The Frontiers Report speaks of a ‘triple planetary crisis’ comprising of urban noise, wildfires and disturbed biological life cycle timings among other looming environmental threats capable of causing widespread ecological damage.
Wildfires are burning more severely and more often, urban noise pollution is growing into a global public health menace, and phenological mismatches – disruptions in the timing of life-cycle stages in natural systems – are causing ecological consequences.
These critical environmental issues, requiring greater attention, are highlighted in the fourth edition of the Frontiers Report Noise, Blazes and Mismatches: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern, released by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on Thursday in the run-up to resuming the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly on 28 February.
Noise pollution a growing public health hazard
Unwanted, prolonged and high-level sounds from road traffic, railways, or leisure activities impair human health and well-being. This includes chronic annoyance and sleep disturbance, resulting in severe heart diseases and metabolic disorders such as diabetes, hearing impairment, and poorer mental health, the report says.
Noise pollution already leads to 12,000 premature deaths each year in the EU. Acceptable noise levels are surpassed in many cities worldwide, including Algiers, Bangkok, Damascus, Dhaka, Ho Chi Minh City Ibadan, Islamabad and New York.
According to the report, the very young, the elderly and marginalized communities near high traffic roads, and industrial areas and far from green spaces are particularly affected. It calls on urban planners to prioritize the reduction of noise at the source.
At the same time, the report conveys, natural sounds can offer diverse health benefits.
The report points out that the lockdowns in the wake of COVID-19 brought a new appreciation for green spaces and the reduction of urban traffic noise. Programmes meant to ‘build back better’ represent an under-utilized opportunity for policymakers, urban planners and communities to create additional green spaces for all.
Wildfires might get worse
Each year, between 2002 and 2016, an average of about 423 million hectares or 4.23 million square km of the Earth’s land surface burned, becoming more common in mixed forest and savannah ecosystems. To put it in context, this India’s area measures 3.287 million square km.
Dangerous wildfire weather conditions are projected to become more frequent and intense and to last longer, including in areas previously unaffected by fires. Extremely intense wildfires can trigger thunderstorms in smoke flumes that aggravate fires through erratic wind speeds and generate lightning that ignites other fires far beyond the fire front, a hazardous feedback loop.
This is due to climate change, including hotter temperatures and drier conditions with more frequent droughts. Land-use change is another risk factor, including commercial logging and deforestation for farms, grazing land, and expanding cities. A further cause for the proliferation of wildfires is the aggressive suppression of natural fire, which is essential in some natural systems to limit the amounts of combustible material, and inappropriate fire management policies that exclude traditional fire management practices and indigenous knowledge.
Besides long-term effects on human health, changes in fire regimes are also expected to lead to massive biodiversity loss, endangering over 4,400 terrestrial and freshwater species.
Wildfires generate black carbon and other pollutants that can pollute water sources, enhance the melting of glaciers, cause landslides and large-scale algal blooms in oceans, and turn carbon sinks such as rainforests into carbon sources.
Climate change disrupts natural rhythms in plants and animals
Phenology is the timing of recurring life cycle stages, driven by environmental forces, and how, within an ecosystem, interacting species respond to the changing conditions. Plants and animals in terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems use temperature, day-length or rainfall as cues for when to unfold leaf, flower, bear fruit, breed, nestle, pollinate, migrate or transform in other ways.
Phenological shifts occur when species shift the timing of life cycle stages in response to changing environmental conditions altered by climate change. The concern is that interacting species in an ecosystem do not always shift the timing in the same direction or at the same rate.
These phenological shifts are increasingly disturbed by climate change, pushing plants and animals out of sync with their natural rhythms and leading to mismatches, such as when plants shift life cycle stages faster than herbivores.
Long-distance migrants are particularly vulnerable to phenological change. Local climatic cues that normally trigger migration may no longer accurately predict conditions at their destination and resting sites along the route.
Phenological shifts in crops in response to seasonal variations will be challenging for food production in the face of climate change. Similarly, shifts in the phenology of commercially important marine species and their prey have significant consequences for stock and fisheries productivity.
“The Frontiers Report identifies and offers solutions to three environmental issues that merit attention and action from governments and the public at large,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “Urban noise pollution, wildfires and phenological shifts – the three topics of this Frontiers Report – are issues that highlight the urgent need to address the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss.”
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