transpiration. Their roots absorb gallons of water which is carried up the trunk and into the branches and leaves for food. Excess water is released from the leaves back into the air, which later condenses and clouds form leading to rain. The clearing of forests could make places drier. 
  • Deforestation also increases the risk of soil erosion. Soil take thousands of years to form but the fertile layer of topsoil can be removed in a mater of minutes by rain or wind. This makes it difficult to grow crops. 

Should we climb every mountain?


The Alps are a segment of a mountain chain that stretches from the Atlas Mountains in North Africa across the south of Europe and Asia. They can found across France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria and are one of Europe's richest natural areas but they are intensively exploited and very popular with tourists from all over the world.


Around 120 million tourists visit the Alps every year. In the summer, the beautiful scenery attracts many hikers, while in the winter there is lots of opportunity for skiing. Mass tourism is causing many environmental issues in the Alps. The landscape has changed dramatically since and the Alps have become more accessible to humans. 

  • The construction of ski runs causes irreversible destruction to the landscape. 
  • Soil is eroded by walkers. 
  • Expanding settlements in the valleys are destroying habitats such as wetlands, forests and alpine grasslands.
  • The increase in tourism is causing an increase in greenhouse gas emissions especially from increased traffic congestion.
  • The high altitude and low temperatures mean buildings require more heating than average. 

However, mass tourism isn't all bad. Winter tourism in the Alps generates around $66 billion each year. It generates jobs in the tourist industry providing the locals with an income and contributing to the economy from tax. This tax can then be used for development of the area, including conservation of the environment.