Hidden Stories in the Anthropocene
By Laura Watson
Across the world, many stories are being told about climate change. Below are some you may or may not have heard. The complex interactions in these stories between people and the planet mean that they offer us learning opportunities: about the importance of a balance with nature, about the centrality of climate mitigation to human rights, and about the need for action now.
Stories of too little water
The Aral Sea was once the 4th largest lake in the world, but 60 years ago Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to industrialise agriculture across central Asia with dramatic consequences for the lake. To achieve Khruschev’s lofty agricultural goals, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, which are part of the Aral Sea drainage basin, were diverted into irrigation for cotton fields, and the lake slowly started to dry up. Over 25 years ago, an international fund for saving the Aral Sea was set up, but due to a lack of cooperation between the 5 Asian countries involved on key issues surrounding water, the fund has however had little success; the Aral Sea has now all but disappeared.
The disappearance of the inland sea is an issue in and of itself, but its implications go further. Silt from what used to be the lake-bed can now be subjected to wind erosion, with resulting dust storms in 2018 blotting out the sky, turning rain brackish and causing issues for crops. The industrial production of cotton, often using forced labour, in the surrounding region has led to the salinisation of the soil and serious accretion of persistent, toxic pesticide residues, leading to significant health problems. The loss of the moderating influence of this large body of water has made winters colder and summers hotter and drier.
It’s not just the people in the surrounding area who have been impacted by this disaster. As the lake became smaller and the salinity of the water increased, fewer and fewer fish species were able to survive. The lake ecosystem has now collapsed, contributing to the decimation of the once thriving fishing industry in the towns surrounding the lake, and the loss of a number of land animals whose life-cycles depended on the health of the lake.
Water issues are amplified by climate change, and the ecological crisis. The Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, for example, are fed by glaciers in the distant Pamir mountains which are now rapidly shrinking. But what is even more important is to realise that it didn’t have to go this way. The lesson to learn from the Aral Sea is one which should be applied to the rest of the planet, especially as the climate changes and water becomes more of an issue. This story shows the need to find a balance between extracting water from nature and leaving it where it is, to support the complex ecosystem dynamics which depend on it.
The Aral Sea is a worst-case outcome, but one which could soon become true for the rest of the world, including for large rivers like the Colorado River, USA, in the face of both climate change and human exploitation. Water management issues are playing out across the world, and we could soon have conflict breaking out over access to water. For example, an Ethiopian hydro-electric dam project which will affect water levels downstream for countries such as Sudan who already experience water issues will soon begin construction. Some experts claim this could cause a war over water in as little as a few years. We must learn from the mistakes of the Aral Sea before it is too late.
Stories of snow
The upper reaches of Finnish Lapland are a largely pristine landscape of forests, marshes, deep clean lakes and scree-covered fells. They are also the homeland of the Sami (Saami, or Sámi) people, as well as lynxes, brown bears, wolves and golden eagles. This important region acts as a buffer against climate change: the peat-rich soils of the area trap significant amounts of carbon, acting as a massive carbon sink. Unfortunately, the area is under direct threat from climate change, as well as the proposed construction of a railroad across the region.
The Sami culture is highly adapted to their home in Finnish Lapland. They use hides for clothing, bones and reindeer antlers for tools and handicrafts. Around 1,000 words in the Sami language exist to describe the appearance and behaviour of reindeer, and 360 relating to snow.
But conditions for snow and the reindeer are now no longer predictable; the snow now arrives later, there is less of it, and its structure is different. These changes to snow conditions are threatening the Sami way of life, and in particular their herding practices. Some have now turned to modern technologies to ensure that their reindeer survive in longer snow-free periods. It is likely that as the Sami people lose what was unique to their way of life, the Sami culture and language may begin to disappear too.
Sadly, issues relating to snow are not limited to Finland. Across the world, retreating snowlines have “beached” places like ski resorts. Taking the example of the French mountains, climate change is a threat to the winter ski industry there, as they are receiving declining amounts of natural snow, and the snow they do get falls over shorter periods. The elevation where snow can reliably be expected to fall is predicted to rise, by up to 600m in the Pyrenees, and up to 300m across the Alps.
We can move and repurpose hotels, but the ecosystems that these places had as their foundation are changing and even disappearing. While the depopulation of mountain regions may be a feasible response strategy for humans, it is not necessarily one available to the animals and plants left behind. Further concerns for the non-human population arise in relation to potential conflict between humans and animals. Skiing activities will respond to the retreating snow line by moving further up mountain slopes. At the same time, suitable ranges for high elevation bird species may significantly contract (by up to 67% in the Alps). As bird habitats and skiing areas increasingly overlap, conflict between species may ensue, a pattern that may be seen for many animals and ecosystems as climate change progresses.
What can we learn from these stories?
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